House style… just a waste of time?

This post was originally written in 2013 and has been updated.

In America, they are called copy editors. In South Africa, in a journalism context, they are called sub-editors (or subs). They form a vanishingly small percentage of the world population, and yet they are somewhat powerful.

That’s 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 detail-driven bunch of people do: they apply “house style“. This is a set of rules that each publishing entity uses to keep things consistent. For instance, the editor, senior staff and sub-editors will decide at some point to follow spelling as given in one brand of dictionary. 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 maintain a list of style rules, and they will make decisions as questions arise. The rules might even be published in booklet format.

The downsides of style guides

I have used various sets of house style in my decades as a journalist, editor and writer. In my days as a sub-editor at two different Cape Town newspapers, I was 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 world of sub-editing, knowledge of house style can be used to beat other people up, to create hierarchies of snobbery based on how well any one person “follows style”. 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.”

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.

Could we ditch style altogether?

I still believe all that, in theory. But I have another theory now, honed in years of online news production, and first formed by observing reader comments on news stories on IOL (where I worked until the end of 2016), and by reading email feedback from readers.

I observed – subs everywhere, take a deep breath – that readers don’t care about house style. In years of subbing and writing online content, I 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 never argued about whether lemongrass was one word or two. They didn’t give a toss about whether the word Cabinet was capitalised or not (in most style guides, you write cabinet if you mean a piece of furniture, and Cabinet if you mean a collection of government ministers).

But, and this is a big but an obvious spelling or grammar error, an inconsistency between one paragraph and another, a mistaken currency conversion – these will all be noticed and called out.

Over time I grew to think readers are more important than journalists and their opinions, and gradually stopped worrying so much about house style. And nobody seemed to notice. I think this is easier in the fluid and fast-moving world of online news. 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.

But in the mostly resource-poor environment of the South African journalism 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. The gap between that and the production of news in standard English (which is the reality, whether we like it or not) is wide. In this environment, taking the time to apply house style rigidly is a distraction from the core business of journalism. If a publication can get the basics right, it would be meeting the needs of its readers. Those basics would be: correct spelling and grammar, logical flow of the text, facts that can be verified, consistency in the spelling of people’s names, interesting story-telling. These competencies should be training yardsticks, too. If there must be a house style, make it a list of the simplest of rules so that important words within a story are consistent.

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

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Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash


One Comment

  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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