From Syntax to Semantics:
Unpacking Writing with Style
Review By Renato Beninatto
In a world where we often joke that Americans can barely manage their own language, Lane Greene stands as a beacon of multilingualism. This American journalist and language columnist for The Economist is a delightful exception in a country often painted with a monolingual brush. Based in Madrid as a local correspondent there, Greene nimbly navigates between English and a rainbow of other languages: Arabic, Danish, French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. With his impressive linguistic repertoire, he seems to playfully wink at the stereotype, saying, “Hold my IPA, I’ve got some linguistic acrobatics to perform!”
Greene’s most recent book, Writing with Style, is not the first time he’s shared his linguistic prowess with the world. He’s been painting the publishing landscape with his vibrant insights for years, penning both You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity in 2011 and Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed in 2018. With each endeavor, Greene reinforces his standing as a linguistic tour de force.
Writing with Style is the latest incarnation of The Economist’s Style Guide, an entity whose roots go back nearly two centuries. Greene, with his international perspective and clear love of language, was tasked with refreshing the publication’s stylistic bible, bringing it up to speed with the linguistic landscape of the 2020s. The previous edition of The Style Guide has been around since the 1980s, and it went through 12 editions in its previous form.
The book is a succinct yet comprehensive distillation of The Economist’s long-standing philosophy of language, best summarized by the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “Short words are best and old words when short are best of all.” Through a delightful mix of guidelines and anecdotes, Greene proves himself an able guide, steering readers toward linguistic clarity, honesty, and readability.
Let me paint a picture for you — it’s a sunny morning in Tuscany, and I’m sitting down to breakfast at a European Language Industry Association Conference. Across from me is the man himself, Lane Greene, his curiosity and fascination for language apparent even as we munch on our croissants and sip our espressos. Now, as conversations tend to do, ours sways and meanders until we’re discussing the necessity of redundancy in business. I share with him a little nugget from my mother tongue, a Portuguese saying, “Quem tem um, não tem nenhum,” to illustrate my point.
Well, would you believe it? The very next day, Lane tweets to a friend about this phrase, his excitement palpable as he unveils that he has discovered an expression that contains seven nasal sounds. Who else could take a relaxed chat over breakfast pastries and turn it into an unexpected deep dive into the rich tapestry of phonetics? It’s just one of those moments that really underscores Greene’s delightful curiosity and his ability to find linguistic wonders in the most unexpected situations.
The book isn’t just a repository of grammatical rules, but a journey through the etymological evolution, quirks, and traps of the English language. Aspiring and seasoned writers alike will find their own writing enriched through lessons ranging from the often confusing layers of English vocabulary to the efficient use of punctuation.
But Writing with Style isn’t just a guide for writers; it’s an indispensable tool for any individual seeking to refine their communication skills. For years, I’ve been a fan of style guides, treating them as my personal writing coaches. This latest guide from The Economist is no exception.
Lighthearted, insightful, and sometimes downright funny, Greene presents a style guide that is as enjoyable to read as it is instructional. He addresses “confusables and cuttables,” discusses words that irk editors, and teaches us nuances between the British and American meaning of certain words, proving that even the most seasoned of us can benefit from a little linguistic assistance.
Writing with Style is a valuable companion for anyone who handles language, which, when you think about it, is all of us. Its approachable style, comprehensive coverage, and witty commentary make it a must-have on every desk, whether you’re penning your next novel, translating a document, or simply drafting an email. In the end, you don’t have to be a polyglot to appreciate the beauty of language, but under Greene’s guidance, you might just start sounding like one.