Category Archives: Language

Stay alert: the importance of plain English in these confusing times

By Claire Beveridge

Presenting scientific data or science-based guidelines can be like walking a tightrope. Lean too far to one side and you risk falling into the trap of using too much jargon and alienating your readers. Shift too much the other way and your message becomes vague and confusing. You need look no further than the messaging from the UK Government for an example of this delicate balancing act. Their initial message ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ was simple, direct and clearly conveyed what everyone was supposed to do. Contrast this with its successor ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives’, which was almost immediately met with confusion and parodies on social media such as ‘Be vague. Cover our backs. Shirk responsibility’. What exactly did ‘stay alert’ mean, and what could and couldn’t we do? If only they had used plainer English.

Communication of scientific and medical information is most effective when things are written clearly and simply. Scientific literacy among the general population has been reported to be decreasing, and bad writing that is too complicated makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to engage. Add in the pandemic of ‘fake news’ that constantly seems to swirl online and you have a dangerous mix. A BBC team recently reported that the human cost of coronavirus misinformation has included assaults, arson and death, with hundreds dying in Iran as a result of alcohol poisoning following rumours of its curative effects, and others ingesting disinfectant and even fish tank cleaner following some of the daily pronouncements by Donald Trump. The stakes could not be higher. If important information isn’t communicated in a way that people understand, the result can be the unnecessary loss of life.

The ‘dihydrogen monoxide parody’ is a classic example of how using unnecessarily complicated scientific terms and selectively reporting data can lead people to reach misplaced conclusions. It has been deployed several times, and involves water being called by an unfamiliar chemical name and members of the public being presented with a list of its well-known effects that make it sound dangerous (such as that it is used as an additive in junk foods, it is found in tumours of terminal cancer patients and it is the major component of acid rain), followed by people being urged to ‘sign here to join the campaign for it to be banned’.

Science, by its very nature, is full of questions that cannot be answered without an element of doubt. Even if someone can get the same result when they repeat an experiment, it doesn’t ‘prove’ that something is or isn’t true. Results are simply pieces of evidence that support (or refute) a theory; ‘all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final’ (Kanazawa, 2008). Understandably, this can be a hard concept to grasp, and frustration and mistrust can arise if people feel that they are not being given a ‘proper’ answer. When will we have a vaccine against COVID-19? When will our lives go back to the way they were before the pandemic? No mathematical model can accurately predict the answers to these questions because we have never experienced this situation before. Even if we had, there would be no guarantee that the situation would play out in exactly the same way again; there are simply too many factors involved. When presenting data, writers need to consider people’s expectations and be honest about what is and isn’t known, and why.

The use of plain English is also important when scientists write for other scientists. It is a golden rule of scientific writing that methods must be described so that someone else can repeat experiments, and it is best practice to aim the abstract of a research paper at a level suitable for a non-specialist graduate student. More importantly, English is the global language of science and writers must always remember that many of their readers will not be native English speakers. Reading research papers that are crammed full of acronyms and complicated terminology can feel like wading through treacle, even when the writer works in the same field as you. Imagine how this must feel if English is not your first language. When results and guidelines are published, they are shared globally to spread ideas and new findings as widely as possible, and hopefully stimulate new ideas and collaborations across different disciplines that will advance our understanding. This cannot happen if only experts in a specific field can decode what is being said. Writing in plain English both speeds up the process of sharing new knowledge and increases the chances of new and exciting discoveries being made, something that is particularly useful when confronting a global pandemic caused by a virus that has never been seen before.

Clear communication in these confusing times may also yield another benefit; increasing engagement with science and medicine holds the key to inspiring the next generation of researchers, which will hopefully increase the numbers entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Data from STEM Women show that the split between men and women in terms of studying STEM subjects at university and then going on to pursue a career in STEM is still far from equal. We have a golden opportunity to readjust this balance if we can clearly communicate just how fascinating and rewarding scientific and medical research can be.

I have seen a lot of posts online musing over whether COVID-19 will change the way we live and work forever. If we can increase our use of plain English when communicating scientific data and guidelines, one positive change may be increased engagement.

Claire Beveridge is a CIEP Advanced Professional Member specialising in medicine and the biological sciences. Based near Oxford, she has over 13 years’ experience working with publishers and individual researchers. She has recently developed a worrying fascination with personal finance. Find her on Twitter.


If you’re looking for an experienced editor skilled in plain English editing, search for ‘plain English’ in the CIEP Directory.

Photo credits: tightrope by Loic Leray; clear water by Rots Marie-Hélène, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Gendered language and children’s books

By Philippa Neville

Gender representation is, quite rightly, a hot topic in children’s publishing. I grew up in the nineties, whose media provided a diet of kind women in floral dresses, powerful men in shirts and ties, little girls with dolls and nail varnish, and little boys with footballs and dirty habits. Stepmothers were universally evil and headteachers were almost always men. Of course, plenty of girls loved dolls and many little boys adored football, but I often wonder what the world would have looked like for me if I’d been presented with casts of female doctors, astronauts and builders, and male ballet dancers, homemakers and babysitters. Happily, things are changing across all forms of media, and it is our responsibility, as children’s editors, to lead the way in showing children that there are possibilities beyond the normative roles of ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

I am an in-house copyeditor for Ladybird, and my colleagues and I are mindful of how we represent gender in our books. Ladybird is committed to creating diverse books for all children, and part of this commitment is about representing gender in a way that does not pigeonhole according to normative stereotypes. In 2018, The Observer carried out a study of the top 100 children’s books of the previous year. It found that those books were 50 per cent more likely to have a male leading character, and that he would often play a stereotypically masculine role. Male characters were twice as likely to have a speaking role in the books, and a fifth of the books did not include female characters at all.

We know that the media has a huge part to play in shaping children’s worldview. Ladybird is invested in presenting a varied gendered landscape, ensuring, in particular, that a mixture of genders are given the starring role. Much of this work is done by the commissioning editors, and I’m regularly delighted by my colleagues’ commitment to finding stories that play with and challenge stereotypes.

As a copyeditor, part of my role is to interrogate language choices. When a manuscript is handed to me from the commissioning team, one of my jobs is to look out for language that might subtly encourage stereotypical thinking and to then make it as gender neutral as possible. In children’s books, a common example of this is in job titles, so any ‘firemen’, ‘fishermen’, ‘headmasters’ and ‘air hostesses’ become ‘firefighters’, ‘fishers’, ‘headteachers’ and ‘flight attendants’ under my pen. Likewise, I change the words ‘mankind’ or ‘manmade’ to ‘humankind’ and ‘made by humans’, though the latter often requires some light rephrasing.

I also look out for opportunities to swap one gendered pronoun for another, or to use gender-neutral pronouns, where the swap makes for a non-stereotypical outcome. For example, I might change ‘My neighbour said that I could borrow his lawnmower’ to ‘My neighbour said that I could borrow her lawnmower’ or ‘My neighbour said that I could borrow their lawnmower’. For those that are unsure, it is perfectly acceptable to use ‘they’ or ‘them’ as a singular third-person pronoun.

Children’s books that fight against stereotypical gender roles are becoming more and more common, and I believe this will continue. The success of Particular Books’ Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls in 2017 kicked off a flurry of non-fiction children’s titles about brilliant women, and its effect continues to ripple through the industry. I hope to see the industry’s concern with combatting gender stereotypes extend to more representation of other gender identities, and to see more trans and non-binary characters taking up leading roles in children’s titles.

It is vital to remember that gender is only one beam of the diversity rainbow. We must also pay close attention to how we represent race, disability, sexuality and social mobility in our books, ensuring that we reflect the diverse landscape of experiences that exist within our world. At Penguin Random House, we want, through our new hires and authors, to reflect UK society by 2025. As creatives, we can lead the way in presenting children with a wider worldview – one in which there is room for everyone. Society is still on the long road to equality, but through our books we can reflect reality, broaden horizons and show the adults of tomorrow that they are represented in books or can be anything they want to be.

Philippa Neville is a copyeditor at Ladybird Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House Children’s. She works on titles from both their trade and licensing lists, which range from short picture books to longer books about science, nature and fairy tales. She has been in the industry since 2011 and has a background in primary educational publishing.


CIEP members can now download a fact sheet and a focus paper on gendered language from the Resources page of the website.

Proofread by Cathy Tingle, Advanced Professional Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A Finer Point: Style counsel

Is our dropping of hyphens and dangling of modifiers de trop? Riffat Yusuf gets coached in punctuation style by previous writers of A Finer Point.

I always thought punctuation was about correctness. The function of dots and dashes was structural: to hold grammatical constructions in place. The idea of using punctuation for style was an afterthought – if a dash had panache / if an oblique was on fleek, it was down to ‘feel-right’ and whimsy rather than considered strokes on my part. And then I read what Val Rice had to say on using semicolons to avoid style errors.

In A Finer Point in the July/August 2009 edition of Editing Matters, Val outlined how semicolons are more than links between independent clauses connected by meaning; they are buffers against bad styling. They declutter comma overload, take the edge off short, sharp sentences and break up the monotony of repeated conjunctions. And crucially, they have their own role to play:

I started to think about the pros and cons of using dashes and semicolons, and spent an afternoon looking through all my punctuation and grammar reference books to see whether I could find anything, anywhere, to prove that semi-colons and dashes are interchangeable. You may be relieved to know that they aren’t!

Lesson 1: Semicolons are for composition and style. But be aware also of Sarah Price’s observation that technical documentation often avoids the semicolon (January/February 2014):

For some styles of writing, such as technical documentation, joining two clauses together with a semicolon is frowned upon (or it certainly was when I was a technical writer): writers are encouraged to keep sentences short and simple. However, in more prosaic styles of writing, semicolons can be used to improve the flow of the text and avoid the ‘staccato’ effect of short sentences.

Chagrin and bear it

You know how I said that semicolons link independent clauses that have a connected meaning? There’s a reason why I just repeated it: Cathy Tingle. In ‘Scared – and scarred – by semicolons’ (May/June 2019), she shared a snippet of her semicolon-indulgent dissertation where the connection was assumed (if she knew it, then so would her supervisor?) rather than actual.

Lesson 2: If you must revisit the seminal outpourings of your student self, allow enough room for a cringe dance.

Which comma?

I know what restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses look like. But I still need Luke Finley to make instant sense of the difference in meaning. And so, Lesson 3, adapted from Luke’s unpacking of that/which (September/October 2016): Learn these sentences off by heart.

Open the third door which is blue and enter the room. (Here, the restrictive clause tells me to ignore the first two blue doors I see – I could pass several doors before I get to the first blue one, let alone the third one …)

Open the third door, which is blue, and enter the room. (Here, the non-restrictive clause tells me to open the third door – it just happens to be blue.)

Commas with clout

The comma, not the relative pronoun which, is what conveyed the aside-ness of Luke’s non-restrictive clause. Commas lack heft. Or so I thought. Lesson 4 is from Luke’s column in July/August 2017 where he notes that the comma after an adverbial introductory phrase can drive meaning further than intended.

Luke gives an example: ‘Quickly, he finished the column and then made a cup of tea.’ He then explains:

In adverbial introductory phrases the use of a comma tends to suggest that the adverb modifies the whole sentence rather than only a part of it. In the last example it appears that both the column-finishing and the tea-making were done quickly: this may not have been the intention.

Sticking with unintentional application of meaning, here’s what I learned about dangling modifiers. Iffy sentence alert.

Heeding a point made by Sarah Price, modifiers dangle less offensively than I once thought.

A participle ‘dangles’ when it isn’t clear which text element it modifies … We only need to consider rewriting when there is ambiguity. If it’s clear from the context what is meant, there is no need to change it.

In my sentence, heeding is the modifying participle, and it looks like it’s dangling because the word after the comma (modifiers) isn’t really the intended heeder, is it? To truncate Sarah’s much clearer explanation, if you understand that the heeding pertains to me, then the dangle can stand. Lesson 5 (from July/August 2015) suggests that a bit of dangle is acceptable. Lesson 6: Maybe recast anyway …

Comma quickies

Who knew that commas enclosing parenthetical information, as gleaned from the January/February 2020 Editing Matters, imply a closer connection to the surrounding context than round brackets or en dashes? It makes sense though, visually. Commas place less distance between words than a pair of dashes, and they aren’t as marked a barrier as parentheses.

Can I slip in a vocative comma, CIEP member? Did it. Another one coming up. Newbies, we can be forgiven for not identifying a gapping comma; experienced editors, less so. (Like that last one.)

Compounded by hyphens

What strikes me in Cathy’s piece about hyphenated compounds (July/August 2019) is how disarming a character the hyphen can be – and not in a copy-editor vs copyeditor kind of way. In 2014 it was dropped from African American in both noun and adjective form. It took another five years for people (inclusivity-respectful editors?) to omit the othering hyphen from Asian American. That hyphen, uncontested for too long and providing clarity for nobody, snags even more when you view it against an editing cornerstone: introduce punctuation only to avoid ambiguity.

So, a round-up lesson for all of us is to be more confident in querying the ‘correctness’ of punctuation, not just when it challenges convention, but sometimes when it doesn’t.

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


‘A Finer Point’ was a regular column in the SfEP’s magazine for members, Editing Matters. The column has moved onto the blog until its new home on the CIEP website is ready.

Members can browse the Editing Matters back catalogue through the Members’ Area.

Photo credits: comma (butterfly) Michael Weidner; cups of tea Joanna Kosinska, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Over the limit: reducing the word count

By Claire Bacon

Most journals impose word limits on the articles they publish. Saying the same thing in fewer words not only increases an article’s chances of being accepted for publication, but also makes it easier to read. In this blog post, I explain how to reduce the word count in a research paper to keep the journal editor and the readers happy.

Wordy phrases

Replace wordy phrases with concise alternatives. For example:

  • Explained instead of accounted for the fact that
  • Now instead of at this point in time
  • Many instead of a large number of
  • Because instead of due to the fact that.

You can also avoid wordiness by choosing the right verbs. For example, the active voice uses fewer words than the passive voice:

The questionnaire was completed by the participants. (passive voice; 7 words)

Participants completed the questionnaire. (active voice, 4 words)

Nominalisation (changing verbs/adjectives into nouns) also introduces unnecessary passive verbs into your sentences. Use verbs that tighten your text:

A positive correlation between drug use and recovery time was observed. (11 words)

Drug use correlated positively with recovery time. (7 words)

This would lead to a reduction in patient mortality. (9 words)

This would reduce patient mortality. (5 words)

Using single verbs instead of phrasal verbs can also reduce the word count. For example:

We cut down on the amount of drug administered over time. (phrasal verb; 11 words)

We reduced the amount of drug administered over time. (single verb; 9 words)

You can cut this down even further by choosing more appropriate words:

We reduced the drug dosage.

The first person

Using first person pronouns (I, we, me, my, mine, us, our) is a great way to emphasise the author’s perspective and engage the reader. But the first person isn’t always suitable. Take a look at the following example:

We discovered that regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants.

This is not an effective use of the first person. Keep the tone objective when describing results – and doing so will use fewer words:

Regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants.

Redundant information

Delete any words that do not contribute important information. Prepositional phrases (groups of words without subjects or verbs) are often redundant and can be deleted without changing the meaning. For example:

  • Large instead of large in size
  • Round instead of round in shape
  • Red instead of red in colour.

Also check whether the modifiers in the article are necessary. For example:

Careful hemodynamic monitoring is necessary to prevent tissue hypoxia during cardiac surgery. (Nobody will infer that careless hemodynamic monitoring is acceptable if you delete careful.)

Extensive inclusion criteria were used to define the target population. (The inclusion criteria will be presented, so no need to tell the reader they are extensive.)

Double negatives are also redundant – and unclear. For example:

Although the difference was small, it was statistically significant

is shorter and clearer than

Although the difference was small, it was not statistically insignificant.

Filler phrases such as it has been shown that, it is widely accepted that, and it should be noted that are often redundant, but can be used sparingly to guide a reader through the author’s evolving argument.

Be specific

Concrete language is often more concise than abstract language. It also makes writing easier to understand. For example:

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by oncologists.

is specific and less wordy than

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by appropriately qualified medical personnel.

Use tables and figures

Save space by presenting large amounts of data in a table. Remove any redundant information (eg a column headed Sex is not necessary if all participants were female) and put units in the headings or footnotes rather than in each data field.

Don’t repeat yourself

Avoid repetition. Unnecessary adjectives are a common culprit – for example, past history, end result, advance planning, in actual fact, various different. Adverbs can be repetitive too – definitely proved, completely eliminate, may possibly, repeat again. Check whether adjectives and adverbs give new information. If not, delete them.

Do not repeat information from tables and figures in the text. A brief reference to what the figure or table is showing is sufficient. For example:

We collected data on age, sex, BMI, use of hormonal contraceptives, and Becks Depression Inventory score for all patients (Table 1)

is wordy and redundant. Try:

Patient characteristics are presented in Table 1.

Emphasise with care – intensifiers don’t always add meaning: exactly the same, absolutely essential, extremely significant, and very unique are all examples of redundant intensifiers and can be deleted.

Avoid continuous tenses

The continuous tenses indicate that something is ongoing. They are usually best avoided in research papers because they force unnecessary use of the verb to be. For example:

We measured creatinine levels in patient urine (simple past tense)

is concise and easier to read than

We were measuring creatinine levels in patient urine. (past continuous tense)


Abbreviations can make text concise because they avoid repetition of long words. Many scientific words are better known by their abbreviations, such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and PCR (polymerase chain reaction). These abbreviations improve the flow and clarity of the writing and usually do not need to be defined:

Patient DNA was amplified by PCR

will be understood by most readers. However, non-standard abbreviations should be defined when first used:

The SN, SC, and IC are components of the MB

is impossible to understand. The reader needs to know what the abbreviations mean:

The substantia nigra (SN), superior colliculus (SC), and inferior colliculus (IC) are part of the midbrain (MB).

Don’t define abbreviations more than once in the main text. Abbreviations will only reduce the word count if they are used consistently after they are defined.

Be ruthless with your red pen

Authors are often reluctant to delete the words they have taken so much time to write. But cutting unnecessary information from a paper will draw attention to the important content. If time allows, put an article to one side for a while before deciding what to delete. This will make awkward phrases and irrelevant information easier to spot. Following the tips outlined in this article will help you decide what needs to go to get the word count under the journal’s limit.


Claire Bacon is a former research scientist and an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copyeditor for The Canadian Journal of Anesthesia.

This article was published on Claire’s blog on 23 October 2019. Many thanks to Claire for granting permission to amend and republish it.

If you’re interested in learning more about helping authors to make their writing more clear and concise, then consider taking the SfEP’s Plain English for Editors course.

Photo credits: You choose your words – Brett Jordan on Unsplash; Books – Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Punctuating quotes: UK and US differences

Outside or inside, before or after? Punctuating quotes can be a bit of a minefield, as Luke Finley points out.Us-UK English

A quick search on the SfEP forums reveals that punctuating quotes is an area that trips many of us up – and not just those with less experience. This isn’t a surprise, because there’s extensive variation in the conventions. In this column I focus on quotes in non-fiction texts: conventions for reported speech in fiction are arguably even more subjective.

Academic/formal writing

In academic writing and other materials that cite in a strict academic style (policy papers and the like), the conventions are fairly fixed.

UK/US variation

In US English, closing punctuation goes inside the quote marks, whether the quote is a complete sentence or not, and whether the punctuation was there in the original quoted material or not:

Svolik identifies the “twin problems of dictatorship,” going on to explore how different institutions address these problems.

In UK English, in the same example the comma would follow the closing quote mark (which would more usually be a single quote mark – but that’s another story). However, UK English does put the closing punctuation inside the quote marks if the quote is, or ends with, a complete sentence:

Balkin says that ‘almost all political activity may be constitutional. Often we may only know what counts later on, when practice and precedents become settled.’

Punctuating with citations

Where a parenthetical citation (eg in author–date style) appears immediately after the quote, the punctuation follows it, in UK or US style:

‘… precedents become settled’ (Balkin, 2011).

Displayed quotes

In displayed quotes there are typically no quote marks to interfere with the closing punctuation. In this case, if there is a citation it follows the closing punctuation:

… precedents become settled. (Balkin, 2011)

Other non-fiction texts

Separating quotes from text

Where quoted material is part of a longer sentence, it’s often separated from the text using commas:

He said, ‘show me where the comma should be’.

In more formal writing, or where the quoted material is longer, a colon might take the place of the comma. Or it might be omitted altogether for very short quotes or where the quote is integrated into the syntax of the sentence:

About commas, he said simply ‘Hate them!’

He said that he was kept awake at night worrying about ‘the horrors of punctuation’.

Punctuation inside or out?

The UK approach is generally to be guided by whether or not the punctuation ‘belongs’ to the quoted matter. ‘Belongs’ is often interpreted (eg The Economist Style Guide to mean a natural pause regardless of how the original quote was punctuated.

‘This sentence’, she said, ‘has a full stop but no commas.’

‘On the other hand,’ she continued, ‘this sentence has both.’

The US approach – which is common in British fiction and increasingly in journalistic writing – is to punctuate inside the quote marks regardless of whether the sense of the quoted matter requires it.

Use your own good judgement

As is clear from my qualified statements, these are conventions, not hard-and-fast rules. Sources such as Butcher’s Copy-editing and New Hart’s Rules are good for the range of approaches but don’t necessarily tell you which to use in a particular case. Others, such as Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation, offer their own preferred approach – which may be clear and persuasively argued, but doesn’t necessarily preclude a different approach.

In the end, it comes down to your client’s preference, the need for consistency and your own judgement. For example, Trask argues for minimal punctuation – why use additional marks to signal that a quote is coming up when the quote marks already do that job? This notion is attractively straightforward but, as an editor or especially as a proofreader, you won’t always be in a position to impose such an approach.


Luke FinleyLuke Finley, an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and left the public sector soon after, to edit and proofread full time. He will edit just about anything but specialises in social policy.



This article first appeared in the SfEP magazine, Editing Matters, in November 2016.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

Picture credit: raphink, on Pixabay.

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

Inclusion and diversity

Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

Curiously, the word ‘inclusion’ was once all about shutting someone in as a form of imprisonment. Its beginnings are in the Latin claudere, to shut, which means that ‘include’ and ‘close’ are unlikely siblings. The idea of confinement gradually shifted to mean embracing someone within the boundaries or circle of a group.

That sense of an embrace lies hidden behind some unexpected words in English. At the heart of ‘accolade’, for example, is the Latin ‘col’, meaning ‘neck’. The first accolades were knighthoods given by a monarch to their subjects by means of a royal hug – the recipients were literally ‘collared’. Similarly, to ‘fathom’ once meant to embrace with outstretched arms: the average length of such arms was thought to be around six feet, hence the use of fathom to measure the depth of the water in order to take soundings (when we fathom a situation or fact, we are essentially taking soundings with our minds).

Diversity, like inclusion, is a word with a classical heritage. At its heart is the Latin vertere, to turn, which also produced ‘vertigo’ (‘a whirling around’), ‘advert’ (which makes us ‘turn toward’ something), ‘anniversary’, (the turning of the year), ‘extrovert’, (someone who ‘turns’ outwards), and a whole host of other English words. ‘Diverse’ simply means ‘turned in different directions’ – in other words, embracing all.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.



The SfEP has undertaken its first equality, diversity and inclusion audit – Vanessa Plaister explains why and how in ‘Taking the SfEP forward into an inclusive future‘.

This Wonderful Words article first appeared in issue 9 of Editorial Excellence,
the SfEP’s e-newsletter.

Proofread by Liz Jones, Advanced Professional Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Taking the SfEP forward into an inclusive future

As the SfEP prepares to report on the findings of its first equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) audit, we interview Vanessa Plaister, community director, and explore what led the SfEP to take this step.

You’re relatively new to the SfEP Council, Vanessa, and you’ve hit the ground running with an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiative. How did that come about?

It was all a bit of a whirlwind! One minute I was reaching out to Sue [Browning, then community and now membership director] in my capacity as local group coordinator for Mid-Somerset, asking her for a steer towards the SfEP’s equality statement, and the next I found myself co-opted onto the Council, taking the lead on developing just such a statement – and more…
As a member, I’d never considered putting myself forward – but being on the Council has been the challenge I didn’t know I needed and I’m thrilled not only to be part of a vibrant, dynamic team, but also that not one director has questioned why the SfEP needs to be embedding equality, diversity and inclusion across its activities. I think there was Council buy-in on this before I even raised a hand.

It’s clear that EDI issues matter to you and to the Council. Can you tell us why?

Good question. Because these are issues so woven into who I am – who I want to be – stepping back and trying to put the why into words is difficult. For me, I guess, if you’re not concerned about issues of equality, diversity and inclusion in the UK where the wealth gap is ever growing, in which women are raising their voices to call out everyday sexism and in which structural racism is ever more exposed, you’re not listening. I can’t speak for the other directors as to why these and other related issues matter to them, but for me it’s imperative that I do what I can to amplify those voices that are and have historically been less heard and to lift up those folk who are and have historically been ground down.

And although I’m not really on board with the requirement for a business case – a profit motive – to underpin any social good, part of inclusive practice is acknowledging that not everyone thinks quite the same way I do… And some folk need to know that diversity and inclusion are demonstrably good for business. They open up markets and embrace excluded audiences, and they build the bottom line.

And what about the SfEP’s members? Why should equality, diversity and inclusion matter to them?

It’s firmly established within the SfEP standards and editorial syllabus that some general knowledge and awareness of cultural issues is essential if an editor is to practise effectively. Sarah Grey has written on inclusive language for the SfEP blog, and there’ll be a session on editors and inclusivity at the SfEP Conference 2019; Erin Carrie has twice written on the issue of linguistic prejudice, both in theory and in practice, which is something to which it’s all too easy for an editor to fall prey. In publishing on these sorts of issues, the SfEP is clearly positioning itself in opposition to those who misrepresent editors and proofreaders as fusty grammarians, clinging to outdated prescriptions that don’t keep pace with modern communications, which I think couldn’t be further from the truth!

For members, it’s also essential to remember that, as an association of members, the SfEP is its members. From the Council through the local group coordinators, the social media team and the ambassadors, to name but a few, every role is held by a member and every activity is member-led. What this means is that barriers to participation are barriers to the SfEP delivering value to its members. The more diverse and inclusive the SfEP’s activities, the more valuable those activities become.

And that means the SfEP must embed policy that’s not only informed by the shape of our membership now and our goals for the future, but also action-focused to widen participation and meet the needs of our members meaningfully.

You started work on developing that policy by delivering the SfEP’s very first EDI audit to members in late April and early May this year. Tell us a bit about that.

When I joined the Council, I wasn’t interested in drafting a policy that simply paid lip service to the subject, copying and pasting from other organisations’ templates. The SfEP needs a strategic EDI policy – and the first step towards setting out where we need to go is figuring out where we are now.

There were two sections to the audit: the first focused on issues of equality and diversity, including protected and other personal characteristics; the second, on indicators of inclusion, such as fairness, belonging and voice. We can benchmark the findings in the first section against the Publishers Association (PA) survey of diversity and inclusion across the publishing industry as a whole,1 and against figures for the UK more widely. We based the questions in the second section on questions developed by data analysts at SurveyMonkey and social scientists at Paradigm, fine-tuning them to allow SfEP members to reflect on their membership experience. We also added questions on participation in each of the SfEP’s shared spaces – local groups, forums, conference – as well as the experience of members as volunteers. And we asked The Diversity Trust to review the audit questions and the accompanying communications because professional standards matter.

Using SurveyMonkey, we conducted the audit anonymously to maximise participation and authenticity, and we assured members that their responses would be held confidentially and accessed only by a single named individual (the community director), with the results to be published in aggregate only.

I think it’s also important to note that we delivered a sequence of communications before and during the audit, including FAQs each time, and that this may have contributed to our remarkably high response rate of 41 per cent.

Since the audit closed, data analysis has been time-consuming – not least because language professionals may be more likely than other respondents to take advantage of free text spaces to add commentary. There’s so much of value in this textual data that I’m consequently still working on the report – but we hope to be in a position to publish it very soon…

Okay. So, you’re still working on the report – but can you give us any sneak peeks into your findings?

[Pauses for thought] I don’t think it would come as any great surprise to anyone if I were to confirm that, of the 883 members who responded, a massive 80 per cent were women, which is considerably higher than the 63.4 per cent of respondents to the PA survey of diversity and inclusion within the publishing industry more broadly and the 52 per cent of women within the UK population.2

Another finding that’s perhaps unsurprising is that while the PA found a significant peak (37.9 per cent) in the age of its respondents at the 25–34 range,3 only 9.6 per cent of respondents to the SfEP’s EDI audit fell within that range, the more prevalent being 45–54 (ie 45–49 plus 50–54, grouped to map onto the PA’s ranges). The Council has long anticipated that a lot of our members may have come to editing and proofreading as a second career or after working in-house for a period of time, and these findings suggest that this may well be the case.

What’s especially interesting to me is the way in which these sorts of findings are intersecting with other factors, such as disability and mental health, or barriers to participation such as childcare or accessibility – but you’ll need to wait for the full report to be published to find out more!

Sounds interesting – and exciting.

It is. It really is.

For me and for the Council, it’s about core values – about signalling what kind of organisation the SfEP is and wants to be, and about embedding those values to take the SfEP forward into an inclusive future. When I work with the SfEP’s social media team and when I follow our members on Twitter, I see language professionals who engage thoughtfully and constructively with progressive ideas, and who know that our work is keenly relevant to equality, diversity and inclusion.

  • We talk about the inclusivity of gender-neutral pronouns and we embrace the long-established singular ‘they’.
  • We talk about the access issues that learners might encounter if their textbooks are taken out of print and available on-screen only.
  • We talk about the physical and mental health of freelancers, and we engage with #StetWalk or establish the SfEP’s Run On Group on Facebook…

This is who we are already.

And I’m so excited to showcase the evidence and take the next steps.

1      The Publishers Association, Publishing Industry Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Survey 2018, available online at

2      Ibid, p7.

3      Ibid, p6.

Vanessa Plaister is an Advanced Professional Member (APM) who became SfEP community director in September 2018 and is working to bring equality, diversity and inclusion to the fore in all SfEP policy and procedure. She can commonly be found smothered by cats and surrounded by strong coffee or else risking whiplash at the front of a sweaty rock gig – and you can also find her in the SfEP Directory of Editorial Services here.

Proofread by Liz Jones, Advanced Professional Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

‘Pedantry is not a good look’: the radical message of English Grammar Day

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

So, when I told another SfEP member that I was going to English Grammar Day at the British Library, he was like, ‘I hope it doesn’t just involve complaining about Americanisms and overworked shop assistants writing “Out off order” signs’. Well, I was kind of expecting it would be just that – but, you know, it actually turned out to be kind of a subversive celebration of language change. And, yes, it also acknowledged the numerous linguistic tics I’ve already used in this opening paragraph. I suspect that prescriptively inclined delegates went home despairing of the deteriorating state of the English language. But, if they did, they weren’t paying attention.

Editors tend to be descriptive, not prescriptive, in their approach

For me, the day raised the issue of how we, as editors, can balance the prescriptive and descriptive elements of language use. It’s all very well for academics to shrug their shoulders and agree that things change, but where do we stand when our job is to ensure that text in the public domain is correct?

Or is that our job? Perhaps we should regard our work more as facilitating communication. Most modern editors would probably agree that it is. SfEP members formed a good proportion of the audience and I didn’t hear any of them grinding their teeth (except when it was suggested that nobody would miss the possessive apostrophe). In fact, most of us nodded at Rob Drummond’s graph indicating that pedantry decreases as language knowledge increases.

When people criticise the language of others, it’s almost always about more than language

Take Zwicky’s bias warnings, quoted by David Denison:

  • The recency illusion – a belief that things you notice recently are recent.
  • The frequency illusion – once you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere but that doesn’t mean it happens all the time.

We all have our tics and bugbears. I hate constructions like ‘We were sat on the bench’ and ‘Come with’ (it’s ‘come with ME’, dammit!) and would correct these in written text without a second thought. On the other hand, I am aware that all my conversations are peppered with the oft-despised ‘like’. As Rob Drummond said in his talk, ‘standard’ English is an arbitrary accident of history, reflecting the balance of power and personal choices that may, or may not, have gained wider traction. The speech of those who decry ‘like’ or the exclamatory ‘so’ almost certainly features other discourse markers that nobody seems to mind – ‘kind of’, ‘well’, ‘you know’, ‘I mean’, ‘actually’. Your ‘overuse’ of linguistic tics may be someone else’s normal. They’re not necessarily devoid of meaning, either – it was pointed out that certain academics’ use of ‘as it were’ could imply that the speaker feels that ordinary words are not adequate to express the brilliance of their insight!

There is evidently a difference between what people say and what people think they said, and, frankly white, middle-aged, middle-class men – those with the power – receive less linguistic criticism than other groups in society. Everyone has preferences but when these become judgements and prejudices, these preferences are problematic. The use of ‘he’ as a singular generic pronoun has, thankfully, fallen out of favour but the lack of an alternative term raises new issues. Charlotte Brewer analysed actor James Woods’ recent tweet complaining about the singular ‘they’, taken by many to be transphobic. Dictionaries tend to avoid the matter, as well as failing to reflect new definitions of other gendered words – ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, for example. Do dictionaries record or sanction use – or neither? A woman may have a wife, whether or not the dictionary says it’s possible.

Non-standard may become standard but, even if it doesn’t, non-standard does not mean sub-standard. In fact, it often does a better job of communicating than standard forms. A good example is the sophistication and eloquence of much grime music and rap. Check out The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company for more evidence.

To misquote Taylor Swift: ‘Hey, kids! Grammar is fun!’

Grammar is often taught in primary schools by those who are not confident in describing the technical details. To be honest, many editors make a good living without knowing what a modal verb is, or caring about the difference between ‘which is better?’ and ‘which is best?’. Does it matter? Probably not, if the aim is to pass Key Stage SATs or to make a passage of text easier to understand. But English Grammar Day showed that grammar is about much more than whether fronted adverbials improve a piece of prose.

Editors normally work with the written word. Most users of English differentiate between writing and speaking modes, but younger people often blend the two. Electronic forms of communication (texting, for example) may reflect spoken language written down, but we don’t yet have the terminology to grammatically assess it.

There is always an element of choice in how we use language. Non-standard grammar can both reflect, and play a role in, the performance and expression of our identities. Code-switching is not a problem for most speakers if they first recognise the need and then choose to do so. Contrary to rumour, there is apparently no evidence that GCSE and A-Level examiners have come across text-speak – clearly, young people know how to meet the standards appropriate to the situation. The theme of our 2017 SfEP conference was ‘context is key’ – nobody is saying that students shouldn’t use standard grammar in formal essays, but they don’t need to use it in everyday writing and speech, as long as their audience understands them.

Which brings us back to how editors could address these issues. There’s one short answer. Rob Drummond added a coda to his graph that, ‘You can become a pedantic anti-pedant and that’s unattractive as well.’ Our job, as those with the language knowledge, is to educate pedants. And, sometimes, our job is to recognise that we are those same pedants.

With thanks to the day’s speakers, who provided the springboard for my thoughts in this blog post and to whom I apologise for any inadvertent plagiarism: Charlotte Brewer, Jon Hutchinson, David Denison, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Barbara Bleiman, Rob Drummond and John Mullan.

And with apologies to my proofreader for the first few sentences.

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. She has written and edited numerous textbooks, specialising in vocational education, media studies, construction, health and safety, and travel. Check out her micro book reviews on Ju’s Reviews. Don’t ask her to explain what a modal verb is.


You can brush up your grammar with the SfEP’s online course.

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Linguistic prejudice: towards more inclusive editing and proofreading practices

By Erin Carrie

Close up photo of poppy buds, with one starting to open

I recently wrote an SfEP blog post discussing linguistic bias and prejudice, and encouraging editors and proofreaders to reflect on our roles and how our own biases may influence our working practices. In the post, I also highlighted what I consider to be problematic discourse within the profession, which is often reflective of the wider public discourse around language use. As a follow-up, this blog post provides more concrete – and, in many ways, more subtle – examples of linguistic bias and prejudice.

It’s one thing to accept that linguistic bias exists within the editing and proofreading profession and quite another to identify how it manifests itself and the ways in which we might work to prevent it. Once we start checking for unconscious biases in our daily practice, we come to realise that there are no simple do’s and don’ts. But, in my own experience of editing and proofreading (and having my work edited and proofread), I’ve become mindful of various ways in which we might be able to carry out our work in a more sensitive, inclusive and representative fashion.

1. Do encourage the use of sensitive and inclusive language but check that suggestions align with the author’s intention.

By means of example, a proofreader changed every instance of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’ in one of my research papers and, despite being well-intentioned, this change misrepresented which of these factors I’d investigated and how I’d gone about my research.

2. Do respect people’s rights to self-identify and to identify others in a more inclusive manner.

This applies to every aspect of identity but a useful example is that of singular they/them/their used for unknown or non-binary gender identifications. Singular they/them/their has become increasingly common and accepted in usage, especially for generic or indefinite antecedents, and the pronouns have worked to replace he/him/his, often the traditional choices in ‘gender-neutral’ instances. Recent moves have seen singular they/them/their used in a specific and definite sense. Ackerman (2018) writes:

there is prescriptive stigma of they as being necessarily plural … (although this appears to be changing) … this bias feeds the stigma of singular they as a personal pronoun for people who identify as neither male nor female, but instead as nonbinary. I advocate extreme care in using “unacceptable,” … This terminology puts authors in the position of telling nonbinary … readers … that the terminology which the nonbinary community has converged on is unacceptable

For discussion of singular they in editing and proofreading, see this article from The Economist.

3. Do retain regional and non-standard linguistic differences, rather than replacing them with more widespread or standard forms.

A good example of this is the primarily Scottish term ‘outwith’, frequently replaced in academic and other formal types of writing, despite the fact that, as stated in this Twitter thread, ‘it is the opposite of within in a way that without is not’.

4. Do acknowledge variation and remain flexible – opting for consistency rather than imposing rules.

By means of example, while the Modern Humanities Research Association suggests that the possessive of ‘Jesus’ is ‘Jesus’s’, Scientific Style and Format recommends writing it as ‘Jesus’’. This is not to mention the controversy around the use of the Oxford comma or the use of split infinitives, which also vary according to institutional and personal style. The choices that writers make regarding each of these linguistic features will inevitably communicate social meanings (I, for one, have either used or avoided the Oxford comma to achieve different effects), but writers should be entitled to make those choices themselves.Page of printed text with editing mark-up in red pen5. Do respect and nurture the author’s style, voice and identity.

If the author chooses to begin a sentence with a conjunction or end with a preposition, perhaps they want to take a more casual and informal stance to their topic. If, as I often encourage in academic writing, they choose to use a first-person pronoun rather than referring to themselves as ‘the author’ or ‘the researcher’, perhaps they want to assert themselves and claim more ownership over what they’re writing.

6. Do remember that the role of the editor or proofreader is to manage the author’s intentions and the reader’s expectations.

For example, dialect literature serves to celebrate regional and social differences and is intended for readers with sufficient social and cultural knowledge to recognise its forms and its authenticity. As such, non-standard spelling and grammar are not only preferable but, arguably, essential in this sphere – consider, for example, DH Lawrence’s use of third-person singular, past-tense ‘were’ in The Collier’s Wife (my emphasis):

Wheer’s ‘e hurt this time, lad?
– I dunna know
They on’y towd me it wor bad –
It would be so!

Compare this intentional use of non-standard spelling and grammar, where the message is communicated effectively, to Donald Trump’s ‘covfefe’ blunder, where the non-standard spelling was neither intended by him nor expected of someone in the position of POTUS.

In summary, our writing is an expression of who we are. For some writers, it is what makes their work different that makes it so special, authentic and credible (eg dialect literature). Even in other cases, there are nuances to writing styles that go beyond the textual meanings and that communicate social meanings and crucial aspects of the authors’ or characters’ identities. When we edit out these meanings, we risk editing out their voices altogether.

Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination. Follow Erin on Twitter.

Manchester Metropolitan University logo


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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


Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

English revels in the bad, sad, seamy side of life – any slang thesaurus, for example, will provide far more words for misery and failure than for happiness and success. Which means synonyms for ‘excellence’, as in the title of the SfEP’s newsletter Editorial Excellence, should be particularly cherished.

The Oxford English Dictionary provides a number of historical superlatives well worth resurrecting. We’ve sadly lost, for example, ‘lollapalooza’, a gem from the US for anything outstanding in its field. It sits alongside the equally expressive ‘humdinger’, another US term for something so good it positively zings.

Something may be such hot stuff it’s ‘mustard’, a 19th-century term of approbation implying piquancy and zest, best known in the expression ‘cut the mustard’ (‘cut’ here works in the same way as ‘she cuts a fine figure’).

Close up of yellow mustard flowers, with a yellow field of mustard flowers behindA person of brilliant attainments, meanwhile, might be a ‘diamond’ – a glittering example in their field. Or they may be ‘peachy’, a simple play on something sweet and juicy. Their brilliance might even have once led to the epithet ‘carbuncle’, rarely associated with positivity these days but originally described as a precious stone (rather than a swelling) of blazing, fiery red.

More obviously wonderful is a ‘corker’ – something so fizzy it pops – and a ‘ripsnorter’ – anything remarkable in terms of size, vigour or appearance. Alternatively, you might describe something first-rate as a ‘spanker’, ‘tip-topper’, ‘phoenicle’ (a little phoenix), ‘bobby-dazzler’, ‘beaut’, ‘pippin’, ‘bosker’ or ‘killer-diller’. Or possibly a ‘screamer’, too, once another name for the exclamation mark. All of which are ‘bonzer’, a classic Australian adjective that’s an alteration of ‘bonanza’ and comes ultimately from the Spanish for ‘fair weather’.

Finally, let’s not forget the fanciful phrases we’ve come to love for any acme of excellence or pinnacle of success. Joining the ‘bee’s knees’, back in the 1920s, were the ‘kipper’s knickers’, the ‘caterpillar’s kimono’, and the ‘elephant’s adenoids’. These, of course, were born out of our love of fanciful word play, but there is another favourite in the list that once enjoyed a very different life before joining the lexicon of distinction. ‘The dog’s bollocks’ was first recorded among printers, who used it to refer to the typographical colon-dash :-, thanks to its shape.

Excellence: something to strive for, if not always easy to achieve. At least we’ll have plenty of ways to describe it once we get there.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.



Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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