Wincing and reading on, Barbara Mabbett

Style Book: a guide for New Zealand writers and editors
Derek Wallace and Janet Hughes, (revised and expanded)
GP Publications, $29.95
ISBN 1 86956 123 6

The word “style”, occupying as it does several columns of the Big Oxford, can be interpreted, in terms of writing, as relating to the characteristic manner of expression of a particular writer or group of writers. A style book is usually a manual compiled to define, for one specific audience, the choices preferred from among the many options and possibilities in the richness of the language.

Style books had their origins in the law, as lawyers compiled for themselves samples of their deeds and other documents. By the eighteenth century, as cheaper printing encouraged more writers to disseminate their ideas, the first more general style book is recorded: one James Hay of Carribee had a “Scheme of a Stile‑book … for the use of gentlemen educated in his Writing Chamber.” Each printing house of any size assembled its own style book, setting out which range of fonts would be used for headings, where capital letters would and would not be used, how paragraphs would be spaced, how footnotes would be set and so on. Printers increasingly became publishers, taking responsibility for mediating between the writer and the reader and endeavouring to present and communicate a writer’s work effectively. They therefore established consistent spelling practices for their publications, defined the range of usages for different punctuation points, set out methods of presenting neologisms or “foreign” words and so on. Most publishers and virtually all newspapers continue to develop their stylebooks, modifying them in the light of the ever‑changing language.

In 1898 the Stylebook of the Chicago Society of Proofreaders became one of the first to be marketed to the general public. The “Chicago”, duly updated, is still a regular reference for many writers, as are the style books of other major publications such as The Economist, whose entertaining, concise, dogmatic volume is an English best‑seller. (“Keys”, says The Economist, “may be major or minor, but not low. Few of the decisions, people, industries described as key are truly indispensable, and fewer still open locks.”)

In 1948 Sir Ernest Gowers compiled at the invitation of the British Treasury his Plain Words: a guide to the use of English. This was followed in 1951 by ABC of Plain Words, which expanded the scope of the information and set it out in alphabetical order. Gowers was writing specifically for the civil service: he took his examples from documents written by officials and shaped his sprightly, pertinent advice to try to improve communication between officials and their publics. Gowers, like The Economist, deals entirely with the primary task of writing: selecting and organising words so that they convey the writer’s intentions as nearly as possible. Publishing style was left to the publisher.

In 1958, the New Zealand Government Printer produced a style book which combined the two functions: all government official publications were handled by the Government Printer, so it was economical for that office to advise the public service of its own house conventions, its requirements for presentation of copy and the conventions for correcting proofs. At the same time it offered a guide to the sort of writing that is acceptable as the standard for official communications, both in correspondence with the public and in cabinet papers, ministerial briefings and official discussion papers. The committee which produced the style book was made up of several Government Printing Office staff, supported by senior public servants. In 1981, for instance, the only committee member not directly employed in the public service was Professor Ian Gordon. In spite of its very specific audience and focus, the Government Style Book became a very popular reference, widely used, though not always in a suitable context.

Now we have its descendant: a style book whose subtitle optimistically implies a comprehensive, nationwide audience of both writers and editors. As the preface indicates, the “public service” has changed even more quickly than the language, with the Government Printing Office itself now owned by the country’s most assertive bookshop‑buyer, the former state sector fragmented into an assortment of quasi-autonomous organisations, each eager to mark its corporate identity in its own style and manner, and state sector chiefs urged to put their activities ‑ including their printing ‑ on, a commercial footing. Further, everyone seems now to be a potential publisher: the computer has made it possible for any script to appear, often deceptively, authoritative. Caveat lector!

This new revision of the “government” style book was therefore undertaken by university linguists, who have attempted not only to accommodate the purposes of its predecessor but also to expand its application. The authors bring a useful range of experience to the task.

Chapter 1 is an introduction on “The Function of Style”. The writers question the style manuals of the past as taking “a mainly prescriptive (their italics) approach to style … based on the view that objective and correct standards of correctness existed…” and suggest that the 1950s style book arose from extensions of the concept of national unity. These strictures overlook its origins, outlined above, and ignore the fact that, notwithstanding ‑ or, indeed, in response to ‑ the impact of modern linguistic research, newspapers and publishers will continue to need prescriptions for their own practices. Only thus will such significant conventions as those indicated in chapter 8 on nonsexist language become “standard”, consistently observed in the work of a publishing house.

Chapter 1 provides a concise statement on the impact of social analysis on our understanding of linguistic communication. Comments that the power to “determine and maintain the rules … is invested in the educated elite who publish written material, teach language and so on…” and, especially, references to the “logical ‑ if extreme ‑ conclusion that writers and, particularly, editors function as agents of the dominant groups” using their “large stock of linguistic capital … to ensure … linguistic products meet the approved standards … and thereby help to maximise the generation of other kinds of capital” need considerably better contextual debate. The authors admit, wryly, that the style manual could similarly be interpreted as another instrument of power. It seems to me that this apologia reflects the problem of attempting to provide a style guide of such wide compass.

The chapter on style also includes a section on contemporary theories of writing, fairly demonstrating the statement that “a completely shared meaning between writer and reader is not possible” by expounding some elements of postmodernist theories of discourse. This is not helpful: the rationale for a style book is to dismantle barriers to communication, within the limits of its particular audience, by setting out some consistent conventions. The writers at this stage seem to want to throw in the towel, or at least discourage readers from thinking that attention to style will help their quest for communication. Yet in their comments on the implications of these theories for the style book itself the writers admit to its role in minimising ambiguity and aspire to recognise “a multiplicity of styles for different occasions and audiences, rather than impos[e] a single standard style.” A tall order.

How well, then, does the book measure up to these aspirations, and reflect the concerns raised in the introductory chapter? The advice on punctuation retains a very similar text to its predecessor, with the addition of an entry on the slash (/), giving legitimate usages but not, unfortunately, warning against its random use where the writer seems simply to be vacillating. The chapter on capitals has been helpfully reconstructed so that the information is logically grouped and in this instance the principles are well articulated. Some useful additions here include appropriate Maori styles, with the Maori Language Commission acknowledged as the authority. Brand names and computer terms also each gain an entry.

The chapter on abbreviations has an excellent, timely introduction, drawing attention to the variations between countries and to the importance of relating style and, indeed, the decision on using abbreviations at all (their italics) to context and audience. The principles that style should reflect the relationship between the writer and reader and be shaped to establish communication as comfortably as possible are set out more cogently here than in the introductory chapter.

Material about numbers and metrication is now assembled into a practical chapter on measurement, which includes guidance on structuring text on the topic. The chapter called “Common Confusions” will probably be one of the most heavily used: it includes entries to distinguish between commonly‑confused words as well as common problems in structure or grammar and is introduced by a sound statement of some key (indispensable, pace The Economist) grammatical points.

The new comprehensive chapter on nonsexist language is direct, constructive and clearly reasoned, providing a framework of principles and pertinent, elegant examples to assist those writers and editors who still have problems adapting their terminology to the times or those who lack the commitment to read Miller and Swift or some of the other concise guides on the topic. This chapter avoids the somewhat hectoring tone of chapter 1. It has more detail than many other chapters, as befits a section new to this edition.

The final section concentrates on preparing copy. This is extraordinarily detailed in some respects, for instance in the sequence of preliminaries; given this detail it is regrettable that the publisher slipped up on providing the ISBN on the verso of the title page, as directed. Matters such as the information to be carried on the spine, or the advice on enlargement of illustrations, could well be left to the publisher’s style manual, rather than trying to deal with all matters here. The best advice to writers who plan to publish major works is to establish early communication with the publisher.

The information on the responsibilities of the editor in Chapter 11 is manifestly inadequate: the role of the editor is very well set out on page 7, in the introduction, as “negotiating and mediating the exchange between writer and reader … represent[ing] both the reader and the writer by bringing to each text an expert knowledge of the conventions appropriate for maximising understanding.” This vital role, often, it seems to me, poorly played to the detriment of many publications, is confused in chapter 11 with that of copy editing, itself an essential, specialised task, but different from that of the editor. Again, the style book provides elaborate detail on, for instance the construction of a style sheet: this is a matter of personal preference and the province of the publishing house.

The problem of writing a style book for such an extensive audience is well illustrated by the section on constructing ten where the authors try, in under four pages, to provide guidance on “macrostructure” and “microstructure” relevant to everything from student essay to a non‑fiction monograph of substantial proportions. The information is not misleading but it is not adequate to the unrealistic task.

What about the style of the style book itself? Homer nodded, as he will so irritatingly do, in the sample of marked-up text on p191, where “midnight peeled on a thousand transistor radios”. This example highlights a modern curse: computer spell‑checks do not pick up inaccurate use of homonyms, but copy editors have come, it seems, to assume that they do. An autobiography which was published with some flourish recently has the young student “pouring” over her books. We become used to wincing and reading on, thankful that our methods of teaching reading encourage children to use context to refine meaning!

The style book uses throughout, without comment, the structure of a colon to introduce a number of separate sentences, each with a capital letter and full stop. This “convention” is becoming very widely used and pertained in the earlier editions of the style book, in contradiction to its own guidance on the use of the colon. I cannot see the principle on which this is based: the section on the colon on p14 does not indicate this as an option. A colon introduces a list, where each item in the list may be read as continuing from the introductory stem. If the list consists of complete sentences related to one topic, the introductory sentence should also be complete in itself and end with a full stop.

I made a note of some infelicities which had annoyed me in the 24 hours before beginning this review, to see whether they were addressed. A semi‑colon used where a colon should be; double subjects mismatched with a singular verb; a clutch of misplaced apostrophes; a compound sentence with a comma struggling to do duty for a conjunction … all were dealt with. But this is not new, the writers already had access to style books that could have helped them in their confusions. The real problem is that the writers do not know what they do not know … and that’s another story.

Will this style guide fill any particular need? Those who already own earlier editions and have one of the guides to nonsexist language to hand will find little that is new. Novices require more comprehensive guidance on a smaller number of issues. Printers and publishers still need to refine their own usages, making their decisions for consistency.

I think the authors fulfilled their brief and in their introduction exceeded it, but the brief itself was ill‑conceived in terms of the function of a style book. I hope that, rather than continuing to build editions on this model, a fresh approach will be taken next time around to provide concise guidance for writers for specific audiences.

Barbara Mabbett is a Wellington editor and writer, and was formerly general manager of Learning Media, the Ministry of Education’s publishing division.

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Posted in Language, Non-fiction and Review
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