All-Star style guide

24 Oct

Style guides have their weak moments, of course:


(What? Why?). But at their best, on their home turf, they’re a concentrated distillation of expertise: a guide not just for how to spell words, but for how to think about them as well.

The trouble is, none of them is uniformly good. On the areas that matter most to their readers, where the need for credibility and level of reader feedback is at its highest, they excel. In non-core areas (club culture for the Telegraph, say, or ecclesiastical titles for the Guardian), they carry far less authority. But what if you could take the best parts from each and put them together? What if you could create an All-Star style guide?

It’ll take a while to build a complete roster, but here’s a core group of style guides who have reached inspired heights on their home turf. More suggestions welcome.

Best for formal niceties: The Telegraph

The Guardian’s style advice on “colonel”:

Colonel Napoleon Bogey, subsequently Bogey (Col Bogey in leading articles)

The Telegraph’s style advice on “colonel”:

Do not confuse Colonel in Chief, an appointment accepted by a (usually royal) notable as a compliment to the regiment, with a lieutenant colonel (or other officer) commanding a battalion (infantry) or regiment (cavalry and artillery units) of the British Army. The Colonel of the Regiment is usually a retired senior officer of the regiment/battalion responsible for recruiting. His is an honorary position. Some regiments have a Colonel Commandant (eg the Parachute Regiment, the Gurkhas).

AP’s style advice on the Queen Mother:

Capitalize king, queen, prince and princess when they are used directly before one or more names: … Queen Mother Elizabeth, the queen mother

The Telegraph’s advice on the Queen’s mother:

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother ceased to be “Queen Mother” on her death and it is as incorrect now to refer to her as such as it would be still to call her deceased husband “the King”. Like Queens Alexandra and Mary before her (who were both Queens Mother after the deaths of their husbands) she should now be referred to as Queen Elizabeth. To avoid the possibility of confusion with the Sovereign or even with Queen Elizabeth I, she should be referred to at first mention as “the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother” and subsequently as “Queen Elizabeth”.

The Economist’s advice on female peerages:

Long incomprehensible to all foreigners and most Britons, British titles and forms of address now seem just as confusing to those who hold them. Snobbery, embarrassment and obscurity make it difficult to know whether to write Mrs Thatcher, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, Lady Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher, Lady Margaret Thatcher or Baroness Margaret Thatcher.

The Telegraph’s advice on female peerages:

Baronesses … are described by their full title at first mention and are Lady xxxx subsequently. This distinguishes life peeresses from the handful of hereditary baronies that descend through the female as well as through the male line, and whose holders (when female) are always described as “Lady Smith” …

The wife of a marquess is a marchioness, of an earl a countess, of a viscount a viscountess. Use Lady at second and subsequent mentions. But the wife of a baron is always Lady at first and subsequent mentions. Some women other than life peeresses hold hereditary or life peerages in their own right. Their husbands do not take their rank and, therefore, a title (The Countess of Someshire and her husband John Smith).

The designation “Lady” is used with a forename by the daughters of dukes, marquesses and earls, before the family surname. The style is Lady Mary Russell and then Lady Mary, never, in such cases, Lady Russell.

The wives of younger sons of dukes and marquesses use “Lady” with their husbands’ forenames, as in Lady John Russell. At second mention, she is Lady John, never Lady Russell…

The widow of a baronet whose son, the present baronet, is married is Mary, Lady Smith. Should the wife of a baronet or knight be the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl then she will still use her rank and be Lady Mary Smith rather than Lady Smith.”

Best for popular culture: BuzzFeed

Every news organisation covers mass media, but some really feel it. This is a style guide whose “key names” list contains 92 celebrities and a grand total of 13 political and religious figures. The entry covering the dynasties in Game of Thrones is longer than the entry for the British royal family. The explanatory note given for “updog” is: “Nothing. What’s up with you?”. No Gen X-er putting on his reading glasses to stumble through the Urban Dictionary is going to generate this kind of youthful spirit.

The entry on Harry Potter is as crisp and authoritative as the Telegraph writing about the army:


And whereas others might instantly delete “like” as an interjection or verb of speech, BuzzFeed has explicit instructions about how to punctuate it in all contexts:


This is also the only guide with entries for mpreg, struggle bus, ugly-cry and two-buck chuck. It has alphabetised runs of unglossed, largely mystifying expressions that border on the poetic: amirite, anti-vaxxer, apeshit, Apple store; Britpop, bro-down, bro-ing, brony; creepshot, cringey, crop top, crossfire.

As the introduction says: “knowing how to treat numbers correctly is important, but so is correctly spelling ‘fangirl’.”

Best for amateur meteorologists: AP

You wouldn’t have expected it, but Associated Press has five whole pages in its guide – five – dedicated to weather terms, including “degree-day” (“a unit of measurement describing how much the temperature differs from a standard average for one day”), “stockmen’s advisory” (“alerts the public that livestock may require protection”), separate entries for “sleet” and “sleet (heavy)”, and a complete 10-row, 15-column table for calculating your own wind chill factors (“winds of more than 45mph add little to the chilling”). By contrast, the entirety of the Telegraph’s advice on the subject is as follows: “weather is enough: we do not need to say weather conditions”.

Best for creating entirely new words: Variety

Style debates are a lot easier when you invent your own terms, and Variety’s guide is probably not much use to you unless you’re actually asking a helmer whether his suspenser will preem on feevee. But this is the magazine that brought the world “biopic”, “deejay”, “sitcom”, and “sex appeal”, as well as the following:

aud — audience; “Liza Minnelli has always had a special rapport with her aud.”

cleffer — a songwriter; “Jay Livingston was the cleffer on many Bob Hope films.”

diskery — record company; “The artist signed a five-album deal with the diskery last year.”

hardtop — indoor movie theater; “The film is playing in Tampa at seven hardtops and two ozoners.”

sprocket opera — film festival; “The actor plans to attend the annual Sundance sprocket opera next year.”

As an achievement, that’s boffo, verging on socko, and certainly worthy of inclusion in a kudocast.

This mass-production of synonyms was once much more common in American journalism than it is now, but not many did it as well as Variety, or carried on as long. Indeed, they carried on so long that the practice is now synonymous with them and them alone; now an article in Variety style is instantly recognisable wherever it is reprinted or quoted, an indelible marker to deter passing-off and plagiarism. Variety-speak doesn’t just reflect usage: it creates it. What higher ambition could there be for a style guide than that?

The 100-word headline

11 Oct

You’ve been around, and you’ve seen some things. You’ve seen the New York Times write four different heds for the same story and stack them all at the top of its front page; you’ve seen the Sun cause so much offence with a single word on the front that it pulled apart its page one and re-made it that same night. But I promise you’ve ever seen anything like this. Ladies and gentlemen: the 100-word headline.


If you’re scoring at home it’s a 4/40/8 + 3/40/2 + 2/40/6 + 3/40/4. Twenty decks in all, with a yellow first line for a kicker. And it’s the biggest feature in the paper this week, so try to make it sing.

Still, I suppose at least there isn’t a standfirst.

Double exposure

27 Sep

I wish Agence France-Presse would stop doing this, because it’s perilously easy to make a mistake:


It’s an unusual name, you think, but a resonant one: puts you slightly in mind of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia. Unfamiliar though “Alhalbiameer” may be, it has a strangely correct ring to it – a patronymic, maybe? An unfamiliar theophoric name? Except of course, it’s nothing of the sort: AFP, as is its unvarying practice, has repeated Ameer Alhalbi’s name twice without a break in the middle. And that’s the kind of thing that can easily get transcribed from the credit across onto the page when you’re in a hurry:

picture-35 picture-36

It happens with other AFP snappers with non-anglophone names too: Aref (Karimiaref) Karimi, Mandel (Nganmandel) Ngan, Louai (Besharalouai) Beshara and Ilyas (Akenginilyas) Akengin have all made it into publication.

Very obvious once it’s pointed out, of course, and very embarrassing when it happens. But in a world with naming conventions as diverse as Burma’s and Spain’s, it’s not entirely surprising that a striking-looking ‘middle name’ might sometimes slip through. As we have discussed before, pictures and captions have a shorter route into publication, and pass under fewer eyes, than anything else on the website or in the paper.

Fortunately, because it’s the Tribune’s practice to put photography credits on the end of the caption, this is the kind of thing one is prompted to notice in print – if only because there’s so little space in a standard two-column caption that your heart sinks when you see a long name. But come on, AFP: we’re working at speed here. Everyone understands why you’d want to repeat names for clarity, but at least put a space between them. Give us a break.

Too chill for comfort

13 Sep

If you were looking for snark, the official Twitter feed of a major American-English dictionary might not be the first place you’d look. But, oh boy.

A few days ago, Gabriel Roth of Slate unwisely allowed his inner prescriptivist out for an airing after reading the following tweet from Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Articulating the silent twinge that many editors and writers feel at the sight of descriptivism in action, he wrote:


And then unexpectedly this reply, from the dictionary itself, appeared:


Ouch. Owned. Or – to use the correct spelling of the word in this context – “pwned“. As a rueful Roth wrote later, “I find myself wistfully remembering the days when tweeting at brands was a safe, innocuous pastime”. And other responses to M-W’s intervention have been broadly favourable: the tweet was rude, yes, commenters thought, but also uncompromisingly truthful about the ineluctable nature of language change.

However, scrolling down through M-W’s Twitter feed, it emerges that this is not the only time it’s taken a bold line in such matters. Five days earlier, in similarly lively terms, it made the following observation:

Well, hang on. Yes, “enormity” can indeed mean “great size”, and has done for centuries. But, no, it’s not “fine”: currently, as a word, it’s totally skunked. As we discussed last month, “enormity” is hovering uneasily on the brink of a permanent change in meaning, but is still tending to drag its other meaning of “moral horror” into simple discussions about size. It’s a very tricky word to be employing at the moment; a while ago, for example, we saw fit to remove it from a news story about the heated subject of the Scottish referendum because of its overtone of opprobrium. It’s far from clear that, in these circumstances, a major dictionary should be recommending it quite so breezily. Authorities are looked up to; these things get taken seriously.

As this blog has had occasion to remark before, people don’t require help with informal English. They speak it well. They do not seek the assistance of their editor friends when composing a tweet or posting on Instagram; but they do, sometimes, when updating their CV or writing to a solicitor. What they want is help with formal English: a register whose social significance they grasp, but one in which they perceive themselves not to be fluent.

This is when they turn to the dictionary: to be briefed on the meaning of a legal idiom, or the appropriate use of a word in their own reply: to find out, perhaps, whether “enormity” means what they think it means. But they are doing this at a time where one of the prime objectives of linguistics is the debunking of the prescriptive maxims about language that have been taught during last two centuries. An unsatisfactory dialogue has therefore developed between linguists and the public in which queries about the niceties of formal English are met only with assurances about the validity of informal English. For the last several decades, it seems, lexicographers have been talking about what’s changed in the language while their readers have been asking about what hasn’t.

The spirit behind this objective is democratic to a fault, and the efforts to expose the frailties of formal English are intellectually impeccable. But nonetheless, they are starting to amount to the total deconstruction of a dialect that many people still have no choice but to speak.

The ghosts of Fowler, Strunk and White still haunt the sphere of formal discourse. It is highly commendable that more modern authorities like Merriam-Webster should be getting involved in the conversation about usage. But burning a grumpy prescriptivist on Twitter? Waving off debate about a word in difficult transition?  That isn’t advice; it’s advocacy. Roth is right: counsel as blasé as this is just a little too chill for comfort.

Citations needed

30 Aug

Wow, the episode titles of Ryan Lochte’s old reality show were eerily prescient, given what happened to him in Rio … wait, hang on. Has this been tampered with?

Picture 29

That’s Wikipedia for you: somebody makes the news and the pranksters come out in force. A quick glance at the edit history of the page reveals a calm lack of activity until 18 August, at the height of the row over the alleged robbery the US swimmer suffered, at which point a brief “edit war” appears to break out:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 09.38.44

The signs are classic: the sudden influx of anonymous users; the addition of 529 characters without explanation; the deletion of 531 characters without explanation; then the intervention by an adult some 10 hours later  (“removed spurious entry”)  to restore the site to its correct state – a state in which, at the time of writing, it still remains:

Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 09.38.06

This is, as has frequently been pointed out, the uniquely alarming thing about Wikipedia: not that some of it is wrong, or that some of it is badly written, but that all of it might change. As John McIntyre put it years ago:

“This is the most troublesome part[:] the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.”

That is true: it would be most unwise ever to cite a Wikipedia article in a book, if only because you would have no idea what the page might be saying in a year’s time. But as a user of the site, clicking on the page to read at any given moment, it’s often pretty easy to tell what state things are in. For example, it wouldn’t be hard to detect the damage in these examples from Wikipedia’s own list of its most vandalised pages:

Oklahoma Christian University  Vandalized a lot given the nondescript nature of the school. Students there vandalize pages and employees there revert them.

Dyslexia  Vandalized daily, multiple anonymous edits, usually with deletions, obscenities, deliberate scrambling of text, or insertion of jokes.

Taiwan  Anonymous vandal with ever changing IP addresses who turns this into an article on the Republic of China

Rove McManus Vandalised regularly by anons who insert scare quotes around the word “comedian”.

That’s not to say vandalism hasn’t caused problems – big ones – in the past. While entries about topics in the news are often monitored closely and re-edited quickly, the dusty historical corners of the site can go unexamined for years, as this hair-raising example – recounted by Wikipedia in its own article about frauds it has suffered – shows:

In May 2010, French politician Ségolène Royal publicly praised the memory of Léon-Robert de l’Astran, an 18th-century naturalist, humanist and son of a slave trader, who had opposed the slave trade. The newspaper Sud-Ouest revealed a month later that de l’Astran had never existed—except as the subject of an article in the French Wikipedia. Historian Jean-Louis Mahé discovered that de l’Astran was fictional after a student, interested by Royal’s praise of him, asked Mahé about him. Mahé’s research led him to realise that de l’Astran did not exist in any archives, and he traced the hoax back to the Rotary Club of La Rochelle. The article, created by members of the Club in January 2007, had thus remained online for three years—unsourced—before the hoax was uncovered.

And journalists have suffered too, not least in the notorious case of the Norman Wisdom Falsehood in the same year, which caught out several newspaper obituarists and revealed just how short – at least in those days – the route was from Wikipedia to the printed page. (For the record: for all his many talents, Wisdom did not write the lyrics to “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs of Dover”.)

But newsrooms have learnt something in the intervening six years. The Wisdom incident exposed some shameless cut-and-paste writing, but it also perhaps revealed an endearingly trusting approach to encyclopaedias – a pre-digital belief in reference sources as inviolate and trustworthy. A series of embarrassments over the last decade have changed that; our understanding of what a wiki is now is much more mature than what it was then.

For example, it is interesting that, as Wikipedia notes, the De l’Astran article was completely unsourced: nowadays, there would be a large flag at the top of the page pointing that out, and no fact-checker worth their salt these days would rely on a Wiki article without a single footnote. In more borderline cases, or faced with more subtle vandalism, you still have options: you can check the edit history of a page to get a feel for the bona fides of the contributor who made the amendment. Do they have a proper username, or are they just anonymous? Did they leave a note explaining what they had done, which is good wiki practice? Have they amended other pages too? What did they do there? Did anyone undo their revisions? If so, why?

To be clear: Wikipedia is not, and can never be, authoritative. The phrase “Source: Wikipedia” should never appear anywhere in a reputable publication. Nothing in it that is not cross-referred to an external source should ever be taken as true. The Britannica version of a subject is always greatly to be preferred – except that there is no Britannica entry for What Would Ryan Lochte Do?, nor for the many other ephemeral and trivial phenomena about which newspapers write. If you need some briefing on reality stars, talent show winners, Japanese video games or the Doge meme, there often is nowhere else – reliable or unreliable – to turn; just as sometimes, faced with hip-hop lyrics or regional slang that you don’t understand, there is sometimes no alternative but to resort, nervously, to the pages of the Urban Dictionary.

Wikipedia is still a hazard for the unwary. Of course it isn’t “safe”. But journalists make a living from assessing the probity of sources, and we can apply the same talent here. After the initial upheavals over vandalism, incompetence and mutability, we are starting to make a mental accommodation for a new kind of reference source: ones that are extremely useful but not entirely reliable. Wikipedia can never truly provide an answer; but sometimes it’s the only thing that can help you understand the question.

The artist Cowabunga

16 Aug

If you’re not sure if you’re reading a broadsheet or a tabloid, check the corrections column. If you see a correction like this, you’re reading a broadsheet:

We confused the endings of two Bresson films in the article above when we said that the donkey hero of Au Hasard Balthazar died to the accompaniment of Monteverdi. The soundtrack to Mouchette’s suicide in the film of that name is Monteverdi, while Balthazar dies to the accompaniment of a Schubert piano sonata. This error has been corrected.

This is mother lode for a broadsheet readers’ editor: French directors, baroque composers, fine distinctions.  It can’t always be that way: too often, this level of expertise is lost in the quotidian struggle to correct homophones and pacify libelled entrepreneurs. But when there’s the slightest glimpse of home ground – a classical reference twinkling in the morass – that unique combination of erudition and patience comes to the fore:

In a feature about the return of the TV series Robot Wars, we said the first season “featured … robots with names such as Killertron and Recylopse”. The correct spelling of the latter is Recyclopse, being a play on the facts that the robot was made almost entirely of recycled material and featured one large eye, like the Greek mythical giant Cyclops

And you need patience, because some people’s grasp of 15th century art just makes you roll your eyes:

A film review on Friday about “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” referred incorrectly to the turtles’ names. Three turtles are named for Renaissance artists whose major works included paintings, not four. (Donatello was a sculptor.)

The size and the horror

2 Aug

We held out for a long time, but it looks like even our resolve is weakening. Witness this exchange on the subs’ email list last week:

From the reader’s editor:

Can someone please tweak this: [appends link to article]
Style guide:
It might sound a bit like “enormous”, but enormity refers to something monstrous or wicked, such as a massacre, and is not just another word for “big”
 From a sub-editor:
I’ll have a look at this
From another sub-editor:

this is an odd one as our default dictionary Collins actually says it can be used informally to mean “vastness of size or extent

And then, from the website production editor, this:
I think it’s one of those words whose changed meaning is now used widely enough to possibly warrant a style guide tweak.
Have copied in the house style team for their view.
OK, so we haven’t changed anything yet. OK, so we’re just taking views at the moment. But still, compare this willingness to be descriptivist with what we were saying about enormity two years ago, when an article was summarily corrected to remove any suggestion of bias during the Scottish independence campaign:
A front-page analysis of the Scottish independence referendum said: “With only 10 days to go, the rest of Britain finally awoke yesterday to the enormity of what is happening in Scotland.” The style guide states that enormity “refers to something monstrous or wicked, not big”. The writer was, in fact, referring to the scale and importance of the vote (“Nothing else now matters in British politics”, 8 September, page 1).

I thought then, and I think now, that the word is currently best avoided in either sense. It can’t be relied upon to deliver its old meaning, but nor, as witnessed above, have the prejudicial implications of that meaning been completely extinguished. It is well and truly “skunked“, as Bryan Garner would say.

But nonetheless, the direction of travel is obvious: the “immensity” meaning is starting to appear in major dictionaries, and, in the case of Merriam-Webster, as a formal definition of equal status with the others. More than one senior and discriminating Tribune writer is using the word in relation to size without batting an eye, despite what the style guide may say. And although it is unwise to try to prove anything that relies on context with a Google Ngram, compare the usage graph for “enormity of the crime” (i.e. repugnance) with the one for “enormity of the task” (i.e. immensity):

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 12.03.16
Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 12.02.49

Language changes so slowly that we perceive it to be static; we discover with bemusement that “awful” once meant “awe-inspiring” or that “egregious” once meant “eminent”, but we don’t perceive the same shifts to be happening today. Yet they are, and this is a clear example of a word conclusively changing its meaning in front of our eyes. It may still be too early to safely describe a band (as we already have) as “uptempo pop rockers destined for enormity”. But the day is getting closer.