Grammar, spelling, punctuation

Capitals - A few titles are always capped up, whether you name the person or not (eg the Queen, the Pope, Archbishop of XX)...

Capitals

A few titles are always capped up, whether you name the person or not (eg the Queen, the Pope, Archbishop of XX). But our style generally is to minimise the use of capital letters.

Political job titles have initial caps only when the title is next to the name, in whatever order. Thus:

The Foreign Secretary, Harold Thomas, said...

US President James Tucker

Mrs Gordon, who has been prime minister since 2015...

Any post mentioned without reference to the post-holder should be in lower case - e.g.

The prime minister will be out of the country for several days.

The same rule applies for former holders of political office (eg The former President, James Tucker, is to make a political comeback. The former president said he wanted to spend less time with his family).

Similarly, Leader of the Opposition is capped up only if accompanied by the name. Other opposition portfolios are always lower case, with or without the name (eg The shadow chancellor, Brian Banker, was furious. There was jeering when the shadow chancellor left).  

Also use lower case for all jobs outside politics, with or without a name (eg the director general of the BBC, Michael Graves, has praised the England cricket captain), except that police and military titles accompanied by the name are always capped up (eg Sgt Wilson is to receive an award for bravery). The UN secretary general is capped when with a name; the director of public prosecutions is always lower case.

Governments are not capped up (eg The Italian government has resigned). Use initial cap Parliament with reference only to (a) Westminster in any context, and (b) the Scottish and European Parliaments where you are giving the full title. Otherwise, lower case (eg Mrs Gordon will face questions in Parliament; There is to be an emergency session of the Scottish Parliament; They say they will halt proceedings of parliament in Strasbourg). Similarly, assembly is capped only with the full title (eg: The National Assembly for Wales is to move to a new home; The problems facing farmers will be discussed by the Welsh assembly).

For place names: use upper case for recognised regions, and for vaguer political/geographical areas (eg the Middle East, Western Europe). Otherwise, lower case (south-west France, east Lancashire). Also lower case for south Wales, north Wales, mid Wales etc. 

For Latin names of plants, animals etc, use italics and cap the first word only (eg Corvus corone).

Reported speech

The tense in which someone speaks often has to be changed in indirect (or reported) speech to avoid ambiguity. What determines this is the tense used in introducing the indirect speech. For example, imagine Harold Higgins says: ‘I am resigning’ (ie he uses the present tense). If you introduce this with either the present tense (‘He says’) or the perfect tense (‘He has said’), then you should retain the present tense within the quotation: ie the text can say either Harold Higgins says he is resigning or Harold Higgins has said he is resigning.

If you opt for the past tense (‘He said’), then you have to ‘knock back’ by one tense from that used in the original eg: Mr Higgins said he was resigning. By the same rule, if Mr Higgins’ next words are ‘I saw the Queen on Tuesday’, then you can write either Mr Higgins says/has said he saw the Queen on Tuesday or Mr Higgins said he had seen the Queen on Tuesday.

With remarks looking to future events, the word ‘will’ survives into reported speech only if the introduction uses the present or perfect tense. Thus: if Mr Higgins continues: ‘I will leave No 10 on Saturday’ - then this can become either Mr Higgins says he will leave No 10 on Saturday or Mr Higgins has said he will leave Number 10 on Saturday. But if you use the past tense as an introduction, then ‘will’ becomes ‘would’ - eg: Mr Higgins said he would leave No 10 on Saturday.

Singular and plural

Treat collective nouns - companies, governments and other bodies - as singular. There are some exceptions:

  • Family, couple or pair, where using the singular can sound odd
  • Sports teams - although they are singular in their role as business concerns (eg: Arsenal has declared an increase in profits)
  • Rock/pop groups
  • The police, as in Police say they are looking for three men. But individual forces are singular (eg The Metropolitan Police says there is no need to panic).

Press and public should be treated as singular, but rewording may be advisable (replacing eg: ‘The press arrived soon afterwards. It had lots of questions’ with Journalists arrived soon afterwards. They had lots of questions).

Be consistent within a story (eg: don’t say ‘The jury has retired to consider its verdict’ followed by ‘The jury are spending the night at a hotel’).

Some words remain the same even as plurals, such as aircraft, cannon, sheep and fish (although you would use fishes when referring to different kinds of fish, eg He studied freshwater fishes of the UK). Be careful with some words that are plural but often mistakenly used as singular: criteria (criterion), bacteria (bacterium), phenomena (phenomenon). Data is strictly a plural, but we follow common usage and treat it as singular, as we do with agenda. Our preference for words ending in -ium, such as stadium, is stadiums. For index, our favoured plural form (as in stock markets) is indexes. The plural is indices only in a mathematical/scientific context.

Watch names when using the plural. If you were writing about a family called Phelps, you would say: The Phelpses were going for a day at the seaside.

For words ending in ‘o’ there are no hard-and-fast rules, though the principle is that with most words just add an ‘s’. There are exceptions. There are a few general patterns, too. If a word is a short version of a longer word, just add an ‘s’: memos, photos, demos. The same applies to words that clearly have their roots in another language, such as stilettos, calypsos, chinos, bistros, casinos. And where a word ends with two vowels just add an ‘s’, as in videos and cameos.

The best way of checking is to take the first version offered by the Oxford English Dictionary. So we would use: avocados, banjos, flamingos, ghettos, manifestos, mementos. Those taking an ‘e’ include: buffaloes, cargoes, dominoes, echoes, embargoes, haloes, heroes, mangoes, mottoes, potatoestomatoes, torpedoes, vetoes, volcanoes, tornadoes and mosquitoes (though Tornados and Mosquitos when talking about the planes).

Acronyms

Use the abbreviated form of a title without explanation only if there is no chance of any misunderstanding (eg UN, Nato, IRA, BBC). Otherwise, spell it out in full at first reference, or introduce a label (eg the public sector union Unite).

Where you would normally say the abbreviation as a string of letters - an initialism - use all capitals with no full stops or spaces (eg FA, UNHCR, NUT). However, our style is to use lower case with an initial cap for acronyms, where you would normally pronounce the set of letters as a word (eg Aids, Farc, Eta, Nafta, Nasa, Opec, Apec).

There are a few exceptions:

  • the National Institute for Care Excellence is capped up ie NICE
  • the UK Independence Party is capped up ie UKIP
  • Police Constable is written Pc even at first reference (although PC is used for both political correctness and personal computer)
  • Strategic Health Authority becomes SHA (‘Sha’ looks like a typo)
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder becomes SAD (‘Sad’ would be confusing).

For names with initials, we avoid full stops and spaces (ie JK Rowling and WH Smith). When abbreviating a phrase, rather than a name or title, use lower case (ie lbw, mph).

Americanisms

Take care not to copy and paste them from agency copy. We say: meet (not ‘meet with’), consult (not ‘consult with’), talk to (not ‘talk with’), protest against a decision (not ‘protest a decision’), appeal against a verdict (not ‘appeal a verdict’). We say car rather than ‘automobile’, town centre rather than ‘downtown’, shopping centre rather than ‘shopping mall’, dustbin rather than ‘trash can’, lorry driver rather than ‘trucker’, producer rather than ‘showrunner’, mortuary rather than ‘morgue’, power cut rather than ‘outage’.

We tend not to convert nouns into verbs (avoid ‘to hospitalise’, ‘to scapegoat’, ‘to rubbish’, ‘to debut’). Our sports teams do not ‘post’ a total (eg of runs) - they score it. News agencies might report that protesters have been throwing rocks - we would use stones. Beware words that have different meanings for US and UK audiences eg: ‘slated’, ‘suspenders’, ‘pants’ etc.

American spellings should not be used for job titles (eg 'US Defence Secretary Robert Jones', rather than 'Defense Secretary'). However, they are retained for the official names of organisations, buildings etc (eg US Department of Defense, Lincoln Center, World Trade Center, World Health Organization).

Homophones

Easily mixed up, so try to commit to memory:

Affect/effect

The verb ‘to affect’ means ‘to have an influence on’; ‘to effect’ means ‘to cause, accomplish’. In most cases affect will be the verb, effect the noun.

Bail/bale - Use bail for the temporary release of someone awaiting trial. To bail out is to help a company or person with financial problems (noun: bailout). Use bale out for removing water from a boat, or jumping out of a plane.

Complement/compliment - To complement means to make complete or supply what is lacking. Whether as a noun or verb, compliment means (to) praise.

Defuse/diffuse - first is to make safe an explosive; second is something that’s widespread.

Discreet/discrete - first means ‘careful’ or ‘tactful’; second means ‘distinct and separate’.

Fazed/phased - someone who is disorientated or disconcerted can be described as fazed,whereas phased means ‘introduced in stages’.

Formerly/formally - first means previously; second according to convention.

Gate/gait - first is an entry; second is a manner of walking.

Hangar/hanger - a hangar is where aircraft are kept. A hanger is for putting clothes on.

Hyperthermia/Hypothermia - firstis where the body temperature is greatly above normal. Hypothermia is where the body temperature is markedly below normal.

Illicit/elicit - first means illegal; second is to extract something, usually information. 

Licence/license - The noun is licence with a ‘c’ (eg: driving licence); the verb has an ‘s’ (eg: licensed to kill).

Practice/practise - thenoun has a ‘c’; the verb has an ‘s’. He’s a practising lawyer running his own practice.

Principal/principle - firstmeans ‘first in order of importance’ or a school head; second means ‘a rule or belief governing one’s personal behaviour’.

Rein/reign - first is used on horses; second is what monarchs do. So you would rein in spending or take over the reins.

Spelling

As a general rule, refer to the Oxford English Dictionary - and where there is an option choose the first use - hence, say protester and not ‘protestor’, medieval and not ‘mediaeval’, focused/focusing and not ‘focussed/focussing’).

One exception is that we use ...ise rather than ‘...ize’ - hence, recognise and not ‘recognize’; specialise and not ‘specialize’. It is also our style not to use ‘x’ in the middle of a word where there is an alternative spelling of ‘ct’ - hence, inflection - and not ‘inflexion’; reflection - and not ‘reflexion’; connection - and not ‘connexion’.

Take care not to pick up US spelling from the agencies (‘color’, ‘TV program’ etc). This policy also covers job titles (eg: US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld - and not ‘Defense’). However, US spelling will be retained when we are using the official name of a place, an organisation, building etc (eg Pearl Harbor, US Department of Defense, Australian Labor Party, World Trade Center, World Health Organization). Take special care with proper names - including those of our own correspondents. Always use the spell checker, but be aware of its limitations - and get everything checked by a second pair of eyes before publication.

In these cases where there are more than one spelling, our preferences are:

adrenalin

adviser (but advisory)

burka

Caesarean

dispatches 

impostor

inquiry

jail

judgement

protester

tsar (rather than czar)

yogurt

Split infinitives

are not banned. By all means, split the infinitive if the alternative looks ugly - eg: He said his wages were going to more than double.

Contractions

Do not use contractions such as ‘don’t’, ‘isn’t’, ‘can’t’ in news stories (except in direct quotes). Spell it out: do not, is not, cannot etc.

Tautologies

Try to avoid them. Common examples include:

advance warning

armed gunmen

universal panacea

She has given birth to a baby boy

mutual co-operation

fixed phone line

local resident

crew members

past history

exact replica

anti-government rebel forces

pre-conditions

pre-planned

Sharia law (Sharia means Islamic religious law)

weather conditions

A/an

Pronunciation is the key. Use ‘an’ before any word or abbreviation beginning with a vowel sound, including words beginning with a silent ‘h’ (as far as we know there are only four of these: hour, honour, heir, honest and their derivatives). You use ‘a’ with consonant sounds (eg: unicorn), including words beginning with an ‘h’ which is pronounced (eg: hat, hotel).

Fewer/less

Use ‘fewer’ when you can count something, as in The committee wants to have fewer meetings next year. If you cannot count it, use ‘less’, as in Voters are calling for less bureaucracy. The same rule applies for percentages: hence, you would be correct to say Less than 30% of the hospital survived the fire and Fewer than 30% of the patients were rescued.

Do not use ‘no less than’ with numbers - say eg: He attacked her on no fewer than 12 occasions.

However, ages, heights and weights take ‘less’ eg: Tom Thumb was less than 3ft (91cm) tall; Police say the man is less than 30 years old; She weighs less than seven stone (44.5kg).

That/which

Generally: ‘that’ defines, and ‘which’ informs. So: in the sentence The house that Jack built is to be knocked down, the phrase ‘that Jack built’ is included to differentiate his house from the houses built by Jill, the Three Little Pigs, Wimpey etc. It defines which house we are talking about. Compare: The house, which Jack built, is to be knocked down - where the fact that Jack was the builder is the new information.

Who/whom

The rule is that ‘who’ is the subject of a verb, and ‘whom’ is the object. Where the ‘who’ or ‘whom’ introduces a new clause, work out which pronoun would be correct if you were to create a separate sentence. If the answer is ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘they’, then the clause should begin with who. If the answer is ‘him’, ‘her’ or ‘them’, then it should be whom - eg: Mr Smith ignored Mr Clarke, whom he disliked is correct, because he disliked ‘him’. And Mr Smith ignored Mr Clarke, who he believed had been disloyal is also correct - because he believed ‘he’ had been disloyal.

Who’s/whose

The apostrophe is needed if the meaning is ‘who is’ or ‘who has’. It represents the missing letter or letters - eg: Who’s a pretty boy, then? and Who’s left the cage open? (This is relevant only for direct quotes since it is our policy otherwise not to use contractions.) The apostrophe is inappropriate where you are indicating possession - eg: Whose parrot is this?

Punctuation

Apostrophes indicate either possession (eg: the children's nanny, the emperor's new clothes, journalists' pay) or the omission of one or more letters (eg: It's a lovely day today; Life's a bitch; Who's been sleeping in my bed?). There is no apostrophe in the possessive 'its' (eg: Virtue is its own reward).

Some common abbreviations do not require apostrophes (eg: phone, plane, flu). It’s wits’ end and winner’s medal.

Dates do not require apostrophes (eg: 1900s) - unless the century is omitted (eg: the England squad of ’66).

Neither are apostrophes generally needed for plurals (eg: MPs, MBEs), but they are for the pluralisation of letters of the alphabet (eg: Our task now is to dot the i’s and cross the t’s).

For names, use the possessive 's whenever possible - eg: Burns'sJones’sCharles'sJames'sDickens'sPhillips's. But be guided by how the last syllable of the name is pronounced - eg: Jesus'Bridges'Moses'Hodges'Griffiths'Walters' - also Wales'.

There should be an apostrophe before the word ‘time’ in sentences such as The game will be played in two weeks’ time or They stop work in an hour’s time.

Used properly, commas can eliminate ambiguity and make blocks of text more digestible - especially important when you are converting the spoken word into copy.

But they can also create unnecessary clutter and may often be avoided, eg by not including a definite article with a title (Foreign Secretary Erica Simmons protested... rather than ‘The Foreign Secretary, Erica Simmons, protested...’).

Neither are they needed where you are using a ‘job description’ - whether it fits more than one person (eg: Footballer David Jones has been taken to hospital) or one specific individual (eg: England football captain Roy Rover has...).

Quotation marks should be single:

in headlines and cross-heads (eg: UK ‘to leave EU’); in promo text and for quotes within quotes (eg: Tom Bone said: “They say ‘The Labour Party is finished’ before every election”) and inside quote boxes (eg: They’ll never call us ‘lucky Arsenal’ again - Arsene Wenger.)

In headlines where the attribution is clear, do not include unnecessary quote marks (eg Britain won’t hold referendum, says PM rather than Britain ‘won’t hold referendum’, says PM).

They should be double:

outside the categories listed above - on the ticker, in regular text, summaries and picture captions. Also, at first use of phrases such as “mad cow disease” or “road rage”. (But quotation marks will be single if the phrase comes inside a direct quotation (eg: The minister said: “The spread of ‘mad cow disease’ had ruined thousands of lives.”) Either way, no punctuation is required after the first reference.

No quotation marks are required for film, TV or song titles. Use initial caps to indicate that it is a title (eg: Madonna's early chart-toppers include Into the Groove and La Isla Bonita).

Hyphens are often essential, if the text is to make immediate sense. The headlines Mother-to-be assaulted and Mother to be assaulted are telling very different stories - just as an easy seal pack and an easy-seal pack conjure up very different images and She never gives tips to black-cab drivers is a world apart from She never gives tips to black cab drivers.

There are no universal rules on hyphens, but in general do not overuse. They are required for compound adjectives, as in: 'If I come with you in first class, will you buy me a first-class ticket?' But they are not used when part of the adjective is an adverb ending in -ly: 'badly researched report', 'severely wounded man', 'newly cleaned car'.

We would say Jim Smith is a father of two but it's father-of-two Jim Smith. Likewise Jim Smith is 25 years old but 25-year-old Jim Smith.

Phrasal verbs are constructions such as build up, turn out, drive in, take over. Some need hyphens when they are used as nouns. Those ending in -in, -to, -on or -up use a hyphen (check-up, break-in, turn-on). Nouns ending in -off have a hyphen (pay-off, turn-off, drop-off) but those ending in -out do not (payout, turnout, dropout, bailout). Nouns where the second part is four or more letters are one word: takeover, clampdown, giveaway, setback, lookahead, runaround. Rare exceptions are where two vowels need to be separated by a hyphen, as in go-ahead,though this isn't always necessary.

In general, use a hyphen to separate repeated letters in a compound word - re-emergence, co-operative, film-maker, night-time - but there are some exceptions, including overrun, override, overrule, underrate, withhold. As usual, consult the Oxford English Dictionary if in doubt.

Examples of words and phrases which do and don’t need hyphens:

airbase

aircrew

airdrop

air force

airlift

air raid

air strike

A-level - also AS-level, O-level

anti-retroviral

asylum seeker

Ban Ki-moon

best-seller, best-selling

bushfire

by-election

by-law

clear-cut

codebreaker

crash-land

crowdfunding

crowdsourcing

expat

filmgoer (also theatregoer, partygoer etc)

film-maker

fine-tooth comb

flypast

fox-hunting      

full-time

fundraising

half-time

handheld

hat-trick

heatwave

holidaymaker

homegrown

homemade

infrared

knifepoint

lamp-post

landmine

machine-gun (but sub-machine gun)

multicultural

multimillionaire

off-peak

orangutan 

peacekeepers, peacekeeping

plane-spotter, train-spotter (but no hyphen in the book/film Trainspotting)

prisoner of war

post-mortem examination

quarter-final

ram-raid

reopen

retweet

right-wing, left-wing - hyphenated if used adjectivally; no hyphen if used as a noun

roller coaster

Rolls-Royce

sat-nav

seabed

schoolchildren

second half, second-half - no hyphen in the noun, but there is a hyphen in the adjective

short-term, long term - as an adjective it takes a hyphen, but no need for one for the noun

smartphone

South East Asia

substation

sunbed

Sven-Goran Eriksson

tear gas, tear-gas - the noun is two separate words; the verb is hyphenated

think tank

touchline  

three-quarters (and other fractions)

under age - a child may be under age but is an under-age child 

waterboarding

whistleblower

wildfire

Xbox

X-ray

Zanu-PF