Punctuation marks – how confident are you that you’re using the right one?

No time for a proper blog post this week (paid work has to take over, I’m afraid), so instead I hope you’ll enjoy this blog post from Oxford Dictionaries’, 6 punctuation marks you might be using incorrectly. I’ve talked about some of these tricksy characters in past posts (see for example February’s post Colons in the red corner, semicolons in the blue…which one will win?), but the OED’s guide goes a step further.

If you’ve ever found yourself unsure about using any of the following: possessive apostrophes, semicolons, colons, ellipses, hyphens or dashes, then it’s well worth a read.

‘Til next time…

A peek inside my ‘editor’s toolkit’: shaping the textual garden

The whole editing process is a bit like tending an overgrown garden: you start off faced with the unruly greenery (the text) which you first need to weed (remove obvious and repeated errors), then work out a design for (structuring and styling), and finally water and maintain (ensure textual flow, prune to remove unnecessary words and sentences, check that everything is still where it should be and not encroaching on another section).

In any kind of writing, the same kind of errors tend to crop up again and again. Word’s ‘find and replace’ function is useful for finding a lot of these (I know creating macros can also be a big help, and this is something I still need to get to grips with and may well write about in future). By taking a few simple steps at the beginning of the copy-editing process I can save myself time and ensure consistency throughout the manuscript. Here are the steps I take when editing a text.

The pre-editing stage

I like to think of stages 1–6 as ‘pre-editing’ – removing surface errors before getting down to the ‘bones’ of the text, where I’m looking at each character in turn and the overall structure.

1. Style guides

Firstly, when I’m given a text I make sure I’m using the correct style guide for the publisher in question. I give this a quick read-through to refresh my memory, as they’re all a little different from each other. In the absence of a style guide, I check with the publisher or author what they prefer to use (my default would be Oxford, as it’s so widely used as a standard for writing and editing).

There might, for example, be a requirement in the style guide I’m using to write all numbers up to ten as words rather than numbers. (Oxford suggests all to one hundred. There are exceptions to this rule, but that’s one for another day.) So I might add this to my list of ‘things to check’ for this particular manuscript.

Some publishers have a preference for particular spellings of terms, so it’s worth doing a specific search for these as well. One company I work with which prefers to use ‘Quran’ (rather than ‘Qu’ran’ or ‘Koran’) for the Muslim holy book and ‘The Second World War’ (rather than ‘World War 2/II’, which is how you often see it written). I tend to put these on the end of my checklist (see below) to make sure they don’t slip through the net.

2. Using a template (not always applicable)

I then copy-paste the manuscript into the template provided by the publishing services company. (If I’m editing for one particular company I’ve been supplied with a template containing all the different styles I normally need. The template strips out extraneous formatting and makes the document easier to work with.)

3. Document styling

Once the document is in the correct template, I can format things like headings, chapters, body text, quotes, epigraphs and image references correctly. This makes it far easier to find my way around the text later on. It’s very difficult to edit several hundred pages of text with no formatting to provide a ‘map’ of the manuscript.

4. Using the paragraph mark button (¶) to spot additional errors

The next stage for me is to remove all tabs, extra spaces after full points, spaces at starts of lines (search for ‘^p’ to find these) and line breaks. I keep the paragraph mark button selected at this stage to see where these are. (Manual page/line breaks aren’t necessary if you modify your styles to include a page break before or after the style in question.) Likewise, you can set a requirement for ‘Normal’ text (the majority of the text) to inset the first line of a paragraph so it’s easier to see where one paragraph ends and the next starts after you’ve switched off the paragraph marks.

5. Spelling/grammar checks

Now I can run the manuscript through a spelling and grammar checker. It’s surprising just how many errors this can pick up. I have access to a spellcheck tool used by one of the companies I do regular work for (I appreciate that not everyone has this luxury) and I find this tool invaluable. As well as having all the functions of the Word spellchecker, it can check against the following different spelling standards:

  • British with Oxford -ize only;
  • British with -ise only;
  • American;
  • British -ize and -ise comparison;
  • American and British -ise difference; and
  • American and British -ize difference.

This won’t find everything, necessarily, but finding even one error is better than it getting missed in the editing process! Because it comes up with a list of all the mistakes in alphabetical order, it also makes it easy to spot where difficult-to-spell names have caused the writer to come unstuck.

6. ‘Common error’ checklist

I’ve created a table in Word of all the things I need to check before beginning on the main task at hand. This is a working document which I add to as and when additional issues crop up. It includes the points above, and also a list of common errors to check for. The ones currently in the toolkit are:

  • Ensure apostrophes are the right way round in date abbreviations (’30s).
  • Remove all bold text (File > Replace > ‘Find What’ > Ctrl + B > ‘Replace With’ > More > Format button > Font. Select ‘Regular’ under ‘Font style’).
  • Use ‘Find and Replace’ to weed out double spaces after punctuation, and to remove any spaces immediately before punctuation marks.
  • Check correct types of dashes are used (for example, en dashes (–), which are longer than a hyphen, are used in number spans). (Different style guides will have different types of dashes used to interrupt words, sentences, etc., so I make sure I know the guidance before I start.)
  • Ensure ellipses (…) are only ever 3 dots, and that they’re formatted correctly. (CTRL + ALT + . will do this.)
  • If document contains any references, ensure there is a space immediately after the full point following the ‘p’ or ‘pp’ (p. 6, not p.6).
  • Make sure all speech marks are the right way round, paying particular attention to quotes that have quotes within them. (Word often gets confused and tries to immediately follow opening quotation marks with a closing apostrophe, regardless of what’s written on the page.)

The ‘proper’ editing stage

Once all these fiddly technical bits are done, I can get down to reading through the text itself with ‘Track Changes’ highlighted so I can show the author/translator what I’ve done and add any queries using the ‘Comments’ function so they can reply and clear up any confusion or state their preferences.

Normally I’d send a sample of ten or twenty pages to the author with all errors highlighted to ensure they’re happy with the way I’m working and suggest that I only track changes where it’s a matter of preference or more clarity is needed in the text, rather than one of us having to approve changes that are amending outright errors. Once I have their approval, I can work my way through the manuscript and get the first edited draft to them for approval and for any questions to be addressed.

And that’s it, really. Once all the issues are addressed, the manuscript is ready to go off for typesetting and, after that, to be proofread.

You don’t have to be a copy-editor to take the steps above to create documents that are easier to navigate and more internally consistent. Establishing your own (or the organisation’s) preferences at the start for common words used, font type, etc. can give you a common ‘thread’ that runs through all your business documents, styling will help you and others navigate through your writing, it’s surprising how much the paragraph mark button can show up that you hadn’t noticed, and a ‘common error’ checklist could pick up quite a few things that are hard to spot when writing a document – particularly when you’re up against a tight deadline.

And with that, I’ll say goodbye for this week, and happy gardening!

Apostrophe or no apostrophe? That is the question…

As I mentioned last week, one of my 2015 resolutions is to read up more on grammar, and I thought I’d share some tips/thoughts every now and again.

I thought I’d start small, with the humble apostrophe.

Why do I still see so many people and companies – both big and small – opting to precede their ‘s’ with an apostrophe when pluralizing? Why are people still struggling with ‘it’s’ and ‘its’? I thought I’d try and clear up a couple of issues with this week’s post.

It’s vs. Its: a simple question.

It helps to remember that ‘it’s’ is just a contraction of ‘it is’. So simply write down a sentence including ‘it’s’, then insert ‘it is’ in its place. If the sentence doesn’t make sense, you should most likely be using ‘its’- or else another word entirely!

Another way to look at it is this: his means ‘belonging to him’ and hers means ‘belonging to her’; therefore its means ‘belonging to it’. For example: She looked up at the building. Its windows were lit up.

Grocer’s apostrophes*


I’m sure a lot of you will have seen this cartoon already, but it’s so good I thought I’d share it again…

Wherever I go, it seems like more and more people are falling in love with the grocer’s apostrophe. I’m pretty sure that when I was at school (not that long ago – and grammar certainly hasn’t changed that much since!) we were taught that to create most plurals you simply add the letter ‘s’ to the end of a word.

You might have seen my tweets before about misuse of these little fellows (Lidl’s ‘Grocers Case Clementine’s’ and the card in Tesco proclaiming ‘Birthday’s Rock’ being cases in point), but they are everywhere. The OxfordWords blog quotes from the Guardian in 2002:

The apostrophe, it sometimes seems, is like an insect – an apostrofly – over the dining table, alighting where it will.

It really rankles every time I see a ‘Brian’s Taxi’s’ cab drive past. Perhaps it’ll bother me less if I imagine one of those pesky apostroflies has come to a sticky end on the side of the cab.

I can kind of understand wanting to use an apostrophe in an abbreviation (such as signs reading Not suitable for HGV’s, garages offering MOT’s or an old Island Records poster mentioning CD’s) or to refer to years (e.g. ‘1980’s); although it’s still incorrect, it doesn’t look as odd. Or perhaps I’ve just become so accustomed to it that it doesn’t stand out as much.

The good old Oxford English Dictionary points out that there are instances where you can use an apostrophe before a plural ‘s’:

  • you can use an apostrophe to show the plurals of single letters:

I’ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

Find all the p’s in appear.

  • you can use an apostrophe to show the plurals of single numbers:

Find all the number 7’s.

They then go on to use bold type, which shows how strongly they feel about the matter:

remember that an apostrophe should never be used to form the plural of ordinary nouns, names, abbreviations, or numerical dates.

There are a couple other uses of the apostrophe that I could go into in more detail, but I’d suggest heading over to the OED’s website, where you can find more detail on how to use the apostrophe in the following contexts:

  • possession (as in ‘its’ above, and also when dealing with nouns and proper nouns ending in ‘s’); and
  • to denote omission (as in ‘it’s’, for example).

To end off, let me quote verbatim from a sign I saw recently:

We are looking for a professional person to join our successful team, the hour’s will be 10 or more, the job will include bar work, kitchen work, and to help set up conference’s, and holiday relief in general dutie’s.

The apostroflies have landed again.

Until next week…

* My husband just suggested I insert a grocer’s apostrophe into the title as a joke, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Most people need a proofreader or editor at some point…

It’s been a bit quiet on the business-planning front this week, what with the copy-editing job, school Christmas events and shopping to do, so I thought I’d take a moment to look a bit more at some examples of why – however big or small a business you have – a proofreader can make the world of difference.

I mentioned the issue a couple of weeks ago in this blog (Are Spelling Mistakes Costing You Money?), quoting a BBC article which stated that spelling is

important to the credibility of a website (…) When there are underlying concerns about fraud and safety, then getting the basics right is essential.

And this doesn’t just apply to websites; it goes for any written documentation, and is particularly relevant if you’re trying to project a professional and educated image.

To start things off, on Wednesday this week Metro had this lovely picture of a polce car:

polceObviously they won’t lose customers over it, but if you can’t even spell your job title, you’re in danger of looking just a little bit silly…

If you’re primarily using print advertising, particularly if you’re a sole trader, you don’t want to risk putting off potential customers in the space of a few lines. Take this example of an advert that appeared in one of my local papers this week:

“No protections of assests can lead to no inheritance”

xx [name left out for obvious reasons]

8 year’s experience

House Trusts, Wills, Probate

Lasting Power of Attorney

I’m no legal expert, but I can immediately see two major errors in those 20 words – ‘assests’ and ‘8 year’s experience’ – and I would have to query whether it should in fact be ‘protection’ in the bold red heading, rather than the plural ‘protections’. The final nail in the coffin for me is the fact that the web address the solicitor gives is incorrect: the real address has hyphens between the three words, yet if you type in the one printed in the advert, you get

This web page is not available

in a lovely clear font in the middle of your browser window.

If I asked this man to write me a will, would he even spell my name right?

As for the big guys, well…

This classic video from ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Word Crimes, makes a really good argument for employing a proofreader (although his inappropriate usage of the word ‘spastic’ really rankles) in a much funnier way than I ever could, but at 3:20 the following appears on the screen:

Weird Al Word Crimes ERROR

Have you spotted it yet? No?

Try the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.

Learn your ABC’s, doofus

As the indispensable reference work New Hart’s Rules (Oxford University Press, 2005) puts it,

[t]he apostrophe is not necessary in forming the plural of names, abbreviations, and other words not used as nouns.

The only case it is acceptable – and this isn’t one of those cases – is

when clarity calls for it, for example when letters or symbols are referred to as objects:

dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

‘Weird Al’, you’ve undermined your own argument.

In some cases – such as the police car pictured above – it would just take a second pair of eyes to check before the request goes to the signage company. In others, it wouldn’t do any harm to track down a proofreader and ask them about their rates. Whether you’re putting together a small advert in your local paper, a leaflet, brochure, annual report or even self-publishing a novel, spending a relatively small amount extra could really make a big difference to how your business is perceived.


P.S. My rates are very reasonable, and no job is too small!