Thursday, April 05, 2007

The tyrants of style

berks and wankers
Kingsley Amis identified two principal groups in the debate over use of language: ‘Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own; wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own.’”

David Marsh (ed.), Guardian styleguide – B

Not for the first time I am writing a style guide.

Usually, my work involves adhering to other people’s prejudices, so it’s fun to dictate my own terms. Client X will, for example, henceforth write “focused” with one S and TARDIS in caps (as an acronym).

There’s no general consensus on style. Really. While correct spelling has been more or less agreed for hundreds of years, punctuation and phrasing is still largely a matter of taste. For every style guru who’ll insist on one rule, there’s another expert who’ll vehemently disagree.

Which can be a bit bothersome when you work for lots of people, all with their own ways of doing things. At least the style guides I’ve written so far have tended to start with a warning:
“What follows are not definite rules for written English everywhere. They’re just how we do things here...”
Should it matter? Well, people do notice inconsistent and incorrect usage – and not just the finger-wagging wankers with their copies of one set of rules. If nothing else, inconsistency is distracting. People should be taking note of what you’re saying, not where you’ve used capital letters to say it.

When style does become an issue, it helps if the style guide can explain the reasoning. I like to think that my own bigotry-of-style at least stems from some rational first principles.

For example, I recently had to justify why we used double (“) quotation marks rather than single (‘) ones on a website I do stuff for.
“Double quotes are easier to read on a screen,”
I said, which follows from our principle aim:
“Our copy is easy to read, accessible, consistent and does not distract the reader.”
But there’s still fierce debate about the serial comma, which I think a fussy affectation. One colleague however protested,
“Readers need telling when to breathe!”
There’s usually some kind of style council to arbitrate when copy-writers get into such an argument. As a result, style guides are often packed full of Top Facts, and give an insight into how reportage gets criticised and – sometimes –sued:

Alibis are not excuses
“If Bill Sykes has an alibi it means he did not commit the crime because he can prove he was somewhere else at the time. It is not a false explanation or an excuse.”

BBC News Styleguide (PDF 276kb), p. 78.

Talks with Iranians
“The language spoken in Iran (and Tajikistan) is Persian, not Farsi. Flemings speak Dutch.”

John Grimond, Economist Style Guide – miscellaneous spelling

Asylum seeker
“(No hyphen)
Someone seeking refugee status or humanitarian protection; there is no such thing as a "bogus" or "illegal" asylum seeker. Refugees are people who have fled their home countries in fear for their lives, and may have been granted asylum under the 1951 refugee convention or qualify for humanitarian protection or discretionary leave, or have been granted exceptional leave to remain in Britain. An asylum seeker can only become an illegal immigrant if he or she remains in Britain after having failed to respond to a removal notice.”

David Marsh (ed.), Guardian styleguide - A

(It’s reading this kind of thing more than my upbringing that got me 10/10 in Channel 4 News’s Easter quiz.)


Andrew John said...

I do bemoan the Guardian's putative 'style guide', though, especially its refusal to use italics for titles. These aren't just furniture, just baubles, just gewgaws: they actually perform a useful function and help the reader. Titles and vessels' names can often be quirky; better to alert the reader straightaway that he/she is looking at a title. I suspect the Graun's editor has just said, 'We're not doing italics' because I don't like them, and bugger everyone else. The Graun, anyway, has some very odd style policies, and you can see how the writers and subs get confused when you see, say, a government department (proper noun) rendered in all lower case in one article, and with capped initials (title case) in another. There are some conventions, let's face it, that are just plain useful, and the Graun obviously just feels it's being somehow trendy, bucking the trend, whatever. Does it really need these strange style policies in order to stand out? (Few newspapers use itals for titles, I know, but they should; as for the red-tops, well, one just ignores them because they and the regionals and locals might as well be written by primary-school children for all the decent grammar and punctuation there is in them.)

Andrew John said...

Oh, I should have mentioned that I broadly agree with you on quote marks. Doubles do stand out better on screen, especially where you may get the non-curly variety, which could even disappear - or seem to - if one of them is sitting alongside certain characters. I tend to use singles because it's habit: most of the books I edit are for British publishers. What does get up my nose, though, is the willy-nilly mixing of quote marks. The rules are simple and the result useful: you choose your style (unless it's been imposed on you by a style guide) and you stick to it. The exception is when you get a quotation within a quotation, and then you use the other style (singles for a quote within a quote if you're using doubles on the outside), and keep alternating the style as you nest more and more quotations (which is of course highly unlikely, since most nests of quotations will go to only two layers, possibly three). Almost everywhere you look these days you see single words and phrases given the 'single quote' treatment, and "Whole sentences are put into double quotes." (Yes, I break the rules deliberately here.) No rhyme or reason, just ignorance of a useful convention. Everything quoted is ultimately a quotation, even if it's only something in scare quotes used to distance the writer. You're quoting the word you're avoiding, kinda thing. Anway, rant over.

Alex Wilcock said...

I’d be interested to see what choices you end up with; I agree on TARDIS, even though I recently convinced Richard (in a devil’s advocate sort of way) that Tardis is an acceptable alternative in some circumstances if italicised, making it clear that it’s being used as the proper name of that particular Ship, as in the early days. If it was good enough for David Whitaker…

On quotation marks, my own personal style guide, evolved because it seemed to make things clearest on my blog, is to use doubles for direct quotations but singles for paraphrases and lines I’ve just made up (hopefully the context should make the difference clear, too). I think it’s a mix of having it drummed into me at school that doubles were the correct way, and some vague thought that doubles seem more authoritative. The ‘layers within layers’ alternation makes sense, too.

Sorry to miss you last night, by the way – Richard and I were both rather flaked out and left early, and though we made some efforts to find you, we were told you’d (very sensibly) gone for dinner!

Liadnan said...

I think you need a section explaining that principle is never an adjective, only a noun, unlike principal...

As for Oxford (or serial) commas, I disagree strongly. Cf TNH's example (from a real dedication):
"This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

0tralala said...

Hello everyone!

Italics are another bone of contention, because they're not always easy to see on screen either. But some kind of mark for a Proper Noun or Title does help the reader follow the meaning.

For example, I am currently writing something about Deceit by a bloke called Peter. "Deceit" being the name of a book he wrote.

Where do you stand on italicising foreign words or jargon? A discussion I had on this a year ago concluded that you're either patronising your readers by assuming they DON'T know the words, or patronising them because they SHOULD.

Consistency is important because it's a guide for the reader. Imagine the misery if our roadsigns were inconsistent.

And principal! Bah. I know what I mean :)

Take the point about the serial comma but still think where it doesn't add to the meaning of the sentence it should not be used.

And you know what, I realise I've sort of done this post before.

Liadnan said...

Principal/principle is one of my bugbears. For some reason I see it frequently in legal pleadings...

I italicise titles and quotations, my rule is not to when using foreign words, but then I tend to avoid doing so (save for loan words, which don't count).

There was a period when road signs in the Republic of Ireland were inconsistent as to whether they used km or miles: more worryingly they didn't always indicate which,

0tralala said...

As I've blogged before, I have a blind spot for homophones.

But look at the title to that post! I've hyphenated a compound adjective where the first word ends "-ly".

Ooh the shame of it.