x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Beware Greeks bearing pedantic questions of style

No matter how comprehensive a guide may be, someone will always come up with a point that has not been covered.

Within the folklore of Fleet Street, once the heart of Britain's newspaper industry, is a tale of the night on which relations between managers and, loosely speaking, the managed were even more strained than usual. The latest dispute, which may have started as no more than a problem of communication, concerned workers who were Greek, or Greek Cypriots, with little English between them.

After all ordinary attempts at reconciliation had failed, the management reached for its last resort. The scholarly deputy editor was dispatched to the "back of the house", as the production area was known, and his classical Greek somehow saved the print run from disruption. That, at any rate, is how the episode came to be remembered. These days, even people with the same mother tongue sometimes have difficulty in making themselves understood to colleagues if those colleagues happen to belong to different generations. The existence of this occupational language barrier occurred to me recently when a reader raised what she termed "just a strange, pedantic question".

Those responsible for language style at her office had stipulated that computer-related units would no longer take a space after the numeral. Citing "1kb" as an example of the new style, she wrote: "All other types of units would continue to be formatted as they were before. Do you have any thoughts on this? The only thing I could think of was that it was being done that way on products anyway (iPod 120GB, for example), so they decided it was better to join 'em."

At first glance, I felt her question might as well have been addressed in one or other form of Greek and thought of turning for help to someone young and technologically literate. After a little reflection, I realised the question was not as daunting as I had feared. In fact, my correspondent had hinted at part of the answer: if a manufacturer expresses a product name with no space after the numeral, no harm is done by following that preference. And 1kb, with no space, is clear and visually unobjectionable (The National would describe the distance between two towns as 30km). The moral is easily drawn: if the deputy editor's classical Greek could get him successfully through a tricky encounter with irksome workers, my English should be up to resolving questions of style and usage, even in challenging territory.

What I have just done, in offering a response to a query on which I initially had no strong opinion, is similar to what happens daily in exchanges between the authors of style guides and colleagues trying follow their rulings and advice. No matter how comprehensive a guide may be, someone will always come up with a point that has not been covered. So it is with The National. Until my departure earlier this year, I tended to be approached several times every day, and sometimes late into the evening, for on-the-spot decisions on spelling, abbreviation, taste and much more besides. Rulings would be made, memos circulated and, if necessary, the style guide amended.

Now, 17 months after this newspaper first appeared, my successors are in the process of updating and substantially expanding my original style guide. This is exactly how it should be. The editor and I had agreed to keep the launch version relatively short so that the paper, while opting for British English and a serious broadsheet flavour, could develop a distinctive tone of its own. In wishing my colleagues well in their task, however, I caution them against relying on the new edition to halt the procession of staff to their desks in search of rulings on matters they have never previously had to consider.

They should also bear in mind that "sorry, it's all Greek to me" is not an acceptable response. Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae