Archive for the ‘style guide’ Category

typewriter_jpg-288x300Atlanticisms are American and British dialect words that are understood on both sides of the Atlantic:

  • ad
  • add up
  • air matress
  • attic
  • autumn
  • ballpoint pen
  • Band-Aid
  • bar – not pub
  • bell-boy
  • big spender – not high roller
  • bill – not check (restaurant)
  • billboard – not hoarding
  • bird-watcher – not birder
  • blackboard
  • blackjack – not pontoon (card game)
  • bleach – not Clorox
  • blue-collar
  • boarder – not lodger
  • bring up – not raise (a child)
  • broke – out of money
  • broken – not busted
  • bulrush – not cattail
  • cafeteria
  • call – not ring up (telephone)
  • can opener
  • capital letters – not block letters
  • chickpea – not garbanzo bean
  • chief of police – not sheriff
  • cigarette butt
  • cinema
  • coffin – not casket
  • cop
  • cottom swab – not Q-Tip
  • crayfish
  • crematorium
  • cupboard
  • cupcake
  • curse – not cuss
  • curt – not snippy
  • curtains
  • dad
  • deadlock – not stand-off
  • dessert
  • dishcloth
  • drainpipe
  • drinking fountain
  • dress – not frock
  • dressing-table – not vanity
  • dump – not landfill
  • evening shift – not swing shift
  • extra-large – not outsize
  • fabulous – not royal
  • failed – not bombed
  • field – not pitch (sporting term)
  • fill out – not fill in a form
  • fire engine
  • firefly – not lightning bug
  • fire station
  • foot-and-mouth disease
  • funny-bone
  • glasses – not spectacles or eyeglasses
  • green thumb
  • grill
  • gnat – not midge
  • goose bumps
  • gutters
  • guy – male only
  • hamburger
  • handbag
  • heap – old car
  • hideaway
  • high-rise (building)
  • hike – not ramble
  • house painter
  • icing
  • idiot
  • imagine – not guess (as in “I guess so”)
  • immediately – not straight away
  • jam – not jelly
  • jerk
  • label – not tag
  • lavatory – not bathroom or rest room
  • lawyer – not attorney, solicitor or barrister
  • life jacket
  • lollipop
  • lonely – not lonesome
  • lout – not oik
  • magician
  • mail
  • measuring cup
  • minister – not vicar
  • mongrel – not mutt
  • nail polish
  • napkin – not serviette
  • newspaper clipping
  • newsstand – not news agent
  • nuts – not crackers
  • nutty
  • pack of cards – not deck of cards
  • pantry
  • parka – not anorak
  • paper-wasp – not yellow jacket
  • patch together – not cobble together
  • pawn – not hock
  • pedestrian crossing – not crosswalk or zebra crossing
  • pharmacist
  • pharmacy – not chemist or drugstore
  • physiotherapist
  • plasterboard – not Sheetrock
  • play hookey
  • plum pudding
  • police line up
  • porch – not stoop
  • prison – not penitentiary
  • public swimming pool
  • pushups
  • quarter – not fourth
  • quotation marks
  • racecourse
  • rattle on
  • reform school
  • relic – not holdover
  • rubber boots
  • rummage sale
  • rumpus – not ruckus
  • running shoes – not sneakers, trainers or tennis shoes
  • Santa Claus
  • scuzzy
  • seesaw
  • senior citizen – not pensioner
  • shopping bag
  • shopping cart – not trolley or buggy
  • shopping centre – not mall or shopping plaza
  • shoulder – not verge (of a road)
  • slash – not oblique or stroke (the “/” symbol)
  • slice of bacon – not rasher
  • somewhere – not someplace
  • smitten – not besotted
  • sofa
  • soft drink
  • soil – not dirt
  • stands – at a sporting event
  • sticker – not decal
  • stockings – not hose
  • stopover – not layover
  • stove
  • stuffing – not dressing
  • sucker – not patsy
  • supermarket – not grocery store
  • sweater
  • swimsuit
  • tarpaulin – not tarp
  • tasteless – not tacky
  • theatre programme – not Playbill
  • thermos
  • timetable – not schedule (for buses and trains)
  • toll-road – not turnpike
  • tone-deaf – not have a tin ear
  • tramp – not hobo or bum
  • travelling salesman
  • trunk – not steamer trunk
  • TV
  • usual – not regular
  • vacuum cleaner – not Hoover
  • vending machine – not slot machine
  • waiter – not server (restaurant)
  • walking-stick – not cane
  • wary – not leery
  • wedding ring
  • wharf – not quay
  • while – not whilst
  • wrench – not spanner
  • yell – not holler
  • zero – not nil

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typewriter_jpg-288x300Words that have caused me the most trouble, here in their proper forms (mostly according to the Oxford dictionary):

  • adviser
  • Afghans
  • Aids
  • Al Jazeera
  • Al Qaeda
  • almost – not ‘most.
  • always
  • Antichrist
  • any more – always two words.
  • anyone – one word when it means the same as anybody.
  • anyway
  • archaeology
  • as, like – Use like to compare nouns, as to begin a clause.
  • Ashkenazic
  • atom bomb
  • Authorized Version
  • Benetton
  • Berne
  • between you and me me always follows prepositions.
  • BlackBerrys
  • blacks – the dark-skinned people from Africa and Australia.
  • Bombay
  • bookshop – not bookstore.
  • bottom – not butt, bum, ass, arse or rear end.
  • burka
  • Burma
  • Calcutta
  • Caltech
  • Caribbean
  • cinema – not movie theater.
  • Colombia
  • communist
  • Condoleezza Rice
  • defence – not defense.
  • dependant – one who is dependent.
  • dependent – depending on something else.
  • dialog box – when talking about computers, otherwise dialogue.
  • disc – like a compact disc.
  • disk – like a hard disk.
  • DJ
  • Dostoevsky
  • dot-com
  • East Timor
  • email
  • embarrass
  • encyclopedia
  • estate car – not station wagon.
  • film – not movie.
  • first-hand
  • first lady
  • forever – one word
  • full-time
  • gender, sex – sex is physical, gender social or grammatical.
  • ghettos
  • gram – an ounce is 28.35 grams.
  • guerrilla
  • hairdos
  • halfway
  • harass
  • hare-brained – not hairbrained.
  • hectare – equals 2.47 acres.
  • heroes
  • Hezbollah
  • hip hop
  • Hispanics
  • home-grown
  • home page
  • Internet
  • Ivory Coast
  • jewellery
  • kilogram – a pound is 0.4536 kilograms.
  • kilometre – a mile is 1.609344 kilometres.
  • kilowatt – a horsepower is 0.7457 kilowatts.
  • Koran
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Lao-tzu
  • licence – noun
  • license – verb
  • lie, lay – In the present you lie down or lay yourself down. In the past you lay down or laid yourself down.
  • lifetime
  • litre – a gallon is 3.785 litres.
  • Mac OS X
  • Maccabees
  • Madras
  • madrasa
  • maize – not corn.
  • make-up – what women put on their face.
  • may, might – see style guide on the subjunctive.
  • Maya – noun, meaning the language or people
  • Mayan – adjective
  • medieval
  • Mediterranean
  • metre – a foot is 0.3048 metres.
  • Michelangelo
  • millennium
  • millilitre – one fluid ounce is 29.57 millilitres.
  • misspell
  • mobile phone – not cellphone or handphone.
  • Moguls – once ruled India.
  • Muhammad
  • Musharraf
  • Muslim
  • NASA
  • Native Americans
  • NATO
  • Neoplatonism
  • New Year’s Eve
  • New York Times – “the” is not part of its name.
  • north-east
  • north-west
  • occurred
  • oestrogen
  • off – not off of.
  • offered
  • outgun
  • part-time
  • Pashtuns – they speak Pashto.
  • perform
  • Philippines
  • preferred
  • principle – a guiding idea
  • privilege
  • proceed
  • program – on a computer; otherwise it is programme.
  • prostitute – not hooker
  • R & B
  • recognize
  • referred
  • Romania
  • saditty
  • Samarkand
  • sceptic
  • Second World War
  • shall – no hard and fast rules. Use it where it sounds natural.
  • Shia – refers to a sect of Islam.
  • Shiite – a believer of Shia Islam.
  • short cut
  • soft drink – not soda, pop, coke or even fizzy drink.
  • south-east
  • south-west
  • sprang – is the past tense, but it is have sprung.
  • supersede
  • Tajikistan
  • Taliban
  • Tao-te-Ching
  • Tatars
  • taxi – not taxicab or cab.
  • telephone – not phone.
  • television – not TV or telly.
  • the Gambia
  • T.I. – the rapper
  • towards
  • tsar
  • Turkestan
  • Turkmens
  • Tutankhamen
  • Unix
  • up to date
  • URL
  • VH1
  • video game
  • Vietnam
  • Virgil
  • Wahhabi
  • Wal-Mart
  • Web, the
  • web page
  • website
  • whom – The uses of this word are changing. Use it only where it sounds natural.
  • Wi-Fi
  • yogurt

– Abagond, 2007.

See also:

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style guide: hyphens

typewriter_jpg-288x300The best rule about hyphens is that if you are unsure whether a word has a hyphen, look it up in a dictionary.

Yet, there are some general rules:

  1. In fractions: two-thirds, one-half.
  2. To put words together to make your meaning clearer: little-used car, little used-car.
  3. In the names of aircraft: DC-10, MiG-23.
  4. To make an adjective out of two or more words: right-wing party, five-year-old boy. But do not overdo it: a once-every-two-week meeting.
  5. To make a noun out of a verb with a preposition: build-up, lay-off, pay-off, round-up.
  6. Directions: north-east, south-west.
  7. Avoid with ranges. Use”to” instead of a hyphen for ranges: say “from 1965 to 1982” instead of “1965-82”. But if you must, say “in 1965-1982”.

Here are some common words that might cause trouble. Most of the list comes from The Economist but I changed them over to Oxford spellings since that is what I use:

ad hoc, agribusiness, air force, air power, airbase, aircraft carrier, airfield, airspace, airtime, antibiotic, Antichrist, anticlimax, antidote, anti-Semitic, antiseptic, antitrust, any more, arm’s length, Attorney General

bailout, bedfellow, bell-ringer, best-selling, bilingual, birth, blackboard, blue blood, blueprint, bookmaker, brother-in-law, build-up, businessman, buyout, bypass

call-up, cash flow, catchphrase, ceasefire, chief of staff, childcare, chock-a-block, clockmaker, coalminers, coastguard, codebreaker, comeback, commander-in-chief, common sense, cyberspace

deal-maker, director general, district attorney, dot-com, drawing board

email, endgame

faint-hearted, fallout, farmworker, field marshal, fieldwork, fig leaf, fine-tooth comb, first-hand, foothold, forever, fox-hunting, front line, front runner, fund-raiser

get-together, girlfriend, goodwill, gunrunner

half-hearted, hand-held, hand-picked, handout, hard line, headache, healthcare, heir apparent, hijack, hip hop, hobnob, home page, home-grown, home-owner, hothead

ice cream, infra-red, intergovernmental, Internet

kerb-crawling, know-how, kowtow

lacklustre, landmine, landowner, landowner, laptop, lay-off, lieutenant colonel, lifetime, like-minded, long-standing, loophole, lopsided, lukewarm

machine gun, machine tool, major general, metalworker, midweek, Midwest, minefield, multilingual, multiple

nationwide, Neoplatonism, nevertheless, news-stand, nitpicker, no one, no-man’s-land, nonetheless, nuclear power station

offline, offshore, oilfield, online, online, onshore, outgun, overpaid, overrated, override, overrule, overrun

pay-off, payout, peacekeepers, peacemaker, peacetime, petrochemical, policy-maker, post-war, pothole, pre-war, pressure group, prisoners of war, profit-making, pull-out

question mark

rain check, rainforest, rate, recreate, roadblock, round-up, Rustbelt

schoolteacher, seabed, Secretary General, set-up, shake-out, ship-broker, shipbuilder, shipowner, shortlist, shutdown, some day, soya bean, spillover, stand-alone, stand-off, start-ups, steelworker, stock market, streetwalker, strongman, stumbling block, sub-machine gun, subcommittee, subcontinent, subcontract, subhuman, Sunbelt

takeover, task force, tear gas, think tank, Third World War, threshold, time bomb, timetable, transatlantic, transpacific, troublemaker, turning point, turnout

under way, underdog, underpaid, underrated, undersecretary

vice versa, vice-president, videodisc

Wal-Mart, wartime, website, Wi-Fi, windfall, workforce, working party, worldwide, worthwhile


See also:

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style guide: punctuation

typewriter_jpg-288x300We use punctuation to help the reader to understand what we are saying. Commas and quote marks I covered separately. Here are the most common of the remaining cases:

apostrophe: ‘

Use ‘s to show possession, even if it ends in s:

Janis’s dog.

You only leave off the last s if you are adding ‘s to a word that is already a plural:

Reuters’, United States’

Do not use apostrophes when naming a decade or century:


brackets: []

If you are quoting what someone said, but need to add words to make the meaning clear, use brackets to add the words:

She said, “Let them [the poor] eat cake.”

If a full sentence is in brackets, put all punctuation inside the brackets.

colon: :

What comes after a colon explains or gives examples of what comes before the colon:

I have three weaknesses: wine, women and song.

He did not go home: the road was washed out.

commas: ,

See the style guide under commas.

dash: –

Use dashes to show an aside, to add something to what you are saying:

You know, I did not like him at all – he would never stop talking.

Use sparingly, even if Emily Dickinson loved them. In most cases a colon or comma will do just as well.

On the Internet a dash can be represented as a hyphen with a space before and after it:

It was horrible – I will never go back.

This is the BBC practice.

Others use two hyphens with no spaces around them:

It was horrible–I will never go back.

This is what The Economist does. Either is fine.

I have gone back and forth on this one, but I think the first is better since it always allows a space between each word.

full stops or periods: .

Use at the end of a sentence.

Do not use them at the end of abbreviations:

Dr Will was evil.

parentheses: ()

Put these around something added to a sentence that could be left out without changing its meaning:

I drove to Santa Fe (I was last there ten years ago) and then got some sleep.

You can put one or more sentences in parentheses if they are something the reader does not have to read.

If the parentheses includes a full sentence, then any punctuation it needs must also go inside. (Like this.)

question mark: ?

Put at the end of a sentence with a question, even if the question part is not at the end:

Where could he get a drink, he wondered?

quote marks: “

See the style guide under italics and quotes.

semi-colon: ;

Use this to join two sentences that could stand on their own, but would seem overdone if you did:

I found my dog; he was asleep under the car.

This is better than:

I found my dog. He was asleep under the car.

This makes the event seem overly important.

Use semi-colons sparingly.

See also:

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style guide: commas

typewriter_jpg-288x300Put in commas (,) to show the natural breaks in your sentence. This helps the reader to make sense of it, especially if it is long. It also lets your reader stop for a bit. But do not overdo it and put in too many commas: it will only lead to confusion.

When you reread and are in doubt about whether to take a comma out or put one in, leave the commas as they are. Whatever you put first is probably right.

Where to put commas can often come down to a matter of judgement and taste. Nevertheless, there are some clear cases where commas are needed. Here are the more common ones:

1. After each element in a list:

I love wine, women, and song.

The comma before the and is called an Oxford comma. The Oxford press and most Americans use it. The British, by and large, do not:

I love wine, women and song.

Either way is acceptable.

But if one of the things in your list has an and in it, then you must put a comma before the final and:

I like the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Dead.

where “Simon and Garfunkel” is one of the elements of the list.

2. To separate the clauses in your sentence.

A clause is part of the sentence that has its own verb. There are two sorts of clauses:

  • A main clause, which can stand on its own as a sentence
  • A subordinate clause, which cannot

For example:

Feeling unloved, my dog ran away.

“My dog ran away” can make a sentence on its own: it is the main clause. “Feeling unloved” is not a sentence, but it does have a verb, so it is a subordinate clause.

Now notice where the comma was put: between the two clauses.

Subordinate clauses often have a verb ending in -ing:

Having paid for a room, he went out to see the town.

Subordinate clauses often start with words like but, yet, and, or, although, while, which and who. Put your comma before these words:

He got there on time, but he forgot to bring the ball.

Note: There are cases where you do not put a comma before which, who or whom. That brings us to our next rule:

3. Before which, who and whom – but not always!

If the which or who clause adds something that could be left out of the sentence without changing its meaning much, then makr it off from the sentence with commas:

My dog, who hates water, is a natural-born swimmer.

But if it tells us who or what the statement applies to, then do not put in commas:

The dog who never gives up will find his way home.

4. Before or after quoted speech.

She said, “I love you.”
“I never want to see you mother again,” she said.

The rules for this are a bit involved. See “Italics and quotes”.

Never put commas:

  • In dates: Tuesday May 22nd 2007
  • After question marks or exclamation marks.

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typewriter_jpg-288x300Names of an individual person, place or thing start with capital letters, as do any titles they may have:

  • President George Bush
  • Paris
  • Statue of Liberty
  • New York Times
  • “Pride and Prejudice.”

These are proper nouns. They each name one individual thing.

Common nouns name things in general. They do not start with a capital letter:

  • the president
  • city
  • statue
  • newspaper
  • book

A good example of the dividing line between common and proper nouns – and which words get a capital letter and which do not – is the word “Internet”. Some write it as “Internet”, others as “internet”.

Which one is right comes down to how you think of the Internet. If you think of it as one among many other computer networks, then you write “Internet”. But if you think of it as something general, like the sea or the air, then you write “internet”.

Another interesting case is God. To someone who believes in only one God, like Muslims and Christians, “God” is both a common noun and a proper noun at the same time: the word names something of which there is only one!

These also start with capital letters:

  • Trade names: Valium, Colgate, PlayStation, Coke
  • Periods in history: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Black Death
  • Political parties: Labour, Democrats, Chinese Communist Party
  • Words made out of proper nouns: Marxism, Platonism, Buddhism, Americanization

So, “communist” is written with a capital when naming a political party – the “Chinese Communist Party” – but in lower-case otherwise: “The communists took over Poland.”

Sometimes there is no hard and fast rule. For example, people who are part white and part black in South Africa are called “Coloureds”. But when blacks in America were called that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was written “coloreds”. Today most American magazines write “blacks”, but some write “Blacks”.

If in doubt look the word up in a good dictionary. Or, as I sometimes do, search The Economist on the Internet to see what it does.

Sometimes there is more than one name or spelling or way to capitalize a name. For example:

  • NATO and Nato
  • Hezbollah and Hizbullah
  • Burma and Myanmar
  • Bombay and Mumbai

How do you choose?

  1. Use the form of the name that exists in the dictionary that you follow.
  2. If your dictionary does not have it, then write the name just as those whom it represents would write it in English. There is often a website where this can be found out.

Why not just follow second rule alone? Because it favours unfamiliar forms (that often change) over more familiar, established ones. Your aim in writing is not to be right, but to be understood. Following the dictionary form will help you to be understood.

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typewriter_jpg-288x300On the use of quote marks and italics I follow The Economist.

Here are the rules in general (details to follow):

1. Use quote marks:

  • To quote what someone said word for word:

Bush said, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

For a quote within a quote, use single quotes:

Then he said, “The last thing I heard her say was ‘I am going to Victoria’s.'”

  • For the names of
  • books: “Odyssey” (but not for holy books: Koran, Genesis, Tao-te-Ching)
  • plays: “Romeo & Juliet”
  • television shows: “Big Brother”
  • films: “Casablanca”
  • works of art: “Pieta”

2. Use italics:

  • For foreign words: de jure, janjaweed, intifada
  • For the names of
  • newspapers: The Economist, The Times
  • magazines: Newsweek
  • ships: Titanic
  • lawsuits: Roe v Wade

You can also use italics to draw attention to a word. But it is much better to express yourself so that you do not need italics. Especially if you are writing for the Web where italics are often lost when what you write is copied or moved. When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress everything in italics was turned into small letters!

Although The Economist puts books and television shows and so on in quotes, in books you will see them put in italics. That is fine. But whichever way you choose, stick to it.

According to The Economist only two newspapers have “The” in their name: The Economist and The Times (of London). The rest do not: the Daily Mirror, the New York Times and so on.

In lawsuits the “versus” can be written as a “v” without any point after it: Roe v Wade.

If you are quoting a long passage from a book or article, instead of putting it in quotes, set it off from the body of your writing this way:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Make the letters smaller than your own writing. Do not put it in italics – they are hard to read for long.

Now to the most difficult part: does the punctuation go before or after the quote marks?

In general, if it was part of the original statement being quoted, then the punctuation goes inside the quote marks; otherwise it goes outside:

  • Then Diana asked me, “So are you going back to her?”
  • Did Diana really say, “Seth is a genius”?

In the first the question mark goes inside because Diana asked a question. In the second it goes outside because she did not – the person quoting her is – so it belongs on his side of the quote marks.

If you break up a quote by things like “he said”, then you put a comma at the break. The comma goes inside the quote if there was some punctuation at that point in the original statement, otherwise it goes outside:

  • “I think we will stop here,” he said, “Then we can get something to eat.”
  • “I think”, she said, “that you must go.”

That is the general idea. For more details see Hart’s rules.

See also:

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typewriter_jpg-288x300When writing numbers you want to strike a balance between making it something that sounds natural in English and yet is easy to read.

Avoid using numbers when you can. Most people cannot picture or care much about numbers over 12.

But when you must use numbers here are some guidelines:

For the numbers ten and under, write them out in English:

My father is three-eighths Cherokee. He has two brothers.


  • page numbers (page 5)
  • percentages (5%)
  • decimal numbers (5.02).

For numbers over ten, use figures:

My mother is 71 years old.

That “71” is much easier to read than “seventy-one”.

If some numbers are under ten and some over, then write them all as figures:

I have 16 dogs, he has 2.

Always write out numbers that begin a sentence:

Four score and seven years ago.

Unless your subject demands it, keep your numbers rough. It is better to say, “There were about 200 people in the room” than “There were 203”.

You can write “m” as short for million:

America now has 300m people.

But always write out billion:

The Iraq war will cost more than $80 billion.

Use billion to mean a thousand million and trillion to mean a thousand billion:

  • hundred 100
  • thousand 1,000
  • million 1,000,000
  • billion 1,000,000,000
  • trillion 1,000,000,000,000

In India, a crore is 10 million, a lakh is 100,000.

Write centuries as figures:

The Arab empire rose to power in the 600s.

Toynbee would say “in the seventh century after Christ,” but “600s” is shorter and easier to understand. And no one has to remember that the seventh century are those years that begin with six.

Write decades this way:

My mother was a flower child in the 1960s.

That rather than ’60s or Sixties or whatever.

In general, if something happened in the last ten years, give the year, if in the last century, the decade and before that, just the century:

  • I read “War and Peace” in 1998.
  • I read “War and Peace” in the 1980s.” (it was in 1987, but who cares?)
  • Tolstoy wrote “War and Peace” back in the 1800s.

But the level of detail you are writing at matters. If you are telling Tolstoy’s life story, then give the year. But remember that most people do not care about years from before their birth. The year 1852 is as meaningless as 1853.

If you give the day, write it this way:

Friday April 13th 2007

No commas required.

Write exact times this way:


Ranges: Write ranges of numbers the way you would say them when speaking:

I lived in New York from 1981 to 1997.

Do not write something like this:

I lived in New York 1981-97.

That is not even English: no one talks like that.

Of course in real life you would say this:

I lived in New York from ’81 to ’97.

But it makes it easier for your readers if you write out the year in full. It requires less thinking on their part.

See also:


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typewriter_jpg-288x300Avoid numbers and measures in your writing. Use them only when you must.

We live in an age of science. As schoolchildren we were all taught how important it is to get the numbers right, how great discoveries were made by painstaking measurements.

That is all well and good, but many of us throw in numbers and measurements even when they are not needed.

As a writer your aim is not to record facts for the greater good of mankind, but to making your meaning clear. Most people have little idea how much 102 feet is, or 102 yens or even 102 eggs. So adding these sort of details will only cloud your writing, not sharpen it.

That said, sometimes numbers and measurement are unavoidable, as in sports, government spending and (sometimes) science.

So when you must use numbers, use the following:

  • weights and measures: the metric system, which even the Americans know.
  • money: the American dollar, which is known worldwide.
  • time: the Gregorian calendar. There are many calendars but, again, this one is known in every country.

Where you use some other system – like yens or miles or Muslim years – convert it to one of these on first mention.

But even though it is safe to assume that readers know what a square kilometre is, for example, it is still much better to say “New Zealand is the size of Britain,” than to say “New Zealand has 268,680 square kilometres.” Most will read the second statement as “New Zealand has blah blah square kilometres.”

There is a small difficulty when it comes to money: the American dollar does not keep its value from year to year. So if you say something like “My son saved $179 to get an iPod,” the statement will become meaningless in 20 years.

As with square kilometres it is better to express it some other way: “My son worked and saved his money all summer to get an iPod.” If that will not do, then try one of these:

  1. On first mention, make the money’s value clear in everyday terms. For example, when EM Forster first mentions pounds in “Howards End”, he tells us Margaret received 600 pounds a year and that this put her well above any concern for making a living.
  2. On first mention, convert it into grams of silver: “A bricklayer in the 1300s made 3 pennies a day (1.5 grams of silver).”
  3. A third way that I am trying out is to use crowns, converted to current dollars on first mention. The crown was a large silver coin in daily use in England from the middle 1500s to 1900. Shakespeare mentions them more than any other coin. It had 30 grams of silver, nearly an ounce. Unlike the dollar or the pound, it had kept its value more or less in its 350 years of use. So I can use crowns in the same sense that Shakespeare and Pepys did.

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style guide: the subjunctive

typewriter_jpg-288x300The subjunctive exists in its full glory in Latin and Greek, but in English it is dying out. In spoken British English it is next to dead, but bits of it lives on in American English and in the good written English of any country.

In written English it is still exists in statements contrary to fact:

If I were a rich man.

Compare that to a statement of fact:

I was a rich man.

The were in the first sentence is subjunctive, the was in the second is indicative.

Subjunctive and indicative are not tenses – they are not about when something happened – they are moods. Mood is about the reality of a statement:

  • The indicative mood is for statements of fact.
  • The subjunctive mood is for wishes, desires, commands and things that never were.

Commands are the most common form of the subjunctive, such as “Stop that!” These cause little confusion.

The part of the subjunctive that people are not sure about concerns contrary to fact statements. For these, remember this:

When you talk about what might have been but never was, use were instead of was and might instead of may.

These are most common in statements beginning with as though, as if and if, especially when used with would:

I would marry her if she were beautiful.

Two words that come into this discussions are might and should:


Might has three important uses:

  1. In the present tense as a weaker form of may:

    I may go into town.

    I might go into town.

  2. As the past tense of may:

    John told me he might go into town.

    You never use may in this case in written English. It would be like saying, “John told me he go into town,” instead of “John told me he went into town.”

  3. As the subjunctive form of may:

    Indicative: He may have gone to Egypt.

    He might have gone to Egypt.

    The first one means maybe he did go, maybe he did not – I am not sure.

    The second means he did not go to Egypt – though he might have if things were different: if he had more money, if his mother was not sick and so on.


Americans often use the subjunctive after verbs of desire or command. The British use should instead:

American: He recommends that they be given a second chance.

British: He recommends that they should be given a second chance.

The Americans have not dropped the should. Instead they have preserved this use of the subjunctive, as have the Australians, but the British have lost it.

Prefer should over the subjunctive in this case: it is more universal since it sounds fine even in America.

The subjunctive also lives on in certain fixed expressions:

Come what may
Be that as it may
Though all care be exercised
If need be

and so on. These cause little confusion because they are fixed expressions. But if you think about it, apart from these expressions, no one talks like that any more.

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style guide: parts of speech

typewriter_jpg-288x300English is made up of parts of speech: nouns, adjectives, verbs and so on. Each word is named according to the work it does in the sentence. Just as with the body or a car, to understand how English works you need to know its parts and how they work together.

For example:

Three mad dogs from Brazil sit quietly along the country road and wait to bite me.

This sentence is made up of these parts:

  • nounsdogs, Brazil, road, me – these name a person, place or thing. Most are things you can picture, but not always, like freedom, beauty and honour. These are abstract nouns.
  • adjectivesmad, country – these change the meaning of the noun they are closest to. It was not just dogs that were waiting for me, but mad dogs. And it was not just along any road, but a country road. Notice that country can also be a noun too, as in, “She lives in the country.” Words often have double lives.
  • numbersthree – these are like adjectives, but are often considered separately. It includes not just ordinary numbers like three but words like many, few, countless and so on.
  • verbssit, wait, to bite – almost every sentence has a verb. It is the action of the sentence — what is happening. In this case, sitting, waiting and biting. It is what the nouns are doing or having done to them. In English a verb can often be more than one word long: to sleep, will have slept, going to sleep, am sleeping, and so on.The word is counts as a verb, as in “My dog is blue.” It counts even though not much seems to be happening apart from mere existence.
  • adverbsquietly – these tell you how the verb was done. The dogs did not just wait, they waited quietly. Notice that quietly ends in -ly. A common way to make an adjective into an adverb is to add -ly.
  • prepositionsfrom, along – these show the relation between words, especially in time and place. The dogs are from Brazil and they wait along the road. Some other prepositions: on, of, in, under, between, by, after, before, out of, inside.
  • conjunctionsand – these words join sentences or parts of sentences together. They can also join words together into lists: “I love Paris, Athens and Rome.” Some other conjunctions: or, nor, but, yet, because, although, either, if, so that, when, while, even though.
  • articlesthe – there are only three articles in English: the, a and an. Some languages do not have these, making it one of the harder parts of English to learn.

Nouns and verbs — the actors and the action – are the heart of a sentence. Everything else is just woodwork and paint.

Now take the sentence word by word:

Three number
mad adjective
dogs noun
from preposition
Brazil noun
sit verb
quietly adverb
along preposition
the article
road noun
and conjunction
wait verb
to bite verb
me noun

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style guide: Oxford spelling

Oxford spelling
is one of the three chief ways to spell English. The other two are British and American spelling.

For Oxford spelling the rule is simple:

Prefer the spelling the Oxford dictionary lists first for a given word.

Roughly speaking, Oxford spelling is British spelling with -ize instead of -ise. In computer circles it is called en-GB-oed. On Apple machines and the Chrome Web browser,  Canadian English comes the closest.

Who uses Oxford spelling:

  • Oxford English Dictionary (OED) – by definition
  • Oxford University Press
  • Penguin
  • United Nations, including UNESCO, WHO and so on
  • Amnesty International
  • Nature
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Interzone
  • this blog

How Oxford spelling compares: I chose 14 Oxford spellings from the “Concise Oxford English Dictionary” that are not universal and used Google to compare them to the preferred spelling in 15 countries and 5 news websites:

  • Oxford spellings: ageing, aluminium, analyse, centre, fetus, fulfil, haemorrhage, honour, judgement, practising, recognize, spelled, travelling, yogurt.
  • With 3 differences:
    • Canada (Chrome spell checker): fulfill, hemorrhage, yoghurt (? – both yogurt and yoghurt are counted as misspellings).
  • With 4 differences:
    • Al Jazeera: foetus, judgment, practicing, recognise.
    • Times of India: foetus, judgment, practicing, spelt. 
    • South Africa: recognise, spelt, practicing, yoghurt.
    • Britain, Australia, New Zealand: foetus, recognise, spelt, yoghurt.
    • Ireland: foetus, judgment, recognise, yoghurt.
  • With 5 differences:
    • BBC: foetus, practicing, recognise, spelt, yoghurt.
    • The Economist: aluminum, judgment, practicing, recognise, yoghurt.
    • Jamaica: aging, fulfill, judgment, practicing, spelt.
  • With 6 differences:
    • Nigeria: analyze, fulfill, judgment, practicing, spelt, yoghurt.
    • Canada: aging, aluminum, fulfill, hemorrhage, judgment, practicing.
    • Singapore: aging, fulfill, foetus, judgment, recognise, spelt.
  • With 7 differences:
    • India, worldwide: aging, analyze, foetus, fulfill, judgment, practicing, spelt.
    • Pakistan: aging, aluminum, analyze, fulfill, hemorrhage, judgment, practicing.
    • Uganda: aging, foetus, judgment, practicing, recognise, spelt, yoghurt.
  • With 8 differences:
    • Philippinesaging, analyze, center, fulfill, hemorrhage, honor, practicing, traveling.
  • With 9 differences: 
  • With 10 differences:
    • America, New York Times, Israel: aging, aluminum, analyze, center, fulfill, hemorrhage, honor, judgment, practicing, traveling.

Notice that most follow neither a pure British nor a pure American spelling.

(By the way, the BBC and the New York Times are the farthest apart: they have only one disputed spelling in common: practicing.)

The main difference between the three spellings concern -our and -ize: recognize and honour. Oxford sides with most of the English-speaking world on those:

honor honour
recognise Singapore, The Economist,
Ireland, BBC, Britain, New Zealand, Australia,
Al Jazeera, South Africa, Uganda
recognize America, New York Times, Israel, Philippines OED, this blog, worldwide,
Jamaica, Nigeria, Canada,
Pakistan, India, Times of India

On some other spellings, though, Oxford is outnumbered:

judgment, fulfill, analyze, aging, spelt, foetus, practicing

Which are the Indian spellings. India, it turns out, is the swing vote.

The OED prefers spellings that are closer to a word’s origins: fetus is closer to the original Latin, -ize and analyse to the original Greek and so on.

I follow the Oxford spelling because I use the Oxford dictionary (since it is the best there is). I used to follow The Economist’s spelling, but it is much easier to look up the Oxford spelling for a given word. Also, as even the United Nations recognizes, OED English is the closest thing we have to a world English.

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typewriter_jpg-288x300One difference between British and American English is -ise and -ize. Words like recognize, which in America always end in -ize, in Britain often end in -ise: recognise.

How the three chief ways to spell English deal with this ending:

  • British: -ise preferred, -ize acceptable
  • American: -ize
  • Oxford: -ize preferred, -ise acceptable

What is good about -ize:

  1. It is spelled the way it sounds.
  2. It is closer to the Greek original: -izein.

These are the reasons the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and Fowler give for preferring -ize.

What is good about -ise:

  1. It is not American. Among Australians, New Zealanders and Arabs that probably makes a difference – they favour -ise more than the British do.
  2. The -ise spelling is easier. If you use -ise, there are only four exceptions:

    assize, capsize, prize (as a reward), size.


    But if you use -ize, there are 23 exceptions:

    advertise, advise, apprise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disfranchise, enfranchise, enterprise, excise, exercise, improvise, incise, premise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise.


    Most of these come from Latin, not Greek: -vise (see), -cise (cut), -prise (take), -mise (send).

Many assume -ize is an American invention, so -ise must be the right form. Right? Wrong!

If you look at how Shakespeare and the Authorized Version of the Bible were written in the early 1600s – back when the Pilgrim Fathers left for America – you will see -ize. American English, as sometimes happens, preserves the older form.

The -ise ending came from French into British English in the 1700s. Samuel Johnson, who favoured French spellings, put it in his dictionary in 1755, but Noah Webster in America, who favoured Greek and Latin spellings, did not. Webster did not invent -ize – he just made it the fixed spelling in America.

Even today -ize is an acceptable spelling in Britain while most other American spellings are not. Because -ize is not an American invention. It is the older spelling that is losing ground to the newer, simpler -ise.

(Note that the -yze as in “analyze” is an American invention. It is not found in British or Oxford spelling.)

In Britain -ise is favoured by government, schools, newspapers, magazines and ordinary people. You see -ize, on the other hand, used by universities, journals and upmarket books: Penguin, the Oxford University Press, Encyclopaedia Britannica and Nature all use it. They are following the Oxford spelling.

The two endings through time:

-ize -ise
1500s Shakespeare
1600s Authorized Version, Pepys
1700s Jefferson, Blake Johnson
1800s Shelley, Webster, Lewis Carroll Jane Austen, Darwin
1900s OED, Orwell, CS Lewis Churchill
2000s Nature, Penguin books, this blog
The Economist

Chaucer in the 1300s used both freely.

In the “Chronicles of Narnia” by CS Lewis you will see -ise, but in his own letters he used -ize.

The two endings by country (in 2007):

90 Ireland, New Zealand, Egypt
70 South Africa
60 Britain, Australia, Singapore, Guyana,
50 Pakistan, Zimbabwe
40 India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tanzania,
Ghana, Hong Kong
30 Nigeria, Kenya, Antigua
20 Canada
10 Uganda, Israel
0 America, Philippines, Jamaica

This shows in round numbers how many times in a hundred recognise is preferred to recognize according to Google.

Notice that in the Middle East -ise has, in effect, become the Arab spelling while -ize is the Jewish spelling.

See also:

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typewriter_jpg-288x300Orwell said, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” Here is how to find the fat:

  1. Look for weak words, like very, not, quite, character, nature, basis, community and so on. (For more see the article on weak words.) Many can simply be cut. Others require a rewrite, but since they are weak words to begin with, removing them will make your writing stronger.
  2. Look for long words – more than two syllables – and those ending in -ion. More fat. Rewriting without most of these will make your sentences shorter and more to the point.
  3. Avoid pleonasms – expressions like “free gift” or “minute detail” where one word adds nothing to the meaning. Every gift is free and every detail is minute, so why mention it? Some others:
    Bad Better
    a total of six apples six apples
    brief summary summary
    close proximity proximity
    close scrutiny scrutiny
    each and every each
    end result result
    in the field of geometry geometry
    just the same the same
    more preferably preferably
    most especially especially
    most probably probably
    one and the same the same
    particular interest interest
    prior experience experience
    personally visit visit
    red in colour red
    repeat again repeat
    revert back revert
    safe haven haven
    track record record
    usual custom custom
    with a round figure round
  4. Cut these:

    all things considered
    as a matter of fact
    for all intents and purposes
    for the most part
    I think that
    in a manner of speaking
    in a very real sense
    in my opinion
    in the final analysis
    the point I am trying to make is that
    what I mean to say is that
    which is
    who is

  5. Shorten these:
    Bad Better
    at the present moment now
    he is a man who he
    in a slow manner slowly
    in spite of the fact that though
    owing to the fact that since
    the question as to whether whether
    the reason why is that because
    there is no doubt that no doubt
    this is a subject that this subject
    this point in time now
    used for fuel purposes used for fuel
    weather conditions weather
  6. Avoid what Fowler called compound prepositions:

    as to
    in connection with
    in order that
    in order to
    in relation to
    in so far as
    in that
    in the case of
    in the instance of
    in the matter of
    in the neighbourhood of
    in the region of
    inasmuch as
    of the character of
    of the nature of
    of the order of
    on the basis of
    owing to
    relative to
    so far as
    the fact that
    with a view to
    with reference to
    with regard to
    with respect to

    “The fact that” will often shorten to “that”.

  7. Look for unnecessary prepositions. These are especially common in American English:
    Bad Better
    bought up bought
    cut back cut
    for free free
    freed up freed
    head up head
    meet with meet
    sent off sent
    sold off sold

In school we learned how to stretch our writing to reach the ten pages the teacher wanted. We have to unlearn that.

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style guide: weak words

typewriter_jpg-288x300Weak words weaken your writing. It is best to avoid them when possible. They are weak either because they are overused or because they are a sign that you are not expressing yourself forcefully.

After you check your spelling, check for weak words. Remove as many as possible.

Some weak words you can simply cut. For others you will have to put what you say into everyday terms that your readers can picture.

Some of the weakest of the weak words:

  • not – it is better to say what is than what is not. Put your statements in the positive. Even words like “never” or “nothing” are better than “not”. “Not” is fine when stating the contrary: “I like Paris, not France.”
  • use – its meaning is too general. Find a verb that shows us what is happening.

    Not: “He used a knife to kill him”
    But: “He knifed him and he dropped.”

  • all – cut it where you can. Overused.
  • key, major, meaningful, important, significant – do not say that something is key, major, meaningful, important or significant. Show why it is so.

    Not: “Barack Obama is an important political figure”,
    But: “Barack Obama could become the next president.”

  • individual, person, process, purpose, condition, community, relationship, environment, nature, character, resources, perception – these are words from Latin that stand for a general something. We like them because they sound important and save us the trouble of thinking out just what we mean in everyday terms.

    Not: “There is a perception that the African-American community has fewer resources due to a process of discrimination in the workplace.”

    But: “Some believe many blacks are poor because it is hard to find work when whites cannot see past skin colour.”

  • problem, solution – overused and too general in their meaning to have much force. When Dorothy found herself in Oz and had to get home, did she call it a “problem”? When Glenda the Good Witch told her to follow the Yellow Brick Road, did she call it a “solution”?
  • massive – massively overused.
  • so, very, really, pretty – before an adjective, as in “really high”, “very high”, “pretty high”, “so high”, are overused and have no effect. They are better left out. In our example, if you want to make a point of how high something was, then show just how high it was:

    Not: “We were very high”
    But: “We looked down on the tree tops.”

  • rather, quite, somewhat, definitely, actually, basically, tend to – these words show that you are uncertain about what you are saying. Why read on? If you cannot simply cut them, then find out the facts or write what you are sure about.

Also overused:

addressed, ailing, basis, bottom line, breakaway, care for, caring, crisis, exciting, famously, focus, guesstimate, hearts and minds, high profile, honeymoon is over, landmark, last-ditch, little, make-or-break, one thing is certain, overseas, partner, prestigious, respected, revolution, sea-change, skills, so-called, supportive, target, too close to call, watershed, windows of opportunity.

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