A question of style

mhra

Because everyone uses language differently, style guides exist to provide some degree of consistency. They are like rule-books, providing a ‘correct’ approach to punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, disputed spellings and so on. They also cover areas such as layout of dates and numbers, use of abbreviations, capitalization, and how to refer to cited articles, essays and publications.

Of course, it would be wonderful if there were one compendium to cover all possible eventualities. But the fact is that different professions require particular rules and ways of laying out information.

Journalists, for example, may use ‘AP’ style, and academics ‘Chicago’ or ‘MLA’ style, whereas lawyers may refer either to the ‘Bluebook’ or else ‘ALWD’ style. (Incidentally, ‘Harvard style’ – which actually has no official connection with Harvard University – is technically a system for referencing cited works, rather than a complete style guide.)

To complicate matters still further, individual institutions and publications, for example The Guardian, The Washington Post or the BBC, have their own ‘house styles’, which may change over time.

For instance, in the case of the oft-disputed spelling of verbs in ‘-ize’, The Times newspaper has plumped for ‘-ise’ – but only since 1992. And in what they see as a reflection of today’s less hierarchical society, editors at The Guardian have drastically reduced the use of capital letters. Among their controversial recommendations are ‘St Nicolas church’, ‘Great Ormond Street children’s hospital’ and ‘Ripon grammar school’.

Our blogger, George, recommends one of three usage and style guides for general use: New Hart’s Rules (formerly The Oxford Guide to Style), the MLA Manual of Style, and the MHRA Style Guide.

The last of these, published by the Modern Humanities Research Association, is particularly good for those writers who are new to style guides. It’s compact, up-to-date, and best of all completely free online at this link.  It’s also the style guide which we use at English Wanted. Take a look, and see if your own writing comes close to their rules and recommendations!

Looking for a good editor or proofreader?

proofing

Firstly, make sure which service you actually need. A proofreader is there to perform what is usually a final check of your writing, to ensure there are no errors of spelling, punctuation or grammar that might have been overlooked. It’s a fairly mechanical job that should not take too long to perform.

An editor, on the other hand, is called upon to ensure that the piece of writing communicates properly in every way, from its introduction to its conclusion, and all parts in between. A good editor will examine the structure of paragraphs to ensure that the narrative or argument develops properly. Perhaps there is too much repetition – of ideas or words – or maybe the word-count is too high, and the writing needs to be paraphrased or summarized.

Perhaps the tone of the piece is too formal; perhaps it’s too casual. There may be inaccuracies of terminology, or errors arising from poorly-checked facts or research. A good editor will always alert you to problems of this type, and make recommendations as to what you can do to improve your writing. This is particularly useful for university and college students, who can really benefit from a wise choice of editor.

At English Wanted, we have many years’ experience of editing and proofing essays, dissertations and publications; and we know exactly what is needed to make a piece of academic writing really stand out from the crowd. Examiners and professors always look forward to submissions that have been carefully constructed, that communicate with clarity, and that fulfil all the required style guidelines*.

As well as academic editing, we’re highly experienced in checking, correcting and preparing written material for all kinds of publications, journals and websites. But perhaps the most important aspect of good editing is that we appreciate the importance of time as much as you do. At English Wanted we pride ourselves on quick turnaround without sacrificing quality. So, whether it’s proofreading or a detailed edit that you require, we will always make sure that your finished work is returned in time to meet that all-important deadline.

From basket to casket

Sully the Dog

Sully, President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, waits with his handler at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Dec. 03, 2018. (photo by U.S. Army Pfc. Katelyn Strange)

Verbal ambiguities are frequently the cause of laughter, sometimes at inappropriate moments. During the state funeral of the 41st President of the United States, for instance, many onlookers were touched by the loyalty of George Bush’s dog, who stayed in close proximity to his master to the very end. A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald was moved to write the following words on the dog’s fidelity:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket holding what remained of him.’

The unintentional humour of this sentence reminded me of this other example from my schooldays:

‘Launching the ship with impressive ceremony, the Admiral’s daughter smashed a bottle of champagne over her stern as she slid gracefully down the slipway.’

In both cases, there is what might be called ‘subject-object’ confusion. In the latter example, ‘she’ could refer either to the Admiral’s daughter or to the ship (ships are frequently referred to as feminine objects). In the former, it’s not clear whether the object (the casket) is doing the ‘holding’ or the subject (Sully the dog).

To get an unambiguous sentence, we must therefore separate the subject and object.

In the case of the story of the late president, that is easily done by changing the participle form of the verb (‘holding’) into a relative clause starting with ‘that’ or ‘which’. This allows the object to have its own verb that is clearly not connected to Sully the dog:

‘After accompanying the statesman and World War II veteran in the final months of his life, Sully, the late president’s service dog, lay before the casket that held what remained of him.’

So we can change the wording to avoid embarrassment, but the question is whether we really want to. After all, it’s sometimes important to be able to laugh in the face of grief.

When is ‘a ticket’ just the ticket?

castleticket

I am always impressed by non-native speakers who take real pains to learn the ins and outs of English, and who get the details right in print and in conversation. It’s all the more frustrating, then, to come across repeat errors that seem ingrained in the culture.

Among the most common errors of Slavic speakers is the omitted article. French, German, Italian and Spanish all have a word for ‘the’, but for Czechs, Poles, Russians and others, there is no such word, so it is not uncommon to hear or read sentences such as ‘When you visit castle, you will see great historical artefacts’.

Even among sophisticated English translations, articles are regularly either omitted or incorrectly used. In the Czech Republic, the most common mistake we hear is actually an addition: ‘Visitors to the Prague Castle are kindly asked to show the ticket if requested’.

a) Prague Castle, following the rule of other such place-names (for example Windsor Castle), is already defined by its title ‘Prague’. There is only one such castle in the city, and it therefore needs no definite article. It would be like saying ‘The Queen lives in the Buckingham Palace’. Of course, if there is no title, ‘the castle’ needs to be defined: ‘We are entering the first courtyard of the castle.’

b) ‘the ticket’ is also wrong, but in this case the error can be excused. After all, not any old ticket will do – surely it must be ‘the ticket’ that allows entry to the castle? Logically yes, but in the annoying idiom of English, ‘ticket’ behaves oddly.

Consider the following. Before you buy the ticket, it is undefined – just one of many tickets, so the indefinite article is fine (or in the plural, no article at all):

‘Tickets sold here’ (not ‘the tickets’)
‘A ticket must be shown as proof of purchase’ (not ‘the ticket’)
‘You must buy a ticket to enter the cathedral’ (not ‘the ticket’)

Once purchased, however, it becomes a specific ticket – yours:

‘Do you have the ticket that you bought?’ (not ‘a ticket’)
‘I’m sorry. The parking ticket (i.e. yours) expired at 6pm’ (not ‘a ticket’)

So in the original example, we would expect ‘the’, but it’s better to use a pronoun, ‘their tickets’, or simply the plural ‘tickets’, thus: ‘Visitors to Prague Castle are kindly asked to show their tickets if requested’.

All of which goes to show what a charming, but challenging, language English is.  I take my hat off to all learners!

A note on apostrophes

stjamesspark

The much-maligned apostrophe is actually an incredibly useful punctuation mark, allowing writers and editors to distinguish in print between plurals and possessive forms of nouns in sentences that may sound identical but mean very different things:

My sister’s friend’s car = The car belonging to the (one) friend of my (one) sister
My sisters’ friend’s car = The car belonging to the (one) friend of all my sisters
My sister’s friends’ car = The car belonging jointly to the several friends of my one sister
My sisters’ friends’ car = The car belonging jointly to the several friends of all my sisters

Problems tend to arise, however, when the singular noun ends in an ‘s’, such as ‘bus’ or ‘circus’. Should one say “The circus’ clowns went on strike” or “The circus’s clowns went on strike”?

Perhaps this example will help you to decide.

There was a time when people were taught to omit the extra ‘s’ in place-names such as St James’ Park, but these days it’s quite normal to see the ending ‘s+apostrophe+s’: St James’s Park.  In fact, the revised spelling more accurately reflects the way in which the name is spoken aloud – go ahead and try it: how many /z/ sounds do you hear?

This changing usage can be seen in the illustration to this article, which shows the one remaining old Tube sign on the left alongside the new version. 

Now, over to you. Which would you choose from the following pairs?

Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations

The twelve disciples were Jesus’ closest followers
The twelve disciples were Jesus’s closest followers.

Email me at alex@englishwanted.com with your thoughts!


Image by kind permission of Katie Wignall at Lookup London