Remember your English: the pedantic writing guide

Stuart Pearce is an understated hero of English football. In his playing days he was to the English defence what John Terry is today. He is famous for flying the English flag in the garden of his home and shouting to his team mates as they walked out to the field of play, “Remember you’re English.” Reportedly, he also used to do this while playing for his club, even though half the team was foreign.

When I see English people using Americanisms, the pedant in me wants to shout, “Remember, you’re English.” I’m talking about capital letters on every word in titles, words with ‘s’ instead of ‘c’…

English bulldog with football

Remember your English – choosing a house style

Having a house style is important not only for brand design but also for writing consistency. If you are writing for a British market, you should use a British-English rule book. If your target English-speakers are American or international, you may want to adopt the American, or international, English.

This gets confusing in Europe. I lived in Portugal for some time, where there are far more Brits than Americans. In fact Portugal and England still hold the world’s oldest existing treaty, but much of the written English in the country follows American rules – which is understandable.

Magazines, newspapers and book publishers have house styles. They pick one dictionary as their arbiter and define how variable words should be spelled and how punctuation should be applied. Everyone writing for – certainly those sub-editing – a magazine must follow these rules.

Everyone is a publisher now

In the online world, everyone is, or can be, a publisher. Not every employee in a company writes the same way or takes the same amount of care over the written word, so it is important for a company to set rules for consistency.

Typos and spelling errors are often not noticed by readers, perhaps many who do spot these things don’t care, but many professional people pay attention to detail.

Some common editorial and spelling ‘mistakes’ to watch out for

  • Licence v license – in America, you have a driving license, but in Britain, you have a driving licence. In both countries, the verb ‘to license’ is spelled the same way.
  • Program v programme – in the UK, you only ever use program to describe software. For everything else, use programme.
  • Defence, not defense. Defense is only used in American English, although it is not originally American. Confusingly, ‘defensive’ is correct in all versions of English.
  • Dependant v dependent – Quite simply, the former is a noun and the latter is an adjective.
  • Definitely – no, it’s not definately, no matter whom you ask.
  • Affect is a verb, effect is a noun. You cannot ‘effect’ change, but you can affect a change of the effect.
  • Women is plural. Let me say this again – WOMEN. Woman is only ever one human being, not lots.
  • You practise things at a practice session. The verb has an ‘s’.
  • Other common misspellings include calendar, embarrassing, harassed, glamorous, liaise, minuscule, pastime, separate.

I could go on. I haven’t even touched on apostrophes, but you can read all about them here.


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Steve Masters

Steve (RIP) was Services Director for Vertical Leap. He started professional life as a magazine journalist, working on music magazines and women's titles before becoming a web editor in 1997, then joining MSN to work purely in online publishing. Since 1999 he has worked for and consulted to a broad range of businesses about their digital marketing.

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