2003 Firing Order Reference Index

106 7

Authors of style guides aren't expected to busy themselves with the rich complexities of language. Their job is to pass swift judgments on matters of usage and move on.

It's no surprise, then, that Simon Heffer likes his grammar clear-cut and prescriptive.

Until May 2011, when he resigned to "complete a major literary project," Heffer was the associate editor of England's Daily Telegraph and keeper of that newspaper's style guide.

Like many editors, Heffer made a habit of correcting the stylistic infelicities of his colleagues. Unlike other editors, he delivered these lessons in snippy emails that were published on the Telegraph website. As long as you're not the poor scribe who committed an offense, Heffer's notes are a pleasure to read, even when some of his prescriptions sound a bit dated.

To mark the publication of Heffer's new book, Strictly English, we offer several examples of his pet peeves.
  • Americanisms
    [T]he word "policymaker" is a nasty Americanism. If we must say it, we hyphenate it.
    (November 14, 2008)

    [W]e have had some unfortunate Americanisms in the paper. There is no need to write "parking lot" when you can write "car park." Barristers in this country are not members of law firms; they work from chambers. Witnesses do not "take the stand" on this side of the Atlantic. In this country we have railway stations, not train stations. Travelling has two l's in it. Our Armed Forces are not "the military."
    (December 3, 2009)

  • Confusables
    There have been some difficulties with grammar since I last wrote. Lay is a transitive verb (I lay down a case of claret every month; she laid the table), lie an intransitive one (he lies over there; she lay in bed until noon). Do not confuse [lay and lie].
    (February 12, 2010)

    The misuse of it's and its continues to happen, and it should not. Not for the first time, either, we had an artist mixing paints on his palate, which must be pretty unpleasant.
    (April 6, 2009)

    We have also confused Briton and Britain, hanger and hangar, hordes and hoards, peeled and pealed, lightening and lightning, stationery and stationary, principal and principle, . . . and, in something of a pile-up, born, borne and bourn. If you are unsure of the meanings of any of these words, look them up before proceeding further.
    (August 2, 2010)
  • Misplaced Modifiers
    One of our journalists aged dramatically overnight when writing the sentence: "Although now 80, I hear that she . . .," making himself the subject of the sentence in which he actually meant to describe an octogenarian. He should have written "I hear that she, although 80 . . .."
    (May 28, 2010)

    There are many reasons to avoid using long sentences when writing. An obvious one is that the message is transmitted to the readers most easily when it is concise. Another is that an array of clauses can sometimes cause confusion. When we wrote that "on Thursday, the body of 45-year-old darts fan Philip Hughes, from Slough, was recovered from beneath ice in a frozen lake in Fimley Green, Surrey, where he had been watching the BDO darts world championships" we reported something not only tragic but also remarkable. (The championship, by the way, is held at Frimley Green, not Fimley Green; and style dictates that we should have called the unfortunate man "Philip Hughes, a 45-year-old darts fan.")
    (January 8, 2010)
  • Redundancies
    On a highly topical note, it is tautologous to talk of "a global pandemic." The adjective is redundant.
    (April 28, 2009)

    If you use the phrase "PIN number" you are in fact saying "personal identification number number," which is probably not what you intended.
    (March 26, 2010)
  • Subject-Verb Agreement
    We seem to get confused by plural nouns and the verbs they need. There was, though, no excuse for "the chances of winning has already fallen" or for "the potential for conflicts of interest are immense."
    (December 12, 2008)

    [N]ote what is wrong with "if the rise of new economic powers mean our capacity . . ." and "wide open spaces--indoors--is what we craved." Check your verb agrees with your subject.
    (December 3, 2009)
  • Typos
    One reader, having spotted the words "Chrsitmas" and "adminsitration" in the same story wondered whether our newsroom was now being run by "mnokeys." While it is good to provide the customers with amusement, it should be intentional.
    (November 20, 2008)

    There have been some ugly near-misses too: "electric shop treatment," "wedding vowels," and "humour" for "human." Such things are inexcusable and make us look extremely silly.
    (March 26, 2010)

    In recent times we have had "depilatory power," "built an alter," "observation desk," "wreathes" (a noun), "diary cows," "vocal cords" and the apparently inevitable "open to the pubic." . . . I repeat: please engage in the fundamental professionalism of reading what you write before it is published.
    (December 3, 2009)

Practically every one of Heffer's emails ended with some version of this caustic reminder: "Perhaps the most important thing of all to note is that it appears to have been so long since some of you read your style books that you have forgotten what is in them."

If that remark stings your conscience, you'll find Heffer's official guide at Telegraph Style Book.
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