Book review: The Economist Style Guide

The Economist Style Guide The Economist Style Guide is a concise (141 pages in the edition I use), readable and surprisingly entertaining guide to good business writing. It is arranged alphabetically and covers topics from Abbreviations to the correct usage of ‘while’.

Most of the content is straight-forward guidance such as when to hyphenate words, differences between American and British usage and a list of basic fact checking resources. This reads like Schott’s Original Miscellany but with less serendipity but more utility.

Books on prose style face two dangers. Either they become unbearably smug and didactic (Eats shoots and leaves comes to mind) or they try to be witty and show off (I’ve seen a few in-house style guides that fall into this trap).

The Economist Style Guide, as you would expect from a no-nonsense publication, avoids both pitfalls. It is matter of fact, well-formatted and instructive:

FORTUITOUS means accidental, not fortunate or well-timed.

Anglo-Saxon is not a synonym for English-speaking.

The generally terse guidelines offer little room for literary fireworks but they are clear and precise. This is what you want from a reference book.

However, The Economist Style Guide can also be read cover-to-cover as a mix of instruction and diversion. It is full of little gems:

Wolfe’s Law of Journalism. You cannot hope / to bribe or twise, / thank God! the / British journalist. / But seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.

The Economist Style Guide should be on the bookshelf of anyone who writes for business people. Reading it is even better.

7 Responses to Book review: The Economist Style Guide

  1. Perspectoff April 29, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

    Panders to imprecise linguistic conventions

    Unfortunately, the Economist Style guide adopts some conventions that make language less precise, not more so.

    For example, it discourages the use of commas in sentences that contain a series of items (a practice that introduces ambiguity into such sentences).

    It exhorts

    “Do not put a comma before and at the end of a sequence of items unless one of the items includes another and. Thus The doctor suggested an aspirin, half a grapefruit and a cup of broth. But he ordered scrambled eggs, whisky and soda, and a selection from the trolley.”

    This practice introduces ambiguity as to whether the last two items of a series are actually a group item (as is normally indicated by the conjunction “and”) or to whether they are two independent items in the series. Punctuation is meant to reduce ambiguity; this practice espoused by the Economist serves to increase ambiguity.

    In short, it panders to language laziness and cultural conventions even when those conventions degrade linguistic precision. This lessens its worth as a style guide.

    • Matthew Stibbe April 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

      Who was it who said ‘if in doubt, prefer geniality to good grammar’? Anyhow, I agree with him. Wise man. :)

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