Category Archives: Language

Mediterranean Editors and Translators: All About Editing

First, a bit about me

As a ‘re-emerging’ translator, I have been attending METM conferences as another stop on the road to reconnecting with a profession I fell into years ago and laid aside due to personal circumstances. As a bit of an outlier, I justify my presence by moderating the ‘off-METM’ Translation Slam. A few weeks before the conference, I sent two ‘volunteer’ MET members a short text to translate from Spanish to English, and during the slam we discussed the choices they made (word choices, but also punctuation choices!). I mention this as it has a great deal to do with my experience of the METM16 conference, which this year was all about editing.

Wait, what is MET?

MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators) is an association of translators and editors whose main language is English, whose objective is peer training, and whose founders thought Mediterranean sounded sexier than European.

Based in Barcelona, MET holds workshops two or three times a year, but the big bash is the annual conference in mid-to-late October. Following an afternoon and morning of workshops as warm-up, the day-and-a-half-long conference is filled with panel discussions, lectures, interactive sessions, and presentations set two or three to a timeslot, except for the two keynote or plenary talks.

metm16-cloister-lunch-sfep-cescanadon

This year’s conference, ‘Raising standards through knowledge sharing and peer training’, was held at Tarragona’s Centre Tarraconense ‘el Seminari’. The cathedral-ceilinged auditorium filtered the sunlight through its stunning stained-glass windows onto keynote speakers Margaret Cargill, in from Australia, and Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s ‘Comma Queen’. Jealous yet?

Workshops and conference sessions

As I said, it was all about editing for me this year. I attended Joy Burrough-Boenisch’s fantastic three-hour Friday-morning workshop, Editing theses and dissertations written by non-native speakers of English, where I also learned about a series of online proofreading and editing guidelines. In the afternoon, John Linnegar taught me the difference between light, medium, and heavy editing; I was impressed by Kate McIntyre and Jackie Senior’s work as in-house academic editors in the Netherlands (and also made a note to look at SENSE’s guidelines); and Valerie Matarese talked about author editing. After a panel discussion on interventionism as an editor/proofreader of academic papers, I learned about ITI from Sarah Griffin-Mason, about the social science genre from Susan M DiGiacomo, about translating and editing titles from Mary Ellen Kerans, misused English in EU publications from Jeremy Gardner, and disability-related terms from Mary Fons i Fleming.

Keynote talks

Friday evening, just before the Clos Montblanc-catered wine reception in the cloister, Margaret Cargill shared with us her studied understanding of ethics and education in academic publishing in relation to editing and translating. The issue of what constitutes teaching, and where the line is drawn at what my professors used to call cheating, are hot topics. Times change, technologies change, the world is changing, and we professionals must keep abreast of how these changes affect the way that we work, whether our field is in academics or technology, business or fiction.

Right before Saturday’s cocktail lunch, also in the cloister, Mary Norris held us captive during her keynote talk, ‘New Yorker style: the major arcana’. Using a few New Yorker cartoons and a piece of fiction, Mary led us through the process of query-editing copy to the characteristically peculiar standards of the famous magazine. She even gave us an example or two of times when she clashed with the ‘artistic vision’ of certain authors. Sometimes she wins, sometimes she loses, she confessed, but she never seems to lose her good cheer or her enthusiasm. What a pleasure it was to have her at the conference, and it was an added pleasure to have both Margaret and Mary among the Sunday-morning post-conference diehards who took a stroll along Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater and beachfront to El Serrallo and a final vermouth among colleagues and friends.

But getting back to me

It turns out that what is showcased in every translation slam – the infinite ways in which a given translation can be resolved – is also true when editing text. The ethics involved in translating a 150-year-old Spanish text into the English of 2016 are as complex as those of editing a non-native-English speaker’s PhD thesis, even though the possible consequences may not be as dire.

Happily, the eternal question remains: How far can you stretch the truth of the original text to make it fit into ‘proper’ English? And what is proper English, anyway? I’m hoping to attend a few more sessions on this very subject a year from now in Brescia, Italy. #METM17

kymm1Born in Boston, Kymm Coveney has lived in Spain since the 1982 World Cup. A former commercial translator, she is currently transitioning to literature (Catalan/Spanish/English). Meanwhile, accounting pays the bills.

Links to poetry, flash fiction and translations are at BetterLies. Glasgow Review of Books showcases her latest poetic translation. She tweets mostly about poetry @KymmInBarcelona.

Photo credit: Cesc Anadón, MET

Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator.

Proofread by SfEP Professional Member Tom Hawking.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP

The English language is both an art and a science

Since entering the world of professional proofreading, writing and editing, I have thought a lot about how we use the English language.

Language as an academic subject is generally considered to be an art or a humanity. It is subjective. We can use it in different ways when communicating with different people. We can use it to paint pictures and arouse feeling. We can be creative with it.

I only have to listen to my children to find lots of examples of this creativity in motion. We were recently walking along and my three-year-old said to his big sister, ‘Oh no – you’ve unclupped my shoe!’ Now, ‘unclupped’ clearly isn’t a word, but we all knew what it meant: she had accidentally stepped on the back of his shoe and it had come off his heel. It was well and truly unclupped. He couldn’t find a word to describe what he meant, so he made one up. I hear this happening all the time, and some of them are great words!

My daughter is reading Roald Dahl’s The BFG at the moment. Now there’s creativity and colour for you. One of the most prolific children’s writers was brave enough to have a main character who, for the whole book, uses ‘is’ for any form of the verb ‘to be’. The Big Friendly Giant eats scrumdiddlyumptious snozzcumbers rather than school chiddlers like the other giants eat. The book is full of these seemingly nonsensical words, which somehow do still make sense to six-year-olds and adults alike.

The flipside of this is that language also has rules. Grammar can be approached scientifically or mathematically and there are still many aspects of language that can be considered objectively right or wrong.

Take, for instance, the commas in this sentence. I have used them parenthetically so they need to come as a pair. If you take one of them away, the sentence doesn’t work. If you take them both away, it is OK. For me, this echoes mathematical equations: symbols can cancel each other out and where the parentheses (or brackets in maths) sit can really alter the meaning (or answer) you get at the end.

Another example is the conjugation of verbs. The verb form is often different depending on who is doing the doing. Again, I think this reflects mathematical statements where certain numbers or parts of an equation are affected by a function, whereas other numbers stand up in their own right. In languages like German, where there are different genders for nouns, there is an even greater choice of conjugations for different cases. These can be taught in tables, so we can, for example, look up the correct form of the article for a masculine noun in the dative case.

We can also see maths in the way reading is currently taught in British schools. Children are taught to ‘chop and blend’ phonics in the same way as adding and subtracting numbers. They learn that c+a+t=cat just as 2+3=5. But at the same time, they learn the exceptions to the rules: the spelling and pronunciation of common but phonically irregular words like ‘the’ and ‘me’.

So, on balance, are we working with an art or a science? I think it’s both and, in that respect, what a great thing it is. Some of us will be sticklers for certain rules: I was taught to never split an infinitive but I understand many people will accept this now. There, I’ve done it – but it was only for effect, and I won’t do it again. But I will quite happily bend other ‘rules’ I once learned (like allowing myself to start a sentence with the word ‘but’). The Oxford English Dictionary paves the way in this evolution of language, with new words being added to each edition as they reach common usage. The June 2015 update has around 500 new words, phrases and senses, including ‘twerk’ and ‘yarn-bombing’. One day, someone made up these words and they caught on. Personally, I’m hoping to make a case for the verb ‘to unclup’ to be included in next year’s update.

Face_May2015 smallLisa Robertson set up Editwrite in April 2015, after working for a local authority for over 14 years in various children’s services planning and commissioning roles. She offers a range of editorial and writing services, including document writing consultancy. Her specialist areas are children’s services, the public sector and charities. She is an Entry-Level Member of SfEP. www.editwrite.co.uk

 

Proofread by SfEP Entry-Level Member Susan Walton.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Writing out web addresses

Here’s a question I’ve seen a few times of late: when writing out a web address, must we include the whole address or is it safe to omit part of it?

Some house styles set out guidelines for writing web addresses. One would think, then, that the practice is simply a matter of style. In fact, it mostly is – but not always.

So that we know the names of the components that make up a web address, let’s take a look at an annotated example:

Components of a web address

Keeping with protocol

Web addresses begin with a ‘protocol’, the most common being http:// and https://.

From the technical point of view, the protocol isn’t usually required when quoting web addresses. To use the SfEP’s own website as an example, all modern browsers will treat the following addresses as equivalent:

When it comes to being consistent, we wouldn’t usually want both styles of web address to appear in the same piece of work.

The complications tend to come about when we start introducing addresses with other protocols to the same document. For example, if we wanted to make specific reference to a secure website, it would be correct to indicate this by including the protocol in the address, such as:

The intelligent reader will see the protocol and immediately understand that the website is secure, regardless of any other information about the site in the text.

Almost every website that has a secure area will also have rules that discreetly redirect users from the standard protocol (http://) to the secure protocol (https://). To demonstrate this, one can visit the following address:

Now, because a protocol hasn’t been included in the example above, the browser will try to take the user to the http:// version of the site (this is the default behaviour of all web browsers). Seeing that action, the server running the website will automatically and immediately redirect the user to the https:// version.

In short, this means that, even for secure websites, a protocol isn’t usually required in the address. I write ‘usually’ because there are some rare cases where web servers may display the wrong page if the secure protocol is not specified.

In cases where any protocols are included so as to give the reader a cue, it stands to reason that all other web addresses in the same document should also include protocols, on grounds of consistency.

In a document where standard web addresses are the only ones used (i.e., http:// and nothing else), it seems unnecessary to include the protocol. Omitting the protocol is both consistent and technically correct.

Handling new domain names

One common reservation with omitting protocols is when it comes to the newer domain suffixes, many of which most readers may not have heard of. Here are some examples:

If you saw these in running text, would you know that they were web addresses? Or might you think they were the ends and beginnings of unspaced sentences? The caveat here is that if unusual or novel addresses are used in a document, they might be worth qualifying with a protocol – and in turn that would require every other address in the document to include a protocol, too (on the assumption that we’re going to be rigid about consistency).

The cautious editor could use this argument to recommend that protocols be included on all addresses, to prevent a major rekeying effort in the event that some novel address is later added to a work that had previously contained only run-of-the-mill addresses. You’d have to make a decision about whether this would be too cautious an approach. For what it’s worth, I’ve been omitting protocols for quite a while now, having previously been a staunch supporter of mandatory inclusion.

Omitting the ‘www.’ part of an address

Some people don’t know that it’s usually possible to omit the ‘www.’ part of a web address and still be able to retrieve the website. This part of the web address is known as the ‘subdomain’. Most web servers are set up so that the domain (the key part of the address) and the ‘www.’ subdomain each allow access to the website. Here is an example:

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to omit what would otherwise be a redundant ‘www.’ from the address. Here are some examples:

Trailing slashes

A trailing slash is the forward slash character (/) sometimes added to the end of a web address. This should be added only to the end of a domain name or a folder name in the address. Here are some examples:

  • www.example.com/ – correct
  • www.example.com/folder/ – correct
  • www.example.com/folder/file.html/ – incorrect

One might wonder why a trailing slash would ever be added to a web address, given that the website ought to be displayed just as well without it. The answer is that the appropriate use of the trailing slash eliminates one unnecessary request from your computer to the server, thereby reducing the load on the server. You might not notice any positive effect, but it’s still a good practice to adopt: very busy servers will run better if their load is lightened in any way.

Web addresses followed by punctuation

A web address directly followed by any punctuation mark has the potential to confuse, because some readers may incorrectly interpret the punctuation mark as being part of the address. Word processors and email programs can sometimes be guilty of this mistake, turning an otherwise correct address into a link that doesn’t work when clicked. Thankfully, this is less of an issue than it once was.

It’s quite easy to fall foul of the ‘address plus punctuation’ problem when copying and pasting an address. It’s therefore sensible to avoid directly following an address with a punctuation mark; however, if the context is clear or the readership is web savvy, there may be no need to reword the text.

In my opinion, the omission of a terminal punctuation mark for the sake of clarity is preferable to the occasional practice of adding a space between the address and the punctuation mark. As usual, we should be consistent in the handling of all such matters.

Conclusion

If your client’s style guide sets out preferences for how to write web addresses, you should of course follow those preferences. But be mindful of any newer types of address that might confuse readers, and check that all addresses do indeed work as written.

If you have no style guide from which to work, remember that it’s perfectly fine to use the shortest possible address that will result in the desired website being loaded correctly.

John EspirianJohn Espirian (@espirian) is the SfEP’s internet director and principal forum administrator.

As a freelance technical writer, John specialises in producing online help content that’s actually helpful.

 

Proofread by SfEP Advanced Professional Member Etty Payne.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Round-up of the ten most popular SfEP social media posts in March

SfEP logoSocial media moves very quickly, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are no different. So, to ensure you don’t miss out, here’s a summary of our ten most popular posts in March:

  1. 7 grammar myths you learned in school. OxfordWords blog. (Posted on Twitter and Facebook 23 March.) The Oxford Dictionaries OxfordWords blog suggests that some of the grammar rules we learn in school should be described more as helpful guides, while others are simply ‘inventions’.
  1. 10 British words that baffle Americans. BBC America. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 19 March.) The reference to ‘craic’ as British raised some eyebrows among our Facebook fans.
  1. Friday Funny: Acyrologia. (Posted on Facebook 20 March.) Several of our Facebook fans had their own suggestions for words that sound similar but have a completely different meaning.
  1. The 50 books every child should read. i100 Independent. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 5 March.) To mark World Book Day, we shared a list compiled by Sainsbury’s of books every child should read before they turn 16. Our Facebook fans added their own suggestions and argued that children should be allowed to discover their own favourites and that any book that gets children reading is good.
  1. 32 of the most beautiful words in the English language. Buzzfeed. (Posted on Facebook 11 March and Twitter 12 March.) Our Facebook fans were keen to add their own favourites, although it was noted that a reference to the source of the words would have been a bonus.
  1. Feeling the freelance squeeze. Northern Editorial blog. (Posted on Twitter 16 March.) A blog post by SfEP professional member Sara Donaldson explores the often difficult subject for freelances of talking prices and money.
  1. Are these the best book-to-film adaptations? The Guardian. (Posted on Twitter 9 March.) A survey by BT TV, coinciding with World Book Day in the UK, the nation’s top ten book-to-film adaptations. One of our Twitter followers said she’d enjoyed Sense and Sensibility as a book much better after seeing the Emma Thompson/Kate Winslet film version.
  1. Sweden adds gender-neutral pronoun to dictionary. The Guardian. (Posted on Twitter 26 March.) The official dictionary of the Swedish language is adding a gender-neutral pronoun, hen, to enable reference to a person without revealing their gender. One of our Twitter followers suggested this would be a solution to the dreaded singular ‘they’.
  1. Semicolons: how to use them, and why you should. Huffington Post Books. (Posted on Twitter 23 March.) The author of this article suggests a big part of the semicolon’s problem is its mysterious nature and seeks to clarify its usage.
  1. There is no ‘proper English’. Wall Street Journal. (Posted on Twitter 17 March.) The author of this article argues that grammatical rules are merely stylistic conventions and that it is time to consign grammar pedantry to the history books.

Joanna BoweryJoanna Bowery is the SfEP social media manager. As well as looking after the SfEP’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and the SfEP blog, she offers freelance marketing, PR, writing and proofreading services as Cosmic Frog. Jo is an entry-level member of the SfEP and a Chartered Marketer. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

Proofread by SfEP entry-level member Karen Pickavance.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Round-up of the ten most popular SfEP social media posts in February

SfEP logoSocial media moves very quickly, and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are no different. So, to ensure you don’t miss out, here’s a summary of our ten most popular posts in February:

  1. 33 signs that were vandalised with the most hilarious responses ever. Pulptastic. (Posted on Facebook 20 February.)
  2. The wonderful names Chinese tourists have given British attractions. i100 from The Independent reported on the results of a campaign that asked people on China’s most popular social media sites to come up with names for 101 British attractions. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 19 February.)
  3. Happy Friday – Is there a copy-editor on board? SfEP (Posted on Facebook 6 February.)
  4. Ten things people once complained would ruin the English language. From the io9 blog. (Posted on Facebook and Twitter 9 February.)
  5. Why reading and writing on paper can be better for your brain. The Guardian reports that reading from a hard copy improves concentration and that taking longhand notes rather typing onto laptops increases conceptual understanding and retention. (Posted on Facebook 25 February and Twitter 26 February.)
  6. 40 brilliant idioms that simply can’t be translated literally. Volunteers from the TED Open Translation Project share their favourite idioms from their mother tongue and how they translate literally. (Posted on Facebook 12 February and Twitter 13 February.)
  7. Editor confession: the things I hide from writers. A contributor to the copyediting.com blog admits to hiding some things from writers when editing their work. (Posted on Twitter 20 February.)
  8. When in Rome… read some place name idioms. The Oxford Dictionaries blog explores the reasons why some locations become proverbial. (Posted on Twitter 24 February.)
  9. Language and words in the news – 21 February. The Macmillan Dictionary blog shares a list of popular links related to language and words in the news. (Posted on Twitter 24 February.)
  10. Anybody can be a proofreader, can’t they? A link to the SfEP self-test in proofreading proved popular in February. (Posted on Twitter 9 February.)

Joanna BoweryJoanna Bowery is the SfEP social media manager. As well as looking after the SfEP’s Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and the SfEP blog, she offers freelance marketing, PR, writing and proofreading services as Cosmic Frog. Jo is an entry-level member of the SfEP and a Chartered Marketer. She is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

Proofread by SfEP entry-level member Anna Black.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Why language matters when discussing terminal illness and death

Word cloud of metaphors used in end-of-life and deathHow do people talk about the end-of-life and death? And why does it matter? The language used at these, often difficult, times can have a great impact according to Zsófia Demjén, a linguist and lecturer at The Open University‘s Department for Applied Linguistics and English Language. She offers food for thought for anyone editing text that includes a description of serious illness or death.

How people talk about something, so the theory goes, can tell us as much about what they think as the content of what they’re actually saying. This is the premise of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded ‘Metaphor in End-of-Life Care’ (MELC) project at Lancaster University.

Over 20 months, an interdisciplinary group of researchers (linguists, computer scientists and palliative care specialists) led by Elena Semino scrutinised the spoken and written language used by terminally ill patients, family carers and the healthcare professionals who work with them. They collected 1.5 million words of interviews with and contributions to online fora by the three groups and focused specifically on what kinds of metaphors they used and how.

Metaphor involves talking and thinking about one thing in terms of another. When you say that someone died after a ‘battle’ with cancer, you talk about being ill and attempting to get better in terms of military conflict. When you say that someone has ‘passed away’, you talk about dying in terms of a movement away from a current location. Metaphors are interesting because they are often used in describing complex, emotional, subjective and taboo experiences, such as health, illness and death. They can convey things indirectly but also vividly and concisely. Any systematic patterns suggest underlying attitudes, thoughts and needs of those using the expressions. For example, early on in the project the team noticed that death is talked about in at least two ways: sometimes it’s something that approaches the patient, ‘they are aware the end of their life is coming’, and sometimes the patient moves towards it, ‘some people are very, very upfront about talking about death and dying and “that’s where I’m going. It is my end-of-life”‘.

Different ways of describing the same thing have different implications and suggest different underlying attitudes. Death approaching the patient can imply that he or she has no control or influence over what is happening to them. While this may ultimately be true for all of us, various aspects of the experience of terminal illness are open to influence and the second framing (patient approaching death) allows for that more easily. This is a common theme: metaphors, in their entailments and implications, always foreground certain aspects of whatever experience they’re describing, while backgrounding others.

The proverbial ‘battle’ and ‘journey’ metaphors for illness are no different. Examples such as ‘staying as positive as possible is a proven way of fighting back’ and ‘I am ready to kick ass! Bring it on!’ highlight the ways in which being ill may involve strength, perseverance, endurance and heroism, and encourage us to see recovery as a victory (and not recovering or dying as defeat). But these examples also background the possibility of seeing illness as part of life, as something to go through or as a journey shared with others: ‘We met all sorts on our cancer journey’; ‘you seem to have come through the tunnel of cancer and are on the mend’.

These and many other types of metaphors are used by all three groups in the MELC dataset. No single metaphor is objectively superior to another; different metaphors may be more or less appropriate for different people, or for the same person at different times. When people describe their experiences or when others describe these for them, it is crucial that there are a variety of options so that vulnerable people don’t have unsuitable framings imposed on them. At the same time, it is important to be aware of the entailments of each choice in case they point to underlying issues that require attention.

Dr Zsofia DemjenDr Zsófia Demjén is Lecturer in English Language and Applied Linguistics at The Open University, UK. She specialises in the intersection of language, mind and healthcare,​​​​​​​​​ investigating the implications of how people use language to describe their experiences of illness. Before she joined The Open University, Zsófia was Senior Research Associate on the Metaphor in End of Life Care project at Lancaster University. You can follow Zsofia on Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Gary Blogg.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

25 tips for writing effectively for older readers

Vera

Sarah Carr’s friend, Vera, celebrating her 100th birthday – when she was born in 1911, the UK had 102 centenarians; by 2013, it had 13,780.

Misleading information, unclear instructions, technical jargon and illegible print: these are all barriers that can stop older people accessing products and services. Apart from the obvious ethical problem – it is unacceptable for a civilised society to withhold important goods from citizens – it makes good business sense to value older consumers. The 65-plus age group represents 20% of the UK consumer population (those aged 16 and above) and is expected to rise to 25% by 20301.

As experts in written communication, members of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) are well equipped to help ensure that texts meet the needs of target readers. The SfEP is launching a three-tier commercial package for organisations targeting older consumers. Comprising a communications audit, editorial consultancy and in-house training, the project kicks off with the publication of a booklet on communicating with older readers. Drawing on research and anecdotal evidence gathered with the help of SfEP members and editors from other English-speaking countries, Sarah Carr presents in this blog a list of 25 top tips. For more ideas, and advice on how to implement these in your work, watch out for the booklet!

Attitude

  1. Do what you can to challenge attitudes towards ageing and older people.

Features of older people

  1. Understand the needs of older readers, remembering that they have widely varying abilities, and encompass two or even three generations.

Inclusive writing

  1. Take an inclusive approach to writing, suitable for all members of the public (sometimes known as ‘plain language’).

Purpose, content and structure

  1. Before you start writing, think about why you are doing so, what you want the text to achieve, and the best medium for this purpose.
  2. Plan your messages and ideas, ensuring they are clear and honest.
  3. Organise the content logically, using an appropriate structure and good navigational aids, and avoiding very long paragraphs.

Style and grammar: words and phrases

  1. Consider using graphics to help present your ideas.
  2. Omit redundant words, and use short, familiar words and phrases.
  3. Use jargon and abbreviations only when necessary, and explain each term when you first mention it.
  4. Ensure that you refer to people equally; failing to do so may not only offend readers (and so lose their attention) but also helps prolong inequality.

Style and grammar: sentences

  1. Ensure that you use good grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  2. Aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words, with some longer and shorter for variety and effect.
  3. Use strong verbs (rather than nominalisations/deverbal nouns, e.g. ‘decide’, not ‘make a decision’).
  4. Favour active verbs (‘the team decided’, not ‘it was decided by the team’), writing in the first and second person (‘I’/‘we’ and ‘you’) and phrasing points positively.

Layout and design

  1. Use a simple, clear font, in sentence case, at a size of 12 to 14 point, avoiding italics and underlining.
  2. Align text to the left, with lines of a reasonable length, and avoid splitting words between lines.
  3. Use white space effectively, for example to help show the logical structure of your text.
  4. For text on paper, use good-quality paper with a matt finish, ensuring a good level of contrast between background and ink colours.
  5. Keep images clear and simple, ensuring they do not stereotype older people.

Writing for the web

  1. Ensure it is easy to understand the structure of your website, and to navigate around the site.
  2. Think about web-specific aspects of layout and design, and the readers’ familiarity with using computers and the internet.
  3. Include text alternatives, e.g. audio and video.

Checking the suitability of your text

  1. Aim for a reading-age level of 12 to 14 years, using a readability formula (available in Word).
  2. Consider testing your text on a real audience, if time and money allow, or otherwise using plain-English editors to provide an expert opinion.

Acquiring or commissioning the skills

  1. For a professional and cost-effective service, commission support from SfEP members. And don’t forget our specialist training courses and publications!

1 Analysis by the Personal Finance Research Centre at Bristol University quoted in Age UK (2010) Golden Economy: The Consumer Marketplace in an Ageing Society (research by ILC-UK).

Sarah CarrSarah Carr works as a writer, editor and proofreader, specialising in plain English and business communication. She feels strongly that our society should value old age and older people more, and is saddened by its mysterious obsession with youth. As a practical demonstration of her principles, she refuses to dye her (increasingly) grey hair!

Proofread by SfEP ordinary member Louise Lubke Cuss.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 4: And, finally,

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English Language. In part four, she considers the Oxford, or serial, comma.Comma

In this series I’ve talked about the power of the crowds, the predicted rise of the style guide and the pointlessness of spelling reform. And now, my final soapbox – the Oxford, or serial, comma.

The arguments I’ve seen online – wow. Just … wow. The infographics! People spend serious time, effort and creativity on arguing why the way they were taught is the only right way. There’s blog post upon blog post explaining clearly why the serial comma is the saviour of the written word, and blog post upon blog post explaining why the serial comma introduces confusion. Most are accompanied by examples that show that commas can’t always rescue a badly thought-out sentence.

I witnessed an interesting account online, not so long ago. The question arose as to what order the two sets of quotation marks and a full stop take at the end of a quotation within a quotation in American English, being edited by a Briton. And two people said almost the identical thing, independently. One was following the argument online, the other, an American professor, had been consulted offline. Both said, of one possible order or another that ‘it hurt to look at it’. And there’s the problem in a nutshell. Those people had been taught one particular Rule, and stayed loyal to that Rule since their formal education ended. Both certainly knew that other varieties of English exist. Both found it hard to look at punctuation in a particular order (no matter that logical arguments could be brought to support either one) because – drumroll, please – it wasn’t what they were used to, not What They Had Been Taught. And as for quotation marks, so for commas, serial or otherwise.

There are times when using a serial comma helps; there are times when it hinders. There are times when omitting a serial comma helps; there are times when it hinders. There is no argument, no matter how logical, that will get past someone who expects a serial comma in a given place to accept with a willing heart that no serial comma is fine. There is no argument, no matter how elegantly adduced, that will stop someone who was taught no to serial commas from choking up a little when they see one used ‘unnecessarily’. Habit and expectation are not easily overthrown.

While I was writing this post, a comma question popped up on Facebook. The problem was that a sentence seemed to have too many commas and the editor involved wanted to hoick them all out, to fit with his rather set ideas on where commas go, as if the rhythm of the writing, so much the author’s voice, was a mere frippery in the face of What He Had Been Taught. What was key, though, was he, an American, was editing a British author and he wondered if these commas were a fixed feature of BrEng, as he kept encountering them.

The polarisation is a nonsense, of course. The internet blurs the distinctions between what we may think of as BrEng and AmEng, and the use and abuse of commas will find some middle ground. Last year, an American editor reported on one of the social media sites that she was observing a tendency towards the ‘British’ style of quotation marks, as it was more logical than the ‘American’. Exposure to these different styles, and the ability of the readership to see them both in quick succession is now greater than ever. The internet is in play.

I have a dream. One day, the serial comma won’t have a name: there will just be commas that you put in or leave out as needed for clarity. It may be tricky getting there – I was going to make a quip about Big Endians and Little Endians, when I found out that they are now computing terms. The internet – democracy in action.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP ordinary member Christina Harkness.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

The internet and the democratisation of English – Part 3: Go home, spelling reform, you’re not needed here.

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part three:

World Dictionary In part one, I wrote about mob rule in English, and how the internet has delivered the largest mob ever. In part two, I talked about coping with changing norms of language. One of those changing norms is surely spelling.

David Crystal OBE, in his lecture to the 2013 conference, spoke of how he has tracked the dropping of the h from rhubarb over the last few years by simply googling the word from time to time. Who needs the h, anyway? Rubarb sounds just the same without it. Why not agree it’s time it went and update the dictionaries? Wouldn’t that be nice and neat and logical?

Ah, yes, spelling reform. I’m agin it. In detail-less brevity, English spelling shows its breeding. It doesn’t reflect how some words sound now. It doesn’t reflect, necessarily, etymology. Some of our words were taken out to a dark alley and given a wedgie by language bullies who were afraid that good old English was simply not good enough (wedging the b into debt, the p into receipt, the s into island), some of them tripped over their own feet and had a nasty accident (smooshing an h into ghost, for example) and some words were mugged for political purposes (Nathaniel Webster springs to mind). It’s all a dreadful mess, spelling isn’t logical, it’s hard to learn and Someone Ought to Sort It Out. Well, again, no. There’s no Someone to do it. There are millions of someones. (See what I did there? We’re back at the internet.)

I suspect that, quite possibly in my lifetime, there will be natural and inevitable spelling reform based on the weight of opinion on what works best for one speaker of English to communicate with another, regardless of their backgrounds. Globalism demands it. Changing spelling wholesale is contrary to the way language actually works. And if you don’t believe that, count up how many Esperanto speakers you know, or writers of Shavian. Language grows – or, rather, is grown by its users – to meet demand. What starts as wordplay, or slang, or code becomes widespread; those words that are found useful become embedded, at least for a while. Those words that aren’t are dropped. Words come into fashion, go out again, maybe they come back, maybe they don’t. It is usefulness that drives these effects.

Spelling reform will happen, as it has happened constantly since we started spelling, but not as a programme imposed from above, by some ineffable body outside language telling us how things are going to be from now on. Yes, we must be taught how to use our language with facility, we need to learn the norms for spelling, punctuation and grammar that apply to our time; we need to learn about register, about appropriateness, so that the English we use in our school essays and job applications will be different from the English used informally. This isn’t new. What is new is the ease with which so many people of so many points of view can debate, declare, deride uses to such a huge audience. Some memes go viral, others don’t. Some memes have longevity, some burn out quickly after only sporadic interest. Just as general suffrage gives votes to people you don’t agree with, and to people you suspect shouldn’t be trusted with something as important as choosing the government of the country, the internet allows people less educated than me and people more educated than me, on a spectrum that runs from crackpot through people who think just like me and onto a whole other kind of crackpot to use English and to publish constantly.

Consider, though, the impact of spelling reform if it happens any other way. There have been so many schemes, mostly criticising the fact that words don’t look how they sound. So – you’re going to devise a spelling scheme and have it adopted. Upon whose accent do you base spelling? Received Pronunciation? Brum? Scouse? Welsh? Highland Scots? Belfast? Estuary? Then it already doesn’t look like it sounds to anyone with a different accent, or who speaks a dialect. What do you do about homophones? Homonyms? Will you sort out the mess of contronyms, too? But let’s gloss over that and speed on.

A new English spelling system is introduced. Time passes. Not much time – ten or twenty years is more than enough. The literature of the last four hundred years or so is now unreadable to the younger generations who only know the New English. A common enough problem now – Shakespeare is troublesome for many, Chaucer for most. Given the exponential growth of publishing since their day, though, it’s a vastly bigger problem. But it’s not the biggest problem. That is that our young people are cut off from the English of the rest of the globe. A few basic words will survive the revamp, of course: bat, dog, bawl, idiot.

So do we cut off our kids from our culture? Or do we transcribe and republish everything? Or just bits of it? (Which bits? Is the rest of our literature, our history, kept for the comparative handful who learn the Oldies English as a separate, elite, subject?) And what about the internet? The mass of material so huge it’s impossible to imagine?

The difficulty with spelling evolution now, of course, is dictionaries. We used to spell how we spoke, so we all spelled differently. Then came the printed word, which brought about a bit more standardisation, then the spellers, then the dictionaries. How can spelling move away from the monolith of the dictionary? Well, it can and it does and the dictionaries play catch-up. I sometimes amuse myself by checking a spelling on Googlefight before going to the dictionary. The people are speaking, and they’re not all speaking dictionary.

Sue Littleford

Sue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Patric Toms.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 2: Tear up the rule book?

Sue Littleford, an advanced member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), has written a series of four blog posts exploring how the internet has contributed to the democratisation of the English language. Here is part two:

Tear up the rule bookIn part one, I talked about the changes I envisage the internet bringing to the range of Englishes currently spoken around the world. I was brought up with the mantra ‘Might Isn’t Right’. But as the internet leads to the blurring of the boundaries between all the world’s Englishes, might is most definitely right.

While we undergo this particular phase of language development, though, it will become harder and harder to teach ‘proper’ English; it will become harder and harder to justify changes when editing and proofreading, too. We are already careering towards a more global English, when the habits of one variety will bleed into the others. We are in the privileged position of watching it happen as no other generation has been able to do before. Its speed is breathtaking. Sometimes our stomachs flip. Sometimes it hurts our eyes. Sometimes you just want a few solid rules to cling onto, as they gave their shape to the English we knew growing up.

Evolution of the language didn’t stop when I was at school. It’s not stopped yet. It won’t ever. For now, it’s speeding up, fuelled by people communicating with each other in numbers never seen before, and displayed for all to see on the platform of the internet.

I remember an English lesson when I was aged ten or so, in which the wonderful Mr Harwood told us that the plural of hoof is hooves or hoofs, and that the plural of roof is roofs or rooves; that neither was wrong but that hooves and roofs were more commonly used. Well, that’s settled down in the last half-century. I don’t think I’ve ever seen rooves since. But I’ve also not yet come across anyone else who was taught that there are varieties of ‘correct’ and that weight of numbers matters in language (might actually becomes right in the end).

We’ve all seen evolution in action – consider E-mail to e-mail to email; on line to on-line to online. The new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary brought out in 2007 took out 16,000 hyphens. Evolution is accompanied by mass extinction events, after all.

Even experienced editors, who know all this stuff, sometimes betray themselves with a ‘Well, I was taught….’ or a ‘Which is correct…?’ Language is moving too fast, now. It’s always been a numbers game. ‘Aks’ for ask is around a thousand years old in Britain. So is singular ‘they’, plural ‘none’ and a host of other usages the reactionaries lambast as Wrong. Thousand-year-old mistakes perpetuated by the hoi polloi, or thousand-year-old valid alternatives? Who decides?

What’s hard to accept, perhaps particularly for those who really paid attention at school (but who weren’t lucky enough to have Mr Harwood) and have stuck to what they were taught ever since, despite the evidence all around them, is that there is no outside authority dictating these ‘rules’ or arbitrating disputes about them. There is just opinion: informed, uninformed and not yet formed. And there is time. And there are users of English. There is not necessarily consensus. Mash those up together, then you’ll find the prescriptivists are fighting a losing battle.

So – what’s to be done? We editors and proofreaders need to know our stuff, and to be able to defend our edits. How can we do this against a background where language is turning to quicksand? Two words: style guide.

The style guide will, I think, become the touchstone. It will be the standard for that publisher, that government, that company as now, but I can see that copy-editors will need to be far more proactive in producing style guides for clients. I suspect that more and more organisations will be publishing theirs, as The Economist, the Guardian, the BBC and the UK government have done. We will need to be aware of what free-standing style guides are available and talk to clients about choosing the one that best fits them, with or without a degree of personalisation.

The rule book isn’t dead – it never really lived. But style guides? They’ll go on forever.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has now been a freelance copy-editor for seven years, working mostly on postgraduate textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter.

Proofread by SfEP associate Sandra Rawlin.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.