Set in StoneWhile much of grammar and punctuation is set in stone, language is a living thing. Many of the ‘rules’ have come about through usage or convention, and usage and convention change all the time. There are many grey areas where there is no fixed practice, and it is enough that a given document is internally consistent.

Which means that you have some decisions to make.

In professional writing, these decisions are written down in a document known as a style guide.  The purpose is to give uniformity in the style and formatting of a document. There may already be one that you are expected to follow (it’s best to check at an early stage), or you will need to either find one, or make up your own.

Whichever way you go about it, you will have to make the following three decisions.

1. Decide which words you will capitalise

You need to decide which words are going to be capitalised. For example, electricians is not normally capitalised.

However, if an important part of your work is a comparison of the behaviour of a test group of electricians compared to a group of technicians, you might want to call them Electricians and Technicians, to distinguish them from the rest of the world’s electricians and technicians.

Make a firm decision. Whatever you decide on page 1 must still be implemented on page 150.

2. Decide which words will be hyphenated

Hyphenation is a curious phenomena. Words that are often used together eventually get hyphenated. Then, if they stick around for long enough, and are suitable candidates, they get stuck together.

So we had hyper text, which was followed by hyper-text, which is being replaced by hypertext. All this means is that for many words there is no consensus on whether there should be a hyphen or not.

If you’re not sure, look it up. You’ll probably find examples of both. Now it’s your choice. Hyper-text or hypertext. It doesn’t matter, but, as above, choose firmly. Whatever you decide on page 1 must still be implemented on page 150. Yes, I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s really important.

3. Decide on a language

I don’t mean choose between English and French, or English and German, although it may well happen that parts of your document are written in another language. I do mean choose whether you are writing in British English or American English, and set your spell-checker accordingly. You will probably be copying and pasting text from other documents. If you are re-writing the pasted text into your own words, be aware that you need to spell-check the re-write in your language, and not the language of the original.

Top Tip

Top TipBy the way, as we’re talking about spell-checking, be aware that you absolutely must not spell-check quotes. As you know, quoted text must be one hundred percent accurate. With a spell-check there is a high risk you will turn a quoted ‘specialize’ into ‘specialise’.

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October 7, 2010