BBC News style on grammar and spelling is not Strictly to everyone’s taste

is style editor, BBC newsroom in London

'The couple leaving us is...' Or should that be 'are'? Deborah Meaden exits Strictly Come Dancing

Coming up with a style guide is often about choices: where there are two (or more) ways of doing something, which one do you go for?

That's why when we launched the BBC News style guide on the College of Journalism website a few months ago I said style custodians were always in the right because they make decisions they expect colleagues to follow. But it's clear audiences do not always take the same view.

In recent weeks we've had a number of emails from people taking issue with our choices and insisting we should adopt their preferences.

One correspondent was annoyed that we refer to ‘euros’, pointing out that the singular and plural were the same. He cited the European Union's own legislation - documents such as this.

It was suggested that should trump the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). But style guides are not dictated by other organisations - how we in BBC News render BBC titles does not conform to how the corporation itself writes them. And, interestingly, that European Commission guidance notes: “This spelling without an ‘s’ may be seen as departing from usual English practice for currencies.”

Another website reader contended that, as a collective noun, ‘a number of’ required a singular verb, as in ‘a number of soldiers was injured’.

She cited her own grammar gurus, insisting we were wrong and questioning whether English was the writer's first language (grammar discussions can be forthright…). But once again we were happy to rely on the OED, which had conveniently given the matter some consideration: “The construction the number of + plural noun is used with a singular verb (as in the number of people affected remains small). Thus it is the noun number rather than the noun people which is taken to agree with the verb... By contrast, the apparently similar construction a number of + plural noun is used with a plural verb (as in a number of people remain to be contacted)… In the latter case, a number of works as if it were a single word, such as some or several.”

None of this means the BBC is infallibly correct and the audience wrong - just that we have made certain choices and are happy to explain them.

Actually, singular/plural is a tricky area all round. We often get North American users objecting to the UK tradition of referring to sports teams in the plural. But I can't imagine writing (or reading): ‘Arsenal was on the defensive in the first half and its keeper made a string of fine saves.’

Joining sports teams are pop groups and the police. All other bodies and organisations should be singular (except the Taliban, which is the plural of Talib).

Where I'm out of line with some is that I think ‘pair’ and ‘couple’ work better in the plural, though I respect Sir Bruce Forsyth for sticking resolutely to the singular on Strictly Come Dancing ('the first couple dancing tonight is...'). As for ‘family’, it can be whichever feels best. It can look odd for us to doggedly use (spilt infinitive noted) the singular when all the direct quotes say ‘the family are...’.

We have recently been taken to task over a number of either/or issues. We should be using ‘enquiry’ rather than ‘inquiry’, we were told - although they are these days interchangeable. The OED suggests ‘inquiry’ is more an American term, with ‘enquiry’ the British preference, although the Iraq and Leveson inquiries disagreed.

A reader felt 'wrack' should be reserved for seaweed and that 'nerve-racking' was correct. In fact, either is acceptable, but we do go for 'rack'. I changed that one.

Our courtroom journalists were accused of being unable to spell for using ‘judgement’ instead of ‘judgment’. The latter is “conventional in legal contexts” (OED) but our view is that having one rule means there is only one spelling for writers to remember; and that also makes for greater audience understanding.

And we were told that 'launderette' should be 'laundrette'. This one's a conundrum - the OED and Collins give launderette as their preference, but I'm not so sure. It needs more consideration...

Some people want us to stick to pure definitions and ignore usage; others accuse us of ignoring the correct use of gerunds (‘his being accused/him being accused’). Style is neither science nor art - more like a tightrope act trying to find the correct balance.

We aim to make our journalism as clear as it can be for our audience. But we know that whatever we do there will be people who disagree, like this correspondent discussing acronyms: “That may be your ‘style’, but it is not correct. Just because you choose to use lower case, does not negate the fact that it is improper usage. The BBC doesn't seem to worry about what is right, but only what it decides to do.”

Style guidance is certainly not about making everyone happy. 


BBC News style guide

Principles of good writing

Writing skills: grammar

Writing for the web