Navigate the nuances of the English language

Leave your questions about our new style guide changes in the comments now and Joanne Anderson will be online from Monday 11am to answer them.

Let’s face it, this language of ours can be a clumsy beast. Weird spellings, shifting meanings, shifting conventions, assorted rules have been taught generations that may or may not stand up to scrutiny. Then there are the new words we have to thank or curse the internet for. Some stick, some die a quick and ruthless death. Oh, and to the list are added the Americanisms that constantly knock on our door.

We have long since produced a style guide to help our journalists write engagingly with clarity and consistency.Credit:Dominique Lorrimer

As is the case with other major news organisations, we have long produced a style guide to help our journalists navigate the pitfalls and write engagingly with clarity and consistency. We don’t seek to be on the cutting edge of English usage, but we do recognize language changes and don’t want to appear stuck in the past.

This balancing act makes for some interesting, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heated newsroom conversations between wordsmiths working in a hectic environment. Step back several decades and the debate might well have been whether married women should only be referred to by their husband’s first and last name (Mrs John Porter) or whether slurs such as “bosh twaddler” were unique to public consumption.

As editor-in-chief of age, I work on a team preparing journalists’ copy for publication online and in print. I’ve also spent a lot of time lately thinking about style issues while working with colleagues from The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Financial Review to update our shared style guide. The guide, which is around 250 pages, was last revised in 2014-2015, and it’s fair to say that a lot has happened since then. Did I hear someone whisper COVID-19?

Our updated guide, which has been made public, is a simpler affair. By far the most controversial change was the decision to remove honorary titles most of the time, which we implemented in April. In this more informal era, we thought it appropriate to join other major news organisations, such as the Guardian and even the Times of London, who have taken this step. Although the common use of Mr., Mrs. and Mrs. is being removed, titles such as Dr or Professor will of course still be used in the first reference when needed to establish a person’s credentials.

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The honorary titles were already absent from a good part of our copy. Commentary, sports, and culture articles are prime examples. Our world office organized a minor rebellion (staff must have read too many coup stories) several years ago and dropped them for practicality – major news organizations don’t use them. The last areas still standing next to them were general news and business.

The announcement of the change drew hundreds of comments from readers, many applauding the move, many unimpressed. Some readers have asked if the Queen will now simply be “Windsor.” Regardless of anyone’s opinion on the Republican debate, there’s a short answer to that: no.