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.
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?