Consistency Counts


Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. –Oscar Wilde

Mr. Wilde himself was a writer, so I strenuously doubt that he was speaking of consistency in writing. But even if he was, he’s dead and can’t argue with me. The fact is, consistency in writing is key to making your written materials neat and elegant, and to getting your point across without distracting your reader .

Billy Joel once said that if he makes a mistake while playing piano, he repeats the mistake to create the illusion that he meant to do it. Now, this has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but I really like that anecdote. Well, okay, there is a connection, sort of. Often, more than one correct way of writing something exists. Examples:

  • abbreviations: Mr./Mister, vs./versus
  • quotation marks to denote irony: too “busy” (‘busy’) to help
  • phone numbers: (303) 555-1212/303-555-1212/303.555.1212
  • alternate spellings: glamour/glamor, email/e-mail, website/web site
  • general formatting: single or double spacing, placement of page numbers, etc.
  • serial comma:  rosemary, sage, and thyme or rosemary, sage and thyme

A friend of mine who shall remain nameless likes to mix it up. Throughout any given document, she uses every conceivable variation on any or all of the above because she figures at least one of them is bound to be right. In other words, her motto is “Fling enough (supply your own noun) at the wall and something’s bound to stick.” It sticks, all right–it sticks in the reader’s subconscious and sets the mind a-wanderin’:

Hmmm…the last time he referred to email, he wrote it e-mail…I’ve always wondered which is correct…or maybe it’s one of those things that’s correct either way…I need to check my email…I wonder if I left the iron on…

And bang, you’ve lost your reader.

The easiest way to prevent inconsistency is to make your own personal style sheet. Decide you’re going to write phone numbers with hyphens only, that email has no hyphen, that you’re only going to use one comma in a series of three items–whatever. List your choices and hang the sheet by your desk so you can refer to it late at night when you’re trying to make a deadline. Then, whenever you complete a written piece, use your find and replace function to ferret out inconsistency offenders.

One last motivation to improve your consistency: I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that consistency in writing also sends a subliminal message: You can count on me. I’m reliable. I’m dependable. Like a Maytag.

So be a Maytag, and be consistent.

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1 Comment

  1. Brilliant. Love it. Couldn’t have said it better myself. I love consistency. I break out in sweat if I can’t remember if my style is “all right” or “alright” in a particular document.


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