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style guide: spelling

typewriter_jpg-288x300Spelling in English is difficult. It is hard to predict a word’s spelling – the letters used to write it – from how it is pronounced.

By far the best way to improve your spelling is to read a lot. Then when you misspell a word it will look strange to you and you will know to look it up.

Why English spelling is difficult:

  1. The Christian missionaries taught the English to write their language with Latin letters. A bad fit: English has far more sounds than Latin.
  2. Spelling in general follows the way words were said in London in the middle 1400s. Yes. That was when government offices and printers began to make spelling a fixed thing. Since 1700 spelling has barely changed at all.
  3. Foreign words, of which there are many in English, often keep their original spelling.

There are three broad systems of spelling that come from the three great dictionaries – Johnson’s, Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

  1. British: the Johnson spelling, used in the British Isles, Oceania, Middle East, South Africa, Singapore, by The Economist, the BBC, the Times, EU, OECD, OPEC and Al Jazeera.

    honour, recognise, analyse, theatre, likeable, traveller, fulfil, dialogue, practise, burnt, foetus and haemorrhage

  2. American: the Webster spelling, used in America, Europe, Latin America, East Asia and Israel, by CNN, the New York Times, AP, Reuters and the Wikipedia.

    honor, recognize, analyze, theater, likable, traveler, fulfill, dialog, practice, burned, fetus and hemorrhage

  3. OED: the Oxford spelling, used by the British presses of Oxford, Cambridge and Penguin, the United Nations, ISO, Amnesty, Nature, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Orwell and Fowler’s.

    honour, recognize, analyse, theatre, likeable, traveller, fulfil, dialogue, practise, burned, fetus and haemorrhage

I use the Oxford dictionary, so I will follow the OED spellings.

The three systems spell most words the same way, but there are differences as noted above. In computer circles these three systems are known as en-GB, en-US and en-GB-oed.

The Times of London used OED spellings till the 1980s.

Words that are often misspelled:
abscess, abseil, accommodation, accumulate, achieve, acquaint, acquire, address, advice (n), advise (v), ageing, aggressive, amateur, anaesthetic, annex (v), annexe (n), anoint, apartment, appal, appalling, aqueduct, archaeology, artefact, attach

bargain, beautiful, believe, besiege, biased, blatant, broccoli, buoyant

cappuccino, Caribbean, cemetery, commemorate, commitment, committee, comparative, compatible, confectionery, consensus, contemporary

deceive, definite, dependant (n), dependent (adj), despair, desperate, detach, device (n), devise (v), dilapidated, disappear, disappoint, discipline, dissect

ecstasy, eighth, embarrass, enthral, envelop (v), envelope (n), extraordinary, extrovert

February, fluorescent, fulfil

gauge, glamorous, guarantee, guard, guardian

hamster, harass, harassment, humorous, hygienic

idiosyncrasy, imaginative, independent, indispensable, inoculate, instalment, introvert, irrelevant, irresistible, itinerary

judgement

label, liaison, licence (n), license (v), lightning, liquefy

manoeuvre, medieval, Mediterranean, memento, millennium, millionaire, miniature, minuscule, mischievous, misspell, Muslim

necessary, niece

occasion, occurrence, omit

parallel, parliament, peculiar, permanent, persistent, pharaoh, pigeon, practice (n), practise (v), privilege, pronunciation

questionnaire

receive, recommend, refrigerator, responsible, restaurateur, rhythm, risotto

sacrilege, schedule, seize, separate, sheath (n), sheathe (v), siege, sieve, skilful, sponsor, successful, supersede, suppress, surprise

thief (n), thieve (v), threshold, tomorrow

until, unwieldy

vegetable, veterinary

weird, whinge, wholly, wilful, withhold, wreath (n), wreathe (v)

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style guide: Americanisms

typewriter_jpg-288x300An Americanism is a word or expression in English that is common in America but rare elsewhere. Some have entered the general English language, such as okay, geek, teenager, radio and blurb. Others have not, such as gasoline, airplane and homerun.

Avoid Americanisms. If you use them to show you know them, you will become tiresome. If you use them because you think everyone knows them, you will not always be understood. As dialect they should be avoided.

Because of American television and film, American English is one of the more familiar dialects of English throughout the world. Yet, outside North America, British English is still better known. American English may no longer even be the largest dialect: Indian English has or will soon have more speakers.

The Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries will tell you which words and expressions are American, while the Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries will not. A good dictionary will tell you that “airplane” is American and “aeroplane” is British.

When you write do not assume that your readers:

  • Know baseball or American football.
  • Follow American television.
  • Live in a place where the north is cold and July is in the summer.
  • Know much about Christian holidays or beliefs.
  • Have schools divided into grades.
  • Know any of the 50 American states beyond the largest ones.
  • Know about pounds, inches, gallons and so on.

You can assume that most readers will know the top Hollywood films and how much an American dollar is.

Spelling: Instead of

honour, recognise, analyse, theatre, likeable, traveller, fulfil, dialogue, practise, burnt and haemorrhage

Americans write

honor, recognize, analyze, theater, likable, traveler, fulfill, dialog, practice, burned, and hemorrhage

But such differences are slight and cause little confusion. Of these -ize is acceptable everywhere.

Some words have a different meaning in America than elsewhere. For example:

American English English
biscuit scone
college university
corn maize
cot camp bed
dinner evening meal
first floor ground floor
football American football
gas petrol
homely ugly
pants trousers
school school or university
subway metro, the underground

These words are American though few Americans know it:

American English English
airplane aeroplane
candy sweets
cellphone mobile phone
checkers draughts
disk disc (except in computers)
drugstore pharmacy
faucet tap
figure out work out
math mathematics
movie film
movie theater cinema
oatmeal porridge
parking lot parking spaces or garage
quarter of ten quarter to ten
raise children bring up children
railroad station rail station
retiree retired person
shades blinds
sneakers trainers
soda pop soft drink
storey floor
vacation holiday

Some Americanisms are needlessly long or self-important:

American English English
African-American black
access get
additionally and
automobile car
constituency supporters
corporation company
critique criticise
deliver on a promise keep a promise
due to because
family unit family
head up head
hemorrhage lose blood
horseback riding riding (horses)
impact affect
in-depth deep
meet with meet
nation country
outside of outside
parameters limits
perception belief
sport game
teach school teach
the military the army
transportation transport
underdeveloped backward
underprivileged poor

The moral: as always, plain, simple English is best.

– Abagond, 2007.

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style guide: dialect

typewriter_jpg-288x300Dialect is made up of the words, expressions or ways of saying things that are not universal to a language but found in one place only. For example, in Britain “smart” means you are well-dressed, but in America it means you have brains.

Avoid dialect in your writing. Like jargon and slang many will not understand it.

A good dictionary will tell you whether a word is dialect, but some are blind to their own dialect. An American dictionary, for example, may say that “aeroplane” is British, but fail to note that “airplane” is American. The Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries are generally good.

Dialect adds colour to writing, so why avoid it? The trouble is few of us know where general English leaves off and our dialect begins. Dialects are invisible to those who speak them. So if you know something is dialect leave it out. There will be more than enough dialect left in what you write that will be invisible to you.

You should aim at the kind of English you are used to seeing in books. That sort of English is taught and understood everywhere in the English-speaking world, no matter what is spoken in the streets.

The BBC and CNN are also good examples of English to follow. They are in dialects of English, true, but they are familiar enough to English-speaking people everywhere that you will be understood. In effect they are forms of international English. The same goes for the English in The Economist. I follow it for just that reason.

When you quote speech, of course you must use the words that were in fact spoken or, in fiction, would be spoken. But even there you must make clear what is meant.

In “A Clockwork Orange” Anthony Burgess invents a dialect of English from the future that is full of Russian words, but it still makes complete sense. Mark Twain in “Huckleberry Finn” also uses dialect to effect.

Not only do different regions have their own words, but the same word can mean different things in different places. A good example is the word “tea”.

Everywhere “tea” means the drink made from the tea leaves. But it has other meanings too:

  • In Jamaica it can mean any drink made by putting something in boiling water, like orange peels.
  • In Australia, New Zealand and among some in Britain it can mean the evening meal.
  • In America “tea will be served” never means a meal but tea to drink served with something light to eat, such as cake – a meaning it can also have in Britain.

Some examples of dialect:

  • America: mad (for angry), meet with, head up, gasoline, corn (maize), cot (camp bed), touchdown, airplane
  • Australia: g’day, milko, postie, mate, googly, nick
  • Britain: baby’s dummy, bilberry, braces, building society, corn (wheat), cot (baby’s bed), homely, courgette, liquidiser, paraffin, pants, removal van
  • India: crore, lakh, today morning
  • Jamaica: johncrow, double bible, obeah, slackness, fi, nyam
  • Singapore: lah, lor, kiasu, sia, blur

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typewriter_jpg-288x300

Some rules for writing:

Stephen King:

  • Write every day. Write a set number of words, say a 1000. Do not stop till you are done. Or: write a set number of hours, say two, and write up to the last minute.
  • Write in the same place and at same time everyday. Writing will come more easily if you do. It should be a place where no one will talk to you or ask you to do something else.
  • Avoid television.
  • Read a lot. If you do not like to read, then writing is not for you.
  • Write the truth.
  • Write what interests you. Your passion will show through. This is better than writing about what you think will get the most readers.
  • Do not write to show off or make yourself seem great.

Orwell:

  • For every sentence you write, ask yourself:
    • What is it that I want to say?
    • What words will express it?
    • What image will make it clearer? Is it new enough to have an effect?
    • Can I put it more shortly?
    • Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
  • Always cut words when you can.
  • Use short words in place of long ones.
  • Use familiar words in place of unfamiliar ones.
  • Use active in place of passive where you can. Not: “The dog was bitten by the man”, but “The man bit the dog”.
  • Avoid common figures of speech, those you are used to seeing in print.

The Economist agrees with Orwell but adds:

  • Keep your sentences short. The longer you make them, the more likely your reader will get lost.
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Each paragraph should be about one idea. Each sentence in the paragraph should develop that idea. Use one-sentence paragraphs only rarely.
  • Use everyday language.
  • Use “he” not “he or she”.
  • If someone’s argument is wrong, prove it. Do not question his character or intelligence.
  • Avoid I-told-you-sos.
  • Do not be too pleased with yourself or show off. Your readers will tire of you.
  • Use the subjunctive properly. More on that later.
  • Do not overuse “don’t”, “isn’t”, “can’t”, “won’t” and so on.

Churchill:

  • “Short words are best, and old words, when short, are best of all.

CS Lewis:

  • “Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else.”

What I add:

  • After you write something, put it away for two months (if you can) and then read out loud.
  • Write the way you talk to a friend, but without the slang, jargon, dialect and other inside words that your mother or someone from another country or time would not understand. Most people speak better than they write.
  • If you write for the Web, keep your paragraphs to about four sentences.

In short: write every day, but do not overwrite. The great temptation is to go on too long, to use fancy words to make what we say sound important. That is not good writing. Good writing is simple and to the point.

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style guide

typewriter_jpg-288x300This is the first in a series about style and usage of written English. I write it to help my own writing, but if it helps others, that is even better. It will appear on Tuesdays by 12:00 UTC in the coming weeks.

Each post will be about one subject. It will not cover it in depth, but it will include the most important points.

Good writing is more than style and usage: it takes experience and a certain gift. But like spelling, style and usage are the easy things to improve.

Why good writing matters:

  1. It is easier to read.
  2. It reaches more people, all things being equal, and affects them more deeply.
  3. It makes clear thought possible.

I agree with Orwell that language affects thought. Writing well and thinking clearly are two sides of the same coin.

Writing for the Web in English means you are read all over the world, like it or not. Therefore writing in an international English matters.

That said, sometimes you have to favour the English of one region over another. The closest we have to a universally accepted form of English is the written English of London. That has been true for over 500 years and it is still true today. Even in America they still accept and understand the sort of English heard on the BBC or read in The Economist

On points of style and usage I follow:

  1. The Economist
  2. “Modern English Usage” by H.W. Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers (1965)
  3. “The Cambridge Guide to English Usage” by Pam Peters (2004)

I consult The Economist first, Fowler’s for depth and Peters for the facts of how English is now used in the real world. I write my findings here in this series. It is what I will follow in my own writing.

Fowler is great, but becomes less useful as time goes on. Much has changed in forty-some years. We now have the Internet and political correctness. But he is still a good read not just for his wit that cuts straight to the point, but also to see that English can be written a lot more simply than is the custom these days.

Peters is the opposite: she has all the latest numbers on how English is used all over the world, but she has no strong inner sense of what makes good English.

The Economist is in the middle and therefore best: it is current, well-written English that is meant to be read all over the world. That is the kind of English I want to write.

Enough of The Economist is on the Internet that you can use a search engine to find out how it uses a given word. That is priceless.

The Economist also has its style guide on the Internet. But do not trust it blindly: it will sometimes say two different things, while The Economist itself will do a third. If in doubt, I follow the third.

In this series:

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