We’ve all read those bossy directives from advice mongers: “Do rock a ripped T with a bright floral skirt.” “Don’t chew gum during an interview.” “Do practice blending eyeshadow with your brush.” “Don’t yank electrical cords from the wall.” Aside from being either fatuous and trendy or obvious and unhelpful, such lists actually pose some editorial dangers.
First, there’s spelling: Do’s and Don’t’s? Does and Don’ts? The amount of head scratching needed to figure this out can’t possibly be worth it. Chicago style is shown in the headline above (per CMOS 7.29), but let’s face it: it looks wrong no matter how you write it. Do and don’t were simply not made for life as plurals.
Second, a common practice is to use two large A-heads (“Do” and “Don’t”) and follow each with a list of imperative sentences:
—Use kicky, colorful cushions to hide a beat-up sofa.
[Explanation, ideas, photos.]
—Mix and match dinner plates to shake up the routine.
[More explanation, ideas, and photos.]
But danger lurks after the “Don’t” heading. If readers skim through and miss that lonely little introductory “Don’t,” all they will see are the B-heads,
1. Chew gum during the interview!
2. Leave your résumé at home!
3. Forget to write a thank-you note!
resulting in a string of hilarious misquotes—if not lawsuits—just waiting to happen.
Finally, and bad enough in itself, the “dos and don’ts” device is an awfully tired cliché. So (forgive me) do freshen your prose; don’t use “dos and don’ts.”
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Editor’s Corner posts are the opinion of Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor, now in its 2nd edition. Find Carol on Facebook and Twitter (@SubvCopyEd).