Ten differences between UK and US English

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Some differences between UK and US English are well documented. For example, most people know that football is a different game in North America and the UK, and any American in the UK quickly learns not to talk about fanny packs. But there are also some more subtle differences that might stymie visitors to Britain, especially those who have learnt American English. Linguistics lecturer Dr Lynne Murphy rounds up ten of the subtler US/UK miscommunications.

1. Toilet

For Americans, this is a piece of porcelain. For the British, it is also a room that contains that particular piece of porcelain. If an American tells you she got stuck in the ladies’ toilet, offer her a towel and a hairdryer.

2. Quite

Before an adjective, American quite means ‘very’, while British quite means ‘somewhat’. So, if the American tourist is quite tired, direct him to his bed. But if a Brit tells you a restaurant is quite good, you’d be wise to keep looking for somewhere better.

3. Moot

In addition to quite, British and American Englishes have other  ‘Janus words’  whose meanings look both ways. A British moot point is open to discussion, but for an American, the discussion has been declared pointless. The UK Parliament puts legislation on the table for discussion, but the US Congress tables the legislation they don’t want to discuss and puts matters for discussion on the floor instead. A British speaker’s nervy athlete would be a bundle of nerves, but an American’s has ‘got a lot of nerve’ (and probably a mouth to match). And while homely means ‘comfortable in a home-like way’ in Britain (and much of the Commonwealth), in America it is a way of describing a person as ugly.

4. Heatwave

The meteorological definition of heatwave is ‘anomalously hot weather that lasts for days’, but hot and anomalous are both relative terms. British newspapers will declare a heatwave after three days of 25°C (77°F) weather. In other words, a British heatwave is everyone else’s nice summer weather.

5. Please

Americans say please – just not always where the British expect to hear it. The British say please when ordering food in restaurants (or requesting things in shops) because they view the action as a personal request to the waiter. Americans regard ordering as providing the waiter with the information he needs to do his job, so they say  ‘I’ll have the chicken’. As language blogger Ben Trawick-Smith has noted, please can add connotations of impatience and exasperation to an American request.

6. Pants

Americans don’t use the word trousers much, and when they do, it only applies to menswear. Instead, Americans wear pants on their lower halves. When those garments inevitably get damaged on their travels, their wearers sometimes make public proclamations about the stains on their pants. Even more inevitably, they are regarded with horror or laughed at, since British pants usually refers to underpants.

7. Fag

The British do a lot with the words fag and faggot, which can be a shock to people who only know them as derogatory words to refer to gay men. Fag is British slang for a cigarette, so smokers  ‘pop out for a fag’  and they might try to  ‘bum (or pinch) a fag’  off you. But fag can also be a bother. Going out to buy more cigarettes in the rain can be  ‘a bit of a fag’. Faggots, meanwhile, are found on menus; they are a kind of meatball made of (usually pork) organ meats, served with gravy and potatoes. Since no one ever seems to order any, it’s possible they stay on menus just to shock American tourists.

8. Republican

The recent Jubilee has led some British people to talk more about a republicanism that has nothing to do with Mitt Romney. British republicans would like the UK to be a republic, rather than a monarchy. British republicans are likely to be considered politically left-wing, unlike American Republicans, who are named after the small-r republican ideals of the American Revolutionary War (or the American War of Independence, as the British call it). Now, of course, American Republican is almost synonymous with social and fiscal conservatism.

9. Subway

Follow signs pointing to a subway in London, and you’ll find yourself either at the ubiquitous American fast-food joint or in an underground tunnel. And there in the tunnel, you’ll find confused Americans looking around for the trains. While the New York subway is a railway under the city’s streets, in London it is a pedestrian way beneath a road.

10. Half

British time-telling differs from American in several ways, with the 24-hour clock confusing any American who hasn’t served in the military. ‘Half-eight’  to mean ‘8:30’, provides another pitfall – particularly for non-Brits who know German or Swedish, where it would mean ‘half way to 8’, or 7:30.

Dr Lynne Murphy is Senior Lecturer in Linguistics (English) at the University of Sussex. She writes a blog about the differences between US and UK English, Separated by a Common Language, and she tweets at @Lynneguist.

Want more differences? Why not download our comprehensive  Guide to UK and US English.

What do your fonts say about your business?

fonts278Courier makes you look like a nerd, Comic Sans is for attention seekers and sans serif fans value their safety and anonymity. So says Simon Garfield, the font of all font wisdom, in his book Just My Type (which we’ve reviewed here).

For those of us who don’t deal in fonts every day, this level of detail, and the number of fonts on offer, can seem overwhelming – but it doesn’t have to be.

Serif vs sans serif

Fonts generally fall into two categories – serif and sans serif. Those with small projecting features are known as serifs. Examples include Times New Roman, Garamond and Bookman Old Style.

Fonts that lack these small projecting features are called sans serif (from the French for ‘without’, but usually pronounced ‘sanns’ by printers). Arial, Helvetica and Verdana are the most common. They’re usually used online, but are becoming increasingly acceptable in printed materials.

Print vs screen

The generally accepted wisdom is that serifed typefaces are better for printed material, because the serifs guide the reader’s eye along the line.

However, as the eye doesn’t travel in a smooth line when reading, but in quick jumps known as ‘saccades’, this argument is questionable. In fact, it’s so traditional to use serif for printed material that using sans serif can be a statement of modernity or even (small) rebellion.

Serif fonts aren’t usually used for text intended to be read on screen because on lower-resolution screens the serifs can look fuzzy and inhibit readability. However, some serif fonts, such as Georgia, have been specifically designed to display well even on low-resolution screens (and you can see it in action on the New York Times website).

Readability

So are serif fonts more readable than sans serif, or vice versa? In a word, no. Ask a graphic designer or an editor, and they’re almost certain to give you their personal opinion one way or the other, but studies into readability generally find little or no difference. As user experience consultant Alex Poole says, ‘if there is a difference, it is too small to worry about’.

Reader expectation, however, does have an impact on readability. Hand someone a 50-page report in a sans serif font, and the unfamiliarity of it may well strike a blow. Likewise, people don’t expect to read newspaper-style fonts online. If you’re using one as a conscious style choice, go for it – just be sure it’s justified. (By which we mean that you have justification for it, not that it fits snugly to both sides of the page.)

It’s worth noting that as the quality and resolution of computer screens increases, this distinction is likely to fade. For now, though, it remains.

Pairing fonts

Fonts often look their best when paired in a complementary fashion, where one is used for headlines and another for body text. A good rule of thumb is to use serif for headlines if the body text is in sans serif, and vice versa. But fonts from the same ‘family’, such as Lucida Sans and Lucida Bright, also often work well together. As a general rule, don’t use more than two fonts on a page, unless you’re confident you have good reason. For variation, use different weights or styles within the same family.

When pairing fonts, have a quick look at the proportion of the ascenders and descenders (the tails on your ds and ps, for example) in relation to the letters as a whole. Try to use fonts with similar proportions.

For something that will be read online, the default safe option is Arial for the body text and Times New Roman for the headline. Or you could try Helvetica for the body and Century Schoolbook for headings. For print, if you’re fed up with Times New Roman, try Garamond for the body text and contrasting it with Frutiger or Futura for the headlines. Font availability varies depending on your software and whether you’re using a PC or a Mac, so for comprehensive lists, see Will Harris’s  list of font pairs and Douglas Bonneville’s 19 top fonts in 19 combinations.

Aesthetic choices

The final decision is a matter of judging which one looks most suitable for your message. People can have very different opinions on what ‘looks right’, so there are few hard rules. Generally, serif typefaces appear more traditional, and sans serif typefaces look more modern.

Give some thought to the impression you want to give (and if you’re in any doubt about the impact a font can have, take a quick scroll through these typographical posters). Take into account the intended audience, your own brand identity and the surrounding colour and design. Fonts can have quite distinct personalities. Helvetica, for example, is clean, crisp and neutral. Gill Sans has a 1950s Voice of Authority feeling to it (the BBC use it, and it’s also very close to the now-ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On poster). Times New Roman has a certain sense of ‘I’ve not given it any thought, so I’ve used Word’s default font’.

Bear in mind, though, that if the font you want isn’t available in standard packages and you have to buy it in especially, it’s possible that your readers – if they’re reading online – won’t have access to it. In which case, their software or browser will use a substitute font, and there’s no telling how that might change the overall presentation. So, unless your document will be read only in print or on PDF, keep it simple and only use widely available fonts.

Experiment with different combinations, but unless you’re thinking of a whole brand overhaul (in which case, contact a designer, and be prepared for a long and impassioned conversation) don’t overthink it. If it looks good, it’s easy to read and it’ll work on most computers, you can’t go far wrong.

Make communicating numbers as simple as 1, 2, 3

numbers Being able to write about numbers well is a core skill. But it can become needlessly fraught – mainly because those who find maths straightforward often don’t understand why it’s difficult for others to grasp. Luckily, there are three principles that can take the pain out of the process: simplify, signpost and be specific.

1. Simplify

When you’re translating a complex set of figures – for instance, a company’s financial results – into a written summary, it’s all too easy to get distracted by the sheer volume of information. This means you end up cramming in as much detail as possible, which can weaken your main message and confuse your reader, even if the audience is largely technical.

Unless you’re confident that your piece will be read by someone who will be taking their time and making notes, it’s better to avoid dealing with more than two sets of numbers in any one sentence. Also, try not to have several sentences in succession that introduce new figures. Break them up with analysis and observations.

Under this approach, the following sentence is fine:

‘Sales increased 10 per cent to £2.7bn, while profits rose five per cent to £10m.’

Despite containing four figures, it introduces only two concepts (what happened to sales, and what happened to profits).

However, try to include a year-on-year comparison in the same sentence, and it becomes much less readable.

‘Sales increased 10 per cent to £2.7bn in 2012, a slight improvement on 2011’s figure of eight per cent, while profits for 2012 rose five per cent to £10m, up from four per cent in 2011.’

If you’re preparing a script or notes for TV or radio, try to reduce this still further to just one topic per sentence. To see how much more difficult it is to follow figures presented verbally, ask someone to read you the press release of any financial results – then see how much of what you heard you recall.

Pick the numbers that really matter, and focus on getting those across.

2. Signpost

Often, the same piece of writing will have to work for multiple audiences with very different technical abilities. A half-year update will be read for detailed information by analysts and investors, but perhaps also skimmed by potential clients and journalists looking for an overview of the company.

For the former, the detail is vital, and if you remove it they will find the information insufficient – but leaving it in may confuse the latter.

This is where signposting helps. Compare the following two statements:

‘Underlying net revenues, the best metric for sales, increased 9.7 per cent year-on-year to £2.72bn, while profits before tax made strong progress, increasing 5.0 per cent to £9.9m.’

‘Sales and profits both grew strongly on the company’s key metrics. Underlying net revenues increased 9.7 per cent year-on-year to £2.72bn, and profit before tax grew 5.0 per cent to £9.9m.’

The second example is a little longer, but it primes readers on what to expect from the rest of the paragraph. It also serves as an explanation of the particular measures of revenue and profit being used.

Signposts should be short and simple, and group related information. If they seem overly complex, you’re probably trying to load too much into one paragraph.

3. Specify

How specific your writing needs to be varies depending on your audience and the information you’re conveying.

For a general audience, simple, round figures are always best. Avoid decimal points where possible, and minimise figures. Consider using descriptions such as ‘one in five’ rather than ’20 per cent’, if it helps make the meaning clearer.

More financially or technically literate audiences tend to prefer (or even demand) more specificity. In reality, the inputs on forecasting models are often rounded up or down, and the outcomes are therefore uncertain.

For example, a forecasting model generated in Excel might come out with a brilliantly specific-looking sales projection: next year, the spreadsheet says, Company A will sell 67,971.2 tricycles.  But this figure appears more precise than it really is.

Try to reflect this: if the margins of error on an estimate are known, make that clear.  This needn’t be complex. For example, if the margin was roughly +/-500, you could write the estimate as:

‘Projections for the next year suggest Company A will sell around 68,000 tricycles.’

Again, keep your audience in mind: analysts and specialists may well expect to see explicit references to margins of error.

Take similar care when writing about risk and uncertainty. If you write ‘the chance of catastrophic failure has increased threefold, year-on-year,’ you may well terrify a reasonable portion of your readership. If the risk of catastrophic failure has increased from 0.01 per cent to 0.03 per cent, that panic probably wasn’t your intention.

Make sure you’re confident of the difference between absolute and relative risk. Absolute risk describes how probable it is that something will occur. Relative risk is a comparison between different risk levels. In most cases, it will be appropriate to use the former.

Most importantly of all, keep reminding yourself who it is you’re writing for, what they need to know and the level of their technical expertise. Keeping your reader at the front of your mind will help you remember to speak in language that they will understand and find compelling.

Want more help with writing about numbers? We run courses on report writing and technical writing. To find out more, call us on +44 (0)1273 732 888 or email help@writing-skills.com.

James Ball is Special Projects Editor at the Guardian.

You can always leave ‘that’ out – true or false?

That's greatRecently, we were asked to settle a dispute between colleagues over the word that.

The example given was:  ‘The consensus was the chief executive was right’ vs ‘The consensus was that the chief executive was right’.

Our correspondent had written the former, but his colleague had insisted on the latter.

Which do you think is correct? Or, more pertinently, which sounds better to you?

When that is used as a conjunction, it’s a matter of preference whether you leave it in or not. For example, I would naturally put a that in ‘it’s great to hear that you enjoyed the course’. Personally, I think it sounds better. I wouldn’t, however, write ‘Personally, I think that it sounds better’. Because, personally, I don’t think it does.

So, in my opinion, the example given is one of those instances where a that improves the flow. I would write ‘the consensus was that the chief executive was right’.

Take care not to confuse

Sometimes, you’ll hear someone claim that that can always be left out. That’s certainly what I was told in my journalism training many moons ago. However, it’s not quite that simple. (Is it ever?)

It’s good to be concise, and concise writing generally aids readability. But be careful when omitting that that you don’t accidentally make a sentence harder to read.

The Guardian’s style guide gives the following example, where the direct quote is: ‘Nothing by way of an explanation will be forthcoming.’

If you write this in reported speech as ‘he said nothing by way of an explanation would be forthcoming’, the reader may begin the sentence thinking ‘ah, he said nothing by way of an explanation’ – and then have to backtrack a couple of seconds later. In this case, ‘he said that nothing by way of an explanation would be forthcoming’ is much clearer.

A versatile word

In Modern English Usage, HW Fowler explains that that has five main grammatical functions:

  • Demonstrative pronoun – That was what I meant
  • Demonstrative adjective – Why did you take that picture of me?
  • Demonstrative adverb – It didn’t hurt that much
  • Relative pronoun – It was not the drug that had done it
  • Conjunction – He had assumed that we would want to see him.

It’s only the fifth of these usages in which that is optional. And there are some cases where it’s more often left in than others.

Verbs of suggestion or wish, such as suggest, insist, propose, recommend and demand, tend to feel a bit bare without a that, as do constructions such as ‘the decision was (that)’, ‘the conclusion was (that)’, ‘the solution is (that)’ and ‘the consensus was (that)’.

If you’d like to read more, there’s a post in our blog archives here: How do you feel about that?

And don’t be afraid to bring out the ‘personal choice’ card on this one if challenged! (Though if you are the challenger, can we suggest that you phrase it: ‘That that that that sentence contains – is that correct?’)

Blast through writer’s block with this seven-step technique

breakthrough278How do you vanquish writer’s block? Some say to just start writing, even if you later have to delete half of what you’ve written. Some say to begin with the middle and add the introduction and conclusion later. Some say to make a list.

We say: grab some paper and a pen, and step away from your computer for half an hour.

This technique will not only cure your writer’s block, it will make your writing clearer and more logical for your reader.

Working out what goes in

Making a list of what you want to write about isn’t a bad starting point, but it has its limitations. The main drawback is that whatever word you write down first determines the next word you write down, and so on.

And once you have your list, it’s very difficult to change its order. So the entire structure effectively becomes governed by whatever word happened to pop into your mind when you sat down to write.

The other disadvantage of list structures is that they do nothing to unlock what’s actually in your mind.

Your mind stores things not in lists but in ‘files’. Consider this: if asked to list 20 things you own, you’d probably have to think quite hard. But if you were asked to list everything in your home, you’d soon hit 20. Easiest of all would be: ‘Name each room in your house, then name five things in each room.’

The reason is that you are sorting the ‘home file’ in your brain into folders – one for each part of your home. Once you’ve done that, it’s much easier to access the information.

Stage one: brainstorming

This seven-step technique is split between two stages. First, brainstorming.

You can apply the filing cabinet technique to help you brainstorm ideas, by drawing a mind map. This is a graphical representation of everything you know about a subject. Click here to see a mind map for planning an away day, for example.

To create a mind map, take the following steps:

1. Note down the subject in the middle of the page.

2. Write the aspects of the subject around it.

3. Look at each aspect and think about what its folder should include. Draw a line for each new idea or piece of information and continue this process, radiating outwards.

4. Keep asking questions such as Why?, How?, What?, When?, Where? and Who? until you’re satisfied you’ve put down everything you know about the subject.

Stage two: creating a logical structure.

Now you have all the information you need at your fingertips. But you still need to sort through it a bit further before you’re ready to start writing.

Classify each item in your mind map as A, B or C, where A = essential to everybody, B = essential to some readers and C = not important.

5. Pick one of the As as your starting point, label it number 1, then number the remaining As in a logical order.

6. Do the same for the Bs.

7. Cross out the Cs.

Once you have done this, you’re ready to form your ideas into a structure that your reader will find logical and easy to follow. Use the As for your body text and the Bs for your boxouts, appendices, sidebars and graphics.

Ready, set, go.

This is just one of the techniques you can learn on our High-impact business writing course, which is available both in-company and as a public course.

Five reasons to ignore your grammar gremlins (for now)

gremlinHere’s the good news: if you’re worried your documents are not as good as they could be, your grammar is probably not the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. Grammar matters. Of course it does. Getting it wrong can undermine your reputation (though probably not as much as you think – see below). Poor grammar can even completely change the meaning of a sentence.

But focusing too much on it could actually be more damaging. Here are five reasons why you should get over your grammar hang-ups.

1. Poor punctuation matters more than grammar. Colons and commas are vital sign-posts, so it’s important to put them in the right place. And a misplaced apostrophe (or, worse, a missing one) will make it look like you don’t care. On the other hand, I’d argue that no-one is going to get that worked up about whether you end a sentence with a preposition.

2. Grammar (and punctuation) issues usually indicate deeper problems. It’s probably not your imperfect understanding of a set of arcane grammar rules known only by master pedants that’s holding back your writing. It’s far more likely to be structural issues or focusing too much on your own aims rather than your readers’. In fact, worrying too much about your grammar can actually cause deeper problems. That’s because it seriously undermines your confidence, causing you to compensate with overly complex language or sentences.

3. Almost everyone struggles with it. Believe it or not, FTSE 100 directors and new graduates are often united in uncertainty over certain grammar points. Even experienced editors can spend a lifetime picking up the finer details. So waiting until you’ve perfected your grammar knowledge before you write anything is counter-productive – and futile.

4. Perfect grammar does not automatically mean perfect documents. Perfecting your knowledge of grammar will not automatically make you produce good documents, any more than memorising the workshop manual to your shiny new Ford or Volvo will make you a good driver. It’s perfectly possible to be technically perfect yet still produce an impenetrable tome stuffed with turgid professionalese.

Focus on your readers’ needs, structure your document well and use the right level of language. Then you stand a very good chance of making a real impact – yes, even if you’ve misplaced a modifier or left a participle dangling helplessly.

5. It’s not too late to fill in the gaps. If English is your first language, you already know 95 per cent of the grammar you’ll ever need. (And if it’s not, take comfort from the fact that your knowledge of technical grammar rules is probably superior to that of most native English speakers, simply because we learn our first language through usage rather than studying grammar.) Native speakers beyond the age of four or five already know which common verbs are irregular. They’d never say, for example, ‘I digged a big hole in the sand’.

They know that ‘dig’ becomes ‘dug’ in the past tense. They just don’t know that it’s called the past tense. (Nor, at that age, do they need to.) So the task of filling in the gaps is pretty straightforward. The odds are that the things you’re unsure about are the same ones that other people struggle with. (See point 3, above.)

So, take heart. Focus first on what your reader needs to know, then tell them in as straightforward a way as possible. Then – and only then – look up any points of grammar you’re not sure about.

Where to get help

There’s a lot of free grammar and punctuation advice on this blog. If you can’t find what you need, just drop us a line here. We’ll always do our best to help. Most of our business-writing courses take the same reader-focused approach that Rob advocates here, filling in your grammar gaps (identified through confidential analysis) where necessary. Training only in small groups enables us to tackle those very effectively and tailor training to individual needs. Also, look out for specific help with common grammar gremlins as we build our online training resources.

Difficult apostrophes: six do’s and don’ts

apostropheApostrophes are unpredictable little blighters. No sooner have you mastered the basics than they pop up in new and unexpected places, apparently breaking all the rules.

Should they, for example, be involved when you “cross the i’s and dot the t’s”? How about in the Ts &Cs? What are the, ahem, do’s and don’ts?

Don’t know? Don’t despair. Below we’ll strip away the guesswork from six of the most common apostrophe dilemmas, leaving you clear on whether to invite the curly little fellows in or boot them out.

1. Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s: DO

Many people doubt whether they should use apostrophes in “crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s”, because the i and t in question are plurals, rather than contractions or possessives – and we all know not to use apostrophes to indicate plurals.

But the problem is that if you omit the apostrophes and write “dotting the is and crossing the ts”, your reader may stumble over the “is”, confusing it with … is.

One alternative might be to capitalise the I and the T – “dotting the Is and crossing the Ts”. But that’s not quite right either, because a capital I doesn’t need dotting, nor a capital T crossing (not in the original handwritten sense, anyway).

So, “dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s” it is – it may not be pretty, but it’s clear and there’s no risk of confusing your reader.

2. Ts & Cs: DON’T

When you can capitalise the initials, they become much easier to deal with. Ts & Cs, or Ts and Cs if you prefer, is perfectly readable. Using apostrophes (T’s & C’s) just adds unnecessary clutter. So in this case, you’re better off without. The same goes for Ps & Qs.

3. 1980s: DON’T

Particularly in the US, it used to be quite common to use an apostrophe to indicate numerical plurals, such as “1980’s”. These days, however, most style guides on both sides of the Atlantic recommend using no apostrophe.

4. Do’s and don’ts: DO and DON’T

This one can have grown men and women groaning. But the secret, again, is simply to be pragmatic: do what makes it most readable (putting the reader’s needs first).

“Dos” just asks to be pronounced incorrectly, so it clearly needs an apostrophe – do’s. But if we’re adding an apostrophe there, should we also add an extra one to don’ts – don’t’s? Well, no, because that just looks crazy.

So, add an apostrophe to the former and make do with the existing apostrophe in the latter. It’s not perfect, but your reader will thank you for keeping it simple.

5. Cc’ing and Bcc’ing: DO (if you must)

There are two trends at play here. The first is towards sentence-cased “initialisms”, where only the first letter is capitalised. The second is our natural instinct to take new words and apply grammatical rules to them. So not only do we now want to Cc things, we also want to see who is Cc’ing them and check who has Cc’d them, and so on.

Ccing and Ccd aren’t very readable, and neither are Bccing and Bccd. Hyphens make even clunkier constructions than apostrophes (Cc-ing and Bcc-d, anyone?). So use an apostrophe … if you must.

Or, even better, avoid writing constructions like these and rephrase. For example: instead of “Are you Bcc’ing that to me?” write “Can you Bcc that to me?”, and instead of “I’ve Cc’d you” write “I’ve copied you in”.

6. Pdf’ing: DO (if you must)

As with point 5 above, this is another growing trend. It used to be standard practice to capitalise initialisations such as PDF, but increasingly we are seeing some well-known ones written in lower case – pdf, for example. Even LOL is now often written “lol”.

In cases such as these, try to rephrase sentences to avoid having to conjugate the initialism. So instead of “I’m pdf’ing it”, write “I’m making a pdf of it”, for example.

But if that isn’t possible, use an apostrophe. “Pdf’ing” may not be elegant, but it’s at least easier to read than “pdfing” and easier on the eye than “pdf-ing”.

Why does being easy to read matter so much?

So why does all this matter? Well, when your reader stumbles, they have to shift their attention from your message to your writing to get back on track. And as soon as they do that, you risk losing them – and you don’t know whether it’ll be for a few seconds or forever.

In situations such as these, pragmatism is key. You want to make the reading experience as smooth as possible so the reader focuses on the topic, not the words – even if that means putting an apostrophe somewhere that you usually wouldn’t.

Where apostrophes are concerned, our motto is: use them if to leave them out would be confusing.

To find out more about reader-centred writing and delivering your message effectively, sign up for one of our wide range of business-writing courses – we can either come to your company or you can join a group session for individuals in central London.

20 surefire tips for using bullets like a pro

bullet200Bullet points can bring clarity to an otherwise dense report, delivering quickfire information. But overuse them and you could shoot yourself in the foot – too many can make a document very hard to read.

There are 20 bullet points in this article. Take each of them on board next time you draft a document and you’ll be formatting like a pro in no time.

Why use bullets?

Bullet points are great for communicating information and breaking up text. For example, they can:

  • make lists clearer, as they are more visual
  • use white space well
  • grab attention by drawing the reader’s eye
  • help readers scan information
  • reduce word count.

When to use bullets

Bullet lists always need an introduction (like this one) and are good for:

  • concise web content
  • conveying key information
  • breaking down complex lists
  • summarising main points
  • giving instructions.

Bullets can be particularly useful in technical writing. In our experience, they’re popular with scientists and engineers, who sometimes even have a tendency to overuse them as a substitute for structured prose. Historians and policy makers, on the other hand, tend to prefer more connected text, and in some cases don’t even use bullets at all.

So, how do you strike a good balance? Just remember that they should be the exception, not the rule. They can’t draw the reader’s eye if they’re everywhere, so reserve them for your hardest hitting, most concise points.

When to dodge the bullets

As a general rule, readers don’t like bullet points when:

  • there are too many or the points are too long
  • they are used for unimportant details
  • the story is emotive or involved and so needs connected text
  • (T)he punctuation is erratic and distracting(;)
  • some of them are very much longer than others and it’s difficult to really see what the point of this particular type of bullet point is – in fact when the writer is just rambling on and simply wasting the reader’s time (annoying, isn’t it?).

How to punctuate bullets

There are various different styles of punctuating bullet points, and no hard-and-fast rules on the right way to do it. The most important thing is to have a consistent style across your organisation. At Emphasis, for example, we use two different styles.

When the bullet points are not full sentences (as in this article so far), we use:

  • lower case
  • no punctuation
  • a full stop after the final bullet if it ends the sentence (as this one does).

However, if we’re using bullet points for a list of complete sentences:

  • We use a capital letter at the start of each one.
  • And we end each one with a full stop.

So there you have it, 20 bullets to help you hit your writing targets. Do you have a preferred style? Do you want to come clean as a bullet-point addict or phobic? We’d like to hear what you think – join the discussion below.

How to use bullet points effectively is just one of the many topics we typically cover in our in-company courses and courses for individuals

These five techniques will transform your technical writing

Here is the gist of a conversation I had with a scientist a few years ago. I was teaching a one-day technical-writing course that she was (reluctantly) attending.

‘What do you write?’
‘Mainly records of experiments and field trials.’
‘And do you enjoy writing?’
‘No, I absolutely loathe it.’
‘Why?’
‘Because it’s just going to sit in a dusty folder somewhere and no one will ever read it.’

My first thought was that it was going to be a long, hard day. Happily, I was wrong.

In this short post, I won’t go through the protocols and conventions unique to technical writing, as that’s not necessary to get results (although you may find this article on how to write a paper useful). No, the key is to approach it from first principles – the disciplines every writer, technical or otherwise, should be aware of and practise.

1. Be clear and logical

I usually enjoy training scientists. They have one essential quality that’s gold dust for a writer – they’re trained to think logically and clearly. While their PhD may be in low-temperature physics or fluvial dynamics, they bring a rigorous way of thinking that’s incredibly helpful when it comes to writing up their work. Refreshingly, they’re also often among the most enthusiastic and intelligent students.

When I’m training, the one thing I want people to take away is the power and importance of writing. It obviously helps if you have a love and respect for language as well, but that’s a personal thing. If I could instil in the scientist a sense of pride in her writing, at least, I thought, that would be a start.

2. Focus on the audience

For some 15 years, I was the lead writer for Jaguar. I wrote the launches of their cars and all the company’s major conferences and speeches, some of which were highly technical. But the first question any writer has to ask, regardless of the material, is always the same – who is going to read this? Or, if it’s a speech, who is going to listen to it?

An automotive engineer, for example, will have a clear understanding of terms such as ‘horsepower’ and ‘torque’ and how they influence a car’s performance. They will also be familiar with the host of abbreviations and acronyms that are common parlance in the engineering community. (Is there a sector that doesn’t have its own jargon or buzzwords?)

If a piece of writing is peer to peer, it’s generally fine to use these terms without explanation (but sparingly, please). An engine’s performance may simply be expressed in measurements, graphs and charts – if the information is simply and clearly presented, the knowledgeable reader will be able to extract what they want and interpret it. The writing will have served its primary function, which is to communicate.

3. Consider every word

Most drivers, however, would struggle to explain ‘horsepower’ and ‘torque’, let alone the difference between them. Unless they’re fully paid-up petrolheads, all they may know is that a powerful car will have a lot of both. Car manufacturers know this, of course, and that’s when (supposedly sexy) language starts creeping into the writing. ‘Effortless’ and ‘refined power’, for example, are words Jaguar often use to describe torque delivery for the layman. (I fought long and hard to suppress the truly awful ‘waftability’, but it seems to have crept into the marketing.)

The point is that you use the appropriate language for the audience. The engineer writing the technical report isn’t selling the car, so they don’t need to use adjectives and adverbs (modifying words) to communicate performance – they can let the stats do the talking. In fact, if they submit their findings to scientific journals, they’ll find that most editors delete modifiers anyway, because at best they’re subjective, and at worst vague and confusing, especially for an international audience. Editors encourage authors to ‘unpackage’ concepts – to present them in simple, clear sentences.

4. Keep it brief

Most people have a lot of things they could be doing rather than wading through 50 pages of turgid, unfocused waffle. Know your reader, know what you want to say and know why you’re saying it. Is it relevant to your reader? If not, why are you making them read it? And although you may have spent ages writing something, be aware of ‘Mr Skippy’ – the person who will just skim through the text. He may only read the sub-heads, so make sure they tell the story clearly.

5. Be active and engaging

Get people into your writing. The passive voice (‘the trials were conducted …’) may be the default in most technical writing, but the active voice is more direct (‘we conducted the trials …’). You don’t have to do it all the time: a balance between passive and active is best. But we’re people and we like to read about ourselves, even if it’s just a humble pronoun (‘we’). Incidentally, a surprising number of journals recommend the active voice in their instructions for authors, including Nature.

And the reluctant scientist on my course? I saw her for a follow-up class a couple of months later and her writing had improved immeasurably, largely because she was now thinking clearly and writing short, clear sentences. Most importantly, she was taking pride in her writing and even starting to think of publishing her work. It had been a day well spent.

Jack can help you improve your team’s technical writing. Call us on +44 (0)1273 732 888 for a chat to explore how.

Why plagiarism doesn’t pay

word thiefHere are the plagiarists of Internet Town
With Ctrl+C and clattering keys
They prowl and creep when you’re asleep 
And take whatever they please.

Sounds good, right? They aren’t my words though: we lifted them from Allan Ahlberg’s Cops and Robbers, then made a couple of tweaks.

These days, pinching stuff from the internet is all the rage, simply because it’s (a) incredibly easy and (b) a short-cut to mountains of free web content.

Obviously, plagiarism is unethical. We all know that text or images taken from another source should be properly attributed, in a footnote or through ‘quote marks’. But ethics aside, plagiarism is simply bad business.

‘Ello ‘ello, what’s going on here?

Let’s say that you copy and paste a chunk of text from a website into your own report, press release or company brochure. It may look good. It may read well. But the basic fact is, people will notice. Stolen goods – in writing just as at a car-boot sale – stand out.

If they find your content via a search engine, they’ll immediately see that yours is not the only site to carry the text in question. If they’re editors and run plagiarism software (such as Turnitin or iThenticate), they’ll quickly see through your sleight-of-mouse.

Most importantly, copied text stands out to anyone who pays enough attention to your writing (and if people aren’t paying enough attention to your writing, you’ve got a whole other problem). Changes in tone, style, vocabulary and voice register with readers, even if they don’t realise it. It makes for a bumpy ride. It makes the reader less comfortable with your content. And it makes them less likely either to sympathise with you or believe you (or ‘you’).

OK, so you think again, and go to what we might call ‘level 2’ plagiarism. You rip off, but you re-write. You change maybe one word in ten, alter ‘cannot’ to ‘can’t’, cut out a handful of adverbs. Presto! ‘New’ content.

There are two problems here. Which of the two you encounter depends on how good a writer you are.

Problem one: the hybrid

In the first case, you wade in, thesaurus in hand, and make a terrible hash of the job. You lack the technical knowledge to amend the text appropriately (which is probably why you stole it in the first place).

A synonym in the wrong hands can be a dangerous thing – and the results are likely to both point up your obvious attempt to plagiarise and cause the reader great amusement/frustration.

I’ve encountered these weird hybrids in the wild many times. Let’s create one at random. Here’s the original text:

The potential loss on a short sale is theoretically unlimited in the event of an unlimited rise in the price of the instrument; however, in practice, the short seller will be required to post margin or collateral to cover losses, and any inability to do so on a timely basis would cause its broker or counterparty to liquidate the position.

That’s from Wikipedia’s page on ‘short-selling’, a financial concept chosen at random from the almost infinite number of topics about which I know nothing. We want to use this content in our report, but we don’t want anyone to know that we purloined it. Right – where’s that thesaurus?

The would-be slaughter on a dumpy auction is tentatively on tap in the event of an infinite augment in the consequences of the utensil …

Hmm. Perhaps this isn’t the best approach after all.

This example may seem far-fetched (it was done using MS Word’s ‘thesaurus’ tool, by the way), but I have come across real-life examples that are just as bizarre. It’s what comes of failing to show sufficient respect for the process of writing – of imagining that one word is just as good as another, that writing skills can be bluffed and technical know-how mimicked without consequence. The consequence is, of course, that the shortcomings you hoped to conceal by appropriating another’s work are laid bare. In the end, it undermines your reputation, rather than enhancing it.

In this case, shortcuts just won’t cut it. Expertise is what you need, and if you don’t have it yourself, you’re better off buying it in than trying to rip it off.

Problem two: the long shortcut

And this is where the second problem comes in. Perhaps you do have the knowledge to make the necessary amendments without turning the content into a laughing stock. Perhaps you know that ‘short-selling’ might be better replaced with ‘going short’ or ‘shorting’ than with ‘dumpy auction’. Clever you! But then in that case, why are you copying content in the first place?

More often than not you’ll find that, by the time you’ve re-worked a sentence to eliminate every trace of the original, you’ve used just as much time and effort as if you’d bitten the bullet and written it yourself. It reminds me of the story of the boy who tried to cheat in his exams by writing the answers on his shirt cuff. By the time he’d done that, he’d memorised them all anyway.

This is a confidence issue. You have to remember that, very often, if you’re good enough to fake it, you’re good enough to do it for real.

Ultimately, even if you’re prepared to ruthlessly jettison what they taught you at school about stealing being wrong, it’s still seldom a good idea. If you do it badly, you’ll get caught – and if you do it well enough not to get caught, it probably wasn’t worth doing it in the first place.