Why every company needs a writing style guide

A style guide or “house style” is the way your company presents written communications. This includes visual elements such as layout and font type. But also, grammar and spelling, uniform ways of writing dates and words that have different spelling options, and much more.

It looks unprofessional and reflects badly on a company when clients receive emails and letters from various staff members and, bar the logo, you wouldn’t know they came from the same organisation. Because they all look different, with layout and font left to the various writers’ preferences.

What needs to be done?

The agency that designed your logo will have made recommendations how it should be used on your building signage, printed material, your website, your email signature, corporate gifts – really on anything with your logo on it.

But it doesn’t stop there. Your writing style needs to be aligned, too. Collect a sample of every type of document you send out: letters, pitches, reports, newsletters, emails, etc.

A marketing professional can then assess the best style for each document: when to use which fonts and heading styles, what line spacing should be applied, etc.

In addition, you need rules on spelling and grammar. Here are a few examples:

  • How to write and abbreviate your company’s name
  • Capitalisation of words unique to your industry or your company that would usually not be capitalised in the English language
  • The type of bullets and punctuation to be used for lists
  • Whether to write abbreviations with or without full stops
  • How to write dates and time (18h00 or 18:00 or 6 pm)
  • Which way to spell words that have alternative spelling options (judgment or judgement; focused or focussed, etc)
  • How to write numbers, when to use italics, and more…

The key is consistency

Once your house style is in place, communicate it to everyone – and make it non-negotiable. It must be used and applied to all your communications: inhouse and to clients. And that includes newsletters, brochures, and your website.

Another important issue, when it comes to writing marketing material, is your firm’s tone of voice: Your own, distinctive writing style. Of course, it may depend on your industry and target audience how formal or casual this should be.

The design elements, your house style, and your organisation’s tone of voice are all part of your corporate identity. These are important for every company, regardless of its size. Even if you’re just starting out, if you position yourself in the market from the outset with these elements in place, it’s easier to transition smoothly into becoming a bigger company.

© Andrea Paulsen

Hyphens – making a connection

A hyphen is a punctuation mark that joins words or phrases. Here are some examples of its uses:

Compound adjectives

Joining two or more words to form an adjective:

  • Door-to-door selling
  • Business-to-business marketing
  • School-going children
  • Easy-to-use recipe
  • Long-term insurance
  • Bullet-proof vest

Compound nouns

  • Editor-in-chief
  • Son-in-law
  • Get-together

Prefixes

  • Ex-wife
  • Non-executive
  • Co-worker

Ages

Hyphenate before the noun but not after:

  • A 70-year-old woman (an adjective phrase).
  • My son is three years old.

Numbers

  • Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
  • Fractions: three-quarters, two-thirds.
  • Numbers that are part of compound adjectives: 500-metre race; 40-hour working week.

To void ambiguity

The meaning of words can be different with or without a hyphen:

  • I need to recover the money my brother borrowed from me (get it back) before I can afford to re-cover my dining chairs (put on new covers).

Other

  • Hyphens are used to indicate the division of a word at the end of a line.
  • Hyphens can also indicate a missing element: medium- to long-term.

The evolution of words: Sometimes hyphenated, sometimes not

The prefix “e” stands for “electronic” in e-book, e-reader, and e-mail. But writing changes. The contemporary way to write “email” is without the hyphen.

  • Many new words transition from two words, to hyphenated, and then to one word: online, website, worldwide.
  • Sometimes they even skip the hyphenated phase: data base/database; health care/healthcare.
  • Often both options are still used: co-operation and cooperation.

When there are different spelling options, decide which one you prefer and use it consistently.

© Andrea Paulsen

Prefixes – a few letters that change everything

A prefix is a word or syllable added at the beginning of another word that changes its meaning. Some negate the original meaning, some change the word to mean the opposite, others expand on the meaning.

Here are some examples:

Prefix

Meaning

Examples
a not amoral, asymmetric
anti opposite, against anti-inflammatory, antibiotic
auto self automobile, autobiography
bi two biweekly
co together cooperation, coexist
contra against contraindicate
de reverse, undo degrade, deactivate
dis opposite of disappear, disagree, disconnect
down reduce downgrade, downshift
dys negative dysfunction
ex out, previous ex-boss
extra greater extraordinary
fore before foresight
hemi half hemisphere
hetero different heterosexual
homo same homophobia
hyper more hyperactive, hypertension
hypo less hypoglycemia
il not illegal, illogical
im lack of, not imbalance, impossible
in not, without inactive, injustice, invisible
infra below infrared
inter between interactive
intra within intracellular
ir without irregular, irreversible
mal bad malodorous
mega large, superlative megastore, megaphone
micro small microscope
mid middle midterm, midseason
mis incorrect, wrong misunderstand, misplace
mono same monotone
non not nonfiction, nonsense
over too much overcook, overdone
pan all pan-African
para beside, beyond paranormal, paramilitary
post after postoperative
pre before preassembled, preschool
pro for, before proactive
re again reconsider, re-evaluate, rewrite
self acting by itself self-cleaning
semi half semi-retired
sub below subzero, sub-Saharan Africa, submarine
super above, more supermarket
trans across, change transatlantic
ultra beyond ultraviolet, ultramarathon
un not, opposite unhappy, unkind, unusual
xeno foreign xenophobia

© Andrea Paulsen

English spelling – Why different options?

The English language spread throughout the world when the British Empire established overseas trading posts and colonies between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.

In every country the language developed in different ways. In the United States, English acquired a substantially different accent, the use of words changed, and so did the spelling. South Africa, Australia, and Canada still follow British spelling, but in each country the language is spoken with a different accent and has unique local terminology.

The major spelling differences

  South Africa and UK USA
ou / o Favour, flavour, harbour, arbour, labour, colour, humour, neighbour Favor, flavor, harbor, arbor, labor, color, humor, neighbor
s / z Preferred version: Organisation, organise, realise, apologise, recognise, analyse, paralyse

The Z-version is also used, in SA mainly in government documents.

Organization, organize, realize, apologize, recognize, analyze, paralyze
re / er Centre, theatre, metre, litre, fibre Center, theater, meter, liter, fiber
mme / m Programme, although program is also used in a computing context Program
ll / l Travelled, travelling, traveller

Counsellor

Traveled, traveling, traveler

Counselor

ae or oe / e Leukaemia, manoeuvre, oestrogen, paediatric Leukemia, maneuver, estrogen, pediatric
ogue / og Analogue, catalogue, dialogue Analog, catalog, dialog

How to get it right

The easiest way to avoid the “wrong” English spelling is to go to the MS Word menu, select Review, select Language, select Set proofing language and choose the applicable English version. It also takes care of the squiggly red lines under words that you know you’ve spelt correctly.

What to watch out for

If you quote text from a publication of another country, then it must be quoted with its original spelling.

South African spelling is still very much in line with British spelling. But there are a few words where we have options. Choose one and stick with it:

  • advisor or adviser
  • focused or focussed
  • judgment or judgement
  • enquiry or inquiry

That takes care of spelling. The use of grammar is another kettle of fish.

Grammar

Theoretically the rules of grammar are the same in every country, regardless of how they pronounce or spell words. But bad grammar is spreading rapidly.

Many people learn English by watching television. To make stories realistic, fictional characters speak the way people speak in real life – slang, bad grammar and all. Then people who watch the shows copy what they hear on TV. And the next TV series still has characters speaking the same way people do, and the cycle continues.

In books you can see the contrast between the use of language in the narrative (which should follow correct grammar rules) and that of characters. A much better way to learn a language.

Some of the bad habits that are evident in today’s spoken English are the use of adjectives instead of adverbs, plural verbs with singular nouns (see Collective nouns and verb agreement), and incorrect use pronouns (see Me, Myself and I – the personal pronoun puzzle).

© Andrea Paulsen

What’s the difference?

Similar words with different meanings

Principal

Principle

Head, main or most important person

Fundamental truth, law or standard

The principal called the student into his office and explained to him the principle of time management. 

 

Compliment

Complement

An expression of praise or admiration

Something that contributes to something else and emphasises its quality

He complimented her on her dress, telling her that the colour complemented her eyes. 

 

Loose

Lose

Not firmly fixed in place, not fitting tightly

Misplace something

If your pants are too loose you might lose them.

 

Lie

Lay

A horizontal or resting position of a person or animal

Put something down

You lie down on your bed, but you lay a book on a table.

 

Affect

Effect

Have an effect on, make a difference

A result of an action (noun)
Cause something to happen (verb)

 

Then

Than

A point in time

Use for comparison

 

Historic

Historical

Important in history

Something that happened in the past

 

Partake

Take part

Eat or drink something

Join in an activity, to participate

You take part in the Comrades Marathon and then you partake of food and drink after the race.

 

Titled

Entitled

Having a title

Having a right to something

In his book titled The advantages of being the boss, the author explains why he thinks people in leadership are entitled to certain privileges.

 

Defuse

Diffuse

Make a situation less tense or dangerous

Spread something over a wide area or among many people

 

Stationery

Stationary

Pens, paper, envelopes, and other office supplies

Not moving

 

Emphasise/emphasize

Empathise/empathize

Stress a word or phrase when speaking

Understand or share the feelings of another

 

Regards

Regard

Best wishes

View or consider something, in respect of something

Closing greeting in emails:
Kind regards

With regard to (NOT “regards”)

 

Each other

One another

A reciprocal pronoun between two people

A reciprocal pronoun between more than two people

When you address two people:
Be kind to each other.

When you address a group:
Be kind to one another.

 

Advice (noun)

Advise (verb)

Guidance, instruction, recommendation

Recommend, counsel, instruct, inform

You advise somebody by giving them advice on something.

 

Aspire

Inspire

To have hope or ambition to achieve something for oneself

To instil the desire in someone else to achieve something; (also: to breath in)

 

Wait for

Wait on

“Wait for” something or somebody means waiting for something to happen or somebody to arrive.

“Wait on” somebody means acting as a servant, ie a waiter in restaurant. You can’t “wait on” something.

 

Definitely

Definitively

Without doubt, certain, for sure

Decisively and with authority, conclusively

 

Adverse

Averse

Preventing success or development, harmful, unfavourable

Against, having a strong dislike of or opposition to something

 

Mediator

Intermediary

A mediator assists and guides parties in resolving a conflict. For example, in legal disputes.

An intermediary is a go-between who negotiates an agreement between parties. For example, in buying and selling.

Both are neutral parties acting on behalf of others.

 ©Andrea Paulsen

Collective nouns and verb agreement

A herd of elephants. A team of players. A fleet of ships. Nouns that describe a group of people, animals, or things are called collective nouns.

Collective nouns don’t get special treatment. Grammatically they are treated the same way as any other noun.

A singular noun takes a singular verb, and a plural noun takes a plural verb.
Example            

A herd of elephants was drinking at the watering hole. The herd drinks there every night.

Watch out for the noun. It’s herd, so the verbs agree with the noun in the singular. They don’t agree with elephants.

Different points of view

There is much controversy around collective nouns. In the United States collective nouns are treated as singular entities. Yet in Britain nearly all collective nouns are used with a plural verb because they refer to groups, thereby deriving their “plural status” from their meaning.

From a strictly grammatical point of view this does not make sense. Grammar stands on its own; it does not take instructions from the meaning of words.

Plus, if a noun has a plural, how then can both the singular and the plural noun have plural verbs? There are various schools of thought and much debate on this topic. Some say whether the verb should be singular or plural, depends on the usage of the collective noun. Let’s explore that.

Example: Family

The family is going on holiday. While they are at their holiday destination, the family members do different things. According to the argument “it depends on the usage”, one could say:

The family are sightseeing, lazing around the pool, and visiting friends. Which makes no sense at all, since we are referring to a collective. Separately they are no longer “the family”, but individual family members who swim, sightsee, and visit friends.

Example: Team

The team is practising before tomorrow’s game. After practice some team members go home to rest, others meet with friends, and others watch TV.

It would be ridiculous to continue using the singular collective noun and the plural verb to say: The team go home to rest, meet with friends, and watch TV.

It’s nonsensical to continue using the collective noun when the members of the family/team/board of people or the group/pack/flock of animals don’t act collectively anymore. Rather refer to them as family members, team members, board members. Or as individuals: players (team), directors (board), elephants (herd), etc.

Examples of collective nouns 

People

Animals

Things

A board of directors
A crowd of people
A panel of experts
A class of students
A team of players
A choir of singers

A flock of birds
A herd of cattle
A litter of kittens
A pack of wolves
A school of fish
A hive of bees
A pride of lions

A fleet of ships
A galaxy of stars
A bouquet of flowers
A range of mountains

© Andrea Paulsen

When do you use capital letters?

In the English language most words are written in lower case. Exceptions are names of people, places, and things. But that’s not all you need to now. There are specific rules that apply in certain circumstances.

The basic rules for capitalisation

  • Sentences start with capital letters.
  • The first pronoun “I” is always a capital I.
  • Days and months: Monday, Tuesday, January, February
  • Names and nicknames: Thabo, Susan, Little Joe
  • Cities, countries, continents, regions: Paris, South Africa, Asia, the West Coast
  • Mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, and deserts: Mount Everest, Atlantic Ocean, Nile, Lake Victoria, Namib Desert

The more complex rules

Titles

As a general rule: A title before the name is capitalised, after the name lower case.

Before a name
Minister of Education, Maria Rodriguez, said that by 2030 higher education would be free for all.

When you address someone by their title
“Will you be at the meeting, Minister?”

After a name
When you refer to titles as a description, it’s always lower case: John Smith is the managing director of ABCD Company.

Acronyms like CEO, CFO, CA, which stand for chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chartered accountant, are written in capital letters. But when you use the full words, they’re written lower case.

Other
In an event outline, on their email signature in caps:
John Smith, Chief Executive Officer, ABCD Company

Legislation and documents

  • Protection of Personal Information Act
  • Basic Conditions of Employment Act
  • Global Outlook Report 2020
  • WHO Report on Diseases in Africa

 Names of courts and other institutions

  • The Supreme Court of Appeal
  • The Constitutional Court
  • United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
  • International Monetary Fund

But when referred to in general and not by name, it’s court, tribunal, bargaining council, fund, commission, etc.

Legal documents

In legal documents words that identify parties in an agreement, or a court case, are usually written with a capital letters: Defendant, Plaintiff, Seller, Buyer, Landlord, Lessee, etc.

But this is NOT the case when you use these words in any other piece of writing. Then the standard rule of writing English words in lower case applies:

The landlord, who was also the defendant, testified in court that he had communicated to the plaintiff that he was willing to reduce the monthly rental by 50% until the leaking roof was repaired.

Headings

Sentence case
This format is in line with the way English is written and it’s easy to read:

“When to start words with capital letters”

Title case
The first and last words are capitalised plus all others in between, except articles (a, an, the), conjunctions (but, because, so, etc) and prepositions (from, of, with, to, etc):

“When to Start Words with Capital Letters”

Sometimes this is quite difficult to figure out. And I believe it looks messy.

Unique upper/lower case abbreviations

Wireless fidelity = WiFi
High fidelity = HiFi
Science fiction = SciFi

© Andrea Paulsen

Too many “whiches”

relative pronouns

I have been proofreading and editing articles written by lawyers for the past 25 years. Lawyers are very fond of long sentences. Often these contain numerous phrases starting with which.

Not only are these long sentences difficult to read and can often be split into two or three shorter ones, but many times the word which is used instead of that. They are not interchangeable – each has its place. Let me explain.

Which or that

That introduces essential information (also called a restrictive clause). Without it, the sentence doesn’t make sense.

  • Example: The house that I want to buy is in a state of disrepair. When shortened to “The house is in a state of disrepair” the context is missing. The fact that it’s the one I want to buy is the point of the sentence. Wrong would be: The house which I want to buy…

Which is used for optional information (also called a non-restrictive clause). It is added between commas and can be removed without the sentence losing its meaning.

  • Example: The house, which is in an established suburb, needs work before I can move in.
    The information about the suburb is not that relevant, so the phrase between commas could fall away.

When deciding whether to use which or that, ask yourself whether the phrase you’re adding is disposable (use: which) or essential (use: that).

Better without “which”

Although non-restrictive clauses (those with which between commas) have their place, often sentences can be split in two, making them more reader-friendly.

  • Correct use of which:
    His rude and obnoxious behaviour, which explained why he didn’t have any friends, usually brought out the worst in people.

    But even better would be doing away with the non-restrictive clause and rather tell the story in two sentences: His rude and obnoxious behaviour usually brought out the worst in people. His disagreeable nature also explained why he didn’t have any friends.

  • Correct use of which:
    A financial adviser took out a professional indemnity policy, which was meant to indemnify him against legal liability.

    Better writing: A financial adviser took out a professional indemnity policy meant to indemnify him against legal liability.

    Even better: A financial adviser took out a professional indemnity policy as protection against legal liability.

Which has its place, but often you can do without it altogether.

Who versus that

Who is used for people and that for things. Although it’s not wrong to use that for people occasionally, it makes sense to use who when possible, simply because the word that is used so often.

  • Examples:
    Marie Curie was the first woman who won a Nobel Prize.
    The SPCA is an organisation that cares for homeless animals.

In case you’re interested

Who, which and that are called relative pronouns. A relative pronoun is used to connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun.

©Andrea Paulsen

Me, myself, and I – the personal pronoun puzzle

personal pronoun puzzle

A personal pronoun is a substitute for the name of a person or object and can indicate gender, as well as singular or plural.

Person Subject Object Possessive Reflexive
1st singular I me my/mine myself
2nd singular you you your/yours yourself
3rd singular he, she, it him, her, it his, her, its himself, herself, itself
1st plural we us our/ours ourselves
2nd plural you you your/yours yourself
3rd plural they them their/theirs themselves

Subject-object confusion

The key to using the correct pronoun is whether it’s the subject or the object of a sentence.

The subject in a sentence is the person performing an action.

  • I drive to work every day.
  • I am going on holiday in December.
  • I phoned Julie yesterday and left a message on her voicemail.

The object in a sentence is the person on the receiving end of the action:

  • Julie called me back today.
  • My boss asked me to work next Saturday.
  • This must remain between you and me.

Confusion often arises when we add another person:

  • Joe and I are going on holiday. (subject)
  • My boss asked Julie and me to work next Saturday. (object)

The same principle of subject and object applies, but people often get it wrong when it involves two people. If the subject and object in a sentence aren’t clear to you, just try the sentence without the second party or just use the plural.

  • “Joe and me are ready.”
    Wrong, because you’d never say: “Me am ready”, but rather “I am ready.”
    Correct: “Joe and I are ready.”
  • “It’s between you and I.”
    Wrong, because you’d never say, “It’s between we”, but rather “It’s between us”.
    Correct: “It’s between you and me.”

Prepositions

Many people use between with the subject pronoun I.

Between, with, to, and from are prepositions. They must be followed by an indirect object pronoun, in the case of the first person, that’s me.

Reflexive pronouns

A reflexive pronoun represents the subject when that person is mentioned a second time in the same sentence. It never stands alone.

  • Example: I baked the cake myself.
  • Typical mistake:
    Q: Who was at the party last Saturday?
    Wrong: Myself and the guys from work.
    Correct: The guys from work and I.
    This is a phrase consisting solely of the subject. The full sentence would be:
    The guys from work and I [subject] were at the party [object].

The singular “they”

It always sounds clumsy to write he/she to be gender inclusive. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t talk like that. It’s much more elegant to use the singular they, and it’s gender neutral.

Instead of saying: An employee may only apply for leave once he/she has cleared the dates with his/her manager.

Rather say: An employee may only apply for leave once they have cleared the dates with their manager.

©Andrea Paulsen

It’s mine – apostrophes explained

apostrophes

Two things to remember: Apostrophes indicate either ownership or a contraction of words.

Contractions

The apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters:

  • Do not = don’t
  • Does not = doesn’t
  • Is not = isn’t
  • Cannot = can’t
  • Could have = could’ve
  • I am = I’m
  • We will = we’ll
  • They are = they’re
  • Let us = let’s

Ownership

  • Vusi’s cell phone
  • Sarah’s car
  • The children’s toys

Add an apostrophe and an S, except for plural words that already end with an S: My parents’ house

The odd one out: “its” is possessive, “it’s” stands for “it is” or “it has”.

Ownership by more than one

When two nouns possess the same entity, only the second takes an apostrophe:

  • I went to my aunt and uncle’s house yesterday.

When two nouns possess different entities, both possessives take an apostrophe:

  • My sister’s and cousin’s houses are on the same street.
  • When it’s hot, friends’ and neighbours’ children spend the day at our pool.

When words end with an S

If a word is only one syllable, use an apostrophe and an S:

  • Boss’s Day is on 16 October.

For plurals just add an apostrophe after the S: The Millers’ house is next to ours.

Follow this simple rule for the possessive: Add an extra S when you actually say it.

Sometimes singular and plural sound the same, you’ll only see the difference in writing:

  • My boy’s school is closed today. My boys’ school is closed today.

Wrong use of apostrophes

Never use an apostrophe to indicate a plural: PCs – DVDs – TVs – 1950s

©Andrea Paulsen