Tag Archives: punctuation

A Finer Point: Read my ellipsis

By Riffat Yusuf

There are some words I should think about before saying them. Instead, I mispronounce with confidence and blasé out people’s corrections: ‘If-eat? Are you sure? All my French friends rhyme effete with tête.’ (The friends I have yet to make.) There are other words that I rehearse before sharing aloud, such as conscious and conscience. But present me with a dot dot dot and I dither between ellipsis and ellipses. It makes me sound like I don’t really know what it is or they are.

Elliptically challenged

A quick round of etymology won’t stop my flapping, though it should stand me in good stead if University Challenge ever comes scouting. Ask me about elleipein and elleipsis. One of them is an ancient Greek noun of action meaning to fall short or leave out, then it got Latinised. The other one might be, too. Ask me when the first recorded use of ellipsis/ellipses in English was. Sixteen something. Do not, Bamber Gascoigne, ask me if I denote the omission of letters or words with an ellipsis or with ellipses.

I’ve just realised why nobody else is confused. You all interpret an ellipsis as you would other punctuation: a comma, a dash, an apostrophe. I count the dots and see plural; you don’t. Let’s call a single set of three equidistant points ‘an ellipsis’ and ask why three and not four? Because we’re not in 1890s Oxford or 1948 Chicago – by the start of the 20th century Oxford University Press had clipped to three, with the Chicago Manual of Style dropping a point in 1948.

We all know what an ellipsis is for

We do? Omission from what, then? Quoted speech and text, and also? Incomplete thoughts and trailing off … Anything else?

Don’t buzz in too quickly: pausing for dramatic effect while reading is not the answer I have in front of me. I’ll accept gapping, stripping and sluicing. When you type a gapping comma, you’re showing that a verb has been left out. You’re omitting part of a sentence without typing in a …

Spaced out

Should there be a space before, during or after an ellipsis? Imagine a world where the answer was ‘it’s entirely up to you; nobody’s going to wince if you do this…or this. . .or this … or this . . . ’. But life says start by asking your client if they prefer normal word spaces between the points of an ellipsis (. . .), or none (…), or if they’d like you to insert a single glyph.

CIEPer, when you’ve made a note of your client’s shoulder shrug, I say reach for New Hart’s Rules for style and punctuation guidance; it’s a lot less headachy than CMOS: 13.50–infinity.

In general, NHR favours a space on either side of an unspaced ellipsis – unless the ellipted text ends in a question or exclamation mark: here, the punctuation is closed up to the ellipsis it follows. What I’ve just written I would have to read several times to visualise. I need to see examples. I could really do with a table showing how NHR ellipts the following strongly held opinion in a variety of settings.

I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs. I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.

Ellipsis when ...

There is an omitted wordI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! I also … rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
There is an incomplete thought followed by a new sentenceI like fluffy, crazy cats … I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The sentence before the ellipsis ends with a full pointI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! I also like rabbits. …
There is a comma or other punctuation before or after the ellipsis (if the meaning isn’t affected). (Retain the comma if it follows the last item of a sequence after which the ellipsis shows inferred continuation.)I like … crazy cats, not dogs! I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The ellipted text is preceded by an exclamation mark (or a question mark)I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! … I don’t like anything else.
The ellipted text is followed by an exclamation mark (or a question mark)I like fluffy, crazy cats ...! I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The original text has an ellipsis after fluffy … but you want to add an ellipsis of your ownI like fluffy … cats, not dogs! […] I don’t like anything else.
Incomplete sentence in an embedded quoteI said, ‘I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs. I also like rabbits. I don’t like …’.
No ellipsis needed at the start or end of a (non-embedded) quoteRiffat’s reference to ‘cats, not dogs … rabbits … anything else’ isn’t styled the same way as an embedded quote. She didn’t place an ellipsis at the start or end of her quotation even though she missed a word at the start, and one at the end.
Displayed verse omits the end of a lineI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs!
I also like rabbits.
I don’t like …
No ellipses needed when displayed verse omits the start of the first line (align right with the next line)    not dogs!
I also like rabbits.
I don’t like anything else.

But CMOS .  .  .

Here’s a link, enjoy! We’re off to play with Word’s unspaced points where the real fun is. If you increase the font size to 80 and type in three full stops, you get to see them being nudged into a single character once you type the following space. For the same result and a non-breaking ellipsis without the jiggle, press Alt+Ctrl+.[stop] or insert Unicode (U+2026). It’s Alt + semicolon on a Mac.

Rich pickings

There’s one ellipsis question I’ve omitted to mention. NHR 14.6.2 tells me it’s maths – where a horizontal, vertical or diagonal ellipsis is used to represent missing terms, followed by an unspaced comma before the final term – but that’s not what I had in mind. I’ve left out typesetting needs. Does experienced typesetter Rich Cutler prefer the proper typographical character over dot dot dotting? In his own writing, yes. But professionally? Not especially. So that’s good, maybe you don’t need to worry about an ellipsis perched at the end of a line and how it’s typed. Yeah, you do: Rich says editors can help with typesetting by being clear about marking up ellipses and/or giving instructions on how they should be set.

Please make sure you know your client’s preferences: the ellipsis character or three points (with spaces between, or not), and when to close up or include surrounding spaces. And do pay attention to surrounding punctuation and be sure to check each ellipsis for nonbreaking spaces.

Meanwhile, in downtown Ithaca …

Inspired by David Nagy, whose Ellipsis in Homeric Poetry makes me wish I’d studied Classics.

Odysseus: Why are you wearing glasses?

Homer: According to historians, I had problems with my eyesight.

Odysseus: But why are you wearing them over your mouth?

Homer: Because ellipses.

Odysseus: …

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.

 


Want to refresh your punctuation knowledge? Check out the new CIEP course Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation.


Photo credits: three – Mike Szczepanski; cat – Corina Rainer, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Lynne Baybut, Entry-Level 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.

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 goo.gl/w52udb) 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.

How I got started – Graham Hughes

SfEP deskOne of the most common questions asked at Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) local groups and by those interested in pursuing a career in editing or proofreading is: ‘How did you get started?’.

SfEP professional member Graham Hughes shares his story in this regular blog feature, which explores the many different career paths taken by SfEP members.

This really wasn’t part of the plan. From a ridiculously early age – around 14 – computing was the only career I could foresee for myself. I did the O Level, A Level and degree, and joined British Rail (yes, we’re going back a bit) as a programmer.

After about 15 years, several changes of role and a few changes of employer, I was in a rut. Fresh opportunities were limited by my old-fashioned technical skills, and the work was becoming mundane. I started looking for something else to do – first as a sideline, and maybe eventually as a career.

I saw an advert for the Writers Bureau’s Comprehensive Writing Course. This seemed like something I could do. I’d always felt comfortable working with documents, as well as programs. I did the course – most of it, anyway – and went on to have a sports history book, and some articles, published. Soon, though, I was struggling to produce ideas and convert them into paid work. After two years of not quite setting the world alight, my book was remaindered. The idea of making a living from writing seemed far-fetched.

So, what next? Another Writers Bureau course caught my eye: Proofreading and Copy Editing. It struck me that checking my material – rather than actually writing it – had probably been my main strength. How about checking other people’s material, and getting paid for it? Also, as Richard Hutchinson explains in his blog post on how he got started, there are parallels between programming and editorial work.

A plan came together: (1) do the course, (2) re-edit the book (yes, I now realise I probably should have used someone else), (3) self-publish it as an ebook, (4) look for work as a proofreader or editor. The last part was the tricky one.

My first job wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind. After I’d emailed the leader of a local writers’ group, one of its members asked me to type a short play script that he’d handwritten. He accepted my offer to edit it as well, so it felt like some kind of a start.

After that, finding work was very tough. With my full-time employment in IT, I couldn’t take on big jobs, or even smallish time-critical ones. I joined the SfEP, after dithering for several months, and started learning a lot about proofreading and editing, especially from the SfEP forums – but progress was snail-paced for the next year or so.

The big change came when my IT job ended, semi-voluntarily. Rather than looking for a new one, I decided (nervously) to focus on freelance editorial work. I did look for in-house editorial jobs close to home, but there seemed to be nothing available for someone with my limited credentials. The next few months were very challenging: a few small jobs, then nothing for nearly three months; but my progress with the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) Basic Proofreading course gave me some hope.

Then, suddenly, the work started coming – mostly from students, largely thanks to the Find a Proofreader website and a helpful, nearby SfEP member with an overflowing workload (thanks Helen). Around this time (spring 2014), I completed the PTC course, along with other training, and became an ordinary member of SfEP (now known as professional member), which helped to bring in more work. To shore up my finances, I downsized from a suburban semi-detached house to an urban flat (no great wrench), wiping out my mortgage.

Since then, things have been gradually coming together. I’ve been doing more work for business rather than students, also proofreading two books for a publisher. I’m now leaning more towards editing, to make use of the decent writing skills that I feel I have (though you might disagree, reading this). Technology and business have become my predominant subject areas. Via a long-winded route, I think I’ve ended up in my ideal job.

If you’re thinking of getting into editing and/or proofreading, I strongly recommend it, if you think it’s right for you and vice versa. Being a keen reader isn’t enough: you need a sound understanding of spelling, grammar and punctuation, a knack for paying attention to detail, a professional attitude and a willingness to stay positive and persistent as you build your business. If that’s you: good luck!

Graham HughesGraham Hughes still can’t quite get used to the idea of telling people he’s a proofreader and editor, rather than saying he’s ‘in IT’. He started doing part-time editorial work, and joined SfEP as an associate (now known as entry-level member), in 2012. He went full-time in 2013, before becoming an ordinary member (now known as professional member) of the SfEP – and an online forum administrator – the following year. To learn more about his background and services, please visit the GH Editorial website.

Proofread by SfEP entry-level member Susan Walton.

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

Warm glow proofreading

The Magic DoorSome time ago someone asked on one of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) forums whether it is ever a good idea to do some proofreading or copy-editing for free. Much discussion ensued. Putting to one side for a moment the obligatory proofread of your offspring’s thesis or dissertation, your best friend’s offspring’s thesis or dissertation, or your elderly relative’s treasured autobiography, what is left? Why else might you work for nothing? The forum went on to list a number of possible reasons, and one of them was ‘because it might give you a warm glow’.

I admit it: this suggestion was mine, and I made it because I speak from experience.

Many, many (far too many) years ago I went to Denbigh Primary School in Luton and one of my teachers there was Mr Lyons. I mainly remember him because every Friday afternoon he would put aside whatever work we were supposed to be doing and read a story instead. One of the books he read to us over a period of some weeks or months was The Magic Door. Heard of it? I bet you haven’t.

Long, long after I had left Denbigh Primary I remembered that I enjoyed listening to The Magic Door, and I tried to track down a copy. This was in the days before the internet. Ahem, it was even before the days of personal computers. I couldn’t find any trace of the book. My search wasn’t helped by the fact that I couldn’t remember who had written it.

I tried again when Mr Google was born. Still failed. I moaned about it to anyone who would listen, then thought no more about it. Then several years later I got an email from someone I hadn’t been in contact with for ages. Amazingly, she had remembered me moaning, and by accident had found a site promoting the publication of The Magic Door. Excitedly I clicked on http://www.danbillany.com/books-by-dan-billany/the-magic-door. Try it now and you’ll see what I found.

Needless to say, I bought a copy of the book. While I was about it I read about the author, Dan Billany, who disappeared in WWII and didn’t see the publication of The Magic Door, or indeed of the books he wrote during captivity in Italy. He and another prisoner escaped from prison but were never seen again.

All this was jolly interesting, but I was anxiously awaiting my copy of The Magic Door. Would I still enjoy it? Would my eight-year-old son enjoy it? Or would it be hopelessly outdated, badly written and a terrible disappointment? It was some… er… forty or fifty years since Mr Lyons had read it out to my primary school class, after all. I couldn’t even remember much about the story itself, only that I had enjoyed it all those years ago.

I needn’t have worried. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and so did my son – so much so that some of the phrases from the story have crept into our regular family usage. But as I was reading the book out to my family, I was puzzled to see lots of errors in the text – spelling and punctuation errors. How could this be? It had been a bone fide published book way back in 1943.

I contacted Dan Billany’s great-niece (I think that’s the relationship), Jodi Weston Brake, to ask her what had happened. The answer was simply that there were no electronic versions of The Magic Door available, so she had had it rekeyed but couldn’t afford a proofreader. Now you can feel the warm glow coming. I offered to proofread the book for her, and explained why. She was delighted to hear the story of Mr Lyons, and sent me a pdf of the book (which was useful because at the time I was just teaching myself to edit pdf documents). I don’t know if a second edition has been issued, but if it has and it still has errors in it, they’re down to me. But don’t bother to write.

One thing struck me as I was proofreading the book and warmly glowing: it is very definitely a boy’s book. It’s about the adventures of a class of boys in a boy’s school, and their adventures are… well, boyish. Of course ‘boy’s stories’ and ‘girl’s stories’ were just part of the landscape back then. Maybe that is a topic for another blog post. But I can recommend The Magic Door to anyone with a son aged about eight to ten, especially if you want to feed them some history on the sly. And I can definitely recommend warm glow proofreading.

Stephen CashmoreStephen Cashmore is the training director and an advanced member of the SfEP. He lives on the west coast of Scotland, a stone’s throw from the beach, with his complicated family and not enough hours in the day.

 

Proofread by SfEP associate Anna Black.

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

The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 3: Go home, spelling reform, you’re not needed here.

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part three:

World Dictionary In part one, I wrote about mob rule in English, and how the internet has delivered the largest mob ever. In part two, I talked about coping with changing norms of language. One of those changing norms is surely spelling.

David Crystal OBE, in his lecture to the 2013 conference, spoke of how he has tracked the dropping of the h from rhubarb over the last few years by simply googling the word from time to time. Who needs the h, anyway? Rubarb sounds just the same without it. Why not agree it’s time it went and update the dictionaries? Wouldn’t that be nice and neat and logical?

Ah, yes, spelling reform. I’m agin it. In detail-less brevity, English spelling shows its breeding. It doesn’t reflect how some words sound now. It doesn’t reflect, necessarily, etymology. Some of our words were taken out to a dark alley and given a wedgie by language bullies who were afraid that good old English was simply not good enough (wedging the b into debt, the p into receipt, the s into island), some of them tripped over their own feet and had a nasty accident (smooshing an h into ghost, for example) and some words were mugged for political purposes (Nathaniel Webster springs to mind). It’s all a dreadful mess, spelling isn’t logical, it’s hard to learn and Someone Ought to Sort It Out. Well, again, no. There’s no Someone to do it. There are millions of someones. (See what I did there? We’re back at the internet.)

I suspect that, quite possibly in my lifetime, there will be natural and inevitable spelling reform based on the weight of opinion on what works best for one speaker of English to communicate with another, regardless of their backgrounds. Globalism demands it. Changing spelling wholesale is contrary to the way language actually works. And if you don’t believe that, count up how many Esperanto speakers you know, or writers of Shavian. Language grows – or, rather, is grown by its users – to meet demand. What starts as wordplay, or slang, or code becomes widespread; those words that are found useful become embedded, at least for a while. Those words that aren’t are dropped. Words come into fashion, go out again, maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It is usefulness that drives these effects.

Spelling reform will happen, as it has happened constantly since we started spelling, but not as a programme imposed from above, by some ineffable body outside language telling us how things are going to be from now on. Yes, we must be taught how to use our language with facility, we need to learn the norms for spelling, punctuation and grammar that apply to our time; we need to learn about register, about appropriateness, so that the English we use in our school essays and job applications will be different from the English used informally. This isn’t new. What is new is the ease with which so many people of so many points of view can debate, declare, deride uses to such a huge audience. Some memes go viral, others don’t. Some memes have longevity, some burn out quickly after only sporadic interest. Just as general suffrage gives votes to people you don’t agree with, and to people you suspect shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as choosing the government of the country, the internet allows people less educated than me and people more educated than me, on a spectrum that runs from crackpot through people who think just like me and onto a whole other kind of crackpot to use English and to publish constantly.

Consider, though, the impact of spelling reform if it happens any other way. There have been so many schemes, mostly criticising the fact that words don’t look how they sound. So – you’re going to devise a spelling scheme and have it adopted. Upon whose accent do you base spelling? Received Pronunciation? Brum? Scouse? Welsh? Highland Scots? Belfast? Estuary? Then it already doesn’t look like it sounds to anyone with a different accent, or who speaks a dialect. What do you do about homophones? Homonyms? Will you sort out the mess of contronyms, too? But let’s gloss over that and speed on.

A new English spelling system is introduced. Time passes. Not much time – ten or twenty years is more than enough. The literature of the last four hundred years or so is now unreadable to the younger generations who only know the New English. A common enough problem now – Shakespeare is troublesome for many, Chaucer for most. Given the exponential growth of publishing since their day, though, it’s a vastly bigger problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. That is that our young people are cut off from the English of the rest of the globe. A few basic words will survive the revamp, of course: bat, dog, bawl, idiot.

So do we cut off our kids from our culture? Or do we transcribe and republish everything? Or just bits of it? (Which bits? Is the rest of our literature, our history, kept for the comparative handful who learn the Oldies English as a separate, elite, subject?) And what about the internet? The mass of material so huge it’s impossible to imagine?

The difficulty with spelling evolution now, of course, is dictionaries. We used to spell how we spoke, so we all spelled differently. Then came the printed word, which brought about a bit more standardisation, then the spellers, then the dictionaries. How can spelling move away from the monolith of the dictionary? Well, it can and it does and the dictionaries play catch-up. I sometimes amuse myself by checking a spelling on Googlefight before going to the dictionary. The people are speaking, and they’re not all speaking dictionary.

Sue Littleford

Sue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Patric Toms.

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