An Economy of Style

by Neil Fein

I always felt a little bit disappointed by American editions of British books. It seems silly for Arthur Dent to mention needing a flashlight, and I’m always a bit embarrassed by “localized” editions of Gulliver’s Travels. Do the publishing companies feel that Americans are going to be put off by superfluous vowels and different styles of punctuation? Do they think the slightly more laid-back phrasing will put us to sleep? Is the British style of quotation marks really that daunting?

Yeah, it’s British text, I understand how it’s supposed to work. I may be terrible at imitating accents in speech, but it’s no trouble for me to switch into “British reading mode”.

Always searching for more reference books, I recently discovered that the Economist has a style guide. Glee! They have a section on the differences between UK and US English. No big surprises, although I’ve learned a few things about punctuation. There are lists of words recognizable to both, words to avoid when writing for a dual audience, and some concise notes on grammar and syntax.

But the best part of the book is the style entries themselves. If I may share some excerpts:

Horrible words: Words that are horrible to one writer may not be horrible to another, but if you are a writer for whom no words are horrible, you would do well to take up some other activity.

Generation: Take care. You can be a second-generation Frenchman, but if you are a second-generation immigrant it means you have left the country your parents came to.

Euphemisms: Remember that euphemisms are the stock-in-trade of people trying to obscure the truth. Thus Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding.

To those who also feel this is entertaining reading, much of the Economist Style Guide is online.

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