People and words

Guiding lights

Style manuals – who needs them? Well, I do. I want to write better and I’ve found that some style guides help me improve my writing.

One of the most helpful guides is Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. I also rely regularly on Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield.

An old-time favourite is Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers by Harold Evans. It was published in 1972. Nowadays, I use the 2000 edition of this book, which was revised by Crawford Gillan.

Evans was Editor of the Sunday Times and The Times. Following this lead, I also look for guidance in The Times English Style and Usage from 1992, edited by Simon Jenkins, and the present-day The Times Style Guide, edited by Ian Brunskill.

The joy of mere words

One of the reasons for liking these guides is that they set out the standards in a positive and inspiring way. It’s obvious that their authors have, like George Orwell, “discovered the joy of mere words” (Why I Write, 1946).

This is how the guide authors, coming from different generations, express that joy.

The cognitive scientist and linguist Pinker (born 1954) writes: “Style […] adds beauty to the world.”

Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) was a teacher turned writer. Discussing formal language, he wrote that we weigh our words like we choose our clothes: “We tell our thoughts, like our children, to put on their hats and coats before they go out.”

The journalist Evans (born 1928) adds three practical points: “[…] every word must be understood by the ordinary reader, every sentence must be clear at one glance, and every story must say something about people.”

Constant change

A more mundane reason for using style manuals is that living languages like English change all the time. For example, new words come into use and old ones change meaning. Good guides keep me informed of these changes, so that I know what my reader understands when I use a specific word.

Finally, these manuals advise me on how to compose phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and stories. I hope you find them useful too.

The photo in this post was taken by Norma Braber-McKinney.