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On Style

It’s probably the J school background, but I’ve always been the sort to be fascinated with style guides and what they tell us about the publication and its audience. From the gallimaufry of anglicized spellings and punctuation in The New Yorker to the ghastly excuses for style in many Internet publications, style is a very important element to my reading experience. I’m not sure it’s recent, but today I got a peek at The Economist‘s style guide.

The introduction makes a quick plea for writing clearly and succintly by evoking George Orwell’s cardinal rules.

Never use a Metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do (see Short words).
If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see Unnecessary words).
Never use the Passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a Jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see Iconoclasm).

The Economist takes Orwell’s advice about metaphors to heart:

“A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image,” said Orwell, “while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (eg, iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.” … Some of these are tired, and will therefore tire the reader. Most are so exhausted that they may be considered dead, and are therefore permissible. But use all metaphors, dead or alive, sparingly, otherwise you will make trouble for yourself.

Good stuff, as are the little clarifications that help us use the English language as carefully and precisely as we can, whether writing about political and economic developments or descriptive language in service of more creative aims. I particularly enjoyed the clarification of the difference between masterful (imperious) and masterly (skilled). I’ve certainly been guilty of incorrectly using the former term in many circumstances.

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