The Friday Review: The Economist Style Guide


A book on writing by The Economist magazine may not seem the obvious choice for someone who mainly writes fiction. And yes, I am pretty sure The Economist Style Guide is primarily aimed at writers of articles. Nevertheless, I found it useful. Now in its 10th edition, the book was first published in 1986. Each new edition is updated to take into account changes in language usage and the book now contains more pages (and information) than earlier editions.

The book is made up of three main sections and an introduction. This introduction opens with a suggestion to remember George Orwell’s six rules of writing. These have been so often repeated over the years that most of them will be familiar to most writers, but they are worth repeating a few times overs, so here they are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It’s so long since I read the introduction that I’d forgotten about these rules, but they have definitely become a way of writing for me. In particular, I agree with the – okay I agree with all of them! Number 1 is something I’ve even written about on this blog, in the post Finer Points of Rewriting: Avoiding Clichés and Awkward Similies.

The introduction also has some general rules to follow on how to grab the reader’s attention and how to keep it.

The three main sections in the book are: 
Part 1: The essence of style
Part 2: American and British English
Part 3: Useful reference

Part 1: The essence of style

Part 1 contains explanations of various literary terms, individual words and aspects of grammar. All these are organised in alphabetical order, beginning with Abbreviations – explaining when to use them, whether to use upper or lower case, and when not to use them. Part 1 ends with wrack: explaining what the word means, what people often think it means and how to use it. (For example: “it is not an instrument of torture or a receptacle for toast.”)  In between abbreviations and wrack you will learn such apparently unconnected matters as collective nouns, hanging clauses and why not to use the before hoi polloi. Some people object to the apparently random nature of the subjects covered in this section, but I found it oddly compelling.

Part 2: American and British English

Part 2 is possibly the most useful section of the book in our international world of online writing. For instance British English uses many phrases that have their origins in the game of cricket, while American English uses baseball terms in the same way. We British will have heard many of these baseball terms when watching American television shows, but it doesn’t mean we totally understand them. And our cricket terms are even less well known in the USA. So, the Style Guide suggests that if you are writing for both markets it is better to avoid terms like these that are only understood in one of them.

Part 2 also includes advice on whether to use the suffix -ize or – ise, and suggests that where Americans use -ize, “…few British readers would object to this.” It also usefully lists words that are generally acceptable either side of the pond for instance “bus not coach,”  or “diesel fuel” not “derv.” Honestly we British would have no clue that derv meant diesel fuel! This section is followed by a look at different spelling conventions, and after that are lists of British words and their American counterparts. (The Economist is a British magazine after all!) Finally, Part 2 ends with a look at differences in punctuation between the two countries.

Part 3: Useful reference

Part 3 of the Style Guide is the part I have used least often, but it does have plenty of useful information. It contains lists, and like Part 1 is in alphabetical order. The list vary from the five important solar calendars to world currencies and from Latin terms to states, regions and provinces in countries around the world. So even though this section is primarily aimed at non-fiction writers, it could make a valuable research resource for novelists – depending on subject matter of course!

Comments

  1. Thanks for the pointers on American vs. British English. We were having this debate on our blog as our traffic is largely American & Canadian (vs. spellings!) Generally we use Canadian just because that is what we’re used to, but maybe we need to rethink that.

    1. Hi Hols, It can indeed be a dilemma which variation of the language to use! I’ve stuck with British English for my blog and novels, but use American English in my articles on HubPages. My blog does largely have USA traffic, but with its informal style I didn’t feel right attempting American! I guess it’s probably best to write in what feels comfortable, and avoid words that could be confusing (or explain them.) I will admit, though, that I have not tried to include Canadian – or Australian for that matter. I find all the variations quite fascinating, all the more because were I am originally from (the Shetland Isles) several words are still used that died out in British English but exist in American, so they were in fact British English at one time!
      Thanks for your comment .

  2. I haven’t read that one Sarah. I will add it to my list. I’m reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” just now, so that will probably be my next review.
    Thanks for your comment.

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