Stylistically speaking

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A pedant myself, I was naturally attracted to an article by Elizabeth Ribbans in the Guardian this week: the headline read COVID or Covid? The comfort of pedantry at a time of national crisis.

Ribbans is the newspaper’s readers’ editor; her team is responsible for fact-checking, correcting copy and dealing with readers’ questions, comments and complaints. The question which inspired the headline was from a medical specialist who asked why the Guardian insisted on using Covid-19 when the medical profession uses COVID-19.

Ribbans explains that it is the Guardian‘s practice, along with many if not most British newspapers,

to use uppercase for abbreviations that are written and spoken as a collection of letters, such as BBC, IMF and NHS, whereas acronyms pronounced as words go upper and lower, eg Nasa, Unicef and, now, Covid-19.

(This is, incidentally, a practice I abhor. “Nasa” and “Unicef” are not words even if their abbreviations/ acronyms can be pronounced; when I see them spelled as “NASA” and “UNICEF” I am aware of the full title of the body and its responsibilities, just as I am aware of who the BBC, IMF and NHS are and what they do.

(I similarly abhor IB’s current practice of using upper case only on the initial letter of the first word when using a title such as “Programme resource centre” or “World studies extended essay.” Give the IB its due, it can be inconsistent, sometimes referring to the “programme resource centre” or the “world studies extended essay.”  Either way and especially the latter, it is easy to miss that they are talking about something specific as against something general.

(But that’s the nature of pedantry, and the fate of pedants, to be irritated, isn’t it?)

Just the next day, into my inbox dropped notification of a new CMOS Shop Talk article, Styling COVID-19 and Related Terms.  Delightful! The article points out that the Chicago Manual of Style follows the usage of the professional bodies responsible for terminology; in the case of COVID-19, this was the World Health Organization (WHO – not Who). The CMOS article goes on to explain that British newspapers tend to use Covid-19 while the American press by-and-large prefers COVID-19 – though there are exceptions. The New York Times uses all upper-case for acronyms for terms up to four letters but then reverts to upper-case initial only: WHO but Covid-19.

It’s a pedant’s paradise!

It is worth reminding ourselves that publishers’ style guides are mainly just that: a guide to style (including punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation etc etc etc) used by specific publishing houses.  MLA is the style guide of Modern Language Association publications, APA is the style guide of the American Psychological Association, the Economist style guide is the style guide of the Economist magazine, the Guardian style guide is the style guide of the Guardian newspaper group. Some publishers’ style guides are adopted by academic, educational and other institutions, some are not, are used only in-house.

Even when published style guides are used by in schools and colleges, they can be amended to meet the needs or the whims of the institution.  Thus it is that IB has its minimum requirements for citation and referencing which apply “Regardless of the reference style adopted by the school for a given subject” (Extended Essay Guide: Acknowledging the ideas or work of another person—minimum requirements).  Ignore these at your peril, ignore these and you may lose marks.

This may serve to remind those who advocate (for instance) that Psychology essays “must” use an author-date system (such as APA) or that History essays “must” use a footnoting style (such as Chicago footnotes).  No they do not, not unless the body to whom the essay is submitted stipulates that a named style or type of style is required. Submit an essay to an American Psychological Association journal and they will demand APA; submit it as an IB extended essay and all they demand is consistency, inclusion of all necessary elements, and that the reference points to the source actually used.

So, should your students ask, “should I use ‘COVID-19’ or ‘Covid-19’?”  – unless and until IB states a requirement, I suggest it does not matter as long as they use whatever term they use consistently.

(For what it is worth – and for pedants it might be a lot but for the IB not a jot for assessment purposes – the IB website currently has a frequently updated page, COVID-19 (coronavirus) updates. COVID: UPPER CASE throughout.)


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