Tag Archives: style guides

Bard choices

1 May

Style guide quiz! Does this entry mean

(i) The correct style to use in all situations is “Stratford-on-Avon”, given that the usual approach in the Tribune’s style guide is to give the correct style in the bold heading of the entry?

(ii) This is the correct style to use for the district council and parliamentary seat only, and that another, unspecified, style is correct for other usages? (This is the only entry in the guide that covers the issue, however.)

(iii) If the answer to (i) is no and the answer to (ii) is yes, do you take the second part of the style note to mean

(a) That the use of “upon” by most other local organisations is a guide to what our style should be; or

(b) Only that the sub-editor should be aware of this common variant when giving the names of the organisations in question?

(iv) If the answer to (iii)(a) is no and the answer to (iii)(b) is yes … does anyone know what our style for the town is?

To find a style guide entry with too much explanation and too little instruction is a rare thing: usually, it’s the other way around. For example, AP lists several commonplace and rarely misspelled words, such as “countryside” and “sandwich”, in its guide with no indication as to the reason for their presence. Similarly, the Telegraph’s banned word list contains, without a word of explanation, “huge” and “toilet”. But perhaps the best place for fascinating but under-glossed entries these days is BuzzFeed, which I’m sure is an oversight on its part and nothing to do with the fact that fortysomething broadsheet sub-editors are now being comprehensively left behind by the pace of events:

 

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All-Star style guide

24 Oct

Style guides have their weak moments, of course:

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(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”:

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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:

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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:

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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?

New Day, old echoes

15 Mar

Regular reader Jeff writes:

Literally the first sentence of the first article in issue 01 of The New Day begins “The controversial Bedroom Tax will be under the spotlight…” – the benefit charge/penalty nickname unqualified, unquoted and capitalised. The paper says it has “no political bias” but this style decision would seem to indicate otherwise…

He’s got a point. The New Day, the breezy – and, remarkably for these days, print-only – tabloid launched in Britain this month makes a point, as its editor writes, of impartiality: “Welcome to the New Day. Here you’ll find no political bias. In fact, we’ll give you both sides of the argument and let you make up your own mind.” But, as Jeff points out, that can be a difficult promise to stick to. Not because it doesn’t provide both points of view – the New Day does that diligently, with a for and against opinion piece on either side of a fact-box briefing – but because, as we’ve discussed before, there are attitudes and biases buried deep in your choices of phrase, deep in your style guide, that betray what you really think.

The “bedroom tax”, of course, is only called that by its opponents. If you’re in favour of the partial reclamation of housing benefit from those deemed to have more space in social housing than they need, then it’s the “spare room subsidy”, as government ministers repeatedly attest on television. As a leftie Tribune journalist, I’m very much in favour of calling it the former; but even I’m aware that neither of them are anything like neutral terms. In fact, there is no neutral term for it at the moment: so the New Day has no choice but to pick sides in its headline.

And it doesn’t end there. In a subsequent edition we find this:

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Once again, there’s  meticulously balanced pro- and anti- opinion piece on the same page, but it’s rather a moot point given that the standfirst has already made up its mind. The “snoopers’ charter” – or, as its supporters prefer, the Communications Data Bill – is another of those subjects where the term for the initiative is itself in dispute, and presents a trap for the unwary.

It happens 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” has made an appearance in an early edition; as the Tribune’s production editor notes:

This can sometimes read as if we think they should have been jailed … It would be better to say what punishment was actually given to them rather than take it on ourselves to imply that they should have been given a different one.

It’s not an easy problem to solve. In fact, the New Day might well argue, what are you supposed to call the snoopers’ charter in the furniture – especially in a three-word headline and a 16-word standfirst? You’ve got two or three words to signal to the reader what’s going on. There just isn’t space to give an impartial summing-up of the rhetorical differences. And the commitment to impartiality is genuine: the face-to-face shootouts between commentators signal it clearly. It’s just that even where the spirit is willing, the language can’t always follow.

 

Secrets of style

16 Feb

You should always put right a factual error, of course. But would you really issue a correction in the paper for not having followed your own house style?

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This correction, in the Guardian earlier this month, is purely a matter of preference, not error. Style guides sometimes deal with issues of fact – warnings about, say common geographical mistakes – but this isn’t one of those times. This is just an absence of quote marks that doesn’t seem to affect the sense of the sentence; something that only someone who had read the style guide would even know was wrong.

Admittedly, the Guardian’s guide is publicly available online for those who take an interest, but it’s not as though the reader’s editor feels compelled to apologise for every lapse in consistency. For example, Guardian style calls for “focused” with one “s”; it sometimes appears with two, but there’s never been a correction about it.

But the rest of the column makes it clear why these quotes matter. The Guardian has been a supporter of the Living Wage campaign, which urges employers to offer an hourly pay figure somewhat higher the statutory minimum wage. In the 2015 budget, George Osborne introduced what he called a “national living wage”, borrowing the campaign’s phrase but not fully winning its approval: his proposal does not include a higher rate for London, is not set according to a cost-of-living index, and came alongside a series of benefit adjustments for the lower-paid that were nowhere contemplated in the campaign’s calculations.

It is therefore the campaign’s, and the Guardian’s, position that the “national living wage” is not actually a living wage, but a rebranding and increasing of the minimum wage. So the style guide uses quotes to indicate that the phrase is not the paper’s but the government’s: it acknowledges the official title while maintaining its distance from it.

That means the correction is acknowledging not just a failure in neatness or consistency, but something bigger: a lack of critical thinking, a lapse in the acuity one would expect from the paper in its political reporting. A piece of parliamentary rhetoric has found its way into the paper unchallenged. It’s an apology, in effect, for seeming to be credulous.

Of course the British media’s openly displayed party preferences play a large part in the setting of style like this: the Telegraph, at the other end of the political spectrum from the Guardian, sees no reason to use quotes around the term in news coverage. It’s hardly unusual to see Fleet Street pick a fight over a phrase.

But it does show what consistent style can achieve, in addition to keeping a lid on misspellings. Style guides don’t just contain rules, they contain thinking: tiny position papers that encapsulate the reason for a choice 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 than opened up for debate every time. So then, when you follow the style guide, the paper’s worldview comes with it: the mosaic of rulings not only keeps the writing tidy, but infuses the text with the spirit of the paper. With a good style guide, you don’t need to read the leader page to know roughly where a newspaper stands: its choice of words on any page will tell you.

The new normalcy

2 Feb

We’ve got a newsroom in New York run by an Australian, a newsroom in Sydney run by a Briton and an editor-in-chief who’s been in charge of all three offices (UK, US, Australia). But the Tribune’s style guide is still edited from London and views the world from an essentially British-English point of view.

Or at least it did: but maybe that’s starting to change. The last hardback edition of the Tribune’s style guide (still available in some good bookshops) was published in 2010. But the online version, which is what we use in the office, has been continually updated over the last five-plus years. And as the paper has spread around the world over the past four years, you can clearly see that it is beginning to pull the style guide out towards it.

For example, in 2010 the hardback edition simply said:

aeroplane not airplane

Now, in 2016, the website says:

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Six years ago, all that was necessary in this entry was to clarify a distinction over capitalisation:

Aborigines, Aboriginal uppercase (uc) when referring to native Australians

aborigines, aboriginal lowercase (lc) when referring to indigenous populations

Now, after two years of producing news in Sydney, it says this:

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And so it goes on. Then:

A&E accident and emergency

Now:

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Then:

telephone numbers should be hyphenated after three or four-figure area codes, but not  five-figure area codes: 020-3353 2000, 0161-832 7200; 01892 456789, 01227 123456; treat mobile phone numbers as having five-figure area codes: 07911 654321

Now:

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And several entirely new entries have appeared in the online version to cover British usages that we never previously suspected were unfamiliar:

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The Tribune’s international expansion programme is happening very much by design rather than by accident. And, as we have previously discussed, it was never likely, or even desirable, that projects deliberately intended to function as native news organisations in different countries could stick rigidly to British style abroad. The paper’s faint institutional distaste for Americanisms, and its genuine unfamiliarity with Australian idiom, were quickly driven out once actual Americans and Australians began using the same document. A style guide changes with time, but it also changes with geography, it seems; not by moving with history, but simply by moving abroad.

And, when it does, what you end up with is something that’s bigger and more nuanced than it was before, fuller than ever of distinctions and exceptions and special cases. That doesn’t mean chaos, or that there are suddenly three right answers to every question: but it does need an especially sensitive ear for audience, writer and tone to make the right choice. And who better than a sub-editor for a task like that?

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.