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.

Comments Off on Blog


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.

Leave a comment

Love, not Pedantry

I brought red pens for everybody!

I brought red pens for everybody!

Why do we love proofreading? A common charge levelled against proofreaders and editors is that it is nit-picking pedantry, that most annoying and unsociable of habits, which drives us. It puts us in an awkward situation, being that person who always has to be accurate. In the literary world, full as it is of bright sparks and rambling minds, proofreaders are the constant, steady hands, who always know how to spell, and are never invited to parties.

As a writer I know that no matter how good I might be at assessing others’ work, there will always be things I miss in my own. That’s why, whatever I write, I give it to another person to get a second pair of eyes on it. And that second pair of eyes always spots loads of errors. They sometimes find things that make me, the most accurate person in the room, hang my head in shame. But that’s the nature of writing – a second pair of eyes, a relationship with an editor, is pretty crucial to producing the best possible work.

hates editor

I hate my editor.

This doesn’t mean I like this process. I find myself balling up into a defensive position whenever that copy comes back, covered in comments and red marks. Even if there are only three of them and they’re all reasonable, I still feel like revolting. For roughly three seconds, I hate my editor.

What I have to remind myself of at moments like this is the reason I myself love to proofread and edit.

And it has nothing whatsoever to do with being right.

A good edit is like a manly hug.

A good edit is like a manly hug.

It’s because I really like language, the way it changes all the time, and especially the way any given individual will use it in a way that is unique to them. It’s not pedantry that drives proofreading – it’s love. Love for history, love for the possibilities for language in future, and complete certainty that nobody writes, or speaks, alone. We always need someone to talk to, and we always need a second pair of eyes.

Leave a comment

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

1 Comment

Spelt v spelled

People are often confused about the correct spelling of the past tense of the verb ‘to spell’.

As with so many of these issues, the problem seems to be one of a clash between the UK, the US, and the rest of the English-writing world, and a question of style. Continue reading

Leave a comment

Hall of shame: Brighton’s top gay

This lovely photo linked to by @jcodfishpie on Twitter, who commented that ‘Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself’ is another great example of how important is is to check the big picture. Continue reading

Leave a comment