Tag Archives: Editorial Excellence

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns

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

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

Locating subject and object

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

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

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

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

Reflexive pronouns – how many?

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

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

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

The killer-survivor will keep the property for themselves

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

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

a person cannot have rights against themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

That which we call a relative clause

Riffat Yusuf is an editor that or who (or possibly which) advocates for what to head ALL relative clauses.

Editing would be simpler if we replaced which, that and who/m with what. No more asking why it was the boy who and not that cried wolf. No more whiching and thating Jack’s house. No more consulting BBC Bitesize Fowlers for restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. For people what need precedents, I refer you to hwæt, used extensively as a relative pronoun in the 13th century. I refer you also to more recent usage (albeit the aspirated interrogative form, inconveniently not functioning as a relative pronoun, but go with it), viz. Meg Mortimer from Crossroads: ‘Hwhat are you doing, Sandy?’

To be clear, I’m not grammar averse; I’m grammar resentful. Why was I never taught that there were words to describe other words? Pupils at my school had to study French or German to relearn English. Even then, we made do with barely-there word classes – ‘je’, ‘tu’, ‘il’ and ‘elle’ were the ‘things’ before ‘doing words’. Still, over time I upskilled enough to teach English grammar and sentence structure to other adults, so you’d think I’d be familiar with relative pronouns. And with Hart’s at hand, I surely would have plugged any restrictive and non-restrictive clause-shaped holes. You’d think.

Relative newcomer

My true, actual, concerted, write-it-down learning started when I joined a grammar practice group that SfEP Professional Member Liz Zachary very kindly set up on the online discussion platform Slack. The sentence we were looking at was almost prescient: ‘What was a mystery twenty years ago now seems entirely straightforward.’ (If only!) Fellow Slackers commented on the use of that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive clauses – parenthetical clauses, if you will. Whaaat????

I find the word ‘restrictive’ misleading. In the sentence ‘The house that Jack built is in a desirable neighbourhood’, the restrictive relative clause is ‘that Jack built’. What is being restricted here? Clearly, ‘that Jack built’ refers to the house, the antecedent; how is that restrictive, though? Calling it a defining relative clause is less perplexing because – at the risk of invoking the scorn of grammarians and children in Year 6 – I suppose it defines Jack, not Jill, as the builder.

Pause that clause

The reason why the restrictive relative clause is thus named is not to be found in the 1611 King James Bible. Pausing for digression, however, we observe the use of which where a noun is the antecedent (‘Our Father which art in Heaven’), and that where the antecedent is a pronoun (‘Blessed are they that mourn’). Aesop’s protagonist in the 17th century would have been the boy which cried wolf.

Moving along, we pay homage to Sheila Graves Geoghegan. Who was this scholar who in 1975 wrote, nay, hand-typed, authoritatively on the usage of relative clauses in Old, Middle and New English? Let’s not stalk her further lest we bump into an obituary, but, Ohio State University, what more does an erudite philologist need to do to be ranked among your notable alumni?

That which is restrictive

Would this be a good time to point out that British English restrictive clauses aren’t restricted to a single head? Whatever is built by Jack can take that or which as its relative pronoun. Or neither. To confound further, Jack can be the man who or that built the house. Either, not neither.

This would not be a good time to dwell upon whom, with its verb-or-preposition-as-object chicanery. The ‘he/she/his/her’ adjudicators for who or whom – straightforward enough for all but this petitioner – likely have their origins in the Pendle witch trials.

Why restrictive, then? For this, we consult Grammarly. To start with, if calling a restrictive clause a definitive clause doesn’t make things clearer, then we can call it an essential clause instead because the information it provides is, um, essential. So, ‘that Jack built’ is an essential part of the sentence that would otherwise read ‘The house is in a desirable neighbourhood.’

If, however, almost everybody except for Cambridge University insists on calling restrictive relative clauses just that, then Jack needs to up sticks for Grammarly’s more sound construction: ‘Children who eat vegetables are likely to be healthy.’ The relative clause-free sentence is ‘Children are likely to be healthy.’ Here, even I can see how the relative clause ‘who eat vegetables’ puts restrictions on the antecedent noun: it’s not children who exercise, or who are happy or who engage in any other health-giving pursuit that are being referred to.

And so to trample on non-restrictive relative clauses. This much I have learned: you can recognise a non-restrictive clause in British English because it always takes which as its relative pronoun. It must be offset by a pair of commas; in a sentence, a non-restrictive clause looks like this: ‘The house, which Jack built, is in a desirable neighbourhood.’ And if you swap the commas for brackets – ‘(which Jack built)’ – it’s easier to discern the clause’s aside-like, non-essential, non-restrictive, non-defining function.

I haven’t unearthed the grammar shortcuts or mnemonics I’d hoped to when I set out to learn more (anything) about relative pronouns and relative clauses. But if syntax acquisition is not beyond the ken of seven-year-olds, then there’s hope for late bloomers like me. Such as I? Here we go again …

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.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Editing Matters.

Photo credits: houses by Lee Jeffs; tomatoes by Davies Designs Studio on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Commas: the chameleon conundrum

Commas can be very useful little additions in our punctuation arsenal but they can also be intensely irritating. Luke Finley discusses using commas with conjunctions and independent clauses – an insertion that can raise questions and even arguments.

When I looked at commas in the July/August and September/October 2017 issues of Editing Matters, I warned that I was covering only a few of the uses of this chameleon of the punctuation world. Another that has come up on the member forums since then is their use when joining two independent clauses.

My thanks go to Shuna Meade for raising the question on the forum, and to the respondents on the thread for helping to clarify the point (and providing the chameleon metaphor!).

What’s the issue?

Some of us were taught (and some of us have ten-year-olds who are still being taught) never to use a comma before and or but when joining two independent clauses. In reality, there’s clearly no such rule.

I am a copy-editor and I work from home

I am a copy-editor, but I used to work for the council

You could insert a comma in the first example or delete the one in the second without making either of these sentences wrong. But if that’s true, why use a comma in one case and not the other? The choice of conjunction is different, clearly, but is that the decisive factor? Not necessarily; these sentences are also acceptable:

I am a copy-editor, and I have a ten-year-old son

Nick has a son too but he’s already a teenager

In the absence of a strict grammatical rule, then, how do we decide?

Close connection

The strength of the connection between the two clauses is probably the most useful consideration. In my first example I chose not to use a comma because the two clauses seemed inextricably linked: the fact that I work at home tells you something relevant about the kind of copy-editor I am.

In the second example there is a shift of focus between past and present: the comma marks this more distant connection.

In the third example, omitting the comma might misleadingly imply a connection (some illegal, nepotistic subcontracting arrangement?) between two clauses that aren’t very closely related.

The fourth is maybe the most ambiguous case: I felt that the shift here was between the previous sentence and this one, not within the sentence, so I didn’t need a comma. But this is a style choice and you’d be free to approach it differently.

However, it’s worth noting that, by definition, but is generally more likely to introduce a contrast or a change of emphasis than and, so the comma is more likely to be appropriate.

Consider also whether there’s a second subject in the second clause: if so, the relationship between the two clauses is likely to be less close – although this is certainly not always the case.

Removing ambiguity

The comma before a conjunction can help to prevent misreading:

Aristotle was an early empiricist and no great thinker …

Quite a bold claim! But the sentence continues:

… who followed could be taken seriously without having engaged with his works.

Serious misunderstanding may be unlikely here, but a comma before the conjunction would prevent an unintended jarring or comical effect that might bring the reader up short.


Commas are sometimes described as marking natural pauses in a sentence. Steven Pinker (The Sense of Style, Penguin, 2014) points out that this was once their main function, citing Jane Austen’s famous opening line to Pride and Prejudice – its two commas would now both be regarded as incorrect. Dickens also peppers his long sentences with commas: some of them now seem unnecessary or wrong, but if you ever have to read his work aloud, you might be grateful for them.

The description of commas as marking a pause isn’t always helpful – it’s fairly subjective, and it doesn’t apply equally to all comma uses. It might be worth bearing in mind in relation to the usage discussed here, though: where there’s a shift of focus as already discussed, a pause is also more likely.

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



This article originally appeared in the September/October 2018 edition of Editing Matters.

Photo credits: Chameleon by Cécile Brasseur; Pride and Prejudice by Elaine Howlin, both on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Gerunds: it’s all to do with behaviour

Gerunds can be tricky beasts. But Luke Finley has got the measure of them, and guides us through some of their uses.

The gerund is a verb in its -ing form that is functioning like or as a noun. Distinguishing between the gerund and the present participle – also the verb in its -ing form – is not always easy, but generally it can be regarded as a gerund if it’s behaving more like a noun, and as a present participle if it’s behaving more like an adjective. Recognising the ambiguities of this in practice, modern grammars tend not to categorise them separately: Huddleston and Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar talks about the ‘gerund-participle’.

Clear-cut uses

In some positions, it’s quite clear that the -ing form is functioning as a gerund. For example, where it’s used as the subject or object (or part of it):

Writing a sample sentence will clarify this

I’m trying to communicate this in writing

Sometimes a modifying adjective will make the noun function of the gerund clearer:

Poor-quality writing won’t help

The explanation won’t be clear if the writing is of poor quality

In other situations the gerund may be harder to identify:

My deftly explaining this aspect of grammar will help many thousands of people

The -ing word here is modified by an adverb: definitely verb-like rather than noun-like behaviour. But it’s still part of the noun phrase, so it’s a gerund.

Another common use of gerunds is in forming compound nouns:

In my free time I enjoy water-skiing, base-jumping and free-ironing*

*Some artistic licence has been employed in this sentence.

This process seems especially popular in the world of corporate jargon: brainstorming, streamlining, upscaling, and so on.

Because of the gerund’s dual properties of noun and verb, new verbs are often then back-formed from these compound nouns; to crowdsource might be the kind of neologism some people love to hate, but it’s a good demonstration of the elasticity of language.

Trickier uses

One trickier aspect of usage is deciding between the gerund and the to-infinitive to follow a verb. Sometimes only one or the other is possible. In other cases either is possible but the meaning may be subtly different. This can often trip up English learners, even those who are quite fluent. No doubt this is because there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule: it depends on what the preceding verb is. If you speak English as a first language you tend to pick the right one by instinct, without even being aware that you’re making a decision; learners of English have to try to memorise lists of what goes with what. In the following examples only the gerund works:

I enjoy running by the sea

I can’t imagine swimming in it

With different verbs – even though the meanings are not that distant from the first versions – the gerund would not work and only the infinitival form will do:

I want to run by the sea

I don’t need to swim in it

The verb like can work either way, but with slight nuances of meaning. With the gerund, the enjoyment of the activity itself is emphasised. With the to-infinitive, there is greater emphasis on the regularity or repeated nature of it:

I like running on Sundays, but sometimes I have to do the ironing instead

I like to run on Sundays, but I only like to swim in the summer

This choice between the gerund and the infinitival form doesn’t occur only after verbs. And in some cases it’s a difficult call. You might see a formulation like the following sentence in a relatively formal text:

We conducted this survey with the aim to understand gender variations in …

Is this wrong? It sounds stilted, but it’s not necessarily grammatically incorrect. In a proofread you might judge it just about acceptable and leave it, but in a copy-edit I think you’d be likely to change it to the more natural-sounding gerund: the aim of understanding.

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



This article originally appeared in the January/February 2018 edition of Editing Matters.

Photo credits: Water-skiing by Tobia Sola, Running by the sea by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Commissioning, editing and proofreading figures

By Liz Jones

‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ We’ve probably all heard this said, and perhaps we’ve even said it ourselves. But – as so often in life – the truth is not as clear-cut as that. In the materials we edit, it’s not always a case of either-or, words versus pictures. Often text and images work together to convey complex information. But the figures that support a text (or that a text supports) can only function at their best if they are commissioned carefully to work as part of a complete editorial package, and if any text associated with them is written, edited and proofread just as carefully as the main or body text.

What is a figure?

In CIEP courses in the core skills of proofreading and copyediting, a figure is defined as ‘any piece of artwork (line-drawing, photo, graph, etc), together with its caption’. Figures appear in all genres of book, from children’s picture books and stories to textbooks, workbooks, technical manuals, and all kinds of non-fiction books – from practical to aspirational to academic. Aside from books, we encounter them in all sorts of written communications, from newsletters and press releases to websites, reports, white papers, advertisements … In short, where don’t we find them?

But editors are word people, you might be thinking. Aren’t images beyond their remit? Well, no. Considering the images that work alongside the text – and are often indivisible from its key message – is a crucial part of most copyediting or proofreading work.

Aside from the image itself, a figure will usually have a title or caption, which the CIEP defines as ‘the explanatory words that appear below (or above or beside) an illustration or figure’. There may also be annotations (very short labels) explaining specific parts of the figure, either placed in the relevant position or connected with leader lines.

If the figure is a graph or chart, the axes or sectors will also be labelled with text.

Purpose and function of figures

Figures might be used in text for various reasons:

  • They give the reader information that cannot be easily or effectively expressed using text alone.
  • They can be used to amplify or clarify the message of a passage of text.
  • They work as visual devices that break up large amounts of text and make it more readable.
  • If the document is about a visual subject, the figures might be more important than the text, even if both are necessary.

How to write a good brief

Sometimes editors are responsible for writing the briefs for figures, whether they are illustrations, photos or graphs. This is especially likely if the editor is project managing or development editing.

The person producing the image, or the picture researcher, will need as much information as you can provide on the following:

  • What information the image needs to convey – this might include a sketch, or it might be a list of points to cover
  • Size of the intended image
  • What colours to use
  • Guidance on the preferred style
  • Any cultural considerations, such as images that are not suitable for a particular audience
  • Visual reference materials, if available and helpful
  • The budget – most images are not free!

Reproducing or redrawing figures

If figures are reproduced from another source, or even if they are redrawn based on another source, then the copyright holder of the original image will need to give you permission to use that figure. They might charge a fee for this, or they might simply stipulate how they should be credited. Some credit lines must appear alongside the figure; others can be placed at the end of the document.

Make sure you allow time in the schedule for clearing image permissions.

Writing and editing figure text

Captions should ideally be written in such a way that that they could stand alone and provide useful information about the figure, even if the reader reads none of the other text. Of course, we probably tend to hope that the reader reads every word we write from beginning to end. But in the real world, we have to accept that this doesn’t always happen. People have short attention spans, and they skip about when they read. Captions should also not simply repeat body text word for word, but add to it, and give the reader specific information on the visuals. For a document to feel authoritative and valuable, it’s crucial to write captions that work hard.

Everyone’s life is made much easier if text that appears as part of the figure is editable, though this is not always possible. If it’s not editable by someone with easy access to the files, make sure to get it proofread early, to allow changes to be made by the illustrator, for example. Bear in mind that the more words appear as intrinsic elements in images, the more of a problem this will be for any editions of the publication in other languages.

When an editor is assessing the scope of their work, they should make sure they include the figures in their fee calculations – both checking their content from an editorial point of view and editing any associated text, which can add considerably to the overall word count and the time needed for the job.

Checklist of common problems

Finally, for anyone tasked with proofreading figures, here are some common problems that crop up time and time again:

  • Figure numbering – out of sequence, missing numbers, inconsistency
  • Annotations pointing to the wrong part of an image
  • Inconsistent capitalisation of captions or annotations
  • Inconsistent punctuation of captions or annotations – especially terminal full stops
  • Captions repeated, or applied to the wrong image(s)
  • Captions that seem to contradict the image (for example referring to a colour that looks different in the picture)
  • Figure is flipped, so text is back to front.

The most important message in all of this is that figures appearing as part of a document should be considered at every stage of the editorial process. They should not be dismissed as being mere design elements, or someone else’s responsibility. When authors and editors ensure that figures and text work together effectively, they are a powerful tool for communication.

Liz Jones has been an editor since 1998, and has worked on thousands of projects, involving millions of words and a whole host of other variables. She specialises in highly illustrated non-fiction for a range of clients, and also works as a commissioning editor on the CIEP information team.


Photo credits: flowers by Edward Howell; chart by Isaac Smith, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

‘So, there’s such a thing as Canadian English, eh?’

By Janet MacMillan

It’s a question that many a Canadian has heard many a time.

Yes, dear reader, there is such a thing. And it’s complicated, a bit like this large, at times unwieldy nation of nations that I call my home and native land. And like our nation, it carries the influences of our various forebears, starting with the peoples of the various First Nations within the borders of our nation, the Métis, the Inuit, the Québécois (we are officially a bilingual nation), the Irish, Scots and English (of the UK), and the United Empire Loyalists who brought their English after the American Revolution.

A complexity of languages and influences

Added to the amalgam of influences of our more distant forebears, both Indigenous and settler (or ‘late-comers’ as some Métis and Indigenous Peoples prefer), are those of more recent immigrants, many of whom speak other Englishes (for example, Indian English, South African English and Australian English), and others who are speakers of other languages – almost every language under the sun. In 2016, just over 22% of the population reported ‘an immigrant mother tongue’.

At least 70 Indigenous languages are spoken in Canada; the First Nations have their own languages; there is more than one Michif (Métis) language; and there are numerous Inuit languages and dialects. Add to that French (21.4% of Canadians) and English (58.1%), and the immigrant languages, and Canada has a complexity of languages and the influences of each one on our English.

Buffalo jumps and bunny hugs

Many of our loan words – for example, chinook, inukshuk, muskeg, saskatoon, moose – come from Indigenous cultures and are shared with American English since the border isn’t a consideration in the Indigenous world, or the natural world for that matter.

Indigenous languages gave us many of our place names: Toronto (Anglicised from the Mohawk language to ‘tkaronto’), Mississauga, Nunavut (‘our land’ in Inukitut), and even our country’s name (Kanata). And there’s the wonderfully named Okotoks, which comes from the Blackfoot word ‘otatok’, meaning ‘rock’.

Some words that originated in Canada have become internationally used. Some are aspects of Indigenous cultures (buffalo jump, pemmican), or our history (Red River cart), or our inventions (poutine, pacemaker, insulin), or our flora and fauna (purple prairie clover, Canada goose, Canada lynx), all of which are used internationally to mean the same thing as Canadians mean.

Other words are truly Canadianisms, words used elsewhere but that have very different meanings here. Imagine being a tourist looking for a room and seeing a sign for ‘Bachelors for rent’! What an odd country that rents out its bachelors. As desirable as some might think that to be, it’s not likely to happen! A ‘bachelor’ is a one-room flat or apartment, a ‘studio’ in at least a couple of other Englishes.

Do you know what an eavestrough is? It’s what an American or a Brit would call a gutter, that thing that collects rainwater at the edge of a roof. That’s only one of the many differences between Canadian English and US English and Canadian English and British English. On the other hand, our English has close ties to both of those Englishes; in fact, we’re a muddle of both, plus the many multicultural influences, which is a real Canadian virtue, if a constant challenge for editors editing Canadian English.

And for confusion, as well as overlap, let’s look at the word ‘rubber’. If I’d written this blog using a pencil and paper, I’d have used a rubber to erase my many changes. If a gentleman asks where to put his rubbers, don’t recoil, he only means his overshoes, ones that don’t extend much beyond the sole of his shoes. Yet someone from Newfoundland or the Maritimes might well be referring to their long waterproof boots. But in American parlance, a rubber is also a condom. Now you know!

What I and many other Canadians wear on our heads in the winter is a toque, what some other Englishes call a beanie or a bobble hat. But get this, we don’t necessarily agree on how to spell it! It’s a loan word too, from the French-Canadian tuque. And to confuse matters further, the tall white hat that chefs wear on their heads is called a toque too; it comes from an Italian word for a silk-like fabric.

We have loonies and toonies, and, no, the first is not a slur. If I have two loonies and a toonie, I have four dollars. (You do the math.) How did they get those names? The one-dollar coin has a loon on it; so two dollars are two loon(ie)s or a toonie. Makes sense to me.

And as to regional variations, how long have you got? Probably longer than my word count permits. As just one example, for a long time I thought Canadians from the prairies and Alberta particularly loved bunnies and gave them lots of hugs. What kind people, giving all those bunny hugs. Only in more recent years have I realised that what someone from Calgary or Saskatoon calls a bunny hug, I call a hoodie. (Some folks might also call it a kangaroo jacket. Yes, we are an animal-loving nation.)

On the far eastern side of the country, Newfoundlanders, whose English has a deep connection to an Irish and English heritage, will ask you ‘Whadda y’at?’, meaning what are you up to or how are you doing – a question heard frequently since the start of the pandemic.

Canadian English, like other Englishes, has mutated over time. When I was growing up in Toronto (mumble-mumble years ago), we had a chesterfield in our living room. Today, many, including me, and my mother too, call it a sofa, and others call it a couch. We all mean the same thing, and we know what we mean.

Editing Canadian English

The Canadian dictionary used by most editors is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd edn, 2004), though as the publication date shows, it’s not up to the minute. There are also the Collins Gage Canadian Dictionary (2009) and the Nelson Gage Canadian Paperback Dictionary (2013), which are perhaps lesser used. For style guides, those editing Canadian English refer to Editing Canadian English (3rd edn, 2015), TERMIUM Plus, the federal government’s terminology and linguistic data bank, and the Language Portal of Canada, Elements of Indigenous Style, plus a few other resources.

Generally speaking, our preferred spellings are a mix of UK English and US English. While we tend to prefer the -ize spellings (eg organization), we also like our ‘u’s (eg honour, colour), although that wasn’t always the case, and we differentiate between ‘defence’ and ‘defense’ and ‘licence’ and ‘license’, etc. Our choice of punctuation tends to follow that used in the United States: double quote marks for a quotation, single for quotes within a quote, and most punctuation before the end quote mark, for example.

Confusing, eh? Yes, but that’s what makes our language uniquely Canadian, like that interrogative ‘eh?’ used from sea to sea to sea.

With grateful thanks and credit to Jennifer Glossop (editor extraordinaire, born in England, grew up in the US, and a Canadian for many decades) and Dr Suzanne Steele (Métis, with roots that go back to the first families, French and Anishinaabe), and with a tip of the hat to Katherine Barber, Canada’s Word Lady and favourite lexiographer.

Janet MacMillan is a CIEP Advanced Professional Member specialising in law, international development, politics, social sciences, and education, who, with her Editing Globally colleagues, edits in various Englishes. Following a successful international career as a lawyer, Janet’s main base is Toronto, with regular spells in Suffolk.

Janet coordinates the CIEP Cloud Club West, helps coordinate the Toronto CIEP group, and attends the Norfolk CIEP group when she can. She happily works in four Englishes and talks regularly in three of them, sometimes all in the same sentence.

Photo credits: maple leaf by Guillaume Jaillet; toque/beanie by Dylan Ferreira, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Pocketbook intrigue: a lockdown look at English

By Melanie James

One of the trends of the COVID-19 lockdown has been an increase in online shopping, not only for groceries to avoid long queues and to self-protect (if one could secure a slot), but also to while away those sleepless hours which, too, have become a symptom of the pandemic experience.

During one particular online browse I was offered a free trial of Audible, the audio-bookseller. Since the arrival of podcasts (which enable me to multi-task), I’ve found my ‘books to be read’ piling up. Perhaps listening to a book might mean I actually finish it! I promptly downloaded my choice: Wuthering Heights. I’d always meant to read it (love the song/seen several film versions/thought I knew the plot). Fast forward and I’m obsessed with it. Joanne Froggatt’s eclectic range of accents to differentiate the dialects and characters is wildly entertaining. Her rendition of the servant Joseph’s broad Yorkshire brogue is just brilliant, although it did require particular concentration if I were to remotely comprehend what he’d said and follow the narrative. It could have been another language.

But it was when I heard that Joseph ‘brought out his pocketbook’ that I was really puzzled. ‘Pocketbook’? That’s an American term, surely, not one we Brits have ever used. I consulted my trusty OED. There it was:

’A pocket-sized folding case for holding banknotes, papers, etc.; a wallet. Now chiefly U.S.’

‘Now chiefly U.S.’ Clearly then, along with those old chestnuts: ‘sidewalk’; ‘gotten’; ‘Fall’ and -ize spellings, ‘pocketbook’ used to be part of what we now term ‘British English’.

And so began my deep dive into the study of English, a language which has become and will doubtless continue to be such a medley of variations on a theme – rather a family or a web of languages – that I wondered whether a more appropriate label might not be coined to better express its global texture and fluid nature. But of course, we already have at least two candidates: World English and Globlish.

Which English?

English is my first language. It is also the lingua franca of 60–70 countries, spoken by an estimated 2.3 billion people (2018), either as their first language or as their second or third language. As an editor, I strive to enforce consistency in terminology and spelling in any given manuscript, ensuring the author’s preference for either British English or American English throughout the text. But why do so many of us only adhere to those two varieties? Why not Scottish English or Irish English, Australian English or Canadian English? Why not Singaporean English? Who decided the standard? And when?

According to David Crystal, the linguistics guru, a language becomes a global one because of the power of those who speak it. Once Britain had established itself as an empire, English was adopted by those who aspired to be part of the elite groups associated with it. It may be surprising to read that access to learning English was expressly reserved for the colonial elite and was not imposed on Indigenous peoples. Limiting access to it was a way to exercise control over them. With Indigenous languages and local dialects being actively encouraged, this also had the effect of firmly segregating those peoples. And so English became the ‘gold standard’. Those who achieved a good command of it could strive for better jobs and enter the world of commerce, the arts, politics and science. Had the British followed a policy of linguistic imperialism, English might even have been resisted.

Standardisation and domination

It was not until 1755 with Samuel Johnson’s authoritative dictionary that rules and standards were applied to English, although word lists had been compiled before. Sixteenth-century English was not as prescribed as it is today, and we find different spelling variations of the same words in Shakespeare’s works, for example, as evidence of that, such as ‘learnt’/’learned’; ‘inke’/’ink’; ‘hypocrisie’/’hypocrisy’. Today we (still) talk of the ‘Queen’s English’. What we mean by that lofty standard is that those who speak and write that variant may be judged differently from those who do not. Even now, those who learn English around the globe are encouraged to acquire the haughty tones which might classify them as, perhaps, ‘better’ English speakers.

There is more than an element of kudos attached to speaking and writing English; it offers access to worldwide opportunities. We know that academics simply must publish in English if they are to reach the widest possible audience, whatever their specialised subject. English is the language used at international conferences, the working language of many global organisations, and of the travel industry. I worked in France, Belgium and Germany for over 20 years and was fortunate enough to work with some iconic brands. The working language of all of them was English – British English.

American English has, however, become the dominant standard since the American rise to superpower status after the Second World War. British and American English had been diverging since the two nations first separated and likely as soon as the first British settlers found animals and vegetation they’d not encountered before which they needed to classify. Perhaps divergence did not seem important then, given the geographical divide.

Adoption and adaptation

When a country adopts English, it immediately adapts it, claims Crystal. It will use standard English for global purposes but it will reshape it and fashion it, manipulate it every which way in order to better express its own particular needs. The adapted version will encapsulate the local cultural identity and be a means of expressing solidarity, even to the point where it may even become unintelligible to other English speakers – which perhaps is the aim.

Webster’s 1783 American English dictionary sought to give every letter in a syllable its due proportion of sound which means that today we see ‘traveler’ and ‘honor’ in American English but ‘traveller’ and ‘honour’ in British English. Small matter perhaps because such minor adjustments are still understood. But evidently, over time, the English language has been used as a framework to create other versions specific to particular groups and communities. Such variants became languages in their own right, unique and particular to those who created them based on their own narratives. Take, for example, ‘Singlish’. The fusion of English and Singaporean is so highly stylised, it cannot be understood by most English speakers. Language expresses identity, solidarity, inclusion … exclusion. Enslaved African Americans developed their own dialect from the English they learned in order to conceal their intended meaning from their enslavers. Such a tactic created a new language community by manipulation of a forced second language.

Take, too, the various dialects that are drawn from multiple ethnic groups today, typically spoken by young people, often dismissed, even stigmatised, such as ‘Jafaican’ (fake Jamaican). What about the secret languages which emerge as a way to show belonging in a marginalised subculture such as the gay community? Not so long ago, its very existence was deemed so immoral its members were forced to develop a secret code to talk to each other as a form of self-protection. Urban Dictionary, the online slang repository, may be denigrated by purists for its low-brow content but it has 65 million visitors each month. Such variants, anti-languages, used by subcultures often on the very edge of society, can become ‘cool’ and trickle into mainstream usage, even being adopted by those who originally deemed them to be socially unacceptable. Urban’s motto, ‘Define Your World’, is most illuminating, encapsulating the very essence of language.

The American melting pot into which Indian, Yiddish, German, Chinese, African, Italian, Caribbean, South American, Spanish and myriad other languages were poured, stirred and simmered over time has produced a version of English which caters to the needs of all those peoples. It is undoubtedly a compromise, but it does the job. Today we see the Yiddish ‘klutz’ (clumsy) and ‘schmuck’ (fool) in British English, both having been incorporated into American English during the great migrations of the last two centuries. American English certainly influences British English. But there are many differences, too. The American ‘cookie’ for example, from the Dutch ‘koekje’ is vastly different from the British ‘biscuit’ which is the same baked treat nevertheless. In American English, ‘biscuit’ translates to ‘muffin’ and is served at breakfast but which I would tuck into it at afternoon tea! The potential for misunderstanding
is rife.

Some transformations, however, can be easily identified. ‘Santa Claus’ derives from the Dutch, ‘Sinterklaas’. In that derivation we not only see the word morph but also the ‘sint’ (no a) himself. Traditionally he’s a Dutch/Flemish religious character, in crimson robes with a staff, who bestows gifts on children on 6 December. Santa Claus today is a corpulent, bearded, jolly fellow, in a fur-trimmed bright-red jumpsuit who rides the skies bearing gifts for all on 25 December/Christmas Day. In Britain he is known as Father Christmas but the American English version of ‘Santa’ is becoming more and more popular as American English continues to influence and permeate its British forebear.

Borrowing, accommodating and evolving

As I moved around Europe with my family, we mastered the different languages as best we could but also borrowed from them so that now we often find ourselves mixing them all to arrive at the best sense of what we might mean. I still use German words of command for my dogs even though one of them didn’t even live with us in Germany and came from Greece. And I admit to cursing using a particular French term. Such mixing and borrowing, or code switching and code mixing, is common behaviour. Language transfer can be just the ticket if you can’t remember or don’t know a word in a particular language, or if you know that your interlocutor knows the foreign language word which expresses a concept better than the language you are using. Our daughter coined the term, ‘I blaguise’ by which she means ‘I’m joking’. There is no verb ‘blaguiser’ in French. The verb is ‘blaguer’ – ‘to joke’ – or must be constructed using ‘faire’ (to make) to arrive at ‘faire une blague’ or a different word altogether, ‘plaisanter’. She also concocted ‘cahootian’, meaning one with whom she is in cahoots! Both terms are part of our family-speak now.

I’ve always marvelled at how other nationalities could speak English so well. As an expat I did my best to learn my host country’s language but I could never equal my colleagues’ linguistic abilities; those who flitted from their first language to English so effortlessly. Indeed, for many of them it seemed as if English was their second first language! Nevertheless, it was common to articulate more clearly in their company and to speak more slowly, avoiding jargon and word plays. Brutt-Griffler claims that such changed behaviour should not be seen as ‘talking down’ but rather as a way to accommodate. She asserts that the price a world language must be prepared to pay is that it will be transformed and adapted. It will inevitably become a hybrid and purists will simply have to hold back.

English may be the world’s lingua franca now. It may not always be. In the meantime, it will continue to evolve, be shaped and moulded to suit the purposes of its many users. Whatever has been, English, or World English or Globlish will have to be more flexible than ever and take account of genders, race, new and emerging cultures and lifestyles if it is to continue to dominate. If American English persists, perhaps, too, we might see ‘pocketbook’ in use in British English again.


Brutt-Griffler, J (2002). World English: A Study of its Development. Australia: Footprint Books.

Crystal, D (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D (2012). English Worldwide. In R Hogg (ed.), A History of the English Language, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 420–39. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511791154.010.

Crystal, D (nd). davidcrystal.com

Luu, C (2018). The Unspeakable Linguistics of Camp. Lingua Obscura. https://daily.jstor.org/unspeakable-linguistics-camp/

McArthur, T (2009). World English and world Englishes: Trends, tensions, varieties, and standards. Language Teaching, 34/1: 1–20, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444800016062

Ro, C (2019). How Linguists are using Urban Dictionary. Daily JSTOR. https://daily.jstor.org/how-linguists-are-using-urban-dictionary/

Melanie James, from Take it as read, writes for businesses but also edits anything to do with history, particularly WW1. Having lived in Europe for over 20 years, she likes to think she speaks French, German and a smattering of Dutch. She also knows one word of Lëtzebuergesch (’moien’). Melanie’s husband works in Luxembourg so she visits when she can. Having just returned from the Grand Duchy, she is now in quarantine!

This post originally appeared on Melanie’s own blog in July 2020: From pandemic browsing to pocket-book intrigue

Photo credits: Haworth moor by Rachel Penney; Father Christmas/Santa Claus by Alicia Slough, both on Unsplash. Dictionary by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Grab your thongs and the esky, we’re off to the (Australian English) beach!

By Tim Curnow

Following on from Lynne Murphy’s recent focus paper about global Englishes, the CIEP information team asked if I’d write a piece about my native variety, Australian English. Of course, Australian English is spoken by around 25 million people over a huge area, and there are some small regional differences, but much less than with UK English. Most of the differences are simply a handful of different words, and it’s generally impossible for one Australian to tell which part of Australia another speaker is from just from their accent, though there are potentially one or two subtle signals: for example, if someone talks about Malbourne [æ] rather than Melbourne [e], they’re likely to be from Victoria; but many Victorians say Melbourne in any case. Leaving aside pronunciation, though, what is written Australian English like, and what sources would an editor use to copyedit it?

UK- or US-focused?

The conventions of Australian English tend to be UK-based rather than US-based, although this is perhaps gradually changing. So spellings such as centre, theatre and defence are usual, and you would normally find traveller rather than traveler. Equally, in cases where there is no single UK English convention, the same is true of Australian English: for example, the verb suffix is more likely to be -ise (and this is required by the Australian Government’s Style Manual and is given first in the Macquarie Dictionary), but -ize is also common.

There are some peculiarities. One of the most notable relates to -our versus -or. The standard convention in Australian English follows UK English, with -our, although one of the major newspapers, The Age, used -or until the 1990s (when, I suspect, stories began to be more commonly written for several newspapers with the same owner, requiring consistency across different newspapers). However, for historical reasons that no one is entirely certain of, one of the two largest political parties in Australia is the Australian Labor Party, with no u. (The other large party is called the Liberal Party of Australia, although it is the equivalent of the UK Conservative Party; this leads to Australians talking about small-l liberal values when they need to make it clear they don’t mean conservative ones.)

Then there’s program(me). Leaving aside computer programs, and simplifying the story, the spelling program became usual in government documents by the 1980s. Following that, the word became a political football, with a more conservative prime minister insisting on the government having programmes, then with a change of government there were programs again, then programmes, and now things seem to have settled back with programs. This means that if you want to find out, for example, about the Australian Government Reef Programme, you need to consult the website of the National Landcare Program. For a while there, you could tell someone’s political leanings on the basis of their spelling …

Australian words

Apart from pronunciation, the most obvious differences between UK and Australian English relate to vocabulary items. Of course, there are the names of animals and plants found only in Australia, but authors and editors are much more likely to trip up on concepts which are shared but where there are different words to refer to them, particularly when the same words are used with different meanings in the two varieties: the fact that an Australian can be entirely respectable when dressed in nothing but a T-shirt, pants and thongs sometimes amuses the British, for example, although why being dressed in a T-shirt, trousers and flip-flops should be amusing, I don’t know.

One minefield for authors and editors relates to words used in reference to the Indigenous peoples of Australia: as you might expect, there have been changes over time and it is a vexed issue. Probably the earliest modern position was that represented by the 1988 version of the Australian Government’s Style Manual, which recommended Aboriginal as the adjective but Aborigine(s) for the noun to refer to Indigenous Australians; but some people preferred Aboriginal(s) as the noun, on the basis that this was simply saying something about the person in question, rather than categorising them. This debate continues, and it is often avoided in practice by ensuring that the word always modifies some other noun. However, there are also entirely separate groups of Indigenous Melanesian people on Australian territory, the various Torres Strait Islander peoples, who historically were often mistakenly referred to using the term Aborigines. By the time of the development of the (now disbanded) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in 1990, it had become common to explicitly link the two sets of groups, especially in more official contexts; and health or census forms commonly ask ‘Are you of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin?’ The term Indigenous Australians is relatively neutral, but some Indigenous people consider that this is an external, bureaucratic, imposed label, and prefer to refer to themselves as First Australians or First Nations Australians; many will often also use the term Black, although because of its history, that can be considered offensive if used by non-Indigenous people to refer to Indigenous Australians.

In fact, before the European settlement of Australia, there were over 250 groups of Aboriginal peoples, and there are 14 inhabited islands in the Torres Strait, so the search for a general term is often a little like trying to decide whether Asians would be the appropriate term to use when introducing a woman from Indonesia together with a man from Israel. Modern usage is generally to follow the preference of any individual, and otherwise to use the most specific possible term: a Pitjantjatjara man, one of the Kaurna people. To complicate matters, there are also approximately state-based terms used by many Indigenous people themselves (and by others), such as Koori for an Aboriginal Australian from Victoria or New South Wales, or Murri for an Aboriginal Australian from Queensland or northwestern New South Wales. (See the Style Guide for a more in-depth discussion.)

More subtle differences

While complex, all of the issues above are relatively easy to notice, if sometimes hard to resolve. Trickier for an editor are the more subtle differences between Australian English and UK English.

Some of these differences stem from geography and social history. I’m still always startled when in the UK I’m told someone is Asian, and then they invariably turn out not to be from China, Thailand or Vietnam, the default meaning of Asia in Australian English (like in US English); and while Australia has one of the most urbanised populations in the world, there is a strong cultural attachment to the bush and the outback, words that tend not to be used in the way non-Australians think.

The outback, not the bush. The view from Chambers Pillar, a sandstone formation near (ie 100 miles away from) Alice Springs.

Australians also think of distances in a different way from Britons, and the realities of travel in an often highly mobile population add to this. Not everyone in Australia has my experience while growing up of alternate holidays consisting of driving north for 10 hours to visit my paternal grandparents or west for 13 hours to visit my maternal grandparents, but it’s not considered particularly unusual (and in each case, isn’t even a third of the way across the country). So Australians are entertained by my anecdote about queuing behind a woman at Sainsbury’s who was justifying buying two packets of lollies (well, she was English not Australian, so she said sweets) because she had to keep the children happy during a ‘long’ drive the next day; it turned out she was going slightly less than two hours away.

Then there are those subtle differences that are inexplicable, and sometimes almost unexplainable. In both Australian and UK English, collective nouns such as committee and government can come with singular or plural verb agreement; but as an Australian, I often hear the singular used in UK English where I would be expecting the plural. And plural nouns are more commonly used in the UK pre-modifying other nouns: you wouldn’t expect a charity to be called the Cats Protection League in Australia; instead, you have the Cat Protection Society of NSW.

Style guides and dictionaries

Just like in the UK, there is no overall authority on what formal Australian English writing should look like. The most widely known style guide is the Style Manual, originally published in 1966, which has gone through a number of editions, with changing recommendations. The manual is only intended for publications written by public servants (civil servants) who work for what more recent editions refer to as the Australian Government, but earlier ones refer to as the Commonwealth Government; the manual is not even used (explicitly) by the governments of the different states and territories. The online beta version of the 7th edition is currently getting quite a lot of publicity (including on the CIEP forum!), with one of most controversial suggestions being that one should ‘generally write numerals for 2 and above’. This reflects the fact that this recent edition takes an explicit ‘digital-first approach’, with many of the suggestions based on readability guidelines that were developed specifically for web-based content.

As an alternative, there is also the Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage (previously the Cambridge Australian English Style Guide), written by Pam Peters. However, this is very much more like Fowler’s, with an alphabetical listing of points you may wish to be aware of, and which might be debatable, rather than a style to follow.

Through much of the 20th century, there were ‘Australianised’ editions of major UK dictionaries, particularly the smaller versions, and these still exist (eg the 6th edition of the Australian School Oxford Dictionary appeared in 2016). However, in 1981 the first edition of the Macquarie Dictionary appeared, the name relating to the fact that the editorial committee for the original edition consisted largely of staff from Macquarie University. This dictionary, now in its 7th edition and with various different versions (eg the Macquarie Concise Dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary Online), is now generally accepted as ‘the’ dictionary of Australian English. The larger versions contain encyclopaedic entries, including the names of many famous people and places relating to Australia.

There is also the Australian National Dictionary, originally published in 1998, part of the Oxford University Press line-up of Australian dictionaries. However, it is not a generalist dictionary, but rather one that focuses more specifically on Australianisms, with words either used only in Australia or with particular Australian-related meanings.

Antipodean English?

People sometimes talk of Australasian English or Antipodean English, and there are similarities between Australian English and New Zealand English. Both are UK-focused in stylistic terms – NZ English probably more so than Australian English – and there are some words used in the two varieties and not in other Englishes. But each has its own peculiarities: possibly most famously, Australians wonder why New Zealanders call an esky a chilly bin, and NZers wonder why Australians call a chilly bin an esky, while the rest of the world wonders what on earth we’re on about (a cooler or cool box). There are also differences relating to the historical presence of only a single Indigenous language, Māori, on the main islands of NZ/Aotearoa, and the declaring of this language as a national language in 1987. But we’d need an editor from NZ to elaborate on this, whether they were Māori, Pasifika (with ancestors from other Pacific islands), Pākehā (of European descent) or other – anyone out there willing to take it on?

Tim Curnow grew up in Canberra (apart from a year in Ecuador, a year in Colombia and a year backpacking around Europe), then worked as a linguist and applied linguist at universities in Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. Then he moved to Royal Leamington Spa in the middle of England and started TJC Editing so that he could copyedit other people’s academic work instead of having to write his own.

Lekker editing in South African English

By Katherine Kirk

A favourite pastime of South Africans seems to be seeing how many dialects we can squeeze into a sentence. South Africa has 11 official languages, and at least ten distinct dialects of English, so when I was invited to write about ‘South African English’ I thought it might be a bit hectic. In the end, I had a jol, and I hope you will too on this lexical adventure.

Hopefully, I can save our colleagues from elsewhere a little time and trouble by giving you some basics. I hope this can be a kiff resource for future chinas who are helping to bring South African writing to wider audiences.

Spoken South African English is made up of several varieties: White South African English, Indian South African English (which closely resembles Indian English), Cape Flats English and Black South African English (BSAE). White South African English (WSAE) can further be divided into ‘Cultivated’ or ‘Conservative’ SAE, ‘General’ or ‘Respectable’ SAE and ‘Broad’ or ‘Extreme’ SAE. As you can imagine, there is a fair bit of not-so-lekker prejudice towards some of the Englishes; not all Englishes are considered equal. And this can be even more confusing for editors!

Black SAEIndian SAECape Flats SAE
Spoken by individuals whose first language is an indigenous African language.Spoken by South Africans of Indian descent. Resembles Indian English.Originally associated with inner-city Cape Coloured speakers.*
White SAE
Approximates England's standard RP and is associated with the upper class.Social indicator of middle class and is the common tongue.Associated with the working class, low socioeconomic status and little education. Approximates Afrikaans English.

*Note: The term ‘Coloured’ is currently treated as a neutral description in Southern Africa, classifying people of mixed race ancestry. Cape Coloureds are particularly from Cape Town, where their Malaysian roots have contributed to their distinct language and culture. The Coloured community in South Africa uses the term to refer to itself as a group.

In writing, it is a little simpler, thank goodness. Written SAE tends to fall somewhere between ‘Cultivated’ and ‘General’ WSAE depending on the purpose and register of the text, so that is what I’ll be talking about for the rest of this blog post. It helps to be aware of the others, though, as they might crop up in dialogue in South African fiction, or in communication with South African clients.

How widely is South African English used?

South African English is used primarily within South Africa, but authors like Lauren Beukes and JM Coetzee are widely read abroad. However, there is a feeling among authors in South Africa that by writing in SAE they risk siff reviews from readers who are unfamiliar with its quirks. As a result, many South African fiction authors tend to write in US or UK English to appeal to a broader market and get those schweet five-star ratings. Poms tend to be more forgiving than yanks. South African fiction authors might then favour US English, although they learned in school to write with British spelling. This can lead to a mixture of the two in writing, as well as occasionally idiosyncratic usage of idioms.

Corporate, academic, governmental and other such non-fiction writers don’t get tuned so much by reviewers, so they usually keep it simple and stick with a more British version of SAE.

Does it follow more a UK or a US style in terms of punctuation and spelling?

South African English mostly follows UK spelling and grammar, but mixes US and UK punctuation. We use double quotes with nested singles, open en-dashes, and -is- rather than
-iz-. We like keeping the u in words like colour and we pronounce the h in herbs.

South Africa uses a decimal comma rather than a decimal point, e.g. 4,5 not 4.5. Dates are written in day-month-year order. When in doubt, aim for consistency.

How is the vocabulary different from other Englishes?

This is perhaps the most fun part of SAE. With the influence of so many languages and cultures, we have a wide repertoire of slang. Slang is regional, cultural, class-divided and used interchangeably by many people of all groups. We have words from Afrikaans like lekker, some Zulu words like babelas (from ibabalazi) and, like the Aussies, we even have Cockney rhyming slang like china (plate = mate). We have words borrowed from Yiddish, Lebanese and Portuguese.

Some words have been co-opted into corporate-speak like indaba (a meeting or conference, from Zulu). Some words are thrown in for flavour just-for-just, like ag, eish and eina! And there are some temporal markers we use for deliberate obfuscation, and to get out of doing things we don’t want to do, like nownow (‘I’ll proofread the footnotes now-now’).

We refer to our money as bucks rather than krugerrands. We put our groceries in a trolley and then transfer them into packets at the till.

We call our mothers Mom and fathers Dad, although some folks use the British Mum and, just to confuse you, Pop.

There are some words we have to be careful not to use in books aimed at mainstream US or UK audiences, like:

  • hooter: the loud bit on a car
  • robot: the traffic light
  • boot: the back of the car
  • bra: also bru, used like bro to refer to our male buddies
  • slops: flip-flop sandals (we may giggle at thongs)

Pants are trousers. A jersey is a cardigan or jumper. Cooldrinks are fizzy.

If you are still having trouble distinguishing between broer and boerewors, or boetie and baboetie, you might want to look up some South African colloquialism lists, lest you accidentally eat your little brother.

Grammatical quirks

Must has a much lower impact in SAE and is used as a synonym for should or shall. You might also encounter constructions that have been influenced by German and Dutch, such as come with (‘Are they coming with?’).

Are there any pitfalls or sensitivities to be aware of?

It is important to be aware of the prejudices towards certain varieties of SAE, as I mentioned earlier. The social effects of history linger on, and we must pay extra attention to accurate, authentic and respectful representation in literature.

Editors must also be alert to common errors like aswell and isit, and the confusion of borrow and lend, which are fine in conversation but unacceptable in writing. If you can catch things like that, you’ll be hundreds.

What are the main resources?

The OUP has published four editions of the Oxford South African Pocket Dictionary. It has a good introduction with more detail on the quirks of South Africanisms and includes South African slang terms and borrowed words.

For specifics regarding punctuation, spelling and grammar, I was able to find this government-issued style guide. I also tracked down this style guide from the University of Johannesburg, which may help academic editors. It is best to get a style guide from the university in question, if possible, since there may be differences between institutions.

The general rule of thumb is to follow UK spelling and grammar and aim for consistency – what a relief!


Mesthrie, R, (ed.) (2002). Language in South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

De Klerk, V and Gough, D (2002). Black South African English. In Rajend Mesthrie (ed.), Language in South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 356–78.

Katherine Kirk is a South African-born proofreader, copyeditor and developmental editor who married a Texan. They spend most of their time arguing over whether to call them pavements or sidewalks.

When she isn’t torturing her spouse with incomprehensible regionalisms, Katherine hunts down commas and misused apostrophes in fiction. She especially likes applying her love of etymology to worldbuilding in science fiction. She currently lives halfway up a mountain in Ecuador, where the weather is always lekker.

When we posted Katherine’s blog on Facebook, two distinguished editors, Jill Wolvaardt and Penny Silva, got in touch to tell us about the Dictionary of South African English, which, following extensive digital enhancements, has been released as a Mobile Edition designed for use on smartphones and tablets. First published in print as A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles (Oxford University Press, 1996), this unrivalled record of the development of the language variety over three centuries is available with free access at https://dsae.co.za.

Photo credits: Flag by Barend Lotter, on Pixabay; South African Time by Katherine Kirk (Gecko Edit).

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Wise owls: dialects

There are many different Englishes – and there are Englishes within Englishes. The wise owls have turned their thoughts to their favourite features of dialects of England.

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin

I’ve been a sucker for a flat northern vowel ever since I watched Coronation Street as a kid (long ousted for EastEnders, whose mockney lacks the same appeal). I’m a southerner by birth so when I moved to Leeds in the 1980s I was thrilled to be called ‘duck’ by the Loiners and hear them rhyme bath with math(s). I have an unconscious tendency to mimic other people’s accents, so it wasn’t long before I started flattening my own vowels when in the company of northerners. I quickly added owt, nowt and summat to my verbal repertoire, and have been using them ever since because, well, they are just so much more succinct.

What I also love about northern dialects is the rich vocabulary – I’ve been in Manchester for more than 12 years now and I’m still learning the lingo. Words like bobbins (rubbish) and brew (a cup of tea) roll off my tongue as easily as fookin’ hell (no one swears quite as awesomely northernly as Liam Gallagher), often shortened to ‘kinell. However, I doubt my stepson would approve if I called him ‘our kid’. My absolute favourite is ‘out out’, as in ‘Are we going out, or out out?’ This is Mancunian for deciding how dressed up you ought to be for a night on the tiles.

Obviously, I still get confused when Mancunians say dinner when they clearly mean lunch; I’ve had some awkward attempts to diarise meetings thanks to that. But when I turn up for lunch/dinner, I’m as likely to greet my companion with ‘Yallright?’ as I am to say hi. I’ve lived far longer in the north of England, or Oop North, as I call it, than I have anywhere else, so the accents and vocabulary have left a bigger imprint on my brain than those of all the other
cities and countries I’ve lived in. And that’s not bobbins. Maybe one day I’ll be taken to be proper Manc.

Hazel Bird

A variant of dialects that I find interesting is idiolects, which are
uses or coinages of words particular to individuals or small groups (such as friendship groups or families). They tend to grow organically out of day-to-day interactions, and unlike dialects they can be

For example, I have just looked up the term ‘hoon’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and learned that it is an Aussie/Kiwi term for ‘behav[ing] in a loutish or irresponsible way; spec. to drive fast or recklessly’. However, by way of a link with rally car culture, my family has come to use it to refer to ruminant animals’ prancing across a landscape. Our definition is quite precise: sheep can hoon; cows, horses and such cannot.

We also use the word ‘puggle’ to refer to (1) the act of moving foodstuffs around a cooking pan to prevent them from adhering to the bottom or (2) fussing a cat. The OED has the meaning ‘to poke out’, which bears passing resemblance to (1) but not to (2). How we came to adopt these meanings is a mystery.

Another oddity is the spelling ‘baout’ (pronounced with extreme emphasis on each vowel) for ‘boat’. A baout can be a water-worthy object of any description, with the word denoting a sense of longing. However, like many dialect and idiolect words, it has a shared significance that is hard to put into words.

I often encounter dialect and idiolect words in my creative non-fiction editing work. When
used well, their effect can be powerful, conveying intimacy, alienation or a little of both.
They can make the reader the author’s closest confidante or deliberately shock them into
a new perspective.

Melanie Thompson reading the SfEP guide 'Pricing your project'Melanie Thompson

Nah then, mardy bum! There are often discussions in the CIEP forum about whether it’s permissible to quote song lyrics, but in this case the famous line is part of my childhood vernacular, and if you tell me I can’t write it, I’ll get a reyt face on.

One of the biggest thrills of my life was to hear that line sung at full throttle by the passengers on the crammed tram conveying myself and my (then) teenage son to hear Arctic Monkeys play in their (and my) home town: Sheffield.

Unlike the next-most-famous city band (the Human League) who adopted the ubiquitous
1980s musicians’ twang, Arctic Monkeys are proper tykes who know how to pronounce Beauchief (Beechiff) and will know that they need to pack their brollies if someone tells them
it’s silin’ it dahn.

Lots of people think they can ‘do’ a Yorkshire accent by splatterin’ apostrophes awl o’er t’ro-ad but Sheffieldish doesn’t work quite like that. Indeed, there are regional variations even within the city boundaries depending on whether the speaker hails from the northern or southern side – and it’s nothing to do with whether they support the Owls or the Blades.*

TV and radio programmes often fail to do the Sheffield accent justice: not all shows can afford Sean Bean (sadly!). But to hear a bit of authentic Sheffield banter, try Tom Wrigglesworth
and ‘family’
on BBC Radio 4. Every time I hear Tom’s fictitious dad answer the phone with ‘Sheffield 973629’ I am transported 150 miles north! (Why do my older northern relatives recite their number?)

I had the full force of my Sheffield accent elocutioned out of me, as a teenager, but my dad is an aficionado. This has been known to cause major confusion among his southern careworkers, but the fuss is usually somert and nowt, such as a mix-up between putting something o’r’ere or o’r theer.

To me, dialects are not just about words and pronunciation, but a way of life – some of which is sadly now dwindling.

Back in the day, my nannan used to gerron t’bus to go shoppin’ dah’n’t’cliff armed wi’a bag o’spice to share with the other passengers! She’d gerroff and buy some breadcakes, peys, a pound of tripe and a bottle of Hendo’s, then reverse the journey to be home in time for dinner.**

As I set off out to play, my mum might have told me not to get my clo’e’s loppy from scrawmin’ around in’t’ gennel; and if a friend later called round for me, the response would be ‘She in’t-in’.

Dialects can be problematic in formal writing and speaking, but they are a matter of great local pride and shouldn’t be regarded as a lesser form of English, in the right context. Nuff said?

Ah’ll si’thi’!

* Sheffield Wednesday and Sheffield United football teams

** My grandmother would get on the bus to go shopping at Attercliffe, carrying a bag of sweets … to purchase bread, peas, tripe and the local delicacy Henderson’s Relish [try it on pie!], and return in time for lunch.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford

It is my abiding regret that I wasn’t born in my grandmothers’ generation so far as dialect goes, to hear their grandmothers speak. Alas, I am a child of the Fifties, by which time dialect was fading rapidly, and almost gone from my little corner of Hyde, a Pennine foothills mill town eight miles east of Manchester. We were in that select group of people that says scoan, not sconn (much smaller geographically than I ever imagined), and we had ginnels (though not as generally defined – ours were always covered). A buffet (pronounce that T!) was a broad, low wooden stool, an exceedingly useful article, especially for a tiny kid as, if you turned it upside down, you could sit on the underside, surrounded by rather solid framework, and pretend it was a rowing boat. I’m delighted to find it in Oxford Dictionaries at definition 3 (sans boat) and the etymology appears to be Old French into Middle English 600 years ago.

Mum kept an odd bit of grammar going well into the present century. She’d say ‘When I’m waken’ for ‘When I awoke’. And I distinctly recall a small schoolfriend (we must only have been six or seven) tell someone to ‘Stop thy skrikin’ ’ – a term that wasn’t  used in my house, a couple of hundred yards away (not metres, back then), but was easy enough to figure out (‘Cease that noisy crying, forthwith!’) and if you couldn’t, well, it’s in Collins. Its etymology is harder to find, but it looks like being Old Norse for, not very excitingly, to scream or cry. We were just within the Danelaw, back in the day, so that sounds about right. Of course, the people around me didn’t speak a dialect, just as we didn’t have an accent – we just spoke how we spoke, but we knew it wasn’t like those posh folk on the wireless or telly – unless it was for comic effect and Marriott Edgar was being recited (I gave this monologue at a school show, and that was accent, really, not dialect). I’ve been living away for too long now to retain any strong linguistic links to home, and though I do still rhyme grass with crass, and bath with math, I no longer rhyme book with souk. Thanks for a lovely nostalgia trip!

The wise owls pop up on the blog every couple of months to reflect on their experiences on various topics. All are Advanced Professional Members of the CIEP.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator (who is quite a fan of bishy barnabees).

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