WARNING: This blogpost is about newspaper style on words, grammar and suchlike, and might not appeal to non-journalists. Geeks, nerds, pedants, fusspots, faultfinders and nitpickers et al please come this way!
I’ve been a journalist since 1973 and a paid-up member of the National Union of Journalists since 25th October 1974; 40 years an NUJ member this month!
During the past 41 years, I’ve moved from newspaper to newspaper.
I started as a junior reporter on The Whitstable Times and found my way onto other titles including The Faversham Times, East Kent Gazette, Kentish Gazette, Chatham News, Chatham Standard, The Daily Telegraph in London, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Express and The Internationa Herald Tribune in Paris. I’ve also “casualled” on various newspapers including the Guardian in London and The National in Abu Dhabi. I’ve no doubt left out some titles as memory fades as one ages.
And all these newspapers have their own peculiar style in matters of spelling, grammar etc. And this blogpost is a quick look at some style guides that I have had to adhere to and memorise.
Over the years, I progressed (or regressed, I thought at the time) from being a reporter to ending up a sub-editor; copy editor in American English. And subs worship their style bibles.
I own various style guide books including Keith Waterhouse: Waterhouse on Newspaper Style; The Yorkshire Post Style Book; The Daily Telegraph Editorial Style Guide; The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage; The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual; and AFP’s English Service Manual.
For my birthday in July my younger brother, among other gifts, presented me with The Yorkshire Post Style Book. Why this book? Because our father was editor of The Yorkshire Post from 1960 to 1964. This was his personal copy (see photo right with Editor handwritten on it) and my brother has stored a lot of my father’s books and papers since his death.
My copy (or rather my father’s) of the YP style book is beginning to fall apart as age diminishes it physically but not intellectually.
The Contents features headings such as Barred Expressions, Headings, House Rules, Titles etc.
There is a general introduction that reads:
“This style book has been prepared for the use of all members of the editorial and case-room staffs of The Yorkshire Post . . . From time to time, additions or corrections will be sent out and should be pasted into the book at the appropriate place.
[There are a lot of past-ins throughout the book. - ed]
“The object of this style book is to maintain the standards of good, succinct English, to regularise all methods and spellings, and thus to save time and energy . . . All those writing or sub-editing for The Yorkshire Post should always bear in mind that a story must start with the best point in it. The first paragraph should contain something which makes the reader wish to read on.
[shouldn’t that be something THAT makes the reader wish to read on? – ed.]
“Each paragraph of a story should contain two brief sentences, and no paragraph should be longer in print than eight lines or shorter than four.
“No one should permit in copy a word or phrase he does not himself understand. Short words are better than long words. If it is possible to cut a word out, it should be cut out.”
The final paragraph of the Introduction states:
“It should also be remembered that this is an English paper and one with a very long history. Americanisms, foreign expressions and slang are barred.”
Here are some YP barred expressions (style in parentheses):
Amongst (among); And – is barred as initial word of sentence; Ban (for banished when anyone is ordered to leave country); Bid (except in auction sense); Climax (as verb); Commence (start, begin); Contacted (got in touch with); [Four words instead of one? If I’d been editor I’d have insisted on contacted] Different to (different from); Hectic (busy); Millionaire; O.K.; [Apparently okay or OK are not okay] Probe (inquire, inquiry); Succeeded in doing (did); warns (as an intransitive verb); whilst (while).
Etc etc. (Incidentally “etc” is banned in the YP style guide; “and so on” is to be used).
Under the heading House Rules and Spellings there is a section on when to use A or AN before a word starting with H. Apparently, YP journalists should write “a history” but “an historical”, which doesn’t make sense to me.
Let’s hear what the lexicographical genius Henry Fowler had to say on this matter: “An was formerly used before an unaccented syllable beginning with h and is still often seen and heard (an historian, an hotel, an hysterical scene, an hereditary title, an habitual offender). But now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become anomalous and will no doubt disappear in time.”
Ah, what fun I’ve had browsing through the YP style book. A lot of it echoes the style guide of The Daily Telegraph, where I spent 13 years as a sub-editor.
I joined the Telegraph in Fleet Street in 1979 and well remember a certain revise sub shouting across the room at all and sundry, “Hongkong one word, Cape Town two!” and “You’ve split an infinitive laddie!” One had to boldy go into that subs room!
The Telegraph also barred the phrase “to run amok” unless it was a Malay doing the amucking about. The last paragraph in the introduction of the Daily Telegraph style guide states:
“Finally, this style book is dedicated to the New Zealander, memorable in Telegraph lore, who was overcome by the heat in Kuala Lumpur. By attacking passers-by, when current house style insisted that only Malays run amok, he proved the need to use common sense when enforcing rules.” Hear, hear.
I believe language is a living entity, growing and changing and adapting all the time. I get bored with the people who bang on about split infinitives and the difference between disinterested and uninterested, who and whom, infer and imply etc. Pedants would argue that correct grammatical usage is essential for clarity. Well, yes and no. When supermarkets put up signs saying “5 items or less” we know exactly what is intended, and don’t need to mutter under our breath “fewer, arsehole.”
But newspapers do need a style that is consistent and that makes it easier for the reader. Take Muammar Gaddafi (Telegraph style spelling). But his name can be spelt over 100 different ways including Qaddafi, Kadafi, Gadafy, El Khadafi, al-Qadhdhafi etc., oops I mean, and so on.
If a newspaper were littered with all these variations it would irritate the reader. So, consistency is the key and that really is the main point of newspaper style guides: factual accuracy alongside consistency.
So am I a stylistic pedant, fusspot, nitpicker, nerd? Naw. My journalist father was also a writer and biographer, and I spent many hours in his study surrounded by thousands of books discussing aspects of grammar and words and whatnot late into the night, keeping our spirits up with spirits; actually, he drank whisky (whiskey if Irish) and I quaffed beer.
Happy daze. (Surely days? – ed)