Monthly Archives: February 2021

A Finer Point: Passive aggressive

By Riffat Yusuf

Dear Readability,

Regarding your recent suggestion that my blog post might be improved by incorporating more active-voice sentences, your anti-passive bias is noted. Your call to action is uncalled for and, furthermore, I take issue with issue is taken by me with the contention that the pace of your reading is hampered by passive sentences.

PS Plain-English guidelines are exempt from all assertions and absurdities expressed above and below this line.

PPS I’m actively glaring at you, WordPress.

When the internet eventually ditches keywords for ranking purposes (I mean, keep them but don’t make content writers sweat over their optimal placement), can somebody please tweak readability formulas? That anti-verbosity algorithm which says wordiness in a sentence starts at 20 words: it needs sorting. And as for the gizmo screening for long words (two or more syllables), does a word as long as the longest word in this sentence really encumber readability? But where my gripe is majorly piqued is when WordPress sequesters my passive voice.

Voices and verbs

In grammar, ‘voice’ tells us about the relationship between the subject and the verb in a clause. If a subject is doing, carrying out or expressing a verb, the voice of that clause is active (I play football).

When the object of an erstwhile active clause takes on the role of the subject, we say the voice is passive (football is played by me). In a passive clause, we can also remove the preposition (by) and the agent (me).

The passive voice is not a tense; it can happen in the past and the present. The passive may be described as a construction or a clause, but not a verb, as June Casagrande explains in The Joy of Syntax.

There’s no denying that some verbs are less action-oriented than others. But passive and active voice in grammar have nothing to do with kinetics. Instead, voice has to do with the structure of the sentence.

Active and passive are the two official voices of English sentence structure. A third is expleted when Flesch metrics deem that of the sentences I write (in an article about passive sentences) only 10 per cent may be expressed passively. A fourth is muttered when writing experts tell me that in almost every genre, it’s easier to read a sentence where a subject actively verbs an object.

An active voice, it is said, lends itself well to informality, spontaneity, fluidity, immediacy, intimacy and, basically, whatever fusty isn’t. Listen, active voicers, you hog most of the writing space online and, if amplification for your writing style were needed, you have an ally in George Orwell’s oft-echoed one-liner in Politics and the English Language (an essay that fails readability checks with its 20 per cent passive clause saturation). What say we hear it for the passive voice?

Passive resistance

We can identify a passive clause by its form: subject + auxiliary (be or get) + past participle. That said, perhaps this accepted structure needs rethinking. (Geoffrey Pullum, I did that just for you.)

If you’ve read Fear and Loathing of the English Passive, you’ll know that a bare passive (‘that said’) doesn’t take an auxiliary verb, and a concealed passive (‘needs rethinking’) uses a gerund-participle; these phrases don’t align with the conventional structure, do they? So if the form of the passive voice isn’t as rigid as we have been taught, perhaps our understanding of what happens in a passive clause also needs revisiting.

I have read 23 explanations of the role played by each element in a passive clause. All the grammar bloggers concur that a passive subject is the recipient of the action of a verb. Pullum, who has unpacked considerably more of ‘the thousands of mutually plagiarizing bad descriptions of the passive construction’, finds that talking about a verb in terms of receipt and delivery isn’t always accurate. Not all passive subjects receive action in the way we might think.

If I were to say: ‘it is alleged by writers that passive sentences are clunky’, Pullum would point out that there isn’t actually any action being received by the dummy pronoun in my sentence. And again, in a passive construction such as ‘not much is known about …’, can we really say that the determiner (not much) receives the action of the verb?

When rules are excepted

There is a difference between the passive and the past simple: the phrase ‘there is’ isn’t it. No such distinction is made in this BBC style advice.

The active voice will help to give your scripts some vitality and life. It can also make a weak sentence more emphatic and give it greater impact. Compare these examples. The first is in the passive; the second active:

There were riots in several towns in Northern England last night, in which police clashed with stone-throwing youths.

Youths throwing stones clashed with police during riots in several towns in Northern England last night.

The subject of an active clause doesn’t always make a good agent. The active-to-passive process requires a little more input than switching places. If you want to flip from active voice to passive, watch out for semantic inequivalence in sentences using a negative verb.

Many people don’t speak English.

English is not spoken by many people.

That ‘rule’ about intransitive verbs not forming the passive … To a point, fair enough: ‘Jane laughs’ doesn’t invert well (‘is laughed Jane’). But as soon as she is supplied with a suitable preposition and indirect object, everybody can be laughed at by Jane. However, very few grammar blogs warn that not all transitive verbs can be passivised. They rarely highlight glitchy verbs like ‘concern’ and ‘have’.

The report concerns people I know.

People I know are concerned by the report.

You have a lovely garden.

A lovely garden is had by you.

It’s not you

Readability, I have to come clean. My passive apologia is a temporary affectation; I was beguiled by the silver-tongued deliberations of eminent linguists. Can you blame me for wanting in on Pullum’s ‘transformational generative syntactic discussions’? If you must know, the thing I like most about the passive is the word itself – the etymologically unsound lovechild of pacifist and passionate. Culpa mostly mea for this transgression, but if you’d only met me halfway I might have parsed less (ugh, those phrase markers!) and written better.

What you really need, Readability, is to collaborate with writers. Take the time to ask what the purpose and audience of our work is. Very few of us have anything original to say online – or anywhere. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write, but that you could help us by delving into our motives a bit more and scoring us accordingly. Instead of marking us down with your amber and red bullets, perhaps give the reader a little pop-up: ‘This entire article is premised on a note about the passive form in Middle English that the writer chanced upon in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.’

I think I’m onto something. What if we had dilly-dally software to flag up waffle? Imagine a prompt for word accountability: an onscreen comment or query for every instance where you didn’t write what you said you would in your intro. And let’s also develop a plugin for specious content: your research is commendable, but five non-recoupable hours yield neither space nor soul for ‘inchoative and ergative aspects’ in the body of this text. Let’s see if we can’t hatch a David Crystal-shaped macro for every time anybody writes anything.

Leave it with me for now, Readability. I can really see a future in developing a ream of text-enhancement features that AI fails to deliver. I’m not sure if I should pitch to Dragon’s Den or JSTOR, but I do know that everything will make a lot more sense after it’s been checked, clarified, modified, rephrased, refined and approved by my editor.

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


Photo credits: pencil on paper by Jan Kahánek; laughter by Hannah Gullixson, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Forum matters: Spring-cleaning refreshers

This feature comes from the band of CIEP members who volunteer as forum moderators. You will only be able to access links to posts if you’re a forum user and logged in. Find out how to register.

Any mention of spring cleaning immediately brings to mind the opening to Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home … till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms … It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said … “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house …, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

You know you have to think about CPD, updating websites and social media, and tightening up your business information, but it can make you feel a bit Mole-like, all dusty and achy. Thankfully, the great, green meadow of the CIEP forums is there to roll in and refresh yourself!

In ‘Structuring the Dayʼ members share helpful approaches to brushing up yourself and your business that look at time management, preventing the making of lists taking over from the doing of what’s on them, making sure you take account of you, helpful ways to prioritise – along with the usual smattering of technical tips.

Many an inner Mole is revealed across the forums, including in the supportive local groups, as members urge each other to go outside. One of the most enjoyable threads is in the Off topic forum. ‘Wildlife distraction of the dayʼ shares sightings and photos of birds, insects, reptiles and even of ‘cereal-eating, wifi-connected, human-like creatures’. Springwatch, eat your heart out.

Refreshing your business

Once you’ve decided to burrow away, then a quick search of the forums (using five-plus letters!) yields some helpful dustpans, brushes and dusters.

In ‘Free article limit for online newspapersʼ several editors shared workarounds to keep searching for online articles from the same publication when checking an author’s citations.

Has LinkedIn messaging gone premium?ʼ revealed how many members had received a ‘problem’ message on trying to message a new contact, but had then re-enabled messaging those connections on LinkedIn – without going Premium.

For the independently minded, ‘Callout boxesʼ talked about recolouring your proofreading comments in Adobe Acrobat – at the same time reminding members of forum protocol that discourages discussion of course exercises outside official areas.

For those who work on client websites, there are a few thoughts on accessing a client’s WordPress website admin pages as a warning to the uninitiated. Nice that the client sorted it out pretty quickly. Also on the website theme, there are some motivational pointers to help you polish up your SEO.

Refreshing yourself

Of course, spring cleaning is about putting the sparkle back on what you already have, not necessarily about replacing with the new, which is where the forum archives can be a great resource. So keep seeing the shine using tips from ‘Eye strain – new setup needed?ʼ It might be an old thread (2015) but the suggestions are still good:

  • from Janet MacMillan’s emphatic advice to get your eyes checked – ‘an editor pal of mine was experiencing eye strain and eyesight issues and by going to the ophthalmologist forthwith, she saved her sight, and probably her life’
  • through Lisa Cordaro’s thoughts on lens coatings, ambient lighting, frequent screen breaks, ‘And finally, don’t do long days at your VDU. Bad for the eyes and general health!’
  • and very much in the spring-cleaning vein, Ceri Warner’s ‘have you tried adjusting the lighting in the room where you are working? I’ve got my monitor with its back to a window, which I found was very tiring for my eyes, so at the moment I’ve got thin curtains across the window but I do need to rearrange the room when I get a chance.’

The topic was revisited in 2020 in ‘How do you protect your eyes?ʼ and ‘Question about visual migrainesʼ.

CIEP members are great at highlighting helpful links that take you outside the forums – for instance, to John Espirian’s contribution on Louise Harnby’s blog following some chat about using two screens.

If you need to refresh your work interface because of RSI, then ‘Hands-free editing?ʼ offers some thoughts on speech recognition software as a new approach.

The forum moderators hope that, like Mole, you’ll be ‘bewitched, entranced, fascinated’ by the flow of forum threads and that they will help to keep you happy and motivated at spring-cleaning time.

 

Photo credits: mole by Tabble on Pixabay; crocuses by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Flying solo: Turn hindsight into foresight with checklists

In this new column, Sue Littleford looks at running an editorial business and how to make things more efficient and effective.

Checklists. Write them for your processes, use them consciously and keep them updated. Don’t try to make one checklist work for every type of job.

I could stop there, but we’re learning that the active use of checklists is a gamechanger in avoiding mistakes. The World Health Organization published the lifesaving (or merely inconvenience-saving) results of using checklists in 2008. In 2009, one of the drivers behind the checklist movement in medicine, Atul Gawande, published The Checklist Manifesto. Malcolm Gladwell is a fan. Also in 2009, Apollo astronauts called checklists their ‘fourth crewmember’. In 2019, Scotland reported that, since introducing checklists in 2008, surgical mortality rates had fallen by 37%. Checklists have been applied to air safety since the 1930s with great results.

Lives have been saved, money has been saved, time has been saved, reputations have been saved. What’s not to like?

Checklists help in three ways

  1. You need to think through your processes. Once you see them laid out in front of you, look for gaps and replication, and streamline your systems. That’s an immediate efficiency gain on every single job you do.
  2. They keep you focused. Don’t just glance down a checklist you’ve used a gazillion times and say to yourself, ‘Yeah, that looks OK, I’ve probably done everything’. Pay attention as you work through the list, and tick off each item deliberately. (Like exercise equipment, it doesn’t work if it stays in the box.)
  3. They reduce cognitive overload and anxiety. No need to rely on memory for all the steps, nor to worry you’ve missed one.

You could cover your processes for:

  • taking in a new job and setting up your skeleton records
  • communicating with others
  • doing the initial clean-up
  • converting US to UK English
  • maintaining adherence to the client’s style
  • maintaining consistency between chapters
  • final checks and polishing
  • handover and invoicing.

I’m sure you’ll think of more, relevant to your own practice.

Tailor your checklists to suit each client and their workflow, and each type of job. A proofreading checklist will look very different from a copyediting checklist, which will look very different from a manuscript critique checklist.

The cardinal error is to aim for one big checklist to cover everything. That’s a bad idea for two reasons:

  • you simply can’t cover everything. The unexpected happens, the novel happens; and
  • long checklists are confusing and difficult to follow. They become wearisome and self-defeating.

Instead, have a separate, short checklist for each part of a job.

What a checklist is not

It’s not a list of instructions. It doesn’t contain the detail of how you do your job. It doesn’t remove your autonomy (after all, it’s your checklist and you can change it). It’s also not your first attempt – you will find you need to refine it quite a bit, initially, as you figure out what you need to be reminded about to work well and consistently, as well as what you never forget, and therefore don’t need to include.

What a checklist is

It’s a set of reminders to do the stuff that would make you look stupid if you missed it, and to do the stuff you find you often forget, even though you know you should always do it. It’s your failsafe. And it’s a timesaver, as you work efficiently consistently.

What a good checklist is

It’s a practical, precise, brief and unambiguous reminder of the essential steps you need to take. It underlines your priorities, it stops you forgetting the important stuff in a moment of inattention and it makes you look good to your client or boss.

The big secret: checklists go out of date

I have a client that I’ve worked with for several years, starting out on books and then becoming the sole copyeditor for a journal. I could use the same checklist for both, right? Same publisher? Every time, I sighed heavily about bits of the checklist that were irrelevant, and about the extra bits I needed to remember to check, different for the journal and books. Then the publisher updated their style guide – about a fifth of the checklist was defunct.

Finally, I decided it was time to review the checklists I use most often. I realised that the core of my final-checks checklist had stayed essentially unchanged for about ten years. Ouch. What I’d needed to spell out for myself back then, now only needed a short reminder or could be omitted altogether.

I’d been dotting about the checklist because the flow was no longer logical now I’d matured as a copyeditor. If you’re jumping around your checklist, it’s no longer methodical; it’s an accident waiting to happen.

A checklist for checklists

1. Document your processes

  • List out what you do for each stage of each type of job and for each client.
  • Do you tackle these tasks in the most efficient and logical order? Shunt things around until the sequence is right.

2. Write a checklist that’s no more than one page long

  • If it’s longer, ask yourself why. Are you trying to write an end-to-end checklist? Stop! Short checklists work better than long ones. Don’t include details.
  • Write the checklist as bullet points, and use the empty checkbox symbol as the bullet (I like Wingdings character codes 113, 109 and 114. In Word, Insert tab > Symbols > Font > Wingdings > Character code).
  • Or set out the checklist as a table. I do that if I have to change a bunch of chapters from US to UK English, for example, with the chapters as the rows and each feature that needs attention as the columns.
  • Print out the checklist to use it. Physically tick things off as you complete each task. Your eye is less likely to betray you than working down an onscreen list, but if you’re really trying to reduce your use of paper, use highlighting or set up checkbox content controls in each list to ensure you miss nothing.

3. Set up each checklist as a template

  • As you start each job, open the final-checks checklist you’ll be using and save it specifically for that job. As you work on the text, add to the checklist any tailored checks you need to make at the end of the work – author’s tics, layout issues, anything at all that will add to the accuracy of the finished job.

4. Keep the checklist fresh to your eyes

  • It’s easy to stop paying attention to something you see all the time. To stop your checklists from becoming wallpaper, change the typeface every few uses.

5. Review your checklists

  • How well did the job you just finished go?
  • Were there any catches made at the last moment that could usefully be added to a checklist?
  • How well did the checklists support each aspect of the job? Has this client changed their style or requirements?
  • As you become more experienced, can your checklist be condensed?
  • Have you started using a new tool that should be added to a checklist – a new macro, perhaps?

6. Review your processes

  • You’re not standing still: with every job you gain experience and increase your competence. Review your processes periodically to check whether you’re being as efficient as you can – diarise reminders to do this, or maybe add it as the final item in the last checklist for any given job.
  • Review constantly: be alert to your weak spots. What does your eye tend to glide past? What tasks do you like least and may be inclined to skip or rush? What feedback have clients given you?

Thoughtfully crafted and well-maintained checklists turn hindsight into foresight. And that’s invaluable.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences. Before that, she had been the payroll manager for a major government department for some 14 years. Her whole career had been markedly numbers based – both in central government and in the private sector – even though she became the go-to wordsmith everywhere she worked. She eventually switched to words full-time, transferring her skills and experience to hone her business efficiency and effectiveness.


Photo credit: hand-written checklist by StockSnap, both on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

CIEP social media round-up: December 2020 and January 2021

December and January were all about giveaways, grammar, goals and good dogs.

December saw the launch of our first holiday calendar campaign, which offered daily giveaways and time-limited discounts on CIEP fact sheets, focus papers, courses, guides, articles and conference-session videos. The promotion was a big hit within the global editing community and drew attention to the huge bank of valuable content offered by the CIEP.

In January, we began testing Facebook ads and commissioned a social media consultant with expertise in delivering these to targeted audiences. A three-month-long campaign featuring our Word for Practical Editing course will run until early April 2021.

We also reposted links to older but still relevant problem-solving CIEP blog posts about customer service, punctuation, word counts, multi-lingual editing, editing technical materials, plain English, editor websites, editing scams, being a young editor, business content, keeping fit and being a freelance introvert.

My grammar and your grammar, sitting by the fire

The CIEP has a new Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation course, and during December and January grammar, punctuation and language usage featured prominently in our curated content, from an adverb quiz to whether it’s acceptable to say ‘try and’, the order of adjectives, the prefix un-, the word ‘multiple’, the dative pronoun ‘methinks’ and if it’s wrong to say ‘from whence’, as ‘whence’ means ‘from what place, source or cause’. This kicked off its own debate, as we suggested ‘this ever-changing world in which we live in’ was a similar example of superfluity in language and asked if anyone could name the song ‘from whence’ these lyrics came. A number of followers and friends suggested that the right words (from ‘Live and Let Die’) were ‘this ever-changing world in which we’re livin’’, which sent us down an internet rabbit hole via Stan Carey at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog to an interview with Sir Paul McCartney himself. After all that, it turns out Sir Paul wasn’t sure of the lyrics, either.

Goodbye 2020, hello 2021

As it was the end of one year and the beginning of the next, there was a certain amount of looking back and looking forward, plus a festive article on what you should read based on your favourite Quality Street. Well worth a read at any time of the year, although it might make you hungry. We celebrated 2020’s incredible book sales (an article that got 118 likes on Facebook, the equivalent of a hearty round of applause), concentrated on setting goals for 2021, were inspired by small professional editor groups, and looked to start our own editorial blogs.

What’s in a name?

Near the beginning of December we posted a story about a set of Isaac Newton’s notes, sold for auction at £378,000, that was almost destroyed by fire when his dog, Diamond, jumped up on the table and upset a candle. Obviously our first thought was ‘what an excellent name for a dog’. As is Smurf, the starring example of a CMOS article on commas and appositives. Should you write ‘your dog Smurf’ or ‘your dog, Smurf’? It depends on whether Smurf is your only dog; if so, use the comma. This set us thinking: if Smurf isn’t your only dog, what would your others be called? Moomin, Kermit and Simba, perhaps. And in fact, Simba featured in an article in Dictionary.com about where the world’s most popular pet names come from. But not everyone wants to go mainstream, and the beauty of pet naming is that you can use a word hardly anyone has heard of like, say, sporange (the botanical structure that creates spores), which is remarkable for being the only word in the English language that rhymes with orange. Pretty distinctive. Although yelling it across your local park might be more distinctiveness than you’d be comfortable with.


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Photo credits: silver reactions by George Pagan III on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A week in the life of a typesetter

By Andrew Chapman

I’ll have to begin with a disclaimer: a lot of each ‘week in my life’ is currently spent as a (very) amateur home-based teacher of my two children, something I’m sure many CIEP members in the middle years of life can relate to; so this blog post instead reflects some of the variety of my work. ‘Typesetting in times of change’, perhaps!

A flexible approach

It was luck that brought me to my slightly unusual career, mixing editorial and writing work with the design side of publishing. Early in my career, I got a job as a staff writer on a computer magazine – remember the Amstrad PCW word processors? That technology was already obsolescent in the mid-1990s, but in a sense this helped me out: the magazine had a small team, so learning fast on the job, and being able to pick up how to use QuarkXPress, was an asset. A later stint on a weekly newspaper, again requiring a flexible approach, cemented my combination of editing and typesetting skills, which has kept me fed as a freelancer for more than 20 years now.

I’d say the two things that have changed the most in that time have been the software and the route to publication, which are inevitably intertwined. Quark is often forgotten these days, as most publishers use Adobe InDesign – though actually I still prefer Quark myself, and its current version is a worthy competitor once again. In practice I use both most days – although editing work is still done in Word.

Changing technology

The advent of self-publishing has had a major influence on the technology – all routes for print lead to a press-ready PDF, but ebooks have very different constraints and attributes. The holy grail of publishing is a system which is flexible, easy to use and accommodates these very different forms of output from a single source file. Both Quark and InDesign can produce ebooks, but I find they are not always very good – it depends on the book. And now there are various solutions in the mix which can sometimes make all this a simpler business – I’m thinking of Vellum (a Mac-only program which is very clever, but limited in its typesetting features), Pressbooks and other tools created by marketplaces such as Reedsy and Amazon. A new player in the print-and-ebook space is Hederis – too pricey for my taste, but one to watch.

The point of this trip down software’s memory lane is really that one has to keep up with these trends, and expect to use a variety of tools for the job – the varied nature of books and magazines means that no single tool cracks every nut. But the one thing that is guaranteed to have any typesetter in tears is a file in Microsoft Publisher format!

Varied work

Much of my career has been spent in magazines, but over the last few years I have shifted the balance of my business to books – sadly magazines seem to be in serious decline, apart from a niche market for attractive indie magazines, often marketed online. Inevitably shop closures during the pandemic have accelerated the decline of the newsstand, although the more serious enemy really is the vast range of free content online. Thankfully, books seem to be thriving, and in the lockdown months I’ve noticed a lot of authors seem to be finishing their books and looking for help in getting them out.

Being an editor who typesets, or a typesetter who edits – my sense of which I am varies day to day – means I can often be involved through more of a book’s production, which I find very rewarding. I find the two activities occupy very different parts of my ‘headspace’, too: for editing, I have to be working in absolute silence, but I can work on paper or a laptop if need be; whereas for typesetting, I typically have Radio 4 burbling in the background – I have two large screens in front of me, and now can’t remember how I ever managed with one.

I love the variety of projects which freelancing enables me to take on – although the scheduling can of course be a headache, especially when books get delayed or all suddenly come in at once. One recent project which I enjoyed being involved with was a lockdown cookery book by a Michelin-starred chef, whose son grew the vegetables the chef cooked with – so it was an interesting mix of father-and-son bonding and mouth-watering recipes, accompanied by amazing photos by a professional food photographer.

I’m something of a generalist by nature – hence the two sides to my career, I suppose – so I also enjoy not knowing what’s next: my most recent editing projects have been a historical novel, a thesis about forensics in detective fiction and a book about understanding canine psychology; and on the design side there have been business books, a short story collection and a trio of books by an established author dipping her toe in the world of self-publishing for the first time.

If there’s one subject area I particularly enjoy, however, it’s history – I’ve been the editor of a family and social history magazine for the last decade, and these days I typeset it too (of course, sometimes budgetary constraints lurk behind these decisions). And in December, I launched a related side project of my own – a weekly email newsletter presenting first-hand accounts from history, partly because I feel history publishing needs more ‘ordinary’ voices from the past rather than just famous names and royalty. I’m not really sure why I’ve forced more constraints on my complicated week – but I suppose if there’s one thing my erratic career has shown, it’s that I like a challenge.

Working together

Maybe being an editor/typesetter combined is ultimately my real specialism – hopefully I’ve got enough years under the belt now to have some insight into how the two work best together, and I’ll try to suppress the lingering spectre of imposter syndrome that whispers ‘jack of all trades, master of none …’ in my ear.

From a typesetter’s point of view, perhaps a few words of advice might be of help to other editors and the authors they work with:

  • Please don’t embed images in your Word document – or, at least, only do so for reference. Word has a habit of chewing up image files, and in any case, the typesetting process, regardless of the software used, needs images as separate files. (This isn’t necessarily the editor’s responsibility, of course, but they should always be high resolution, ie at least 300dpi.)
  • It’s fine – and indeed helpful – to mark up a Word file with styles, for example for body text and different levels of headings, though try to avoid vast numbers of them; and don’t assume that what falls in a certain way in the Word file will end up looking quite the same in the typeset file.
  • Don’t bother ‘laying out’ a book in Word, with running headers and footers, indents or paragraph spacing, and so on: all this will be lost or changed anyway. When a Word file is imported into InDesign, say, the distinctions between styles can be preserved as well as formatting such as bold and italics, but most other things are likely to change. Ultimately the key thing is that the file distinguishes things semantically: the content is sacred, but the form will change.

Andrew Chapman is a Professional Member of the CIEP, as well as a member of the Publishers Association, the Alliance of Independent Authors, the Society of Authors and the Independent Publishers Guild. When not joining associations, he runs Prepare to Publish with the help of some fellow freelancers. His latest side project, the Histories newsletter, can be found at www.gethistories.com

 


Photo credits: letters by Amador Loureiro; spinach by Sigmund, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

What’s e-new?

By Andy Coulson

Passwords

Passwords … We all have dozens and dozens of them. But how many of you have not changed the default password on something you’ve bought, or use the same password for lots of things? If so, you are not alone – the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) found that ‘Less than half [of people surveyed] do not always use a strong, separate password for their main email account’. The NCSC did a large survey in 2019, and the summary of the results makes interesting reading.

So, what can you do about this? The NCSC has a list of six key actions:

  • Use a strong and separate password for your email.
  • Create strong passwords using three random words.
  • Save your passwords in your browser.
  • Turn on two-factor authentication (2FA).
  • Update your devices.
  • Back up your data.

This is a good list to work through, and I’ve discussed some of these before, but I’m going to dig into others a little deeper.

Strong and separate

Ideally, you should have a different password for each login. But, like me, I bet you have some types of account that you use the same password for. However, I don’t do this for important things, like banking or email. The NCSC highlights having a different password for your email as being the one to start with. The next problem becomes how to remember all these different passwords, and I’ll pick up on that with password managers, below.

So, what is a good password? You’ve probably seen a password security meter on some sites, where the password is rated from poor/weak to good/strong as you type it. Can you think what gets you into the strong category? Broadly, it’s more characters – the longer the better.

But it’s a little more complicated than that. You need to avoid repeated or sequential characters (like ‘aaa’ or ‘123’) in the password, as these weaken it. It is also crucial to avoid personal information – your name, parts of your address, date of birth, family members’ names and so on – as part of the password.

So where does that get us? ‘B7meapofngh04psnf’ is a strong password, but is a bit tricky to remember, so I’ll let you into a little secret. Most of the time, three or four random words as a phrase will create a really secure password. For example, the password at the start of the para is considered very strong, but so is ‘CanteloupeRiverArtichoke’. Which is easier to remember?

Many sites ask for a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and symbols. Where sites or apps require this, you can always add a symbol and number to a phrase, such as ‘CanteloupeRiverArtichoke+3’.

So, our four takeaways from this are:

  1. Use separate passwords for at least email and banking, but preferably all your accounts.
  2. Make passwords long and as random as you can.
  3. Don’t use personal information, repetition or sequences in passwords.
  4. If you need to remember a password, use a three- or four-word random phrase.

Testing and checking passwords

Before I dive into this, a word of warning … If you are going to put a password into something, make very sure you know what you are putting it into. It would be very easy to run a ‘check my password’ scam website! However, the sites listed here are, to the best of my knowledge, safe and legitimate. I mention potentially compromised passwords below. This does not mean that someone is misusing the password, it just means that there has been data stolen from somewhere that potentially contains that information. Often these thefts are so large that many passwords are not used, so if your password is ‘potentially compromised’, simply take action and change it as soon as you find out.

First of all, if you use Google there is a built-in password check-up. If you go to your Google account online you will likely see this on the home page. If you click on ‘Take action’, it will highlight passwords potentially compromised in data breaches. You can then go and change those. It will also flag weak passwords and those used on multiple accounts.

Another good resource is ‘have I been pwned’, which sounds rather spammy, but is a highly regarded source of information about data breaches. You can use the site to check if your accounts have been affected by a data breach.

Finally, many websites have a password strength checker that allows you to get a sense of how good your password is. However, if you want to play around with ideas there is a good checker on the bitwarden site (bitwarden is one of the password managers discussed below). This also gives you an idea of how long a typical modern password cracker tool would take to work this out.

Managing your passwords

Many security experts suggest using a password manager to hold your passwords. These are software packages that keep your passwords in a highly encrypted online store, allowing you to use the passwords and logins across devices – so on your laptop, phone and tablet. Essentially you need to remember one, very strong, password to access all your accounts, but each account can then have a different, very strong password. That master password is never stored on the provider’s computer, so even if they are hacked the hacker only accesses the encrypted gobbledygook. Needless to say, your one password needs to be one you can remember, and it needs to be kept safe!

The NCSC article mentioned earlier explains that most modern browsers (Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox) have a built-in password manager. These work well, but it is worth spending a little time understanding the limitations of these. I’m especially impressed with Firefox’s Lockwise, though I’d rather use a separate password manager as it spreads the risk around.

There are a number of well-regarded standalone password managers on the market that provide similar features and a mix of free and paid-for versions. You need to be looking, at a minimum, for end-to-end encryption (this means your passwords are never available as plain text – they are always scrambled except on your device); cross-platform applications (ie you can use them on your laptop, tablet and phone) and secure password generators. Most of them also offer (but you may have to pay for) options such as secure sharing, which allows you and a partner to both have access to a shared account or service, in case, for example, one of you falls ill. I use one called bitwarden, but other well-known packages are LastPass, 1password, KeePass and Dashlane. Dropbox has just added a password manager to some of its paid plans.

2FA – a further level of security

2FA is short for ‘two-factor authentication’. You may be familiar with this from your bank; banks have upgraded their security in the last year or so. This is where, after entering your password, you need to enter a code that is texted or emailed to you, so you use two factors to log in. They often use your phone for one of the factors, as you often have it on you and this means it is more likely to be you.

Many services support using 2FA, including Google and most of the password managers. If you can use 2FA to secure key tools and services it is worth doing, as it makes hacking your accounts even harder.

Good luck and stay safe out there!

Andy Coulson is a reformed engineer and primary teacher, and a Professional Member of CIEP. He is a copyeditor and proofreader specialising In STEM subjects and odd formats like LaTeX.

 

 


In previous What’s e-new articles, Andy has covered accounting, working efficiently in Microsoft Word, Word’s Editor, and useful online resources related to fixing computers, managing time and keeping fit.


Photo credits: padlocks by Georg Bommeli; purple artichokes by Joanna Kosinska, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Wise owls: should you make your prices public?

The CIEP’s wise owls are all Advanced Professional Members, with well over 100 years of editing and proofreading experience between them. We asked them whether they publish their prices on their website.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford

I debated this with myself for quite a while, and decided that I kinda would make price information public. My website links to the Institute’s suggested minimum rates as a starting point for negotiation, and explains that the actual price will depend on the condition of the text, what work is wanted and at what speed. One of my pet hates when browsing for services is having no idea whether I can afford a particular provider, or whether they’re overpriced (or suspiciously underpriced) for what they offer. I don’t want to have to give up my email address just to find the whole thing is a non-starter. Indicating the lowest prices also weeds out the people who want 100k words done for a tenner. And giving an external authority for the lowest possible price cuts down arguments (I believe, anyway!). I always pitch in at rather higher than those minimums though, ‘because I’m an APM and those are the lowest rates that should be entertained by anyone’, and I find that people accept that rationale pretty easily. Whether it’s the kind of clients I work for (my red-flag radar is highly active), or whether the website is working its magic, I don’t get people trying to drive down the price much at all. Well, not for private clients – we all know that some publishers and packagers have their own ideas of a ‘sensible’ budget!

Nik Prowse

I have never made my prices public, for several reasons:

  • One size does not fit all: if I made widgets, then I would sell each one for the same price. But editing jobs are all different: you have to weigh up size, complexity, subject matter and state of the manuscript, among other factors. All affect the price.
  • Clients differ: some pay per 1,000 words, some per hour; some offer a fixed fee. Some will negotiate (asking our rate), some won’t (offering a fee). For those who ask we can assess the job (see above) and for those who offer we can decide whether the fee is worth taking.
  • Urgency affects your fee: deadline is an additional consideration. A job that arrives at 4pm on Friday with a deadline of Monday morning commands a higher fee than the same job offered over two weeks.
  • Our reasons for taking work vary: we have clients we aspire to work for, we have those who pay the bills. We may accept low-paid work from a client who calls once a month. But we may decide to establish a better standard of pay with a new client with whom we want to build a long-term relationship.

My starting point is usually CIEP-suggested minimum rates of pay, but for the above reasons I would never advertise a set price for a job.

Liz Jones

I can see the argument in favour of publishing prices, but I choose not to. This is because I work with a range of clients in different sectors, and the way I agree pricing with all of them is different. For most, I agree a rate per project (either for the whole project, or per thousand words, or per page), but sometimes I agree an hourly rate. All of this tends to work out for me within a rate range I find favourable, while also working with my clients’ budgets. I don’t discuss with clients what the others pay me, just as I don’t discuss any other aspects of our agreements and contracts. However, I do find it helpful to share some pricing information privately, with colleagues. This helps me with quoting for new work, and can help them too.

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin

I don’t publish my prices for one very simple reason: no two jobs are ever the same. As a result, my rates vary. I do a wide variety of work that can range from proofreading a doctoral PhD thesis to editing a company’s white paper, to project-managing a team of writers or doing a ‘proof/edit’ on a self-publisher’s novel. I normally charge by the hour, but when I work with PhD students or self-publishers I’m more likely to negotiate a fixed fee. For some clients I may agree to a day rate. Mostly, but not always, my rates are somewhat above the CIEP’s suggested rates because as an Advanced Professional Member my higher rates reflect that my experience matches my membership status. But I once charged ‘mates’ rates’ to a colleague who asked me to work on his first novel because he is also a close friend (that was also the only occasion I worked with a friend – I’m usually strict about separating work and my private life to avoid complications). And on another occasion, I charged triple my usual rate as I worked on a project for a client that had a multimillion-pound turnover: if I’d not charged what they expected, as such companies expect suppliers to be expensive, they’d have wondered why I was so cheap, perhaps imagining I wasn’t that experienced, and I doubt I’d have got the job.

I don’t find publishing rates is helpful. For example, a potential client could look at them, think I was too expensive and go elsewhere, whereas if they don’t know my rates in advance they will at least contact me and we can have a discussion. If their budget is tight, I can offer a more limited job for the amount they can afford. It also means I can avoid tricky conversations if I estimate the cost of a project for a potential client and they respond with ‘But your website says £XX for proofreading, not £YY’. In my experience, businesses often ask for proofreading when they actually mean copy-editing. So I’d rather have a chat about fees once I know exactly what they want and need. I have seen arguments for publishing one’s rates, but I’m unlikely ever to be convinced of the merit.

Sue Browning

I don’t put my prices on my website or other promo material. The main reason for this is that it is very easy to be ‘held to ransom’ over the sorts of ballpark figures one is compelled to quote ‘blind’ to cover all possible eventualities. If, for instance, I were to say ‘My rates range from X to Y’, it’s very hard to then quote more than Y once I’ve seen a sample, as the message the potential client takes from that is that their work is terrible. And that’s never a good way to start a relationship. Either that or X and Y represent such a huge range as to be unhelpful in the first place.

However, I can quite see how quoting rates might reassure potential customers and also dissuade people who are not willing to pay what I want to charge. So I don’t completely ignore the rates issue on my site. Instead I explain that I tailor what I do to each person’s specific requirements and offer a free short sample edit. This seems to work for me in that I attract the types of client I want to attract. But it’s a decision I review from time to time, as I do most of my business practices.

Michael FaulknerMike Faulkner

I fudge the pricing issue on my website, which I often think looks a bit unhelpful, but there are three reasons.

First, I worry that putting my hourly rate out there will reduce the number of enquiries, and I won’t have the opportunity to justify my rate in ‘conversation’. Secondly, my work is extremely varied and therefore price-elusive, ranging from serious law books to literary fiction to children’s illustrated. And thirdly, while I could publish an hourly rate, I would find it impossible to give an idea how that translates into what the client will actually pay, because my words-per-hour rate of progress varies so dramatically depending on the nature of the material, and how clean it is.

My calculation for quoting purposes almost invariably depends on the rate of progress through a (free) sample. Assuming I know the final word count, I divide that by the words per hour achieved in the sample, and multiply the result by my hourly rate – and of course every project is different (unless it’s a regular client, in which case no need for all this malarkey and I can go straight to the price).

So, my publicly stated rate can be summarised in the editor’s two favourite words: it depends!


The revised second edition of the CIEP’s guide Going Solo: Creating your editorial business is now available – it’s a great place to start if you’re considering becoming a self-employed editor or proofreader.


Photo credits: owl by Kevin Noble on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Reviving my editing business

By Louise Bolotin

Like many freelancers, I was hit hard by the pandemic. 2020 started well enough, including a huge two-month project for a Commission. But in the week before we went into lockdown last March, I ran into deep trouble. First, as businesses battened down their financial hatches, all the projects I’d had booked in up to mid-June were cancelled by my clients. And then the local weekly newspaper where I’d worked as their subeditor for several years rang to say they were laying me off. In the space of a few days, I lost 100% of my work. Utter despair and panic set in because after the final week of that lucrative Commission job, I had nothing – for the first time in 15 years of working for myself.

Normally I’d never admit this, but I was not alone. I heard countless similar tales from other freelancers. For a few weeks I seriously contemplated getting a supermarket job. I had bills to pay, after all. I even got as far as half-heartedly filling out some of an application form for one supermarket. But I reminded myself that I still wanted to be my own boss, rather than someone’s employee. So as the public clamoured to ‘build back better’, I resolved to do the same, as there was no point dwelling on what I’d lost.

Once the shock had settled, it was time to roll up my sleeves. Under lockdown, I had plenty of time to review what I needed to do to bring work back to me – I’d let a few things slide for a while because when you are busy you’re often too busy to do marketing essentials. I also thought about what I didn’t want so I could make the big decisions. One thing I definitely didn’t want was to commute again. I’d worked at the newspaper one day a week, sometimes two, but the prospect of sitting on a train for 45 minutes each way in the middle of a pandemic was now unthinkable.

Despite the prospect of no income for goodness knows how long, I pledged to do a minimum two things every day that might generate work, and I also felt I could afford to spend a bit to earn a bit as I qualified for the government’s SEISS grant.

First, it was time to invest in a new website and logo. My then website was 10 years old and looked dated and unprofessional. Within a few weeks of launching my new look, my site analytics were showing increased visits and enquiries.

Next, it was time to up my CPD. First in my sights was the CIEP’s Medical Editing course, something I’d planned to do for a while but not got round to. Under lockdown I had time to get cracking. I completed the course in October and then paid for a freelance directory entry on a specialist network with the aim of finding medcomms work. That is starting to pay off.

As a member of the National Union of Journalists I have access to a huge suite of free courses run by the Federation of Entertainment Unions. In April I joined their webinars on Cash Flow Planning and Freelance Finance to get a quick grip on loss of income. These helped ease some of the financial stress I was experiencing. I also did the FEU’s Grow Your Business via Email Marketing webinar in August – it was both useful and inspiring. Within days I’d opened a Mailchimp account and am now sending a monthly newsletter to my clients. Late last year, I attended the FEU’s course on goal-setting. I’d never done this before, but I set two goals for this year and I’m reviewing them every month. One was to find three new long-term contracts – two of them found me in December.

There were other things – signing up to some paid-for freelancing newsletters that signpost work opportunities and yet more webinars, and joining a Slack community for journalists that was hugely valuable in providing camaraderie and support for lockdown stress and mental health.

Among my ‘two things a day’ pledge, this was a good time to update my various directory entries, including my CIEP one. I polished my CV and opted to spend more time on LinkedIn engaging with colleagues. I scoured job sites most days to look for freelance work. I got commissioned by a national newspaper to write a feature on being separated from my husband under lockdown. My NUJ branch also hired me to update my training courses on the business of freelancing and run them for branch members on Zoom.

The hard labour paid off and work has come back – in November I was fully booked for the first time since lockdown. And I learned the following:

Resilience matters: I’ve always been strong, and have bounced back from some of my life’s most challenging situations. I drew on that in 2020 to rebuild my business, bank balance and sanity. Never underestimate the power of keeping going – you’ll get to where you want to be eventually.

Envy is pointless: I felt irrationally furious at some colleagues who were still busy. Why them? Why not me? Especially the ones who’d only just started freelancing. But who knew what trouble they too might be in? For all I knew, just because they seemed busy, it didn’t mean they too weren’t struggling. I felt better when I let go of the envy and focused on building back.

It’s OK to ask for help: I’m not great at this, but I did. I was honest on social media, in the forums of my professional bodies and to friends offline about being in a hole and needing work. This helped keep my spirits up and some CIEP colleagues were kind enough to put work my way. I have since given interviews on how freelancers were hit and what I did to get back on my feet. I hope that helped others.

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin began her career in journalism, turning her attention to the editorial side after a decade. She still writes occasionally, but has been a freelance editor since 2005 and is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP. She specialises in working with companies on business documents, alongside copyediting a few books every year. An NUJ trainer on the business aspects of freelancing, she took her own advice when the pandemic struck.


Photo credits: empty train by Carl Nenzen Loven; small business fighting for survival by Gene Gallin on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns

It’s easy to get confused about reflexive pronouns. Cathy Tingle gets a sense of ‘self’ as she reviews how we refer to ourselves.

One of my favourite lines from a movie is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, where our protagonist turns to his casino table companion and says: ‘Allow myself to introduce … myself.’ In addition to the words, I love his visible effort in working out what to say after ‘introduce’. Of course there’s no other way forward for Austin than to repeat himself with ‘myself’.

Locating subject and object

The impulse to overuse reflexive pronouns is out there. In a #NoPainerExplainer tweet, the ever-helpful John Espirian sets out the rule for ‘myself’ (with useful graphics):

Use ‘myself’ when you’re the subject and the object: ‘I looked at myself.’ If someone or something else is the subject and you’re the object, use ‘me’: ‘Tony gave the Pringles to me.’ Don’t use ‘myself’ to sound formal.

Pringles, mmmm. What was I saying? Oh yes – John’s explainer is useful in two main ways. Firstly, it neatly captures the issue for Austin Powers – he treated what should have been the subject (‘me’) as the object. This applies to any sort of reflexive pronoun – it comes into play when the subject is also the object, and this -self or -selves word should be used to refer to the object only.

Secondly, John makes the point that people often use ‘myself’ to ‘sound formal’. This certainly applies to Austin Powers, and may also be behind the overuse of ‘yourself’, of which there seemed to be a proliferation among call handlers about a decade ago: ‘Can I talk to yourself about PPI today?’ In terms of where it might come from, people say ‘Your Honour’ to a judge, ‘Your Grace’ to an archbishop, ‘Your Majesty’ to the Queen precisely to avoid saying ‘you’. Perhaps the everyday use of ‘yourself’ for ‘you’ in sales teams is a trickle-down of this – after all, the customer is king.

Reflexive pronouns – how many?

But there are more reflexive pronouns than just ‘myself’ and ‘yourself’. The Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, edited by John Seely, lists nine: ‘myself, ourselves, yourself, yourselves, himself, herself, itself, oneself, themselves.’ David Marsh, in For Who the Bell Tolls, adds ‘a few variations such as the dialect thi’sen, the biblical “heal thyself” and the “royal we” ourself’.

Recently I was copy-editing a book that had been through more than ten editions. Its original plan was to alternate by chapter the gender of pronouns: in Chapter 1 ‘if a person sold her car …’, in Chapter 2 ‘he would be breaking the law if …’ and so on. However, with the addition of new chapters this system was starting to fall apart, so the author and I decided to use the singular ‘they’ throughout. It was going swimmingly, until I got to ‘himself’.

The only option, according to the lists in Seely and Marsh, would have been to replace ‘himself’ with ‘themselves’. But if we want it to be obvious that we are talking about one person, ‘themselves’ doesn’t always offer enough clarity. For example,

The killer-survivor will keep the property for themselves

could give the impression that the killer and survivor are two people. If the reader went back and reviewed the context, they would conclude that it is one person, but as our aim is to lessen the reader’s burden, this is hardly satisfactory.

The other issue is the jarring effect of an apparent lack of agreement between the subject and object. The subject is singular; the object seems to be plural. For example,

a person cannot have rights against themselves

raises in the reader a sense of dissonance they could do without when there is already enough to concentrate on in the meaning.

After riffling through the entirety of my reference shelf to find a solution to this conundrum, the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) offered a development:

[T]hemself (like yourself) may be used to signal the singular antecedent (though some people will prefer themselves).

This comparison of ‘themself’ and ‘yourself’ is useful. Perhaps Her Majesty’s ‘ourself’ falls into the same category.

Going online, I found ‘Themself is a perfectly cromulent word’ (at Conscious Style Guide), in which editor, trainer, columnist and SfEP Advanced Professional Member Sarah Grey argues ‘there’s no question’ that we need ‘themself’, not only to show the proper respect to people who want to use a gender-nonbinary pronoun but also for clarity. Citing instances of its use since the 15th century, Grey describes CMOS’s new rule about ‘themself’ as the word’s overdue ‘mark of acceptance into formal English’.

So I allowed myself to introduce ‘themself’ into the text. And, yes, it looked better, and seemed clearer. But I did let the author and proofreader know I’d done it, and why.

‘Advances in language help us envisage other ways of being,’ Grey concludes. It’s a vision that Carol Saller, former editor of the CMOS’s online Q&A section, echoes in her Times Literary Supplement review of Lane Greene’s Talk on the Wild Side, a book that depicts language as untameable, ‘a wild animal like a wolf, well adapted for its conditions and needs’. Saller writes that Greene’s anti-stickler view is ‘a tolerant and humane view of language that will unite, not divide’. Using language to move closer to each other? As Austin Powers might say, ‘Yeah, baby, yeah!’

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member, is a member of the CIEP’s information team and a tutor for Publishing Scotland. Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction copyediting.

 

 


This article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 edition of Editing Matters.


Photo credits: two kinds by Michał Parzuchowski; wrong way by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation

By Annie Jackson

Do you go cold when you hear the words ‘dangling participle’? Does the mere mention of a comma splice or a tautology make you anxious? Do you have a faint memory, perhaps from primary school, that people who write ‘proper’ English never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’? Perhaps you’ve been flummoxed by the terms used in the school materials that you’ve had to work with while homeschooling your children (you are not alone: see this article by the former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen).

Actually, you almost certainly know much more about grammar and punctuation than you realise. The ‘rules’ are often no more than old-fashioned preferences or prejudice, and may not be relevant anyway. It all depends on the text: a novel for young adults, an information leaflet for patients at a doctor’s surgery, or an annual report for a major company – each requires a very different approach. The tone in which the document is written, and the intended readership, will dictate how strictly grammar and punctuation rules should be applied.

If you work with words, in any capacity, and you feel that your knowledge could do with a brush-up, then the new online course from CIEP, Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation, could be just what you need.

Why both grammar and punctuation?

Let’s see how the Collins Dictionary defines grammar: ‘the ways that words can be put together in order to make sentences’. It defines punctuation as ‘the use of symbols such as full stops or periods, commas, or question marks to divide written words into sentences and clauses’.

This explains why these two subjects have to go hand in hand. Grammar is about putting words together; punctuation helps the reader to make sense of those words in the order in which they have been presented. Used well, the grammar and punctuation chosen should be almost imperceptible, so that nothing comes between the reader and the text. If they are used poorly, the reader will be confused, may have to go back over sentences as they puzzle out the meaning, and may eventually stop reading as it’s just too hard to figure out.

For the want of a comma …

Take this well-known example. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ is a friendly invitation for Granny to join the family meal. If you remove that tiny comma, the poor woman is at the mercy of her cannibal grandchildren.

More seriously, a misplaced comma can have huge legal and financial implications (see ‘The comma that cost a million dollars’ from the New York Times).

Poor grammar can have unintentional comic effects (dangling participles are particularly good for this, as you can see here). It could even affect your love life (see this Guardian article ‘Dating disasters: Why bad grammar could stop you finding love online’).

So it’s worth knowing the rules you must follow, and those that can sometimes be ignored.

Why this course?

Getting to Grips with Grammar and Punctuation is for anyone who works with words. It aims to:

  • clarify the basic rules of English grammar
  • clarify the rules of English punctuation
  • discuss some finer points of usage and misusage
  • explain the contexts in which rules should or need not be applied.

This course alternates units on grammar and punctuation, with two basic units followed by two that go into more detail. Each unit has several sets of short, light-hearted exercises on which you can test yourself to see how well you have taken in the information. The penultimate unit discusses finer points of usage, and finally, there are three longer exercises on which to practise everything you’ve learned from the course. There is no final assessment for the course, but every student is assigned a tutor and is encouraged to ask for their help if any questions arise as they work through it.

There is an extensive glossary of grammatical terms as well as a list of resources, in print and online, for further study. This includes a number of entertaining and opinionated books on grammar which will prove, if nothing else, that even the pundits don’t always agree.

By the end of this course, you should have a clear idea of some of the finer points (and many of the pitfalls) of English grammar and punctuation. You should have developed some sensitivity to potential errors, acquired greater confidence, and learned strategies to make any written work you deal with clearer, more effective, more appropriate and even, perhaps, more elegant. And we hope that you will have found it interesting and entertaining at the same time.

Annie Jackson has been an editor for longer than she cares to admit. She tutors several CIEP courses and was one of the team who wrote the new grammar course. Despite many years wrestling with authors’ language, and before that a classics degree, she realises there’s always something new to learn about grammar.

With thanks to the other members of the course team who contributed to this post.


Photo credits: books by Clarissa Watson on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.