House style… just a waste of time?

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, they are called sub-editors. They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful. Because much of the text disseminated by the world’s media passes before their eyes and gets fixed, or changed, or mutilated, or left alone. They correct grammar and spelling, they rewrite clumsy phrases, they cut copy to fit an allocated space and in most publications they write headlines. So far, so familiar – most people who read newspapers or news websites or magazines are aware that such people exist and have a vague idea of what they do.

But there is something else this bunch of people do: they apply “house style”. This is the set of rules that each publishing entity uses to keep things consistent. So the editor and senior staff and sub-editors will decide at some point to follow spelling as given in one brand of dictionary and they will, over time, make decisions about how to do things – which words are hyphenated, which are not; what is capitalised, what is not; which words are written as one word, and which are written as two. Generally a senior staffer, or staffers, will be the keepers of style – they will keep a list of style rules, and they will make decisions as questions arise.

I have been learning and using various sets of house style over my decades in journalism, and was once a stickler for style. I tried to remember it all, kept my style guide close at hand and tutted when other people demonstrated their sad of lack of knowledge of style.  In the picky world of sub-editing, knowledge of house style can be used to beat other people up, to create hierarchies of snobbery that have to be seen to be believed. It can get very unpleasant indeed, as satirised in this piece from The Onion:

Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound

When I first joined an online publication and the editor tentatively raised the idea of not worrying too much about style, I defended it passionately. It gave us identity, it was our mark of professionalism. If we did not “do” style, could we call ourselves journalists at all, I asked.

I still believe all that, in theory. But I have another theory now, honed in the hotbed of reader comments that appear on IOL, and in the more private feedback we get when people email us. I have observed – subs everywhere, take a deep breath – that readers don’t care about house style. In over ten years of subbing and writing online content, I have NEVER had a reader say: How dare you, you cretins, don’t you know that US does not have full stops in it ? The pesky Americans will insist on sending out stories with their country abbreviated thus: U.S., and the rest of the English-speaking world then takes them out. Readers have never argued about whether lemongrass is one word of two. They don’t give a toss about which bits are capitalised in the President’s title. They have never said anything one way or the other about Koran or Q’uran.

But, and this is a big but, make an obvious error of spelling or grammar, be inconsistent within the story, get a currency conversion wrong, get an obvious fact wrong, and they will care, very, very much. Enough to insult you and all the camels you arrived on, to the tenth generation.

So, because I now think readers are more important than journalists and their opinions (a subject for another day), I have quietly stopped worrying so much about house style. And nobody seems to have noticed. I think this is easier in the fluid and fast-moving world of online. Glossy magazines and high-end newspapers would probably justifiably say they are keeping that house style manual, thank you (or is that thankyou?) very much. And they’d be right about that.

It is in the resource-poor environment of the South African middle and low-end print media, however, where I think the application of house style – or not –  needs careful thought and discussion.

We have many writers and editors for  whom English is a second or third language, and that is as it should be in terms of emerging from the shadows of our past. But the gap between that and producing newspapers in standard English – as readers expect, and is as it should be – is very wide. I would say that the time taken to apply house style rigidly is mis-spent. If we can get the basics right and I mean “properly right”, we might be making progress. So make sure, really sure, that spelling, grammar, logic, facts, consistency, interesting story-telling are all as perfect as they can be. Use these as training yardsticks, too. Apply the simplest of rules so that important words within a story are consistent, and publish.

Simple to write, not simple to apply in the rule-driven hothouse (or is that hot-house) of the subs room. But I do think this is a discussion we should all be having.

* These are my own views – not those of IOL.


One thought on “House style… just a waste of time?

  1. Some small errors corrected, courtesy of Anne Taylor. We may not need house style, but we do still need good sub-edtiors!

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