In-house editing tips

November 19, 2017

Editing texts at work – reports, circulars, strategic plans and the like – is a vital step in preparing them to communicate their content as well as possible. Hiring a professional editor is generally a good idea, but if the text is for in-house use only, that may be overkill.

In this situation, editing is assigned to a company employee who is not a professional editor but has a good command of English prose. The question is, how do you do it? Where do you start? What do you prioritise?

My friends at Emphasis Training asked me to break down the job of editing texts at work. My article is now up on the Emphasis website: The smart way to edit your colleagues’ documents. It offers 23 bite-sized tips. Here are two:

Edit like for like

Review similar items together, for example all the tables and captions, or all the headings and subheadings. Clumping these tasks means you’re looking out for the same things at once, which reduces the cognitive load and also the chances of overlooking something.

Read for logic

Office reports are often written by more than one person or over a period of time. This can lead to disjointed prose: lines may be added or changed without due regard for context, causing breaks in flow. If your work environment permits it, read the text aloud. This will help you notice any awkward phrasing or non sequiturs.

You can read the rest here.


To offensively split infinitives

August 2, 2014

I like the Economist and admire its commitment to a clear, plain style of writing. This makes it harder to excuse its perplexing stance on split infinitives. Its style guide says the rule prohibiting them is pointless, but “to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it”.

This is capitulation to an unfounded fetish. Why not just let the fussbudgets be annoyed? The style guide offers sound advice aplenty, but on split infinitives it sacrifices healthy brains to a zombie rule. The reason I bring it up again, having already shown why the rule is bogus and counterproductive, is a tweet from the Economist style guide:¹


economist style guide on truth, giving offence, than that typo

There are two things I want to note here.

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BBC News style guide now globally available

July 8, 2014

I do enjoy a good style guide: browsing the alphabetical entries, reading the general advice sections, learning how organisations handle sensitive subjects, and seeing how different publishers treat the same material. What usage fiend doesn’t find this stuff fascinating?

So I was very happy to learn today that the BBC News style guide is now fully and freely available online.  It went public about a year ago but didn’t appear to be accessible outside the UK, except for a PDF which, though generally excellent, dates to March 2003.

The online BBC style guide is searchable and easy to navigate. As well as the usual A–Z it has sections on names, numbers, military, and religion. Its page on grammar, spelling and punctuation offers useful tips on capitalisation, homophones, hyphens, US/UK differences, and timeworn bugbears (“By all means, split the infinitive…”), though it also unhelpfully upholds the dubious that/which rule.

BBC News style guide

So, OK, I have a slightly complicated relationship with style guides. As an editor I greatly value how they help ensure a set of texts is styled consistently to a given standard. But the descriptivist in me recoils at how conservative, arbitrary and wrong-headed they can be. If I had the time and will, I could spend all day refuting certain style guides on Twitter. But that’s a grouch for another day. It’s browsing time.

Tip of the hat to Damien Mulley, whose tweet about the also-newly-freely-available BBC Academy of Journalism alerted me to the BBC’s style guide going public globally. It can also be downloaded as a Word document (44k words in total) at this link.

The pedantic, censorious quality of “sic”

April 29, 2014

Jessica Mitford, in The American Way of Death,* quotes a text that uses compliment when complement was intended, and adds [sic] to indicate this. What’s of interest here is the footnote she then appends:

I do not like the repeated use of sic. It seems to impart a pedantic, censorious quality to the writing. I have throughout made every effort to quote the funeral trade publications accurately; the reader who is fastidious about usage will hereafter have to supply his own sics.

This “pedantic, censorious quality” is sometimes insinuated and sometimes unmistakeable. Sic – not an abbreviation but a Latin word meaning thus or so – can usefully clarify that a speaker said or wrote just as they are quoted to have done. But it can also serve as a sneer, an unseemly tool to mock a trivial error or an utterance of questionable pedigree.

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You need a good sense of whom, or…

August 2, 2011

There’s an old debate over whether that as a relative pronoun can refer to people. As far as I’m concerned, of course it can. The usage is fully standard and has been for centuries. Briefly: that can be used to refer to people or things, which refers to things, and who(m) is reserved for people and animals:

the house that she lives in (or which)
something which has long been disputed (or that)
people who fuss over relative pronouns (or that)
Tabby, whom I adopted as a kitten, is four today. (or who)

Note, though, that that and which are less interchangeable in AmE than they are in BrE. (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage has a helpful history.) Sometimes a distinction is made depending on whether an animal has a name: who for animals with names, that or which for animals without names. This is the AP Stylebook’s advice.

AP style does not allow that to refer to people, and neither does the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.* This is style advice, which is very different to grammatical correctness. For the latter, we consult works more authoritative than style guides. Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage contains the following note:

That, of course, is permissible when referring to humans: the people that were present or the people who were present. Editors tend, however, to prefer the latter phrasing.

Which brings us neatly, our sense of irony to the fore, to a recent edit in the NYT. Garner wrote a commentary in its Room for Debate on the need to reform legal education in the United States. His article concludes as follows:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind whom I teach – looks very bright indeed.

But this is not what he wrote. That, not whom, was the relative pronoun in Garner’s original text. Apparently an editor “fixed” it before publication, “thereby changing the sense entirely,” as Garner remarked. Thus:

the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers – the kind that I teach – looks very bright indeed.

The parenthetical text between the dashes – “the kind ___ I teach” – was meant to refer to the seminars Garner teaches; after editorial interference, it referred to the lawyers who attend them. The edit was worse than unnecessary.

If practicing lawyers were the antecedent (i.e., what the relative pronoun relates back to), that would be grammatically fine, though it goes against NYT style. But it would make more sense in that instance to use whom, since this precludes the possible ambiguity: whom could refer only to the lawyers; that could refer to either the lawyers or the seminars. So a sensible reading would connect that to the seminars.

Presumably the two readings were not noticed, just one mistaken one, and the edit was made automatically to accord with house style. If there had been any doubt, the editor would surely have consulted a colleague, or some reference books, or if necessary the author himself. Maybe multiple editors agreed to it.

Regardless, the change was made and published and it undermined the sense of the text.

If I were editing prose from someone who writes dictionaries of law and English usage, I would expect the prose to be smooth and punctilious, and I would not introduce changes lightly. It’s a minor matter, but not an insignificant one: the “typographic oath” for editors is to do no harm.


* I don’t have a copy of the NYT manual, but I trust Merrill Perlman‘s report at the Columbia Journalism Review.

The ongoing fuss over ‘ongoing’

July 28, 2011

“avoid this ugly adjective” – The Times Style Guide

A journalist friend on Twitter asked my opinion of ongoing. He said he had been asked to ban it in a style guide, and that he didn’t see why. I said I had nothing against it, and that banning it struck me as excessive and unhelpful. Although I sometimes find constructions like ongoing situation and ongoing issue vague or euphemistic, I see no point in prohibiting them outright.

Indeed, there are times when the adjective lends a helpful distinction. Take ongoing treatment in the context of medical care: it immediately conveys the prolonged or recurring nature of the care, as distinct from one-off treatment. You could say continuing treatment instead, but why be obliged to avoid a particular modifier if there’s nothing inherently wrong with it (which there isn’t)?

I think there are many occasions when ongoing can profitably be deleted, or perhaps replaced with current, continual, continuing, developing, prolonged, persistent, sustained, in progress, under way, or some such phrase – if only for variation. It is something of a journalistic crutch word, as Oliver described it. But this is no reason to remove it from the realm of possibility.

A day after this discussion, the Guardian style guide tweeted:

Can we agree to delete the word ‘ongoing’ whenever & wherever we see it? The writing will be improved & the world will be a happier place.

A bit harsh, I thought, and checked the Guardian website to see if the word appeared there often. It did: 20,765 times (more by the time you click). Including many headlines. I let @guardianstyle know about this, and they found it “shameful”.

Their response was partly tongue-in-cheek, but there’s really no shame in ongoing. A similar search on the Irish Times website yielded 22,187 hits. Even allowing for repeats, these figures strongly indicate that the word is not only well established but also useful. Browsing examples in newspapers and corpora, the usages seem to me to vary from perfectly reasonable to utterly (but harmlessly) superfluous.

A Google Ngram charts ongoing’s recent rise to prominence. The trend happened slightly earlier in the U.S. than in the UK (about which see the final quote below). Ernest Gowers, a close observer of the language, called it a vogue word back in the 1950s, and people have been griping about it ever since. Here are a few examples.

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HSE — Who proofreads the proofreaders?

August 24, 2010

The Health Service Executive (HSE) is Ireland’s largest employer, and a few months ago it published Plain language style guide for documents, an illustrated style guide stressing the importance of plain English. What follows are some general comments and specific criticisms.

The style guide is a moderately attractive booklet, with moments of mild fun amidst the painstaking political correctness. At 34 pages with a lot of blank space, it’s a quick read, but it could have been reduced to half or two-thirds the size without cluttering its appearance. Some of its advice is arbitrary or oversimplified, but I wouldn’t expect nuanced commentary in so brief a guide. Much more unfortunate are the poor levels of grammar, punctuation, formatting, and spelling.

On page 8, “[If] you plan to use particular term” is missing the indefinite article a. So is this line on p. 21: “If you do not have copy of the first information pack”. The advice on passive vs. active voice (p. 9) is passable, if predictably crude and simplistic. The guidance on concision (p. 10) makes no allowance for context — sometimes longer phrases are better than loosely synonymous single words. Abdomen wall (p. 12) seems an unusual way to say abdominal wall, though I’ve not investigated their relative popularity in any depth.

Now, what do you think of this passage?

I’m cheered by the HSE’s sensible approval of them and their as gender-neutral singular pronouns, but imagine how much clearer the text would be if it used italics or inverted commas to refer to certain words as words. This failing occurs throughout the document and makes it much more troublesome and irritating to read than it ought to be.

Here’s a line in dire need of a comma: “end the introduction to the list with a full stop if it is also a full sentence or with no punctuation if it is a heading” (p. 16). Further down the same page there’s a typo no spell checker would catch, but which would not be missed by a competent proofreader:

We’re advised to “treat named organisations or groups as singular” (p. 19), and we’re given this example: “The HSE is divided into four areas.” Ten pages later we read: “The Health Service Executive under the National Intercultural Healthcare Strategy are developing a set of national guidelines…” This is not a significant sticking point, but if an organisation is proclaiming on style, it ought to at least be consistent in its style guide.

In the “Designers and printers” section, this phrase stood out: “make sure your final product is an easy-to-read document…” (p. 24). Maybe I’m allergic to the word product used as a catch-all term for just about anything (including people), but what’s wrong with: “make sure your final document is easy to read…”? Or change document to text if you want to allow for more possibilities.

We’re cautioned not to “underline words, write them in all capital letters or italicise them” (p. 26). I see the argument against underlining or using all capitals, but why shouldn’t we use italics? I’ve already shown where they would have been handy, and here’s another example: “The Citizens Information Board document Access to Information for All gives guidance…” (p. 29). This would read far more smoothly with appropriate italics (or inverted commas).

An aeroplane is flown in* to emphasise this strange prohibition:

I like the playful presentation, but I don’t think italicising aeroplane distorts the word’s resemblance to its referent.

Worse, the document contains elementary spelling errors — and I don’t just mean typos like the for they. Page 29 offers us compliment instead of complement:

On the next page, English is spelled with a small e. Perhaps worst of all, grammar is spelled grammer and unnecessary is spelled unnecesary:

These are shocking errors to find in a style guide. Just below them there’s a conspicuously absent apostrophe in “according to the readers needs”. Soon after that, the heading “Non Government Organisations” should be hyphenated. Non is a prefix, sometimes forming a solid compound but usually a hyphenated one. It doesn’t stand alone, like this:

I could go on, but that should suffice. In spite of these criticisms, the HSE’s Plain language style guide for documents is not all bad. It contains some sound and useful advice which, if heeded, should foster clearer communication and greater understanding of what can often be challenging material.

Sadly, the HSE style guide is also riddled with errors. I’ve been picky, but a style guide demands and deserves to be picked at. What a pity it wasn’t proofread better, not least because it urges writers to “Seek quotes for translation and two proof reads” (p. 30). Was this style guide proofread twice? More, even? Maybe I should offer them my proofreading services.


*Note non-horrific use of the passive voice.