Ground rules provide basis for consistency

My first ‘real’ job was doing research in a financial publishing house, Euromoney Publications, in London. After a while checking facts and keying in figures for a database, I progressed to writing up market reports for publication to deadline.

That was where I first learned about rules or guidelines on style and grammar. Being a language graduate, I diligently applied house rules to my writing. I instinctively knew they were important for consistency, accuracy and clarity in grammar and punctuation.

I got an excellent grounding in writing skills in that first job and apply many of those principles in my writing and editing work to this day. While certain clients have particular house styles, I am generally guided by the following rules or conventions. (Naturally, I use either American or British spelling and style depending on the client, but that is a topic for a separate discussion.)

Here are some of my ground rules:

Spell out abbreviations or acronyms the first time they are mentioned. For example, use Global Business Unit the first time it’s referred to, using GBU for any subsequent references. Another example would be to use UCD only after you have spelled out University College Dublin on first reference.

Use capitals only where appropriate.
Capitalise first word of a sentence, and the first person singular, ‘I’.
Do not capitalise nouns unless they are names of specific people, places, organisations, and sometimes things (examples: ‘Mary Ryan’, ‘France’, ‘London Stock Exchange’, or the ‘Act’ – referring to an Act of Legislation).
Capitalise formal titles used before a name (for example, Prime Minister David Cameron), but use lowercase when formal titles follow a name (David Cameron, prime minister). General titles, such as taxi driver John Matthews or author Hilary Mantel, are lowercase.
Capitalise family relationships when part of the name (example: Uncle Michael) but not when referring to ‘my uncle’. Do not capitalise seasons, unless part of a proper name, e.g., ‘Summer Semester’ but ‘This summer we will spend a few weeks by the sea’.

Know the difference between which and that. Which informs, that defines. ‘This is the jumper that I knitted’ versus ‘the jumper, which I knitted, is too small’.

Avoid unattached participles. ‘Eating my lunch, the postman arrived with the post.’ What was the postman doing eating your lunch? It is much clearer to say: ‘The postman arrived as I was eating my lunch’.

Use a person’s full name and title the first time you mention him or her in an article. Thereafter, use the last name only. For example, first time, write ; Peter Browne, professor of finance’, not ‘Prof. Browne’.

Be consistent in your approach to using dates. There are many different styles and approaches to dates, but consistency within documents or publishing houses is key. For example, write 2 November 2012 and 1 March 2013 or November 2nd, 2012 and March 1st, 2013.

Spell out the numbers zero to nine; use numerals for 10 and higher. Numbers used at the beginning of a sentence are, however, spelled out. Example: Four gymnasts performed the opening act. Note, however, that if the number at start of sentence is very large, it is better to rephrase so that it doesn’t begin with a number. Example: Opening the show were 65 gymnasts from the local club. There are exceptions to this: years [for example: 2013 has been a difficult year for farmers so far] and ages less than 10 [for example: The 3-year old boy had a lucky escape, but his sister, who was 5, was badly injured.]

Spell out the word ‘percent’ but use numerals for the actual number. Examples: Unemployment remains high at 15 percent (or per cent). Nearly 40 percent of Irish adults are overweight. Headlines or table headings are an exception where % may be used.

Use figures and lowercase letters for time. Put a space between the figure and the letters for on-the-hour times (9 am, 6 pm), but no space where there are minutes (9.15am, 8.25pm). Noon and midnight are exceptions: do not use 12 noon or 12 midnight.

With thanks to my bibles The Economist Style Guide and The AP Style Guide.