To abbreviate or not to abbreviate, that is the important style question

Anyone moved to look up the word ‘amok’in the Telegraph’s online style guide will be treated to the following entry: ‘No Daily Telegraph style book would be complete without the observation that only Malays can run amok. See also berserk.”

Those checking out ‘berserk’will be similarly informed: ‘No Daily Telegraph style book would be complete without the observation that only Icelanders can go berserk. See also amok.”

Style guides are quirky things, and they are all the better for it. Thus Guardian hacks are informed that Goths with an upper-case G were a Germanic tribe that ‘invaded the Roman empire”, while lower-case goths were ‘Sisters of Mercy fans who invaded the Shepherd’s Bush Empire”.

Student journalists need to learn that all news organisations have a concept of house style. Anyone on work experience must quickly get to grips with a particular organisation’s preferences on a range of stylistic issues such as whether to abbreviate Councillor to Coun or Cllr, whether to cap up Prime Minister, and whether to use single or double quote marks.

Although some newsrooms rely on new recruits picking up unwritten rules from older hands, many have their own style books, and some have searchable electronic guides.

Style guides typically contain plenty of useful information and common sense advice, much of it informed by the pointers for writing clear English set down by George Orwell more than six decades ago:

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.

If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.

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.

Trainee journalists and journalism students alike could do worse than carry the above list around with them at all times. But in addition to grasping the good sense contained in Orwell’s advice, they will also need to learn the nuances that distinguish one title from another, not to mention the pet hates of particular editors.

Strictures on style can say as much about what a publication is not as what it is, as another entry from the current Telegraph guide suggests: ‘Brave is an acceptable adjective to apply to somebody who has perpetrated a courageous act. Its usage to describe the demeanour of somebody suffering from a serious illness is tabloid.’Pity the brave Telegraph journalist who uses a tabloid term.

So, student journalists need to study the styles of different organisations and be aware that, even if it is not codified in a written guide, some form of house style will certainly exist. Eventually, of course, they might be in a position to break or even change the rules – but first they need to know what they are.

Tony Harcup is the author of The Ethical Journalist and teaches journalism at the University of Sheffield

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