This Is Not Oklahoma: OK vs. Okay
Whatever prose sensibilities you have, they most likely don’t let you use, say, ampersands in your fiction. Why, though? Is it that that kind of symbolic shorthand foregrounds itself on the page, taking attention away from the words that are trying to mean by way of sound rather than sight? Is it that we associate that kind of symbolic economy with billboard signs, which need to be readable at highway speeds? Is it that the word the ampersand is replacing, ‘and,’ isn’t all that bulky in the first place, kind of suggesting that shortening it’s redundant? Is it that the “&” is just a breath away from a “+,” which would make your prose look more like an equation than a sentence? Is it that your fingers know there’s three ‘home’ rows, and then one ‘illegal’ row, for math and logic and the like?
You want to write it up to a kind of writerly integrity, of course—either you have standards for prose below which you cannot and will not stoop or the single extra keystroke necessary to enter “and” instead of “&” is an effort that demonstrates how committed you are to the word (thus telling your reader that you cared about this, so maybe they should as well). That’s all what you make up after the fact, though, when you want to look smart. What’s really going on, I suspect, it’s a sluggish sort of awareness that, if you allow one symbol into your sentence, then you have no reason not to let the rest in as well.
So, say you’ve let yourself start ampersanding, and are kind of pleased with how your prose no longer looks boring like everybody else’s. Good, great; you’re the first writer to ever figure this out, Pynchon wasn’t using “sez” forty years ago, Joyce was obviously working with a limited word palette, all that. But will you now also say “John gave me a $ to buy him a pack of gum,” or “Charlotte said she’ll be @ the diner,” or “There’s a # of ground turkey there on the left,” and on and on, until you’re using an actual heart symbol for ‘love’ (or something like love), and perhaps indicating your character’s emotional states with (gulp) emoticons?
Of course you won’t do any of that. This all goes without saying, really. What of the more ‘allowable’ class of nearly-symbolic economies, though? “I.e.,” “b/c,” “w/o,” “w/i,”—shorthands we would consider more abbreviations or (syllable-level) acronyms. We still exclude them from our prose, don’t we? Is it because we’re used to seeing them scrawled on notes left for us on the refrigerator, where space and time were both obviously at a premium, and the only thing that mattered was whether you were getting the message or not? That could be part of it, yes, but more important, I think, it’s that we have a kind of dim recollection or suspicion that these non-abbreviations are in the same class as the ampersand, and thus can dilute our prose in a similar way. Those suspicions are right, too: the ampersand of course is just the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’ (“et” means ‘and’) ligatured together over the centuries into a logogram, which is a character or mark or symbol which doesn’t represent a sound, but a word. Like “$,” yes, and of course “at” has followed the same path, becoming something of a logogram as well (“@” used to be an accounting abbreviation for ‘at the rate of,’ but now is of course just a faster, non-word way to say ‘at’).
Will “b/c” or “w/o” ever ascend to that fourth row of keys, though? Likely not. And that’s good news.
But there is another trying to make it up there: “OK.”
Before we get there, though, a very related issue: numerals in prose. If you come from a journalism background, you likely give the numeral to anything over ten or twenty, only slowing down to ‘spell out’ the whole numbers that come before. Because, in print journalism, it’s column-inches that dictate everything, so you shave every corner you can, just so you can pack a little more meaning in somewhere else, never mind the arbitrariness of spelling out “seven” while turning “forty” into “40,” or the plain wrongness of saying “I’ll take eight of these 24.” However, prose fiction doesn’t operate under the same constraints, does it? If something spills onto the next page, then it spills onto the next page; you’re not crowding out marketing revenue or jostling other writers for room below the fold, and editors hardly ever get all that concerned about total page-count. And, besides—it comes back to that sense of prose integrity you want to say you have, which itself really comes down to a kind of loyalty to the words you’re putting down on the page: does planting a “40” in front of some “acres” really do the word “acres” any kind of justice, or show it any kind of respect? “Acres” has sound, I mean, and our eyes have to travel across it from left to right. With “40,” though, you just take it in in a visual gulp and never consider it as a thing itself, but as what it is: a unit meant to indicate something else (in this case, “forty”). Never mind that, held at armslength, the numerals (and ampersands) on a page stand out, as if they’re more important, are somehow taller and more meaningful than the rest, and I doubt that’s the emphasis you would intend.
But, yes, this is English; there are always special cases. Phone numbers, addresses, numbers with so many digits past the decimal—all numbers that need the numeral (if your story actually needs the number). Otherwise their very bulkiness draws too much attention. The reader gets caught up in trying to sound the ‘number’ out in his or her head, and at that point they’re thinking about the writing of the line, have been kicked out of your story, are no longer experiencing it but analysing it.
As easy example of what I’m saying here, here’s something no one would ever write: “Would 1 of you carry this for me?” By the same token, this should also come off wrong: “I’m going to get 1 gallon of milk today.” If it doesn’t work with the smaller numbers, then why should we allow it to happen when we’re talking about twenty-two gallons of gas, or fifty-five miles per hour? And this goes especially if your character’s speaking those numbers in quoted dialogue: our mouths, they’re able to deliver sounds, not symbols, not numerals, not logograms. Words. And, your story, it’s got a narrator, doesn’t it? Whether a floating head or an embedded Carroway, there’s somebody telling that story, meaning we can imagine Conradian quote marks around everything—meaning spell out whatever you can, without drawing attention.
It’s that easy, really.
You can take the visual shortcuts if you want, sure, but your reader’s going to miss a lot of the scenery along the way. You’re shuttling them along too fast—you want them to be mad at or happy with your story, not mad @ or happy w/ your story.
All of which delivers us to “OK,” a bastardization many of the style guides are starting to endorse as a legitimate ‘abbreviation’ for the legitimate word “okay,” even though there’s a lot of argument about whether “OK” came from ‘oll korrect’ or ‘okeh’ or ‘waw-kay’ or ‘o ke.’ And of course I’m not talking about the state of Oklahoma here, though that’s the initial problem with that backronym, and, yes, I’m also talking bad about “ok” and “Ok” and “o.k.” and “O.K.” as well, and no, this isn’t an invective against text messaging or email, which is its own thing, inheres its own economies, and please please no, I’m not trying to draw the “okay” hand-symbol/gesture into this argument, as letters mimed in the air are supposed to represent in some fashion what's on the page, not dictate it. However, I will note that, when you see “OK” itself shortened in dialogue, it actually becomes longer—’kay—which should perhaps be our first indication that something’s fundamentally wrong here.
So, as we’ve established, abbreviations can easily get ligatured into logograms (“et” becoming “&”), and logograms, like numerals, have no place in prose fiction, as prose fiction is about sounds that make words that make meaning. I think we can all agree on this: words have primacy in prose. Prose is made from words. Words are prose’s fundamental unit. Not symbols, not signs, not logograms. Granted, the occasional “™” can joke up a text from time to time, and granted, what is punctuation if not visual shortcuts meant to indicate reading speed, to logically coordinate or serve as ‘operators,’ but you have to figure out for yourself what will and won’t be acceptable in your prose. There may only feel like there’s a set of ethics involved with how you write, but it’s unavoidable that your reader, anyway, will characterize you this or that way based solely on where you arbitrarily draw the line. What you will and won’t allow. And, if you’re taking shortcuts, if you’re using “b/c,” say, then doesn’t that establish a non-serious, temporary kind of tone for your piece? So, rhetorically, instead of asking your reader to trust you, you’re saying that this doesn’t matter to you. That the reader’s lucky most of the words are even spelled right. That this is just something you dashed down, stuck on the fridge on the way out.
That can sometimes work, yes—though it’s so much better (that is, evidence of stronger writing) to establish this with voice and syntax and punctuation and the rest of your writer’s tools than it is to ‘allow’ it the easy way, with visual shorthand or fun-with-typography—and I’m not at all meaning to come off stodgy or conservative as regards prose fiction, I’m all for (sincere, story-based) innovation, and I’m not trying to espouse some purist’s ideal of prose, because prose has to be malleable and adaptable if it’s to survive, but . . . it’s like those three home rows of keys your fingertips are resting on now: is it not evidence of stronger magic or better talent or more ability to create something with just three rows, instead of dragging a fourth into it? Is dragging that top row in not admitting defeat, is it not saying that you couldn’t do it with what you had, so you’re having to smuggle some more stuff in, now? Is resorting to logograms not similar in some way to those books you learn to read with, where the icons (“dog,” “pizza”) are in the place of the words?
If none of that’s enough, then maybe just consider that typing out “OK,” assuming you hit shift for each uppercase, doesn’t save even a single keystroke off “okay.” So, instead of allowing yourself more time in which to focus on other words, all you’re really doing is planting a state abbreviation in your otherwise clean prose, and probably making it possible for someone not accustomed to the language to drop an “ock” in their head instead of parsing through the sounds, as the word would have them do. Neither of which are very charitable of me, I know; readers don’t actually start looking for a zip-code each time they see an “OK,” and the word itself is global, no longer belongs to any particular language. And, if you’re any kind of typist, then it’s really just taking you three strokes to pull an “OK.”
But isn’t it just so, so ugly?
That’s finally what I’m getting at, here.
Or, really, this is where I’m getting: how about if you do use “okay” the ugly way, then just go the distance, hit us with something along the lines of “OK, I do ♥ you, I’ll meet you @ 3, w/ roses.” That way we’ll know how much you care about what’s on the page, and we’ll then be able to decide just how much of you we should read.
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