Monday, 21 July 2014

Wherefore art thou, style?

For some time I have wanted a style guide that matches my own preferences. A single book to rule them all, and to replace my own rapidly-growing style document. Every time I pick a style guide up and flick through it I'll find an entry recommending something that looks inelegant or counter-intuitive or inconsistent. The point of a style guide is to standardise things; by standardizing a style, you promote a standard for language.

After flicking through Guardian Style I thought my search was over. At first glance it seemed sensible and comprehensive. And it is the guide for a Manchester newspaper, which earns bonus marks. So I bought it. Today I finished reading it from cover to cover, as is my wont. Sadly, although often interesting, it turns out that my search must continue for a style guide that I can accept.

What made me unhappy with Guardian Style?

Firstly it was the lack of internal consistency, meaning that they end up needing 50 entries when a single rule applied throughout would have been much more … stylish. And required only one entry, saving a lot of time. Here are some examples of this inconsistency:

  • Acronyms and capitalisation. They use lower case for search engine optimisation, but SEO for the acronym. So you would think that a term which is capitalised would also have capitals for the acronym, but that isn't the case: the Guardian uses Soca (not SOCA) as the acronym for the Serious Organised Crime Agency. Some acronyms are not capitalised at all e.g. sim for subscriber identity module. See also their entries for Wap, Unesco, UNHCR. Sometimes capitalised terms get lower case acronyms, and vice versa. There is no rule as to whether acronyms are fully caps, no caps, or initial caps. 
  • No consistency in what types of nouns are capitalised. The guide capitalises seas, oceans, universities and museums; but not rivers, currencies, national parks or hotels. Stock Exchange is capitalised if it is in London, but not for those in other cities/countries.
  • Adjectives derived from places: it seems to be random what the style guide recommends. Parma ham, Worcestershire sauce: but scottish terrier, welsh dresser, yorkshire pudding.
  • Accents: résumé but cafe, soiree.
  • Proper nouns sometimes get capitals, sometimes not e.g. world wide web and web 2.0 (should be caps, since the World Wide Web is a proper noun). 
The trend to have more and more exceptions to basic rules does not simplify things: instead it means that there are more exceptions to learn, and it just gets more complicated. (Which, I suppose, then justifies the need to buy a style guide...)

For me the question WHY? seemed to leap from the page in neon. I wanted more explanation as to why they chose one option over another. There may be a good reason for some of the cases, but the person buying this book is generally not party to it. And therefore the case for the book as something educative is weakened.

There are omissions too. Many common causes of confusion are not addressed at all, such as differences between US and UK English usage. For example, the completely different definitions of a million; also the different meanings attached to "first floor" in each country.

A repeated ruling of the style guide which I found to be irritatingly fussy was to ignore how description works. For example, saying someone is a homosexual (noun) is the same as saying someone is homosexual (adjective). Homosexual is one of many words that can function in both roles. But Guardian Style repeatedly states that they are not the same, and you must never use the first option when talking about people's preferences or abilities, because the Guardian feels it somehow implies a person is ONLY that thing, and therefore demeans them. This is silly. Saying Byron was a poet, or that I am a librarian, or that Simon is a blue-eyed man, is in no way implying that the noun is the only thing they are. It is just one feature or relevance to whatever is being discussed. To claim otherwise seems to be based on a misunderstanding about what it means to state a fact about a thing: it is certainly not a claim that it is the only fact. The guide comes across as prissy and overcomplicated in cases like this.

Lastly, the guide's editors seem to have an aversion to full stops. The last sentence in every entry is missing this important piece of punctuation. This leads to unintended comedy on page 336 when the writer Ariane Sherine is quoted as saying: "I long to live in a world where omitting full stops from the ends of sentences is deemed a social faux pas akin to walking around with your penis hanging out of your trousers." Except, on the page, the final full stop is omitted as per the style of this style guide.


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