How often have you paused, while writing anything from an informal e-mail to an examination paper, to ask yourself whether you have chosen the right word or phrase? Take comfort. Most honest people would probably answer in the affirmative, and they would certainly include professional writers. About one year ago, I was asked to write a style guide for The National with the intention of encouraging uniformity of expression throughout a new newspaper aimed at an intelligent, English-speaking readership.
It was a daunting task. Our newspaper-to-be was assembling a team of experienced and talented journalists. However, these recruits were to join us from every part of the English-speaking world, and in some cases after growing up in countries (including this one) where English is not officially the first language. As the earliest arrivals began to prepare for the launch, it became clear that we needed a quick decision on the form of English the paper should adopt.
A lively debate ensued, and I won. The National, it was agreed, would express itself in British English. But what had entitled me to argue so passionately for such an outcome? I brought no academic authority to the discussion. My interest in newspaper writing styles had simply developed over four decades in the trade. In one of the various roles in which I was employed by The Daily Telegraph of London, my duties had included acting as the custodian of a style book full of rules and preferences.
At least a little of each working day would be devoted to reminding staff of the style book's provisions and amending reporters' copy to make it conform to them. During this period, I found myself dealing with the august sticklers who run the Queen's English Society (QES). Now my own spoken English owes rather more to the north-eastern England of my youth than to the clipped tones of the royal court. Even so, the QES seemed to recognise a kindred spirit. Its vice president, Anne Shelley, had written to express her dismay at a news report commencing: "One in 10 women has drunk themselves unconscious, according to a survey..."
Mrs Shelley complained that the effect of this serious article was spoilt by the sloppiness of its opening paragraph. "I realise that 'his or her' has been superseded by 'they'," she wrote. "But as the gender of the subject is known, surely you could have written 'one in 10 has drunk herself unconscious'." So accustomed was Mrs Shelley to being ignored or mocked when tackling editors about poor English usage that she was astounded to receive a reply agreeing without hesitation with the point she had made. She went so far as to invite me to be the guest speaker at the next annual meeting of the society.
Perhaps it is that small honour that offers some justification for my endeavours to impose style preferences, necessarily influenced by three decades on a British broadsheet newspaper, on colleagues at The National. Once a week, in this space, I will choose one of the issues raised in my style guide or return to a point made in that speech to the QES and, in doing so, gradually introduce you to my world of words.
Colin Randall is executive editor of The National. firstname.lastname@example.org