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Wikipedia:If MOS doesn't need a rule on something, then it needs to not have a rule on that thing

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Only YOU can prevent MOS bloat.

Instruction creep is an especially serious problem with Wikipedia's Manual of Style. This page contains the thoughts of some of Wikipedia's most brilliant and renowned editors on keeping such bloat in check.

If MOS doesn't need to have a rule on something, then it needs to not have a rule on that thing[edit]

Something belongs in MOS only if (as a necessary but not sufficient test) either:

  1. There is a manifest a priori need for project-wide consistency (e.g. "professional look" issues such as consistent typography, layout, etc. – things which, if inconsistent, would be significantly distracting, annoying, or confusing to many readers); or
  2. Editor time has been, and continues to be, spent litigating the same issue over and over on numerous articles, either:
    1. with generally the same result (so that by memorializing that result we can save pointless future arguing), or
    2. with various results in various cases, but with reason to believe the differences are arbitrary and not worth all the arguing – a final decision on one arbitrary choice (though an intrusion on the general principle that decisions about each article should be made on the Talk page of that article) being worth making in light of the large amount of editor time to be saved.

A further reason disputes on numerous articles should be a gating requirement for adding anything to MOS is that without actual situations to discuss, the debate devolves into hypothesizing along the lines of "Well, suppose an article says this ..."  – no examples of which, quite possibly, will ever occur in the real life of real editing.

An analogy: The highest courts of many nations generally refuse to rule on an issue until multiple lower courts have ruled on that issue and been unable to agree. This not only reduces the high court's workload, but helps ensure that the issue has been "thoroughly ventilated" through many points of view and in the context of a variety of fact situations, by the time the high court takes it up. The same thinking should apply to any consideration of adding a provision to MOS.

In summary: If MOS does not need a rule on something, then it needs to not have a rule on that thing.

Closely related principles understood by experienced editors[edit]

  • The "already" corollary, per SMcCandlish [1], 2017:
    If MoS does not already have a rule on something, then it almost certainly doesn't need one.
    MOS is very well-developed now, and it is unlikely that the "new" rule you want to insert has not already been considered and rejected several times before.
  • The value of MOS is in its provision of stability – for the reader experience, and in internally guiding cleanup and the resolution of recurrent disputes – not in its exact choice of advice about any particular style peccadillo.
    • However, MOS's rule selections are not random. They are guided by this online encyclopedia's accuracy, clarity, technical needs, and other principles summarized below.
    • MOS's job is simply to help us present a consistent and well-written encyclopedia with a minimum of editorial strife over stylistic trivia, so that we can get on with the work we're actually here to do.
  • In the real world, English-language writing style is subjective and variable; most style matters are arbitrary to a degree. The leading English-language style guides all disagree with each other on hundreds of alleged rules. It is not logically possible for MOS to be objectively "right" or "wrong" about any style nit-pick.
  • MOS is not an encyclopedia article nor a public "how to write" guide for the world. It is an internal document determined by consensus discussions (informed, of course, by reliable sources on style), not by citations or through willy-nilly revisions.
    • WP:WPEDIT policy: more caution should be exercised in editing policies and guidelines than in editing articles. WP:PGCHANGES policy: because policies and guidelines are sensitive and complex, users should take care over any edits, to be sure they are faithfully reflecting the community's view and to be sure they are not accidentally introducing new sources of error or confusion. Substantive changes to MOS are especially sensitive, because they can directly affect the content of thousands – potentially even millions – of articles.
  • "Rule creep" is a real problem. The KISS principle applies to all of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines. This seems to be forgotten more often in MOS-related discussion and editing, in part because many off-site style guides try to answer every conceivable style question. Many of us also hold onto a poorly-aging notion of "proper" writing from our school days, and some are later habituated to field-specific writing norms in our work life, in conflict with other styles.
    • MoS is not "broken" just because it conflicts with or omits something found in your favorite overly comprehensive or topically specific manual.
  • MOS is based on style guides for academic-register books, because that's what an encyclopedia is. To an extent, MOS is also influenced by the most clearly demonstrable, dominant, long-term patterns of English usage found in high-quality sources across genres and intended audiences. The primary inspiration for MOS's specific decisions comes from the c. 2000–2015 editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, New Oxford Style Manual (a.k.a. New Hart's Rules), Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Garner's English Usage, and Scientific Style and Format. However, MOS does not blindly follow any of these, because they may not always address what Wikipedia needs for its purposes and readership.
    • In particular, Wikipedia is not written in news style, as a matter of clear policy. Whether MOS agrees with a particular news publisher's style preferences, or that of a popular journalism style guide, is simply irrelevant. MOS has adopted virtually nothing from news stylebooks, which are not reliable for how to write encyclopedic prose. If you argue to change MoS to match AP Stylebook or The Guardian and Observer style guide [sic], you are making a mistake.
    • Wikipedia is also not written in sharply varying styles from topic to topic. We do not wallow in bombastic or fandom-style wording in pop-culture topics, then veer into the ponderous jargon-laden habits of specialists writing for other specialists as found in scientific journals. Avoid making assumptions about the reader's background; do remember that Wikipedia is not a blog, magazine, social-media site, or forum; and please examine your own motivations before suggesting a change to MOS.
    • MOS does not make special-pleading exemptions for particular topics. Participants in a wikiproject agitating for "their own rules" is counter to WP:CONLEVEL policy.
  • The sport analogy: MOS is like the rules of football, an agreement between participants (and observers) on how the game will proceed, so that it can actually proceed in sensible fashion. You don't decide to employ a basketball rule on the football field just because you don't like the football rule. Your team doesn't play by a different rulebook than the opponents. And players do not stand on the pitch arguing for hours about how they wish one of the rules were different; they get on with the game, or the spectators will boo them and go home.
  • Some additional wisdom from Remsense, 2023 [2]: I think a good rule of thumb when editing guidelines might be: "If you're thinking about/trying to remedy particular editors' particularized classes of mistakes, you shouldn't be writing a guideline right now".
  • An observation from our esteemed fellow editor Randy Kryn [3] during a 2018 MOS dispute – we're not quite sure what it means, exactly, but the imagery is great:

    What may be happening is intelligent editors have created, argued, and reminisced about so many rules, guidelines, and related flora and fauna that Wikipedia is running out of them. Intelligence flows like water into extant depressions, and when the ground is mostly level all we get are slight smeared-out puddles which then freeze over and cause all kinds of slipping and grumbling.

Other important and respected editors weighing in[edit]

Hawkeye's Truism[edit]

Very true point made by Hawkeye7 in a discussion of whether we should standardize forms such as "received a degree", "took a degree", "graduated", "was graduated", etc.

Prescribing one form would have an adverse impact on the quality of the prose. (AKA: Variety is the spice of life.)

The Herostratus Manifesto[edit]

Excerpt (slightly adapted) from a post by Herostratus in a discussion of whether MOS should specifically command or forbid the italicization of indicators such as (left) and (right) in image captions e.g.
Albert Namatjira (right) with portraitist William Dargie
Albert Namatjira (right) with portraitist William Dargie

<- - - - versus - - - ->

This is certainly something that should be left up to the individual editor, for various good reasons.

  • One good reason is that... there is no one clear correct or better way.
  • A second good reason is that adding another needless rule bogs down the MOS with more detail and makes it harder to learn and harder to use.
  • A third good reason is that creating a rule means enforcement, it puts interactions about the matter into an enforcement mode where editors are playing rules cop with other editors and this is not as functional as peer-to-peer interactions.
  • A fourth good reason is that there's zero evidence that it matters to the reader.
  • A fifth good reason is that micromanaging editors to this level is demoralizing and not how you attract and nurture a staff of volunteer editors – for instance we have a stupid micromanaging rule that I have to write "in June 1940" and not "in June of 1940" which is how I naturally write, and every stupid micromanaging rule like this is just another reason to just say screw it. As the Bible says "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn" (1 Timothy 5:18, paraphrased from Deuteronomy 25:4) which updated means "Let the editor who did the actual work of looking up the refs and writing the friggen thing -- you know, the actual work of the project -- be at least allowed the satisfaction of presenting it as she thinks best, within reasonable constraints"...

This means different articles will do it differently. This annoys a certain type of editor. Oh well...

And from a series of posts, by the same wise editor, in a discussion of whether someone should be described as a "former American hockey player" or an "American former hockey player":

We don't have a rule for it, so its not your job to "fix" other editors' constructions to a format that pleases you personally. It's just roiling the text for no gain. (On the merits, English is a human language, not a programming language, and everyone understands what is meant by "former American hockey player".)

Since there isn't a rule, I believe that the operative procedure is:

  1. Do what you think best, using your wit and sense for the English language.
  2. And give other editors the same courtesy. Do not change other editors' constructions, and do not "correct" other editors to match your personal predelictions. It just leads to pointless roiling of the text, unnecessary bad feelings, and pointless sterile edit warring.

As for setting a rule, we could do that with an RfC, but I wouldn't recommend that, for a couple of reasons. One, it would probably be a lot of work ending in no consensus. Two, give editors a little room to breathe, shall we? We don't need to micromanage every possible clause construction. The project will survive if we write this two different ways....

I believe in letting the person who (after all) did the actual writing work be given a kind of stare decisis privilege in minor matters like this.

For want of a comma, the clause was lost aka Why every goddam thing needn't be micromanaged in a rule[edit]

From a discussion over whether MOS should require the final comma in constructions like --
On September 11, 2001, several planes ...
and even
On December 25, 2001 (which was Christmas Day), we all went ...

You treat punctuation marks like mathematical operators which organize words into nested structures of Russian-doll clauses and such, and they're nothing like that. Not everything has to be rigidly prescribed and no, I don't buy into the "OhButIfWeDon'tThereWillBeEndlessArgumentOnEachArticle" reasoning just because that might, sometimes happen.

All over Wikipedia there are years with comma following, and years with no comma following, and never have I seen two editors, both of whom are actually engaged on a particular article, in serious conflict over a particular instance of that question. The discussion might go, "Hmmm... I'd use a comma myself but if you prefer none... yeah, that looks OK too. Now about that source-reliability question we were discussing..." but that's about it.

Where I've seen actual trouble is when other editors -- who have shown (and will subsequently show) no active interest in the article itself -- arrive out of nowhere in their radar-equipped year-with-no-comma–detector vans, then break down the door to weld court-ordered ankle-bracelet commas onto some harmless 2001 whose only crime was appearing in public with his trailing digit exposed -- something which (these prudish enforcers of Victorian punct-morality seem never to understand) was considered perfectly acceptable in most cultures throughout human history.

(Did you know, for example, that in the ancient Olympic games, years and days competed completely naked, without even a comma between them? I'm not advocating that unhygienic extreme but a bit of exposed backside shouldn't shock anyone in this enlightened age. But I digress, so back to our narrative underway...)

Having rendered yet another noble service in defense of the homeland (as they like to tell themselves) they jump back into their black SUVs and scurry up their rappelling ropes to their double-rotor helicopters and fly off to their next target, never knowing or caring whether that particular article has, or has not, been improved by their visitation. Certainly all the breaking of the crockery and smashing of the furniture can't have helped, but order has been restored and choas beaten back, which is what's important.

During all this the neighbors cower in their homes with the lights out, glad that they are not the targets of these jackbooted comma-thugs -- at least not this time. "Look," they say to their children, "that's what happens if you don't obey the rules. You should love Big Brother MOS for his heroic dedication to relieving you of the burden of deciding anything for yourself."


As Hannah Arendt put is so well: "It is the inner coercion whose only content is the strict avoidance of contradictions that seems to confirm a man's identity outside relationships with others. It fits him into the iron band of terror even when he is alone, and totalitarian domination tries never to leave him alone except in the extreme situation of solitary confinement. By destroying all space between men and pressing men against each other, even the productive potentialities of isolation are annihilated..." Or as John Stuart Mill -- himself a great lover of commas, so you can't dismiss him as a bleeding-heart, comma-omitting permissive corruptor of young punctuators -- said... Oh, never mind.

You say

Punctuation is not some flighty thing that you use when it feels right or the mood takes you (otherwise the MOS would be redundant).

Yes, if we can't prescribe and control every detail of usage and punctuation societal decay sets in and soon there is immorality, open homosexuality, interracial marriage, and baby murder.. Or perhaps I've misunderstood you?

The opposite of rigid prescription of everything isn't "flightiness" on everything; the opposite of rigid prescription on everything is measured guidance appropriate to the point being discussed:

  • Rigid prescription in the few cases for which truly appropriate.
  • Clear direction where experience shows people often go wrong
  • Enumeration of alternatives where choices are available
  • Universal advice to use common sense no matter what

That last point, BTW, is one of the first thing MOS says. I'm quite aware that there's a MOS rule requiring comma-after-year. And I'm telling you that removing that rule, or changing it to a short mention that opinions differ on this, would go a long way toward repairing the disdain many editors have for those parts of MOS which ridiculously overreach and overprescribe, thereby preserving respect for its important provisions on things that really matter.


A rolling stone gathers no MOS[edit]

See [4]

In the last 48 hr I've become aware of a simmering dispute over whether the text of MOS itself should be in American or British English. With any luck the participants will put that debate (let's call it Debate D1) on hold in order to begin Debate D2: consideration of the variety of English in which D1 should be conducted. Then, if there really is a God in Heaven, D1 and D2 will be the kernel around which will form an infinite regress of metadebates D3, D4, and so on -- a superdense accretion of pure abstraction eventually collapsing on itself to form a black hole of impenetrable disputation, wholly aloof from the mundane cares of practical application and from which no light, logic or reason can emerge.

That some editors will find themselves inexorably and irreversibly drawn into this abyss, mesmerized on their unending trip to nowhere by a kaleidoscope of linguistic scintillation reminiscent of the closing shots of 2001, is of course to be regretted. But they will know in their hearts that their sacrifice is for the greater good of Wikipedia. That won't be true, of course, but it would be cruel to disabuse them of that comforting fiction as we bid them farewell and send them on their way.

EEng 09:02, 3 January 2013 (UTC)[reply]

See also[edit]