The path to style guide nirvana

We all quite like knowing when we’ve got it right. It’s only natural to look for hard and fast rules about things we encounter in everyday life: always stop at red lights; don’t put foil in the microwave; never start a sentence with a conjunction…

Ah, now that last one. It’s not actually as hard and fast as it seems. In my experience, such a revelation can cause anything from shrugs and a sighs to full on tearing of hair and rending of garments.

The fact is, many of the concrete rules that many of us were versed in at school are almost always bendable, and very often perfectly fine to ignore.

I’m not going to explain their various ins and outs here. There are plenty of posts that illuminate the wriggle room around conjunctions kicking off sentences (or prepositions ending them), the splitting of infinitives and the (mis)use of dashes. Those are just a handful, and I’ll leave them to the experts at my reference sites-du-jour*: the Grammarly blog, Oxford Dictionaries and the English Language and Usage Stack Exchange. (Further recommendations welcome!)

Instead, I’m here to help you navigate the emotional and existential rollercoaster that the changing linguistic landscape seems determined to take us on. There’s a reaction when a previously solid convention starts to slip, or a new one appears, such as the “like” phenomenon. People who (rightly) thought they had the rules pinned down are outraged at these new usage instances, which clearly contravene current conventions. It feels like the only thing to do is to correct and reword relentlessly.

Now don’t get me wrong, we definitely need a set of common rules. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to communicate at all. But I’ve been listening to a linguistics podcast lately which has brought me to a healthy place of acceptance. I’d like to share my experience with you here. Fellow pendants, read on.

Linguists are interesting, because while they do use the languages they study, they’re in the business of observing them. And ultimately, language conventions bow to the tyranny of the majority. The more common a new word or construction becomes, the more likely it is to be accepted as correct. (If one formulation of a word or phrase brings up more Google results than another, use that one.)

Basically, there’s no point in fighting changes like the advent of “like” or the rise of starting with “and” (although, outside the classroom, the latter is really nothing new). I am going to make a few suggestions for how to cope with these fluctuations when you’re in charge of every aspect of the way a brand should talk.

But before that, I give you my journey to pedantic enlightenment.

Part 1: The Steep Slope.

I am slowly mastering the rules of this marvellous yet infuriating language. Somehow I am always wrong.

Part 2: The (False) Summit.

I have mastered the rules of this marvellous yet infuriating language. Somehow everyone else is always wrong.

Part 3: The Higher Plane.

The rules of this marvellous yet infuriating language are in a constant state of flux. I now see the matrix. Wrongness is a construct of the mind.^

^OK, so that is a bit of an exaggeration. There is such a thing as “ungrammatical” usage. If the word or construction is entirely novel in that moment and doesn’t follow any existing, familiar grammatical conventions, it probably isn’t going to work as a way of conveying meaning to someone else. That’s about as close to wrong as you get. So chilled out, these linguists.

On the face of it, The Higher Plane doesn’t sound very useful to the aforesaid brand language professional, but it is. It allows you (and your stakeholders, if you can bring them with you on this journey) to take an objective look at the language your business uses.

As all the mark-makers have heard me say:

“Pick a rule and stick to it”

Identify and document the rules that make sense for your brand and your writers. These seemingly small things matter: they are part of your brand’s voice out in the world. What’s more, everyone using that voice, and everyone whose interests are represented by that voice out in the world, needs to be on board.

Maybe you hold your ground on the conjunctions thing, but give way to a ban on the em-dash? Totally worth it, if that’s all that stands between you and a signed-off style guide. People’s opinions will differ, but priority here is consistency. (Personally, I love a good em-dash, but if the style guide says no, what’s a writer to do?)

Outside your style guide, rage all you want at funky capitalisation, dodgy constructions and disagreeable conjunction usage. But try to encourage everyone involved in your brand’s language to either make a case for addressing their pet hates in the style guide (and thus writing their remedies into inviolable law), or to keep it under their respective hats the next time they’re reviewing a piece of copy.

And why is this important?

Because language is powerful tool of influence and you have to use it well to make the most whatever airtime you have.

Because consistency – even down to the dashes – counts in the building of a believable brand.

Because it’ll save everyone a whole load of time discussing tiny marks on paper.


*These are my favourite grammar reference sites at the moment. For word choice, spelling and confusables, I recommend The Economist style guide (previously online, now only accessible in full if you buy the book, 12th edition out May 2018), the Guardian style guide (still free online), the BuzzFeed style newsletter and this little black book. Also, if I’m ever in doubt about a financial or legal term, I search to see what form they’re using in items dated within the last couple of years. If those guys can’t be consistent, we’re all screwed.

Written by Chloe Marshall

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