Today we are going to take a break from the constant stream of dragons and magic to talk about something fun instead: grammar and style guides.


Some of you may remember a little while ago when I compared the cover of Strunk and White’s magnum opus to what happens after flushing. The first lesson here is that toilet humour becomes more classy and therefore more amusing the more syllables there are dedicated to carrying it.

The second lesson is that style guides cannot be trusted. The Elements of Style is often cited by well-meaning but ultimately misguided institutions, chiefly those based in North America, for its supposed authority, despite the fact that it is riven with clear errors and bizarre pontifications which have no grounding in reality, as Steven Pinker ably demonstrates. Even NaNoWriMo, which really ought to know better, suggests Strunk and White’s offering as a way to refine one’s writing.

Perhaps the most famous way in which The Elements of Style is wrong is its abomination of the passive voice. It is true that the passive voice must be used with care but it is a highly useful tool and should never be avoided just because Strunk and/or White got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning.

It really helps me identify with the proletarian struggle, which I organize from my house in Highgate.

Other style guides should be used with caution because they are, generally speaking, institutional creations. The Guardian’s style guide will not help someone learn to write stylishly but it is not really intended to. It is intended to ensure that submissions to The Guardian conform to the publisher’s guidelines and thus require a minimum of editing. Trying to write a novel according to the “rules” set out by The Guardian or The Economist will push the author towards a prose that is as achingly bland as it is politically transparent, demonstrated by the fact that The Guardian thinks it is too cool to call its style guide a style guide and instead opts for guardian style like some sort of designer-kitchen warehouse.

Other newspapers’ style guides are not much better, and those from universities should be viewed with caution as well. I had the privilege of studying at one of the more reputable English universities at a time when a new course received from those in charge a document containing a proposed style guide. Not only was much of the guidance absurd but the section on grammar and spelling was riddled with elementary errors.

‘What’s this then? “People called academes they make the mistaking”?’
(Monty Python’s Life of Brian)
‘There’s no limit to what I can misrepresent!’
(Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory)

So what is the point of style guides? For those who want to improve their writing (and that is surely most of us), style guides can provide a safe basis. Language and grammar are full of misleading truisms (‘i before e except after c‘) neurotic bugbears (avoid the passive) and weird myths masquerading as accuracy (‘I’m nauseous’ is wrong but ‘I’m nauseated’ is correct).* Style guides offer a way to build confidence in a constructive way, as long as the reader takes their assertions with a pinch of salt. As the author gains confidence, he should feel free to stretch beyond the style guide. Indeed, that is probably essential: consider Shakespeare as edited by Strunk, White, or the rest.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

Will, this text diverges from the style guide significantly. Please read the enclosed document carefully. Take care to avoid repetition and archaisms, and remember our policies on gendered language and heteronormativity. Have enclosed corrected sample that, I’m sure, reflects what you were getting at. Cheers.

Romeo, why do you exist?
Disown your parents, guardians or carers, and get adopted/self-actualize.

For the budding writer who needs a foundation rather than a grumpy blog to navigate some of the basics, a style guide is a good place to start. Learn to love language in all its guises, however, and a cosmos of potential awaits just beyond.

*Of course, all of my truisms and bugbears are irrefutable grammatical facts.

5 thoughts on “Style Guides and How to Avoid Them

  1. I’m with ya! But one book that I really do love (and one that changed my life as a writer) is John Trimble’s Writing with Style.


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