Changes in Guardian style guide

The readers' editor on ... how Freud got his cap back
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* Siobhain Butterworth
o Siobhain Butterworth
o The Guardian, Monday 23 March 2009
o Article history

The "airplane" has gone, long live the "aeroplane". This particular change in Guardian style is a crowd-pleaser. In the last year at least 35 people complained about the Guardian's preference for "airplane" over the British English "aeroplane". The shift back to British English follows a review which aimed to reconcile some of the differences in the styles used by the Guardian, the Observer and the Guardian website, now that journalists write for all three platforms.

"Airplane" versus "aeroplane" is classic Americanisms-encroaching-on-our-language territory, guaranteed to bring out the military reader running around on his hobbyhorse. "I realise that I am increasingly becoming like Colonel Bufton-Tufton of West Wittering, but I feel rather like he must have felt at Dunkirk," said one man in January. "Surely, surely, 'airplane' is not now common parlance among the baggage carousels and departure lounges of our major aerodromes, let alone up and down the high streets of our great metropolises and market towns? A simple question, but what is wrong with 'aeroplane'?" Nothing, says David Marsh, editor of the style guide. "I can only say it was a moment of madness; 'airplane' seemed more popular and people say 'plane' anyway," he told me. He has seen the error of his ways and aeroplane is back.

The Guardian now follows Observer style for possessives so, rather than being guided by pronunciation, journalists are asked to use s's for words ending in s (Dickens's house, Jesus's disciples). Did Guardian and Observer journalists come to blows over apostrophes? "Most of this was non-controversial," Marsh said. "The two style guides have been moving towards each other in recent years, either because we [the Guardian] liked what they [the Observer] did or they liked what we did."

Decisions about the integration of Guardian and Observer styles were made by a committee of six journalists from both papers and the website. Rarefied matters, such as whether single or double quotation marks should be used for direct speech and the length of the dash to be used mid-sentence, were carefully debated. On the subject of speech marks "Observer delegates gave way gracefully," Marsh said. They agreed to abandon their single quotes for direct speech. As for the dash, a compromise was reached: the Guardian favoured the longer em dash, the website used the shorter hyphen and the parties settled on the Observer's, mid-length, en dash.

In the reshuffle Freud got his capital F back and a "Freudian slip" is no longer a "freudian slip". "By and large we favour lower case where proper nouns have become part of the language," Marsh told me. "Everyone agrees that wellington boots, cheddar cheese and french windows should be lower case and I took the view that Freudian slip had largely lost its connection with its origins. People still think that a Freudian slip is very much associated with Sigmund Freud. I feel I was overenthusiastic in lower-casing Freud," he said.

Talk of names takes us to changes in the use of honorifics. As I wrote last year, readers complained that the Guardian's style of just using a surname after the first mention of someone's full name can sound too harsh in some stories. There's no change for public figures, but journalists are asked to use an honorific if it sounds jarring or insensitive not to do so. The new style guide says: "For example, a woman whose son has been killed on active duty in Iraq should be 'Mrs Smith' and not 'Smith'. We need to use our judgment and be guided by the tone of the piece."

The style guide is a work in progress. Here are some excerpts from one of Marsh's regular updates for journalists: "Warren Buffett not Buffet, a surprisingly common mistake - think financier, rather than table of nibbles", "catchup TV (what you watch on iPlayer) not catch-up", " liveblog, liveblogger: a liveblog is a rolling commentary on a live event, to differentiate it from a live blog that is live simply by virtue of being visible on the internet", "Twitter users tweet each other but Twitter bits of information"; and, lagging behind, "luddite: lowercase".


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