Category Archives: Language

A finer point: British and US styles

Editing between British and US styles can be less straightforward than expected. Cathy Tingle explores a few of the trickier aspects of switching between the two.

‘Never assume: it makes an ass out of u and me’ is a phrase from salaried working life that rattles around my head as a freelance editor. In the early noughties it was my boss’s waggish response when one of the team said ‘I assume that …’. But it’s gained new significance with editing experience. Nothing is set in stone. It might even be different to how I’d always imagined.

US style: Firm ground or shifting sands?

US style is one example. It’s common for British editors to be asked to edit in US style, or into it. With the first, you’re on firmer ground. The overriding style is likely sound, most of the decisions already made for you. When you need to decide on something, you do it based on what else you’re aligning with, author preference and general convention. Easy.

But if you’re editing into US style it’s less easy, for two reasons that David Crystal outlines in ‘Regional variation’, chapter 20 of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. First, with global communications and shared culture, the linguistic boundaries between US and British English are becoming blurred with loanwords and spelling variants. And, second, there was never one ‘US style’. As with British style, there have always been variations, including regional ones.

Why style matters

Readers are less awake than editors to the style of whatever they’re reading, although most will know which side of the Atlantic it comes from. What they can detect, however, is a lack of stylistic coherence. Inconsistency jars, and it can slowly but surely destroy the reader’s trust in the text, even if the reader isn’t sure why. There will just be a general sense of shoddiness, which could then find its sorry way into an unfavourable Amazon review.

Correspondingly, most editorial professionals will know the main differences between UK and US style: spelling, punctuation, the formatting of dates and times. But there are more nuanced differences. And you can’t assume there will always be a difference. You might think that dialog and catalog are the US version of dialogue and catalogue because you saw those spellings once in some US content, but in the US’s Merriam-Webster dictionary, dialogue is listed first as more common than dialog. And then it gets more complicated: Merriam-Webster lists catalog first. This means that The Chicago Manual of Style, as it ‘usually prefers the first-listed entries at Merriam-Webster.com’ (CMOS 7.1), uses dialogue and catalog too. So we can’t even rely on the easy assumption that if the end of one word behaves in one way, the end of a similar word will do the same thing.

US style: flags

Toward/s an answer

How about towards and toward? The answer seems straightforward: towards is UK style; toward is US, right? When someone asked about the difference on the CIEP online forums recently, that’s what I said, because it’s what I’d always … ah … assumed. I was soon corrected, with a link to a previous forum thread that cited a Merriam-Webster article. This article concluded: ‘If you’re an American, you can use either toward or towards, depending on what sounds more natural to you. There are those who will claim that towards in American English is wrong, but it’s really a matter of preference.’ So, not so straightforward.

There are certain spellings that are famously different in UK and US styles: colour/color, centre/center, travelling/traveling, mould/mold. But some US spellings we might miss when editing US text into British English, and some British spellings we might miss when translating into US style.

Nouns kerb (British) and curb (US) can cause problems. If you’re talking about restraining something, or reining it in, you should always use curb in both British and US styles. So we might not realise the noun curb is in US style because we see it as a verb in British English. And because in the UK we’re used to seeing the noun practice, people get confused about the spelling of the verb in British English, often mistakenly using a c.

Keep your eyes open

The key is awareness of all the tricky differences between UK and US styles. These also cover variations of vocabulary and different systems of measurement.

Would you notice truck rather than lorry in a piece? Or morgue rather than mortuary? The BBC, after mentioning these examples, singles out rooster in its news style guide: ‘we should not use the word “rooster” instead of “cockerel” for a story about a “cockerel” based in France’, but as rooster is used in British contexts – it’s the name of a UK banking service for children, for example – it’s easy to miss. Similarly, if you’re used to hearing about monster trucks from a young relative, it’s hard to remember that the UK version is lorry.

US style: woman with magnifying glass

Measurements are important to get right – a mistake could ruin a recipe or, worse, overdose a patient – but in the UK and the USA the same or a similar word can represent a different quantity or weight. A UK pint is 20 fl oz. A US pint is 20% less liquid, at 16 fl oz. You might think: ‘Yes, and a billion in the UK is a US trillion.’ You’d have been right a few decades ago, but now US and British billions and trillions are aligned. Make sure you keep up to date, and know the exceptions, too: in some European countries, billions still mean the same thing as US (and now British) trillions.

Do your homework

All this matters. When converting British style to US style or US to British, or when editing in US style if you’re British, you need to understand all the possible variants. Start with a basic list from your favourite usage guide, then add to it. New Hart’s Rules contains a detailed account of the differences. Part 2 of the Economist Style Guide is about American and British English. The CIEP has a fact sheet on the differences. Keep Merriam-Webster open in your internet tabs. But dig deeper, too. Lynne Murphy’s The Prodigal Tongue will remind you that differences are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

Finally, when we assume, is the ‘ass’ it makes out of you and me ‘a fool’, ‘a donkey’ or – you know – a ‘rear end’, that common US slang definition now increasingly used in British English? That question alone should be enough to send you hunting for a second opinion from reference books, dictionaries and colleagues whenever you’re working between different Englishes.

Resources

BBC Style Guide. Americanisms. bbc.co.uk/newsstyleguide/all/#a

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

CIEP (2021). Common style differences between British and US English. Fact sheet. ciep.uk/resources/factsheets/#BUE

Crystal, David (2019). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. 3rd edition. CUP.

Economist Style Guide (2018). 12th edition. Profile Books.

Merriam-Webster. Is it ‘toward’ or ‘towards’? merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/toward-towards-usage

Murphy, Lynne (2018). The Prodigal Tongue. Oneworld.

New Hart’s Rules (2014). OUP.

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: header image by Clkr-Free-Vector-Images on Pixabay, shelves by freestock on Unsplash, woman with magnifying glass by Clément Falize on Unsplash.

Posted by Belinda Hodder, blog assistant.

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

A finer point: Abbreviations

Used well, abbreviations add clarity, reducing clutter so readers can concentrate on the meaning of a text. In this article, Cathy Tingle looks at the basics of abbreviation.

An abbreviation, a shortening, can be a wonderful device that saves time, effort and space. If in the 1974 hit ‘Killer Queen’ Freddie Mercury had sung ‘Dynamite with a light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation beam’, it wouldn’t have got to number 2 in the UK pop charts. With that wording, it would struggle to reach even the end of the song in a timely fashion.

‘Laser’, the word actually used in the lyrics (thank goodness), is an acronym. But how is an acronym different from an initialism? And how does the punctuation of a contraction differ from that used with an abbreviation? (Hang on, isn’t every shortening an abbreviation?)

It’s important to understand the different types of abbreviation because it might be necessary to style them differently. In his CIEP guide to punctuation, Gerard M-F Hill usefully lists four types – the four I’ve listed below, although in a different order – under the umbrella of ‘short forms’. This is a useful term because it avoids confusing abbreviations in general with a specific type of word shortening that is also often called an abbreviation. However, Fowler’s, New Hart’s Rules and others use ‘abbreviation’ in both ways, so I’m doing the same.

Initialisms

Many people confuse acronyms with initialisms, and this might be because ‘acronym’ sounds impressively technical and is quite a fun word to say, so people feel like applying it more widely than they should. Acronym. Acronym. Nice. Anyway, what are referred to as acronyms are often initialisms: BBC, NHS, CPR, HMRC. Only the first letter of each (main) word is kept, and the result is pronounced as a series of letters.

The main style decision to make with an initialism is whether to include full points (CPR or C.P.R.?). Such points have lingered in some iterations of US style (page 236 of The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz is enlightening on this matter); British style goes mostly without. However, there are instances, such as a.m. and p.m., and e.g. and i.e., where points are used more widely, even in British style. If you are using points, remember two main things:

  • Include all of them. It’s fairly common in unedited text to see ‘e.g’ or ‘eg.’, for example.
  • If your initialism appears at the end of a sentence, don’t include a full stop as well, otherwise you have two points in a row. One is entirely sufficient.

Acronyms

An acronym is a narrower category. Simply, it’s an initialism that you can pronounce as a word: OPEC, UNESCO, NASA, RADA, Aids, radar. You’ll notice that in this list we have both ‘RADA’ (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and ‘radar’ (‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’), with their differences in capitalisation. You can tell that ‘radar’ was always meant to be a catchy acronym from its inclusion of the first two letters from the first word and ‘A’ for ‘and’ (which is not classed as a main word) in the line-up of initials. If it were a true initialism it would be ‘RDR’. In the evolution of an acronym, particularly if it’s a term rather than a name, after being all caps it can then progress to being treated as a regular proper noun with a leading cap (as with ‘Aids’). Certain acronyms, like ‘radar’, ‘laser’ and ‘scuba’, then make the final change into a common noun, fully lower case.

After an acronym has become a common noun, the spelled-out version sometimes falls away, particularly if the spelling out doesn’t tell us as much as, for example, the usual dictionary definition of the word. Cambridge Dictionaries defines ‘radar’ as ‘a system that uses radio waves to find the position of objects that cannot be seen’ which is more helpful than its original long name.

Abbreviations

I tend to imagine a snipping or chopping action with these, because you lose one end of the word, sometimes both. Some of them, like ‘co.’ for ‘company’ and ‘etc.’ for ‘etcetera’, generally attract a full point, as does ‘ed.’ for editor in many academic texts. Others, like ‘bio’ for ‘biological’ or ‘biography’, generally don’t include points in British modern styles. As familiarity with these shortened words grows – including those that mean more than one thing – the point becomes less necessary.

Examples of where the front of the word has been chopped are ‘bus’ for ‘autobus’ and ‘phone’ for ‘telephone’. In ‘flu’ for ‘influenza’, both ends have been chopped. Here, apostrophes originally indicated missing letters, but as with full points these have dropped away with time and use.

Contractions

In a contraction, the beginning and the end of the word or phrase are included. What’s missing is something in the middle. Informal words such as ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t’ are contractions, but they’re relatively straightforward. They use an apostrophe – for now, at least.

Other contractions are ‘Dr’ for ‘doctor’ and ‘St’ for ‘Saint’. In British styles these generally don’t attract a full point; they are more likely to in US styles. In words like ‘eds’ for ‘editors’ strictly a point shouldn’t appear, in British styles at least. However, New Hart’s Rules says that this can make things look inconsistent, particularly when constructions like ‘vol.’ and ‘vols’ (volume and volumes) are seen side by side, so some styles retain the point for these types of contraction.

One contraction that retains a point is usefully mentioned in New Hart’s Rules: ‘no. (= numero, Latin for number)’. A good reason for this point could be the risk of its confusion with the more common word ‘no’.

As an editorial professional you have to navigate all these types of abbreviation and their different conventions and styles, plus any exceptions and possibly the reasons for them, depending on the text you’re working on.

What else should you consider?

Bring in the reader

Now it’s time to consider your abbreviations from the point of view of the reader. Ask yourself:

How familiar will the reader be with this abbreviation? Those that have become part of the language, like ‘i.e.’, ‘e.g.’ and ‘etc.’, most adult readers will know. A British audience is likely to know NHS and BBC. Dictionaries are a good basic guide to which abbreviations are now in common usage and therefore may not need further explanation. But remember you should always cater for your least knowledgeable reader. As Einsohn and Schwartz say, ‘When in doubt, spell it out.’ The most usual way of doing this is to include the long version then the short one in brackets: ‘National Health Service (NHS)’. If there are a number of initialisms and acronyms that the reader is likely to be unfamiliar with, consider creating a list of abbreviations that they can easily refer to.

Do I need all of these abbreviations? If you’re using an uncommon abbreviation just once or twice, it’s probably better including the long version only. Also, remember that text littered with initialisms and acronyms very quickly loses the advantage that a few abbreviations bring: it becomes uninviting to look at and difficult to read. This is the advice the Economist Style Guide gives:

After the first mention, try not to repeat the abbreviation too often; so write the agency rather than the IAEA, the party rather than the KMT, to avoid spattering the page with capital letters. And prefer chief executive, boss or manager to CEO.

Is the abbreviation near to where it plays its main role in the text? It’s not worth abbreviating a term the first time it’s used if there isn’t another mention of that abbreviation for pages and pages. Wait until you get to its first real entrance, where it’s discussed at more length or in more detail, and introduce its shortened version there.

At the sharp end of language

Abbreviations are an element of language that can change quickly, so you should keep up to date with the latest stylistic conventions for each shortened word or term you’re editing. However, in the end there are only a limited number of options for an abbreviation, all of them seen and written about already. Your task is to work out which option is applicable and appropriate. Here are some useful resources to equip you for the challenge.

Economist Style Guide. 2018. 12th edition. Profile Books.

Einsohn, A. and Schwartz, M. 2019. The Copyeditor’s Handbook. 4th edition. University of California Press, chapter 9.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. J. Butterfield. 2015. Oxford University Press. See entries for abbreviations, acronym, contractions, full stops (2).

Hill, G. M-F. 2021. Punctuation: A guide for editors and proofreaders. CIEP, pp9–10.

McCulloch, G. 2019. Because Internet. Riverhead Books.

New Hart’s Rules. 2014. Oxford University Press, chapter 10.

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: header image by Tim Chow on Unsplash, radar by Igor Mashkov on Pexels.

Posted by Belinda Hodder, blog assistant.

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

Ten bookish books of 2022

2022 was a good year for books about, well, books: their history, what constitutes them – from their different sections to their individual paragraphs, sentences and words – and the places they can live. In this article we look at ten books, published or reissued this year, that people who are interested in books – professionally or for fun – will love. Some of them have already featured in the CIEP book reviews slot in The Edit, our newsletter for members, and on our website, and some are in the pipeline for review. We’ve listed them in order of release.

1. Comma Sense: Your guide to grammar victory by Ellen Feld (Mango, 18 February 2022), 288 pages, £16.95 (paperback)

‘Food and grammar have a lot in common!’ according to this book’s author. Based on US grammar, Comma Sense contains useful advice, brief but clear lessons, and fun quizzes – some cooking-based – for all writers and editors. Our reviewer said: ‘This encouraging book would refresh the grammar skills of a variety of time-strapped word wranglers, from creative writers, to businesspeople, to editors.’

Read the CIEP review. Buy this book.

2. How Words Get Good: The story of making a book by Rebecca Lee (Profile, 17 March 2022), 384 pages, £14.99 (hardcover)

This book, in fact, is about the making of many books. The author is an editorial manager at Penguin Random House, so has overseen all the stages of book production, working with the people who are essential in each of them, from authors to indexers. There are plenty of entertaining behind-the-scenes stories, and you’ll come away wiser about exactly what goes into the creation of a book. Those who work in the industry are likely to feel acknowledged, their part in the process no longer a mystery.

Buy this book.

3. Portable Magic: A history of books and their readers by Emma Smith (Allen Lane, 28 April 2022), 352 pages, £20.00 (hardcover)

Emma Smith’s work, ‘a thing to cherish’, according to The Guardian, examines books as objects: scrolls, mass-marketed paperbacks, hiding places, decoration and even fuel for the fire. Smith tells the stories of the different types of books that have emerged at different points in history. People who cultivate giant piles of ‘to be read’ books rather than instantly transporting their chosen text to an e-reader will appreciate this appreciation of the physical, sniffable, page-turning hard copy.

Buy this book.

4. Rebel with a Clause: Tales and tips from a roving grammarian by Ellen Jovin (Chambers, 11 August 2022), 400 pages, £16.99 (hardcover)

To those who have followed her on Twitter, it feels like Ellen Jovin has been running her Grammar Table, where anyone can come and ask a question about language usage, for ever. In fact, it’s only four years. It’s been a packed schedule since that first appearance outside her Manhattan apartment, as Jovin has taken her table across the USA. This book tells some of the stories of the questions brought to the Grammar Table, and examines the grammar behind the answers. There are diagrams and ‘quizlets’ to support Jovin’s explanations. A must for any grammar lover.

Buy this book.

5. Blurb Your Enthusiasm: An A–Z of literary persuasion by Louise Willder (Oneworld, 1 September 2022), 352 pages, £14.99 (hardcover)

The author of this book has written 5,000 blurbs, so she knows what she’s talking about. In Blurb Your Enthusiasm she gives ‘the dazzling, staggering, astonishing, unputdownable story of the book blurb’, and asks why publishers always describe books using those sorts of terms. Quirky, fun and illuminating, this is a treat for anyone who is interested in books or the art of copywriting.

Read the CIEP review. Buy this book.

6. A History of Cookbooks: From kitchen to page over seven centuries by Henry Notaker (University of California Press, 6 September 2022), 400 pages, £22.36 (paperback)

This broad and detailed history of the Western cookbook was first published in 2017 but has now been released in paperback. This is a fascinating read for all lovers of cooking and books, covering the evolution of recipe formats from bare notes to the detailed structure we see today as well as what we might call the ingredients of the books themselves – their writing, designing and printing.

Buy this book.

7. The Library: A fragile history by Arthur der Weduwen and Andrew Pettegree (Profile, 29 September 2022), 528 pages, £10.99 (paperback)

This history of libraries is entwined with the history of publishing and the development of society, so this book gives insights into all three. It has taken some centuries for libraries to hit their stride, in terms of access and stock, and reading about this might prompt a fresh appreciation of your local library branch. According to its CIEP reviewer, ‘this book is both informative and easy to read, and goes to all sorts of unexpected places. Come to think of it, that is much like a decent library, isn’t it?’

Read the CIEP review. Buy this book.

8. Reading the World: How I read a book from every country by Ann Morgan (Vintage, 29 September 2022), 416 pages, £9.99 (paperback)

Inspired by all the countries arriving at the London 2012 Olympics, Ann Morgan decided she would read a book from every independent nation. That’s 196 plus one – you’ll have to read the book to discover the story behind the extra one. Morgan’s literary journey is full of unexpected difficulties and wonderful finds, and this book is bound to inspire you to broaden your own reading horizons. Reading the World was originally published in 2015, with the paperback version released in 2022, so there are now years’ worth of stories about the project itself. You can find these on Ann Morgan’s website.

Buy this book.

9. Index, A History of the: A bookish adventure by Dennis Duncan (Penguin, 2 October 2022), 352 pages, £10.99 (paperback)

This is a ‘mesmerising’, ‘fascinating’ and ‘often humorous’ book, according to the delighted CIEP reviewer of Index, A History of the, who says: ‘This book should be on the reading list of every one of the (few) library schools that are left, and in the break room of every publishing house too. In fact, it should be in the home or office of anyone who has ever used an index.’ And the treasures don’t end with the body text. The index for the book – ‘excellent … beautiful as it is useful’ – was created by CIEP Advanced Professional Member Paula Clarke Bain, who in 2020 wrote a CIEP blog article on her typical week.

Read the CIEP review. Buy this book.

10. Why Is This a Question? Everything about the origins and oddities of language you never thought to ask by Paul Anthony Jones (Elliot & Thompson, 13 October 2022), 320 pages, £14.99 (hardcover)

Finally, dive into the nuts and bolts of letters, words and writing systems, grammar and language, and how we communicate and understand each other’s communication, with this entertaining book. Guaranteed to ask questions you’d never thought to articulate, Why Is This a Question? provides gems on every page. Quick, fun facts throughout for friends and family, or for enthralling your own word-loving brain.

Buy this book.


By the CIEP information team. Compiled with the help of Nik Prowse, CIEP book reviews coordinator. Read all our book reviews at: ciep.uk/resources/book-reviews/. With special thanks to our amazing web team, who post reviews with swiftness, good humour and unfailing attention to detail.

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: header image by Taylor on Unsplash.

Posted by Harriet Powers, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

A Finer Point: Make it count

Not everyone gets on with numbers, but they’re part of most documents. Cathy Tingle gives us eight(ish) points on number editing.

Numbers have the reputation of being solid. Words, people sometimes say, can be slippery and subjective in their meaning, but at least you know where you are with numbers. For me, at least, this idea originated at school, from the idea of maths being either right or wrong, and there being no comparable certainty in the arts or humanities.

But as you grow up you realise that there are few absolutes, and things become less certain even for mathematicians as their knowledge of their subject grows.

As an editor, I’ve found words, not numbers, by far the easier part of editing. Much of this is down to a lack of aptitude with numbers. Despite the Chicago Manual of Style’s proud claim that their rules on the elision of number ranges (17th edition, 9.61) are ‘efficient and unambiguous’, I find them utterly baffling, unable to see a pattern or a logic to them. I’m sure it’s there; it’s just too much for my brain.

But I can argue as long as I want that I’m only here for the words and punctuation. It’s a rare text that doesn’t contain at least some numbers. Here are a few principles that I cling to in order to deal with them. Should I number these points? Are they instructions to follow in a certain order, or a ranking of any sort? Would the numbers help you, the reader? No? OK, then, let’s stick with unnumbered points. (There’s your first principle.)

Make sure all sequences are complete and correct.

It’s such a basic point that you might not automatically think to check this, but if you see any consecutive numbers (or letters, come to that), check carefully that they are all there, in order. I came across a numbered list the other week with a missing number four. After doing a little air punch to celebrate finding it, I queried the author about whether we needed to renumber the points or whether point four, in fact, still needed to be inserted. Either might be the case – don’t just renumber and forget it, folks.

If a number is mentioned, cross-check it.

A number in text is often a part of:

  • a citation, in which case you cross-check its date or page number against a full reference
  • a cross-reference to a numbered illustration, page, section, chapter or part, in which case you check that what the author is claiming matches what’s there
  • a declaration of what’s about to be delivered, in which case you check that if the author announces they are about to make four points, that promise is fulfilled.

Understand the role of style.

Ah, consistency. It’s a wonderful thing. With numbers, however, style points tend to assemble like the stars in the sky on a clear night. You start with ‘zero to ten, 11 and over’ and ‘maximum elision of number ranges’, and then before you know it you’re noticing exceptions, like never starting a sentence with a figure, spelling out hundreds or thousands, and never eliding a teen number. These exceptions might seem so obvious that they don’t need to be mentioned, but I would advise trying to articulate them somewhere on a style sheet, or citing a style guide that covers them. You can’t guarantee the next person in the process will know what you know.

If you can, tot it up or fact check it. If you can’t, ask others to do it.

Do the numbers in a table look about right? Can you whip out your calculator to check or paste the figures into Excel and let it do the sums? If it’s possible, do a bit of basic maths. If you can’t, declare it. Tell the author and your project manager what you’ve checked and what you haven’t, so they can pick it up if they need to. If your brief includes a request to check all numbers and you really think this is beyond you, you should declare it at that point.

Similarly, if you can google the veracity of a widely available figure, do so. If you can’t, mention that you haven’t.

Compare (or contrast) the right things, and don’t mix measurements.

One in eight people with a dog owns a Labrador, with 25% owning a poodle cross and almost a third some type of spaniel. In total, 34% of the British public own a dog. In contrast, 47 people out of every 314 feel that there should be dog-free areas in parks.

Argh, what a mess of figures, ratios, percentages and proportions. Choose the most meaningful measure and stick to it. Make sure, too, that the comparison or contrast of figures doesn’t mislead. The people referred to in the last sentence could still be dog owners: no contrast at all.

Consider creating a table. Or two. (Sorry.)

There’s some great advice in the sensible and reassuring Presenting Numbers, Tables, and Charts by Sally Bigwood and Melissa Spore. One thing they suggest is to present comparable numbers in a table rather than in text: ‘Numbers in columns are easy to add, subtract, and compare’ (p16).

It’s a good idea to order tables with the largest numbers at the top because people find it easier to perform the quick sums required to understand them: ‘By listing numbers from largest to smallest, readers are able to subtract the figures in their heads’ (p11). But, equally, ‘In some cases alphabetical, chronological, or another natural order will be right. Consider how readers will use the information’ (p13).

Most importantly, always keep it simple: ‘If your readers need both the numbers and their proportions, give them two simple tables rather than one complex one’ (p16).

Don’t use ‘approximately’ with exact figures (like 5,989,348).

In fact, consider rounding down or up (to six million, in this case). People find round figures so much easier to process and remember. Consider the context and the purpose of the document, and if it’s appropriate, suggest it.

Treat numbers like the rest of the text.

In the end, dealing with numbers is about applying the usual principles of editing: clarity, consistency, correctness and completeness, and whatever other ‘c’s you usually use. But if we think carefully about how the reader will read and receive the figures, sometimes we need to prioritise clarity. Martin Cutts, in his almost unbelievably excellent Oxford Guide to Plain English, remarks that, online, figures for numbers are sometimes best, because ‘eye-tracking data shows that “23” catches more attention than “twenty-three”’ (p245).

No matter how much we shy away from them, making numbers clearer is well worth doing. Iva Cheung has published an article about power dynamics and plain language in healthcare, making the point that in a vulnerable situation people feel powerless in the face of the sort of jargon that says ‘I know more than you do’. Well, an opaque set of numbers can do the same. Let’s do everything in our power to make them easy to understand.

Resources

Bigwood, S. and Spore, M. (2003). Presenting Numbers, Tables, and Charts. OUP.

Cheung, I. Power dynamics and plain language in healthcare. Wordrake blog. wordrake.com/blog/power-dynamics-and-plain-language-in-healthcare.

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

Cutts, M. (2020). Oxford Guide to Plain English. 5th edition. OUP.

Hughes, G. (2021). Editing and proofreading numbers. CIEP fact sheet. ciep.uk/resources/factsheets/#EPN.

New Hart’s Rules. 2nd edition. (2014). OUP. Chapters 11 and 14.

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: number blocks Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash. Dogs by Barnabas Davoti 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: About that

It’s flexible, helpful and often loaded with meaning. Cathy Tingle explores the magic in the simple word ‘that’.

I love that; that is, I love the word that is ‘that’. Why’s that? Context and clarity. And Kate Bush.

‘That’ can be magical in its use of context

‘That’ is ‘a multifaceted word’ according to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which lists it as a demonstrative pronoun, a demonstrative adjective, a demonstrative adverb, a conjunction and a relative pronoun. Five functions, none of which we are likely to consciously assign to the word as we use it unless we are linguists; we will just know, from context, what this ‘that’ is for. Now that’s magic.

‘That’ also often needs a context wider than the sentence in which it appears, which can make it indispensable in communication and creativity. In terms of communication, we’ve all felt the power after a long introduction of a conclusive ‘That’s why …’ that brings together all that has gone before. That’s probably why we hear it a lot from politicians.

One of the facets of ‘that’ described in Fowler’s is that ‘the simple demonstrative adjective that is distinguished from the definite article the in that it points out something as distinct from merely singling out something’. So in terms of pointing out something to a greater and greater extent, we might go, say, from ‘hills’ to ‘a hill’ to ‘the hill’ to ‘that hill’, the sort that Kate Bush describes running up, in a song that has now become part of the soundtrack of not one but two generations, decades apart. The poet Philip Larkin, in ‘Home is so sad’ (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964), ends a description of a mournful-looking room with a pointed two-word sentence: ‘That vase.’

‘Running up a hill’, ‘Running up the hill’, ‘A vase’ and ‘The vase’ simply don’t create the same effect. In each of these works, ‘that’ is loaded with a meaning that the narrator entirely understands and that we get a revelatory glimpse of, simply by seeing its significance to them.

‘That’ directs the reader

The inclusion of ‘that’ is often necessary to make meaning clear. As Lynne Murphy described in her 2022 CIEP Conference session ‘Are editors changing the English language?’, as language gets densified we lose the small, common words. ‘The’ and ‘of’ have been major casualties. However, the 1959 publication and wide dissemination of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, cited by Murphy as a key event in the decline of ‘the’ and ‘of’, is also identified in excellent articles by Stan Carey and Carol Saller as a factor in the incorrect deletion of ‘that’ by people who edit text. Specifically, by trying to ‘omit needless words’, as Strunk and White advised we should, we sometimes mistakenly identify ‘that’ as one of them.

How do we know whether ‘that’ is needless? As Stan Carey describes, we do it by assessing whether we’re being led up a garden path if it’s not there. Have we misunderstood the meaning on the first reading of a sentence and had to retrace our steps? Carol Saller points out that this is more likely with certain constructions: ‘Retain [“that”] after verbs like “believe,” “declare,” and “see”’. All right: let’s see what happens if we don’t.

I believe elves who claim to make footwear throughout the night are imaginary.

They declared an interest in ponies at the age of eight was common.

She could see a unicorn-riding, fire-eating headteacher existed in the minds of the children.

Welcome back after all those garden-path trips prompted by the omission of ‘that’ after ‘believe’, ‘declared’ and ‘see’. If you avoided these misunderstandings, well done! But a busy, perhaps preoccupied, reader might not. Saller quotes the AP Stylebook on ‘that’: ‘Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.’ Carey quotes John E. McIntyre’s Bad Advice: ‘When that is there and does no harm, take your hands off the keyboard.’

That, that and that

‘That’ isn’t all creativity and clarification, however. It can be a source of puzzlement to authors, editors and proofreaders. Here’s some quick guidance on that/which, that/who and ‘that is’.

That/which: which?

For a comprehensive and entertaining look at this common problem, head to Riffat Yusuf’s ‘That which we call a relative clause’. For basic principles, read on.

In the UK in particular, we sometimes use constructions like ‘the pencil which is red is mine’. ‘Which’ here is used in the same way as ‘that’ – ‘for critical information’ (Ellen Jovin, Rebel with a Clause, p294). Whether ‘that’ or ‘which’ is used isn’t as important as whether we include a comma before it. As Butcher’s Copy-editing says: ‘The punctuation distinction is the crucial one’ (p164). So we could write any of the following:

The pencil that is red is mine (mine is the red one)

The pencil which is red is mine (mine is the red one)

The pencil, which is red, is mine (there’s one pencil. It’s mine. It happens to be red)

‘The pencil, that is red, is mine’ is not something we could write, because ‘that’ can’t herald the sort of optional information that we convey by including pairing, or parenthetical, commas.

That/who

‘A person can be a “that”.’ (Dreyer’s English, p18) ‘That refers to a human, animal, or thing, and it can be used in the first, second, or third person.’ (Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, 5.56) So it’s possible to use ‘that’ for a person (‘the designer that did great things with my text’), although ‘who’ is often the first choice of people who work with words.

‘That is’

‘That is’ is a construction we often see, alongside equivalents like ‘namely’, in general non-fiction or academic text, and it’s a tricky one to punctuate. Some authors place a comma before it and nothing afterwards, or put it in parenthetical commas. What should we do? Chicago gives good advice: to precede it with a dash or semicolon and follow it with a comma (CMOS, section 6.51). I’ve given an example in the introduction to this article, so go and have a look at that.

Resources

Bush, K (1985). Running up that hill (A deal with God). EMI.

Butcher, J, C Drake and M Leach (2006). Butcher’s Copy-editing, 4th edition. Cambridge University Press.

Carey, S (2020). That puzzling omission. Blog. stancarey.wordpress.com/2020/05/31/that-puzzling-omission/

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

Dreyer, B (2019). Dreyer’s English. Century.

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

Jovin, E (2022). Rebel with a Clause. Chambers.

Larkin, P (2012). The Complete Poems, ed. by Archie Burnett. Faber & Faber.

Saller, C (2021). When to delete ‘that’. CMOS Shop Talk blog. cmosshoptalk.com/2021/08/12/when-to-delete-that/

Yusuf, R (2021). That which we call a relative clause. CIEP blog. blog.ciep.uk/relative-clause/

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: Arrow by Ralph Hutter, pencil by GR Stocks, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

Editing text to make it more accessible

Making text accessible is about more than just using plain language; it’s also about making sure that everyone, including disabled readers, neurodivergent readers and other readers with distinct needs, can make sense of text on a website or screen. In this blog post, Andrew Macdonald Powney suggests some simple ways we can make our text more accessible, whatever its published format.

A pile of computer keys as the background to the blog post title and author: Editing text to make it more accessible by Andrew Macdonald Powney

Four simple ways to make text more accessible

There are many ways that text can be made more accessible (too many for this blog post). Here are four of the easiest and most impactful ways to get started. To learn more, delve into plain language principles (for example through the CIEP’s course Plain English for Editors), or investigate web accessibility (for example by learning about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines).

Styling headings

In Word, an editor can make some text look like a heading by increasing the font size and putting it in bold. But a screenreader (software that reads out text on a computer screen, often used by blind or visually impaired people) cannot interpret that. Screenreaders need an unseen ‘tag’ or phrase of code which states that the following words are going to be a heading: they need the editor to style the text as a heading.

When you apply a heading ‘style’ in Word to what already looks like a heading on your screen, Word creates the code tags for you. All future readers will be told it is a heading. Meanwhile, at the editor’s end, the visual formatting to go with that ‘style’ has to be modified just once, and the change will be made to every piece of text to which the style has been applied.

These tags of code allow the screenreader to navigate from heading to heading, and they let the screenreader explain to their human reader that a title is coming.

Shorter and simpler sentences

Short sentences, front-loaded content, active voice: all good advice for writers, and good, too, for the users of screenreaders. A person can change the speed at which the screenreader speaks, but it is still easiest to digest a sentence when the subject and key point come first. And shorter sentences are simpler to hear.

Another advantage of short, direct sentences is that they tend to fit inside a line length. This reduces the chance of a line break mid-sentence – especially if you left-align, as you should for accessibility. Therefore short sentences work across a range of screens and devices. Reading a longer sentence on a narrow screen requires dexterity, concentration, and good vision that not everyone will have. Not everyone can zoom in and out, or scroll back and forth, and still keep track.

Writers and editors may forget that reading itself cannot be taken for granted. The conditions that make it hard to remember what you read – everything from cognitive processing issues to simple tiredness – make complex sentences more of a risk. When the very act of reading takes some effort, no more obstacles need be added.

A blind woman sitting at a computer wearing headphones and using a screenreader

Fonts and formatting

As a general rule, the fewer serifs in a font, the better. Sans serif fonts like Calibri and Arial do a better job of keeping letters distinct. There is less danger of overlap in the ascenders and descenders of adjacent letters. People read by pattern recognition, and when the patterns are easier to spot (because the individual letters are clearer), the text is easier to read.

Regardless of which font you use, don’t create constant mental adjustments with phrases in bold, words in italics and underlines. Displayed quotations, for example, are already pulled out; putting them in italics is an extra cognitive burden.

Alt text

Alt text is text which is an alternative to the image on the page. It is commonly used to stand in for images that visually impaired people can’t see; the sighted reader sees the image, while the screenreader reads out the alt text.

Alt text image descriptions need to be short; if there is too much to say, additional text next to the image would be better. Having said that, alt text still needs to provide useful information. The editor crafting alt text needs to think: what does the author need the reader to take away from this image, which this reader cannot see? ‘Picture of a graph of temperatures’ tells that reader nothing; ‘graph showing that temperature peaked in July at 31°C’ conveys information.

Remember that text may be repurposed

If you usually work on text that is going to finish up as a printed, physical object, then it may seem like certain aspects of accessibility are irrelevant – styling headings to aid screenreaders, for example, or using short sentences to reduce line breaks on narrow screens.

But this text could be repurposed at some point in the future. What you prepare for one format now may need to be repackaged for another medium, on another day. This is something worth bearing in mind when editing any text: can it be edited to ensure accessibility across different mediums? This could help to future-proof the text against whatever else your client may decide to do with it.

About Andrew Macdonald Powney

Andrew Macdonald Powney is an Intermediate Member of the CIEP and the content and quality team leader for APS Group (Scotland).

 

 

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: keyboard letters by Pixabay on Pexels, blind person using a computer by Chansom Pantip on Shutterstock.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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

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?

Contractions

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.

Possessives

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.

Plurals

‘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.

Resources

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. theconversation.com/apostrophes-linguistics-expert-imagines-a-happier-world-without-them-128363.

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

Harbeck, J. Kill the apostrophe! The Week, 11 January 2015. theweek.com/articles/459948/kill-apostrophe.

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

Trask, RL. The apostrophe. sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/apostrophe.

Trask, RL. Unusual plurals. sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/apostrophe/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.

Flying Solo: Conscious language and the business-conscious editor or proofreader

In this latest Flying Solo post, Sue Littleford considers the importance of conscious language in marketing and selling your services as a freelance editor or proofreader.

Alienating possible clients is a business no-no. Sure, you don’t have to work with everyone who approaches you. There are folk who ask for a service you don’t provide, or are not happy to provide in the circumstances. Fine (as long as you’re not breaking anti-discrimination law).

Conscious language is a hot topic, rightly. We’re figuring out more and better ways to avoid making people feel prejudged, and to avoid raising barriers against their inclusion. As language professionals, we need to show we walk the walk.

There are two ways that conscious language and its close kin, discrimination, can affect our businesses – you choosing to reject a potentially rather profitable client because of your own beliefs about the world, based on first impressions; or potentially profitable clients rejecting you because of what you say in response to their query.

But aside from being bound by anti-discrimination legislation, it makes no business sense for us to discriminate, to any degree. You are, in effect, reducing your pool of potential clients, and the income you would earn from them, based on what’s going on in your own head, not what they are offering as work.

Incidentally: intent is irrelevant. If you hurt someone, it doesn’t matter whether you meant to or not. The pain is the same.

A word against generalising

Microaggressions accrete until they are a heavy burden that pierces your very being. You may not even notice handing out those tiny barbs, but you surely notice them when they’re directed at you, time after time after time.

Therefore: make it clear in your public writing – social media, blogs, website – that you encounter people as people, not as apparent members of a grouping about which you may have certain preconceived ideas. Those preconceptions may be rooted in a specific unpleasant experience, but when they become expanded from the particular to the general, that’s where microaggression rears its ugly head.

I’m a Manc. My ex-mother-in-law wasn’t my biggest fan. (OK, I admit, it was mutual.) When my then brother-in-law announced he was marrying a girl from Hull, my MIL exploded, ‘Not another bloody northerner!’

That’s an example of one particular beef being expanded to general prejudice. Hull is a good hundred miles from Manchester, yet my new sister-in-law was being branded the same as me, purely on the basis of the cities we were born in, decades earlier. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Your communications

Many editors work with people for whom English is not their primary language, or it’s now their primary language, but they came to it later on in life, rather than being immersed in it from birth.

How do you refer to those authors in your marketing, when you say who you help? Are you assuming that all such authors have poor English, and will make the same kinds of errors? Do you even hint that’s what you have assumed, when you think you’re saying you’ll bend over backwards to help these poor folk who need all your skills to be able to string a sentence together? That’s a microaggression at the least.

Working in such a heavily online industry as ours, your opportunities to discriminate on grounds of looks alone are equally heavily limited. But what about people’s names? What assumptions do you make based on someone’s name about how much editing they might need, and how much it will cost? And what about the country extensions to the domain names of some email addresses? Do you have a knee-jerk reaction to those you find less desirable in a client? Are you already formulating your No, Thanks, email even as you open theirs?

It is very much good business sense, as well as kind, not to make assumptions based on a partial picture, but to gather evidence – get a sample of the writing, in very basic terms.

That old saying – you only get one chance to make a first impression – cuts both ways. Someone who emails you looking for editorial services may use an unusual (to you) form of greeting, or seem overly formal or overly casual. When you email someone back, indicating your assumptions ahead of the evidence about their writing, you are also making a first impression – and will probably be judged on it.

Be conscious of the lost opportunities that can result, and look closely and critically at your public communication: your website text, your social media, blog posts and profiles, and your responses to client approaches.

Encounter people on their own merits

I’ve already stressed apparent members of a particular group, because we all know what it’s like to be (mis)judged at first glance. I’d now add that membership of any particular group may well be temporary, and it is definitely partial.

Consider for a few moments all the groups that you yourself belong to: your nationality, your locality, your position in your family, your education, your career history, your personal appearance, your accent, your sexuality, your health status, your financial status, your outlook on life, your sleeping pattern, your taste in food and drink, your religion and how you practise it, your lack of religion and how you express it …

Every one of us is a temporary and partial member of a plethora of potential groupings. No one group completely describes us.

Who are we to judge a person’s worth – or value to us as a client – based on what we have just guessed about them, before they show us who they are?

What you perceive is not all there is.

What you show is not all you are.

The thing is, we all make judgements about people the moment we meet them, whether in person, on the phone, by email or on social media; it’s human nature – a visceral safety mechanism to sort strangers into friend or foe. But people in your inbox are at a safe distance, and you can afford to explore further. (OK, I’ll make an exception for scammers – always remain alert to those.)

Resolve to let people (scammers aside) show you who they are, before you make a decision about whether to work with them. This means opening up a dialogue with people enquiring about your services, rather than ‘sorry, too busy’ instant responses because you perceive, from their name or their email address, that they’re not for you.

We do have to protect ourselves from bad clients, of course we do. We want to work for reasonable people at a decent rate and be paid promptly. So by engaging more with potential clients, and getting them to show us who they are, we can have the double benefit of finding the diamond in the rough as well as discovering those folks who arrive fully clothed in red flags and should indeed be avoided. Making judgements prematurely means that you can lose out both ways.

Educate yourself

There are some excellent resources around to improve this part of your skills. My go-to is the marvellous Crystal Shelley, whom many of us have encountered. Her Conscious Language Toolkit for Editors is such a help when you’re stuck for an alternative word or phrase, and has many links to further resources. Just reading through the list of terms that need alternatives should set you thinking hard.

In February 2022, EFA launched a course on the same subject, written by Shelley, for which CIEP members get a discount. Shelley blogged about the launch.

There’s also Gregory Younging’s book Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples (ISBN 978-1-55059-716-5).

There’s the free conscious language style sheet for PerfectIt created by Sofia Matias. That really helps you pick up things you may miss as you edit – or write.

Not least, there’s the website Conscious Style Guide, which we should all bookmark.

Pop your own recommended resources in the comments!

Your editing/proofreading

Now you’re being more conscious about your language when you write for your clients, or to your clients, you’re in a better position to help the clients you’re working with. This is also excellent business sense – clients are more likely to recommend you to others if you’ve helped them avoid conscious-language missteps.

Support your clients to use more neutral terms; use descriptions that the groups use for themselves – but good luck finding high degrees of agreement on what those descriptions are: groups are collections of individuals who have in common one element of their being, they’re not homogeneous monoliths! And people aren’t fungible.

So you’ll need to do your research and use your editorial judgement when editing or suggesting changes – such as whether person-first or condition-first is most appropriate when talking about people’s health. Hint: it’s not always person-first.

Get really practised and expert at this, and you can market a new service or make it a feature of your current offer – more good business sense.

As I write this, I have a chapter in mid-copyedit – it uses ‘manpower’ persistently. Those are changing to ‘staff’ or ‘personnel’ or ‘workforce’ as fast as I encounter them.

In sum

It’s sound business sense to educate yourself about conscious language; to encounter people on their own merits, without making assumptions; to make it clear in all your public-facing communications that you do that; and to help clients to avoid micro (and not-so-micro) aggressions in their writing.

About Sue Littleford

Sue 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.

 

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: cactus by Ryan Schram, counters by Markus Spiske, both on Unsplash, welcome note by cottonbro 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.

Resources

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. quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/misplaced-modifiers

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

Merriam-Webster. Placement of Only in a Sentence: Usage guide. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/only#usage-2

Walden University. Modifier Basics. https://academicguides.waldenu.edu/writingcenter/grammar/modifiers

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.

Forum matters: Conscious language

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

One could argue that an editor’s job is entirely about the conscious use of language. That is, conscious in the senses of: being aware of and responsive to words and their meaning; having knowledge of the topic; having and raising a concern where necessary; being intentional in the choice of vocabulary when suggesting change.

In today’s world, where rapid and easy communication is exposing the unconscious use of language, ‘conscious language’ has become a technical term related to sensitivity and awareness. This interpretation is explored on the forums as members question the use and validity of words and phrases that, up until now, have been employed without thought or a broader understanding.

Resources for fiction editors

The specialist Fiction forum’s invaluable EDI Resources for Editors helps its members to ‘answer questions like “Is this insensitive?” and “How do I phrase this query?” as well as presenting solutions or giving advice for how to approach problematic texts’. There are over 50 links and references to books, websites, organisations, courses and guides that will help you develop your awareness of what conscious language is and how it is developing. The good news for those who aren’t yet on the Fiction forum is that many of these resources also appear on our dedicated EDI webpage.

Maintaining a safe space

While the overarching principle on the forums is that anything is up for reasoned discussion, questioning and point-making, threads can get heated at times. Usually, forum users keep the space constructive and supportive by acknowledging the many facets of different individual experiences. On the rare occasions that the tone gets too personal or aggressive, then the thread is either closed (so no further comments can be posted but all the interesting points can still be seen) or (even more rarely, if the argument is becoming harmful) removed to maintain the forums as a safe space. If you want to see the rationale then please visit section 2 of the CIEP’s Dignity Policy, ‘Statement of expectations’.

Always learning

A common editorial trait is a consciousness of the gaps in our knowledge and the desire to learn from change and from those who do know.

On SfEPLine, Helen Stevens said ‘I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s never considered the connotations of the word “aid”’ when she started Conscious language: the word ‘aid’ to share information about a campaign by organisations in global justice. This did lead to some political discussion, but even more importantly it uncovered useful links and different perspectives on one of the smallest words in the dictionary. Also on SfEPLine is ‘Patient’ as unwanted label: no discussion, just a link to an interesting article.

It’s no surprise that LGBTQ terminology is often discussed on SfEPLine; but that a linguistics gem – and a global language lesson – appears in Off topic is a surprise. Or perhaps not. Are editors ever really off-topic?

The newer Events forum is becoming a source of resources. The number of events that discuss EDI and conscious language is testament to a growing awareness of the importance of being careful about the words used in many situations. Why not add new events postings to your email receipts so you don’t miss out on adding to your skills, knowledge – and CPD for upgrading?

From the macro of Using ‘man’ for ‘humankind’ to the micro of Conscious language, ‘to dwarf’ (v.), from the general of Use of the term ‘Caucasian’ in SfEPLine to the specific of A character with Down’s syndrome in MG fiction – question in the Fiction forum, members are using the forums to clarify language for themselves, their clients and readers.

Discussions are also helping members develop their business through sensitivity or authenticity reading. Authenticity reading – how to charge is practical while White author writing about Black women’s hair is more wide-ranging, and Non-English dialogue in an English context in the Fiction forum places the reader firmly at the centre.

We hope you enjoy developing your knowledge in the safe space of the forums and that you also contribute, as every individual experience casts light on our conscious use of language.

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: poppies by corina ardeleanu on Unsplash, umbrella by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.

Posted by Harriet Power, CIEP information commissioning editor.

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