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.
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 only exist 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 get reliable, thoroughly professional services.
[Update: In March 2020, the SfEP became the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) after being granted a royal charter.]
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 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 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.)
Are you looking for an editor or proofreader, but unsure how to pick the right one? Here are some hints to help you out.
(Updated in October 2020)
What do you need them to do?
Copy-editing or proofreading?
Copy-editing and proofreading are two separate stages in the process of preparing a book for publication. They have different remits, and are usually done by different people.
Outside the publishing world, though, many people get these terms mixed up with each other (and with others, such as ‘copywriting’).
If your work is very well written and needs nothing more than an error check, proofreading will be enough. If it might need improvements in the style and flow of the writing, or a more ‘professional’ tone, it should be copy-edited instead. You might want a service somewhere between the two, which could be thought of as ‘proof-editing’ or ‘light copy-editing’. Many editors and proofreaders are flexible about this.
To avoid misunderstandings, it’s important to find someone who can provide the level of help you need, and to state this clearly when asking for a quote.
Substantive or developmental editing
Rather than focusing on spelling, grammar and readability at a sentence level (though they might do that as well), a substantive or developmental editor looks at the bigger picture. They’ll usually start working with you early in the project, helping to shape your work’s overall ideas, structure and coherence, often both before and during the writing stage. They might do some major rewriting, or just make recommendations for how you could do this.
This is a tricky term, which means very different things to different people. I won’t even try to define it here. If you ask someone about doing some line editing, I suggest you explain what you mean by it.
Not many editors use this term, but I think it’s useful. As I see it, it means editing business material (reports, proposals, promotional content etc.) for clarity, coherence and impact, with a strong focus on how it will influence the target readers. It’s much like copy-editing, but with the emphasis on business priorities, rather than simply producing something that’s grammatically correct and nice to read.
Other related services
These are not forms of editing or proofreading, but are sometimes confused with them – so I’ll mention them here for the sake of clarity.
Picking your provider
Are they real?
For your peace of mind, it’s important to find an editor or proofreader who’s clearly genuine – not someone hiding behind a pseudonym and a logo. Look for an actual person’s name, a photo and some clue as to where they’re based. A convincing presence on social media – particularly on LinkedIn, which (unlike Twitter) more-or-less forces people to be open about who, what and where they are – will help to prove their ‘realness’.
What you need to know
Much, if not all, of the following information might be available on each provider’s website, social media profiles, online directory entries and so on. If any of it is missing, don’t be afraid to ask.
Training Editing and proofreading are acquired skills, and good-quality training is crucial. Although many UK organisations offer courses, those provided by the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) are widely considered to be the most valuable.
Skills Do they have the particular editorial skills that you need: copy-editing, proofreading, using Word with Track Changes, marking up PDFs?
Background and knowledge Most editors and proofreaders have also had other jobs. The skills and knowledge that they’ve gained from that work, from their education, and from other activities and interests, might well help them to do a good job for you. A familiarity with facts, names, concepts and terminology in your subject area will help them to spot errors and inconsistencies, and to clarify unclear wording.
Experience What kinds of editorial work have they done? How much? How relevant is it to your needs? What types of client have they worked for? Look at portfolios, testimonials and reviews.
Professionalism Read some of the content on the provider’s website, or anywhere else where they describe themselves and what they do. Do they give the impression of being well organised and businesslike? A bit of informality and humour does no harm, but it’s important to choose someone who approaches their work seriously enough to do it properly and on time, and to interact with you professionally.
Affiliations The CIEP is the UK’s main professional body dedicated to promoting high standards in editorial work. Its members have valuable access to training, help, advice and networking opportunities, and are bound by its code of practice, Ensuring Editorial Excellence. Other countries have similar organisations – you can find a list here (thanks to Louise Harnby).
Some editors and proofreaders advertise their hourly rates on their websites and elsewhere, while others choose not to. One problem with advertising rates up front is that a potential customer might have no idea how long the work would take.
An alternative is to show rates per thousand words or per page. This has its own drawback, though: it doesn’t allow for the inevitable variations between jobs. A lot depends on the complexity and quality of the writing, as well as its length.
The best way to get a realistic quote is to give the provider:
You might ask a number of editors and proofreaders whether they can help you and how much they would charge. It’s tempting to go for the lowest quote, but make sure you’re confident that you’re choosing someone who will do the job properly. And if you decide not to use someone’s services after they’ve responded positively, please let them know (this is good courtesy, but it’s easy to forget to do it).
Good luck with the search!
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’ 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.
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.