Guide to Style

I have spoken at (probably tedious) length about my attitude to grammar rules, and I even linked in my last post to a discussion on Kindle Boards that has both elevated and degenerated - if cordially - into a kind of challenge as to who can justify not applying the Chicago Manual of Style.

I'm not going to give you, though it would be my style to do so, a potted history of the CMS. You can find that out readily on Wikipedia and at the CMS website.

I will point out that the CMS self-identifies as 'recommendations on editorial style and publishing practices' - and does not identify itself as a Grammar Book or a style rulebook. In numerous places the CMS, in the long tradition style guides, humbly suggests that the writer make up his own mind and apply style in a way that judiciously favours good comprehension.

Style guides offer a comfort to the uncertain writer, and I often refer to them for suggestions, confirmation, support or arbitration. Occasionally I am surprised to discover that what I thought was common practice is not, or vice versa (I famously hadn't noticed that UK publishers had taken to using single quotes for direct speech. They don't all do it, but most do.).

All too easily, the comfort becomes a crutch, and eventually, a father figure, dispensing infallible wisdom from on high. I have seen many people quote Henry Fowler as the last word in an argument over British English usage. I think he would have been embarrassed.

So, getting back to setting out my stall: my primary guide for style when I am editing is The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers (who also edited the second edition of Modern English Usage which is also a core text of mine). The reason why I use CPW is largely because of this:

Professional writers realise that they cannot hope to affect their readers precisely as they wish without care and practice in the proper use of words. The need for the official to take pains is even greater, for if what the professional writer has written is wearisome and obscure the reader can toss the book aside and read no more, but only at his peril can he so treat what the official has tried to tell him. By proper use I do not mean grammatically proper. It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music merely by keeping the rules. On the whole they are aids to writing intelligibly, for they are in the main no more than the distillation of successful experiments made by writers of English through the centuries in how best to handle words so as to make a writer's meaning plain. Some, it is true, are arbitrary. One or two actually increase the difficulty of clear expression, but these too should nevertheless be respected, because lapses from what for the time being is regarded as correct irritate the educated reader, and distract his attention, and so make him the less likely to be affected precisely as you wish. But I shall not have much to say about text-book rules because they are mostly well known and well observed in official writing.

The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns less the arrangement of words than the choice of them. "After all," said Lord Macaulay, "the first law of writing, that law to which all other laws are subordinate, is this: that the words employed should be such as to convey to the reader the meaning of the writer." The golden rule is to pick those words and to use them and them only. Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves. Matthew Arnold once said: "People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style." That was no doubt said partly for effect, but there is much truth in it, especially in relation to the sort of writing we are now concerned with, in which emotional appeal plays no part.

This golden rule applies to all prose, whatever its purpose, and indeed to poetry too. Illustrations could be found throughout the gamut of purposes for which the written word is used. At the one end of it we can turn to Shakespeare, and from the innumerable examples that offer themselves choose the lines

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchymy

which, as a description of what the rising sun does to meadows and rivers on a "glorious morning", must be as effective a use of thirteen words as could be found in all English literature. At the other end we can turn (for the golden rule can be illustrated from official writing in its observance as well as in its breach) to the unknown member of the staff of the General Post Office who by composing the notice that used to be displayed in every post office

Postmasters are neither bound to give change nor authorised to demand it

used twelve words hardly less efficiently to warn customers of what must have been a singularly intractable dilemma. At first sight there seems little in common between the two. Their purposes are different; one is descriptive and emotional, the other instructional and objective. But each serves its purpose perfectly, and it is the same quality in both that makes them do so. Every word is exactly right; no other word would do as well; each is pulling its weight; none could be dispensed with. As was said of Milton's prose in the quotation that heads Chapter VI, "Fewer would not have served the turn, and more would have been superfluous".

Gowers goes on to provide valuable guidance and necessary arbitration in detail in many areas where poor usage causes confusion, which includes points of grammar and of punctuation. Although CPW is ostensibly a manual for official document writing, Gowers uses examples from Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Kipling, Gibbon … this amply demonstrates his contention that the primary art and the primary skill of the writer are one and the same, as illustrated in the extract above: that writer achieve his intended aim (Gowers is disapproving if that aim is to obscure or conceal, however).

To me, language is political, and my peculiar pragmatic liberalism is particularly sensitive to the insidious vicissitudes of prescribed and proscribed language.

I really ought to delete that last sentence but it such a fine example of how horribly badly wrong my own writing can go that I'm going to leave it there. I wonder how many readers will switch off as soon as they reach it, and go read something less pretentious.

What I wanted to say is that Gowers is much more pragmatic, more honest, more reasonable, more fair, more just than I, and not at all anarchistic. It does me untold good to sit somewhere with a cup of tea and read him. It restores my faith in human nature to see how he weighs the gramaclasts against the grammacrats and finds both wanting, but both necessary.

Gowers' strength, his value, is not the guidelines he infers, but the attitude he imparts: all means of understanding and applying language are valid provided the reader is 'affected precisely as you wish'.

To me this has the same enlightening elegance as the Doctrine of Love or the Doppler Effect.

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