Monday, February 26, 2007

A few words about words and Word

diatribe - an invective harangue - Chambers


The following are some thoughts on writing and formatting British English. Due to restrictions imposed by my employer, it assumes the use of MS Word under MS Windows. This document was mostly written some years ago, but I occasionally get irritated and feel the need to express my views on this subject. It's been cobbled together over the years, with more thought in some areas than others.

The purpose of this document is to provoke thought and debate. We may end up with a difference of opinion, but at least it will be considered, informed opinion rather than habit.

Style guide


This section is largely about matters of taste, rather than absolute rights and wrongs. Inevitably the boundaries are a bit blurred. Where there is no absolute right and wrong, any organisation ought to have a house style.

Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words is essential reading for anyone writing British English. Any employer whose business whose products include reports written in British English should buy a copy for every small office and several for every open-plan area. Better still, all staff should have a copy each.

Title Case (sic)

is an American invention. You won't find it in any UK newspaper for instance. This side of the pond, it is usually recognised that spaces are enough to allow readers to distinguish words. Gowers acknowledges that book titles should be in title case, but uses "sentence case" for chapter headings.


That's an odd one. Typographers deplore it but most books and all newspapers use justified text. It generally makes the page look neat at a distance, but can lead to very ugly text when long words appear in narrow columns. It can also lead to unsightly and distracting "rivers" of whitespace running down the page, especially if there are double spaces between sentences (see below).

Spaces between sentences

The notion of typing two spaces between sentences is a typist's superstition. There is some small argument in its favour when using monospaced fonts, because the full stop can appear detached from the preceding sentence. It has no place when using proportional fonts, but those who favour it will assume they are right because they know no better. It's a bit like the superstition against split infinitives in that respect.


Organisations should set, and their employees should conform to, standards on this. I've read a lot of views on the subject, and the consensus seems to be that large blocks of text are easier to read in serif fonts and sans-serif fonts are better for headings. However, some evidence suggests that the "easier to read" is more because it's what we're used to than because of some intrinsic quality of the font face. In any case, practically all research on this area has dealt with text on paper; on a computer screen, especially without anti-aliasing, serifs are crude and ugly. Nevertheless, we should conform to our companies' standards on this.

For emphasis and headings, italics and boldface are much easier to read than underlines and block capitals.

Common spelling and punctuation errors


If in doubt, don't. Gowers suggests using them when talking about individual letters, "mind you p's and q's". I would argue that the letters should be in quotes.


If in doubt, don't.


Authorities differ. Fowler suggests using -ize whenever possible. Gowers is more pragmatic (and possibly more relevant because it's more modern). According to Gowers, in British English, -ise is never wrong, but -ize sometimes is. Hence it's easier to use -ise, but don't criticize (sic) others unless you know they're wrong.

Using Word


Back in the early 1980s, Apple introduced the world[1] to the user-friendly drag-and-drop user interface. Corporate computer-buyers showed that they didn’t understand the most obvious economics. The price of a Macintosh out of the box was £ 1000 more than a comparable PC. The cost of training staff to use it was much less – in the medium term, the Macintosh was far cheaper than the PC. This point was beyond the myopic vision of the bean-counters.

Although it took Microsoft until 1995 to come up with an operating system anywhere near as user-friendly as Apple’s, they were quick to spot the advantages for applications, and Microsoft Office has always been easy to use. But still the bean-counters miss the obvious. The cost of training staff to use tools like Word is much less than it used to be, but it is non-zero. Pretending it is zero, and just leaving staff to get on with it, just means many more expensive hours of frustration as people reinvent the wheel, and work around Word features, because they don’t know how to make the features work for them.


This one really irritates me. It's bad enough that we reinvent the wheel with every new document, but some people reinvent the wheel with every paragraph. In a typical document, you will have a title, a hierarchy of two or three levels of heading, some body text, perhaps some bullets, and a few oddities such as references and captions. Each of these types of text should be presented in a consistent way, with a font face and size, margins, tab stops and paragraph spacing. Word provides a mechanism to define a series of styles, wherein all these features are defined. It even provides, with each document template, a series of default styles (and more factory defaults if you control-click the drop-down menu of styles). These are easily tailored to your needs (but please don't mess with your employers' templates without good reason). Please, please, PLEASE use them - they'll make your life (and mine) a lot easier.

One word of caution - I would advise against using the Normal style, because many other styles inherit its characteristics, and any changes you may make to Normal in future may have unforeseen consequences. Body Text is safer.

If anyone understands the arcane mysteries of bullets (and I would suggest bullets are only used in conjunction with styles), please explain them to me.


Word provides a mechanism for maintaining links to figures, tables and references in documents. It's not infallible, but it can save a lot of very tiresome editing.

Track changes

This is a useful way of putting comments and suggested changes into other people's draft documents.


These are useful for embedding boiler-plate text, such as the document title, as well as formatting things like page numbers. Right-click on a field (usually shaded with a grey background) and select "Toggle Field Code" to see the field codes - this is often useful when your page numbers are going screwy.

“Keep with next”

All heading styles should have this option set. Widow/orphan protection on body text is quite useful too.


File names

Windows, and Windows applications, are inconsistent in their handling of spaces in file names. To keep life simpler, it's best to avoid them, especially in folder names.

What's the singular of "miscellanea"? "Miscellaneum"?

[1] Yes, I know it was invented at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center - but they did nothing with it.

1 comment:

David McLaughlin said...

Sadly, Microsoft continue to make styles more difficult to use, thus weakening my arguments in their favour (discussed in my latest post).