Rantings of a sub-editor

January 20, 2011

The Great Style Debate

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

November 18, 2010

The Civil Service Style Guide

Filed under: Civil Service Style Guide,style guides — substuff @ 5:05 pm
Tags: ,

From my source deep within Whitehall (oh okay, so it’s also on the internet), I am delighted to bring you The Civil Service Style Guide. Here are a few highlights…

A few thoughts …
Thank you for showing me this piece of work. It is utter rubbish for the following reasons.

As appropriate (as in “please deal with this as you consider appropriate”)
You may bin this, but don’t blame me if you are found out.

Blind Copy
None of the official recipients know that you have a copy of this sensitive note, therefore you cannot possibly contribute. But see “For Information“ – you’ll be blamed when it all goes wrong.

CC-ing (as in “can you cc me into that”)
Copy lists can be used in a number of subtle ways. Senior staff can ask to be added to a cc list to ensures that a junior person does not receive full credit for an idea, as it will then look like their idea. Or junior staff can add senior colleagues as a way of ensuring that they are blamed for a very stupid idea.

To cc
To prevent free thought and original ideas from junior members of staff.

Plain English (my personal favourite)
Words of one syllable, with subtitles for the hard of hearing. Civil servants do not use Plain English. It is for civilians and half-wits.

If you want more, it’s here.

That’s not all, though! There’s also an advanced writing guide. Here’s one lesson from it… hope it makes you giggle as much as it did me.

Lesson 8 – The text

Let’s start with three basic Civil Service rules

Rule 1: The more words the better

Rule 2: Writing it down is as good as making it happen, if not better

Rule 3: Anything remotely connected to the subject matter has to be mentioned to show how “joined up” (coagulated) we are.

Doing a first draft is fairly easy. From that stage it’s a long process of seeking comments and contributions. Contributors fall into various categories.

(a) The stars

Before the moans, some recognition of the stars who tirelessly read successive drafts and provide crisp, relevant drafting suggestions. Then they patiently repeat them when the author has inadvertently deleted them. Again and again. These are the unsung heroes of Government documents.

(b) The sentence extenders

“You could take my point on board by adding the following (97 words) to sentence x”. Or “If you are mentioning x and y you really need to mention z too”.

If Harry Potter were written in this style it would go something like this:

Harry, along with other key stakeholders such as English Partnerships, the RDAs and Gandalf, and in the light of a wide-ranging consultation exercise, thought that, subject to appropriate consideration of the options, he would head, in an integrated and holistic way, respecting the four key principles of public service reform, for the cottage built on greenfield land situated close to major transport infrastructure interchanges by the end of April 2004.

(c) The highlighters

These people normally come from other government departments and wear fluorescent yellow coats. They put their Ministers up to writing letters saying that the document should “highlight” x, y and z, promising that officials can follow up with textual suggestions. These officials normally fall into category (b) above.

(d) The More-ons

These people phone up asking that the document say “more-on” this and “more-on” that. The purpose of saying more is rarely clear (except as an application of the general rule that more words equals better). So “more-on” crime could read: “The government is determined to stamp out crime, which is a very bad thing (“more, more!) and we’re joining up with lots of people to stamp out crime (more, more!) and we’re working, yes,

across government

! (more, more!) oh and with lots of stakeholders too (more, more!) including the police (can’t you mention any more?) OK, and Darth Vader, Superman and the Social Exclusion Unit…

(e) Clear and strong people

“We think the document should make a clear and strong statement on x/y/z”.

(f) The positively incomprehensible

“We welcome the cross-references in Chapter 1 to existing documents including A Better Quality of Life (the UK’s sustainable development strategy). However, we still need to ensure that action is clearly targeted so as to support the UK’s national and regional sustainable development targets. These targets, and the definition of sustainable communities, should cascade into the regional daughter documents.”

(g) The hyped-up ideas-mongers

These are the people who, in wondering how to improve the quality of construction, come up with a string of original ideas, e.g. a better building task force leading to a better building plan, led by a better building unit reporting to Departmental better building champions who will ensure that all policies are better building-proofed, and that there should be a better building kite-mark.

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