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Every dialect has its own set of rules, and these slowly shift in spelling and meaning over time.  Rules can also change very quickly indeed.

Language and technology

The way we communicate and share information is, thanks to technology, a lot more agile. Some traditionalists bemoan seemingly silly things getting into the dictionary because of the internet, but I personally quite like what this says about how democratic language has become, and how lithe it can be.

Everything has rules. Everything.

Yeah. Even goats have rules.
Yeah. Even goats have rules.

Every dialect has its own rules. Even text-speak has its own rules, which is weird because it started out as a way of not making your thumbs tired, and saving valuable and expensive space. Instead of spelling things out all the way to the end, people abbreviated them, ingeniously using numbers in a phonetic way, as well as symbols to create expressions and gestures.

There is of course an overlap between the development of text speak and instant messaging on the internet, in which smiley faces are used where you can’t see one another’s faces or read the tone of each other’s voice.


Text speak is typical of what happens when a medium is constrained, and is a perfect example of how people adapt to their environment, inventing new things along the way. It is self-contained, obeys its own set of rules, and is now so extensively used that it is recognisable even when you find it in other types of media.

Snobs may tut at at text speak – all those unseemly acronyms, numbers drafted in to evoke whole syllables, symbols given new and vulgar roles in personal expression – but if you look back to the days of telegraph, you see that instant messaging in its abbreviated form is not unique to the last couple of decades at all.

The telegraph - original megalols.
The telegraph – original megalols.

In the early 20th century, Telegraph operators would get very bored and lonely sitting by themselves tapping out messages for others, and forged friendships with colleagues hundreds of miles away. Like texting or instant messaging, there were abbreviations for ease of typing and space saving, and ways of indicating their current physical state if they were laughing their arses off.

Made Up Languages

For the linguist with too much time on their hands.
Elvish: for the linguist with too much time on their hands.

Ok, so we’re probably not going to proofread a huge amount of text speak, but in creative works anything at all can pop up. Not only do writers use languages that are already there; they also make them up. A Clockwork Orange – made up. The Lord of the Rings – extensively made up, with its own alphabet. The Book of Dave – made up. All these works have one thing in common, which is the depth of the world building and the consistency of their language rules.

Beyond the fictional realms, there’s academic writing. It has its own set of rules, numerous ways to reference and lay out research, and a very specific mode of expression in which clarity is the ultimate goal.

Good academic writing – useful tips

First and foremost: BE CONSISTENT.

The costumes may change, but Batman is always Batman. Now THAT's consistency.
The costumes may change, but Batman is always Batman. Now THAT’s consistency.

Consistency is the difference between an ornate and elaborate invented language, and total bollocks. When you write an essay, one of the things most likely to make your lecturer wonder if you’ve stolen your work from somewhere else is if your tone, style, or language suddenly changes. If your writing is only just muddling along and then from nowhere you say something concise and brilliant, it’s going to look like plagiarism.

I’m fairly certain I failed an essay once because of this. It’s not that I was a plagiarist – I was in my first year of university, and still adjusting to what academic writing demanded. I didn’t know what I was doing at all, so wobbled ungracefully from poorly constructed thoughts to well-constructed ones with impressively long words, and in my confusion, couldn’t distinguish between them. My lecturer was less than impressed, especially when I tried to explain that the good bits were not stolen, but me at my most awesome.


If you’re using Harvard referencing, then know the rules absolutely inside-out before you apply them.

If you’ve chosen quantitative , qualitative, or a mix of both research methods to conduct your work, be absolutely sure you know how you’re going to lay it out. Be crystal clear about what you’re doing. Be neat, be considerate to your readers, be consistent in your methods.

If you’ve adopted a particular tone or style, if you’ve come up with a language that expresses your research clearly, be consistent in that expression. Be consistent, be consistent, be consistent.


This is another way of saying BE CONSISTENT; because rules are consistent, and hold the internal logic of language together.

If you know what your rules are, we can apply them easily when we read your work.

Scotrail journey alerts: a study in bad usability

Five simple lessons for Scotrail, and anyone providing any kind of service to anyone.

A few months ago, I moved out of the city. After brief flirtation with driving in and out, I decided to take the train. I prefer taking the train; it’s better for the world, less stressful, and I get to sit on the train and write blogs.

The downside is that trains can be delayed or cancelled, so I was pretty pleased to find out that First Scotrail offer a service to let you know about these issues ahead of time. I thought that sounded brilliant.

However, I have become progressively more frustrated with this service, and have been inspired to share some basic truths with Scotrail, and anyone else. Continue reading Scotrail journey alerts: a study in bad usability

Ending punctuation – full stops, question marks and exclamation marks

There are three different ways to end a sentence. There is a correct use for each, despite the fact that they are frequently confused.

Full stops

The full stop is used at the end of a sentence that is not a question or an exclamation.

Question marks

The question mark is used at the end of a question. This may seem obvious, but it can be misused. Make sure that the sentence is a question, and always do use a question mark when asking a question – even if it’s a heading or a title.

Continue reading Ending punctuation – full stops, question marks and exclamation marks

Full stops in quotation marks – where do they go?

If you’re using quotation marks – either for reported speech or for quoting phrases or titles – it’s important to know where to put the punctuation.

Where you put a full stop when using quotation marks depends on what you are quoting.

Quoting full sentences

If you are writing a sentence which is a full sentence, and wholly a quote, the ending punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.


“I have nothing to declare except my genius.”  This is a famous quote from Oscar Wilde

Continue reading Full stops in quotation marks – where do they go?


Lizzie Cass-Maran (photo by Chris Scott)In this area, you’ll find blog posts about aspects of grammar that trip people up, or often come up as issues in work that I’m proofing. There are also some how-to guides on dealing with the proofreading process.

Feel free to comment on any blog or ask general questions about issues you’ve always wondered about.

Editing or proofreading?

I offer both proofreading services and editing. They’re related services and people aren’t always sure of the difference.

Basically, proofreading tells you what is wrong with a document or manuscript, whereas editing will tell you how to make things even better.


Basic proofreading covers things like:

  • Spelling errors
  • Grammatical errors
  • Formatting errors
  • Very basic continuity and factual errors

If English is not your first language, it will pick up on syntax errors and iron out the language. Continue reading Editing or proofreading?

Hall of shame: Ikea finally bend space

I saw this sign on a recent trip to Ikea.

The sign claims that “These facilities are also located in the Entrance area and our Restaurant upstairs”. That’s not what they mean of course, they mean that similar facilities are located in those places.

This is an example of what you often end up with if you try and be too complicated with what you’re saying, and start diverting from using Plain English. Whoever wrote this sign is obviously trying to avoid the word ‘Toilets’. Why?

“You can also find toilets in our entrance area and near the restaurant upstairs” would make much more sense. It actually uses more words than the original, but somehow seems shorter.

These facilities are also located in the Entrance area and our Restaurant upstairs

Title case v sentence case – when should you use capital letters?

One of the issues that often comes up in people’s work is their use of initial capitals, mostly within headings. This depends on whether your document style is for title case or sentence case.

Sentence case

Sentence case means capitalising something as if it were an ordinary sentence. This means the first letter is a capital letter, as well as proper nouns, like people’s names, countries, and official job titles. Otherwise, the first letter of a word is in lower case. Continue reading Title case v sentence case – when should you use capital letters?