The following notes have been compiled to ensure quality and consistency across our publications and communications. Seizure promotes plain English writing wherever possible. We strive for clear, concise expression that effectively conveys the message with a minimum of fuss. We use the Macquarie Dictionary and prefer Australian/UK spelling rather than US spellings. For further information about writing style, grammar, etc, please refer to the AGPS Style Manual for authors, editors and printers, sixth edition.
We hope this is a useful reference for our members and contributors. Please email someone @ seizureonline.com for suggested additions and amendments.
An accent is a mark on a letter or word that indicates pitch, stress or the quality of a vowel. Many foreign words historically accented are now familiar to English speakers and no longer take accents. However, Seizure takes a more traditional view and places accents on foreign words (mostly French) when there might be the slightest risk of confusion or mispronunciation. Here are some common examples:
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence acts. In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon. Passive constructions rely on the verb ‘to be’; they express what happens to the subject of the sentence, rather than what the subject does (as in active construction). When a verb is in the active voice, the subject of the verb is clearly identified as the one who performs the action. For example:
[active] The author spoke to the publisher.
[passive] The publisher was spoken to by the author.
Most people find the active voice easier to understand than the passive voice. However, in some circumstances – for example, in academic reports, legal documents or legislation – it is preferable to use a more formal ‘register’ and so the passive voice is appropriate.
Apostrophes do two things: they indicate a contraction of a word, or they indicate possession (belonging). Here are some examples:
- Used to indicate possession or belonging with both singular and plural nouns:
- The director’s flight to Sydney arrived late. (one director)
- The boards’ plans for future meetings were announced. (several boards)
- Don’t use apostrophes where there is no possession, but simply a plural noun:
- Both the Lees, Bruce and Katie, are friends, but they’re not part of the same family. (plural, no ownership, no apostrophe)
- Don’t use apostrophes with plural acronyms: for example, CDs not CD’s.
Lastly, be careful not to confuse the contraction of ‘it is’ (it’s) with the possessive pronoun (its).
It’s cold today. (contraction)
The dog shook its head. (pronoun)
Do not capitalise words at whim, or to emphasise a word or a phrase you consider to be important. This merely looks like shouting. If in doubt, refer to the Macquarie Dictionary. Here are some common examples of what to capitalise:
- the first person singular: ‘I’
- the first word of a sentence
- the first word when quoting direct speech: She said, ‘We are very pleased to be here’
- proper names of individuals (‘David’, ‘Jon’)
- the names of specific institutions (‘Sydney University’ – but not in ‘Today I must go to university’)
- the names of official positions (‘the President’ – but not in ‘He is the president of our club’)
- the names of languages (‘French’, ‘Italian’)
- the names of nationalities (‘Australian’)
- the names of countries (‘Africa’, ‘Canada’)
- days of the week, months, and special days of the year, but not for the seasons
- the title of a relationship if that word is taking the place of a proper name (‘This afternoon Father will pick me up from school’), but not if the relationship is simply being described (‘This afternoon my father will pick me up from school’)
- the first, last and every major word in a title (The Hound of the Baskvervilles)
- Colons are used to introduce or amplify a word, phrase or clauses. For example:
- There was only one word for the annual sales: catastrophic.
- They are also used to introduce lists, both run-on and displayed. For example:
- The author’s new book will be of interest to a wide range of people: librarians, journalists, editors, teachers.
The director’s report included:
- Lastly, colons are used to formally introducing a quotation or reported speech:
- She then quoted Churchill’s famous words: ‘This was their finest hour’.
Note: A comma is used instead of a colon if the introduction is less formal.
Commas indicate which parts of a sentence should be read together and which should be read separately. Generally speaking, use commas in the following instances:
- Between adjectives:
- It was a long, tiring meeting before any consensus was achieved.
- To avoid ambiguity:
- The student, said the teacher, was acting inappropriately. (teacher speaking)
- The student said the teacher was acting inappropriately. (student speaking)
- The student finalised her report before her computer crashed, and walked to the photocopier. (student walked to the photocopier)
- The student finalised her report before her computer crashed and walked to the photocopier. (computer walked to the photocopier)
- In lists commas are used before ‘and’ only if there might be a misreading:
- There were many expeditions, including those of Scott, Mawson, Amundsen, and Darling.
- Commas are used to bracket information:
- Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser, former prime ministers, now find they have ideas in common.
You can also use parentheses and dashes to do this. Commas allow the bracketed material to read as part of the sentence, parentheses lessen the emphasis of the words, whereas dashes emphasise the words.
Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser (former prime ministers) now find they have ideas in common.
Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser — former prime ministers — now find they have ideas in common.
Three full stops (with a space on either side) are used to indicate an omission of text or a trailing off or uncertainty in spoken speech.
In digital formats we often use full stops with non-breaking spaces between them, as they render more fluidly in unset text.
En-rules and em-rules (see also Hyphens)
Hyphens (-) are the shortest of the three dashes. En-rules (–) are longer than a dash while em-rules (—) are longer still.
En-rules (with or without a space on either side) are used in the following instances:
• Between spans of numbers and dates:
3–6 pm not 3-6 pm, and 1970–72, not 1970-72.
• In compounds where each word is in series or parallel: nouns with nouns, adjectives with adjectives:
US–UK trade relations, not US-UK trade relations.
En-rules (always with a space on either side) are used as parenthetical dashes:
Needless to say we were game – on that night, anyway – to stand up and take part in the discussion.
On a PC, en-rules and em-rules are found in the character map, or by using alt-hyphen or alt-control-hyphen.
On Macs, use option-hyphen (for an en-rule) and option-shift-hyphen (for an em-rule).
Formal and informal speech
The three levels of language we use are called ‘registers’. Formal or official documents and reports, and academic research are often written in the ‘formal’ register. Books intended for a more general audience use the middle ‘standard informal’ register, while fiction and oral histories frequently use a ‘non-standard’ register.
For most writing, the standard informal style (the middle register) is acceptable. Readers grasp more quickly something written in the middle register than that in the formal register.
Also called periods or full points, full stops are the most common form of end-of-sentence punctuation. Seizure uses a single space after a full stop at the end of a sentence. Below are a few examples of when not to use a full stop:
- Don’t use full stops in ‘eg’ and ‘ie’ or ‘etc’.
- Don’t use full stops with abbreviations (‘abbrev’)
- Don’t use full stops with contractions (‘Mr’), or acronyms (‘ANZAC’).
- Don’t use full stops after people’s initials (DM Henley) in or organisations’ names.
Hyphens (see also En–rules and Em—rules)
- Use hyphens (the shortest of the three dashes) with compound words for clarity of meaning. To be sure, check the Macquarie Dictionary for words that are hyphenated.
- Use hyphens in adjectival compounds before a noun. For example, ‘high-quality research’.
- Don’t use hyphens when the compound is modified. For example, ‘very high quality research’.
- Don’t use hyphens in adverbial compounds. For example, ‘a highly regarded minister’
Use italics sparingly and in the following instances:
- For emphasis, but be careful not to over-use.
- For newspaper, journal or book titles, films and works of art. For example, The Sydney Morning Herald, Cloudstreet, Star Wars, Blue Poles.
Titles of articles within journals, poems and TV shows take single quotation marks, and are not italicised.
Jargon (see also Words to avoid)
Call them clichés, call them jargon, call them weasel words, call them hackneyed expressions: the important thing is to recognise and avoid using these blights on the linguistic landscape. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a document for professional or academic use, or a piece of creative fiction, make elimination your mission.
Here are a few examples (there are countless more):
- a level playing field
- about face
- at the end of the day
- attention to detail
- best interests at heart
- business as usual
- can't change a leopard's spots
- centre stage
- core competency
- cutting edge
- evolutionary not revolutionary
- giving 110 per cent
- going forward
- hassle free
- I could care less
- innovate / innovative / innovator
- it’s not rocket science
- keep the train on the tracks
- last-ditch effort
- leading provider
- making your dreams a reality
- my bad
- no problem
- on a daily basis
- on the same page
- outpouring of support
- outside the box
- pushing the envelope
- quality of life
- rank and file
- real time
- run it up the flagpole and see if someone salutes it
- split second
- state of the art
- the lion’s share
- the whole nine yards
- think outside the box
- tighten our belt
- too many chiefs, not enough Indians
- under fire / siege
- unsung heroes
- wake-up call
Numbers should be written in words in narrative or descriptive contexts, but as figures in mathematical, scientific, technical or statistical contexts. Both contexts may exist in the same work. Be guided by context, commonsense and consistency. If a number is used to begin a sentence it is always spelled out.
Here are some examples:
- sums of money $10.50
- time 12.30 pm
- mass 125 g
- length 15 mm
- percentages 10 per cent (in text)
- but 10% in tables
- decimal points 0.10
- compounds a 54-year-old man
- spans of figures pp. 402–5, 410–16, 421–39 and 440–553
Note the treatment of numbers between 10 and 19 in each hundred.
Write dates as ‘20 June 2005’ not ‘June 20th, 2005’.
Use hyphens to express fractions in words. For example, one-sixth, three-quarters.
Numbers as words
Numbers under 100 are generally expressed in words in fiction, narrative or descriptive texts. For example:
This was one report that would never be read by the public.
Numbers above 10 are generally written as figures unless they are approximations (or in narrative or descriptive texts).
When two sets of numbers follow each other, separate them by a comma. For example:
In 2002, 20 extra pairs of hands will be required to help make the sandwiches.
Use commas to separate number as follows:
$100,000 (text and/or table)
$1,000 (table) but $1000 (text)
To write in ‘plain English’ is to write in a manner that is easily understood by your target audience and is appropriate to their reading skills and knowledge. Wikipedia defines plain English as a style of communication that emphasises clarity, brevity and the avoidance of technical language; that is clear and direct, free of cliché and unnecessary jargon. Mastering plain English takes time and effort. In summary, avoid the following wherever possible:
- jargon your readers won’t understand
- repetition (or use it subtly to reinforce understanding)
- empty expressions (‘because’, not ‘as a result of’)
- old-fashioned words, unless they are appropriate (‘announce’ not ‘promulgate’)
- trendy words that date (‘level playing field’)
- words from other languages (unless you’re sure your readers will understand)
- abstract words (especially ‘-ism’ words unless you are certain your readers will get your meaning)
- tautology (‘recur’ not ‘recur again’)
- double negatives (‘not unconvinced’)
Seizure prefers ‘single’ quotation for speech, titles of articles within journals, poems and TV shows marks, and “double” quotation marks for a quote within a quote. For example:
‘Don’t tell me to “act my age” ever again!’
Use the following simple rule to determine whether a closing quote mark should be placed inside or outside the full stop:
If the whole sentence is a quotation, place the closing quote mark outside the full stop.
If any part of the sentence is not quoted matter, place the closing quote mark inside the full stop.
Semicolons are used to separate clauses when a stronger break than a comma is required, but the parts are too closely related to be broken into separate sentences. For example:
The artists in outback Australia work in a different space and light; they do things differently there.
Semicolons are also used in parallel clauses with no connecting conjunction (‘and’, ‘but’. For example:
To be a designer is difficult; to have design ideas is easy.
And they are used to avoid misreading phrases or clauses already containing commas:
The practice of writing is a skill, not an art; a vocation, not a trade.
For a fun explanation of the semicolon, please see The Oatmeal.
Seizure uses the Macquarie Dictionary and prefers the Australian/UK English spellings not US spellings. Some common spellings include:
- ‘-ise’ not ‘-ize’ for example ‘capitalise’ not ‘capitalize’
- ‘colour’ not ‘color’ as well as other ‘-our’ words in English
- learnt; earnt; burnt, etc
Commonly misspelled words to watch out for include:
Square brackets are used to show an insertion when quoting someone else’s words, for example: 'The new report was well received [emphasis added] by the team.'
You can also use them around the word ‘sic’ to draw attention to the fact that something was cited in a possibly incorrect way in the original version. For example: The Prime Minister claimed no child would be loving [sic] in poverty by 2000.
Structure and writing style
The best way to ensure your message is clearly understood is to match your writing to your audience. Before you begin, consider the following:
- your structure
- your length
- your argument (or inclusion of the appropriate information)
- your language (appropriate for the topic and reader).
Good planning will enable you to make the best choices, whatever the size, shape or complexity of your particular work. Always carefully consider:
- your schedule
- your readership
- what you want/need your readers to know
- what your readers already know
- your readers’ needs and expectations
- the form of transmission (print or electronic)
- what you’d like to happen as a result of people reading your work.
If in any doubt about the audience for your work, talk to your Seizure editor.
Some words have entered common usage in an abbreviated or truncated form; these are often words that are abbreviated by omitting the first part of the word. In these cases, no apostrophe is needed to indicate the missing portions of the words. For example:
- bus, not ’bus (bus is a truncation of ‘omnibus’)
- phone, not ’phone (phone is a truncation of telephone)
Words to avoid (see also Jargon)
Along with dreaded jargon, the following short but ever-growing list includes words that are overused, boring and tired and have in most instances have lost their meaning. The English language is rich with possibility and it is our (and your) job to take advantage of this. Your readers will thank you.
If you have any questions about language or style, or anything raised in this guide, just ask someone @ seizureonline.com.