The Melements of Style

Posted on September 3, 2010


A few years ago, a friend emailed me a Guardian article about some blokes who were driving across America, righting grammatical wrongs, and calling themselves the Typo Eradication Advancement League. The article was, I thought, full of grammatical wrongs and I shot back a snide ‘Don’t they mean writing grammatical wrongs?’ Putting aside the fact that I was actually referring to the singular author of the article and not the plural members of the Typo Eradication Advancement League, I felt very smug.

‘It’s Muphry’s Law’, I gloated again, in a second email. Muphry’s Law, as the inestimable John Bangsund informed us in the March 1992 Society newsletter, dictates in part that ‘if you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written’ and ‘the stronger the sentiment expressed, the greater the fault’.

My friend and I spent a good half hour of our respective bosses’ time picking apart the article and batting back and forth its examples of Muphry’s Law in action.

‘Teal are doing what many of us have only dared dream of doing’, the author wrote, explaining that ‘us’ referred to linguistic pedants.

‘Teal?!’ we snickered, finding it hard to envision the Typo Eradication Advancement League as a small freshwater duck, or perhaps a greenish-blue colour. It was thus transformed, it seems, as a result of the Guardian‘s stylebook, which differs from my stylebook, The Melements of Style, on several points. One is its demand that certain (pronounceable) acronyms be written with an initial capital only, instead of all caps. NASA, at the Guardian*, becomes Nasa; NATO, Nato; TEAL, Teal.

My friend and I also got our jollies from this sentence: ‘A person who perpetrates vandalism upon the language, whether they’re the signwriters targeted by Teal or the correspondents who pollute Comment is free threads with the barbarous neologisms of text-speak, is not merely inept but actively contemptuous’.

‘OMG LOL!’ we screamed digitally at each other, slapping our virtual knees in hysterics and ignoring our use of contemptuous text-speak neologisms. ‘Muphry strikes again! Some linguistic pedant! Call the Typo Eradication Advancement League.’

‘Of course,’ we noted archly, the sentence should have referred to ‘the correspondents who pollute comment in free threads…’ Why we accepted that some threads cost nothing (presumably in opposition to comparatively expensive threads) is a question for another day, preferably one many years in the future when I have Alzheimer’s and can plausibly deny everything.

Several days later I re-read the article, probably because I wanted to feel superior again, and I noticed a couple of things:

  • It was published in a section of the paper called ‘Comment is free’. It wasn’t a typo, just bad style. The section should be called Comment Is Free, or Comment is Free. Extra or maximum capitalisation on titles aids clarity. (Comment is Free as a title would also be consistent with the Guardian stylebook rules on capitalisation: ‘We aim for coherence and consistency, but not at the expense of clarity’. Aha!)
  • It was written by one of my favourite writers, Andrew Mueller, a man of such elegant and witty phrasing that I have long wished to find some loophole in the ethics and legality of plagiarism, and a man whose writing I’d never dream of criticising …

The point being, my style is better than the Guardian‘s. And everybody’s style is different. One of the first things Kirsten and I considered as we edited our first newsletter last month was style. So you’ll notice that from this month on, the newsletter style is slightly different. Headings are now maximal capitalisation, titles maximal caps and italicised. There are a few other minor style changes too, but I won’t bore you with the detail.

Now to sit back and wait for Muphry’s Law to kick in.

*Is it the Guardian or The Guardian? The paper appears to have adopted the guardian, presumably because this is modern and hip or whatever, but I can’t help but think it’s a desperate attempt to appeal to those damned young folk, who don’t read newspapers anymore.

First published in the Society of Editors’ (Victoria) newsletter, September 2010.

Posted in: Words