A style guide tells you how to spell key words, when to use single and double quote marks, when to use capital letters and, perhaps more importantly, when not to.
Basics include whether you say Mr Wheal or just Wheal – or even Chris – and whether you list a person’s age and job title.
It set the standards for the publication.
There are numerous style guides worth inspecting for ideas and solutions.
(Links all open new windows)
- The Guardian Style guide
- The BBC Style Guide (pdf)
- BBC alphabetical checklist
- The Times Style Guide
- The Economist Style guide
If you are writing one from scratch, why not start with this document and edit it to suit your needs?
Chris Wheal’s style and grammar guide
This is not meant to be a straitjacket. All writers should be able to observe these simple guidelines and yet retain their own style of writing.
Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Limit the number of ideas expressed in one sentence unless you are sure of your punctuation. Sentences should have an absolute maximum of 40 words. Most should be much shorter. News intros should be shorter than 30 words and preferably shorter than 25.
Never use a long word when a short one will do. Never use several words when one is adequate. Avoid the American habit of making up words. Avoid sloppy English. For instance, never use a vague expression when you can use a more specific alternative. Do not be stuffy or pompous. Avoid the language of lawyers, bureaucrats and company officials. Stick to plain English.
Use active verbs. Avoid passive verbs. In other words, avoid sentences such as: “Active verbs should be used and passive verbs should be avoided”. Avoid the first person (l or we) unless writing a personal view. Avoid using etc. It looks as if the writer thinks there should be something else in a list but cannot remember what, or does not think it important enough to include. Steer clear of articles beginning with quotations and never begin sentences with figures. Sub-headings and cross-headings are design features to break up the page and should never be an integral part of the text.
- Use the comma to separate a series of words or phrases of the same kind, but not a cumulative series of adjectives. “A well-educated, literate, overbearing man,” but “a sticky toffee pudding”.
- For parenthesis (additional information) use the comma for minor details. “The builders, in their shorts and T-shirts, were hot and sweaty.” Use brackets (like this) to explain, and hyphens – ugly things – for comment.
- Hyphens between words should generally be avoided except where they are an obvious aid to understanding and where the compound would be nonsensical without one, such as “a unit-linked fund”. Do not hyphenate expressions such as “well known” or “rubber stamp”. Non- and anti- always take a hyphen.
- Apostrophes denote missing letters in words such as “don’t” and “can’t”. They are also used to show possession (belonging to). “Dog’s mess” means the mess made by a single dog. “Dogs’ mess” means the mess made by more than one dog. But remember: belonging to them is “theirs” and belong to it is “its”. There’s means there is and it’s means it is. If an extra s sounds, as in Jones’s, then write it.
- Put quotations from any speech or text in quote marks. For full quoted sentences, the punctuation always comes within quote marks. For quotes within sentences, the punctuation goes outside the quote marks. If the style uses double quotes, then use single quote marks for quotes within quotes, and visa versa – “These so-called ‘economy measures’ are nothing of the sort,” says Mr Neasden. A colon should be used before a whole quoted sentence but not before a quotation that begins in mid-sentence. He said: “It was a dog’s dinner.” But, he said it was “a dog’s dinner”.
- A semicolon links two statements in a sentence where the second statement is linked to the first. It is used where a “but” or an “and” would not be appropriate or for a longer pause before an “and” or a “but”. Semicolons are also used in lists if the items in the list already involve commas.
- Only use question marks if the question is posed and not when the question is referred to. In “everyone wants to know what she thinks”, there is no question mark because the sentence is a statement not a question.
- Use exclamation marks exclusively for exclamations, such as Blimey! Wow! or Oh no! Adding an exclamation mark will not sharpen your writing, nor will it make people see your joke.
Avoid unnecessary capital letters. For example, chairman, managing director (or other titles) take lower case, as does the government and council. State, as in “state pension scheme”, normally takes lower case. Company departments and officers do not usually have capital letters. Try to use generic names rather than proper names, such as environment department, health department. Only proper nouns take capitals.
Try to avoid acronyms. Use nouns, such as the association, the department or the corporation, if part of the name cannot be used. In fact, rename the departments if necessary. So, use personnel for human resources department or finance for the corporate services and treasury management department. If you must use acronyms, write them out in full on first appearance with the acronym in brackets. Acronyms are normally in capital letters but some style guides put them in sentence case if they are spoken as a word. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy is Cipfa.
- Use per year and not per annum.
- Avoid the abbreviations ie and eg.
- United Kingdom and United States are almost always UK and US.
- Do not, will not, cannot, it is and other such phrases, are not abbreviated except in quotations or where a more colloquial style is desired.
Styles vary but normally numbers from one to nine inclusive are spelt out but numbers from and including 10 are numerical. The exception is that all money figures, percentages and fractions are numerical.
- Amounts up to £1m are normally written out in full, so £500,000 not £1/2m or £0.5m. Noughts are rarely used to denote no pence, so use £10, not £10.00. Round large numbers up or down to three figures where the exact figure is not essential, so 63,586 becomes 63,600.
- Figures showing decimal points are rounded up (from 0.5, unless specially marked) or down to, at most, two decimal places.
- Express millions and billions with decimal points, so £2,324,613 becomes £2.32m. A common style is that for money, the word million is abbreviated to m with no full stop and is closed up to the preceding numeral. Billion is normally used for figures over a thousand million and, for money, is abbreviated to bn with no full stop and closed up to the preceding numeral.
- Often, with objects, million and billion are written out in full, so “one million people shared a payment of £lbn”.
- Percentages may take % or per cent, check the style. Do not mix fractions and percentages in a list, such as “1/3 said yes but 54% said maybe”.
Who, when and where
- Names: use first names with surnames such as Fred Bloggs or Mary Whitehouse, when first mentioned in text. When further mentioned use Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms (as the woman wishes to style herself) or just the surname or first name if that is the style. Professors and doctors get their title mentioned even when using their full name. Knights and Dames use their first names but Lords and Ladies use their surnames.
- When referring to dates, such as the 1980s, an apostrophe is never used before the s and the phrase is never abbreviated to the “the 80s”. Use “the eighties” if that is style. Dates are either day (as a number), month (written), year (number) or month, day (number), year (number). Days are rarely written 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. Time: where ambiguous, use 24hr clock.
- Use European Union (EU) if talking about current events. European Community (EC) and European Economic Community (EEC) are historic descriptions applied under previous treaties. There is still a European Commission (EC). The Republic of Ireland is called the Republic where the context is firmly established. Few publications accept southern Ireland or Eire. Use the modern name for any new republic in eastern Europe, referring to its former name if readers are likely to be left in any doubt about the identity of the country. United Kingdom refers to England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain excludes Northern Ireland and is rarely necessary. The British Isles embraces Ireland, Isle of Man, Channel Islands and others. Many publications do not use Britain.
Plural and singular
Bodies such as the government or a company are singular, so “the company feels”. The government itself always uses “we”, so watch out. Treat other collective nouns as single objects. There are more Conservative councillors, so the council is Conservative held. Mr Marks and Mr Spencer founded the company but Marks & Spencer is a high street chain. Mum, dad and the children are a family and the family is a unit. The exception is sports teams. So, Arsenal are a boring team to watch.
Make sure the verb agrees with the subject in other cases too. Spelling is important but spelling and grammar are important. But watch out: be clear about the subject because “spelling, with grammar, is important” – the subject is only spelling.
Plurals that make a volume are singular. An apple is not much to eat but five apples is a lot to eat.
Common currencies are: £ for sterling, € for euro, y for yen, $ for US dollar, C$ (Canada), NZ$ (New Zealand) and HK$ (Hong Kong). Less well known currencies should be spelt out. A sterling equivalent should be shown at least once.
Which and that: which informs but that defines. If the clause that follows the word cannot be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence, then use “that”. If the clause can be removed, or made into an additional sentence, then use “which” (or even better, make it into an additional sentence). “The problem in our road is the lorries that drive too fast” is very different to: “The problem in our road is the lorries, which drive too fast”. In the first example only the lorries driving too fast are a problem. In the second sentence all lorries are a problem and they all drive too fast. Missing out the comma does not change the meaning of the sentence; it only makes the punctuation wrong too – in these cases, “which” is always preceded by a comma.
Might and may: Both refer to an element of doubt but the difference between the two is that might is used if there is a condition to be met. There must be an “if” either stated or implied. “Not eating enough greens may have caused the spots” is different to “not eating enough greens might have caused the spots”. In the first sentence we know he didn’t eat enough greens but we are not sure that was the cause of the spots – it could have been not washing his face. In the second sentence, we don’t know whether he ate his greens or not – that is the condition, the “if” – if he didn’t eat enough greens, then that explains the spots.
Who and whom: Remember the difference between I and me, he and him, she and her, they and them and we and us. So, “I, he, she, they and we who have nothing”, and “for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for me, him, her, them and us”. If the question can be answered by I, he, she, they or we then it is who? If the answer is me, him, her, them or us then it is whom?
Fewer and less: Fewer applies to number and less applies to volume. “The nine-items-or-fewer queue is for people with less shopping.” Also, use less when referring to quality rather than quantity.
Hopefully and I hope: These mean different things. “Hopefully I will cross the desert and get to the oasis” means I will cross the desert and on the way I will be full of hope (about what is not specified). “I hope I will cross the desert and get to the oasis” means nothing can be taken for granted on this trip.
Lay and lie: If the verb involves an object, use lay; if it doesn’t, use lie. “A soldier lays down arms but lies down to sleep” and “a bricklayer lays bricks then lies on the wall”.
Like and such as: Like makes a comparison and such as introduces examples, including lists.
Last and past: in the last year, means in the final year but in the past year means in the previous year. The past year without “the” is, confusingly, last year.
Will and shall: Will is stronger than shall. Shall signifies intent but implies that consent is required. You shall get married (if your partner says “I will” at the wedding). Should and would follow similar rules.
But and however: Use “but” followed by the contradiction or write the contradiction followed by however. “But, it was not so” or “It was not so, however”. Do not write: “However, it was not so”.
Ice/ise endings: Words ending “ise” are verbs and “ice” are nouns even if they sound the same. Remember advise and advice, and the others all follow.
Suffixes: Suffix -ation is preceded by s, very rarely z and suffix -ised is used in preference to -ized, but again watch out for style guides that say differently – the use of z is an Americanism.
- Use while not whilst, among not amongst, several not a number of, now not at present, cause not give rise to and begin not commence.
- Use although, not despite the fact that, and because, not owing to the fact that.
- Use based on and never based about or based around.
- Focuses not focusses.
- Onto is normally written as one word.
- Under way is two words.
- Panellists takes two lls.
- Adviser not advisor (watch for style exceptions to this).
- More than one bureau is written bureaux.
- Judgement can have e after the g or not (judgment) depending on the house style so watch out (technically, it has no e for legal judgments).
- There are only two alternatives; three or more become options or choices.
- Flounder means struggle clumsily (in something sticky) or become confused; founder means stumble, fall or (of a boat) fill with water and sink. You can neither flounder nor founder against rocks.
- Do not use words such as clearly, obviously, naturally and of course. It may be clear, obvious, natural or of course to you but you have researched the subject. If it is clear, obvious, natural or of course to everyone, why bother telling them about it?
- Avoid phrases such as “interestingly” as they imply that the rest of your article is not.
- Irony should be apparent and not pre-empted by “ironically” or “it is ironic that”.
- Do not mix metaphors. A new broom sweeps, it does not usher in, cut through, stamp authority on or anything else. It is also a cliché.
Watch out for specifics to each publication.
Copy should be single spaced with automatic line breaks. Avoid inserting unnecessary carriage returns. Do not type double spaces before each new sentence and do not indent paragraphs. If you are setting out tabular information, use the tabs, not the space bar, but also send a hard copy.
Deliver the copy on time and to length.