In this post, I share the alphabetised style/grammar guide, which I used to write and edit my soon-to-be-published book: RESET.
I sincerely hope it will be useful to anyone who writes in British (as opposed to American) English.
The Economist Style Guide was my primary source. If items were not covered there, I repaired to the comprehenesive online The Guardian style guide. If The Guardian failed me, I checked the Oxford Dictionary of English. For really arcane grammar questions, I consulted English Language and Usage Stack Exchange.
You’ll find some hyperlinked recommended resources for further reading at the foot of this post, should you wish to take a crash course in grammar, like what I have.
I was schooled in the 1970s and 1980s when grammar was considered passé by educators: it’s the quality of the argument (not the i’s and t’s) that matters, right? For the past 20 years, I’ve worked as a journalist then PR consultant; jobs where expressing your thoughts clearly is crucial.
Yet, over the past two-month editing phase of RESET, I’ve learned more about grammar, punctuation and style than in the preceding 20 years combined.
If you want to find out what my book’s about, click this link. I’m publishing in a few weeks so don’t miss out on your chance to bag a free pre-launch e-copy before it goes on sale at full price. Reading RESET could change your life.
I have used a passage from RESET to illustrate an entry under each letter of the alphabet. Enjoy, and let “control f” be your friend.
a bit. See also: sort of, too, very, a little, rather, kind of and pretty. Avoid these words.
accents. In the main, keep them on, eg, soupçon. (A neat trick is to search for the word on Google then cut and paste into your Word/Google document as plain text.)
actor. Not actress. Comedian not comedienne.
adverbs. Often end in ly. Run a ctrl f “ly” on your copy. Remove as many as you can, unless doing so changes the meaning. The same goes for adjectives. Stick with verbs and nouns and you’ll not go far wrong.
affect. Means change. An effect is a result. Watch out for effected, which means to cause something to happen.
among not amongst. (Similarly, while not whilst.) Use for items more than two. Use between when referring to two items. Always between “x” and “y”.
apostrophes. Apostrophes after a group of surnames, eg, the Aggarwals’ pension (where the Aggarwals are a couple). Use apostrophe “s” after any surname ending in “s”, eg, Douglas Adams’s. Use an apostrophe after first names ending in “s”, eg, James’s, and an apostrophe after plural names with an s on the end, eg, the Joneses’ new car. If the name ending in “s” is pronounced “eez”, the apostrophe comes after the “s”, eg, Hercules’ foot. Last, “in two days’ time” (the time of two days).
arch. Takes a hyphen. Eg, arch-rival, arch-procrastinator.
Wait But Why’s Tim Urban is an arch-procrastinator, whose TED talk on the topic has 11m views.
author’s voice. Whatever you’re writing, make sure the reader knows a human has typed it, and that this voice is maintained throughout.
before-tax and after-tax
belief. Believe in what you’re writing.
best-seller and best-selling
bi. Avoid when referring to -iennial, -annual, weekly. It’s too confusing: spell it out.
bold. Use for emphasis.
brackets et al. Those wanting to insert parenthetical breaks in sentences have three options. Two humble commas can be used for obvious clarifications. Two en dashes should be used mid-sentence either side of an emphatic comment from the author. Brackets are used to mark strong yet unemphatic parentheses. Brackets can also be used at the end of sentences, in the same way en dashes are used above. The full stop sits outside the bracket if the bracket comes at the end of an incomplete sentence. However, if the words within the brackets form a complete sentence, the point sits inside. Start a new par for this bracketed sentence if you want to emphasise the point you are making. If the sentence would have had a comma if the bracket hadn’t been there, insert one after the closing bracket. Last, use square brackets, […], to clarify quotations for the reader.
I leave you with US author Mark Twain’s wise words: “Twenty years from now [when you’ve retired], you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails.”
bullet points. Finish all with full stops.
catch-22. A catch-22 situation. Names of films and books that have entered the lexicon of the English language, and are used as shorthand to mean something else, are rendered lower-case. The book itself is still referred to as Catch-22.
centre on. Revolve around.
cliché. A hackneyed phrase that has been used before. Avoid them like the plague. If you’re writing a long document, use a cliché-finding tool: you’ll be surprised what you miss on the edit. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and it’s easier doing this yourself than getting a man in.
colons. What comes after a colon delivers on the text immediately preceding it. The word following a colon should start lower-case. Another use for a colon is to introduce a list.
commas. The uses of commas are legion (see subordinate clauses). Here are some places they go: after an introductory phrase, to separate items in a list, on either side of parenthetical phrases, after consecutive adjectives, in place of a word that has been omitted and to mark off words such as “however” mid-sentence.
compare with, not to. When making routine comparisons.
conjunctions. Coordinating (join two parts of sentence with equal weight) and correlative conjunctions (eg, not only but also) do not take a comma.
continent. If you are going there, try mainland Europe instead. A little bit 70s is “the continent”.
It’s August. Bren, Mary and the kids are taking their annual two weeks in mainland Europe.
continuous. Is uninterrupted; continual allows for a break.
contractions. Whether you use depends on what you’re writing. RESET is a self-help book so contractions abound: they help to get a conversation going with the reader, to draw them in.
co-operative. When talking about a movement. Cooperative when someone is collaborating.
cutting a swathe. Means leaving a trail of destruction (not to be confused with cutting a dash).
Dad and Mum. They only take a cap when you’re referring to just Dad or Mum. Eg: “Dad went to the shop to get some milk.” If you’re telling someone: “My dad went to the shop to get some milk…”, it’s lower-case “d”.
I drew the line at socks: pairing them, like my mum taught, works just fine for me.
dates. Month, day, year, in that order. No commas. Eg, Monday May 21st 2018.
de. Compound words are hyphenated when they begin with “de”, eg, de-stressing. See also, “de” in the middle of posh names, such as Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
Depression, the. Not the Great Depression.
different from. Not different than.
dos but don’ts
Dostoevsky. Not Dostoyevsky.
double spaces. Avoid, especially after points (full stops). Run a double-space ctrl f and remove the critters. Same goes for “..”
earned. Not earnt.
ellipses. Those three dots. Try to curb the modern tendency to trail ellipses at the ends of sentences, for thoughts implied. Ellipses in the middle of quotes should have no space either side, unless the second half of the quote is the start of a new sentence. Then, insert a space between the last dot and the capital letter starting the following sentence.
Brutus expresses it best in Act IV, Scene III of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries… And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
en dash. Used towards the end of a sentence to emphasise a point. Used in the middle of a sentence as an aside, where one might ordinarily use brackets (see brackets, above). Leave a space around the en dash (American English dictates an em dash with no spaces).
everyday. Means commonplace. Every day means it happens every day.
exclamation mark. Avoid.
farther. For physical distance; further for metaphorical distance.
fellow. Lower-case, eg, fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).
first. Not firstly. Follow with a comma.
First, after effecting the huge consolidation of your financial assets mentioned above.
footnotes. I chose MLA 8th edition. Google Docs has an excellent footnote facility, which saves you time.
government. Always with a lower-case “g”.
Google. Upper-case “g” when referring to the company. When googling something, use lower-case “g”. See also, Hoover and Biro.
Inside, passages are highlighted, with scrawling handwriting in black biro (mine) on most pages.
however. Can be interchanged with nevertheless at the start of a sentence.
humour. Use it, especially on the edit.
hyphens to join words. No joining hyphens after “ly”. Eg, globally diversified.
his and her. Aaargh. Try to use they and we, if you can. If you must, use “his or her” or “him and her”. Don’t use all his, all her, or his in one paragraph and her in another. Avoid his/her.
historical. Means occurred in the past; historic means important in history.
And actually, if you just work out all the historical withdrawal rates that would have worked on average…
H1s, H2s. Use in Word or Google Docs to give your document structure.
ie. Similar to eg. If in the middle of a sentence, it takes a comma either side. No points between. Ie means in other words; eg means for example.
index-tracking. Index-trackers and index-investing.
initials. Initials take a point afterwards. No space between initials. For instance, E.E. Cummings, V.S. Pritchett.
in terms of. Don’t use.
Into. Is a word: alot is not. And a lot, while grammatically correct, is not the best either.
Isas and Sipps. Not ISAs and SIPPs.
italics. Use for emphasis. Use for names of bands (check whether the “the” is capped), blogs, books and plays. Chapter titles, periodical titles and blogposts take quotation marks around them: do not italicise. Use italics for unusual foreign words on first use only. Words that are common in English, eg, au fait, need no italics. Use italics to express thoughts/internal dialogue.
It’s a two-hour session on a Friday evening; who calls a training session between eight and ten on a Friday, he muses.
it, that and this. Keep to a minimum.
jargon. Avoid corporate language.
After I’ve finished reading a quote from a press release (which starts with ‘I’m delighted’)…
learned. Usage is changing here. Many Brits use the traditional learnt as opposed to the US learned. I went for learned (and cut out the reference to a learned man).
led. Use it as the verb, unless you are speaking in the present tense.
lede and kicker. Spend the most time on the first paragraph and the last. If you’re writing a long document, repeat this process throughout each section: never lose your reader. Readers need signposts. Don’t be afraid to recap. And try to save the strongest word in each sentence ‘til last.
less refers to quantity. Fewer refers to number.
Simplify to make clearer, better, fewer choices.
let’s. If you mean let us it’s let’s; if you’re talking about property it’s usually lets.
Like. Makes a comparison. Such as introduces examples.
lowcost. When used as a describing word.
m. Use lower-case “m” for millions of things, but not for millions of people. £2m, but two million final salary scheme members. Also, £2m-3m not £2m-£3m.
Leave the final salary pension (if you’re lucky enough to be one of the 1.6 million UK people who still have a defined benefit scheme) and the house aside for a second.
machine gun. When using as a noun; machine-gun when used as a verb.
mid. Composite words starting in mid take a hyphen, eg, mid-thirties.
more than. Is preferable to over.
Mr. No full stop afterwards. Same as doctor.
national living wage
new year. It’s a New Year resolution but the new year. It’s New Year’s Day, New Year’s Eve and the New Year honours list.
Every year from age 30, I made eight New Year resolutions and gave up by June.
next door. Adverb; nextdoor neighbour (adjective).
Nobel prize. Nobel prize-winners and Nobel prize for economics.
north-east. But North Korea, South-East Asia.
numerals. One to ten full out. Eleven and over in digits, unless the number starts a sentence, in which case full out. Compound numbers (eg, ninety-nine red balloons, or one-third) take a hyphen. All numerals 1,000 and over take a comma, apart from ones suffixed by BC or prefixed by AD and under 10,000. Eg, 5000BC and AD5000. Both go after when talking about the century, eg, third century BC.
no one. Not no-one.
OK. Not okay.
one in two. Treat as plural. Eg, one in two are.
Eighty per cent of corrections (drops of between ten and 20%) don’t turn into bear markets (drops of 20%-plus). Only one in five do.
on to. Not onto.
Oxford commas. Don’t use them. In British English, the last item on a list does not take a comma. I wish it did. But it doesn’t.
passive voice. Generally, avoid; it’s always best to know who is doing what to whom, rather than having to guess. I still have difficulties with the passive voice, and rely on tools such as ProWritingAid and Hemingway to keep me right.
paragraphs. Place your most important thoughts at the beginning and end of each paragraph.
percentages. Per cent if the number is at the start of a sentence. Otherwise, 9%. Numbers at the start of sentences are always full out.
plurals. Watch out for the grocer’s apostrophe, eg, when referring to Lidls or the 1950s.
pomposity and preaching. Avoid.
practise. You practise (verb) medicine. You put something into practice or visit a doctors’ practice.
prime minister. Lower-case, unless referring to her by title, eg, Prime Minister Theresa May.
In 1957, a decade before Bren was born in Leeds General Infirmary, the then British prime minister, Harold MacMillan, told us: “We never had it so good.”
pros and cons
p’s and q’s
put and cut. Use alternative, more descriptive, stronger verbs.
quotation marks. Introduce quotes with a colon. Only use single quotation marks for quotes within quotes. If your (double) quotation mark is at the end of a sentence, the full stop precedes the speech mark. If it’s just part of a sentence, your punctuation follows the speech mark. If you’re breaking a full sentence in two using commas, only insert a comma at the end of the first half of the sentence (before the speech mark) if it would have one in the sentence were it not broken. Instead, put the comma after the speech mark. Always put a comma after the “he said/opined/mused” in the middle of the broken quotation, before resuming the second half.
Glossophobia is our number one fear, above death. “If you go to a funeral,” US comedian Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
quotes. Use them to illustrate points and give credence/emphasis to what you write. Ditto statistics. Metaphors, similes, alliteration, repetition and rhetoric are good for this, too. When crafting metaphors, always have a dictionary handy to find the origin of words.
redundancies. Small pygmy, anyone? Generally, remove all qualifiers that do nothing to enhance your writing.
referencing. Do not “correct” US English to British English when quoting work from other countries. Leave the spelling and punctuation intact (even if this messes with your mind).
Renaissance man. Cap r, lower-case m.
It was ever thus. In 1899, that Renaissance man extraordinaire Jack London said: “The only way of gaining [a life] philosophy is by seeking it, by drawing the materials which go to compose it from the knowledge and culture of the world…”
repeat words. Watch for them. Every writer has his or her favourite phrases, which grate on the reader. Mark them when you print off your document, then run a ctrl f and sub in alternatives.
said. Use this simple word to introduce most quotes.
schoolchildren. Schoolteachers. Headteacher.
seasons. Lower-case spring, summer, autumn, winter.
second world war. Not world war two.
seize. Not seize. Siege not seige.
self. Any composite words starting with self take a hyphen, eg, self-discovery.
semicolons. Use in lists when the list has commas that would otherwise confuse the reader. Use to join related sentences when a colon is inappropriate. Please note each sentence must stand on its own. If the words after the semicolon don’t make sense as a sentence, the semicolon should not be used. Semicolons are great, but don’t overdo it to show how clever you are.
Life is hard; let no one tell you otherwise. No amount of positive thinking will change your lot. We have all these fears to quell for starters. Flick back a few pages and look at them all; it’s a miracle we achieve anything, aside from breathing and finding the remote control.
should have. Not should of.
signup. Eg, 1,000 signups to an email newsletter.
simplify. Always use simple, short words instead of long ones. Use short sentences. A document averaging anything above 15 words a sentence is not a clear one. But mix it up. Short sentences one after the other are boring.
stock exchange. Use caps for the London, but lower-case for those of other countries.
stuff and things. Both words are better served by more descriptive phrases. Substitute if you can.
subordinate clauses. They take a comma. Yes, even before “and” and but.
suicide. People don’t commit suicide; they kill themselves.
ten-point. As in ten-point plan.
theirs. No apostrophe.
thesaurus. Invest in one or use Merriam-Webster’s online. But use the dictionary as well.
the state. Not the State (when referring to the apparatus of government).
Third World, developing, developed. Avoid these terms.
too. If used to mean as well, it ordinarily takes a comma before it.
try to. Not try and.
transitions. Transitions guide readers from one paragraph to the next. If, like me, you take pride in the fact that you often start sentences with “and” and “but”, you perhaps want to rethink that approach when writing longer pieces. There are many interchangeable transitions to add, repeat, show exception, compare to, emphasise, prove, show sequence, conclude, give an example. Learn them.
Yet it’s in the field of personal reputation and profile that digital change has had most impact.
till or ‘til. It doesn’t matter. Be consistent though. I use ‘til.
uncharted. Not unchartered.
up, down, out. These words can often be cut without affecting the meaning.
US and UK. Not U.S. and U.K.
This is some U-turn for most people who like to pack everything away neatly in expensive storage containers.
v. For versus.
value-added tax (VAT). But capital gains tax.
…set up “offline accounts” for value-added tax (VAT), corporation tax, petty cash. A true one-pot approach…
very. Omit/reduce needless words, say Strunk and White. Like very, really, a lot, there are, there were, there is, quite, some, following, utilise.
while. Means at the same time as. If you mean although or though, say so: it’s more precise and subtly less confusing for your reader.
Still, not to worry, they think, although traditional media is dying there’ll always be a place for it, and demand for my specialised skills. Just how much of a demand and will it be enough to see them to retirement, is the primary concern of most PRs in their mid-forties upwards.
who. Use who for people and which for animals.
whom. From the Guardian style guide: “If in doubt, ask yourself how the clause beginning who/whom would read in the form of a sentence giving he, him, she, her, they or them instead: if the who/whom person turns into he/she/they, then “who” is right; if it becomes him/her/them, then it should be ‘whom’.”
wine. Lower-case. Eg, gran reserva, rioja (but the Rioja region).
For instance, we’ve just bagged 12 bottles of rather good 2011 Tarragona gran reserva for £2.99 a pop.
word clusters. Get rid of them, especially at the start of sentences: with the possible exception of, when it comes to, despite the fact that, the majority of.
which. If the sentence needs a comma, use which. If it doesn’t, use “that”. Which describes, that informs (gives extra information).
you and I or you and me? First rule: the other person first, you second. Second rule? Take the first person out of the sentence and see if it sounds right with you or I. My wife and I would like to thank you all for coming here today. You wouldn’t say: “Me would like to thank you for coming here today.”
The word obsession has negative connotations in modern life. Anyone of a certain age – that’s you and me – will remember Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, which gave rise to the phrase “bunny boiler”.
The Guardian Observer Style Guide; OED Online; Merriam-Webster’s Online; The Elements of Style; Everybody Writes: Your Go-to Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content; My Grammar and I (Or Should That Be ‘Me’?): Old-School Ways to Sharpen Your English; The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century; The Economist Style Guide; McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists; Eats, Shoots and Leaves; Waterhouse on Newspaper Style; English for Journalists.
All grammatical errors in this blog post have been inserted intentionally to test you, dear reader, and make you feel intellectually superior to me. If you want grammatical perfection, you’ll just have to wait for RESET. (Did I mention that I’m offering free pre-launch copies to people who sign up to my email list? But only for the next few weeks.)