‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’
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:
SDLP, OECD, ESRI
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.’)