Editorial style guide

Pedantry and the English language

I’m an extreme case. I boycotted the frozen peas of a well-known retailer because the label read “PETIT POIS”.

Anyone with elementary French can tell you that the adjective has to be plural to agree with the noun. It should, of course, be PETITS POIS (assuming it’s more than one pea). And if you don’t have elementary French, then for goodness’ sake ask someone who does, or look it up. Don’t just print 400,000 package labels that read “PETIT POIS” and assume that your customers will happily buy the product. I, for one, couldn’t bring myself to buy that product until the error was corrected.

Similarly, I once found myself with my (like-minded) sister with half an hour to kill before a meeting in London. We would have gone for a swift half, but the only pub anywhere near was called The Stephensons Rocket. No possessive apostrophe. For goodness’ sake. We couldn’t bring ourselves to go in. So we went without our swift half. Extreme? Maybe.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are easy-going people who either don’t notice or don’t care if there are mistakes or anomalies in your writing and won’t think ill of you at all – will still trust you and buy from you. Even if you spell their name wrong. Even if you spell your own name wrong.

But here’s the thing. If you also want to engage with the ninety-something per cent of the population whose attitude towards sloppy English comes between those extremes, you need to take care to avoid errors. To avoid not only actual errors, but also minor inconsistencies.

Little details

Even a little detail like if you write e-mail with a hyphen on one page and email as one word without a hyphen on another page. Or if you inadvertently use a mixture of UK and US spellings. Or if some of your headings are in capitals and others lower case for no apparent reason. And so on. Many readers will notice these things, even if only subliminally. And they’re likely to come away with a vague feeling that the whole thing isn’t quite as trustworthy as it might be.

It’s a common but avoidable problem.

Most written content can benefit from a second pair of eyes. That goes for content written by copyeditors and proofreaders too. As human beings, we don’t see our own mistakes.

There are at least three recognised correct ways to spell yogurt/yoghurt/yoghourt in English

Now, the English language has more than its fair share of words that have two or more correct forms. (Other languages tend to be more standardised and many are governed by an official body that tells people how to spell what, and what you must mean by a given word. English is more of a free-for-all. It’s gloriously inclusive and anarchic.) For example, did you know that there are at least three recognised correct ways to spell yogurt/yoghurt/yoghourt in English? And any number of words with two spellings that mean different things, such as discrete/discreet?

Many English words don’t have a single, standard, ‘correct’ form. This can pose challenges to anyone editing multiple people’s content for consistency as you end up changing A to B and B to C and C back to A.

Objective editing

That’s where an editorial style guide comes in handy. “What’s an editorial style guide?” I hear you cry. It’s a document or online resource that sets out rules and guidance on how you write about your organisation, writing style, spelling, grammar and syntax, capitalisation and punctuation, sector-specific words and phrases, and more. Following a style guide helps writers to achieve a high level of correctness and consistency. And it makes the editor’s job more objective and less “I wouldn’t have put it like that”. It helps to eliminate futile debate on points of English usage. And it saves time that might otherwise be wasted on umpteen revisions.

As an editorial style guide specialist and all-round harmless pedant, I’m thinking of starting a LinkedIn newsletter called “Writing, right and wrong” to pontificate and/or dispense helpful advice. Once a month, probably. Would you subscribe to it? You don’t have to, of course. But please watch this space.