Rantings of a sub-editor

January 20, 2011

The Great Style Debate

Filed under: David Marsh,Simon Heffer — substuff @ 4:41 pm
Tags: , ,

Simon Heffer, the associate editor at The Telegraph: “We’re singing from the same hymn sheet.”
David Marsh, the style guide editor at the Guardian: “Well, we wouldn’t use a cliché like that, but yes.”

That pretty much sums up the tone of The Great Style Debate last night. Those in the audience hoping for a punch-up will have been sadly disappointed; it was a most civilised affair. Mr Heffer and Mr Marsh certainly have their differences, but they have much more in common – namely a love of language and an affinity with their readers.

What’s the point?

Those of us who work with style guides every day hear a lot of negativity about house style, which is often branded restrictive, pointless and annoying. So it was nothing short of uplifting to see the enthusiasm and sense of purpose with which the two men approach their respective house styles.

Both emphasise that their style guides are not designed to limit creativity, but to reflect the values of their readers. Thus The Telegraph’s style guide (allegedly) contains no fewer than four entries on how to refer to the Queen. It also specifies that the place we all go to should be called the lavatory, and never the toilet (“toilet: use only to describe the personal cleansing regime”).

Mr Marsh gives the example of schizophrenic. “In the past it was used to describe someone who couldn’t make their mind up. Considering our readership, you can imagine that they’re going to find that quite offensive.”

The Guardian style guide now reads: “schizophrenic, schizophrenia: use only in a medical context, never to mean ‘in two minds’, contradictory, or erratic, which is wrong, as well as offensive to people diagnosed with this illness; schizophrenic should never be used as a noun.”

Forbidden words

Both men stressed that their style guides, unlike those of “The Financial Times and a paper in the region of Wapping” (ooh, bitchy), weren’t designed to “make every writer sound the same”. However, that doesn’t mean any word goes – especially at The Telegraph.

Four of Mr Heffer’s pet hates:

autopsy “American for postmortem.”

bubbly “A preposterous adjective, so frequently used to describe some unfortunate blonde killed in a car crash. And if she’s from an ethnic minority, it’s ‘vibrant’.”

extraordinary “If it was ordinary, it wouldn’t be in the paper.”

adjectives “I don’t like adjectives. It took me a long time to realise that instead of describing George Osborne as an ‘idiotic chancellor’, I could simply use a noun: ‘dolt’.”

Mr Marsh is more reluctant to ban words, though he strongly discourages the use of some.

“Reporters tend to use ‘controversial’ when they disapprove of something, which is fine in a column, but not in news,” he says. “And anyway, we wouldn’t write about it if it wasn’t controversial. However, we don’t ban the word, we just say think carefully about how you use it.”

Accordingly, the style guide reads: “[controversial] can normally be safely removed from copy to allow readers to make up their own minds.”

Swear words

If it’s banned words you’re after, head to The Telegraph’s entry on swearing – sorry, obscenity.

obscenity: always seek guidance in reporting foul language. It may be necessary to use dashes (not asterisks) to indicate the deletion of obscenity from direct quotes. Gratuitous use of obscenities is forbidden. The presumption must always be that profanities are forbidden.

“Our readers just don’t like it,” says Mr Heffer. And he’s probably right.

Hmm, so what does that say about Guardian readers? There were 700 fucks in the Guardian last year, and a further 300 in the Observer, according to Mr Marsh.

“It seems rather strange, in this day and age, to insert dashes or asterisks,” he says. “You say it’s to protect the children, but it’s just a challenge for them. They sit there and try to work it out like a crossword.”

In the style guide, the editor’s guidelines read as follows:

First, remember the reader, and respect demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend.

Second, use such words only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes.

Third, the stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it.

Finally, never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out.

And a little ego

You have to have a bit of ego. Of course you do. Damn, I have ego when it comes to these things, and I’m just a bog-standard sub. If I had compiled a style guide for a major newspaper, I’m sure I’d be unbearable. So perhaps we ought to let them bask in the glory of a room full of admiring subs.

According to Mr Marsh, there is no such thing as plagiarism when it comes to style guides. “We’re always pleased if people decide to adopt our style,” he says, and boasts that his explanation of that and which is now used around the world.

So here it is, for your delectation – steady now:

“that” defines, “which” gives extra information (often in a clause enclosed by commas):

this is the house that Jack built; but this house, which John built, is falling down.

Note that the sentence remains grammatical without “that” (this is the house Jack built), but not without “which”

And in response to a question from the audience about how style is decided for new words, he was equally jubilant. “I claim to be one of the first people to write email without a hyphen. In 1999, my attitude was that no-one would be hyphenating it in a few years, or capitalising Internet or writing Web site. It’s about anticipating usage and the morphology of words.”

No such luck on thinktank, however. To date, he admits, the Guardian is the only publication to write it as one word.

Mr Heffer’s ego-massage takes a different form – perfectionism. He seems to believe that a sub (or associate editor) shouldn’t need subbing. I’m not convinced that I agree. I sub when I sub and I write when I write. I don’t hold my writing to quite the same high standards as I do my subbing, and I’ll freely admit that when it comes to my own copy, another sub will probably do a much better job of editing it than I will if I do it myself.

“I’m terrified of making a mistake in my columns,” he says. “When I’ve finished writing, I read it through and remove all the extraneous words, which is something all journalists should do. Then I go and run my head under cold water, come back and read it again. People are always looking for mistakes, so I can’t afford to make any.”

I object to this, on two counts. One, surely a sub shouldn’t inflict on others that which he or she is unwilling to undergo. If you are a changer of copy by trade, you should be willing (and trusting enough) to have your copy changed. And two, I find my writing is often improved by being subbed by another. But then I work mostly on magazines, where subbing tends to be more – shall we say – intrusive than on newspapers. (And I’m not Simon Heffer.)

“Luckily, the people who sub my columns are very good sub-editors,” he adds. (And I do wonder whether the subtitles should read: “Luckily, the people who sub my columns know not to touch my copy.”)

Other highlights

begs the question (DM: “it’s so heartwarming when it’s occasionally used correctly”)

railway stations vs train stations (DM: “no-one under 40 says the former”)

prevaricate vs procrastinate (SH: “that’s just a case of people forgetting what words mean”)

stadia (SH “I took the decision to abolish Latinate plurals such as stadia following an exchange in which I was asked what the plural of clitoris was. It’s clitorides.”)

My favourite moment, however, was when Mr Marsh, apparently quite innocently, got one over on the audience. In a find-the-errors quiz that was handed out at the start, there lurked a “just desserts”. When he pointed out that it should, in fact, be “just deserts”, there was uproar, outcry and an angry shaking of papers. “But that would say ‘deserts’,” cried a man in my row, full of righteous fury.

I looked on smugly (undeservedly, considering that it really wasn’t that long since I found out). Yes folks, it is so.  “Desert” is a noun (now obsolete) meaning “that which is deserved”. Think about it – when was the last time you were rewarded for a bad deed with a nice pudding?

Ps. How terrified am I that I’ve made some awful boob in this post? Let’s just say I’m off to the lavatory.



  1. Your last sentence makes me feel that I’m falling into an extremely subtle trap here, but:
    “I’m not so sure about this, one two counts.”
    Sorry :/

    Comment by Stefans — January 20, 2011 @ 7:16 pm | Reply

    • No, it works: one two does count. Those are definitely the numbers I start with when I’m counting.

      (Ahem) More generally, thanks for this post! I was vaguely thinking of going to this but had an attack of acute laziness and so it’s nice to see a bit of a write-up. I’m especially tickled by Heffer’s take on ‘extraordinary’, which our director recently got a branding agency to decree to be our work’s core proposition. And so we have to keep using the bloody word all over the place. Ugh.

      Comment by Tom Freeman — January 20, 2011 @ 10:43 pm | Reply

      • @Tom Hohoho, that sounds painful! If it’s any consolation, Which?, too, is beautifully in touch with its brand values and associated words. I shall share with you just one: “today, not tomorrow”.

        Comment by substuff — January 21, 2011 @ 9:42 am | Reply

    • @Stefans Thanks little bro – no trap. I read the post back on my phone after leaving the office and spotted that typo, but, agonisingly, couldn’t do anything about it until I got to a computer. By which time, you had swooped!

      Comment by substuff — January 21, 2011 @ 9:40 am | Reply

  2. Haha, very eagle-eyed of you! My blog = my house style. You got a problem with that, buster? Personally I think “swear word” works better as two words, but where I’ve quoted the Guardian, I’ve used their style. Thinking about it, I probably should have stuck to just one style for the sake of harmony.

    Comment by substuff — January 21, 2011 @ 9:38 am | Reply

  3. “Thus The Telegraph’s style guide (allegedly) contains no less than four entries on how to refer to the Queen.”

    No fewer, surely?

    Also, our Style Guide’s all up on line, if you want to peruse it: telegraph.co.uk/stylebook

    I haven’t counted the references to the Queen, I’m afraid.

    Comment by Tom Chviers — January 25, 2011 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

    • You are quite right – few and less are ever my downfall. I shall edit accordingly – quite surprised I’ve got away with that one for this long, to be honest.

      (Trying really, really hard not to point out that you’ve [mphh, Cathy don’t!] misspelled [chortle chortle] your own name [ahhh, that’s better].)

      Comment by substuff — January 25, 2011 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

      • I have just consulted your style book, and I am impressed by the fact that there are actually more references to the late Queen Elizabeth, whom it is emphatically not Telegraph style to style “the Queen Mother” any more, than there are to the Monarch herself.

        In fact, the book devotes three paragraphs, a whole half-a-stick, to the question of how to refer to the woman, now dead, whose daughter Queen Elizabeth II (sorry, “the Queen” according to style, but you can see why I put it like that) is.

        Comment by yorksranter — January 31, 2011 @ 11:10 am | Reply

  4. […] from a new blog we discovered this week ‘Ranting Subs‘ – the post is about a discussion / debate between Simon Heffer, the associate editor at The Telegraph and David Marsh, th… – it’s an interesting […]

    Pingback by The reading list: 30.01.2011 | Wannabe Hacks — January 30, 2011 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

    • Not really a new blog, I feel like I’ve been writing it forever (well over a year, anyway). But thanks to the Wannabe Hacks, much appreciated.

      Comment by substuff — January 31, 2011 @ 10:13 pm | Reply

  5. “as well as offensive to people diagnosed with this illness” … surely people aren’t diagnosed… ilnesses are.

    Comment by kaspergorre — January 31, 2011 @ 11:29 am | Reply

    • Good point. The Times style guide supports you (there’s no entry in the Guardian’s):
      take great care: illnesses are diagnosed, patients are not. Thus, do not write, eg, “He was diagnosed with cancer”; rather, “He had cancer diagnosed” etc

      But why complain here? This one’s not one of mine, for a change – take it to the Guardian!

      Comment by substuff — January 31, 2011 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

  6. The style guide produced for The Journal – Newcastle’s morning regional paper – in January 1946 is called Editorial Guidance and it includes the following gems:
    Don’t use Abortion – use Illegal operation.
    Don’t use Adultery – use Misconduct.
    Don’t use His Majesty – use The King.
    Don’t use Attire – use Clothes.
    Don’t use Chinamen – use Chinese.
    Don’t use Scotchmen – use Scotsmen.
    The list of banned words and phrases includes:
    Met with fatal accident/passed away/laid to rest/quite dead/grim tragedy and – my personal favourite: conflagration.

    Comment by Pat Hagan — February 2, 2011 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: