It’s only words, and words are all I have…

As somebody who’s contributed to and co-authored assorted style guides [1] over the years, Rod Liddle’s little diatribe against the list of banned words in the Guardian and David Marsh’s response on Cif has been rather entertaining.

They both have respective points that are, for want of a better turn of phrase, correct (and I may be one of the few people who finds Rod Liddle quite amusing), but Liddle’s case isn’t served by a few little misreadings of the Guardian’s style guide and, in his apoplexy, misses a few points on good writing.

Back in my training days, one of the best tutors I had drummed into us the importance of saving as much space as possible by eliminating meaningless phrases, hence my dislike of the word prestigious.

Keeping things, pithy, punchy, simple and exciting is the mark of a good piece of reporting [2]. As my old tutor used to say, if you’re needing to use extra adjectives then chances are you’re not confident in the story itself. And these unnecessary words can be deleted to save space for words that will help to tell said story.

Harold Evans also has a nice little example in his book Essential English For Journalists, that of the fishmonger who puts the sign FRESH FISH SOLD HERE outside his shop. A friend points out to the fishmonger that the words SOLD HERE are unnecessary, so the fishmonger rubs the words out. The friend then points out the word FRESH is also unnecessary as customers wouldn’t expect the fish not to be fresh, so that too goes. Finally, the friend notes that the word FISH is also unnecessary as you’d expect it to be sold in a fishmongers.

So, from fish to “active homosexual”, which is one of the phrase that has aroused Rod’s ire: a point that fits neatly into this. The trick is, when adding a qualifying adjective like ‘active’, is to ask yourself “as opposed to what?” In this case, an inactive homosexual, and how many of these do we read about? Does it also suggest that our active homosexual stops being gay when not active?

“Illegal asylum seeker” is another phrase, so beloved of tabloids, that’s aroused Rod’s ire. But, technically, there’s no such thing. If they’re here illegally, they’re an illegal immigrant. If their application for asylum is accepted they become a refugee. And before this, they’re simply an asylum seeker. Some may be bogus, some may be illegal, but until ruled either way there’s no way of knowing. Illegal asylum seekers don’t exist; illegal immigrants do.

Most of what can be found is style guides is not designed to provoke or promote certain values, but simply to ensure accuracy in copy, and to eliminate ambiguity. I’d argue that if, as a reporter, somebody has to read your copy more than once to understand it, it’s probably lacking in clarity. This is where the style guides come in, God bless them.

The ‘sensitivity’ areas – language around race, gender, sexuality, swearing, etc – is one of the hardest areas to get right. I spent hours arguing back and forth and changing, and rechanging, aspects around this on the most recent style guide I worked on.

It’s largely about finding a balance and recognising your audience. For example: swearing. Neither my co-author nor I have a problem with swearing. Frankly, there’s nothing like a well-placed fuck to enliven proceedings [3]. But we recognised that our audience probably would, hence the decision to add f***ing asteriks.

Regardless on my own views on the use of certain phrases – some of which I wouldn’t use, and some of which I don’t see a problem with – style guides aren’t written for the person, they’re written for the readers of the publication as much as anything else. It’s a balance to be struck, and I don’t envy the person who has similar conversations while authoring style guides.

Somewhere, somebody – be it those decrying the non-existent PC brigade, or supposed members of such a brigade itself (whose memberships overlap more than you’d think) – will find something to disagree with in it.

But, at the end of the day, I’ve never claimed any style guide I’ve worked on is infallible, and nor should it be the be all and end all – more a guide to coherency and fluency across whatever you’re working on rather than a list of shoulds and shouldn’ts. The English Language is far too wonderful and flexible a beast to be caged.

[1] Yes, unbelievable so, given all the errors that probably pop up on here. It’s because I normally post and go and don’t always have time (on this blog) to go back piece by piece, although I try to if I have time. It just shows the value of sub-editors 🙂

[2] Not necessarily the same as good writing. I’m a big fan of both Stephen Fry and Will Self, both excessively verbose.

[3] Although, as Michael Bywater once said, swearing should be measured out like an expert chef measures out salt.


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October 2008

Throw letters together and send them to me

Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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