Keeping our house style in order
The Guardian style guide turns 75 next month, but it remains as alert as ever
By David Marsh / The Guardian
Yorkshire pudding or yorkshire pudding? Bombay or Mumbai? Alastair or Alistair Campbell? Alistair or Alastair Darling? How many Zs in Condoleezza? What do we call “air hostesses” these days? And which of the Teletubbies is purple?
Welcome to the world of the style guide editor.
The Guardian style guide, which contains the answers to these and 1,750 similar dilemmas, is about to celebrate its 75th birthday. The first “Style-book of the Manchester Guardian”, as it then was, appeared in November 1928 under the auspices of the great CP Scott, then well into his sixth decade as the paper’s editor.
In addition to such vital information as what to call domestic servants – cook general (two words), housemaid (one word), kitchen-maid (hyphenated) – it reminded staff to capitalise CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER, warned gravely that Sinn Féin were “Extreme Republicans”, and advised: “When a compositor cannot decipher a word, it is better to put in a blank than a word that is obviously wrong.”
That first style guide lasted until 1960, when a new edition marked the dawn of that swinging decade with the daring decision to drop the kitchenmaid’s hyphen. The third edition, in 1969, was notable for this plea from the paper’s editor: “In news stories, would writers and subeditors please put the point at the beginning?”
The kitchenmaid survived that revision, but not the next, a decade later (by which time Yorkshire pudding had become yorkshire pudding); however, such Guardian eccentricities as the spelling of jail as “gaol” were not abandoned until the late 1980s and the fifth edition, a chaotic volume in which concern for mere words was all but lost amid acres of instruction in how to use the industry’s then novel computer technology.
Such technology eventually made it possible to replace the traditional style manual with an electronic version. In March 2000, the Guardian became the first UK newspaper to put its style guide on the world wide web. Some of our rivals have followed; others are likely to. Style books are out of date before they reach the printer, whereas an online guide makes it possible to update entries quickly, responding to world events and breaking news stories. It also enables us to engage in a dialogue with readers, who care passionately about the language we use. We receive emails from all over the world, from the effusive – “The Guardian style guide is one of the best and linguistically most progressive I have seen across several languages. I can tell you it is widely used by members of English departments in many universities in Europe” – to the abusive: “The people of Madagascar do not call themselves Madagascans. Believe me. You are idiots.”
As the Guardian reaches an ever-widening international audience, particularly through the website, interest in our treatment of foreign languages and placenames has grown.
“I know this won’t matter to you, but I have decided to stop buying the Guardian on a daily basis after 25 years because of the newspaper’s failure to live up to its promise to correct manifest errors,” said one reader complaining about the Guardian’s failure to place accents on Spanish words.
Another pointed out the effect of that failure: “You wrote a short note on the meaning of the Spanish film title Y tu Mamá También. I hope you can read the accents I have put on the words ‘mamá’ and ‘también’. If you don’t place them there, you will be saying, instead of ‘and your mother too’, something like ‘and you suck it too’.”
Those readers will be pleased to know that the Spanish tilde (as in mañana) and aguda (as in Gabriel García Márquez), dropped some years ago, were reintroduced this month, along with the Irish Gaelic fada (as in Fianna Fáil). Diacritical marks and accents are notoriously hard to get right but there is no excuse for a progressive newspaper with an international outlook not to try.
This brings me to the most important point. A style guide should be much more than a list of grammatical rules, enforced by what Steven Pinker calls “language mavens”. Rules change, and many (for example, those forbidding so-called split infinitives or constructions such as “hopefully it will be fine tomorrow”) are baseless.
We follow a style guide to be consistent, coherent, and to make fewer mistakes, but above all because the style of a newspaper should complement what it stands for – in the way we write about such issues as gender, race, and disability, and the respect with which we treat those we write about. Language evolves, but the Guardian remains true to its values. CP Scott would expect nothing less.
David Marsh is assistant editor (production) of the Guardian. Ian Mayes is away