Category Archives: Language

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.

The internet and the democratisation of English. Part 1: Power to the people

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 one:

Magnetic letters The very phrase ‘democratisation of English’ is enough to send shivers down the spine of every self-diagnosed language maven who clings to ‘Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction’ or ‘Don’t split an infinitive’ or (hopefully only in days gone by) ‘English should be more like Greek. Or Latin. Y’know, proper languages.’

Breaking news! That thud you hear in the background isn’t the sound of standards falling. It’s the sound of language remaining fit for purpose.

Over the last few months, I’ve noted more and more blog posts, articles and books that are anti-prescriptivism. Indeed, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic’s song ‘Word Crimes’ (July 2014) was quite widely pilloried for the number of shibboleths it managed to jam in and many fears were expressed that the – well, let’s be polite here – ‘less aware’ would take it as unadulterated truth and propound True Grammar According To My Teachers while the ‘more aware’ shake their heads in sorrow. There are still so many people posting in online editors’ groups asking for ‘The Rule’ for this or that circumstance, and then arguing about the answers. There is only one correct answer to that question. It depends. It always depends. The rule is, of course, that there are no rules – at least none that hold good for every single case in every single variety of English and in every single register in which it is used. What we do have are norms, set at varying levels of granularity in our language.

Nowhere is more democratic about language than the internet at large. Current estimates put English as the world’s most spoken language and third most common native language, with close to a billion people speaking English in some form.

That’s millions and millions of speakers of different varieties of English (well over 330 million native speakers of one kind and another, with some estimating more like 430 million); speakers with a wide variety of backgrounds, education and needs. All these people have votes equal to the number of times their words are intercepted by the search engines and bots indexing away.

So what will happen? I think that Englishes will, over time – and not too far off at that – start to merge. The differences we keep reminding ourselves of between BrEng and AmEng and AusEng and CanEng and all the other Englishes we edit and proofread will, I think, inevitably become ever more blurred. We might – goodness! – end up with just Eng.

A lot of my editing is of books by non-native English-speaking academics, and I routinely see that their spelling and punctuation wobbles from side to side of the Atlantic; often swayed by whatever they used for that part of their own work – spellings and punctuation mimic the variety of source material without thinking about consistency in the new piece. With so much international writing and international-team writing, we are already well on the way towards obfuscation of the differences between AmEng and BrEng.

Still, Canadians seem to cope with their own spelling caught between a British rock and a US hard place. The Editors’ Association of Canada: Editing Canadian English (9781551990453) is quite open about CanEng being a hybrid, and accepts that Canadians may write both ‘harbor’ and ‘centre’, taking internal consistency to a more granular level than the native British or US speaker is used to. It quotes Peter Sypnowich: ‘Henry Fowler declared that American and British English should not be mixed, an injunction that must leave Canadians speechless.’ I fully expect Fowler would be aghast, but I do think Canada is a model that will be followed by other Englishes.

Is this democratisation of our language a race to the bottom? No! How could it be? There will still be the demand for all the different registers – and there will still be a sense of what is well-written and what is more, well, vernacular, but I don’t see English splitting into elite and proletariat versions, and certainly not into non-compatible Englishes, for two reasons.

  1. Globalisation won’t allow it – people need to be able to communicate and English is the lingua franca of much of the world. How will people who need to be able to communicate with each other find it useful to make new and/or stronger distinctions between my English and your English?
  2. Online, people are, I think, less aware of where a particular person is from. The people I communicate with on various forums won’t necessarily know my nationality. We will pick up quirks of a language we like and use them ourselves, spreading them widely. Others will pick them up and spread them further still. And these usages will live or die according to how useful people find them.

Where does this leave copy-editors, in particular? Well, writing a lot of style notes and word lists – if you want the glib answer. People who work with language, as we do, are pretty attuned to different registers and readily absorb a sense of what will and won’t do in a given piece of writing. It will be a challenge if an author demands to know on what authority you made a certain change or recommendation, and it will be harder if that author is old school and clings to ‘What My Teacher Said’. We will have to develop strategies to deal with that, and talk about norms, readability, flow and clarity rather than rules; and remember that there is not now, nor ever has been, only one right way.

It’s often hard to remember that there is no authority handing down the Rules of English to its speakers. Language doesn’t work like that (unless you’re French…) – there is no committee somewhere out there deciding what English usage is right and what is wrong. Dictionaries describe usage – they don’t prescribe or proscribe. There are only the people using English – an awful lot of people – communicating with each other across the world more than ever before, faster than ever before and deciding by mob rule what works and what doesn’t. And do you know? It was always like that. But now it’s big enough and fast enough for us to pull up a chair, grab the popcorn and sit and watch it happen.

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.

Proofread by SfEP associate Alex Matthews.

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