May 20, 2011

When is it OK to spell it OK?

Poynter is holding a poll about the punctuation with quote marks issue (periods inside or outside?), putting the question this way:

© 3d_kot -
"How outraged are you by the idea that it might be OK to put commas and periods *outside* quotation marks?"
One commenter proved McKean's Law (that when you correct someone else's speech or writing, you're likely to commit an error in the process). The poster wrote, "It's okay, not OK."

Erm, how can I put this

Poynter, as an organization serving what's left of the newspaper business, almost certainly follows AP style, which calls for using first-listed spellings whenever a word has two allowable spellings.

You'll find the spelling "OK" listed first in all the major dictionaries. The alternative spelling, "okay," is given equal weight in most, but not all. The Compact Oxford gives the OK spelling more weight.

When a dictionary lists two spellings separated by "also," as Compact Oxford does with OK, then the first is preferred, but the second is acceptable. When two spellings are separated by "or," both are equally correct. Which to use is a style choice. All that matters is that one be consistent, at least within each work, if not across all works from a given publisher. Many book publishers prefer "okay" because it behaves like a word, forming other words such as okayed and okaying. And it looks like a word, instead of looking like a cheerleader jumping up in the middle of your book yelling O-K!

I've heard a couple of writers say "okay" is Chicago style. It's not. I asked. Here's what the staff at Chicago Manual of Style had to say:

CMOS doesn't specify, but as it happens, the manual uses "OK" twice (at 2.66 and 2.113) and does not use "okay." … We follow Webster's 11th Collegiate, which puts OK as the first spelling, but lists "okay" as an equal variant (also standard).

So you oughtn't say with certainty, as the Poynter commenter did, that one way or the other is right or wrong. It depends on the publication. When I edit for Orlando Business Journal, it's OK. When I edit for Splashdown Darkwater, it's okay. Each is right in its own way.

For more about "The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word," including its incredible origin, see the book by Allan Metcalf, which, I must point out, is titled OK.

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