The 12th edition of The Economist Style Guide was released in June, and I’ve spent the last month familiarizing myself with it. The big news was announced ahead of publication: The Economist had finally let go of its restriction on not splitting infinitives.
The balance of the changes are moderate. There are the small changes that are to be expected, such as updates to lists of current leaders. In general, I find parts two and three, “American and British English” and “Useful Reference,” helpful for both Economist writers and editors (the main audience) and other communication professionals.
I wish the guide writers had updated the list of technology abbreviations a bit more, though. Some terms, such as ICQ (“I seek you”), have all but disappeared and seem a waste of ink and paper. More importantly, adding entries that the publication uses frequently would have been a boon. Terms like VR (“virtual reality”) and IoT (“internet of things”) are common on the website but aren’t in the style guide. With all the tech-related resources out there, however, this is a quibble.
Major Rule Changes
It’s part one, “The Essence of Style,” that has some of the biggest changes and that I find most troubling.
On the improvement side, the “gender” entry has been revised to align with modern sensibilities. Readers are advised to use someone’s preferred terminology to describe their sexuality (e.g., gay, lesbian, bisexual) and are guided on using LGBT accurately (although LGBTQ+ is notably absent).
The new subentry “he, she, they” in “grammar and syntax,” however, goes beyond a detraction straight to offensive. The entry steadfastly supports keeping sexist language because, the reasoning goes, making language gender-neutral “presents difficulties.” While the guide writers will tolerate police officers and firefighters, they sharply reject chairperson, humankind, and person in the street as “ugly expressions.” Chairwoman is “permissible but unnecessary,” the guide writers declare.
The entry goes on to state:
It is no more demeaning to women to use the words actress, ballerina or seamstress than goddess, princess or queen. (Similarly, you should feel as free to separate Siamese twins or welsh on debts — at your own risk — as you would to go on a Dutch treat, pass through french windows, or play Russian roulette. Note, though, that you risk being dogged by catty language police.)
If you believe it is ‘exclusionary’ or insulting to women to use he in a general sense, the best solution is to rephrase some sentences in the plural.
Can the guide’s writers truly not see the difference between “welshing on debts” and “passing through French windows”? Are they really telling women what they should and should not find demeaning? Not only is the advice sexist, it’s condescending and stoops to name-calling, as well.
Individual entries aside, the style guide has two patterns of advice, much of it not new, that are disturbing.
First is the guide’s strong anti-Americanism sentiment. Look, I get it: American media style dominates the English-speaking world, and this guide wants to promote a British style. That’s a good thing in my book; a variety of writing styles makes for richer reading experiences.
But cutting down another style to make your own look better is a weak position to argue from. It’s off-putting and can drive readers away. Celebrate what you are—your style, your approach—and guide writers and editors that way. Not only does this create more trust with readers, it also clarifies what you want writers and editors to do. Following a list of positive rules is easier than following one of negative rules.
The second pattern is defending style preferences or outright zombie rules with incorrect information. Like and unlike, for example, “govern nouns and pronouns, not verbs and clauses,” according to the guide. It presents this as a grammatical absolute, but in truth this is a usage that’s changing in British English.
Oxford Living Dictionaries labels an adverbial usage of like as nonstandard, despite the centuries of standard use that it notes (leaving me to wonder what it takes for something to become “standard”). Yet Collins English Dictionary, another popular British English dictionary, states: “The use of like to mean such as was formerly thought to be undesirable in formal writing, but has now become acceptable.” Clearly not everyone agrees on the status of like.
Using like as an adverb in some instances may sound too informal for The Economist’s style, but it’s not breaking any grammar rules. Disallowing its usage based on a desired style is defensible. Disallowing it based on faulty grammar is not.
The Economist’s style aims to be formal and precise. Following its style rules will produce such a style. But following its rules could also lead to grammar errors and offensive language. The guide’s flaws are serious enough that a wise copyeditor would recommend a substitute to keep their publication out of hot water. Two good options for a British journalism style are The Guardian and Observer Style Guide and the BBC News Style Guide. Both are available for free and offer guidance without being offensive.
Failing that, hold your nose and try to steer clear of those problematic entries.