Style is substance

27 Sep

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And they say style doesn’t matter:

The Guardian has been until now one of a dwindling number of newspapers and broadcasters using the term Burma rather than Myanmar, the regime’s official name for the country. What has divided the media on this issue is that the name Burma is associated with the democratic movement there, while the name Myanmar is associated with the army-dominated government which decreed its use in 1989, a year after troops had shot down thousands of demonstrators.

The choice of name was thus a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval.

Style can help with a lot of things. It can give a sense of authority and competence to prose by providing consistency and tidiness. With new or foreign names or places, it can rule out the genuine confusion that variant spellings and transliterations can cause. But, as the Guardian suggests, it can do much more than that: style can encourage you to think in a completely different way.

We will from today be using the name Myanmar, partly because it has become almost universal and partly because colonial names should be part of the past, along with the empires that gave rise to them.

This is a complex decision: one in which a leftwing paper’s nervousness over the legacy of colonialism is matched with an equal concern over modern-day totalitarianism – and the conclusion, in effect, becomes an entire editorial about a change to the house style guide. For sure, some style decisions are simple coin-tosses over which spelling to stick to for consistency; but not this one.

And three days earlier, with the Syrian crisis reaching its peak and fear of “migrants” growing, the Guardian’s production editor, David Marsh, was making an even bolder decision about style.

“The language we hear in what passes for a national conversation on migration has become as debased as most of the arguments, until the very word ‘migrants’ is toxic,” he writes. “Journalists, like politicians, prefer to keep a story simple, assuming readers and voters have a short attention span. Labels such as ‘migrants’, however, deny people their humanity, and somewhere in this sorry saga we are losing sight of the fact they are people.”  Therefore:

You will still see the word “migrants” or “migration” in the Guardian as a general expression to cover people who for whatever reason have moved, or are moving, from the country of which they are nationals to another. But “refugees”, “displaced people” and “asylum seekers”, all of which have clear definitions, are more useful and accurate terms than a catch-all label like “migrants”, and we should use them wherever possible.

This is not a right/wrong decision about a word being used incorrectly: as he says, the strict definition of a migrant covers everyone from the persecuted to the ambitious. This change is essentially a tone and judgment decision, a rhetorical decision – and therefore, in fact, a style decision.

You may agree or disagree with it as a choice, but it’s hard to disagree with the principle on which it was made. Words can quickly develop colours, meanings and overtones that outstrip the lexicographer’s ability to chronicle them. Nuances can change in between editions of Collins or Webster. Editors have to be alert to the changes as they happen. And that’s where style comes in: style guides begin where the dictionary ends.

And that’s why style is important. If a newspaper without sub-editors is not too bothered about how many ‘s’s there are in “focused”, then maybe it’s also not sufficiently curious about whether Yorgas Houliarakis and Giorgos Chouliarakis are the same person. And, if so, then maybe it finds itself incapable of keeping abreast of the debate when a national political controversy builds up over whether a migrant is actually a refugee. Style may start with the small stuff, but it doesn’t stay there.

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4 Responses to “Style is substance”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Secrets of style | Ten minutes past deadline - February 16, 2016

    […] on a sensitive issue, whether it’s between undocumented or illegal, Derry or Londonderry, Burma or Myanmar, refugee or migrant. The issues are unpacked once, considered, then formulated into a rule rather […]

  2. New Day, old echoes | Ten minutes past deadline - March 15, 2016

    […] in the smaller type too. Refugees are “refugees”, not “migrants”: again, another ruling that chimes with Ten Minutes Past Deadline’s outlook, but one with which surely not all readers will agree. Also, the phrase “avoided jail” […]

  3. All-Star style guide | Ten minutes past deadline - October 24, 2016

    […] (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. […]

  4. Neutral News at Ten | Ten minutes past deadline - January 24, 2017

    […] Street, where the culture wars rage, no one is surprised that newspapers take sides in their use of language just as they do on their leader pages. But imagine the pressure to stay out of trouble if […]

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