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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 20, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’

    Hugh Linehan

    That’s according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who obviously never worked as a chief sub-editor. In these parts, we try as hard as our little minds will let us to keep that hobgoblin alive by adhering to the rules of the Irish Times Stylebook.

    And yes, I know, we fail daily. I’m not at all surprised that I’ve already received messages about slippage in standards of copy-editing, spelling and grammar at The Irish Times – I don’t necessarily disagree with any of them, and it’s an important issue which deserves a post of its own.

    Correct usage of the English language is vital in our trade. But it’s also vital – both for clarity and for the reader’s sanity – that we maintain a consistent house style across all sections of the newspaper and website. Style differs from correct usage; the English language is a fluid and malleable instrument which offers considerable scope for interpretation. Working for a newspaper, you need to decide what your interpretation will be, and stick to it. This inevitably leads to some style decisions with which some people – including a few of those who work in the newspaper itself – will disagree.

    A good example is the way in which we render acronyms in The Irish Times. Why, readers ask, do we write the following abbreviated titles this way:


    but these ones this way:

    Siptu, Ibec, Nato

    Actually, when you group them together like this, the logic is pretty easy to follow. According to the Stylebook:

    ‘If the letters are pronounced as a word, write in ulc [upper and lower case]: Dart, Cab, Eta, Siptu. However, don’t create words that are not in common use. If a word is pronounced as individual letters, write it as such in all caps: IRA, TUI with no full points. Spell out abbreviated names at first use (Teachers’ Union of Ireland), except in the case of well-known bodies such as RTÉ, CIÉ.’

    Put this way, it all seems eminently reasonable. We pronounce the former category as words, and spell out the second category as letters, therefore it’s logical to render them this way, right? There’s the further consideration of wanting to keep capitals to a minimum – few things visually indicate unreliability and potential instability more than A Surfeit of Capital LETTERS. So, a wise decision, for easy comprehension and typographical restraint, then?

    To be honest, I’m not so sure. When I read that an alleged drug dealer’s house has been raided by Cab, the picture that springs to mind is of a large taxi pulling up at the door. Whereas if I saw CAB, I would think Criminal Assets Bureau and still say ‘cab’. Capitals would more accurately reflect the way in which the word is conceptualised verbally.

    I see a title rendered in ulc, and my (admittedly second-rate) mind automatically thinks of it as a proper name, not as the collection of initials which give it meaning. The disconnect makes reading less easy. But hey, maybe that’s just me. One way or another, it’s in the Stylebook, so I grit my teeth, lower my head and do as I’m told.

    (Emerson’s quote in full: ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.’)

    • robespierre says:

      Why not adopt Orwell’s guidance from Politics and the English Language:

      Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
      Never use a long word where a short one will do.
      If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
      Never use the passive where you can use the active.
      Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
      Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

    • Eoin says:

      In the UK, The Times and The Guardian put their style guides online for readers and contributors to see. Why doesn’t The Irish Times do so?

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Good point Eoin. We should definitely do so. I’ll pursue it.

    • Donald says:

      The eccentricity in the style guide that always baffles me, Hugh, is “second World War” for the conflict that every other news organ in the world calls the “Second World War”. Do we have an explanation for the lower-case “second”?

    • Mimi says:

      How odd! Only last week it behoved me to comment on the grammatical ‘abusage’ of one of your blogeagues. She did not take it well! Does the ‘Stylebook’ refer to the ‘English’ Language or Hiberno-English? (Even spellcheck fascist doesn’t like that one!) I’m only ‘after’ forgettin’! Time to exit stage left…?

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Mimi: Sorry to hear Ms Bear did not take your criticism well. As a lifelong masochist myself, I always enjoy a good lashing for any grammatical mistakes I might make.

      The Stylebook is silent on the subject of Hiberno-English. However, it’s silent on many things. And it doesn’t really allow for the sort of informality which might be appropriate in some quarters of the paper, including blogs. None of which excuses bad grammar or incorrect usage, of course.

      Donald: No idea. It probably goes back to some bibulous debate in the Pearl Bar. When I started in here, I was under the impression that we said First World War and second World War, which seemed to suggest veterans of the trenches holding fast to the idea that the latter conflict had been a mere appendix or afterthought. I have no supporting evidence for this, but why not put it out there anyway?

    • Mimi says:

      Thank you for that elucidation everything is so much clearer now! As the paper of record I would expect only the highest standards from the IT. I’m only ‘after’ thinkin’; perhaps the term ‘Bogger’ instead of ‘blogger’ would better describe the Anglo-Hibernophiles.

    • Donald says:

      I’m afraid to say, Hugh, that the style book does indeed urge “first World War”. So it’s eccentric, but consistent in its eccentricity.

    • The best entry in the Irish Times Stylebook (which I’m sure I’m dancing all over with my poorly constructed iPhone-written blog comment) is the one on Muhammed Ali.

      It’s there as direction on Muhammad/Mohammad/Cassius Clay questions, I suspect, and reads simply:.

      - Muhammed Ali (The Greatest).

    • Brian says:

      I’d purchase a copy of d’Times’ styleguide in printed format.

    • dealga says:

      Can someone help me with this: if you express an abbreviation in plural terms do you use an apostrophe or not? For example my company abbreviates ‘Quality Assurance Report’ to QAR. So are they ‘QARs’ or ‘QAR’s'?

      I hate TLAs / TLA’s

    • Patrick Hennessy says:

      Language is organic, or living, or something similar.

      Don’t tie it down. Let it bloom.

      Editors should only have one function. To make something understood. Not to make it grammatically correct.

      Chill out. Be cool.

      30 years ago you would not have understood this command !.

      And thus language is. Sort a like jazz but for the hard a hearing!! Go with the flow …..

      Patrick Hennessy.


    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Patrick. While making allowances for the fact that you are in Bangkok, where they do things differently, that’s the worst unadulterated hippie balderdash I’ve heard since… I was in Bangkok

    • Jimmy Kavanagh says:

      What absolute bollocks, all the kids use SMS these days, and that’s a different language entirely.

    • Shock-headed Peadar says:

      Sorry pal, it’s Esri. Some say eet like zat.


      Shock-headed Peadar (= an insider who knows about these trhings)

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Peadar: sez who? It ain’t in the stylebook, and I sure as hell don’t know anyone who says it like that. Just did a straw poll in the office, and glad to report everyone agrees with me. You obviously represent some sinister cabal dedicated to destroying the newspapers’ standards from within (I note your subversive spelling of ‘things’)

    • Shock-headed Peadar says:

      Dear boy, do have a peep at previous page ones. If we are dee paper of wreckord, we are by definition right. It is Esri! And as for staw poll? I am sure you prefer Straw Dogs. Popular culture, innit? Style guides are violent in the wrong claws.

    • Hugh Linehan says:

      Peadar: this headline from a recent p1 story: ‘ESRI predicts no significant recovery in economy before 2011′.
      There are a couple of instances in the archive where it’s rendered Esri, but the vast majority are all caps and correct. Could it be that you are the miscreant responsible for the mistakes? I fear I may have to reach for my shotgun.

    • Shock-headed Peadar says:

      ANSwer the question! Do you prefer Straw Dogs or not? In relation to the Esri debate, surely it is the exception that proves the rule? Esri, Esri. Esri.There are sophisticated circles in this town where we talk of little else. Would you like to be inducted? Bank account number (Aib) to follow…

    • kynos says:

      Should we cleave to rules or cleave them? Never say ‘sanction’ when you mean ‘sanction’.

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