Estilo y Narración II

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Neither pedantic nor wild?

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By Michael McNay / The Guardian.

The Guardian has always been a newspaper for writers, and so a newspaper for readers. All the other skills, copy editing, design, typography, illustration, photography, are there to enhance the writing and to make it more accessible, to make the paper a more desirable journal to read – though illustration and photography each has its separate justification as well.

It should not be necessary to add that Guardian writers and subeditors should all be interested in the language, in its proper use and its development, and that regular trips to books as wide-ranging as Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words, Partridge’s Usage and Abusage, Orwell’s brilliant short essay Politics and the English Language, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, or Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English, are useful in sharpening professional tools as well as for entertainment.

One says it should not be necessary, but it is very obvious all round the Guardian office that uncomfortably many people involved in producing and shaping text for the paper rely more on the casual question, “What’s the style for x?” and the casual answer, “I think it’s probably y.” Journalists who are not sufficiently interested in house style to check the house style guide are not on the face of it very likely to be much interested in style at all.

But our approach to style in its broadest sense is, if anything, more important now than before, first because other newspapers, which may always have had good writing in specialist areas, have caught up fast across a whole range of news and features; second because the Guardian itself employs so many staff on freelance shifts or short contracts who arrive here with no particular idea of what makes this paper different from others, and even staff journalists who are never inducted into what values the Guardian holds particularly close; third, though more obscurely, because of the arrival of the internet: this style guide itself is the first to be published on the world wide web. That makes it accessible in seconds; it cannot get lost or suffer having coffee spilt on it. But though there is no reason in itself why new publishing methods should change the language for the worse, the example of radio and television shows that it can: at the top end, the best correspondents file spoken reports that could grace this newspaper; at the broad base, reporters speak a form of unlovely but infectious journalese destined only for the rubbish bin.

House style is the means by which a newspaper seeks to ensure that where there are permissible variants in spellings, the use of acronyms and so forth, a unified approach to these matters is adopted to help in disseminating a sense of rationality and authority in the use of language. What it does not mean is imposing a unified writing style on the newspaper. Many of the reporters, columnists, critics and at least one former editor who once ran a highly idiosyncratic gossip column and who have enlivened the pages of the Guardian and helped to build its international reputation could hardly have done so had they been edited from the beginning into a homogenous house style. A subeditor can do no worse disservice to the text before him and thus to the writer, the reader, and the newspaper, than to impose his or her own preferences for words, for the shape of sentences and how they link, for a pedantic insistence on grammar in all cases as it used to be taught in school; in the process destroying nuances and possibly even the flow of a piece. And I write this as a career copy and layout editor with the best part of 40 years’ service on the Guardian and who regards the skills involved in copy editing not just as desirable but essential.

Editing involves fine judgment, particularly as the paper has so many sections today serving possibly quite different kinds of readership. But fine judgments mean good editing, blanket judgments mean bad editing. A piece written in the vernacular that would be inappropriate on the analysis page or even (even?) in a sports column might pass muster in the Guide, where the demotic language of an NME review would be closer to the mark than the high style of Macaulay or CP Scott. And dealing sympathetically with quirks of writing style certainly does not preclude tidying up cliche-ridden journalese, verbosity, the latest vogue words and phrases, the words and phrases that flatten out meaning, replace a range of better more finely tuned words and concepts, and anaesthetise writing.

The introduction to the Guardian stylebook of 1960, which itself was a revision to the initial guide published in 1928, was headed “Neither pedantic nor wild”.

That much has not changed.

· Michael McNay worked for the Guardian from 1963 to 1999. He edited The Guardian Year 2000

Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 9:19 pm

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Keeping our house style in order

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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

Written by Marisol García

August 4, 2009 at 9:18 pm

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