Friday, 31 January 2014

What's in a style?

"You wouldn't understand dear. It's called style."

That's one of my favourite quotes by Basil Fawlty to Sybil Fawlty, on one of my favourite television programs - Fawlty Towers.

This quote is taken from the 1975 episode called The Builders and it's hilarious! But then I'm a huge fan of John Cleese and Prunella Scales.

Okay, on with the show. When we talk about style in writing, what exactly do we mean?

According to the Collins English dictionary, style is a form of appearance, design or production. So, if we apply that to writing it really refers to the appearance or design of the written material.

Think about a company logo you know, like the McDonald's golden arches with the red cDonald's next to it - that logo is so instantly recognisable worldwide - and it's their style. What about a bank? They have a colour and a way of writing their name and the font they use in their written material that is uniquely their own - it's their brand, part of their style. Often these major companies go so far as to trademark their colour and font.

The style of the font and text is consistent throughout all their documentation, like statements and brochures, etc.

Other forms of writing have a style too. For example, when I'm making a bulletted list of things, my style takes into account:
  • the words
  • the font
  • whether I capitalise the first letter
  • whether I put commas at the end of a line,
  • or full stops at the end of the list.
To a great extent you can decide for yourself how you want things to look and in these instances consistency is the key. But believe it or not there are rules around style and every country has their own official standard.

In the U.S., for example, they have a style that drops the 'u' from such words as colour, so they write color, neighbor, harbor, etc.

They also use 'z' in place of our 's' in words such as realise (realize), emphasise (emphasize) and so on.

That's simply their style.

I know that many U.S. writers swear by the Chicago Manual of Style which was developed by the University of Chicago Press and is updated regularly.

Personally, I use the Australian Style Manual published by John Wiley & Sons, Australia Ltd for, and in conjunction with, the Australian Government.

Another good one is the Radio National Online Style Guide

I find these invaluable sources for staying up to date with language and style trends specific to Australian standards. And trends do change! For example, I remember when I first learned to type it was normal practice to put two spaces after a full stop.

These days we only have one space after a full stop. This trend probably started, as these things often do, when newspapers and magazines were trying to reduce the amount of space used by articles. Quite a number of trends started that way. Another one that was initiated by media publications is the way we use the serial comma.

For example, I brought the wine, biscuits and cheese. Note how there's no comma after biscuits? In years gone by there was always a comma before the 'and'.

Meanwhile, I really do believe that our use of English should be preserved, but even as I write this the integrity of our language culture is being chipped away.

I have a big problem with the Americanisms that are creeping into our language. Don't get me wrong, it's great that Americans have their own way of doing things. But just as they have their own style, so do we and it upsets me when I hear kids refer to 'math' instead of 'maths' - excuse me but maths is short for mathematics, in the plural, therefore it really should be maths.

The other one I abhor is to refer to 'mom' instead of 'mum'.  Watch enough American television shows and you'll find such bastardy as, "I had went" or "He had drove me" or "I borrowed him some money". I'm not sure this fits into the category of style. I think it's simply poor grammar but it has evolved into the American dialect.

I can forgive other countries for using their own style, but I'll never forgive poor grammar.

My editor is instructed to edit all my work using Oxford English because my novels are set in the U.K., and when I write my financial articles and other material, I lock all my settings firmly on English (Australia).

So, what's your style? Are you conscious of correct word usage? Do you know how to spell using Australian English? Do you know when to number a list or use bullets points?

Seriously, all I expect of anyone is to know that there are differences, then take the time to refer to a style guide; there are so many rules we can't always remember them all.

As I mentioned, a lot of this stuff is about personal taste, but an awful lot of it is governed by grammatical rules and correct form. 

Do you know that studies have been done into which fonts make easier, more enjoyable reading? Which colours are more attractive to readers? Large corporates pay buckets of money for this research to ensure that their written material is not only legible, but pleasing to the eye - they hope it will make you more inclined to read their very important marketing stuff. When they find a style that makes their marketing departments jump for joy, that's when they usually trademark the font and colour.

Have I bored you stupid yet? The fact that I find this interesting is a sad comment about me so I'm gonna shut up now...

Bye for this week and happy writing you stylish ones!

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