Category Archives: A Finer Point

A Finer Point: Disappearing apostrophes

Could we do without apostrophes? Cathy Tingle tries to define what’s genuinely useful about them in this updated article from the archives.

Magnifying glass against blue background

The Apostrophe Protection Society (APS) announced it was to shut down in 2019. According to its founder, the late John Richards, it had been defeated by ‘the ignorance and laziness present in modern times’. Even post-APS, though, should the apostrophe be protected, or should we let it slip away into oblivion? Linguist Rob Drummond proposed that the APS’s demise was in fact ‘a victory for common sense and freedom’. After all, we constantly use possessives and contractions when speaking: ‘If something is ambiguous in speech, we rephrase so that it isn’t. We can easily do (and routinely already do) the same in writing. If we all took this view, we would be left with just a handful of genuinely useful apostrophes.’

Aha. So a ‘genuinely useful’ apostrophe is possible. Where could we find such a thing, so as to protect it?


The writer George Bernard Shaw famously eschewed apostrophes. David Crystal, in one of two chapters devoted to apostrophes in Making a Point, quotes him:

I have written aint, dont, havnt [sic], shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example, hell for he’ll.

It’s telling that GBS makes an exception for words that could confuse if their apostrophes are missing. Others that fall into this category might be Ill for I’ll; shell for she’ll; well for we’ll; cant for can’t; wont for won’t. Those last two are particularly unlikely to be mistaken in text; actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sentence where you genuinely can’t tell whether ‘she’ll’ or ‘shell’ is meant, either. But even if ‘Shell be coming round the mountain when she comes’ is understandable once you get a few words in, as editors we need to remember that we’re aiming to avoid even the slightest readerly confusion.


In August 2019 there was a story on the BBC website about the importance of apostrophe placement. Elizabeth Ohene reported: ‘The government has formally declared 4 August a public holiday to commemorate Founders’ Day – a celebration of those who founded the state of Ghana.’ What’s the big issue? Well, there had previously been a ‘Founder’s Day’, 21 September, instated by President Atta Mills to celebrate Kwame Nkrumah as the founder of Ghana. After Atta Mills lost the 2016 election, the new president decided that the group of people who started and led the fight for independence would instead be celebrated. Hence ‘Founders’ Day’. Not every placement of an apostrophe holds this political significance, but it is useful, and significant for those concerned, to know whether the presents under the tree are the girl’s gifts or the girls’ gifts.

James Harbeck, in an article urging us to ‘Kill the apostrophe!’, mentions another way a possessive apostrophe can be useful: ‘An apostrophe tells you that the whiskey maker is Jack Daniel, not Jack Daniels’, adding, ‘but most people get that wrong anyway.’ If Jack Daniel were still alive, though, it might matter to him that his name was rendered correctly on the bottle.


‘Apostrophes with a plural s? Never!’ you say (no doubt envisioning ‘carrot’s’ hastily written on a shop sign). Well – almost never. The only exception to this general rule is, in the words of Larry Trask, ‘the rare case in which you would need to pluralize a letter of the alphabet or some other unusual form which would become unrecognizable with a plural ending stuck on it’. Trask gives the examples of ‘Mind your p’s and q’s’ and ‘How many s’s are there in Mississippi?’, which reminds me of another example of this type, in a small book by Simon Griffin called Fucking Apostrophes: ‘How many i’s are there in Milli Vanilli?’

Anyway, back to the safety of Trask. He continues, ‘Note that I have italicized these odd forms; this is a very good practice if you can produce italics.’ New Hart’s Rules, in fact, gives an option of dropping the apostrophe in favour of the italics in such instances, which is rather clever, isn’t it, although it wouldn’t work with handwriting. Hart’s also gives an alternative suggestion: of using quotation marks rather than an apostrophe to separate the letter from the s:

subtract all the ‘x’s from the ‘y’s.

Back to reality

So that’s an area where apostrophes could be dropped. However, here we’re dealing with maybes. As Trask writes, although it’s ‘the most troublesome punctuation mark in English, and perhaps also the least useful … unfortunately the apostrophe has not been abolished yet … I’m afraid, therefore, that, if you find apostrophes difficult, you will just have to grit your teeth and get down to work.’

As ever, after having a bit of a grouch Trask goes on to offer some good, solid advice, particularly about the basics of apostrophe use. But it’s in Hart’s (from p. 70) that we find the real treasure trove, covering how to use apostrophes in all sorts of odd cases – including double possessives (‘a photo of Mary’s’), linked nouns, residences and places of businesses (‘going to the doctor’s’), and names ending in s (although note that the Chicago Manual of Style 17 [7.17–7.19] is different here, recommending s after every name – yes, even in Euripides’s: ‘though when these forms are spoken, the additional s is generally not pronounced’).

Knowing our limits

There is one area where Hart’s throws up its hands: ‘It is impossible to predict with any certainty whether a place or organizational name ending in s requires an apostrophe.’ No kidding. In St Albans (no apostrophe) is the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban, which, being ‘of St Alban’, is … St Albans Cathedral (also no apostrophe – eh?).

St Albans Cathedral

Waterstone’s rebranded in 2012, and in the process dropped its apostrophe. The APS called this ‘just plain wrong’ and ‘grammatically incorrect’. However, sometimes these decisions simply aren’t ours to make, and raging about them in public can give a bad name to the rest of us who work with words. One of the reasons Rob Drummond gives for ‘removing apostrophes altogether’ from our language is to vastly reduce ‘the pedantry arsenal’. But I’m not sure that’s the best reason. As Drummond describes, the pedants will just move on: ‘your average pedant will be forced to make do with old favourites such as split infinitives and insisting on the “correct” meaning of “decimate”.’ Or new favourites, perhaps, such as how people these days use ‘literally’ or ‘like’.

Language will evolve and apostrophes will change. They may even disappear in time. So, will we be seeing Harts, Fowlers and Butchers? Thatll be the day.


Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (2017). University of Chicago Press, sections 7.17–7.19.

Crystal, D (2016). Making a Point. Profile, chapters 28 and 29.

Drummond, R. Apostrophes: Linguistics expert imagines a happier world without them. The Conversation, 5 December 2019.

Griffin, S (2015). Fucking Apostrophes. Icon.

Harbeck, J. Kill the apostrophe! The Week, 11 January 2015.

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press, chapter 4.

Trask, RL. The apostrophe.

Trask, RL. Unusual plurals.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.


About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: magnifying glass by Markus Winkler on Unsplash, St Albans Cathedral by Beth Montague on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

A Finer Point: Placing modifiers

What are modifiers, and where should they be placed in a sentence? Cathy Tingle investigates.

One of the best ways to get a learning point to stick in your memory, I’ve found, is for it to feature in feedback from someone you respect – a peer or a tutor. It’s something about the combination of ‘Oh no, this person I respect thinks I’m doing this wrong’, ‘Oh no, I’ve been doing this wrong for ages, which means everyone must have noticed it’ and, if it’s feedback from a course you’re taking, ‘Oh no, this thing that I’ve been doing wrong has caused me to almost fail this assignment’. Mortifying, and therefore memorable. Something that has never left me from the CIEP’s Copyediting 2: Headway course is my tutor’s suggestion that I ‘struggled’ with ‘the placement of modifiers’ and this had lost me marks. She was right; in fact, I had paid virtually no heed to the placement of modifiers. What could have caused them to fall off my radar?

What is a modifier? Ask the kids.

In Making Sense, David Crystal introduces the principles of grammar through his observations of Susie, his young daughter, as she learned to talk. At the point at which Susie starts to apply adjectives to nouns (‘a silly hat’), Crystal remarks that she’s learned ‘that some words can be subordinate to other words, sharpening their meaning – making it more particular. Grammarians talk about one word modifying another or qualifying another’.

I find ‘modifier’ a useful term because you don’t need to specify if it’s an adjective, an adverb or anything else, like a participle. It can be a word, or, like most dangling modifiers, it can be a phrase. The important thing is that a modifier modifies: it ‘gives information about’ something else in a sentence.

My theory is that as we use modifiers in new ways, on social media and in other informal settings, or when chatting, we can become less strict about them. ‘What even is that?’ is a sentence my son has used since he was small. The adverb, ‘even’, applied to the ‘is’, is meant to express incredulity or surprise, it isn’t misplaced, and it adds an emphasis the speaker obviously feels is necessary. But it’s not the way I would have spoken as a child.

What can go wrong with modifiers?

So, when are modifiers wrongly placed? When either of the following happens.

  1. It’s unclear what they’re modifying.
  2. They appear to be modifying the wrong thing.

‘Coming out of the house, the street was festooned with bunting’ is a dangling modifier – the modifier (‘Coming out of the house’) dangles in the absence of a subject, and this allows misinterpretation. In this sentence it could read as if the street is coming out of the house. Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty suggests a funnier example, ‘Hiking the trail, the birds chirped loudly’, which sounds as if the birds were hiking. To fix it, you’d need to include the subject of the sentence – the person or people hiking – as near as possible to the modifier.

Modifiers that have been variously termed ‘squint’, ‘two-way’ and ‘shifty’ appear between two elements, either of which they might modify. In ‘my dog who growls often chases cats’ it’s unclear whether the dog growls often or chases cats often. To make the meaning clear, it’s simply a matter of moving the modifier away from the danger zone and closer to the element being modified, so it either reads ‘my dog who often growls chases cats’ or ‘my dog who growls chases cats often’.

Only seeking clarity

As with much of the work we do, then, clarity is what counts. Which other modifiers should we look out for when editing or proofreading? I’d recommend taking notice of ‘all’, which I often misplace when writing. But the one that many grammar and language books mention is ‘only’. As Benjamin Dreyer puts it: ‘a loosely placed “only” can distort the meaning of a sentence entirely’. Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, in The Copyeditor’s Handbook, advise that the rule is ‘to place the only directly before the noun, adjective, or verb it is to modify’ and they give a good example of the different meanings its placement can give:

Only CanDo Company works to serve the interests of its client.

CanDo Company works only to serve the interests of its client.

CanDo Company works to serve the interests of its only client.

These days, ‘only’ tends to be the modifier that sets off my copyeditor’s radar. But is this always necessary? Einsohn and Schwartz say that ‘language experts agree that the rule may yield to idiomatic expression’. Dreyer notes that ‘normal human beings front-load the word “only” at the beginning of a sentence’, as in ‘If you only see one movie this year …’. And Oliver Kamm cites musical cinema to suggest that ‘only’ should be placed according to the rhythm of the sentence: ‘The jazz song “I Only Have Eyes for You” … doesn’t imply that the other organs are uncaring.’ Merriam-Webster sums it up:

After 200 years of preachment the following observations may be made: the position of only in standard spoken English is not fixed, since ambiguity is avoided through sentence stress; in casual prose that keeps close to the rhythms of speech only is often placed where it would be in speech; and in edited and more formal prose only tends to be placed immediately before the word or words it modifies.

Hopefully keeping your reader happy

‘Hopefully’ is one of those words that some people very much dislike being placed at the beginning of a sentence (although I put it there all the time, I don’t know about you). Bill Bryson explains the problem:

Most of those who object to hopefully in its looser sense do so on the argument that it is a misused modal auxiliary – that is to say, that it fails to modify the elements it should. Take the sentence ‘Hopefully the sun will come out soon’. As constructed that sentence suggests (at least to a literal-minded person) that it is the sun whose manner is hopeful, not yours or mine.

So it’s a form of, what, dangling modifier, missing a subject? To be more precise, according to Dreyer it is a ‘disjunct adverb’ as it modifies ‘not any particular action in the sentence … but the overall mood of the speaker of the sentence’. ‘Hopefully’ is not the only disjunct adverb: ‘thankfully’ and ‘admittedly’ are examples of others. But, as Fowler’s puts it: ‘It is hard to think of another word which has provoked such revulsion and condemnation.’ Dreyer adds: ‘I’m not sure how “hopefully”, among all other disjunct usages, got singled out for abuse, but it’s unfair and ought not to be borne.’

In the end, it comes down to the reader, as it pretty much always does. Fowler’s concludes its introduction to the various uses of ‘hopefully’ with:

Among whatever audience you are writing for, there are bound to be people who detest this word, as opposed to the majority, who will probably pass over it without comment. You might therefore wish to consider how important the opinion of the detesters is.

Hopefully we ourselves are nearing a conclusion. If the placing of the modifier in a sentence isn’t causing any sort of ambiguity, consider your reader. If they are traditionalists (or tutors) be sure to place your modifier directly before the element it is modifying, and don’t use ‘hopefully’ in the sense of ‘it is hoped that’. But if not, you could perhaps leave things as they are. Just don’t let modifiers fall off your radar completely.


Bill Bryson (2016). Troublesome Words. Penguin.

David Crystal (2017). Making Sense. Profile.

Benjamin Dreyer (2019). Dreyer’s English. Random House.

Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz (2019). The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A guide for book publishing and corporate communications, 4th edition. University of California Press.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield (2015). 4th edition. Oxford University Press.

Grammar Girl. Misplaced Modifiers.

Oliver Kamm (2015). Accidence Will Happen. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Merriam-Webster. Placement of Only in a Sentence: Usage guide.

Walden University. Modifier Basics.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information team member.


About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: hat by Artem Beliaikin, kitten by Francesco Ungaro, sunshine by Lukas, all on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

A Finer Point: Compound issues

The hyphen – its inclusion or omission – is a useful marker of the evolution of language. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle tries to get a sense of the fast-moving hyphen landscape.

If you ask an editor or proofreader to reveal the punctuation mark they most agonise over on a daily basis, commas would no doubt feature. But I’d wager that deciding whether or not to include a hyphen in a compound phrase or word causes at least equal amounts of brainache. (Or should that be brain ache? Or brain-ache?)

The sorts of words and phrases that are under, or have at some point been under, what we might call the ‘hyphen radar’ of editors could be put into two main categories. The first the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) calls permanent compounds. These are in the dictionary (well, hopefully – see below), and can be open (‘ice cream’), closed (‘email’) or hyphenated (‘tear-jerker’). The second category of compounds is temporary. These are words joined for the communication of meaning at that moment. We are familiar with the hyphenated versions, usually used as modifiers – such as in ‘worst-dressed grammarian’ – but less familiar with open ones. The current CMOS (published in 2017) gives ‘impeachment hound’ (who can think why, recalling current affairs in America at the time?) as an example of the latter.

All these permutations are a lot to consider. Since I only have 1,000 words, I’m going to plump for looking at the hyphenation of permanent compounds.

Searching for answers

One of the most helpful, and entertaining, accounts of hyphens I’ve found is in David Crystal’s Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015), which devotes an entire chapter to their history and usage. But even here our introduction to these marks is somewhat daunting:

If I were to cover all variations in the use of the hyphen, I would have to write an entire dictionary, because each compound word has its own story. It is the most unpredictable of marks. Henry Fowler sums it up well in the opening sentence of his entry on hyphens in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage: ‘chaos’.

Oh, right. But maybe we could actually consult a dictionary to find out which words and phrases to hyphenate? Well, not so fast. Continuing with Crystal:

Changes in fashion are the main reason why the obvious solution to any question about hyphenation – look it up in a dictionary! – won’t always help.

He testifies how both ‘flower-pot’ and ‘flowerpot’ appear in the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and describes the carnage of ‘hyphengate’, when 16,000 items in the OED had their hyphens removed in 2007 to make open or closed compounds: ‘Reactions ranged from the hysterical to the bemused.’

So, what’s to be done? If a dictionary search yields nothing but confusion, Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006) has sensible advice:

Some subjects have a conventional usage, and some authors have strong views, so ask before imposing your own system. Introduce hyphens only to avoid ambiguity … and do not feel that similar words must be treated ‘consistently’, e.g. lifebelt, life-jacket.

The mark of progress

Before it became a solid compound in Oxford dictionaries, one word was seized on in 1997 by RL Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, as proof that some dictionaries (Oxford, Chambers) are more stuffy than others (Collins, Longman):

What about electro-magnetic versus electromagnetic? Collins and Longman confirm that only the second is in use among those who use the term regularly, but Oxford clings stubbornly to the antiquated and pointless hyphen.

Trask’s view illustrates the oft-noted evolution of compounds. CMOS devotes a numbered point to the phenomenon (7.83): ‘With frequent use, open or hyphenated compounds tend to become closed (on line to on-line to online).’ Or as Benjamin Dreyer puts it in Dreyer’s English (US version, Random House, 2019): ‘compounds have a tendency, over time, to spit out unnecessary hyphens and close themselves up’. We at the CIEP know the truth of this: in 2019 (as the SfEP) we decided to allow the spitting-out of the hyphen in ‘copy-editor’ and related words. Many other editing organisations and, indeed, editors, still use it, perhaps because it’s still Oxford style, but it will be interesting to see how long it is before the last ‘copy-editor’ is closed up.

Oh dear. With all that closing up and spitting out we’ve managed to make the evolution of language sound both mournful and faintly disgusting. Let’s move on by looking at how this evolution sometimes works to open up compounds. Butcher’s states: ‘Note that African American has no hyphen even when used as an adjective’ – an approach backed in the UK by the Oxford stable (eg the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) and in the US by CMOS. However, as late as 2018 it was necessary to issue a plea for the hyphen in such descriptors of racial heritage to be universally dispensed with. In ‘Drop the hyphen in Asian American’, Henry Fuhrmann commented:

Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American.

Finally, in 2019, as reported by the Conscious Style Guide in an updated introduction to Fuhrmann’s article, and to mutterings of ‘about time’, the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook dropped the hyphen in these terms and in 2021 the New York Times followed suit.

The risk of clinging on

We all have compound terms that look ‘right’ to us open, closed or hyphenated. Benjamin Dreyer laments the loss of the hyphen in email:

Doesn’t ‘e-mail’ look better and, more important, look like what it sounds like? But ‘email’ was happening whether I liked it or not, and, as in so many things, one can be either on the bus or under the bus.

It’s no coincidence that the evolution of language is accelerated with terms like ‘email’ and ‘online’. They’re tech terms, and many a dictionary has fallen foul of these. The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (published in 2014) still advises a capital ‘I’ for internet. Any organisation following this guidance in 2022 would be seen as either painfully out of touch or intentionally cultivating a charmingly olde-worlde identity. So in these cases organisations and their editors must strike out beyond the dictionaries, and this is just as well. Merriam-Webster in its usage note ‘Should that word have a hyphen?’ cites another example where dictionaries have found themselves under the bus:

One dictionary that shall not be named was a bit notorious for showing the headword Web site long after most of the civilized world was using website. They wised up, eventually.

The speed of change in language that describes tech, an area of our lives that already moves eye-wateringly fast, is necessarily brisk. So it’s up to working writers and editors to reflect this, as well as the evolution of language in other areas. The dictionaries will follow. After all, as Dreyer says, ‘the dictionary takes its cue from us: If writers don’t change things, the dictionary doesn’t change things’. He adds: ‘I hope that makes you feel powerful. It should.’


Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake and Maureen Leach. Butcher’s Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Conscious Style Guide.

David Crystal. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile, 2015).

Benjamin Dreyer. Dreyer’s English (Random House, 2019).

Henry Fuhrmann. Drop the hyphen in Asian American.

Merriam-Webster. Should that word have a hyphen?

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2014).

RL Trask. Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin, 1997).

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.


About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: ice cream by Candy Zimmermann, flowerpots by Scott Webb, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

A Finer Point: Capitals in titles – title case

Capitals for some words, lowercase for others, and what exactly is a preposition anyway? Cathy Tingle tries to navigate the nuances of title case in headings, and in the process discovers the importance of editorial judgement.

At the end of October 2021’s A Finer Point we were running breathlessly away from the surprisingly complicated zone of sentence case, with its proper noun, identity and emphasis landmarks, towards what we were hoping would be the more straightforward domain of title case. And, four months later, we’re finally here (quite a long run, that). Let’s take a look around.

Getting our bearings

It’s tricky to know what to call this place, as it has many names: maximal capitalisation, initial caps, title case, headline style, smart capitals.

Ah, well. Even if we can’t settle on a label, it should be fairly easy to identify the characteristics of the style. Let’s consult good old New Hart’s Rules on what it calls ‘maximal capitalization’. It says to capitalise ‘the first letter of the first word and of all other important words’. Hang on a minute – what does ‘important’ even mean? Don’t panic: Hart’s has a list.

Nouns, adjectives (other than possessives), and verbs are usually given capitals; pronouns and adverbs may or may not be capitalized; articles, conjunctions, and prepositions are usually left uncapitalized.

Oh. That’s two usuallys and a may or may not. Which suggests very strongly to me, friends, that where we are, in fact, is in the vast realm of editorial judgement.

How can we possibly hope to get our bearings, then, when it comes to title case? Well, let’s start by hanging on to something that at least appears solid by trying to identify what’s never capitalised – or pretty much never.

What not to capitalise

Right then, in general, unless they are the first word in the title don’t capitalise the following word types:

  • Articles: a, an, the.
  • Conjunctions: joining words, for example and, or, but, for, so.
  • Prepositions: words that express a relation to something, for example on, off, of, to, by.

Sounds simple. But actually it’s not. It’s with prepositions in particular that we run into difficulty, because they’re not all nice and short like the ones listed above. Some, like beneath, between, against, around, towards and within are much longer, and would look odd uncapitalised. Which is partly why some style guides have a rule that all words of four letters and longer should be capitalised. For others it’s five letters or longer. Chicago style, bravely (or perhaps with a certain unfussy genius) advises lowercase for all prepositions, regardless of length. Let’s see what Benjamin Dreyer, in Dreyer’s English, has to say about that:

If you say ‘prepositions are invariably to be lowercased’, as some indeed say, you’re going to be up against titles like Seven against Thebes or I Served alongside Rommel, and that certainly won’t do. The cleverer people endorse lowercasing the shorter prepositions, of which there are many, including ‘at’, ‘but’, ‘by’, ‘from’, ‘into’, ‘of’, ‘to’, and ‘with’, and capping the longer ones, like ‘despite’, ‘during’, and ‘towards’. I’ll admit that the four-letter prepositions can cause puzzlement – I’d certainly never cap ‘with’, but a lowercase ‘over’ can look a little under-respected.

Ah, sometimes capping a four-letter preposition, and sometimes not. Interesting and confusing at once.

But – and it’s a big but

To add to the intrigue, Dreyer then addresses but. I’ve listed it in the previous section as a conjunction, but, unfortunately for us, it is so much more. In fact, but is:

  • a conjunction (‘Yes, but no’)
  • a preposition (‘Everyone was using sentence case but me’)
  • an adverb (‘We are but four sections from the end of the article, so hang in there’)
  • or a noun (‘But – and it’s a big but’, although that phrase always makes my 9-year-old son chortle, as if the second but, the noun, is furnished with an extra t. (Eye roll.) If you’d prefer a less snigger-triggering example, Dreyer gives ‘no ifs or buts about it’.)

But is only one of many words that fit into various word-type categories. There are also, as Dreyer points out, such things as phrasal verbs, which are likely to contain a word you’d usually lowercase (‘Oh, Come On!’ we might shout back exasperatedly, if it were possible to shout in title case).

What to capitalise

Before we bid farewell to Benjamin Dreyer for now, we must note that he would always capitalise the last word, as well as the first word, of a heading in title case, as would Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, authors of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, which contains an excellent section on headline style. Predictably, this isn’t a universal rule.

However, capitalising nouns, adjectives and verbs in title case is pretty much a sure thing. As this should be fairly self-explanatory it’s only left to me to remind you that ‘be’ and ‘is’, though small words, are verbs and should always be capitalised … ah, unless in exceptional cases, such as those outlined in a recent CMOS Shop Talk article which explored whether ‘Is’ should always be capitalised in titles, or to conform to a style decision not to capitalise forms of the verb ‘to be’, a feature of Intelligent Editing’s Smart Capitals style.

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a headache.

Books on a bookshelf

What else now?

Stuck in the middle, according to Hart’s at least, are pronouns and adverbs, the may or may nots of a title. So, just a reminder of what they are:

  • Pronouns are stand-in words and phrases for a name or names, from they to Her Majesty (which is actually capitalised for quite another reason, but you get the idea). Some are short enough to seem unimportant: he, it, but in general they are capitalised.
  • Adverbs answer questions such as ‘how?’ ‘when?’ and ‘where?’. They modify verbs, adjectives, prepositions, determiners, other adverbs, and sometimes whole clauses and sentences. Examples are happily, then and quite. Adverbs generally have at least four letters but the two-letter as can also be an adverb, as in ‘title case is different from sentence case, and just as annoying’.

Why might we not capitalise these words? One reason might be aesthetics. We’ll consider this in a minute, but first let’s look at colons and hyphens.

Capitalising after colons and hyphens

Say you’re applying maximal capitalisation style to a title and there’s a colon, and after it is an article. What do you do then? In many styles you’d capitalise whatever word follows a colon, even if it’s a word that you wouldn’t usually capitalise:

Title Case: A Miserable Exploration

So there’s one more complication for you. Sorry.

How should we treat text after a hyphen? Many of us are used to seeing that lowercase e after the hyphen in the title of Butcher’s Copy-editing (last published in 2006), and reflecting that it must be like that for a reason and therefore maybe we’d better do the same, although some of us have closed up the hyphen in ‘copy-editing’ in our own communications (because of this exact issue? Er, maybe) so we don’t have to make this decision any longer. However, it’s worth remembering that even though Butcher’s is a titan in its field, it’s still produced within a house style, and house style should always be your first port of call for such decisions. But if it doesn’t cover this point? Hart’s says:

When a title or heading is given initial capitals, a decision needs to be made as to how to treat hyphenated compounds. The traditional rule is to capitalize only the first element unless the second element is a proper noun or other word that would normally be capitalized … In many modern styles, however, both elements are capitalized.

You could imagine this working with ‘Copy-Editing’, as both parts of this compound can stand alone as words, but what about when there’s a prefix before the hyphen, such as ‘Re-’, ‘Ex-’ and ‘Co-’? In a recent discussion on the CIEP forums Sue Littleford gave an alternative to modern-style capping: ‘The guidance I usually follow … is to cap the second part if the first part can stand alone, and if not, not.’

The final judgement

Say we’ve capitalised our nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns and adverbs, and lowercased our articles, conjunctions and prepositions, and we’ve made any necessary exceptions according to our style guide. What’s the final arbiter for decision making about capitals? In the end, both Hart’s and Dreyer defer to how things look. Dreyer talks of the ‘visual euphony’ that might influence a decision to capitalise (or not), and this is what Hart’s says:

Exactly which words should be capitalized in a particular title is a matter for individual judgement, which may take account of the sense, emphasis, structure, and length of the title. Thus a short title may look best with capitals on words that might be left lower case in a longer title.

To retain some semblance of consistency, review your titles against each other in a list, which you can do in Word (left-hand navigation pane) or simply by copying and pasting them into a separate document and studying them hard. Then try your best to articulate the basis of your decisions on the style sheet for those who follow you in the process. Doing this will help you, too.

If you’re working in a US style, a miraculous link was posted on the CIEP forums a few weeks ago that can act a good basic guide to capitalising in title case (particularly after hyphenation), though, like everything to do with title case it seems, it shouldn’t be seen as absolutely conclusive. But that might be a good thing. In an increasingly automated arena, assessing the nuances of capitalisation could be one of the final areas that will stay firmly within the realm of editorial judgement.


CMOS Shop Talk. ‘Is “Is” Always Capitalized in Titles?’,

Benjamin Dreyer (2019), Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. Penguin Random House UK, pp. 248–51.

Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz (2019), The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A guide for book publishing and corporate communications. University of California Press, pp. 185–7.

Intelligent Editing, ‘Capitalization of Headings’,

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press; section 8.2.3

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle holds the variously capitalised titles of CIEP Advanced Professional Member, copyeditor, proofreader, tutor and CIEP information team member.



About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: bookshelf 1 by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash, bookshelf 2 by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

A Finer Point: The vocative comma

Cathy Tingle updates a column of Christmas past for a festive reminder of what one kind of comma can teach us.

As I am an editor, my favourite Christmas carol – obviously – is ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ because of the vocative comma (the one before ‘Gentlemen’). This type of comma is particularly important in creative works, as I discovered a few years ago when I cast my eye over a friend’s unedited novel and encountered characters being addressed directly without this comma: ‘I really don’t know Marion’, ‘Did you see Marion?’ (Marion was the addressee in both) and ‘Trying to sober up Richard?’ (as Richard was asked at the end of a party). The meaning conveyed in each case is quite different from what the writer was intending, as in the old classic ‘Let’s eat Grandma’.

A multitude of angels – sorry, angles

Commas cause most people who work with words to pause for thought now and then, and they can’t possibly be covered in one short column. Why? Because there is just so much to say. Larry Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, divides the comma population firmly into four types: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas. In his recent CIEP guide on punctuation Gerard M-F Hill takes on the brave task of simplifying Trask’s model, and consequently gives the comma ‘with minor exceptions … two functions in prose’: isolating and listing. But it takes an action-packed 22-page chapter to elaborate fully on these functions and their exceptions.

Elsewhere, John Seely, in the Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, identifies seven roles for commas if we omit their use in numbers. And The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) devotes sections 6.16–6.55 – that’s 40 sections – to them.

Even if we could square up these various ideas about how many uses commas have (and it’s tough: Fowler’s deals with this by following New Hart’s Rules), comma use is, according to David Crystal in Making a Point, sometimes simply a matter of taste, because it’s linked to psycholinguistics. ‘One person says, “I need a comma to make the meaning of this sentence clear”; another finds the same sentence perfectly understandable without a comma. It’s because they have different processing abilities.’

So, because things are hectic enough at this time of year, how about we look at just one type of comma, the vocative, which many experts including Seely and Trask don’t even cover directly? Who knows, it might tell us a small thing about commas in general.

Merry gentlemen, or not so much?

Back we go, then, to ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’. This is interesting because, of course, it’s often rendered as ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen’, and indeed I spent my childhood picturing a group of jolly old chaps. (My friend Judith spent her childhood thinking that the lyrics included the words ‘to save us all from Santa’s power’ – it’s ‘Satan’s power’ – but that’s another story.)

In fact, ‘rest you merry’ used to be a recognised phrase, meaning ‘rest well, be happy’. Dickens, in A Christmas Carol (1843), actually changed the title to ‘God Bless You Merry Gentleman’, in the words of a boy singing outside Scrooge’s door. There’s no comma at all in my 1946 edition, which isn’t to say Dickens didn’t put one in the original, but the point is that he made ‘God Bless You’ the unbreakable phrase in this line (and those who punctuate before ‘Merry’ are making ‘God Rest You’ the unbreakable phrase), whereas ‘God Rest You Merry’ is the title’s original unbreakable phrase and so the comma should follow that. As we wrote about this carol’s title in last year’s festive CIEP quiz, ‘if you’re interested in the impact of punctuation, it’s an interesting exercise to omit the vocative comma, then move it slowly up the sentence from the end, displaying its power to change meaning’. There you are – something to do once the presents are opened on Christmas Day.

‘“No punctuation” is the ultimate marker of semantic tightness’, as David Crystal says in Making a Point. Commas create breaks between words, to put it simply, and if there’s no comma we tend to read the words as one block. There’s something about the special confusion experienced in response to the lack of a vocative comma that makes you appreciate this fully.

If you’d like to further explore the comma nuances in ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’, complete with a cappella musical accompaniment, may I recommend to you a short video, new for the 2021 festive season, by RamsesThePigeon. It really is a gift.

No comma, no confusion

But what if the lack of a comma before a name doesn’t cause confusion? One thing the vocative comma has been suffering from is a sense that it has become non-essential in phrases like ‘Hi John’. Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl), in The Grammar Devotional, valiantly tries to explain why it’s necessary in such cases:

In Hi, John you are directly addressing John, which means the punctuation rules of direct address apply. From a comma-rules standpoint, Hi, John is no different from Thanks for coming, John or Wow, John, what were you thinking?

Yet the comma after ‘Hi’ is used less and less. In November 2019, Ellen Jovin of @grammartable lamented on Twitter: ‘If people I communicated with still used vocative commas after “hi,” I would have continued to use them. But they look at me as though I have three dangling participles if I even bring up such a thing.’ Are we losing the vocative comma in this formulation because there is very little scope for misunderstanding without it, as with 2019’s giddy pre-Covid inter-generational put-down ‘OK Boomer’? Whatever else you thought of it, and however you capitalise it, this phrase is certainly not punctuated. So perhaps we’re slowly discarding all punctuation except what’s absolutely necessary for comprehension.

A simple lesson

I still keep in touch with my high-school English teacher, now in his mid-80s, and as you might expect, along with the chat about how my kids and his grandkids are doing, occasionally punctuation comes up. In a letter in 2019, he said, ‘I used to try to teach various classes that punctuation was in many instances more important than spelling: I could make out that “ejog” (as I had to once) was meant to be “hedgehog” from the material round about, but if the punctuation was misplaced or non-existent the sense was lost.’ He continued by revealing his tried-and-tested example: ‘I tended to use “Stop Toby” (our dog) v. “Stop, Toby”.’ Well, then: perhaps the vocative comma can teach where no other comma types can reach. With my own vocative comma firmly in place, it only remains for me to wish you a lovely festive season, everyone.

An earlier version of this column was published in Editing Matters, Jan/Feb 2020. CIEP members can access all issues of Editing Matters in the archive.


The Chicago Manual of Style (2017). 17th edition. University of Chicago Press.
David Crystal (2016). Making a Point. Profile, 2016.
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol (1946); reprint Penguin 1984.
Mignon Fogarty (2009). The Grammar Devotional. St. Martin’s Press.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield (2015). 4th edition. Oxford University Press.
Gerard M-F Hill (2021). ‘Punctuation: A guide for editors and proofreaders.’ CIEP guide.
New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press.
RamsesThePigeon. ‘Where Is the Comma in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Supposed to Go?’ YouTube video.
John Seely (2020). Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation. Oxford University Press.
RL Trask (1997). Penguin Guide to Punctuation. Penguin.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle is a copyeditor, tutor and member of the CIEP’s information team.



About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A Finer Point: Capitals in titles – sentence case

Applying sentence case to titles is as straightforward as applying capital letters to sentences: more complicated than it first appears. Cathy Tingle considers proper nouns, identity and emphasis to investigate why we might add capitals in sentence case.

In some areas of editing and proofreading several tricky issues converge. You have two options with these: try wherever possible to avoid them, or tackle them head-on. Other brave, sparky, go-ahead souls will do the latter without question. I invariably start with the former and then slide into the latter when I’m well and truly cornered and I have to write a column or something.

I find capitalising titles and headings tricky. For a long time I preferred the idea of nice simple sentence case over horrid complicated title case where you have to consider nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions and capitalise accordingly. All that grammar packed into one style! No thanks. But the more I’ve edited the more I’ve realised that capitalising every type of word except conjunctions and articles, and sometimes prepositions, is often a more straightforward prospect than working with sentence case. Why?

What is sentence case?

Sentence case is also called essential caps, minimum caps and uclc (upper case lower case). In this style you capitalise as you would in a sentence – apply a capital letter to the first letter of the first word, and then add caps as you would to a sentence in text.

Sounds lovely and simple. So what’s the problem? The problem, my friends, is that sentences in text aren’t all that easy to capitalise, because of proper nouns and words you might cap for other reasons such as to emphasise something or convey a particular meaning. Let’s look at why we might capitalise in a sentence.

Proper nouns

Sometimes it helps to think of a capital as, literally, a cap. Perhaps with a feather. A fancy cap that we put on a proper noun to distinguish it from a general one. We use capitals to make it clear that we mean:

  • Turkey the country, not turkey the bird
  • the Next shop, the branch of a well-known UK brand, not the next shop, the one we’re just going to
  • a Guide, a member of the Guide Association, not a guide, another person or thing that might accompany you somewhere.

Capitals are also really useful to distinguish the many names that, uncapped, are English words: first names such as Amber, Bill, Cliff, Jasmine, Lance, Pinky or Pat, and myriad surnames including Smith, Gill, Bond and, er, Tingle.

Recently I saw a reference in the news to ‘Labour and co-operative politician Tracy Brabin’, which needed a capital C for ‘Co-operative’ to make it clear it wasn’t describing her manner but naming the political party (Co-operative Party) she was affiliated with. So, yes, for the most part we capitalise proper nouns, and for good reasons.

Cool, cool. But what about words and terms like ‘government’ and ‘marketing manager’? The convention is to keep these lower case in a general sense (‘the government believes’, ‘the marketing manager presents’) and capitalise them only as part of an official title: ‘Government of the United Kingdom’ or ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ and ‘Jay Patterson, Marketing Manager’.

However, bear in mind this point in New Hart’s Rules: ‘Capitals are sometimes used for a short-form mention of a title of a specified person, organization, or institution previously referred to in full.’ Examples are then given including ‘the Ministry’, ‘the Centre’s policy’ or ‘the University statute’. Note the ‘sometimes’. NODWE hedges similarly when talking about terms like ‘king’ and ‘queen’: ‘king cap. in titles (King Henry) and often the King, but king of the Visi-goths’; ‘queen cap. in titles (Queen Jane) and often the Queen, but queen of Castile’. So what is meant by ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’ in these mysterious entries? Style, that’s what. From here, your style sheet is your guide (not Guide, which, as we’ve discovered, is quite different). Your next requirement is consistency. (Had it been your Next requirement, it might have been a nice top.)

Honouring identity

Capitals also acknowledge identity. That’s why the Associated Press (AP) changed its style last summer ‘to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa’, adding, ‘We also now capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place.’ Many publications, organisations and individuals worldwide have followed AP’s lead. The Guardian’s style guide, at the time of writing, capitalises ‘Indigenous’ when referring to ‘Indigenous Australians’ and ‘Indigenous people in Canada’ but does not yet capitalise ‘black’, with the following vital qualification: ‘If a subject, writer or editor of a story prefers to use Black then that choice should be respected.’

The choices of other communities need to be respected, too. Should you apply a capital to the word ‘deaf’, for example? The charity SignHealth explains the distinction it makes in its own communications between ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’:

The word deaf is used to describe or identify anyone who has a severe hearing problem. Sometimes it is used to refer to people who are severely hard of hearing too. We use Deaf with a capital D to refer to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started to learn to talk … It is an important distinction, because Deaf people tend to communicate in sign language as their first language … There is a very strong and close Deaf community with its own culture and sense of identity, based on a shared language.

As an editor or proofreader, it’s more than likely the decision to capitalise words that acknowledge identity will not in fact be yours to make, but the decision of the subject, author or style guide. Your job is to help ensure that the right people are being approached for these decisions. If you don’t think they are, that’s when you raise your hand.

Capitalising for emphasis

Now we come to Pooh Caps (there’s a phrase better written than said), the practice of capitalising Particularly Important Words. Here are Pooh Caps in action in The House at Pooh Corner: ‘When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.’ The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) calls such capitalisation ‘pomposity’, but I’m not so sure. In social media in particular, it’s a thing (or a Thing) when it’s used with a particular intention. Sure, our work as editors and proofreaders is usually to uncapitalise words and terms such as ‘physics’, ‘school’ and ‘psalm’ – and I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that most common nouns assigned caps incorrectly by authors are those that are capitalised in other circumstances (‘Department of Physics’; ‘Snodsbury School’, ‘Book of Psalms’), and of course, just to keep things interesting, we have the proper-noun short-form consideration in Hart’s mentioned a couple of sections above. But sometimes the capital is being used for emphasis, and occasionally this is valid. Pooh uses caps for his own title ‘Bear of Very Little Brain’, and for the words that are important to him – thinking of a thing is a major event, and thinking of a thingish thing particularly so. Let’s pay attention to Pooh’s voice. Again, I’m glad I’ve written that sentence, not spoken it.

Pooh Caps are mentioned in Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet as an earlier version of ironic capitals, which she describes in an article about sarcasm on the internet: ‘Capitalizing Unimportant Words imposes a certain level of ironic detachment. Adding (TM) or periods between each word is optional but extra effective.’ In Because Internet, McCulloch asserts that even at Pooh Corner caps were used for irony: ‘“You’re a real friend,” said he. “Not like Some,” he said.’

However, people on Twitter aren’t displaying ironic detachment when they present their dogs as, for example, a Very Good Girl. They’re assigning a title to their pets, and a well-deserved one, no doubt. As ever, context, format and meaning have to be taken into account in this 3D chess we call editing.

Bring on title case

So, where does this leave us? Running headlong towards title case, that’s where. I’ll cover this style in a later Finer Point column.


AP (2020). Explaining AP style on Black and white.

Gretchen McCulloch (2019). Because Internet. Riverhead.

AA Milne (1928). The House at Pooh Corner. Methuen & Co.

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press; chapter 5, Capitalization.

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2014). Oxford University Press.

SignHealth. What is the difference between deaf and Deaf?

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle is an Advanced Professional Member who wears three (non-feathered) hats: copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information commissioning editor.



About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credit: Postage stamp showing Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Piglet by Andy Lidstone /

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A Finer Point: On the list

They’re lurking in most documents and they can contain pitfalls. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle looks at common problems with lists in body text, from punctuation to miscounting. The article covers:

  • Why pay attention to in-text lists?
  • Insufficient punctuation
  • ‘And’
  • ‘As well as’
  • ‘Both’
  • First … secondly … fourth
  • Mistakes in counting

In editing any document, you will usually come across an attempt to present more than one piece of information in a serial fashion – in other words, to create a list. You can easily detect a bulleted or numbered list trotting towards you, like a reliable but sometimes unkempt pony, so you can be ready to battle (or perhaps groom) it with your own checklist: is there consistency with other lists? Is there consistency in capitalisation and punctuation? What about agreement of lead-in text with all points, particularly those at the end? And so on. New Hart’s Rules and Butcher’s Copy-editing can help you build a checklist for grooming your ponies – I mean, for improving your vertical lists.

But lists in body text can sneak up on you, like a silent flock of sheep. Why does this matter? Because if you recognise an in-text list, you can look for its likely problems. Here are five issues I frequently come across.

1. Insufficient punctuation

If the author is underusing punctuation, here is where your most effective (yet subtle) work as an editor can be done. This text is based on a past project:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

An urgent question is whether Aristotle was the farrier and Derek the castle steward (sure, there could have been an ‘a’ before ‘castle’ if so, but …). Adding a comma after Aristotle, which the author confirmed was correct, starts to make things clearer:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle, and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

However, this is still not an easy sentence to understand. Is it obvious who has which role? Time to bring in the semicolons:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’); the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle; and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

2. ‘And’

It helps to make sure that there are enough ‘and’s, so that many ‘and’s make light work of comprehension (*snigger*). Also, keep your eye on phrasing:

The pony groom had a wooden brush, colourful ribbons and displayed her certificate on the wall.

This is not one list. There are two phrases in the sentence, so the first needs an ‘and’ and a comma at the end for clarity:

The pony groom had a wooden brush and colourful ribbons, and displayed her certificate on the wall.

3. ‘As well as’

These days on national radio it’s quite common to hear constructions such as ‘England, Northern Ireland, Scotland as well as Wales’. But ‘as well as’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. It heralds an addition to a list rather than its final item, so you need ‘and’ as well as ‘as well as’, as in this sentence, which conveys that although Wales has lovely beaches, so do England, Northern Ireland and Scotland:

England, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as Wales have lovely beaches.

 And if you simply want to list the four nations, replace ‘as well as’ with ‘and’:

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

4. ‘Both’

‘Both’ should be employed when it makes ‘and’ stronger (‘she was both accurate and fast’). However, as one of our Advanced Professional Members remarked in a 2018 CIEP (then SfEP) forum post, some less experienced writers use it ‘whenever they mention two things’.

As this member also pointed out, you need to make sure that ‘both’ refers to two items, not three or four. I’ve seen ‘both’ combined with another word that should only precede two things, to list three: a professional ‘doubled as both actor, artist and musician’.

5. ‘First … secondly … fourth’

If you see ‘first’, immediately locate ‘second’ (remember, don’t allow ‘secondly’ unless you have ‘firstly’), and make sure all subsequent flagging words proceed in the right order with no absences. If this threatens to get out of control (more than five points can be unwieldy), suggest a numbered list.

6. Mistakes in counting

It almost seems too obvious, but if an author says there are five items in their list, make sure that five there are. Things get added, things get cut, and the author forgets that they have mentioned, a few paragraphs up, that they will present five items … wait, I think I may have done this myself …

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information commissioning editor.



About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: pony by Tim Riesner; wooden brush and horse by Chris Bair, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A Finer Point: The dos and don’ts of dos and don’ts

Some very simple expressions can cause a quandary out of proportion to their size and frequency of use. In this article from the Finer Point archives, Luke Finley looks at one such phrase that often tests us. His article covers:

    • Discussions about dos and don’ts
    • Dos and don’ts
    • Do’s and don’ts
    • ‘Do’s and ‘don’t’s
    • Rules

This column is usually about the dos and don’ts of grammar – or, more accurately, the dos, don’ts, maybes and maybe-nots. This time round, it’s about the phrase dos and don’ts itself. It might seem a rather narrow concern, but it can cause confusion: I counted at least seven discussions on it in Facebook editors’ groups in the last couple of years. So, what are the options?

Dos and don’ts

The least-punctuated version is my preference. If you have more than one do, it seems natural to call them dos. The Oxford English Dictionary, the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Guardian style guide and Bill Bryson are all happy with this. That’s authoritative enough for me.

But, admittedly, the drawback is that dos looks more like it should rhyme with boss than with booze, which may bring the reader up short. Hence the other options …

Do’s and don’ts

Some people who would turn the colour of beetroot at a sign reading ‘beetroot’s £2/kg’ nevertheless favour an apostrophe here. But while it seems to go against a basic rule of English, there are some comparable examples where this is accepted (by some!). Grammar Girl points to the phrase Mind your p’s and q’s, and the two a’s, not as, in aardvark. And some style guides agree: the widely used Associated Press guide, for example, prefers do’s and don’ts.

You might be thinking that if you’re going to apostrophise do’s, the other word should be treated the same way: don’t’s. If so, Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots and Leaves) agrees with you. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s an argument in favour of it or not.

‘Do’s and ‘don’t’s

There’s a logic to this version. It overcomes the pronunciation issue without resorting to greengrocers’s apostrophe’s. It also arguably makes semantic sense: these ‘do’s are instances of someone saying ‘do X, Y and Z’, hence the quotation marks. On the other hand, you may feel, as I do, that it looks like someone’s gone wild with a salt-shaker full of punctuation marks. And just imagine it with double quote marks …


So there’s no hard-and-fast rule here, but as usual that doesn’t mean people don’t have some strong opinions about what looks and sounds right. As US editor Jake Poinier commented in a Facebook discussion on the usage, ‘50% of readers are going to think it’s wrong, no matter which you choose’.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Editing Matters.

Read more from the Finer Point archives

Read my ellipsis by Riffat Yusuf

Commas: the chameleon conundrum by Luke Finley

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns by Cathy Tingle

About Luke Finley

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.



About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:


Photo credits: beetroots by Nick Collins on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

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.

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 copyediting 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 CIEP 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.