Some writing principles and the style guide that I haven’t written

A discussion about ableist language stimulated by this article has made me aware of my habitual use of words like idiot and stupid. If that’s offensive (as the article suggests) then I’d prefer not to use them.

Also they are a form of thought-stopping; they reject the person or behaviour that is described without explaining anything. And that’s true of all of these metaphors. For example, if I say David Cameron’s policies are stupid, I am not going to persuade anyone of anything. People who dislike Cameron will agree, and people who like him will not listen. It communicates nothing to no-one. If I say David Cameron’s policies will not work because they fail to take account of x,y and z there’s a small chance that people will listen.

These discussions have clarified a few principles that I have set for myself.

I can’t and won’t legislate about grammar or semantics.

Anyone who tries to enforce rules in these areas is a would-be King Cnut.

On this topic I both agree and disagree with my friend Paul. I agree with him that I can’t make rules about his use of language that I regard as ableist. All I can do is suggest, and if he disagrees with me, that doesn’t make him wrong or bad.

On the same basis I think that he can’t enforce rules about the grammar that other people use. Again, we can both politely point out to other people that there may be better ways of expressing things.

In some cases, use of conventional grammar and semantics aids comprehension

I use conventional grammar, adhere to dictionary definitions and follow usage guides (like Fowler, Garner) where they are relevant. I am also happy to suggest these things to other people. It’s up to them whether they agree with me. But …

Many conventional rules of grammar are obsolete or just wrong

For example the rule banning split infinitives is a misguided attempt to make English work like Latin, which it doesn’t. To boldly go is just as comprehensible as boldly to go, or to go boldly (although boldly to go has a nice rhythm). And to respect the distinction between who and whom makes you sound prissy and old-fashioned. Who would write To whom did you write this letter? It is preferable to write Who did you write this letter to? even if it also breaks another misguided rule that bans ending sentences with prepositions.

Some words have payloads that are potentially offensive. I will avoid these whenever I am aware of them. There is always another way of saying things, and it is usually more precise

Many metaphors are offensive, pompous or cliched. Writing is clearer without them.

There are degrees of these things. For example, stupid is not as offensive as schizophrenic. I’ll try to avoid them all. You may do as you see fit. If you get to the highly derogatory ones, I may lose respect for you.

It costs little effort to get rid of these things and I can see no benefit to them. I can live the rest of my life without ever saying the blind leading the blind, my words fell on deaf ears, etc etc. Other people may go on saying these things. I will probably think those people are less than perfect, but then no one is perfect. They will probably come round in the end.

If a person or group of people has expressed preferences for how I should talk about them, I will try to respect that.

For example, I will refer to Chelsea Manning as she even if I am referring to the time before her transition. Because that’s what she wants.


These are standards that I set for myself. They are the basis for the style guide that I haven’t written, and anyone who writes in my non-existent team should respect them. Everyone else may do what they like.