Category Archives: Language

A finer point: Subject–verb agreement

Rules are often made to be ‘flexible’, and one such case is agreeing subjects with verbs. In this interesting and informative post, Dan Beardshaw breaks it down.

Subject–verb agreement involves matching the singular or plural form of a sentence’s subject (either a noun or a pronoun) with the form of the verb that follows it. The basic rule is that a singular subject takes a singular verb and a plural subject, a plural verb. However, the rules of English rarely come without exceptions, and subject–verb agreement has its fair share of them.

Firstly, some nouns have a singular form but a collective, plural sense and are often used with a plural verb. And, vice versa, plural nouns can have a singular sense and take a singular verb. The linguistic term for such instances is notional agreement. Secondly, the subject of many sentences is a longer noun phrase that includes both singular and plural nouns or pronouns, and choosing which one the verb should agree with is not always straightforward. A common basis for decisions in this kind of sentence involves agreement with the noun positioned nearest to the verb, and is referred to with the terms proximity or attraction.

In this post I will explore these two types of irregular subject–verb agreement and how to approach decisions around them.

Singular nouns with a plural sense

Normal subject–verb agreement simply matches singular and plural verbs with their corresponding nouns.

The meadow is full of wildflowers.

The wildflower meadows are stunning this year.

But certain singular nouns can be used with a collective sense, or ‘notion’. For example, the word team is singular, but we often tend to think of the members who collectively form the team rather than the abstract idea of a single team. Or perhaps we think of both at the same time. Regardless, it’s common to treat singular team as a plural in subject–verb agreement.

The team are performing brilliantly.

The plural notion may also be influenced by context. In the above sentence, it’s the actions of the individual members and the way they work together that are of interest. In other words, the concrete actions of people are the focus rather than the abstract idea of a team. If team is purposely used to focus on that abstract idea, a singular verb might be more appropriate.

Each new team is given a unique name.

Other singular nouns commonly treated as plurals include staff, family, government, army, crowd, majority, number and party (in the political sense). Try forming sentences with some of these singular nouns and they will often sound unnatural with a singular verb – or, at least, plural agreement will sound natural and make intuitive sense.

The family are visiting us next week.

A majority think reducing plastic waste is a priority.

Plural nouns with a singular sense

Certain plural nouns, compounds and noun phrases are commonly treated as notionally singular. One example is things that are quantified or measured and expressed as a unit.

Six hundred pounds was the price she quoted.

Three days isn’t long enough to see all the sights.

Another example is noun phrases that form a single idea, despite featuring plural nouns.

Fewer cars in cities results in reduced pollution and improved public health.

Certain noun phrases using and, despite technically being a two-item list, can be treated as a notionally singular unit.

Fish and chips is the nation’s favourite takeaway.

A similar structure is common for simple mathematical additions expressed in words.

Seven and three is ten.

Six plus two is eight.

And some nouns that appear to be plural, such as politics, news, several academic subjects (economics,mathematics, physics), and certain proper nouns (for example, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Arab Emirates) are usually read as singular and also take a singular verb.

four lightbulbs together and one on its own, about to swing towards the others

The principle of proximity

Sometimes a sentence includes a mixture of singular and plural nouns, such that it could logically agree with either verb form. However, a decision must obviously be made. So on what basis can we make it? One approach, which will often read more naturally, involves the linguistic concept of proximity or attraction. Perhaps proximity is the clearer term as it simply refers to the verb agreeing with the noun it’s closest to in the sentence. This may appear in sentences including either/or or both/and structures. In the following sentence, the verb has eaten would agree with the dog and have eaten would agree with the cats. As the cats is nearest, the plural verb is used.

Either the dog or the cats have eaten my biscuits.

Another common place to find the principle of proximity in use is when a singular noun with a collective sense is paired with a corresponding plural. This type of sentence may involve a dual sense of agreement that references both proximity and the collective notion of the singular noun.

The group of tourists were struggling to communicate in an unfamiliar language.

A number of residents are unhappy about the development plans.

Pronouns and determiners

Notional agreement and the proximity principle can be complicated further by certain pronouns when used as the subject of a sentence or clause, or when certain determiners are used to modify the subject. The indefinite pronouns none and each can sometimes be used with singular and plural verbs interchangeably, and some of their related determiners, such as none of and each of, can express a singular or plural sense of their own that modifies the subject in potentially ambiguous ways. The conventions of verb agreement for these pronouns and determiners can be confusingly inconsistent.

None, no and none of

The pronoun none literally means ‘not any’ or ‘not one’, which is hard to pin down as either singular or plural – it raises the philosophical question of how we can define or describe the nature of absence. Nevertheless, it has an obviously useful communicative purpose beyond such musings, and, despite the insistence by some that none is always singular, in common use it’s frequently lent either a singular or plural sense by the context it appears in. For example, the following use of none refers to the singular (uncountable) noun sunshine and takes the singular verb was.

We’ve just had two weeks of sunshine but there was none for most of the summer.

Whereas the following use refers to the plural noun tickets and takes the plural verb were.

I looked everywhere for tickets but none were left.

However, an alternative notional sense may also appear: in the following, the speaker wanted one room but looked in many places, so a plural verb with the pronoun is a logical choice even though the noun it references is technically singular.

I looked everywhere for a hotel room but none were available.

The determiners related to none are no and none of. Simple subject–verb agreement will often not be affected by the use of no. The following sentence uses the singular is in agreement with the singular uncountable milk.

There is no milk left.

Whereas the following uses the plural are in agreement with the plural apples.

There are no apples left.

But ambiguity becomes more likely with the use of none of. Constructions like the following are common, especially in formal writing.

None of the suggestions is suitable.

The question raised is whether the verb should agree with the sense of the determiner (that is, if one sees none of as strictly singular) or the sense of the plural noun it modifies (suggestions) – and if the latter is preferred, the principle of proximity may also come into play.

None of the suggestions are suitable.

Each and each of

Similar dynamics are involved with the different forms of each, despite them having a clearer singular sense in and of themselves. As a determiner, it will usually be used with a singular noun and a corresponding singular verb.

Each episode was more intense than the last.

The pronoun form may refer to a plural noun but still take a singular verb.

There are two set menus, and each is equally delicious.

Like none of, the determiner each of often takes a singular verb when used with a plural subject, especially in formal writing.

Each of the candidates is required to attend two rounds of interviews.

But it can also take a plural verb in notional agreement with a plural subject, as in the following sentence.

Each of the vendors have been asked to tender for contract.

Again, this may be considered more informal, but both the notional sense of the sentence and the principle of proximity make it logically defensible.

Break the rules

Notional agreement and the principle of proximity are good examples of the imperfect logic of language and its simultaneous flexibility in creating intelligible meaning by breaking the rules. It’s easy to get caught up in the ‘pure’ logic of grammar in decisions of this kind, but that logic doesn’t always apply neatly to either the form of written language or the ways people think about words and sentences.


Butterfield, J (ed.) (2015). Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, 30, 557.

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press, 191.

Chicago Manual of Style (2017). 17th edn. University of Chicago Press, 5.138. Online edition:

About Dan Beardshaw

Dan Beardshaw is a development editor, copyeditor and proofreader, specialising in ELT and education publishing. He is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP.



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: figures on a wall by geralt on Pixabay, lightbulbs by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels, apples by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.

Posted by Sue McLoughlin, blog assistant.

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

A finer point: Redundant words and phrases

For August’s A finer point, Dan Beardshaw takes a closer look at redundancy in writing and how we can improve concision by dealing with superfluous wordage.

‘Redundancy’ in writing refers to using more words than necessary or repeating a meaning across multiple words. Spotting and removing redundancies is a regular editorial task that aims to improve concision. Concise writing is both easier to read and stylistically appealing, and a message can have more impact without the distraction of reading unnecessary words. In this post I will highlight some common redundancies and ways to fix them, as well as cases for recasting or leaving them.

In order to

The phrase in order to can often be replaced with to.

Copyeditors remove redundancies in order to make text more concise.

The longer version is commonly used and may be considered more formal, but using to instead doesn’t imply informality when used in a formal context, and there’s no clear distinction in meaning between the two forms. The to that in order to can substitute will always be part of a verb in the ‘infinitive of purpose’ form. This use of to means ‘for the purpose of’ just as in order to does.

How in order to is used can affect any decision to change it. For example, fronted to-infinitive clauses are correct but less common, and may read more naturally with in order to.

To make text more concise, copyeditors remove redundancies.

In order to make text more concise, copyeditors remove redundancies.

In the event that

The same sense can be expressed here by the simple conjunction if.

In the event that If the train is cancelled, a replacement bus will be provided.

This phrase may, like in order to, be considered more formal. But if isn’t necessarily informal here either. Some might consider the longer form more polite – in the above example, it could imply a sense that everything possible will be done to avoid the inconvenient outcome. But if a message of that kind is essential, it may be better recast and expressed directly instead of expecting readers to infer it from a wordy form of if.

Due to the fact that

Similar to the previous entry, due to the fact that inflates a conjunction – in this case because.

Redundancies are removed due to the fact that because they make the reader work harder.

Considering the frequency of a word like because, word count could grow considerably over the course of a manuscript with habitual use of the wordier version. And again, there isn’t a clear case for the simple conjunction being less formal.

While we’re on the subject of this redundancy niche, it’s worth mentioning another commonly inflated conjunction: despite the fact that can be replaced with although, as can its six-worded synonym in spite of the fact that.

The reason why

At first glance, this might appear to be an obvious redundancy, and why can usually be cut.

The collapse of the economy was the reason why they lost the election.

But the case for treating it as a redundancy is less clear. In a related post, Patricia T O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman argue that the why in this phrase is a conjunction comparable to for which:

In this expression, “why” is a conjunction and means “for which” or “on account of which,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

The noun “reason” in this usage means “cause” or “the thing that makes some fact intelligible,” Merriam-Webster’s says.

“Reason” in this sense, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is commonly used with “why,” “that,” “for,” or an infinitive. So all of these uses are correct:

(1) “The reason we left early …”

(2) “The reason why we left early …”

(3) “The reason that we left early …”

(4) “Our reason for leaving early …”

(5) “The reason to leave early …”

The authors’ case illustrates how this potential redundancy differs in form to most others – the ‘extra’ word why here adds an optional part of speech that isn’t strictly tautological and wouldn’t be considered extraneous in equivalent cases, such as that in option 3. The post also notes the longevity of the usage, dating back as far as 1484.

a gift-wrapped box

Free gift

Gifts are always free, so the free in free gift is clearly redundant. This is a common category of redundancy in which a word or phrase directly duplicates the meaning of another. This kind of tautology might be considered a more precise definition of redundancy.

Brief summary

Following the flawed logic of free gift, the adjective brief repeats a meaning already contained in the noun it describes. The same could be said of brief moment.

Personal opinion

The redundancy here is that the sense of ‘personal’ is already implied by the pronoun that opinion will usually be joined to when referring to an individual. My/Your/Her/His/Their opinion all tell us who the opinion belongs to, so personal adds nothing to the meaning. Distinction from shared opinions isn’t necessary, either, as that would be similarly indicated by, for example, the board’s opinion or simply consensus. A related redundancy here is consensus of opinionof opinion can be discarded.

Absolutely essential

In this case, an adverb duplicates the meaning of the adjective it describes. An author may have intended to add emphasis, but essential is already an emphatic adjective with an unmodifiable meaning – absolutely essential makes no more sense than slightly essential.

In conclusion

Redundancies are commonplace across most genres of writing. Removing redundancies can enhance the style, clarity and readability of a text. But it’s worth determining any specific reason the author may have for using one and, if there is a good reason, considering the options of either recasting to avoid the unnecessary words or leaving as is.


Butterfield, J (ed.) (2015). Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 693.

About Dan Beardshaw

Dan Beardshaw

Dan Beardshaw is a development editor, copyeditor and proofreader, specialising in ELT and education publishing. He is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP.



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: rubbish bin by Cup of Couple; gift by Kim Stiver, both on Pexels.

Posted by Sue McLoughlin, blog assistant.

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

Considerations when curating an NGO’s style sheet

There’s more to compiling a style sheet than deciding on spellings. Lorenzo Fusini describes some of the factors he’s had to consider when trying to ensure consistency among a large, disparate team of writers and editors.

I’ve been a part-time volunteer editor for a young non-governmental organisation (NGO) for a few months. The NGO’s mission is to provide free education to refugees, and my role mostly involves editing web content and grant applications.

When I started there was no style sheet: I observed writers and editors applying styles according to their own preferences or by imitating the styles of existing documents – yes, ‘styles’ plural. It was obvious to most that the situation would soon degenerate, and since I’d been the most vocal about this issue, I was assigned the task of curating a style sheet.

I’m going to share with you the challenges I’ve encountered in this assignment, how I’ve overcome them and the reasons behind the solutions I’ve adopted. As you’ll see, most of the topics are high-level aspects of curating a style sheet, more to do with its management than its content, as that’s what has required most of my attention.

Many decide, one implements

The NGO’s leader wants us to agree on solutions as a group. This is why I’m the curator of the style sheet, but I’m not alone in choosing the rules it contains. Everybody is welcome to suggest additions and changes, which are then discussed openly: all opinions are considered, with extra weight given to suggestions from the more experienced writers and editors, and in the end the group often reaches a unanimous decision. I then modify the style sheet accordingly, and once I’m done I notify the entire team.

New members every week

A team of volunteers working purely online has two distinctive traits: it changes continually (every week some volunteers leave and others join) and its members have vastly different cultural, professional and educational backgrounds. A style sheet is, then, a fundamental tool in ensuring that the NGO’s voice doesn’t change from one week to another.

We have volunteers from all walks of life, and most have never worked in the publishing sector: they might not know what a style sheet is, or that we have one. Our simple remedy is to regularly remind all writers and editors about it, and we’re considering including a link to the document in the welcome email every new volunteer receives.

Target audiences

We have three main audiences:

  • refugees with basic English or no knowledge of English, trying to learn what’s necessary to get on with their lives
  • managers of companies and charitable foundations with the resources to support the refugees
  • the general public, including prospective volunteers, who are curious about the NGO’s mission.

An implication is that text written with one audience in mind might not be appropriate for the others. That’s why we’ve decided to include a brief reminder at the beginning of the style sheet. Material destined to be read by refugees, prospective volunteers and the general public should be simple, direct and welcoming, never forgetting that some of the readers are destitute and desperate. With managers, on the other hand, we should be formal, courteous and concise, showing that the NGO is a serious and trustworthy organisation.

Style sheet - handshake

Modify only when necessary

If I change the style sheet too often with the honourable intention of improving the clarity and appearance of everyone’s writing, the NGO may end up in trouble! Perhaps future documents will look better than the previous ones but at the cost of being different in style. This is not a problem if the change happens together with other big changes in the organisation (such as when its efforts shift towards another category of disadvantaged people, requiring an overhaul of most documents). But if the words written today have, for example, a different spelling or hyphenation to the ones written last week, our reputation could take a hit, especially in the eyes of donors, and lead to the NGO receiving fewer resources.

I do consider modifying the style sheet, however, when I notice that the same questions keep popping up and when new phrases peculiar to the NGO are introduced. Adding relevant entries to the style sheet and amending the less clear ones makes writing and editing faster – no need to ask those questions and wait for the answers – and eliminates ambiguities.

Start with the AP Stylebook

When it comes to the content of the style sheet, the easiest starting point has been, like almost everything else in life, to imitate others. Together, we decided to get inspiration from the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook because it’s one of the most popular for web content, and even those who’ve never heard of AP but consume web content are familiar with the style through exposure.

Our style sheet, however, doesn’t need to be as comprehensive as AP. I started by writing the most relevant sections – abbreviations, spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, date and time, numbers, currencies and titles of publications – and later added further guidelines to solve my fellow editors’ recurring problems.


The choice of spelling can be a marketing tool. The NGO is based in Norway, which typically favours British English spelling, yet it’s significantly easier to receive money from American companies and charitable foundations than from European ones (I’ve been told that this is because of some special tax advantages that exist in the US). Since we want to receive positive attention from such entities, we chose not long ago to switch our preferred spelling from British English to American English.

Style sheet - decide, commit, repeat


The question I’ve received most often is ‘Should I capitalise this?’ The NGO organises courses for refugees and uses many software tools, so it’s a good idea to separate the names of these from normal text. Some suggested using italics, but we agreed on using roman title capitalisation because it’s easier to read, especially when a webpage is littered with the names of courses, companies and software products.

Besides the general guideline, I also added a list of all those terms that are specific to the NGO, to eliminate every possible doubt about their spelling and style.

As a consequence of these changes, the queries on capitalisation have dropped to almost zero.


We apply for grants, write web content to describe possible ways to support us and produce brochures that illustrate our progress. We want to reach out to the whole world, so we have to represent money in the most unambiguous way possible – and money holders like to be accurate with their figures. That’s why we’ve chosen to use three-letter codes for currencies rather than their respective symbols.

I hope you’ve found this different angle of working on a style sheet interesting and some aspects worth considering for your next project. If you ever face problems similar to mine, I hope my experiences will help you solve them. I’ve certainly enjoyed having this responsibility and seeing how much it has simplified my colleagues’ jobs – a bit like raising a baby and seeing it walk!

About Lorenzo Fusini

Lorenzo Fusini is an editor, data scientist and swimming instructor with a PhD in Engineering Cybernetics. His favourite activity is to put his hands on different fields of knowledge, professionally or not. He enjoys freediving, playing games (video, board, role-playing), reading science fiction, weird fiction and folklore, and chatting about all sorts of topics.


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 NASA, handshake by Cytonn Photography, decide, commit, repeat by Brett Jordan, all on Unsplash. 

Posted by Belinda Hodder, blog assistant.

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

Bridging the gap: Translation editing of Chinese texts published in English

In this post, Magda Wojcik considers some of the challenges in editing text that has been translated from Chinese to English.

Translation editing has a dual function when preparing a text for publishing. It performs the function of conventional copyediting, to ensure the text is clear, consistent and correct. It also provides harmony between the message, style and tone of the translated and original versions of the text.

Achieving such unity between two languages from the same language group spoken on the same continent may be easier. However, translation editing becomes more complex when the original (source) and the target (translated) languages differ profoundly in how they express, for example:

  • grammatical gender systems
  • time dependence
  • directionality
  • physical attributes such as colours.

This blog post explores the process of translation editing a text written in putonghua, which is the standard modern Chinese of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), for publication in English. Putonghua is one of the localisations of Mandarin Chinese, alongside those spoken in Taiwan and Singapore. In this post, the term ‘Chinese’ is used to refer to putonghua. Regarding English, for the sake of simplicity, this post does not delve too much into its complexities and variations.

Chinese vs English: How do they differ?

In (a very simplified) summary, Chinese expresses spatial and physical attributes and time dependence (including tenses, grammatical gender systems and numbers) differently from Indo-European languages (of which English is one). And unlike a Latin-based alphabet, Chinese uses a logographic writing system. In other words, each character represents a specific word or concept that can function as a standalone word or component of a word.

So what does that mean in practice? Let’s have a look at some simple examples.

Directionality and time

In Chinese, time progresses vertically rather than horizontally. So instead of thinking about the past as being ‘behind’ us, it is ‘above’ us; instead of thinking about the future as being ‘in front’ of us, it is ‘below’ us. For example, the character xia conveys not only ‘down’ or ‘below’ but also ‘next’. Likewise, shang denotes ‘up’, ‘above’, and ‘previous’. This distinctive understanding of time in the Chinese language, and its connection to spatial orientation, may present challenges in translation editing.


Some words in the Chinese language have been transforming, potentially aligning more with the Indo-European speaker’s understanding. For instance, modern Chinese distinguishes between blue (lan) and green (). However, a word that predates them both – qing, signifying blue-green – is also still in use. This does not mean that blue and green (as distinct colours) do not occur in Chinese-speaking contexts but may be conveyed (and perceived) differently, not necessarily as distinct shades.


Separating every three digits with a comma or a period is common in many Indo-European languages and enhances readability and comprehension. For instance, five hundred million (500,000,000) separates three clusters of three-digit groups. In contrast, Chinese divides numbers into groups of four. The character wan represents the value of ten thousand, and yi means a hundred million. So five hundred million is expressed by placing the number five (wu) in front of the hundred million (wu yi). While China uses the international numeric system with three-digit groupings and Arabic numerals, wan and yi remain prevalent and may influence how Chinese speakers convey numerical values.

A teacher stands in front of a blackboard in a Chinese school

What about translation editing?

These simple examples may demonstrate that language and how we think about and perceive the world may be intricately intertwined and mutually influence each other. Aside from communication, people use language to think. How the language is structured, with its syntax and specific logical rules, may affect how speakers of different languages perceive the world and convey their thoughts (Casasanto 2008). And this is when translation editing and its components of transcreation and language localisation come into play.

Localisation ensures that the target audience will understand the text’s terminology, cultural references and style carried over from the original text. Transcreation complements localisation and ensures that the translated text accurately conveys the message and tone of the source text.

These processes are critical in translation editing text from one distinct language to another. However, considering them is essential even for texts published in the same language spoken in different locations. For instance, Spanish speakers from Colombia and Spain may not resonate with the same references to a brand of sweets or a national newspaper in a text because these references are absent from their corresponding socio-cultural contexts. And so many other idiosyncrasies relevant to location and culture may need to be adapted in the localisation process to resonate with the target audience successfully.

Localisation: What to do with Chinese idioms in English?

An example of such idiosyncrasy is Chinese four-character idiomatic expressions (chengyu). These are the dominant form of Chinese idioms, comprising nearly 90% of those used today in speech and writing (Xu 2006). They reflect complex meanings drawn from literature and culture using four characters (or four syllables), which may take a paragraph to explain in English.

An example of such chengyu is ‘drawing legs on a snake’ (hua she tian zu; lit. ‘draw snake, add feet’). It signifies adding unnecessary or excessive elements to an already complete or perfect thing. When translated word for word, it may appear entirely obscure to a speaker unfamiliar with the context of Chinese philosophy and literature.

Hua she tian zu derives from one of the Zhuangzi stories, a collection of Daoist essays dating back to the fourth century BC. It describes a talented painter participating in a painting competition.

In the story, the first competitor to complete a snake drawing was to be the winner. The painter who finished first decided to add legs to his snake in an attempt to showcase his skills, technically making it into a lizard instead. Thus, he did not win because by making the addition, he missed the brief.

In this case, the translation editor could ensure effective localisation and transcreation by referring to an equivalent British English idiom familiar to the audience. For instance, it could be ‘gilding the lily’, which originates from Shakespeare’s play King John. Alternatively, the translation editor could ensure the text describes the concept to the reader on a more abstract level without referring to the snake, legs and painter.


Translation editing plays a vital role in bridging the gap between Chinese texts and their English translations. The complexities arising from differences in grammar, expressions and cultural nuances require careful consideration during the editing process. By understanding the intricacies of both languages and cultures, translation editors can bring Chinese texts to life in English while preserving their intrinsic meaning and engaging English-speaking readers.

The unique features of the Chinese language, such as spatial and temporal orientation, a logographic writing system, and numerical representation, pose specific challenges in translation editing. Language and thought are intricately intertwined, influencing how we perceive the world and convey our thoughts. Therefore, localisation and transcreation are essential components to ensure that the translated text accurately conveys the message and tone of the source text while catering to the target audience’s understanding and cultural context.

In this journey of translation editing, it is crucial to balance staying true to the original text with making it accessible to the target audience. And as we navigate the complexities, we must remember not to draw legs on a snake.


Xu, SH (2006). Proximity and complementation: Studies of the formation mechanism of idioms from cognitive point of view (II). Jinan daxue huawen xueyuan xuebao [Journal of College of Chinese Language and Culture of Jinan University], (3): 33–41.

Casasanto, D (2008). Space for thinking. In P Calvo and P Gomila (eds), Handbook of cognitive science: An embodied approach. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 641–52.

About Magda Wojcik

Magda Wojcik is an Intermediate Member of the CIEP who primarily works with non-fiction and academic authors. She is also a translation editor preparing texts translated from Chinese for publication in English. Before becoming an editor, Magda completed a PhD in Chinese literary history at SOAS, University of London.


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: Chinese lanterns by Henry & Co; teacher in Chinese school by Yu Wei; both on Unsplash.

Posted by Sue McLoughlin, blog assistant.

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

A finer point: Singular vs plural in possessive generic nouns

This month The Edit welcomes a new regular columnist for A finer point. In his first outing, Dan Beardshaw addresses an editor’s favourite: apostrophe position, here in relation to possessive generic nouns.

A common debate around apostrophe use involves the correct placement in a compound like farmer’s market or for products you might buy at one, such as hen’s eggs, cow’s milk or goat’s cheese. Shouldn’t it be plural farmers’ as there is surely more than one farmer there? And likewise, plural hens’, cows’ or goats’ to reflect the plurality of animals involved in production? Why not ditch the possessive altogether as we do for, say, duck eggs? Or is the singular possessive correct, serving here to indicate a category rather than the numbers involved? The case for the singular possessive is perhaps the most abstract, involving a specific use of the generic noun, and in this post I will explore its wider use in comparison with the plural (and other forms) and how best to approach the point in style decisions.

What are generic nouns?

Nouns can be split into two main groups: proper nouns, which are the names we give to individual people, animals, places, buildings, organisations and so on; and common nouns, which identify the general category something belongs to. But common nouns have their own distinctions, too. For example, in the sentence I’m going to feed the hens, the common noun hens refers to a specific group of hens – they are the speaker’s hens. Sometimes, however, we want to talk about a category in a broader sense: enter the generic noun. Generic nouns are a type of common noun but have the unique sense of referring to a person, place or thing universally.

Singular, plural and mass generic nouns

Generic nouns most often appear in either a mass or plural form.

Coffee is addictive. (mass)

Cats are cute. (plural)

A mass noun is sometimes used as a generic counterpart to its countable non-generic form.

‘How many pizzas shall we order?’

Pizza is the most popular takeaway.

Generic nouns can appear in singular form with a definite article (the).

Green tea is good for the brain.

I play the guitar.

We also see singular generic nouns with an indefinite article (a/an). This type may be used as part of an enquiry and its corresponding explanation.

Q: What’s an Oxford comma?

A: An Oxford comma is a listing comma worshipped by many, denounced by others and neither here nor there for the rest of us.

Possessive generic nouns

The singular generic noun with an indefinite article also often appears in idiomatic phrases as a possessive. In these possessives, the meaning of the indefinite article is ‘any’ or ‘all’ rather than ‘one’.

‘You’ve made a dog’s dinner of that.’

Looking for a one-size-fits-all rule is usually a fool’s errand.

We may find the singular possessive in the names of certain shops, such as newsagent’s, barber’s shop and greengrocer’s (not to be confused with the issue of the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’, which refers to erroneous plural formations such as potato’s instead of potatoes). This use can be seen as having an attributive function, assigning a category to the establishment in question, even though shop, store or whatever is frequently omitted in abbreviation. We could paraphrase the sense with an alternative singular generic form as, for example:

A shop selling the goods typically provided by a newsagent.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book

Another use can be found in book titles such as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to … series. In some cases, singular and plural generic possessives may be more or less interchangeable, but that doesn’t seem to be true here. The plural alternatives The Hitchhikers’ Guide and The Complete Idiots’ Guide both suggest a non-generic sense by using a definite article (the) with the plural – they appear to be referring to a specific group of hitchhikers or idiots in the same way that I’m going to feed the hens refers to a specific group of hens. But, as detailed in the previous section, there is an established generic form that uses a definite article with a singular noun, making the singular a logical choice for the possessive in this sort of context.

A similar case can be made for the singular form in compounds like cow’s milk as a generic equivalent to one or other of the senses outlined so far – perhaps closest in paraphrase to something like milk of the cow. So if a client’s preference is for the singular possessive and the style is used consistently, there might not be a good basis for changing it beyond any decisions they may have made to align with a particular style guide – more on this in the section ‘Style guide coverage’ below. However, this is also an area where convention may determine the decision. For example, clothes shops typically name their departments with a plural possessive: women’s clothes/men’s clothes/children’s clothes. The same case for the singular in other instances could arguably be made here, but the plural convention is so ubiquitous that the singular would read awkwardly for most people.

Generic possessives without an apostrophe

As Cathy Tingle has written about in her column ‘Disappearing apostrophes’, it’s quite common to find examples of what appear to be possessive compounds that have formally discarded the apostrophe. While this variation is more likely to appear within proper nouns, many institutions use a possessive generic noun as part of their title. Compare, for example, Musicians’ Union with The Communication Workers Union. Dropping the apostrophe from Communication Workers technically turns the word from a possessive into an attributive, and it’s possible this was the intention of the copy writer. However, names of organisations that include a generic noun indicating the group’s intended membership have an implicit possessive sense. It should be anticipated that some readers may parse them in this way, so consideration of the form of the generic noun is a factor if a decision of this type comes up. At the same time, the lack of an apostrophe is unlikely to cause serious ambiguity here – if it did, it would have been less likely to establish itself as a style choice.

Style guide coverage

A range of approaches to some of the points explored in this post appear in published style guides.

Fowler’s (Oxford University Press, 2015) takes a fairly liberal position on possessives without apostrophes in titles, including those which use a generic noun for the possessive/attributive part of the name (in their examples, Citizens, Diners, Farmers, Mothers and Teachers).

Relinquishment of the apostrophe. Since about 1900, many business firms, institutions, and journals have abandoned apostrophes in their titles, e.g. Barclays Bank, Citizens Advice Bureau, Diners Club, Farmers Weekly, Harrods, Mothers Pride Bread, — Teachers Training College.

Though occasionally disapproved of, the practice can be justified as an attributive rather than possessive use of the noun (i.e. Barclays Bank is attributive, implying association with Barclays, whereas Barclay’s Bank is possessive, implying ownership by people called Barclay).[…]

This trend towards the dropping of the apostrophe […] in such names and titles seems certain to continue. (Fowler’s, p59)

Farmers market sign

In contrast, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) actively recommends avoiding the attributive style in favour of keeping the apostrophe in all cases unless referencing an existing proper noun that has already adopted the style. It also favours the plural possessive.

Although terms denoting group ownership or participation sometimes appear without an apostrophe (i.e., as an attributive rather than a possessive noun), Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not officially include one. In a few established cases, a singular noun can be used attributively; if in doubt, choose the plural possessive. (CMOS 7.27)

And, to return to the agricultural theme, Ben Dreyer addresses the topic by way of farmers markets and resolutely backs the apostrophe-less form.

    1. Is it ‘farmer’s market’ or ‘farmers’ market’ or ‘farmers market’?
    2. I’m presuming there’s more than one farmer, so out goes ‘farmer’s market’.

As to the other two, is it a market belonging to farmers or a market made up of farmers?

I say the latter, so:

farmers market (Dreyer’s English, p42)

In conclusion

Text confounded by chaotic style choices such as a sentence that suggests buying hen’s eggs, cows’ milk and goat cheese at the farmers market can be made consistent in at least three logically justifiable ways. But keep an eye on usage conventions: throw duck eggs into that mix and you’ll either be swimming against the tide of popular preference or aligning with it to produce the awkward result of farmer market. A text might well present a constellation of instances for which absolute consistency confounds absolutely. So should a decision of this kind arrive at your desk, consider adding it to the ‘it depends’ column in the first instance.


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

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

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

Tingle, C (2022). Disappearing apostrophes. CIEP Blog.

About Dan Beardshaw

Dan Beardshaw

Dan Beardshaw is a development editor, copyeditor and proofreader, specialising in ELT and education publishing. He is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP.



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 Peggychoucair on Pixabay, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book by brenkee on Pixabay, farmers market sign by Count Chris on Pexels

Posted by Eleanor Smith, blog assistant.

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

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’ (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.


BBC Style Guide. Americanisms.

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

CIEP (2021). Common style differences between British and US English. Fact sheet.

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’?

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.


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.


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.


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.


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: 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.


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

Cheung, I. Power dynamics and plain language in healthcare. Wordrake blog.

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.

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.


‘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.


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.

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.

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

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.