My colleague Eleanor Parkinson (Manchester Editorial) recently wrote an excellent blog post [edit in January 2019: no longer available] about the overuse of capital letters to begin words, particularly in business writing. I’d like to dig deeper into this, to look at some of the likely reasons why people often fall into this trap.
I say ‘likely’ because, without doing a big survey or having access to the inner workings of people’s minds, I can’t be sure that these are the reasons. But there are certain patterns of what we might call ‘hypercapitalisation’ that crop up so often, I think these explanations seem fairly credible.
Reason #1: Adjacency
If a term consists of two words or two sets of initials, and the first of these begins (correctly) with a capital, it’s easy to think – maybe subconsciously – that the second should as well. This would explain why people often write such things as ‘an IT System’, ‘British Politicians’ and ‘American Football’. But these terms aren’t titles or proper nouns, so the second word in each case doesn’t need to be capitalised.
(The latter is very common, but there really is no reason for the capital ‘F’. If you’re unconvinced, try this: if you were just writing ‘football’ – or ‘golf’ or ‘swimming’ – in mid-sentence, would you start it with a capital?)
Tip: Unless the entire term is a name of an organisation, brand etc., only capitalise the words that you would always capitalise anyway (‘British’, for example).
Reason #2: Familiarity
There are some words that we often see capitalised within titles of institutions. Some examples: ‘Leeds City Council’, ‘Metropolitan Police’, ‘University of Nottingham’. This is probably why some people capitalise these words in other contexts: ‘the people of our City’, ‘your local Council’, ‘he joined the Police’, ‘she went to University’ and so on. These are generic terms, not the titles of specific cities, councils, police forces or universities: so, no capitals required.
Tip: This kind of word only needs a capital if it’s part of a title (or being used as a shortened version of a title).
Reason #3: Importance
This is where business content writers tend to get carried away. There’s usually no need for things like ‘the Company’ and ‘our Customers’.
An exception is where legal-type wording is being used, for example, in a contract or a set of terms and conditions. If things such as ‘the Company’ and ‘the Customer’ are in a list of defined terms, it makes sense to capitalise them later on, as a way of referring back to those definitions. Also (as with reason #2), if ‘the Company’ is meant as shorthand for a name that actually includes the word ‘Company’, the capital ‘C’ is fine.
Tip: Importance isn’t a good reason for starting a word with a capital. If you really want to emphasise it (though I suggest you do this sparingly), use italics, bold, a different colour or maybe full capitals.
Reason #4: Amorphous entities (?!)
‘The Financial Sector’, ‘the Energy Industry’, ‘the Private Equity Market’ – terms such as these are often capitalised, as if they were the names of actual organisations. In reality, though, each of them is just a loose label, covering an undefined number of organisations – so they don’t need capitals. The financial sector has no CEO, the energy industry has no organisation chart, and the private equity market has no head office.
Tip: Only use capitals for the names of actual organisations, not for collective terms such as these.
Reason #5: Initials
If a term is often known by initials, these are usually written as capitals. So, it’s tempting to use those capitals when writing it in full: we then end up with the likes of ‘Key Performance Indicator’ (KPI), ‘Customer Relationship Management’ (CRM) and ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI). There’s a good reason for using capitals in a set of initials – it signals that they are initials, not letters in a word – but this is no reason to use them in the complete words as well.
Again, though, there is an exception. If you’re writing the words in full as a way of explaining the initials, it makes some sense to use the capitals to clarify this, for example: ‘a set of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)’.
Tip: If a term is sometimes shortened as a series of capital initials, this doesn’t mean you should also use the capitals when writing it in full.
But does it matter?
You might have noticed that I haven’t said any of these capitals are wrong – only that they’re unnecessary. So, is there really a problem with using them?
Yes, I say. As with many other things in writing and editing, I suggest it’s more a question of doing what’s best for the reader, rather than relying on notions of right versus wrong.
The thing to remember about capitals is that they grab the reader’s attention. Sometimes this is a good thing – for example, to draw attention to a brand name. If you overuse them, though, they can clutter up the page, making it look too ‘busy’. The more things you draw attention to, the less attention they’ll get. Also, a capital can have a jarring effect if the reader isn't expecting it.
Additionally, unnecessary use of capitals can look pompous, perhaps amateurish. In marketing content and other business writing, it can make it look as though you’re screaming too loudly about your importance.
All in all, then, to help the reader along and to make the right impression: go easy with those capitals.
There might well be other common reasons for overuse of capitals. If you can think of any, or if you have any other thoughts on this topic, I’d be glad to hear from you …
Here in Editorworld, we keep coming back to thorny debates about what is or isn’t grammatically correct, and our attitudes to such questions.
We ponder split infinitives, dangling modifiers and participles, comma splices, starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending one with a preposition, using ‘less’ with a countable noun, the singular ‘they’, using ‘which’ with a restrictive clause, ‘people that’ as opposed to ‘people who’ …
The (sort of) warring factions
At the extremes, there are two schools of thought. On one side of the fence are the conservative prescriptivists, who swear by whatever they regard as The Rules of Grammar and love to scowl at anyone who breaks them.
Looking sceptically across that fence, often heard shouting ‘Pedant!’, are the more liberal descriptivists. They believe a language is defined by the way it’s actually used, not by how it supposedly should be used, and emphasise how English is continually evolving.
Most prescriptivists – other than little-known peevers ranting on social media and below-the-line message boards – seem to keep a low profile these days, journalist Simon Heffer being one of the exceptions.
Those of a more descriptivist bent are more visible. This year’s Society for Editors and Proofreaders conference featured talks from two eminent ones: Times columnist Oliver Kamm (with his Whitcombe Lecture) and linguist Geoff Pullum (‘Grammar myths: self-defence for copy-editors in a world of bad grammar advice’), both making a big impression. (Admittedly, I missed both of them: Kamm’s because I was several miles away getting my now annual conference injury looked at – a sprained finger joint, following last year’s cut arm – and Pullum’s because I’d seen him speak on a similar subject at the 2015 event.)
Which side is best? Sorry: better
Both sides, as I see it, have their fairly big flaws. The prescriptivists cling to ‘rules’ – cynics call them ‘zombie rules’ – of dubious validity. Some of these, such as not splitting infinitives, seem to be based on a silly over-reverence for Latin. And if there really are definite rules, who has the power to say what they are?
Meanwhile, the descriptivists seem to overlook the trouble that questionable grammar structures can cause, and rely too much on historical usage to justify their lenience. (If, say, we find that somebody wrote ‘could of’ in 1832, will that mean it’s just fine?) They like to cite works by the likes of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, the idea being that if it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. But this is a spurious argument, as Kamm’s fellow journalist John Rentoul suggested in a debate with him: great wordsmiths can get away with using suspect grammar, as they have a knack for producing clear, elegant phrasing regardless. (Or is that ‘irregardless’? Only kidding.) Most of us don’t.
Finally, the point
So, what does all this mean for proofreaders and copy-editors? Perhaps the prescriptivist–descriptivist divide is relevant to proofreading, where the emphasis is on checking that the text is ‘correct’, whatever that might mean. We may often need to check with the customer about how to deal with debatable aspects of grammar.
When it comes to copy-editing, though, I see the argument as one great big red herring.
Why? Because the main purpose of copy-editing, surely, is to help the reader by ensuring readability, clarity and flow – not to follow a set of rules (OK, we’ll probably do that as well, to some extent – it just isn’t the primary point of what we do).
We try to give the text a sense of smoothness, avoiding anything that could make the reader pause for a moment and maybe have to read a sentence twice. By doing that, we also help our customer and/or author, by helping to get their meaning across smoothly.
Whether a particular structure or usage is ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’ is beside the point. Even if we consider it ‘acceptable’, it still might be confusing, or at least have a momentary jarring effect on the reader – in which case, why use it? Whether I’m editing a business report or a footballer’s autobiography, I won’t ‘fix’ a split infinitive or a sentence beginning with ‘And’ unless my customer has asked me to follow such a rule.
But if I come across a ‘people that’ or a comma splice, I’ll change it – not because it’s ‘wrong’, but because I think the resulting text will read better. After all, isn’t that what we’re here for?
People often write a single word beginning with ‘every’ or ‘any’ when there should be two words instead. Here’s some guidance to help keep you out of this trap.
OPEN ALLDAY EVERYDAY
That’s the proud boast on this sign outside a pub near where I live. Literacy-shaming isn’t my thing, so I’ve masked out the pub’s name – but the sign is a fine example of a common pitfall.
Sadly, of those three words, only the first is right. The second isn’t a real word at all. The third is a word, but shouldn’t be used in this way. As Meat Loaf might say: two out of three ain’t bad, but one out of three is a bit poor. (Not that I want to put words into Meat’s mouth, or take them right out of it for that matter. I really hope some of you are getting these references.)
An everyday mistake
Let’s not dwell on ‘allday’, as this non-word is rarely seen. This usage of ‘everyday’, though, is an easy mistake to make, and it happens often.
When used correctly, the single word ‘everyday’ is an adjective, with a similar meaning to ‘commonplace’ or ‘regular’. It doesn’t literally mean that something happens every single day. For example:
Washing-up is an everyday chore.
These are everyday situations.
‘Chore’ and ‘situations’ are both nouns, described by the adjective ‘everyday’.
If we are saying that something happens, and that it literally happens each day, we need two words:
The pub is open every day.
Every day, he gets up at 7am and takes his dog for a walk.
The ‘every day’ in each of the above isn’t an adjective – it doesn’t describe a noun. It tells us something about a verb phrase (‘the pub is open’, ‘he gets up at 7am ...’), so it’s an adverbial (that is, a phrase that acts like an adverb).
How to get it right everytime (oops!)
Here’s a tip to help with getting this right. Imagine for a moment that the thing you’re writing about doesn’t happen each day, but with some other frequency instead. Would you write ‘everyhour’, ‘everyweek’ or (please, no!) ‘everyyear’? How about a pub sign saying ‘Open till midnight everyFriday’? None of these would be right, and it’s the same with ‘day’.
If we use the Oxford, Cambridge and Collins online dictionaries on a best-of-three basis, these are the only words beginning with ‘every’ that are recognised as standard UK English:
A common thread among these words is that their meanings are abstract in some way. ‘Everybody’ and ‘everyone’ mean ‘every person’, but we wouldn’t normally refer to a person as a ‘body’ or a ‘one’. As mentioned already, ‘everyday’ doesn’t literally mean that. ‘Everyman’ or ‘Everywoman’ represents a concept of the ‘average’ man or woman – not all men or women.
‘Everywhere’ can’t mean ‘every where’, as it would make no sense: ‘where’ isn’t even a noun. Admittedly, ‘everything’ at least comes close to meaning ‘every thing’ – but it generally means a loosely defined mass of ‘stuff’, not a collection of individual things, whatever ‘thing’ might mean in the context.
Any time, any place, anywhere …
It’s a similar case with words that begin with ‘any’. Here’s a full list of recognised ‘anywords’ in UK English, chosen on the same basis as before:
‘Anybody’ and ‘anyone’ are relatives of ‘everybody’ and ‘everyone’. ‘Anyhow’ (meaning the same as ‘anyway’) and ‘anywhere’ have the same quirk as ‘everywhere’ – the second part isn’t a noun. Meanwhile, ‘anyway’ itself is used in various, er, ways, none of which really means ‘any way’.
The one glaring exception is ‘anytime’, which basically does mean ‘any time’ – but the latter is usually preferred.
… There’s a wonderful world you can share
(OK, that’s enough of the cheesy throwbacks.)
It’s worth noting that none of the above dictionaries include ‘everytime’ or ‘anyday’ – not even as informal or US-only words. For US usage, the Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t list them either. They do crop up here and there, but are best avoided.
Got all that? Good. Time for a Martini …
Do you sometimes wonder whether to use ‘that’ or which’ to introduce a bit of information in a sentence? If you do, you’re not alone. I hope this will help.
We have one toilet which is out of action.
So said the announcer on a train I’d just boarded recently. What did he mean? Was there enough of a pause after ‘toilet’ to suggest a comma? Like this:
We have one toilet, which is out of action.
– meaning there was only one toilet, and it was out of action.
Or, less worryingly with a longish journey ahead, was there no discernible break in his speech? If there wasn’t, his announcement could have been interpreted as:
We have one toilet that is out of action.
– in other words, one of their toilets was out of action.
It soon became clear that he meant the latter. But why make us fret, even for 30 seconds?
Now, I’m not in the business of copy-editing the spoken words of railway staff – or anyone else – but this is a fine example of the difference between those two commonly confused words: ‘that’ and ‘which’. Some people think they’re interchangeable in this context, and there is some truth in that – but you should take care when using them, and, as we’ll soon see, when deciding whether to use a comma before your chosen word.
Grammatical lingo alert
When ‘that’ or ‘which’ is used in this way, it’s introducing either a restrictive (or defining) or a non-restrictive (or non-defining) clause. Understanding the difference between these is the key to getting this right.
A restrictive clause restricts (or defines) the scope of what we’re writing about. A non-restrictive clause, on the other hand, doesn’t do this – it just adds some information.
Let’s look at another example:
(a) They painted the doors that had just been fitted.
(b) They painted the doors, which had just been fitted.
Which doors did they paint? In (a), the statement applies to only some of the doors: the ones that had just been fitted. There might be other doors as well, but if so, the ‘that ...’ clause is excluding them from the statement – that’s why we call it a ‘restrictive’ clause.
The statement in (b), meanwhile, applies to all of the doors. The clause beginning with ‘which’ is just telling us something extra: ‘also, the doors had just been fitted’. It doesn’t restrict the scope of what we’re referring to, so it’s a non-restrictive clause. The first four words would be meaningful and correct by themselves, though less informative.
Careful with commas
The other key difference between (a) and (b) above is the use or non-use of a comma after ‘doors’. A comma – or a pause in speech – tells us that the clause is non-restrictive.
Similarly, if the clause is in the middle of a sentence, it should also be followed by a comma only if the clause is non-restrictive:
(a) The doors that had just been fitted were going to be painted.
(b) The doors, which had just been fitted, were going to be painted.
In (a), the clause beginning with ‘that’ is integral to the statement, so it shouldn’t be cordoned off with punctuation.
In contrast, the commas in (b) are used to enclose supplementary information; these are known as parenthetical commas. Parentheses (round brackets) or dashes could be used instead, though each of these three choices has a different effect in terms of emphasis.
Now we come to the crunch. With a non-restrictive clause, ‘which’ should always be used, preceded by a comma. So we can’t have this, which would probably baffle the poor reader:
They painted the doors, that had just been fitted.
Instead, we need this, as we saw earlier:
They painted the doors, which had just been fitted.
With a restrictive clause, though, either ‘that’ or ‘which’ is considered acceptable, and it all hinges (following the door theme) on the presence or absence of a comma. These two sentences mean the same thing:
(a) They painted the doors that had just been fitted.
(b) They painted the doors which had just been fitted.
So, does it matter whether we use ‘that’ or ‘which’ with a restrictive clause?
Some argue that it doesn’t, but I’m firmly in the ‘that’ camp. It’s common sense, not dogma: you can’t go wrong with ‘that’, but you can create at least a flicker of confusion by using ‘which’ – so why use it? Although the lack of a comma technically shows that the clause is restrictive, some readers might not be fully aware of this rule, or might not notice whether there’s a comma or not.
I would only make an exception where another ‘that’ is lurking nearby, just to reduce repetition, as in this:
They used red paint for the doors which weren’t already that colour.
At the risk of riling purists, though, I’d like to argue that it sometimes doesn’t particularly matter whether the clause is restrictive or not. So we could use any of the three forms, like here:
(a) They moved into a house that had just been renovated.
(b) They moved into a house which had just been renovated.
(c) They moved into a house, which had just been renovated.
Whichever version we use, there’s clearly only one house involved, and it’s clearly just been renovated – no ambiguity, and no real need to ponder over which version is best.
Not only but also …
The same issues arise with some other words and expressions, such as ‘who’, ‘where’ and ‘in which’. For example:
(a) She praised the staff who had worked hard.
(b) She praised the staff, who had worked hard.
In these cases, we don’t have a choice of wording, and the humble comma can make a big difference, as it does above. We can only hope that the reader will understand the difference it makes.
As usual in writing and editing, we should be helping the reader by making things as clear and unambiguous as we can.
Just because a word is ‘acceptable’ in the context, that doesn’t make it a good choice. This applies to the ‘that’ vs ‘which’ debate as much as to anything else.
What’s the difference between copy-editing and proofreading? It’s a question that we’re often asked, as Sara Donaldson (Northern Editorial) pointed out in a recent(ish) blog post.
It’s important that the editor or proofreader and client are both clear about various aspects of what’s going to be done. One of these is the level of intervention: will we just be fixing errors, or also tweaking the wording, maybe rewriting the odd sentence? If we find something that’s unclear, will we fix it or just point it out?
What we do for publishers
In the world of publishing, it’s all pretty clear-cut. A copy-editor works with the manuscript (the copy) – usually a Word document nowadays – that the author has provided, and typically needs to do the following:
After copy-editing, the manuscript goes to a typesetter, who converts it into the format that’s needed for publication. The result is what we call the proof – usually a PDF file. This is then passed to a proofreader, who has two main jobs:
(The proofreader doesn’t correct anything directly, but just indicates things that should be changed or at least reconsidered.)
On the other hand ...
That’s all very well when we’re working for publishers. They know what copy-editing and proofreading are, and they (and we) know what needs to be done at each stage.
When it comes to other types of clients, though – businesses, researchers, students, independent authors and so on – it doesn’t usually work that way. They normally want just one person to work on their material, whether it’s in Word, PDF or any other format. But should they ask for copy-editing, proofreading, some sort of hybrid, or something else altogether?
As I see it, this problem is all down to wording (something that we should be good at!). When we advertise ourselves as ‘copy-editors’ and/or ‘proofreaders’ to clients such as these, we’re thrusting publishing jargon into the faces of people who aren’t publishers. It’s no wonder that they’re often a bit puzzled. And when we then try to explain it, this can seem condescending.
Instead, why don’t we use words that will make sense to them in the first place?
Breaking it down
Let’s look at the basic words that make up these terms: ‘copy’, ‘edit’, ‘proof’ and ‘read’.
This use of ‘copy’ – meaning a piece of writing – means something to journalists (‘filing copy’) and marketers (‘the copy for the website’) as well as publishers, but might draw blank stares from most other people.
As for ‘proof’, they might wonder what it’s proof of – guilt, purchase, pudding? ‘Read’ is suspect as well: I’m sure most clients will want us to correct the text, not just read it. (Also, we often do so-called ‘proofreading’ on a Word document, which isn’t really a proof.)
‘Edit’, however, does have a relevant meaning in the wider world. It suggests changing the content, bringing it up to a higher standard. I think we should keep this one.
So, here’s my idea
As an experiment, at least, I’m going to offer three levels of service to non-publishers:
Level 1: Error check
Level 2: Light edit
Level 3: Full edit
Level 1 is what we might call ‘proofreading’, although, as mentioned earlier, it might well be done in Word. Level 3 is effectively copy-editing, while Level 2 is, unsurprisingly, part way between the two: it’s sometimes known as ‘proof-editing’ (another misnomer, sadly).
I’ve listed these on the ‘What I do’ page of my website, and I’m considering doing so in other places, such as online directories.
It isn’t quite that simple, though. I don’t want to eliminate the terms ‘copy-editing’ and ‘proofreading’ from my marketing material altogether. Publishers will be looking for people who can do those jobs, Non-publishing clients often think they’re looking for a ‘proofreader’, even if their actual needs don’t fit with that word’s traditional meaning (as demonstrated by the success of the Find a Proofreader website).
So, at least for now, I’m a copy-editor and proofreader who offers (a) copy-editing or proofreading to publishers and (b) an error check, light edit or full edit to everyone else. I hope this will be at least a bit clearer.
One of the most valuable things about the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) is its network of local groups – a great way for members to get away from their desks, meet some like-minded souls, and swap ideas and advice.
Towards the end of 2015, a volunteer was needed to become the next coordinator for the Manchester group. Having been in the group for a couple of years, I felt settled in and was tempted to step forward – but also felt slightly uneasy about some aspects of the role, especially chairing meetings. Then, though, I went to my first SfEP conference and came away full of positive thinking: ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘I’ll do it’. So I did.
I wanted to keep up the good work of my predecessors, Louise Bolotin (who had founded the group, and was helped by Paula Clarke Bain) and Tammi Merrell. I didn’t have any big changes in mind, but the group was quite small, typically with between six and ten attendees at the meetings, and I hoped to expand it.
So, well before arranging my first meeting as coordinator, I searched for potential recruits on the SfEP’s member list, and considered also looking for non-members through social media. But, before I had gone as far as contacting anyone, along came a flurry of emails from prospective newbies, and I put the recruitment drive on hold – probably for good, as it turns out.
At that meeting, in January 2016, there were fourteen of us – far more than ever before. It was a strange day: I started it feeling nervous about chairing the meeting – especially with such a big turnout expected – but was soon knocked sideways by the news of David Bowie’s passing, and hardly even thought about the meeting until I went to Manchester in the evening. The nerves had subsided by the time it started. (A year later, I chaired a meeting a few hours after getting some health news of my own that gave me plenty to think about – nothing life-threatening, though.)
There were only nine people at the next meeting, in April – more like the old days – but we then had twelve on a sweltering night in July. We were using a small, semi-secluded room in a large bar, which was ideal for the numbers we’d had before (except for the background noise of chatter, music and tinkling glasses, which could be a minor problem), but was now starting to get crowded.
This created a dilemma: I wanted to do something about the crowding, but certainly didn’t want to discourage people from going. Luckily, the same venue has a ‘Boardroom’ upstairs, which the management are now allowing us to use free of charge (on the understanding that we’ll spend a reasonable amount at the bar). We now have a table with space for fourteen, or more if we spread out (and there are plenty of spare chairs), and no background noise to speak of. Since moving to our plush new accommodation, we’ve had turnouts of fourteen in October and twelve this January.
Even these numbers don’t reflect the growth in interest in the group since the autumn of 2015. The invitation list (including non-members of the SfEP) has nearly trebled in size, from 17 to 47. I’m not claiming any credit for this – I don’t think it can be attributed to anything I’ve done other than responding to, and keeping track of, all those who have shown an interest. I’d like to think it reflects the good health that the SfEP is in, especially as it embarks on its drive for chartership.
So, what exactly does a local group coordinator do? There are, of course, the meetings (quarterly in our case):
Another part of the role – quite a big one over the last year or so – is to respond to initial contact from new people, usually members or prospective members of the SfEP who are interested in attending the next meeting.
This doesn’t all have to be done by one person: the duties can be shared with other group members, and some groups have two or more co-coordinators(?). Also, the range of activities can vary between different groups.
Being a group coordinator has been very rewarding and enjoyable, and a nice challenge. It’s good to feel that I’m contributing to the SfEP, hopefully encouraging newcomers to sign up, and helping SfEP colleagues – who happen to be a really good bunch of people – to reap some of the benefits from their membership. To anyone who is thinking about becoming a coordinator, I would say: if you have a bit of time to spare and some half-decent organisational skills, and aren’t thoroughly terrified at the prospect of chairing meetings (which isn’t as scary as you might think), why not give it a go?
The twenties will soon be with us again …
While reading a George Orwell essay a few years ago, I was momentarily thrown by a mention of ‘the nineties’. Was he already looking beyond 1984? It soon dawned on me that he meant the 1890s – a decade that was fairly recent in his day, but now seems far behind us.
Editors and linguists often talk about how elements of the English language evolve over time as a result of social change, migration, technology and so on. Well, here’s one that sometimes has to change purely because of the passage of time.
For the best part of a century, we had handy names for decades: the twenties, the fifties, the seventies – right up to the nineties. People began to associate them with trends in fashion, music and social attitudes: the Roaring Twenties, the Swinging Sixties.
The first two decades of the twentieth century (as with any other) didn’t lend themselves to handy labels: ‘the 1900s’ could be taken to mean 1900 to 1999, and ‘the 1910s’ has a certain awkwardness because its pronunciation – ‘the nineteen-tens’ – bears little relation to the names of its individual years. Later, though, people got used to omitting the ‘nineteen’ part in less formal contexts: hence ‘the twenties’ and so on.
This was all very neat and tidy until we hit 2000. Suddenly, we were in another era of apparently nondescript decades. Few people seem to be interested in distinguishing between the 2000s and the 2010s, or in associating these decades with trends. No doubt this is largely because they lack catchy names (‘the noughties’ and ‘the teenies’ were suggested, but, thankfully, never really caught on), but it might also be a hangover from the impact of reaching ‘The Year 2000’. After such a dramatic change in the year number, with all four digits changing at once, perhaps decades seemed less significant than before. Have we got out of the habit of affording importance to them?
It won’t be long before this is put to the test. In just a few years it will be the twenties all over again; soon, to some extent or other, people will start looking ahead to that decade.
For those of us who write, edit or proofread for a living, and those who manage the style guides that we follow, this will present a new challenge. How ambiguous will ‘the twenties’ be? Should we refer long-windedly to the ‘1920s’ and ‘2020s’, or even – where the style rules demand the use of words – the ‘nineteen-twenties’ and ‘twenty-twenties’, to prevent any possible confusion? Will these twenties roar or just whimper?
Twenty years ago, there was no real problem with the term ‘the nineties’, as the 1890s were rarely mentioned; but the 1920s – a period of radio, films and wild dancing – still seem quite familiar today. A reference to ‘the twenties’ might conjure up that decade in the reader’s mind, unless the context makes the correct meaning instantly obvious.
Meanwhile, roll on the (twenty-)twenties …
The first in a (possible?) series of posts about issues that often crop up in the work of ESL (English as a Second Language) writers.
I recently found a sentence similar to this, in a research paper written by an ESL author:
In case a new best solution is found, the search begins again, based on this new solution.
The intended meaning of ‘In case’ was actually ‘If’, like this:
If a new best solution is found, the search begins again, based on this new solution.
What’s the difference? In UK English, there is a clear distinction: ‘if’ is used for a conditional statement, while ‘in case’ indicates something that is done as a precaution.
Let’s look at another example:
If it’s raining, I’ll take my umbrella.
This is conditional. It means I will check the weather before I leave; then, if it’s raining, I will take my umbrella. If it isn’t raining, I won’t take it.
Compare that with this:
I’ll take my umbrella, in case it starts raining later.
This means I’m being cautious: I’ll definitely take my umbrella, whatever the weather is like when I leave, because it might rain later.
In US English, ‘in case’ can mean the same as ‘if’, but this is quite unusual. To avoid confusion, whenever you mean ‘if’, it seems sensible to use that word.
By the way, if you do use ‘in case’ for either of these meanings, it must be two words: ‘incase’ is a variation of the verb ‘encase’, which is completely unrelated to all of this.
From 10 to 12 September, I was at Aston University in Birmingham for the 27th annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP).
This was my second SfEP conference, the first being last year’s gathering in York. That time, I arrived with some trepidation, as if I was going to be surrounded by veterans who were out to judge me. I soon realised, though, that this was nonsense. Everyone was there to learn, share ideas and enjoy themselves. This year, I could turn up without any of those worries. The experience that I’d gained in the last 12 months also helped me feel more confident, and being a local group coordinator had possibly even put a slight swagger into my step.
Choosing the sessions to attend hadn’t been easy, with some timeslots having at least two that caught my eye. In some cases, it had been a question of whether to pick the one that seemed most interesting or the one that seemed most useful.
The venue was superb, with good-quality hotel-style accommodation, and great facilities for the sessions, breaks and meals. Fortunately for the lazier types among us, everything happened in two buildings that were only a few minutes’ walk from each other.
Although the conference didn’t officially open until late afternoon, there were a couple of pre-conference software sessions available earlier, and I opted for Kathryn Evatt’s Using Google Docs. After some lengthy technical hitches, it was interesting to learn about the ways in which this web-based software can be used for collaborative writing and editing.
Having dodged the SfEP AGM last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it this time, and braced myself for a possible 90 minutes of tedium. As it turned out, though, it managed to be quite enjoyable.
Things really started to get going in the early evening, when quite a crowd gathered in the bar, while the first-timers were treated to a drink with the SfEP council members in the next room. As we moved on to the restaurant for dinner, I inadvertently plonked myself next to the proofreading legend that is Louise Harnby; soon I was gushing to her about how useful her books on business planning and marketing have been. We then stayed at the same tables for a pub-style quiz, ably hosted by conference director Christine Vaughan – a late rally saw our team end up in something like fourth place.
The main theme of the Sunday sessions, for me, was editing for non-publishers, such as businesses and public-sector bodies. Michelle McFadden and Amanda Picken’s Non-fiction text gave some good insight into the main issues involved in working for such clients, and the qualities that they tend to look for in us. Later, in Editing business text, Sarah Hunter of the Financial Conduct Authority looked at the problems often caused by unclear, verbose wording in informational content, and how we can help to prevent them. Plain-language editing has been on my radar for a while, and this session has jolted me into exploring it sooner than I would have done.
During the afternoon, while other attendees were relaxing through an hour-long coffee and tea break, around 15 of us hard-working (cue violins) local group coordinators had a meeting, chaired by Ruth Durbridge, the outgoing regional development director. There was much talk about how to persuade more SfEP members to go along to meetings and other group events (I tried not to look too smug about the fact that our Manchester group has been in danger of having too many people turning up), and about which form of communication to use: the local group’s forum or email (I’m among those who feel the forum is far better, and keep wondering why so many people are reluctant to use it).
There was also a humanities-themed Live editing session, led by Laura Poole of Copyediting.com, where we edited two short texts and discussed the changes and queries we had come up with. This was one of several ‘live’ sessions, a new idea introduced at this conference.
Sunday evening was time for a drinks reception and the all-important gala dinner. The SfEP’s singing troupe, the Linnets, went into rap mode and treated us to ‘Let’s Talk About Text’, based on the Salt-N-Pepa hit ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’. Yes, this did happen. Our after-dinner speaker was American linguist Lynne Murphy, with some funny and thought-provoking observations on differences between UK and US English (a subject that’s often discussed in hackneyed, repetitive style, but not this time). Thought for the evening: which part of your face do you frown with? Most of us then escaped to the bar, rather than run the risk of seeing editors dancing.
Monday began with the Sense and sensitivity session, presented by former SfEP chair Sarah Price, with useful debate on how and when to apply various rules (or ‘rules’?) of grammar and punctuation.
Sophie Playle then dished out valuable advice on Making the most of your website. After lunch, a Speed shake-up session hosted by Ruth Durbridge, Ian Howe and Julia Sandford-Cooke gave established editors (mostly much more established than me, I suspect) a raft of ideas about strategic career planning, continuous professional development and expanding (or, if you prefer, ‘getting out of’) your comfort zone.
I’m not sure that any SfEP conference can be complete without a talk from our honorary president, the linguistics expert David Crystal. His closing lecture was an entertaining look at how the internet is changing our conception of ‘the text’.
After the handing out of raffle prizes and some closing words, it was back into the outside world, walking back to New Street station – a weird experience after two-and-a-bit days in our on-campus editorial bubble. (Who are all these people in the street? Aren’t they editors? If not, why not? etc.) Amazingly, thanks to a train delay that actually worked in my favour at Crewe, I was home just two hours after the close. That evening, even though sleep was beckoning after a demanding few days, my mind was buzzing with thoughts.
Back to life
Since then, I’ve written up a pile of notes, reread some handouts and made all sorts of follow-up plans – I just hope I manage to put most of them, at least, into action. There’s so much to take away from the conference – every session was of great value.
Not only that, but it’s a real pleasure to meet so many like-minded people, catching up with familiar faces from the local groups, the forums and last year’s conference, and meeting new ones. (Though it can be a bit disconcerting to meet someone whose face you only know as a forum avatar. Look – that mouth moves! It makes a sound!)
Some people seem to imagine that editors and proofreaders are a stuffy, serious bunch, and that our conferences must be painfully dull. Wrong! Now, I won’t claim that we’re a crazy gang of party animals, but both the conferences I’ve attended have been awash with funny, interesting, friendly people who make for great company. Most of us work alone, and that makes it especially important to get together and share experiences, thoughts and tips. It can be almost overwhelming, though, to suddenly find yourself with about 200 colleagues, and some attendees feel the urge to get away for a quiet breather at times during the conference.
We’ve come from all sorts of backgrounds – publishing, journalism, teaching, engineering, IT, you name it – and I think that helps to create a varied mix of approaches and attitudes to our editing and proofreading, as well as helping us to get involved in a wide range of work. It also means there are many different stories about how we ended up here.
Here comes my attempt at some sort of interesting thought. This isn’t the kind of work that tends to attract people with big egos. We don’t get much publicity, the pay isn’t spectacular, and there are no glittering awards ceremonies or flash company cars on offer to the high achievers. I think this lack of ego helps to make our conferences so enjoyable – there are no bigheads or bigmouths dominating the show and drowning out the quieter people, and this leaves plenty of space for everyone to have their say.
Huge credit is due to the people who helped to make the conference happen: Christine Vaughan, her SfEP council colleagues, the office staff, sponsorship coordinator Sherona Treen-Coward, and the members who volunteered to help out. (Hope I haven’t forgotten anyone?) It ran so smoothly, and every possibility seemed to be catered for. I honestly don’t know how they do it.
On to next year
During the week leading up to the conference, my heart sank slightly when I noticed that next year’s event will be at an out-of-town venue on the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire border – a bit remote for someone up here in the North West without a car. By the time I’d got back, though, I was beginning to dread the thought of missing an SfEP conference; and, especially considering the heroic efforts others have made to get to them, I’m fairly sure I will be there, whatever it takes. Plus, there are some lucky souls who I haven’t really spoken to yet, despite having been at one or even two conferences with them – something needs to be done about that.
If you’re an SfEP member and you’re nervous about the idea of going to a conference, please give it a go next year if you can. It’s a safe bet that you will feel at home, enjoy the company, learn a lot, and go away full of ideas and optimism about your work. Honestly, you won’t regret it. Don’t just take my word for it – here’s what some other people think (not forgetting the reactions on Twitter: see #sfep16):