The Economist Style Guide: The bestselling guide to English usage

(Profile Books, 10th edition 2010): 264pp (pbk), £9.49 (11th ed.), ISBN 978 1 84668 175 2.

Reviewed by Sara Hulse

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Like many newspapers and magazines, The Economist issues contributors with a house style guide. Theirs has developed into a full-length reference book since its first edition in 1986 (a shorter version is available online). This 10th edition has been revised and updated.

Clear and often amusing

The first section gives general advice on writing, points out common errors and clichés, offers guidance on the proper use of punctuation and grammar, helps with spelling and hyphens, and much more. The examples are clear and often amusing. Opening the book at random, I came across the following:

redact in Latin means bring back. Do not use it, as is now fashionable to mean the opposite: obscure, blot out, obliterate. In fact, do not use it at all.
reductive is a technical term in chemistry and philosophy, now often dropped into general conversation by pretentious people anxious to impress. It is seldom clear what they mean. Avoid.
ring, wring (verbs) are rung; hands are wrung. Both may be seen at weddings.

A minor criticism of this section is that different levels of headings are indistinguishable, so you have, for example, 'abbreviations', 'ampersands', 'definite article', 'elements' ... 'writing out upper-case abbreviations', 'miscellaneous', 'absent', and 'accents'. All these headings look identical, and it took me a while to work out that the only 'main' headings here are 'abbreviations', 'absent' and 'accents'.

The second section highlights the important differences between American and British English syntax and punctuation, spelling and usage.

The third, final section contains useful reference material, covering everything from business ratios and stock market indices to chemical elements, US presidents and British prime ministers. Some new additions are the Greek alphabet, mathematical symbols, the winter Olympic Games and the solar system.

A mine of (useful?) information

As with many style guides I've come across, I suspect it may not be that easy to find the specific piece of information you need (it strikes me as the sort of book where you've got to know where to look), although the index does appear to be pretty comprehensive.

Like any style guide, it's a mine of (useful?) information, and there will be things you agree with and things you don't, things that fit in with the style of whatever you're working on and things that don't. But the book is a useful additional source of guidance to have on your bookshelf – and always interesting to dip into.

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