My top twelve English corrections

English is always changing, so today’s common corrections can easily become tomorrow’s accepted forms. It’s precisely how we’ve arrived at where we are now. But there’s a core to the purpose of any language, and that is that we all understand it so we can communicate. We accept variations from the mean, but stray too far and meaning can change. Some people say we don’t need apostrophes as the meaning is always obvious from the context. I’d say that’s true 99% of the time, but there are always borderline cases where it can cause confusion, so it’s better to have a rule and accept that it might sometimes be disobeyed (wilfully or erroneously) than to simply abandon the rule altogether.

You also can’t ignore the important factors of professionalism and attention to detail. Whether you’re writing for a public audience or for business, there will be a percentage of readers who will be turned off by slapdash writing, but no benefit at all for littering text with errors. Over an entire readership, the net result of error-strewn copy will be negative.

So how can you start to improve your copywriting and stop turning off the pedants among your readers? One way is to pick off the low-hanging fruit: common errors. Good proofreaders prick up their eyes (which is definitely not a made-up idiom) when they encounter certain things because they instinctively know there’s a good chance that there could be something wrong. Oftentimes, they also happen to be things that proofreaders overlook if they aren’t fully focused, so experience counts too. Here’s my list of things that have, over the years, had me reaching for my red pen and highlighting those PDFs.

“in regards to”

We might finish an email with “regards” (or “kind regards” if you want someone to pay you), but when you mean “related to” there’s only one regard given, i.e. “in regard to”. 

Comma splices

Separate clauses being linked with a comma is called a comma splice. “Splice” might sound like “slice” but it really means the opposite: joining together. Film editors splice scenes together, for example. This sentence contains a comma splice, it is two separate clauses. There are some easy ways to fix it, however. You can usually swap the comma for a semicolon, and sometimes a colon works. Alternatively, you can insert a conjunction (so, and, butor etc.) or make the clauses into two sentences with a full stop and a capital.

Possessive plurals (childrens’, womens’)

Possessive plurals have the apostrophe after the s, so we get phrases like cars’ horns, countries’ flags and birds’ nests. But some words have plurality built in, such as women, children, mice, stadia, fungi and sheep. In those cases you have to be careful if pluralising them, and it’s quite common to see childrens’, womens’ and mens’ (and less commonly the other pluralised words when used as possessives). Just put your brain into 5th gear when you come across them as a writer or an editor, as it’s surprising how often this one slips in. (It should be children’s, women’s, men’s, stadia’s, fungi’s and sheep’s, by the way.)

Inconsistency of -ise and -ize spellings

This one’s probably quite forgivable because neither is wrong in itself (it’s a style thing), but there should be consistency throughout the document once you’ve plumped for one or the other. Note that some words never have an -ize ending – think analyse, advertise, advise, supervise, merchandise and surprise, for example.

“led, lead”

Another very common one here: led is the past participle of lead, meaning to guide, direct or manage something or someone. The word spelt “lead” has a second meaning, too. It’s a metal, and I think this is where confusion creeps in. Because the metal is pronounced “led” rather than “leed”, it probably accounts for the number of times I see phrases such as “She lead the the UK from 1979 to 1990” which sounds right in the head, but is wrong on paper.

“lose, loose”

This one seems to have exploded since people were allowed to contribute to chat forums and social media, but it’s quite surprising how often “loose” (free, untied, slack) is confused with “lose” (mislay, be defeated). The error can also infect the comparative adjective “looser” and the noun “loser”, and I know because although I’m frequently called both, I’m sure I’m only one of them. 

“choose, chose”

A simple slip of the finger on the keyboard that spell checkers might overlook is the “choose” and “chose” error. “Chose” is the past tense of “choose” in the absence of a word “choosed”, so just keep your beady eye on that one.

“tough, trough, though, thought, through, thorough”

I read that heading three times to make sure I hadn’t typed one of the words twice. They all have very different meanings but are all spelt similarly, and it’s incredibly easy to get these wrong. Whenever you encounter any of these words, check it throughly, tough even if you though you would have spotted an error, it’s a lot thougher than you would have throught. Just in case you’re unsure of the differences:

  • tough: difficult, hard-wearing
  • trough: ditch, low point in graph, animal/politician feeding device
  • though: despite
  • thought: notion (n), past tense of “think” (v)
  • through: via, during
  • thorough: complete, careful

“and” in lists

When you’re listing things that contain the word “and”, be very careful, as that “and” can often become the grammatical “and” in the sentence. “We went to see Bonny and Clyde, Transformers, Pulp Fiction, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is wrong. “We went to see Bonny and Clyde, Transformers, Pulp Fiction and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” is correct. There could be borderline cases such as “The company invested £200,000 in uniforms, a new canteen, research and development”. In most cases “research and development” would be one item in the list, so there could be a missing “and” there too. Sometimes it’s best to change the order of the listed items if you can, as it can make everything clearer.

Colons/semicolons before bullet lists

Semicolons shouldn’t lead into a bullet list; it should only ever be a colon.

“between x to y”

Always look out for things  like “between 40 to 50 years ago” or “between £60–100 million”. This should always be “and” between this and that. 

“there’s, there are”

This one is forgivable in speech, but is creeping into written English at an alarming rate. “There’s plenty of reasons to love this city” and “there’s five people reading this blog – I’d better upgrade my server” are examples. In each case, a plural is being treated as a singular.

$2,000 dollars (£1,685 pounds)

It’s quite a common one this, and it’s easy to see how it happens when you consider the different ways amounts of money are written and spoken. Obviously you don’t need to include the currency symbol and to spell it out, so it’s just one to look out for. My senses always tingle when I see a currency spelt out, and it is proved correct repeatedly. 

Bonus tip: beware of currencies taking capital letters, too – it’s another very common mistake, especially with euros, probably because we’re so used to the spelling of “Europe” and “European”.

Not counting specifically enumerated lists of things properly

We all have to write lists nowadays, but for the love of Apollo, please make sure the number of entries matches the promised number. It isn’t too much to ask.

Colons and semicolons: how to use them

Colons and semicolons are easy to confuse, and in my work as a proofreader and editor I see them misused daily. I’ll just go through the uses of each here.

Colon :

The colon’s main job is to join a statement with supporting facts. What comes after the colon cannot usually stand on its own – it needs its lead-up statement to justify it. For example:

There were three options: increase, decrease or remain the same.

Jackie had a brilliant plan: she would run away.

Colons can precede grammatically self-contained clauses or sentences, but that would be purely incidental (as in the second example).

Colons should always be used to introduce bullet lists and numbered lists if they are acting as through they are in a sentence. You could, for example, write “The bullet list below shows all the organisations involved.” That would not need a colon. However, if you’re using bullets to clarify a sentence with listed items separated by commas, you’d do something like this:

The countries involved were:

  • Brazil;
  • China;
  • Egypt; and
  • Australia.

Do not lead into a list with a semicolon. It’s incredibly common to see this done, but it’s wrong.

Semicolons make an appearance in that list, too. Although that’s how it should be presented in academic literature, in less formal bullet and number lists, there can be a bit of stylistic wiggle room.

Also worth noting is that items in bullet lists should not start with a capital letter unless they are proper nouns. They are not sentences; they are simply a way of making a list easier to understand. Again, capital letters feel a bit more natural to some people, and thanks to word processors auto-capitalising the start of every item, it’s very common to see. But in formal and academic contexts, treat bullet and numbered lists as a vertical sentences.

Semicolon ;

Semicolons are, as their appearance suggests, halfway between a colon and a comma. They are used to separate two independent but connected thoughts. The second statement can grammatically stand on its own, but without the first, it might not make much sense. Consider the following:

He opened the door and stepped inside. The echo of his footstep rang out.

He opened the door and stepped inside; the echo of his footstep rang out.

Both make perfect sense, but in the second example, it’s clearer that the echo and the step are connected. It feels like there’s continuity. There aren’t many situations where a semicolon is right but two sentences are wrong; it’s just a pleasant tool to deploy sparingly to let the reader recognise there’s a connection.

Comma splices

You can often use a semicolon to correct a comma splice. For example:

She toured the city, taking photo after photo, it was a lovely day.

which is wrong, can become:

She toured the city, taking photo after photo; it was a lovely day.

Capital letters after colons and semicolons

I mentioned above that both semicolons and colons should be followed by a lower-case letter unless it’s a proper noun. This is always true in British English. However, in the US, the rules are a little more flexible. Semicolons are usually followed by lower-case letters, but under some styles, the material after them is treated more like a new sentence, and therefore gets a capital. The important thing here is to be consistent with the style throughout.

The American way can have strange side-effects for the British reader, such as making mortals into deities:

Capital letters after colons and semicolons. American versus British styles

Professional titles and positions – should they start with a capital letter?

People have always been flattered by having their positions start with a capital letter. It marks them out from their subordinates, and makes Persons look Very Important. Anyone from The Queen down to the Area Manager can access an exclusive capitalisation club that is ever out of bounds to the cleaners, sales assistants and copywriters of the world.

But at what point is it wise to stop? If the Area Manager is capitalised, should the Branch Manager? The Assistant Branch Manager? The Team Leader? And if the Chairman of Shell gets a capital, should the Chairman of Bob’s Plumbing Services (Bob)?

In general there’s a downward trend in capitalisation that has mirrored the overturning of deference in society. It’s common to see the prime minister in lower-case, so you can feel safe putting the department head next to him or her.

One interpretation follows that if you’re using the name of the position instead of the person’s name, you should use capitals, but if you’re talking about the position in general it can be lowered.

Titles in formal contexts

The lower-case trend does not apply when dealing with people’s individual titles in formal contexts. So we’d have Professor Ian Lee and Liz Smith, Marketing Coordinator.
Writers and editors still overcapitalise, probably because they don’t want to offend someone.

But when you’re just describing a position in general prose, it’s fine to use lower-case initials.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s infamous style guide

Well, who’d have thought it? One of the first controversies of the Johnson era hasn’t come from some unfortunate gaffe, but from an issue very close to writers’ and editors’ hearts: style guides. To bring you up to speed, ITV News has revealed that the new Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, has instructed the staff in his department to abide by a style guide that has been largely ridiculed in the outside world.

There’s also a list of banned words, which one can only hope are restricted to certain circumstances, as they contain such taboo words as “Equal”, “Unacceptable”, Got”, “Lot” and “Hopefully”.

That style guide in full

Per the ITV’s reporting, the guide states:

  • Organisations are SINGULAR
  • All non-titled males – Esq.
  • There is no . after Miss or Ms
  • M.P.s – no need to write M.P. after their name in body of text
  • Male M.P.s (non-privy councillors) – in the address they should have Esq., before M.P. (e.g. Tobias Ellwood, Esq., M.P.)
  • Double space after fullstops
  • No comma after ‘and’
  • CHECK your work
  • Use imperial measurements

Where to start …

Oxford commas

Social media has focused on the Oxford comma rule, with wags posting the examples of how sentences can go awry if they are left out.

In the UK we don’t tend to separate the last two items in a list with a comma, as is common in the US:

🇬🇧 There was a dog, a camel, a mouse and a cow
🇺🇸 There was a dog, a camel, a mouse, and a cow

Good writers and editors should be able to spot when one is necessary to avoid ambiguity. You can’t simply rule out every instance of commas after “and”. It’s silly.

Esquire

This falls into the silly category, too. The rules of a language, such as they are, are determined by its speakers. That might sound odd coming from an editor, but there are things I let pass today that I wouldn’t have 20 years ago because they are now considered standard. “Esquire” has fallen into virtual disuse, and imposing it is Rees-Mogg being, well, Rees-Mogg.

Singular organisations

We can all live with that (with caveats).

No dot after Miss or Ms

Yes, this is fine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dot after Miss. I suppose I probably have seen one after Ms, but not very often. The rule goes: you don’t need a dot at the end of an abbreviation if its last letter is also the last letter of the word. So:

  • Regent St (Street)
  • Dr Foster (Doctor)
  • Mr Humphries (Mister)
  • etc. (et cetera)

M.P.s

Although the punctuation in M.P. is not actually one of the rules per se, it’s implied by his writing it that way. It’s another oddity really – we’d usually spell it MP. It’s much better as a possessive that way (MP’s is neater than M.P.’s) and also as a plural (M.P.s versus MPs). Those dots age the abbreviation about forty years. You can almost hear the hammering of the typewriter.

Double space after fullstops

Just no.

CHECK your work

Cool.

Use imperial measurements

Yeah, fine.

WAIT, WHAT?

The UK, along with most of the world, adopted metric measurements in the 1970s, and both imperial and metric systems have lived happily alongside each other ever since. Because of our long legacy of imperial use, it makes sense to have road signs in miles and speedometers in miles per hour. We measure TVs, monitors and hard disk drives in inches. It’s all a bit like driving on the left – we may as well keep it because changing over would be a massive headache.

However, imperial measurements aren’t taught in schools any more. The weather report is in °C. We buy foods in grams (apart from quarter pounder burgers and pints of beer). And clothes sizes vary comfortingly from shop to shop.

Bendy bananas

Unfortunately, a narrative has been allowed to develop that says the EU is trying to impose the metric system on the UK against its will, when the truth is nothing of the sort. The UK willingly changed to metric, stopped halfway and everybody’s happy. The idea that we’re being forced to adopt the metric system can be filed in the same drawer as the bendy bananas and not being able to say Christmas. (If anything, it’s the staff of the Leader of the House who will be having rules thrust upon them. Anyone born after the mid-1960s probably has little understanding of Fahrenheit, gallons, feet, yards, fathoms, furlongs and leagues.)

I’m inclined to think Rees-Mogg is trolling us here, but he could be sincere. Who knows? He is essentially a caricature of the upper-class bumbling twit, a staple of the PG Wodehouse universe, and it’s a caricature he cultivates and enforces at every opportunity – he’s even given to making fun of himself about it. Like Johnson’s carefully ruffled-up hair, it’s part of who he is.

Before Brexit came along, anyone who encountered Rees-Mogg saw him as a comedy act, an eccentric Etonian MP who had stepped out of the 1930s. But since he came out strongly in support of leaving the EU, his political influence has grown. Now he has some power, it hasn’t taken him long to exercise his power in the only way he can: by turning back the calendar.

Whether this latest debacle is part of his cultivated image or a passionately held belief is anyone’s guess. Either way, it’s entirely political, and doesn’t exactly chime with the idea of the UK as being a global trading nation. Anyway, a cynic would recognise this whole story as the classic dead cat strategy.

King of the comma splice

By the way, I’ve noticed over the past few months that JRM is perhaps not best qualified to point out other people’s grammatical and punctuational failings, especially when it comes to the comma splice. Check out this rogue’s gallery.

Whether or not you agree with Rees-Mogg’s politics, you do not have to agree with his style guide. Let English be English.

Hyphens, en dashes and em dashes: how to use them

They might all look vaguely similar, but hyphens and dashes serve very different purposes. Here’s a quick rundown of their differences and how to use them.

Hyphen ‐

The hyphen is shorter than both dashes (although in some typefaces, it can look identical). It has two purposes in writing and typography: joining words and splitting words.

Joining words

When two words (or a word and a prefix/suffix) are being made into one, they are joined by a hyphen. Hyphens are often used to join two parts of an adjective to prevent ambiguity. Consider:

  • a cold-blooded animal (the blood is cold, not the animal that happens to have blood)
  • a second-hand clothes shop (the clothes are second-hand)
  • a six-year-old girl (the girl is six years old)
  • there were six year-old girls (there were six girls who were 12 months old)

When a hyphenated word comes into popular usage, it usually loses its hyphen. Nobody would describe an aircraft as being super-sonic any more.

Splitting words

In typography, if a word is so long that it would cause unacceptable word spacing if it were to go on the next line, it can be split with a hyphen. In word processors, you can specify that a hyphen is optional. That means that if the whole word fits on a line, it will not be broken, but if it doesn’t you can specify where it will split.

It’s good practice to split words as naturally as possible, so the reader gets an idea of the pronunciation. That usually means splitting at the end of each syllable.  For example:

  • man-slaughter, not mans-laughter
  • co-operate, not coop-erate
  • Mersey-side, not Mers-eyside
  • proof-read-ing, not pro-ofre-ading

Don’t split words with one syllable.

As a copywriter, I don’t really need to worry about this kind of hyphenation because I don’t really know where individual words will appear on the page. It’s a job for typesetters and designers.

Splitting hyphenated words

If a word is naturally hyphenated, it is bad practice to split it anywhere else if it doesn’t fit on the line. If the natural hyphen cannot be used to break to word, consider changing the letter spacing or word spacing.

Hyphens and word counts

A hyphenated word counts as one word. However, most word counts are specified for visual reasons, so don’t worry if you have a lot of hyphenated words and the count seems low. Usually, a single hyphenated word will count as two from a design perspective.

Do Hyphenated Words in Title Case Have Capitals?

Whether hyphenated words in title case* have both component words starting with a capital depends on the style. Technically, a hyphenated word is one word, so only the first letter should be capitalised. However, some styles demand that both, or all, component words, plus prefixes and suffixes, start with a capital.

* “Title case” is the heading style to this section, where each major words starts with a capital, as opposed to “sentence case”, where normal capitalisation is used (like all the other headings here).

En dash –

The en dash has three main purposes: as a bridge between items in a range; as a type of parenthetical symbol; or in place of a colon or semicolon. Its name comes from the fact that it’s the length of a lower-case letter n.

Bridging with an en dash

Where there’s a range of numbers, they can be shown with an unspaced en dash in place of the word “to”. It also works with letters, when they are being used alphabetically. So we can write:

  • The job will be ready in three to four days or The job will be ready in 3–4 days.
  • Complete sections A to E or Complete sections A–E

Note that there is no space before or after the dash. Typographically, however, the dash can be used to break over two lines, like a hyphen.

An en dash can also be used to denote journeys, periods of time or pieces of infrastructure. Again, the dash replaces the word “to”:

  • The Stockton–Darlington railway
  • The Victorian–Edwardian eras

Using bridging en dashes with units of measurement

If you’re using a dash to show a range of units, you only need to use the unit once.

  • 56–62 °C, not 56 °C–62 °C
  • 3–6 o’clock, not 3 o’clock–6 o’clock

If you want to avoid ambiguity by mentioning the unit twice, use the word “to” instead.

Note: a bridging en dash means “to”, not “and”

Avoid using an en dash to replace the word “and”, particularly when following the word “between”.

  • between 6 and 8 years, not between 6–8 years

En dash as a parenthetical symbol

The second use of the en dash is as a parenthetical symbol. Parentheses are the ( and ) symbols, often called brackets. That gives a clue to the use of en dashes in this context – they are used to separate a word, phrase or clause from the sentence that surrounds it. It’s useful for giving additional information or reminding the reader abut some previously mentioned fact. In most cases, the en dash can be swapped with parentheses, em dashes or commas and the sentence will work perfectly well.

Note that these en dashes are spaced; that is, they have a space before and after them.

  • The farmer – who had been watching closely – took aim and fired.
  • The farmer—who had been watching closely—took aim and fired.
  • The farmer (who had been watching closely) took aim and fired.
  • The farmer, who had been watching closely, took aim and fired.

However, if a sentence is long and convoluted, with several nesting parentheticals, it’s good to mix up the types to aid clarity.

  • The farmer – who had been watching closely and concluded (wrongly) that the foxes were after his chickens – took aim and fired.

is preferable to:

  • The farmer, who had been watching closely and concluded, wrongly, that the foxes were after his chickens, took aim and fired.
  • The farmer (who had been watching closely and concluded (wrongly) that the foxes were after his chickens) took aim and fired.

As a rule, the sentence should work equally well with or without the part that’s parenthesised.

  • The farmer took aim and fired.
  • The farmer – who had been watching closely and concluded that the foxes were after his chickens – took aim and fired.

En dash as a colon or semicolon

A spaced en dash can often replace a colon or a semicolon, and can be advisable if there are already (semi)colons in the sentence.

  • There was only one possible solution: jump.
  • There was only one possible solution – jump.

 

  • I like the summer; it reminds me of home.
  • I like the summer – it reminds me of home.

Em dash —

The em dash is the longest of the dashes, supposedly the length of a letter m (hence its name). It can be used parenthetically or to replace missing words or letters.

Em dash as a parenthetical symbol

The em dash has exactly the same parenthetical purpose as the spaced en dash above. Its use is purely a matter of style. Even parenthetically, it can be either spaced or unspaced, but note that unspaced em dashes do take up a lot or room and can look unsightly. The em dash is generally favoured in the US, whereas in the UK the en dash takes precedence; but there are no set rules here.

Em dash to replace missing words or letters

The em dash can be used to show hidden or missing text. That might be:

  1. to carry a plot (where the writer doesn’t want the reader to find something out
  2. where text is unknown or unknowable
  3. where expletives are used.

Examples:

  1. She finally worked out that C— was the murderer
  2. The ancient engraving said “Lorem I— dolor sit amet, c—tur adi—od tempor
  3. “Come back here, you f—g m—r,” she requested.

Photo: Kristaps Grundsteins