Why use short words?
In guidelines for ensuring plain, readable English, we’re often advised to prefer simple words. This mostly means preferring shorter words to longer ones, although we shouldn’t take this as an absolute rule. The words also should be well known to our readers. As Ernest Gowers put it in The Complete Plain Words, ‘If the choice is between two words that convey the writer’s meaning equally well, one short and familiar and the other long and unusual, of course the short and familiar should be preferred.’
What makes them short?
But what do we mean by ‘short’ words? In written language, the most obvious measure is the number of letters. However, the number of syllables also makes a difference to readability – perhaps even more so.
On average, of course, the more letters a word has, the more syllables it has; but there are glaring exceptions. For example, let’s compare two words with similar meanings: area and zone. Both are nice and compact on the page, with just four letters – but area has three syllables, compared with just one in zone. Which is more plain? You could argue that area wins the day because it’s more familiar, but it’s a close call.
Here’s a pair of related words with an even bigger contrast: ideas and thoughts. The first word, again, has three times as many syllables as the second, but it has barely half as many letters. And then there’s myopia, which manages to pack four syllables into its six letters – just as many as the much more space-consuming (but better-known) alternative short-sightedness.
Why the syllable count matters
When we’re reading, most of us ‘say’ the words in our head. The more syllables there are in your writing, the more work your reader will need to do. If there are too many, it will take a long time for them to work through a sentence, and they might struggle to keep a handle on its overall meaning.
This, of course, is also an argument for keeping sentences short as well as words. In his Oxford Guide to Plain English, Martin Cutts warns that avoiding multisyllabic words isn’t always a good move, as it often means using more words. But if the syllable count per word is just one of the factors you look at, along with the word count per sentence, you will be dealing with that potential problem. Another useful measure is the number of syllables per sentence, which takes care of both of these factors to some extent.
Also, if there are too many single-syllable words, writing can seem monotonous and lacking in ‘colour’, with a staccato effect that might annoy the reader. A lot depends on the type of content and its target readership. For informational material aimed at a wide audience, some studies and guidelines suggest that an average of around 1.5 syllables per word is a good compromise between keeping it plain and keeping the reader awake.
The length of a word, whether in terms of letters or syllables, isn’t the only thing that can affect its readability. If it has a cluster of consonants that are all pronounced individually – for example, in instigate, altruism or obstruct – this will slow the reader down as they read the text ‘out loud’ in their head. (This isn’t a problem in a word such as nightshirt – although it has five consonants in a row, they only make two sounds.)
Even where there’s only a pair of consonants, they might not go well together pronunciation-wise. This can have a slight jarring effect for the reader: for example, subpart and enmity.
It’s interesting that the best-known readability tests are based on words per sentence and syllables per word, taking no account of the number of letters. Along with the average word count per sentence, the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level measures both use the average syllable count per word, while the Gunning Fog Index checks the percentage of ‘complex’ words. (A ‘complex’ word is defined as one with three or more syllables, excluding proper nouns, familiar jargon and compound terms. Common suffixes such as ‘-ed’ and ‘-ing’ aren’t included in the syllable count.)
These measures are only of limited value, especially as they take no account of what the words mean. But perhaps their emphasis on counting syllables is one of their strengths.
There’s no magic wand that can ensure writing is plain and readable – a lot of factors come into play. But if you’re careful about how many syllables your words have, this will clearly help to make things go smoothly. It’s just one way of doing something that writers and editors should always do: thinking about the reader.
If you contact me about some possible work, what can you expect to happen next?
(Please note: this is how I generally work with non-publishing customers. Things are different with publishers, largely because they often have their own procedures and an author is also involved.)
I’ll need you to tell me various things about the material that needs to be edited or proofread, and about your needs: please see here, under the ‘Getting a quote’ heading. If possible, I’d like to see at least a sample of the content, which should be representative of the rest of it.
With the odd exception (we all need a holiday now and then), you can expect a quick initial response, usually within 24 hours during UK business days.
Once I’ve got everything I need from you, I’ll assess it. I’ll consider whether I would be the right person to do the work, estimate how long it would take, and work out whether it could fit into my schedule. If I’m willing and able to do it, I’ll quote a fee (or, if appropriate, propose an hourly rate). I’ll also invite you to check my terms and conditions and data protection policy.
If we agree on the work to be done, the schedule and the pricing, and you’re happy with my terms and conditions, I’ll book the job in my calendar and confirm that I’m planning to do it.
First, I’ll create various documents, typically including a timesheet, checklist and style sheet. The style sheet will be a record of my findings and decisions on various aspects of writing style, such as variable spellings and the use of capitals, hyphens and numbers – all with the aim of making everything consistent and in line with general good practice. This is mainly for my own use, but you might find the final version useful as well.
Next, with the help of specialist software, I’ll do some analysis and general checks, usually making some changes to ensure consistency and coherence. If any general concerns or queries crop up at this stage, I’ll get in touch with you.
Down to business
This is where I start reviewing your material in full, word by word, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. I’ll be checking the spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Depending on what we’ve agreed, I might also be making wider improvements: rewording awkward phrasing, reducing repetition, cutting out unnecessary words, ensuring compliance with a chosen style, perhaps changing some wording into plain English, and so on. My main aim is to help the reader as much as I can (within our agreed remit), which will help you to get your message across clearly.
At this stage, I’ll mostly leave you in peace to get on with other things. However, I will get in touch if I come across any major problems, or if an issue keeps cropping up and I think an early resolution would help. Depending on the size of the job and how it’s going, I also might give you some updates on progress.
As I go along, I’ll add notes and queries for you in the document. Usually, I’ll leave it to you to follow up on the queries after the handover. Or, if we agree this (usually with additional payment involved), you can give me your answers and I’ll amend the document accordingly.
After finishing the work, I’ll send you the edited or proofread file, and (if relevant) the style sheet and any other useful documents, along with an invoice.
If the work has been done in Word, my edits will usually be highlighted using Track Changes, except for small cosmetic changes, such as eliminating double spaces or changing straight quotes to curly ones. I’ll provide notes and comments about anything I think you should be made aware of. More on this here.
If you’re unsure about any of my changes, comments etc., you can feel free to get in touch, and I’ll happily spend some time clearing things up. Any feedback on my work would be very welcome; and I hope you’ll want to work with me again some day.
Does this help? If you have any thoughts or questions on how we could work together, please get in touch.
Over on LinkedIn, I’ve been posting some little tips on pitfalls to avoid in your writing, as a series of posts with the hashtag #WhatNotToWrite. A while ago, I packaged up the first five into this handy blog post. Now, here comes a round-up of numbers 6 to 10 (with some minor edits).
The tips are mainly geared towards business writing, and are largely based on things I’ve noticed when editing business content – but some are worth bearing in mind when doing other types of writing as well. Here we go, then …
6️⃣ Don’t use a hyphen in a phrasal verb such as ‘set up’, ‘check in’ or ‘rule out’.
A phrasal verb is usually a pair of words that represent ‘doing’ something: first a verb, then a preposition or adverb such as ‘in’ or ‘up’.
I’ve noticed this kind of thing a lot lately:
❌ Please log-in to your account.
❌ Sign-up for our newsletter!
❌ She mapped-out the way ahead.
Each of these hyphens is an unnecessary distraction, making the text more cluttered than it needs to be. Use a space instead, and the meaning will still be clear.
The same applies when using a similar phrase as an adjective that comes after a noun, for example:
❌ The customer was logged-in at the time.
❌ The data is fully backed-up.
❌ The formation was more spread-out.
But it’s different if you use this kind of phrase as a noun, or an adjective preceding a noun:
✅ There was a mix-up in the orders.
✅ Please go to the check-in desk.
✅ They used a more spread-out formation.
Here, the hyphen clarifies which words belong together, and how they fit into the sentence structure. Sometimes, though, especially in US English, it’s normal to use a single word such as ‘login’ or ‘setup’.
Rule of thumb: cut out (but don’t ‘cut-out’) the clutter when you can.
7️⃣ Don’t write words that you wouldn’t normally say out loud, unless you’re sure there’s a good reason.
A few examples:
OK, so people do sometimes say ‘circa’ together with a year: for example, ‘circa 1980’. But have you ever heard anyone say that a company has ‘circa 200 employees’? Probably not, but I often see this in business reports.
The trouble is that this kind of wording will make your writing appear stiff, stilted and unnatural. Your readers might well be jolted for a moment when they ‘hear’ one of these words in their head as they read it. Anything that would make them stop in their tracks – even for a split second – is best avoided, as it would distract them from the message you’re trying to get across.
There’s always a more familiar, natural-sounding alternative:
▶ circa → about, around, roughly, approximately
▶ moreover → and, also, additionally
▶ notwithstanding → despite, in spite of
So, why not use one of these instead? There might be times when those not-so-familiar words are appropriate because of the level of formality that’s needed. Unless you feel sure that this is the case, though, I suggest you steer clear of them.
8️⃣ Don’t write a hyphen in an adjectival compound (that’s a pair of words used as an adjective) if the first word is an adverb ending in ‘ly’.
❌ the newly-formed company
❌ a widely-used method
❌ her carefully-written letter
This isn’t an absolute rule, but it’s a common convention that makes good sense.
Hyphens do have their uses. If the first word in an adjectival compound is itself an adjective, things can get confusing without a hyphen. It’s clear what a ‘black-cab driver’ is, but what exactly is a ‘black cab driver’?
But if they’re used where they’re not helpful, they’re just clutter, making the writing look ‘fussy’.
With adverbs ending in ‘ly’, I think it’s safe to say that there’s never any ambiguity without a hyphen:
✅ the newly formed company
✅ a widely used method
✅ her carefully written letter
In the first case, for example, we can’t be saying a ‘formed company’ is ‘newly’ – it wouldn’t mean anything. We clearly mean the ‘company’ is ‘newly formed’. A hyphen would just be a minor distraction, and we’re better off without it.
However, some adverbs don’t end in ‘ly’, such as ‘well’. These tend to be used differently, so this guideline doesn’t usually apply to them – this is a grey area, though …
9️⃣ Don’t write ‘as well as’ when you just mean ‘and’.
❌❓ The company has a head office in London as well as regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
Now, I’ve flagged this with ❌❓ because it might be OK. If we expect the reader to be aware of the Birmingham and Leeds offices already, this is a conventional use of ‘as well as’, so there’s no problem.
But if that information is new to the reader, they’ll be wondering, ‘Should I already know about Birmingham and Leeds?’
I suspect that people tend to do this when they think ‘and’ would make for awkward reading, like it does here:
❓ The company has a head office in London and regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
This isn’t wrong, but it isn’t ideal either, as the double use of ‘and’ might cloud the meaning slightly. There are other fixes, though: you can add a comma before the first ‘and’, or use something like ‘along with’ or ‘together with’ instead (with or without a comma):
✔ The company has a head office in London, and regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
✔ The company has a head office in London along with regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
✔ The company has a head office in London, along with regional offices in Birmingham and Leeds.
Some reference sources say ‘as well as’ can mean the same thing as ‘and’. But why confuse your readers by using an expression with a double meaning?
1️⃣0️⃣ Don’t use three-letter codes for currencies in normal sentences (unless you're required to do so, or there's a compelling reason for it).
I’ve seen this kind of thing in business writing:
❌ a turnover of USD 3 million
❌ a GBP500 fee
This is like writing ‘a flight to LHR’ when you mean a flight to Heathrow Airport. It gives the reader too much work to do. They’ll probably read these pieces of text as ‘U S D three million’ and ‘a G B P five hundred fee’. Nobody would say those things out loud, so they’ll ‘sound’ odd in the reader’s head.
It’s better to stick with convention:
✔ a turnover of $3 million
✔ a £500 fee
People will read these as ‘three million dollars’ and ‘a five hundred pound fee’. As the format is so familiar, they’ll be used to interpreting it that way.
If you need to clarify which country’s dollars they are, you could initially use ‘US$’, ‘C$’ etc. But this isn’t much more readable, and should only be done sparingly. Or you could put ‘US’, ‘Canadian’ etc. in brackets after the amount – this might not disrupt the flow so much.
OK, so these codes can be useful in stored data, and in tables, graphs etc. – but they don't work well in normal text.
Likewise for two-letter country codes: in normal text, it’s far better to write ‘Germany and Japan’ than ‘DE and JP’ – another dubious notation that I’ve come across lately.
(Updated in November 2020)
Do you want your organisation’s written material to make a big impact on customers and inspire confidence in your brand?
If you do, it needs to be consistent, strike the right tone and reflect what you’re all about. An editorial style guide can help with this.
Why would you need a style guide?
The chances are that your organisation produces written material of some sort, such as:
A style guide can help you to project a strong, coherent identity, with a consistent ‘look and feel’ to all this material, so it will get your message across smoothly. It can shape the style and tone of the writing, so it will resonate with your target readers.
If a number of people are involved in the writing and editing, or it’s done over a long period, there’s a bigger risk of inconsistencies creeping in. A documented house style, with someone to enforce it, can help to iron them out.
(A note for clarity: Style guides can also cover visual style, such as typefaces, colouring and page layouts. But here I’m just dealing with editorial style: that is, the use of words, numbers and punctuation.)
What is a style guide?
It’s a set of guidelines, detailing an organisation’s preferences about various aspects of writing.
Many features of spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on aren’t governed by cast-iron ‘rules’. Instead, they have various conventions – or style choices – and you can decide which ones suit you best.
Here are some points that a typical style guide might deal with:
Publishers of books, magazines and newspapers typically have style guides, as do many other organisations, both private and public.
When would you use it?
IdeaIly, the people who write the content in the first place should follow your style guide. In reality, though, they can easily get caught up in what they’re writing, and not pay enough attention to how they’re writing it.
So, once the writing has been done, it’s time for an editor or proofreader to check it. This is where your house style should be applied more faithfully, so that you’ll make the most of it.
How can you get one?
You could write it yourself, but input from a professional editor or writer would be very useful. With the expertise they’ve built up from years of working on written material all day, they can keep your style guide in line with common conventions and good practice. They can also help you to tailor it to suit the purpose of your written material, and to its audience.
Alternatively, you could hire an editor or writer to create a draft version for you, which you could then review and change as you see fit. They could look through some of your existing material, identify your preferences, and pick out areas of inconsistency and potential improvement. Then they could put all this together to make a clear, well-organised set of guidelines to help ensure a smooth, consistent style in the future.
Keeping it flexible
Your style guide could have separate sections for various types of content that you produce. For example, you’ll probably need a different style for business reports than for promotional leaflets.
Also, writing for the web and writing for printed material have different needs. And if you’re running an international operation, different forms of English, and perhaps different styles of writing, might best suit your various markets.
To learn more ...
The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) has published a useful booklet, Your House Style: Styling your words for maximum impact, about the value of a style guide and how to create one. You can get it in printed or PDF form from the CiEP’s website here.
(An earlier version of this article was published on LinkedIn in October 2018.)
The ICC Cricket World Cup gets under way in England and Wales soon. What better time to ponder some of the stranger parts of the grand old game’s vocabulary?
A crude swipe of the bat, moving across the line of the ball – possibly taking a chunk out of the pitch in the process, hence the agriculture link.
A term also used in baseball, meaning a delivery that whistles past the batsman’s head at an alarmingly close distance.
A delivery from a left-arm wrist spin bowler that pitches on a right-handed batsman’s off side (that is, to the bowler’s left side) and turns to the leg side; or vice versa for a left-handed batsman. Also known as left-arm unorthodox bowling.
It’s thought to be named after Ellis ‘Puss’ Achong, a West Indies bowler of Chinese heritage who was an early exponent of it. In a 1933 Test at Old Trafford, as England’s Walter Robins was on his way back to the pavilion after Achong had had him stumped, he reportedly said, ‘Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman.’
Other reports suggest the term was already in use long before then. It may have been based on the stereotypical view of the Chinese as being devious. Also, the general use of word Chinaman is widely considered derogatory. These factors might explain why the cricketing term isn’t so common in these (slightly) more enlightened times as it once was.
The area of the field between midwicket and wide long on – in other words, on the batsman’s leg side but quite some distance ahead. As it’s relatively unusual for shots to be played into this area, it’s been suggested that cows could safely graze there. When someone does manage to slog the ball in that direction, this is known as a cow shot.
The closing overs of an innings in a limited-overs match. Some bowlers are specialists in this phase of play, when the priority is usually to restrict scoring rather than to take wickets.
A unflattering term for slow-to-medium-paced bowling that doesn’t cause batsmen many problems.
A relatively new form of finger spin bowling, in which the ball turns in the opposite direction to what is expected. A doosra from a right-arm bowler pitches on a right-handed batsman’s leg side and turn to their off side, and vice versa for a left-arm bowler. (And, of course, double vice versa for a left-handed batsman.)
Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq is credited with inventing the doosra in the 1990s. The term comes from a Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu word meaning ‘the second (other) one’.
Yet another type of deceptive spin delivery. Like the chinaman, it’s a wrist spin delivery that pitches on a right-handed batsman’s off side and turns to the leg side, which isn’t what they would usually expect; but it’s produced by a right-arm bowler.
Nobody seems to be sure where the word originated from. One theory is that it came about because the batsman ‘goggles’ in amazement over where the ball has ended up. Googly itself is also an adjective describing unfocused or rolling eyes.
A fielding position just outside the slip cordon, nearly level with the batsman. The name is derived from the narrow channel between the slips and the point position. I’d like to think that someone once caught Sourav Ganguly at gully off a googly, but sadly I can’t prove it.
A batsman’s unwanted feat of being dismissed for nought on their first ball (that’s a golden duck) in both innings of a match. Also known as a golden pair. A mere pair is when the batsman is out for no runs in both innings (just a duck), regardless of the number of balls faced.
An over where no runs are scored. The idea is that the bowling is ‘untouched’, like a traditionally virginal maiden (to paraphrase Madonna).
The controversial act of a bowler running out the batsman at the non-striking end, by stopping the run-up and breaking the wicket while the latter is backing up – that is, straying from the crease in order to get a head-start on a possible run (or through absent-mindedness). It’s named after India all-rounder Vinoo Mankad, who dismissed Australia’s Bill Brown this way in a 1947 Sydney test.
Whether it’s legal or not, mankading provokes heated debate over whether it’s within the all-important ‘spirit of the game’. Since a law change in 2011, it can only happen if the bowler hasn’t yet started their delivery stride. There have been some recent high-profile mankadings, though, notably when Ravichandran Ashwin of Kings XI Punjab trapped Jos Buttler of Rajasthan Royals in an Indian Premier League match. It’s feared that a spate of them could sour relations in this year’s World Cup.
A score of 111 by either a team or a batsman, which is thought to be unlucky. Why Nelson? Well, Admiral Horatio Nelson supposedly ended his days with one arm, one eye and one leg (he didn’t, but let’s not worry about that).
Another marvellously evocative piece of lingo (see also dibbly-dobbly), meaning a gentle prodding of the ball by the batsman into a nearby gap in the field. Often preceded by ‘nudging and’.
A close relative of dibbly-dobbly. It means a purveyor of slowish, innocuous bowling, where the ball’s movement resembles that of a hurled pie. Not intended as a compliment. Just a thought, though: how easily could a batsman hit an actual pie to the boundary?
A lower-order batsman who is notoriously easy to dismiss. A rabbit needs to be a specialist bowler (or astounding wicketkeeper) to merit a place in the team. Also known as a bunny or walking wicket.
A batsman who’s even worse than a rabbit might be called a ferret or weasel: out in the wild, a ferret or weasel always goes in after the rabbits (geddit?).
The term rabbit or bunny is also often used for a batsman who has often been dismissed by a particular bowler – for example, ‘Mike Atherton was Glenn McGrath’s bunny.’
A fielding position on the batsman’s off side. The silliness lies in the fielder’s close proximity to the batman, putting him in danger of being walloped by a well-hit ball. See also silly mid-on, silly midwicket and silly point (not here, though).
The slightly strange thing about wicket is that it can mean so many things. Here we go:
1. Each set of stumps and bails at either end of the pitch – that is, the prepared strip of ground in the middle of the field. (To add to the confusion for newcomers, the field itself is often referred to as the pitch. Speaking of which …)
2. The pitch. People tend to call it the wicket when discussing its condition, hence sticky wicket.
3. The taking of a wicket is the dismissal of a batsman: ‘New Zealand soon took another wicket.’
4. The other side of that coin is a batsman losing his wicket (being dismissed), or a team losing wickets.
See also wicketkeeper, midwicket, wicket maiden, last-wicket stand and so on.
Have I forgotten any good ones? If you think so, please get in touch ...
Writing numbers – that’s simple, isn’t it? You just use those keys from 1 to 0 near the top of the keyboard, or that number pad on the right.
If only it were that simple. Very often, it’s better to use words instead of numerals. If you’re writing for someone else, they might expect you use words in some situations.
As with so many things in the world of writing, this is mainly about style choices – and adapting your style to suit the type of material, its purpose, its context and its target audience.
First, we need to consider what kind of number we’re writing, and what it refers to …
So, what’s the point in all this variation? And how do we, or the people we’re writing or editing for, choose a style?
These aren’t just arbitrary rules. Words work better in some contexts, numerals in others. They each have their advantages and drawbacks.
Why use words?
Why use numerals?
In fiction, numbers tend to be used less, and to be less significant, than in non-fiction writing. And, in a book that’s going to be read for pleasure rather than out of necessity, it’s important to make the pages look appealing. This means minimising things that might ‘jump off the page’ and have a jarring effect – including numerals – if they’re to be used at all. So, it’s common for most, or even all, types of numbers to appear in word format.
The same applies to the more creative, literary end of the non-fiction spectrum. The reader should be allowed to get swept along in the narrative, with the visual aspects of the book giving them as few jolts as possible.
However, it’s a different story with writing that revolves around hard facts, such as business, technical or instructional material, and sometimes (depending on the subject) in academic or educational content as well. Here, numbers often play a big role in getting the message across, and there’s nothing wrong with making them stand out. You might well want the reader to absorb the numbers quickly, and perhaps compare or contrast them with each other. Making the pages look pretty is less of a priority. In tables, charts and diagrams, especially, numerals make a stronger impact than words.
Odds and ends
In almost any kind of writing, a number that acts as an identifier is usually written in numerals – for example, the number of a chapter in a book, or of a house on a named street.
It’s generally agreed that we should avoid starting a sentence with one or more numerals. This can look a bit odd, and in some contexts, the number might be mistaken for a section or paragraph reference.
There are some grey areas, a common one being where numbers above and below the words-to-numerals limit are used close together and in a closely related way. For example: ‘Their children were aged nine and 11.’ This can look a bit odd and jarring, and some style guides recommend choosing one style for both or all of the numbers – but others suggest that it isn’t enough of a problem to warrant breaking the usual rule.
And there are other related style issues that I won’t go into here, just to keep this thing fairly brief: commas in numbers above 999 (‘2,485’ vs ‘2485’), ordinal numbers (‘5th’ vs ‘fifth’), elision (‘341–5’, ‘341–45’ or ‘341–345’), dates, times, money amounts, percentages, sport scores, phone numbers.
Mind how you go
It’s worth paying attention to the way you write numbers: it makes a difference to the readability and impact power of the material you’re writing. There are no universally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways, but following sensible guidelines can help you get the right balance between clarity and ease of reading – according to what you’re writing, who you’re writing it for, and why.
Over on LinkedIn, I’ve been posting some little tips on pitfalls to avoid in your writing, as a series of posts with the hashtag #WhatNotToWrite. And I thought it seemed like a good idea to package up the first five into a handy blog post – so here it is.
The tips are mainly geared towards business writing, and are based on things I’ve noticed when editing business content – but some are worth bearing in mind when doing other types of writing as well. Here we go, then …
1️⃣ Don’t use words and expressions like ‘current’, ‘currently’ and ‘at this time’ unless they help in some way.
It’s easy to pad out your business writing with this kind of thing, almost without thinking. But is it worth it? Remember that every word gives your readers a bit of work to do. If they keep having to wade through pointless verbiage, chances are they’ll become bored, frustrated and tempted to look elsewhere.
I once edited a report where 0.5 per cent of the words (127) were ‘current’ or ‘currently’. Hardly any of them were useful.
If you’re contrasting the present state of something with its previous state, or a potential future state, it makes sense to use this kind of wording for emphasis. Otherwise, it’s a waste of space, and of your readers’ time.
Let’s look at these statements, for example:
▶ The company currently employs around 100 staff.
▶ There are no plans to expand the service at this time.
If we delete ‘currently’ and ‘at this time’, will this affect the meaning or clarity? The verbs make it obvious that these statements are about the present time.
❓ If in doubt, ask yourself this question: does it help me to get my message across? If the answer’s no, get rid of it.
2️⃣ Don’t use ‘etc.’ at the end of a list that’s introduced by something like ‘for example’ or ‘such as’.
▶ It is used for functions such as finance, payroll, HR etc.
The words ‘such as’ make it clear that the list is incomplete – you don’t need to ram the point home with ‘etc.’
This will do nicely instead:
▶ It is used for functions such as finance, payroll and HR.
OK, so it’s only a few characters, and you need to insert ‘and’ if you leave 'etc.' out. In the reader’s head, though, it’s four syllables: et-cet-e-ra. Also, this kind of extra wording can make your writing seem bloated and clumsy, and give the impression that you haven’t really thought it through.
You could omit the ‘such as’ (or whatever) instead – but ‘etc.’ has its drawbacks anyway. Abbreviations can look untidy, and can make the reader stumble.
Also, as ‘etc.’ often has a full stop (though this is a style choice), it might be unclear whether it’s the end of a sentence, depending on how the next word begins.
Instead, you could use something like ‘and so on’ or ‘and others’. But it’s often better to make it clear at the start that you’re giving a partial list.
As ever: if it doesn’t help the reader, cut it out. ✂
3️⃣ Don’t automatically write ‘then’ after an ‘if …’ condition.
Here’s an example:
▶ If you follow this advice, it will improve your writing.
▶ If you follow this advice, then it will improve your writing.
Does the ‘then’ help in any way? Does it make the meaning clearer? I don’t think so.
I’m not saying it’s wrong, or that you should never use it. But it’s unnecessary, it disrupts the flow of the sentence, and it’ll make your writing repetitive and tedious if it appears often.
It does have its uses, though. Sometimes, a ‘then’ helps to guide the reader through a long, complex sentence. Sometimes it helps with emphasis, or with adding some variety to your wording. It also makes good sense when there’s a sequence of events, for example:
▶ If this issue is resolved, then we can begin to make progress.
Mostly, though, you and your readers are better off without it.
And you should never use ‘then’ if the conditional part begins with something like ‘when’, ‘where’ or ‘unless’ – that really would just look plain wrong.
4️⃣ Don’t write ‘in case’ when you mean ‘if’ or ‘in the event of’.
This normally means something is being done as a precaution. For example, compare these sentences:
▶ If it rains, I’ll take an umbrella.
▶ In case it rains, I’ll take an umbrella.
The first means I’ll check the weather, and if it’s raining, I’ll take an umbrella. The second means I’ll definitely take one – as a precaution in case it rains later.
I also sometimes come across things like this:
▶ In case of a system failure, data will be restored from backups.
But this means it’ll be regularly restored from backups, as a precaution against a possible failure, which wouldn’t be a good idea. These are better:
▶ In the event of a system failure, data will be restored from backups.
▶ If the system fails, data will be restored from backups.
The following is fine, though:
▶ In case of a system failure, data is backed up each day.
The Oxford online dictionary says ‘in case’ can mean ‘in the event of’. For US English, the Merriam-Webster one says it can mean ‘if’. But, to avoid confusion, why not use those words instead?
5️⃣ Don’t write ‘one of the only’.
Here’s an example:
▶ She was one of the only people there.
What’s the problem? Well, it doesn’t tell us much. How many people were there? Three, 20, a million? However many there were, it would still be true to say she was one of the only ones.
When people use this expression, what they almost certainly mean is ‘one of the few’, like this:
▶ She was one of the few people there.
Admittedly, most readers will probably understand the intended meaning, so it isn’t a huge problem. But some might well find it jarring as they notice the vagueness and ambiguity of the wording. That won’t help if you want them to focus on your message, and not be distracted by things like this. So, if you mean ‘one of the few’, why not write that instead? That way, you can’t go wrong.
More coming soon, I hope ...
The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) is 30 years old on 26 November.
[Update: In March 2020, the SfEP became the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) after being granted a royal charter.]
What is the SfEP and what is it for?
It’s a membership organisation for professional editors and proofreaders, both freelance and in-house. It’s based in the UK, but also has many members elsewhere.
For its members, the SfEP provides great opportunities for learning and networking. Those who are at Professional Member or Advanced Professional Member level also can advertise their services on the SfEP Directory.
It doesn’t exist only for our benefit, though. A key part of its aims is to maintain and improve standards in editing and proofreading, largely through training courses, tests, guides, our Code of Practice and the membership upgrade process. This helps to make sure our customers will benefit from reliable, thoroughly professional services.
In the beginning …
When the organisation was formed back in 1988 – led by the late Norma Whitcombe along with other key founders such as Michèle Clarke – it was called the Society of Freelance Copy-editors and Proofreaders. The ‘copy-’ was soon dropped, bringing about the initials ‘SFEP’. In 2001, the ‘Freelance’ part was also jettisoned, as in-house staff were now also welcome. In a suitably neat bit of rewording, the ‘of’ became ‘for’, so that the SFEP could become the SfEP.
Over 60 people attended the inaugural meeting in London, and the membership would grow to around ten times that number in just the next couple of years. There are now over 2,000 members.
I’m a relative newcomer, having joined in late 2012, when I was looking into editing and proofreading as a possible career change (I went full-time a year later). I was lucky to join just as the current online forum system was being launched, replacing a system of Yahoo! groups and mailing lists that, apparently, hadn’t been working out especially well. I soon dived into the forums, which became hugely valuable to me in those early years, and still are today.
The organisation had matured in various ways by then. It had become incorporated as a limited company in 2003; its 12 directors form the SfEP Council. The members’ meeting of the early days had evolved into an annual conference as early as 1990, and local groups had sprung up around the UK. The four-page ‘News-sheet’ had become a bi-monthly magazine: first as CopyRight, later as Editing Matters. The SfEP also now had a website (the first version having been launched in 1997), an office in London, training courses, mentoring schemes, an accreditation test and a set of guides.
Over the six years that I’ve been a member, there have been other developments: a blog, a growing social media presence (you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn), and a series of mini-conferences for regions and specialist types of work. The Society’s international presence has blossomed as well: there’s now even a thriving local group in Toronto, and a mini-conference was held there this year.
Although it’s difficult to back this up with hard facts, it seems to me – and to some other members I’ve spoken to – that the make-up of the SfEP has changed noticeably in the last few years. It seemed to be largely centred around people with in-house experience of the publishing world, and this was reflected in the Society’s communications, training courses and so on, which were largely geared towards working with publishers.
Now, though, my impression is that members from other backgrounds are more prominent than before: working on the SfEP Council, running local groups, presenting conference sessions, leading discussions on the forums and so on. I think this gives us a richer, wider variety of expertise, viewpoints and ideas than we had before, which can only be a good thing. (This is meant with great respect to the people from publishing backgrounds who helped to launch the SfEP and get it to where it is today, and to those who still play a part.) It also helps us to focus on a wider range of customers, especially non-publishing businesses and public-sector organisations that can benefit from our skills.
Where would I be?
Being in the SfEP has been a godsend for me as I’ve embarked on my career change. Without the help I’ve had from colleagues on the forums and in local groups, the training courses, the mentoring schemes and the online directory, I can’t imagine how I could have become established as an editor and proofreader.
It’s easy to forget that the SfEP essentially is its members – not an agency that we just sign up to and expect results from. It depends on its members (along with the marvellous office team) to make it work, and to make it useful for us. I’m glad to have played a small part, with two-year spells as a forum moderator and as the Manchester local group coordinator; I’ve now joined a new team that’s looking to improve and expand the Society’s information resources.
But I’m in awe of those who’ve made much greater contributions – especially back in those pre-web days, when it must have entailed a lot of paperwork, phone calls and trips to the postbox (or even post office). We 21st-century editors really don’t know we’re born. And I can imagine how daunting it must have been for those who’d been working on paper for decades when they had to get up to speed with the digital revolution – but surely most would agree that it has made our work, our communication with customers, our networking and the running of the SfEP much easier.
Now, we face the challenge of keeping up with further developments in technology and business models, and how they’re reshaping the publishing industry and the wider world of work. By facing it together – sharing our knowledge, expertise and ideas as we always do – we’re giving ourselves a good chance.
So, it’s happy 30th to the SfEP. Long may it run.
No, not that kind of date. Sorry if that’s what brought you here.
Here’s what this is really about. Am I posting this article on 28 August, August 28, 28th August 2018, 28/8/2018, 2018-08-28, or … ?
Dates can be written in a dizzying number of ways, and this often gives us editors and proofreaders a fair bit of work to do.
As with so many other things in language editing, it isn’t all about correctness. We need to make sure things are clear and consistent, and to consider the client’s or author’s preferences. But we should think about their readers as well, and sometimes this means questioning those preferences. So, where to begin?
Day or month first?
This is, perhaps, the one aspect of date writing that divides us the most. And when the month is written as a number (we’ll come back to that later), it can easily confuse or mislead the poor reader.
In the US, the month invariably comes first, with the notable exception of ‘the Fourth of July’ – well, it does sound grander than plain old ‘July (the) Fourth’. Many Canadians follow this rule as well, though many others put the day first.
In most of the rest of the world, the day usually appears before the month – though this does vary in countries such as the UK, at least when the month is represented by its name rather than a number. Some major newspapers, such as The Times, routinely put the month first – and this is a long-standing tradition, not a recently adopted Americanism.
But which is better? The day-month format seems more logical when the year is included at the end: it means we progress from the smallest unit to the largest.
However, month-day has the advantage of starting with what is usually the more important part, with the day being a more minor detail. If we’re told in February that ‘the road will be closed until July 12’, the main point is that it will be closed until July – the ‘12’ is a secondary detail – so it makes sense if we find out about the month first. It’s also consistent with how we write the time of day: the larger unit (hours) comes before the smaller one (minutes).
These are marginal arguments, though, and it’s more important to use whichever format the readers will expect – if you know what that is.
Cardinal or ordinal?
Next up: do we write ‘30 September’ (cardinal) or ‘30th September’ (ordinal)? (The choice to use the day-month format makes no difference to the discussion here.)
Although there is a long tradition of writing the ordinal form – and it matches what we usually say out loud (we’ll come back to that later as well) – it’s gradually falling out of favour. The Oxford Style Guide and The Chicago Manual of Style, the two heavyweights of UK and US editorial guidance, both recommend the cardinal format.
One of the modern trends in editorial practice is to minimise the clutter on a page or screen, making it neat and free of needless distractions. We can easily understand dates without the ‘st’, ‘nd’, ‘rd’ or ‘th’ suffix, so it’s unnecessary, and so out it goes.
But which was the year?
(Deep apologies if this has given you a Simon Bates flashback. If that means nothing to you, consider yourself lucky.)
As well as the day and month, in whichever order they appear, should we write the year?
This is where pragmatism and common sense can help. If the year is obvious from the context, and there’s no compelling reason to mention it, let’s not. Some months ago I was copy-editing a book manuscript that related a series of events like this:
… in April 1927 … On 5 April 1927, … On 26 May 1927, … On 3 June, … On 27 June, … On 9 July, … On 18 July, … At 2pm on 20 July [that’s better], … Over the next weekend (13–14 August 1927) [oh ...], … On 23 August, … On 26 August, … at 3pm on 29 August 1927 … On 30 August 1927, … On 2 September, … On 10 September … On 16 November 1927, …
Reading this was hard work. From the first time 1927 was mentioned, it was clear that all of these things happened that year – so why keep repeating it?
(We can also make this kind of narrative less mind-numbing by using other ways of saying when something happened – ‘a week later’, ‘the following Saturday’, ‘towards the end of the month’ and so on. The reader won’t always care about the exact date.)
Finally, if you’re writing the month first, using a cardinal day number and mentioning the year, it makes sense to put a comma after the day: ‘June 1, 1994’. Otherwise, the two numbers would look awkward together: ‘June 1 1994’.
Month names are often abbreviated to three or four letters: ‘Jan’, ‘Sept’, ‘Nov’ and so on. This makes sense in a table, or on a graph or chart, where space is at a premium: the full names of some months would be too cumbersome. In normal sentences, though, this style is best avoided: it can make the reader stumble, and can make you look amateurish or lazy.
Digits for dates
Another way of keeping things brief is by using a number for the month, as well as for the day and (if it’s included) the year. But this is where a mix-up between the day-month and month-day formats can really cause problems. If the day number is above 12, we’re fine: there’s no ambiguity in ‘15/08/2009’. Otherwise, though, with something like ‘04/06/2019’, it’s important that the reader knows what’s what.
The year is often shortened to two digits – ‘30/06/18’, for example. But perhaps this idea lost some credibility when the Year 2000 computer bug became big news in the (19)90s, thanks to computer systems that used only two digits for the year. This made them think that, for example, 2005 was earlier than 1995, because 05 is less than 95. (And, by the way, as someone who was working in IT back then, I can tell you that the Y2K bug was real, and pretty serious, whatever the sceptics might say. It’s true that nothing went horribly wrong – but that’s because people fixed it. Thank you.)
Also, when the year number ends in the 01 to 31 range, it doesn’t instantly look like a year – it could be a day or, if it’s no higher than 12, a month. Even if you know which format is being used, something like ‘05/02/08’ has a vague look to it. Come 2032, though, the two-digit year just might be in for a revival.
Speaking of computers, the use of numbers has also brought us the YYYY-MM-DD format (with or without the hyphens). This is useful in file names, if you want the files to appear in chronological order; and within files – for example, in a column in a spreadsheet. It isn’t a good format for general use, though, as it doesn’t make for smooth reading. Nobody ever says, ‘She was born on nineteen eighty-five eleven twenty-six.’
Another thing that varies in numeric dates is the punctuation between the numbers: usually a slash in the UK and US, but a full stop in mainland Europe. Hyphens are commonly used as well. Leaving out the punctuation altogether is fine in computer files, but not a good idea elsewhere.
There’s also the option of leaving out leading zeroes in the day and month (but not the year): for example, we could write ‘1/9/2018’ rather than ‘01/09/2018’.
Say what you see, see what you say?
Here’s something unusual about dates: the way we write them doesn’t usually correspond to how we say them out loud, at least in the UK. Although we might write ’30 August’ – and find it clear enough when reading it – we won’t say ‘thirty August’. Instead, we’re likely to say ‘the thirtieth of August’. So why don’t we write it that way, or as ‘the 30th of August’?
Whatever the reason for this mismatch, it’s become so well established that we might as well go along with it. People do sometimes write things like ‘the 4th of April’, but – even though it would sound normal – somehow it looks verbose and slightly pompous. Although this convention breaks the basic laws of readability, somehow it doesn’t seem to cause a problem.
So, I don’t recommend writing dates that way, unless you’re quoting someone’s spoken words or writing fictional dialogue. In that case, it would be jarring for the reader to come across something like: ‘She said, “He’s coming home on 7 June.”’
This isn’t quite the case in the US, though. There, a date might well be written as ‘October 5th’ and spoken as ‘October fifth’. The ‘of’ in ‘the fifth of October’ has no purpose when the month comes first; and, although we Brits would still say ‘the’ before the day regardless of the sequence, Americans often don’t. ‘The Fourth of July’, is an exception, again, though that occasion also might be called ‘July Fourth’.
So, how should you choose which format to use? As with many other aspects of writing, it’s important to bear in mind the target readers and their expectations, the nature of the material, and the context.
Cardinal day numbers (‘1’ rather than ‘1st’ etc.) tend to work better in all but the most formal, old-fashioned types of writing. All-numeric dates and abbreviated month names are useful in tables and some other structures, but would make for awkward reading in normal sentences.
Consistency matters as well. If you publish any kind of written material as part of the running of your business, it’s valuable to give it a consistent ‘look and feel’. This will help your customers to read your content smoothly and will reinforce your brand identity. The way you present dates is a part of this – perhaps a fairly small part, but one worth paying attention to.
Does your business have a style guide, to help ensure consistency and good sense in the way things such as dates are written? If not, I can help you to develop one. If you do already have one, I can review it and recommend enhancements. You can find out about this service here.
The World Cup is only a week away – a fine excuse to look at some of the language of football (the British-born, round-ball type – yes, we’ll be getting onto that). A complete glossary of the game would be more suited to a book than to a mere blog post, so I’ll just pick out some of the more interesting bits.
beautiful game, the
(Or, if we’re feeling pompous: Beautiful Game, The.)
Thanks to alphabetical order, we can get the grumpy bit out of the way right now.
Not only is this a maddeningly overused cliché – especially in titles and subtitles of football-themed articles in general-interest publications – it’s also unclear what it’s supposed to mean.
No one seems sure how and when the term was first coined, but it was popularised by Pelé in his 1977 autobiography, My Life and the Beautiful Game. People often assume it means football as a whole, as that title seems to suggest. Then again, there isn’t usually much beauty in, say, an English relegation battle on a wet Wednesday night in March. The term has also been used to refer to the style of play shown by a particular team or player, such as Pelé himself and his Brazil team-mates circa 1970.
I’d like to suggest that this combination of overuse and vagueness means it should be consigned to a not-very-beautiful dustbin, so we’ll see no more of that ‘Has the beautiful game been corrupted by money?’ silliness.
Centre-what? The second, er, half of this label for a central defender makes no sense – but it used to, when it meant something else.
In modern football’s formative years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most teams used a 2–3–5 formation (or 2–3–2–3 if you count the inside-forwards as a deeper-lying separate line from the other three forwards). The two at the very back were the full-backs: a right-back and left-back. In front of them were the three half-backs: a right-half, centre-half and left-half.
Then – I’m cutting a long story short here – a change in the offside law in 1925 led to a deluge of goals, prompting managers (along with captains, whose role involved more than fist-pumping and trophy-lifting back then) to move their centre-half backwards into a defensive role, between the right-back and left-back. This brought about the 3–2–5 (or 3–2–2–3) formation that would be the norm for the next three decades.
The name largely stuck, though, even through the formation revolutions that came about from the 1950s onwards, which meant there were usually two or even three ‘centre-halves’. The more logical terms ‘centre-back’ and ‘central defender’ are often used as well, but ‘centre-half’ is still very much with us.
Ah, yes – the World Cup, the FA Cup, the Associate Members’ Cup and, of course, the European Cup Winners’ Cup. All cosily familiar. But what is a ‘cup’ in football terms?
Although it had predecessors in various sports, the daddy of all football ‘cups’ is the FA Cup – officially the Football Association Challenge Cup – created by the London-based FA in 1871. The name referred to both the competition and the prize – an 18-inch-high silver cup that the FA commissioned for £20 from Martin, Hall and company.
Seventeen years later, the Football League was founded. The trophy – not awarded until the end of the league’s third season in 1891 – wasn’t in the form of a drinking vessel, which probably explains why it wasn’t known as a ‘cup’. As other football competitions sprang up around the world, the same convention was mostly followed: those with a knockout format were usually known as ‘cups’, while those with a week-by-week, home-and-away format and a position table weren’t (see league, coming up).
The World Cup’s original Jules Rimet Trophy did feature a cup-type object, held aloft by Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. However, its 1974 replacement, still used today, is entirely solid (with a globe at the top), making it thoroughly useless for drinking from. As we’ve seen with ‘centre-half’, though, words don’t have to make sense in this game.
This acronym is based on the global governing body’s French name: ‘Fédération Internationale de Football Association’. This translates into ‘International Federation of Association Football’ (we’ll see where the ‘Association’ part came from soon), but the mildly comical acronym ‘IFAF’ has never been adopted – in any case, it’s now used by the International Federation of American Football.
So, in English, the all-powerful federation has ended up with an acronym only – not a name with all the words spelt out.
Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s called ‘football’ because it’s a kicking game – the foot touches the ball. Not so fast …
This explanation is widely believed here in Britain, and is often used to mock Americans (though rarely Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and the Irish) for using this word to refer to other sports. There is, though, little evidence to support it, and plenty of evidence to the contrary, as I discovered a while ago when researching for my book on the history of all football-type sports.
The earliest known use of the word is from 1314, when Nicholas Farndon, Mayor of London, issued a banning order in his ‘Preservation of the Peace’ proclamation, fretting over ‘certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields ... from which many evils may perchance arise’.
Back then, and for centuries to come, ‘football’ was an informal, loosely defined game, played in many different forms around the British Isles. In most places, it was mainly, or even purely, a handling game – the ball was often too hard and heavy to be kicked anyway.
One common theory is that the word ‘football’ came about because the game was played on foot, rather than on horseback. This seems a bit shaky, though – it was hardly the only sport played without the aid of horses or other carriers. Another one, less common but perhaps more plausible, is that it was based on the size of the ball – about a foot long.
By the early 19th century, the game was becoming more formally regulated in some places, though it still varied wildly from one place to another. The most influential developments came at the public schools: notably Eton, Harrow and Rugby. At this stage, it was becoming more of a kicking game than before, but still featured a lot of handling, and not just at Rugby School.
Before long, many public school old boys were wanting to play the game at university and elsewhere, and some tried to agree on common rules. This wasn’t easy, especially as the Rugby contingent, unlike the others, wanted ball-carrying and hacking (yes, that means shin-kicking) to be allowed. In the end, a group of non-Rugbeians dismissed those pleas when forming the Football Association in 1863. Their version was known as ‘association football’, to distinguish it from ‘Rugby football’, which would be codified by the newly formed Rugby Football Union in 1871.
For many years to come, both were known simply as ‘football’ whenever it was obvious which version was meant. And when Rugby football reached the US via Canada in the 1870s, Americans simply called it ‘football’ – just like the British did. They soon developed it into their own game, and the name stuck. Other forms of football, all involving both kicking and handling, evolved in Ireland, Canada and Australia.
In Britain, it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the word ‘football’ became mostly synonymous with the kicking game. The present-day Scottish Rugby Union was called the Scottish Football Union until 1924. Even today in England, rugby league people sometimes call their game ‘football’. We probably should remember this …
As we saw earlier, until the mid-1920s, the two full-backs were usually at the very rear of the ten-man outfield line-up. So ‘full-backs’ was a meaningful name for them. When the centre-half then retreated to play in between them, he should logically have become a third full-back (the ‘centre-back’). And, with today’s four- or five-man defences, all of those players should be known as ‘full-backs’.
Logic lost out, though. These players are all called ‘defenders’, with only the two on the outside labelled as ‘full-backs’, even though they’re no further back than the others. This isn’t a unique oddity, though: in American football, if there is a fullback (no hyphen, please, we’re American), he usually lines up in front of the running back – who’s sometimes known as the ‘halfback’, which makes even less sense.
Like ‘cup’, this word has come to mean a certain type of competition. It became established in football when the Football League was founded in England in 1888. William McGregor, a Scottish businessman on the Aston Villa committee, proposed that a group of leading clubs should play against each other, home and away, each season.
His suggested name, ‘Association Football Union’, was rejected because of possible confusion with both the Football Association and the Rugby Football Union. When ‘Football League’ was proposed, he worried that it might be associated with the Irish Land League – but he gave in, and ‘Football League’ it was. ‘League’ wasn’t a new term in sport, though – baseball’s National League in the US had been founded, under that name, 12 years earlier.
Once the blueprint had been set, other competitions with a similar format followed suit: the Scottish Football League and Irish Football League were formed in 1890, and other similarly named ones were soon popping up around the British Isles and elsewhere.
UEFA’s Champions League, though, is something of an oddity name-wise. Many of the entrants aren’t champions; it’s hardly a genuine ‘league’ in the sense of an ongoing alliance of clubs (teams qualify for it, year by year, on the strength of their domestic league placings in the previous season); and its format is a hybrid of group and knockout stages, much like that of the World Cup. And I won’t even mention the apostrophe thing.
Simple, this one: ‘non-League’ leagues are the leagues below League level. Got that?
This term is mostly used in England. There is some logic to it – provided that the capital ‘L’ is used, the reader takes notice of it, and we all understand that it refers to the English Football League (perhaps in combination with the Premier League, though it was all simply the Football League when the term first came into use). Otherwise, and especially for the uninitiated, it could lead to some scratching of heads.
Its significance has faded a little since the arrival of automatic promotion and relegation between the League and non-League levels in 1987, and the later spread of full-time professionalism in the latter. Still, this hasn’t stopped some media types – notably at the BBC – from hyperventilating whenever a non-League team beat a League team in the FA Cup. Even if both sides are of about the same standard, we’re told it’s a ‘giant-killing’ that typifies the ‘romance’ of the Cup. Sorry, I’m getting grumpy again.
Ah, yes – that’s what the Americans call it, isn’t it? What do they know?
Except … if you’ve read the ‘football’ piece above, you might have realised that it isn’t quite like that. As we saw, in the late 19th century, various newly formalised sports went by the name of ‘football’. None of them had a monopoly on the name. (This is still true to a large extent, but not recognised so much.)
Whenever anyone needed to be specific about the type of football they were talking about, a qualifier was needed. In Britain, the code defined by the FA in 1863 became known as ‘association football’, to, er, associate it with that association. The version derived from Rugby School’s laws was ‘Rugby football’ (later just ‘rugby’).
‘Association football’ was something of a mouthful, though, and something snappier was needed. Legend has it that the answer came from future England captain Charles Wreford-Brown, an Oxford University student in the 1880s, who, when asked one day whether he wanted to play ‘rugger’ – a typical Oxford slang term for Rugby football – said he’d rather play ‘soccer’, meaning the FA’s game. There are, however, also stories of the word evolving from other nicknames such as ‘a-soc’ and ‘socca’.
The new word soon spread around the English-speaking world, making the transition from slang to accepted usage. It came into common use in Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as a handy way to distinguish the game from other football sports. But it was also widely used in Britain – especially in areas and social groups where rugby (of either type) was popular – until the later parts of the 20th century, and still hasn’t completely vanished in those circles.
Even today, it pops up quite often in the British media, especially where it helps to make a snappier title or headline than ‘football’. Although the game’s fans often scoff at Americans for calling the game ‘soccer’, they don’t seem especially bothered that (for example) the Saturday daytime schedule on Sky Sports Premier League is dominated by programmes named Soccer AM and Gillette Soccer Saturday.
In short, there’s nothing at all wrong with calling the game ‘soccer’. But, OK, I still cringe when people do it. Funny old game, funny old world.
Any more? I’d be interested to hear about other oddities in football-speak. Look out for a similar piece on cricket in, er, just under a year’s time. (Update: here it is.)
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.