A plural school and other perils of the style guide

Style guides can be invaluable when it comes to confirming an organisation’s approved format for dates or times, or use of capital letters. But sometimes, although well-intentioned, they can go horribly wrong.

One organisation we heard of decided to impose a rule on its PR public relations department that nobody should use initial letters such as PR or EU – without first explaining them in full.

It sounds sensible practice, doesn’t it? Let’s spell out National Aeronautics and Space Administration or European Union at first mention.

Okay, but once you start following the rule strictly, you soon run into problems. Do you really want to write Ed Miliband Member of Parliament? Or a TV channel British Broadcasting Corporation Four or Independent Television Three ?

No. We should sometimes assume some knowledge on the part of the reader. In any case, these days many initials don’t actually have a full form – the organisation’s name is just the initials. So the rule was soon forgotten.

Going further back, the editor of a local newspaper imposed a few style rules, which sometimes seemed bizarre. Animals were not people, he maintained (quite reasonably), so in copy they must never be he or she, but always it.

Well, that’s fine if you’re writing about a fox which has raided dustbins or a seagull which stole someone’s sandwich. But what about a little girl’s heartbreak over her missing puppy? Quotes, which talk about the dog as a member of the family sit uncomfortably alongside references to its disappearance.

Another of that editor’s rules was that organisations were always treated as a plural. The rationale was that they were a collection of people, and therefore, in everyday language they would be plural. Always.

Well, writing the police have or the club are is painful enough, but when you include such organisations as schools and colleges in the rule, then the punishment to the English language just seems too much. A school have won an award ? Oh dear.

Style guides are great. But they should be guides, not strict rule books. Otherwise, a much-loved puppy can become it and a college can become they.

If you are seeking help with writing or editing, or producing your own in-house style guide – maybe we can help.

This entry was posted in Education, Magazines, Media, Newspapers, Public relations, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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