Errors and Omissions Are Inevitable: On style guides and their discontents
“We, the current editors of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, must—with great reluctance—clarify a point of orthography,” runs a well-known XKCD cartoon. “‘Strunk & White’ should be used for the style manual and ‘Strunk/White’ for the erotic fan fiction pairing.” While The Elements of Style and its ilk do not, disappointingly, cover fanfiction pairing naming conventions, the cartoon is characteristically insightful about the totalizing ambitions of style manuals. Do you want to know how to transcribe American Sign Language? Cite a social media shitpost? Apply the correct kerning to a mathematical equation? There’s a style guide out there—and most likely more than one—with an answer for you. Browse through enough of them, and it can start to seem like little more than a matter of time before they come for fanfiction as well. And when they do, as the cartoon hints, their judgments are likely to come with a side of—well, judgment. While supposedly agnostic about the content of the texts they pronounce on, style guides’ aesthetic principles are often openly indebted to specific moral and political values: “The intent is to suggest that … the beginner err on the side of conservatism,” as William Strunk remarks in the closing section of The Elements of Style. In short, these manuals are the ultimate definitive guide, both products and purveyors of the reassuring fantasy that there exists, somewhere, a finite yet comprehensive set of rules for language.
This fantasy—erotic or otherwise—is not my subject here. Rather than discuss the obvious normative role of the style guide or the admirable attempts that have been made to dethrone its prescriptivism, I wish instead to examine those places where the mask of authority slips. That at least some of the style guide’s prescriptions are arbitrary is clear to anyone who has ever found themselves in a disagreement over the virtues of the serial comma. The closer one looks, however, the clearer it becomes that unassailable linguistic principles are the exception, not the rule—if indeed they exist at all. Over the course of this essay, then, I first draw on Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories “On Exactitude in Science” and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in order to define the limits of the style guide as a genre. I then discuss it in terms of three key metaphors: map, spiral, and haunted house. The first section (“map”) deals with the guide’s relationship to its political context, the second (“spiral”) with its relationship to its own status and processes of production, and the third (“haunted house”) with its relationship to language itself. Over the course of this examination, it becomes clear that despite its authoritative facade, the edifice of the style guide is riddled with cracks. Through these, I suggest, we may catch glimpses of deeper anxieties regarding the relationship between language and reality.
My chosen text for this investigation is the European Commission’s English Style Guide. This 127-page volume, which is available in its entirety online, is something of an edge case as style guides go. Lacking the long history of an Elements of Style or a Hart’s Rules, and straining to live up to the unique challenges of regulating language across a fractious twenty-seven-member bloc, the Guide wears its flaws more openly than its venerable counterparts. Here, dry lists of rules are repeatedly punctured by confessions of the authors’ own inadequacy, appeals to external authorities, and bizarre windows into the institutional decision-making process (what story lies behind the firm instruction to “Prefer carcass(es) to carcase(s)”?). This makes the Guide an unusually clear illustration of the contradictions of the form. It also possesses the secondary virtue of being unexpectedly funny—sometimes even intentionally so.
In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.
So begins Borges’s single-paragraph short story “On Exactitude in Science.” We might think of this as the maximally descriptivist approach to the relationship between reality and representation, the map’s sorry end a firm rebuke to its ambitions: “The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless” and left it to rot, along with all “the Disciplines of Geography.” At the other end of the descriptivism-prescriptivism scale, meanwhile, is the much lengthier “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” with its narrative of a secret society engaged in the invention of a fictional world. Over the course of this story, as the details of this world are disseminated into our own through both the authoritative medium of the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön and more ad-hoc discoveries of “Tlönian” artifacts, reality begins to buckle under the strain. By the end of Borges’s account, Earth history and languages have been replaced in schools by those of Tlön, with other disciplines soon to follow. “The world will be Tlön,” declares the narrator, with neither enthusiasm nor any hope of preventing this usurpation.
For the purposes of this essay, I read “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” as the ultimate victory of the style guide. In Borges’s story, a proposed reality succeeds in propagating itself beyond the books that incubated it and ultimately displacing the prevailing worldview wholesale—William Strunk himself could hardly wish for more. Key to this victory is the structured form in which Tlön is presented: while the fictional world begins as a single interpolated entry in a pirated encyclopedia, it reaches critical mass only with the publication of the forty-volume First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, after which the unsettling intrusion of physical objects from Tlön into our own reality becomes possible. In other words, if you want to create your own world, it helps to start with a map.
If “On Exactitude in Science” represents the perfect reflection of reality and “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” the perfect infiltration of it, where, then, does the European Commission’s English Style Guide fall on this spectrum? We might expect it, like most such guides, to favor the “Tlön” end—and with a contents page that covers everything from the humble comma to the more esoteric “Conversion table for Bulgarian serial numbering,” it certainly offers a formidable apparatus for ordering the world. Its introduction, too, pays tribute to prescriptivism by invoking a distinct hierarchy of linguistic authority: “Writing in clear language can be difficult at the Commission, since much of the subject matter is complex and more and more is written in English by (and for) non-native speakers, or by native speakers who are beginning to lose touch with their language after years of working in a multilingual environment.” There is little appetite here, it seems, for a more descriptive guide that reflects the unique perspectives and linguistic idiosyncrasies that non-native speakers might bring to English. A paragraph later, however, this assumption of authority begins to wobble. When it comes to documents used within the European institutions themselves, the Guide concedes, “we may regard ‘Eurospeak’ as acceptable professional shorthand; searching here for ‘plain English’ periphrases [sic] wastes time and simply irritates readers.” Rather than being an independent object with a single permissible form—primarily the property of native speakers—language instead becomes a matter of context, and the potential sources of authority over it multiple.
This tension between prescriptivism and descriptivism, authority and multipolarity, is visible throughout the Guide. In a section entitled “Personal names and titles,” for example, the non-binary title “Mx” is presented as unquestionably equivalent to its gendered counterparts “Mr” and “Ms,” with no mention of the controversies that inevitably surround non-binary language use in wider society. Nor does the Guide feel the need to reach for external sources of authority to justify its prescriptions here. “Avoid titles not customary in English,” it states simply, “but note that if you use Mr, Ms or Mx, you must be sure of the gender of the person in question.” Note, also, the implication that “Mx” is a customary title in English, a true instance of the Guide rewriting reality to match its own biases. As a non-binary person, I’m naturally sympathetic to this slant, but having wrestled with my fair share of online forms that see fit to offer “Reverend,” “Dame,” and “Wing Commander” as title options while still excluding “Mx,” can’t in good conscience claim that it’s accurate.
By contrast, in a later section on inclusive language, the Guide displays remarkable ambivalence regarding the use of singular “they” as a pronoun. The section opens with the disclaimer that “this is an evolving and sensitive area of language,” thereby absolving the authors of responsibility should a reader find its recommendations dated or offensive. While it then goes on to stipulate that individuals should be referred to by the pronoun they themselves use, which might include singular “they” for a non-binary person, it is considerably less emphatic about the potential use of singular “they” for an individual of unknown gender. This option is eventually found buried in a long list of alternative gendering strategies, from the use of the plural (“Researchers must be objective about their findings”) to the omission of pronouns altogether (“The chair expressed his/her/its dissent”). When it does appear, it is accompanied not only by a self-justificatory aside invoking both tradition and popularity in its defense—“This device was formerly perceived as grammatically incorrect, but has been attested to in print since the 14th century and is currently widely used”—but also by a footnote pointing the reader to the Oxford Dictionaries website should they(!) feel in need of further reassurance. This flurry of justifications, with its repeated recourse to external sources of authority, is all the odder when contrasted with the straightforward instruction a few paragraphs later to “Refer to ʻtransgender people/personsʼ instead of ʻtransgendersʼ.” While the reader might previously have taken such an unequivocal statement on trust, the lack of supporting information now renders it suspect when compared with the detail lavished on singular “they.”
Overall, then, the English Style Guide is at best an uneasy source of authority: while we may find much to praise in its pragmatism and generally progressive politics, it is neither a faithful reflection of the empire of really existing language, nor an effective map in the Tlönian sense. The areas where it allows room for discussion inevitably highlight those where it does not, rendering its authority in the latter immediately assailable while opening it up to charges of hypocrisy. And while the Guide serves as an extreme example, this motion back and forth between prescriptivism and descriptivism is visible throughout the genre. Even the imperious Strunk admits that “The language is perpetually in flux: it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time. To suggest that a young writer not swim in the main stream of this turbulence would be foolish indeed.” To the attentive reader, such concessions are threads on which one might pull in order eventually to unravel the whole.
Having considered the relationship between the English Style Guide and the political context it seeks to represent, I now wish to examine its relationship to its own status and means of production. Given the relative youth of the Guide and the importance of the political project for which it stands, one might expect the text’s tone to be earnest, if not grandiloquent. However, this proves to be surprisingly far from the case. While much of the text is predictably dry (there is only so much human interest one can inject into rules regarding semicolon use), self-referential examples and humor frequently break the facade of neutrality and highlight the people and processes involved in the production of the Guide. These elements serve to destabilize its authority in two main ways: firstly, an awareness of its production processes goes hand in hand with an awareness that they could easily have turned out differently. Secondly, the often absurdist humor of the Guide undermines its own gravity while raising questions about who, precisely, its instructions are intended for. While the twin poles of Tlön and empire remain useful reference points here, I would also like to introduce the spiral as another apt image for thinking through these questions. Starting over, short-circuiting, and occasionally circling the drain, it’s style guides all the way down.
The example sentences in the Guide’s section on commas begin unremarkably: “The committee identified two errors in the document: the date of implementation and the regulation number.” Less than a page later, however, they have already become self-referential—“The committee on commas agreed a final text, but the issue of semicolons was not considered”—and immediately afterwards we encounter “The committee on commas is composed of old fogeys, as we all know.” This is, perhaps, humor that could only appeal to a bored Eurocrat. In its self-awareness, however, it lays bare the mechanisms that go into producing a style guide—the tedious committee meetings, the interdepartmental conflicts. We opted for this rule, it seems to say, but things could have gone differently, if only Herr Hauser from the Luxembourg office hadn’t insisted on sticking his oar in. This is a far cry from the self-possessed certainties of Tlön. Nor do such self-referential examples necessarily express anxieties over particularly abstruse or controversial points of grammar. Rather, they call into question even unexceptionable decisions, such as the use of a comma after an introductory phrase. The Guide, then, already contains its own revisions, returning a different answer each time it circles back around to address an issue.
Indeed, even when not explicitly self-referential, the sheer oddity of the Guide’s example sentences often redirects attention to the processes of their creation, as with the carcass/carcase example mentioned in my introduction. Why, the reader wonders, was this clarification necessary? And what further implications would it carry for Europe if the relevant committee had opted for “carcase” instead? In these moments of humor and absurdity, we see the glimmerings of a third option for what a style guide might do and be, far from the Borgesian possibilities discussed above. Neither a reflection nor an infiltration of reality, the Guide instead becomes a generator of alternative worlds, a fractal spiral in which each subsection spins off its own infinite possibilities.
At the same time that they generate alternative possibilities, however, these example sentences paradoxically form another kind of spiral: a closed loop, in which the style guide turns in on itself rather than seeking to influence the world beyond. Who, they seem to ask, would actually read the Guide if not forced to by their own involvement in the Brussels bubble? While this again represents an abandonment of the totalizing ambitions of Tlön, it may also engender sympathy in the reader, themselves likely either a bored bureaucrat or an underpaid translator at the sharp end of the EU’s outsourcing mechanisms. We all have to get through this guide somehow, it seems to say, so we may as well enjoy it where we can. This sense of solidarity is reinforced by the absurdist humor found throughout, which ranges from deliberately tortured metaphors (“Do not change syntactical horses in midstream”) to startlingly random examples (“Two million cows had to die!”) and bizarre juxtapositions:
See [point] 6.4 below
See [the section on] ‘The sexual life of the camel’ on page 21
See [Section] 4.2.1
Reading these, anyone who has worked in an office is likely to recall similar instances of jokes slipped under their manager’s radar. Eurocrats: they’re just like us! These elements highlight the fact that those who have most frequent cause to invoke a style guide’s authority are also those with the keenest awareness of its flaws. (For all the lofty claims that such guides make about their purposes, in my experience as a commercial translator who regularly juggles half a dozen of them a day, they’re most frequently employed simply to back up one’s stylistic decisions when a client refuses to accept one’s own experience or qualifications as sufficient evidence of mastery over a language.) Far from adhering to any abstract ideal of aesthetics, then, in the affective feedback loop between creators and users, the authority of the style guide is revealed as a convenient fiction in which both parties collude.
Having examined the outward-facing, self-undermining tendencies of the English Style Guide and the inward spirals of self-doubt and absurd alternative realities generated by its example sentences, I now wish to turn away from political and human factors in order to focus directly on language itself. While this area seems as though it should be the least controversial—a period remains a period, regardless of any particular committee’s opinion on the matter—the harder the Guide tries to pin down specific grammatical rules, the slipperier language in fact becomes. A closer examination of these elements begs the question of whether any linguistic rules can be said to have an objective existence, or whether the unlucky compilers of style guides have in fact stumbled into a kind of haunted house, where all that is solid melts into air and seemingly ordinary doors open onto impossible new dimensions.
One of the longest sections of the Guide is that dedicated to compound words and hyphens, and its cheerfully undiscriminating opening line, “Compounds may be written as two or more separate words, with hyphen(s), or as a single word,” gives a sense of the confusions that are to follow. Over the course of fourteen sub-items, the Guide asserts various rules only to immediately undermine them with either exceptions or qualifications such as “Hyphens need not be inserted, however, if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without them.” The reader who begins the section with a firm grasp on what constitutes “clear and unambiguous,” however, is likely to find their certainty undermined at every turn. Prefixes are “usually” hyphenated, we learn, unless they come from Greek or Latin, in which case they “tend to” drop the hyphen over time, unless they are part of a third group—here the Guide throws in the towel entirely and makes no attempt to define this group’s characteristics—in which case they may either retain the hyphen or simply write the compound as two separate words. It’s as though the reader has opened a door only to find two further doors behind it, each of which conceals two or more doors of its own. The possibilities multiply dizzyingly in proportion to the effort expended in pinning down a single rule, and the question morphs slowly from when we’ll finally touch bottom to whether the bottom even exists at all.
In the above examples, generalizations such as “commonly,” “often,” and “many” proliferate as the Guide struggles to avoid admitting that many of these grammatical “rules” are arbitrary and historically contingent. Elsewhere, the fact that language is indeed a matter of consensus rather than an object with an independent existence is acknowledged, but the parameters of this consensus are left obscure, as with the instruction to anglicize names of regions—the Black Forest, for example—“if the English has wide currency.” How wide is wide? “[W]hen an abbreviation that may not be familiar to readers first occurs, it is best to write out the full term followed by the abbreviation in brackets,” begins the section on abbreviations, but who determines what the readers in question are likely to be familiar with? The dimensions here shift depending on who is observing them, and the ghosts of excluded possibilities are always close at hand.
Once you notice these gestures towards descriptivism, the sections in which the Guide takes a more Tlönian approach become doubly uncanny. “Initial capitals are often employed to excess in commercial and administrative circles,” states the opening of the section on capitalization, “but they can be visually distracting and are often unnecessary”—an opinion unlikely to be shared by many of the world’s headline writers, or indeed by the authors of the Chicago, APA, or MLA style manuals. Compounds in which the hyphen is commonly omitted include, the Guide claims, “cooperation” and “coordinate”—unfortunate examples given that The New Yorker’s idiosyncratic choices in this regard have made them live issues to this day. On these and many other occasions, the sheer availability of counterexamples immediately undercuts the confidence with which supposed rules are laid down, the apparently sturdy walls of the house vanishing abruptly into thin air. And as with the unraveling authority of the “Map” section, this deconstruction goes still further: if all these style points are essentially arbitrary, what else is up for debate? Can we in fact trust a statement such as “A full stop marks the end of a sentence,” or is this, too, merely a matter of perspective?
Conclusion: errors and omissions are inevitable
A style guide, in the final analysis, is a text that deconstructs itself. That a real-world example of the genre can achieve neither the ultimate prescriptivism of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” nor the ultimate descriptivism of “On Exactitude in Science” is perhaps unsurprising. As we look deeper at the processes of their production, however, we see these real-world guides begin to break down in ways that go beyond mere failure to achieve an ideal. Oscillating uneasily between authority and multipolarity, and regularly generating alternate versions of their own pronouncements, they ultimately come to question the foundational assumption of their fictional counterparts—that their audience is (or should be) the entire world. Should we then insist on going still deeper, drilling down to pure language in search of something stable on which to base their authority, we are likely to find our most fundamental assumptions beginning to give way under the strain. The floor vanishes beneath our feet, and rules open up into fractal hallways, at the end of which the ghostly figure of the reader is forever disappearing.
At the end of the day, then, rather than criticize the authors of the English Style Guide for failing to present a comprehensive model of the world, it might be fairer to praise their clear-eyed acknowledgement of the essentially elusive nature of language. “While we have done our best to ensure that the information set out in this guide is relevant, correct and up to date,” their introduction concludes, “errors and omissions are inevitable.”
(A postscript: at the end of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Tlön’s conquest of our own world is not yet complete. The forty volumes of the First Encyclopaedia of Tlön, the narrator tells us, “would be the basis for another more detailed edition, written not in English but in one of the languages of Tlön.” Only at this point, some hundred years or so after the end of the story, will the world itself become Tlön. To conquer reality, you require a map of what will replace it. To create the map, you must first conquer language itself.)
 William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New York: Allyn and Bacon, 2000), Chapter V, PDF.
 See the first entry listed under “Style guides.”
 English Style Guide, last updated July 2023, 19.
 Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” in The Aleph, trans. Andrew Hurley (London: Penguin, 2000), 181.
 Jorge Luis Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in Labyrinths, trans. James E. Irby (London: Penguin, 2000), 43.
 English Style Guide, 4.
 Ibid, 32.
 Ibid, 69.
 Ibid, 70-71.
 Ibid, 71.
 See also the Country Compendium, a companion volume to the Guide available at the link in footnote 2, which wrestles openly with the ways in which regional political controversies manifest in language as it lays down guidelines for everything from the correct spelling of the Icelandic Parliament’s name to the preferred transliteration schema for Ukrainian Cyrillic.
 Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, Chapter V.
 English Style Guide, 9.
 Ibid, 10.
 The latter scenario in fact describes my own first contact with the Guide.
 Ibid, 63.
 Ibid, 14.
 Ibid, 67.
 Ibid, 21.
 Ibid, 22.
 Ibid, 23.
 Ibid, 36.
 Ibid, 45.
 Ibid, 25.
 Ibid, 24.
 Ibid, 7.
 Ibid, 5.
 Borges, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” 40.