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Writing with style

English is a malleable language. Many words have multiple spellings and there are perhaps a dozen ways to format the date. To stop their output looking sloppy and inconsistent, most news organisations produce a style guide which contributors must abide by.

Some of these style guides can be bought in books, but The Guardian Style Guide is available for free online. Sean McManus interviewed the guide's co-editor Nikki Marshall about why it matters and why it's online.

Why is consistency important in writing?

We want the words we use in the Guardian to work as hard as they can, which means the language we choose must be clean, contemporary and consistent. Inconsistency is distracting and only gets in the way of what we're saying, and the style guide exists, quite simply, to help us communicate with readers.

Many of its entries shape the language we use when dealing with, for example, race, gender, illness and disability, to reflect both the paper's values and the point of view of the people we're writing about. The guide also warns against common errors of grammar and fact -- so if you deviate from such strictures you are usually just plain wrong.

Why has the Guardian published its style guide online?

The guide's first duty is to Guardian journalists, but when the computer system we use was upgraded to give us access to the web we jumped at the chance to put it online. This was a first. It means it isn't "set in stone", but can be updated and expanded as needs be. As society changes so does the way we use language, and we like to be in the vanguard of this movement. In fact, from the moment we went online the style guide no longer existed in printed form (although readers can print it out as a Word or Acrobat document if they want to work offline).

The bonus was the dialogue this encouraged with readers. We've gone on to incorporate many of their suggestions and correct mistakes they've pointed out. And we get letters from around the world from people thanking us for helping them to win an argument, or telling us they've adopted the guide as their organisations' house style.

What kinds of updates are made to the style guide over time?

Adding and editing entries can be incredibly time-consuming -- the Word and Acrobat files have to be updated separately -- and journalists don't like it when we move the goalposts by changing the guide without notifying them. So generally we work towards two or three big revisions a year, so we can announce all the changes together.

We also maintain an in-house noticeboard to discuss style points and call interested parties together for lunchtime meetings to debate big changes and any points anyone wants to raise. But if there's an error that needs fixing or a new word in the news we can make changes straight away.

Are there any differences between the style the Guardian uses in print and the style it uses online?

The style guide covers all Guardian publications, whether online or on newsprint. That isn't to say these don't each have their own "voice" -- Guardian Unlimited, for example, strives to be functional, terse and tight -- but our broad guidelines apply across the board.


© Sean McManus. All rights reserved.

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