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 (which is where it’s sure to be unless an all-numeric style is being used): 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 secondary – so it’s good to learn 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 on the agenda: 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 call for 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 and you’re 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 lazy.
Digits for dates
Another handy 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 ‘30/08/2009’. 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. OK, so 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’ itself is used in various, er, ways, none of which really means ‘any way’.
The one glaring exception is ‘anytime’, which basically does mean ‘any time’ – but the latter is usually preferred.
… There’s a wonderful world you can share
(OK, that’s enough of the cheesy throwbacks.)
It’s worth noting that none of the above dictionaries include ‘everytime’ or ‘anyday’ – not even as informal or US-only words. For US usage, the Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t list them either. They do crop up here and there, but are best avoided.
Got all that? Good. Time for a Martini …
Do you sometimes wonder whether to use ‘that’ or which’ to introduce a bit of information in a sentence? If you do, you’re not alone. I hope this will help.
We have one toilet which is out of action.
So said the announcer on a train I’d just boarded recently. What did he mean? Was there enough of a pause after ‘toilet’ to suggest a comma? Like this:
We have one toilet, which is out of action.
– meaning there was only one toilet, and it was out of action.
Or, less worryingly with a longish journey ahead, was there no discernible break in his speech? If there wasn’t, his announcement could have been interpreted as:
We have one toilet that is out of action.
– in other words, one of their toilets was out of action.
It soon became clear that he meant the latter. But why make us fret, even for 30 seconds?
Now, I’m not in the business of copy-editing the spoken words of railway staff – or anyone else – but this is a fine example of the difference between those two commonly confused words: ‘that’ and ‘which’. Some people think they’re interchangeable in this context, and there is some truth in that – but you should take care when using them, and, as we’ll soon see, when deciding whether to use a comma before your chosen word.
Grammatical lingo alert
When ‘that’ or ‘which’ is used in this way, it’s introducing either a restrictive (or defining) or a non-restrictive (or non-defining) clause. Understanding the difference between these is the key to getting this right.
A restrictive clause restricts (or defines) the scope of what we’re writing about. A non-restrictive clause, on the other hand, doesn’t do this – it just adds some information.
Let’s look at another example:
(a) They painted the doors that had just been fitted.
(b) They painted the doors, which had just been fitted.
Which doors did they paint? In (a), the statement applies to only some of the doors: the ones that had just been fitted. There might be other doors as well, but if so, the ‘that ...’ clause is excluding them from the statement – that’s why we call it a ‘restrictive’ clause.
The statement in (b), meanwhile, applies to all of the doors. The clause beginning with ‘which’ is just telling us something extra: ‘also, the doors had just been fitted’. It doesn’t restrict the scope of what we’re referring to, so it’s a non-restrictive clause. The first four words would be meaningful and correct by themselves, though less informative.
Careful with commas
The other key difference between (a) and (b) above is the use or non-use of a comma after ‘doors’. A comma – or a pause in speech – tells us that the clause is non-restrictive.
Similarly, if the clause is in the middle of a sentence, it should also be followed by a comma only if the clause is non-restrictive:
(a) The doors that had just been fitted were going to be painted.
(b) The doors, which had just been fitted, were going to be painted.
In (a), the clause beginning with ‘that’ is integral to the statement, so it shouldn’t be cordoned off with punctuation.
In contrast, the commas in (b) are used to enclose supplementary information; these are known as parenthetical commas. Parentheses (round brackets) or dashes could be used instead, though each of these three choices has a different effect in terms of emphasis.
Now we come to the crunch. With a non-restrictive clause, ‘which’ should always be used, preceded by a comma. So we can’t have this, which would probably baffle the poor reader:
They painted the doors, that had just been fitted.
Instead, we need this, as we saw earlier:
They painted the doors, which had just been fitted.
With a restrictive clause, though, either ‘that’ or ‘which’ is considered acceptable, and it all hinges (following the door theme) on the presence or absence of a comma. These two sentences mean the same thing:
(a) They painted the doors that had just been fitted.
(b) They painted the doors which had just been fitted.
So, does it matter whether we use ‘that’ or ‘which’ with a restrictive clause?
Some argue that it doesn’t, but I’m firmly in the ‘that’ camp. It’s common sense, not dogma: you can’t go wrong with ‘that’, but you can create at least a flicker of confusion by using ‘which’ – so why use it? Although the lack of a comma technically shows that the clause is restrictive, some readers might not be fully aware of this rule, or might not notice whether there’s a comma or not.
I would only make an exception where another ‘that’ is lurking nearby, just to reduce repetition, as in this:
They used red paint for the doors which weren’t already that colour.
At the risk of riling purists, though, I’d like to argue that it sometimes doesn’t particularly matter whether the clause is restrictive or not. So we could use any of the three forms, like here:
(a) They moved into a house that had just been renovated.
(b) They moved into a house which had just been renovated.
(c) They moved into a house, which had just been renovated.
Whichever version we use, there’s clearly only one house involved, and it’s clearly just been renovated – no ambiguity, and no real need to ponder over which version is best.
Not only but also …
The same issues arise with some other words and expressions, such as ‘who’, ‘where’ and ‘in which’. For example:
(a) She praised the staff who had worked hard.
(b) She praised the staff, who had worked hard.
In these cases, we don’t have a choice of wording, and the humble comma can make a big difference, as it does above. We can only hope that the reader will understand the difference it makes.
As usual in writing and editing, we should be helping the reader by making things as clear and unambiguous as we can.
Just because a word is ‘acceptable’ in the context, that doesn’t make it a good choice. This applies to the ‘that’ vs ‘which’ debate as much as to anything else.
What’s the difference between copy-editing and proofreading? It’s a question that we’re often asked, as Sara Donaldson (Northern Editorial) pointed out in a recent(ish) blog post.
It’s important that the editor or proofreader and client are both clear about various aspects of what’s going to be done. One of these is the level of intervention: will we just be fixing errors, or also tweaking the wording, maybe rewriting the odd sentence? If we find something that’s unclear, will we fix it or just point it out?
What we do for publishers
In the world of publishing, it’s all pretty clear-cut. A copy-editor works with the manuscript (the copy) – usually a Word document nowadays – that the author has provided, and typically needs to do the following:
After copy-editing, the manuscript goes to a typesetter, who converts it into the format that’s needed for publication. The result is what we call the proof – usually a PDF file. This is then passed to a proofreader, who has two main jobs:
(The proofreader doesn’t correct anything directly, but just indicates things that should be changed or at least reconsidered.)
On the other hand ...
That’s all very well when we’re working for publishers. They know what copy-editing and proofreading are, and they (and we) know what needs to be done at each stage.
When it comes to other types of clients, though – businesses, researchers, students, independent authors and so on – it doesn’t usually work that way. They normally want just one person to work on their material, whether it’s in Word, PDF or any other format. But should they ask for copy-editing, proofreading, some sort of hybrid, or something else altogether?
As I see it, this problem is all down to wording (something that we should be good at!). When we advertise ourselves as ‘copy-editors’ and/or ‘proofreaders’ to clients such as these, we’re thrusting publishing jargon into the faces of people who aren’t publishers. It’s no wonder that they’re often a bit puzzled. And when we then try to explain it, this can seem condescending.
Instead, why don’t we use words that will make sense to them in the first place?
Breaking it down
Let’s look at the basic words that make up these terms: ‘copy’, ‘edit’, ‘proof’ and ‘read’.
This use of ‘copy’ – meaning a piece of writing – means something to journalists (‘filing copy’) and marketers (‘the copy for the website’) as well as publishers, but might draw blank stares from most other people.
As for ‘proof’, they might wonder what it’s proof of – guilt, purchase, pudding? ‘Read’ is suspect as well: I’m sure most clients will want us to correct the text, not just read it. (Also, we often do so-called ‘proofreading’ on a Word document, which isn’t really a proof.)
‘Edit’, however, does have a relevant meaning in the wider world. It suggests changing the content, bringing it up to a higher standard. I think we should keep this one.
So, here’s my idea
As an experiment, at least, I’m going to offer three levels of service to non-publishers:
Level 1: Error check
Level 2: Light edit
Level 3: Full edit
Level 1 is what we might call ‘proofreading’, although, as mentioned earlier, it might well be done in Word. Level 3 is effectively copy-editing, while Level 2 is, unsurprisingly, part way between the two: it’s sometimes known as ‘proof-editing’ (another misnomer, sadly).
I’ve listed these on the ‘What I do’ page of my website, and I’m considering doing so in other places, such as online directories.
It isn’t quite that simple, though. I don’t want to eliminate the terms ‘copy-editing’ and ‘proofreading’ from my marketing material altogether. Publishers will be looking for people who can do those jobs, Non-publishing clients often think they’re looking for a ‘proofreader’, even if their actual needs don’t fit with that word’s traditional meaning (as demonstrated by the success of the Find a Proofreader website).
So, at least for now, I’m a copy-editor and proofreader who offers (a) copy-editing or proofreading to publishers and (b) an error check, light edit or full edit to everyone else. I hope this will be at least a bit clearer.
One of the most valuable things about the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) is its network of local groups – a great way for members to get away from their desks, meet some like-minded souls, and swap ideas and advice.
Towards the end of 2015, a volunteer was needed to become the next coordinator for the Manchester group. Having been in the group for a couple of years, I felt settled in and was tempted to step forward – but also felt slightly uneasy about some aspects of the role, especially chairing meetings. Then, though, I went to my first SfEP conference and came away full of positive thinking: ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘I’ll do it’. So I did.
I wanted to keep up the good work of my predecessors, Louise Bolotin (who had founded the group, and was helped by Paula Clarke Bain) and Tammi Merrell. I didn’t have any big changes in mind, but the group was quite small, typically with between six and ten attendees at the meetings, and I hoped to expand it.
So, well before arranging my first meeting as coordinator, I searched for potential recruits on the SfEP’s member list, and considered also looking for non-members through social media. But, before I had gone as far as contacting anyone, along came a flurry of emails from prospective newbies, and I put the recruitment drive on hold – probably for good, as it turns out.
At that meeting, in January 2016, there were fourteen of us – far more than ever before. It was a strange day: I started it feeling nervous about chairing the meeting – especially with such a big turnout expected – but was soon knocked sideways by the news of David Bowie’s passing, and hardly even thought about the meeting until I went to Manchester in the evening. The nerves had subsided by the time it started. (A year later, I chaired a meeting a few hours after getting some health news of my own that gave me plenty to think about – nothing life-threatening, though.)
There were only nine people at the next meeting, in April – more like the old days – but we then had twelve on a sweltering night in July. We were using a small, semi-secluded room in a large bar, which was ideal for the numbers we’d had before (except for the background noise of chatter, music and tinkling glasses, which could be a minor problem), but was now starting to get crowded.
This created a dilemma: I wanted to do something about the crowding, but certainly didn’t want to discourage people from going. Luckily, the same venue has a ‘Boardroom’ upstairs, which the management are now allowing us to use free of charge (on the understanding that we’ll spend a reasonable amount at the bar). We now have a table with space for fourteen, or more if we spread out (and there are plenty of spare chairs), and no background noise to speak of. Since moving to our plush new accommodation, we’ve had turnouts of fourteen in October and twelve this January.
Even these numbers don’t reflect the growth in interest in the group since the autumn of 2015. The invitation list (including non-members of the SfEP) has nearly trebled in size, from 17 to 47. I’m not claiming any credit for this – I don’t think it can be attributed to anything I’ve done other than responding to, and keeping track of, all those who have shown an interest. I’d like to think it reflects the good health that the SfEP is in, especially as it embarks on its drive for chartership.
So, what exactly does a local group coordinator do? There are, of course, the meetings (quarterly in our case):
Another part of the role – quite a big one over the last year or so – is to respond to initial contact from new people, usually members or prospective members of the SfEP who are interested in attending the next meeting.
This doesn’t all have to be done by one person: the duties can be shared with other group members, and some groups have two or more co-coordinators(?). Also, the range of activities can vary between different groups.
Being a group coordinator has been very rewarding and enjoyable, and a nice challenge. It’s good to feel that I’m contributing to the SfEP, hopefully encouraging newcomers to sign up, and helping SfEP colleagues – who happen to be a really good bunch of people – to reap some of the benefits from their membership. To anyone who is thinking about becoming a coordinator, I would say: if you have a bit of time to spare and some half-decent organisational skills, and aren’t thoroughly terrified at the prospect of chairing meetings (which isn’t as scary as you might think), why not give it a go?
The twenties will soon be with us again …
While reading a George Orwell essay a few years ago, I was momentarily thrown by a mention of ‘the nineties’. Was he already looking beyond 1984? It soon dawned on me that he meant the 1890s – a decade that was fairly recent in his day, but now seems far behind us.
Editors and linguists often talk about how elements of the English language evolve over time as a result of social change, migration, technology and so on. Well, here’s one that sometimes has to change purely because of the passage of time.
For the best part of a century, we had handy names for decades: the twenties, the fifties, the seventies – right up to the nineties. People began to associate them with trends in fashion, music and social attitudes: the Roaring Twenties, the Swinging Sixties.
The first two decades of the twentieth century (as with any other) didn’t lend themselves to handy labels: ‘the 1900s’ could be taken to mean 1900 to 1999, and ‘the 1910s’ has a certain awkwardness because its pronunciation – ‘the nineteen-tens’ – bears little relation to the names of its individual years. Later, though, people got used to omitting the ‘nineteen’ part in less formal contexts: hence ‘the twenties’ and so on.
This was all very neat and tidy until we hit 2000. Suddenly, we were in another era of apparently nondescript decades. Few people seem to be interested in distinguishing between the 2000s and the 2010s, or in associating these decades with trends. No doubt this is largely because they lack catchy names (‘the noughties’ and ‘the teenies’ were suggested, but, thankfully, never really caught on), but it might also be a hangover from the impact of reaching ‘The Year 2000’. After such a dramatic change in the year number, with all four digits changing at once, perhaps decades seemed less significant than before. Have we got out of the habit of affording importance to them?
It won’t be long before this is put to the test. In just a few years it will be the twenties all over again; soon, to some extent or other, people will start looking ahead to that decade.
For those of us who write, edit or proofread for a living, and those who manage the style guides that we follow, this will present a new challenge. How ambiguous will ‘the twenties’ be? Should we refer long-windedly to the ‘1920s’ and ‘2020s’, or even – where the style rules demand the use of words – the ‘nineteen-twenties’ and ‘twenty-twenties’, to prevent any possible confusion? Will these twenties roar or just whimper?
Twenty years ago, there was no real problem with the term ‘the nineties’, as the 1890s were rarely mentioned; but the 1920s – a period of radio, films and wild dancing – still seem quite familiar today. A reference to ‘the twenties’ might conjure up that decade in the reader’s mind, unless the context makes the correct meaning instantly obvious.
Meanwhile, roll on the (twenty-)twenties …
Thoughts on Words
An editorial blog. Posts by Graham Hughes.