As you know, I like to keep you up to date from time to time on the debates that we at The Economist have internally about style. That’s because these debates can improve your writing too.
This has ranged from the use and abuse of single words (such as like) to the good and bad use of direct quotes and the benefits of disdaining reader expectations.
After our last issue closed, we had another round of these invariably edifying and witty debates. It was kicked off by our doyen of style, who sent this missive:
The paper would be easier to read if we used fewer brackets, dashes and semi-colons. These are all fine in moderation, but not in profusion. Brackets are often unnecessary. Try taking them out. Dashes can be confusing, especially if you have more than one set in a paragraph or, worse, in a single sentence. They can usually be replaced by commas. And semi-colons, particularly when used in narrow columns like ours, tend to make readers feel they are struggling through one interminable sentence. They are usually better replaced by full stops.
Another annoyance is the use of “the former” and “the latter”. This almost always obliges the reader to stop, go back and work out which is which.
We then had another evergreen debate, also of interest to all writers: How much knowledge should you assume your readers to have? From the same style guru:
Some section editors assume their readers are as familiar with their subject matter as they are. Tom DeLay, Nancy Pelosi and Rush Limbaugh were all mentioned in one piece this week without any explanation of who they were. Explanations can be tedious, especially in columns, and we sometimes strive too hard, describing General Motors, say, as a car company. But remember that not everyone knows as much as you do.
This made me smile, because I’ve often mocked us for saying things like “Microsoft, a large software company” (notice that it is not “the large software company”, since there are other software companies). Why not “America, a large country”?
As I was smirking, a colleague, tongue-in-cheek, pointed us all to no less an authority than our Wikipedia page, where we are taken to task for exactly this:
The newspaper usually does not translate short French quotes or phrases, and sentences in Ancient Greek or Latin are not uncommon. It does, however, describe the business or nature of even well-known entities; writing, for example, “Goldman Sachs, an investment bank”.”