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Steamed up about train stations

Ian Jolly

is style editor, BBC newsroom in London

What do you call this?

The key objective in the use of language is surely to communicate clearly.

When I set off for work in the morning I go to the train station. It's a station where I can catch a train. There's no ambiguity about it.

So why does this term generate as much angry correspondence as any other language issue?

It was used in a recent report about Jehovah's Witnesses - not in the headline but buried in the text. The emails soon started peppering our inbox:

“There is no such thing as a train station - except in baby talk. It is railway station.”

“We don't have train stations in this country.”

“Very disappointed to see a BBC journalist using the American ‘train station’ to describe a railway station.”

And that is really the issue here. Most of our correspondents object to this phrase that does its job perfectly well because they perceive it to be an Americanism.

I have written before on complaints about the use of Americanisms and touched on the rail/train issue. Now, I'm all for holding a firm line on keeping out transatlantic intruders. I don't like ‘outage’, and ‘normal’ is preferred to ‘regular’.

We fill up our cars at petrol stations rather than gas stations, and we don't talk about ‘hoods’ and ‘trunks’ because they have other meanings in the UK.

We wear our pants underneath (I hope) and we don't appeal verdicts but appeal against them.

But the thing about ‘train station’ - that unambiguous little phrase - is that it is already in very common usage in this country.

The train companies themselves often use it, as do both local authorities around the country and departments in central government.

However, for some there is a wider context. One correspondent pointed out that his collection of early 20th Century postcards used only "railway station".

Others say that it's a "railway", not a "trainway" - yes, but don’t buses go to a bus station? There's also an argument that railway stations had a social and cultural purpose; you could shop there, get your hair cut - they were more than just a place to catch trains.

Using it as a platform

Looking at the etymology, the Oxford English Dictionary cites British newspapers using "train station" in 1845 and 1856. 

And in 1825 the engineer Thomas Tredgold published A Practical Treatise on Railroads and Carriages, while in 1837 the Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal wrote about a "rail-road station". Nowadays that term would definitely be considered an Americanism and yet it appears to have been in common usage in Britain - the OED has numerous other citations.

There is some US rail terminology that we should avoid: ‘caboose’ (guard's van), ‘tie’ (sleeper) and ‘engineer’ (driver) are examples.

But ‘train station’? One member of our audience told us: "You as our national broadcaster have a duty, an absolute duty, to preserve our culture and our language is a foundation of that culture." That's an interesting interpretation of the BBC's function and responsibilities.

As it happens, I was taught years ago that railway station was the correct term. But why hamper our language when suitable alternatives are available? And I can't agree with the idea that any term used outside the UK is not acceptable within it.

Our correspondent also noted: "All languages do, and indeed should, change with time and circumstances but those changes should not be driven by submission of our culture to others."

And that's really the issue here: a perception that only the British way is correct. My view is that there can be more than one right answer.

But the figures speak for themselves. A look at our online archive shows uses of ‘railway station’ still outnumber ‘train station’ by two to one. Some colleagues say they will continue to opt for ‘railway station’.

That’s fine - we are not proscribing either; simply saying an acceptable alternative does exist.

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Ian Jolly writes about BBC News house style