The Remedy of the Week: Five years time or five years' time?

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she demonstrates the use of apostrophes with time periods.

A common stumbling block for many writers is whether to use an apostrophe in phrases such as five years time/five year's time. Which is the correct usage?

An apostrophe should be used in phrases where a time period modifies a noun (e.g. notice):

two weeks' notice

a month's holiday

five years' time

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The Remedy of the Week: Farther or further?

Farther or further?

Both farther and further may be used to mean 'at, to, or by a greater distance' (Oxford English Dictionary). They are equally correct and can be used interchangeably in examples such as these:

How much further is it?

I can't walk any farther.

Mary had travelled much further than John.

The toy shop is farther away than the bakery.

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The Remedy of the Week: Comma splices

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she explains what comma splices are and how to avoid creating them.

What is a comma splice?

A comma splice (sometimes referred to as a run-on sentence) occurs when a comma is incorrectly used to link two independent clauses.

Unsure of what exactly constitutes an independent clause? Let's have a quick recap. An independent clause is one which can stand by itself as a sentence and expresses a complete thought.

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The Remedy of the Week: Dashes

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she explains the difference between hyphens, en-rules and em-rules.

Types of dash

Not to be confused with hyphens (-), there are two main types of dash which each serve distinct purposes: the en-rule (–) and the em-rule (—). Historically based on the size of a capital M, an em-rule is twice the length of an en-rule.

Punctuating sentences

While hyphens are used to link two or more words together (e.g. copy-editor) or to divide a word if it is too long to fit on a line, dashes can be used to punctuate sentences. The most common example of this is to set parenthetical matter – such as this – apart from the rest of the sentence. In this way, dashes can be used much like commas or brackets.

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The Remedy of the Week: How to use ellipses … effectively

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she discusses perhaps the most suspenseful of punctuation marks … the ellipsis.

What is an ellipsis?

An ellipsis (from the Greek elleipsis meaning 'leave out') is a set of three, usually unspaced, dots (…). As the name suggests, these dots signify that a word or words have been intentionally omitted.

When should an ellipsis be used?

There are many occasions when ellipses can come in handy. Here are some of the most common uses – and some common pitfalls to avoid!

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The Remedy of the Week: i before e except after c?

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she discusses i before e except after c and whether there are too many exceptions to prove the rule.

The 'rule'

i before e except after c is one of the most well-known spelling mnemonics, one that most people learning English encounter early on. However, it is also arguably one of the most misleading 'rules' as it has so many exceptions. So, how useful is it?

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The Remedy of the Week: Common misspellings

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she gives advice on how to avoid some common misspellings.

Everyone has those words that always trip them up. No matter how many times you use them, you always have to double-check the spelling. These words may be different for each person but there do seem to be some words that prove to be particularly troublesome for many people. Here are some of the most commonly misspelled words I come across when proofreading and some advice on how to remember the correct spellings.

accommodate

Remember that this word is long enough to accommodate both a double 'c' and a double 'm'!

recommend

However, it is recommended that you only use one 'c' in recommend.

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The Remedy of the Week: Plurals of compound nouns

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she gives advice on how to form the plurals of compound nouns.

Why is it grown-ups but runners-up? What is the plural of Poet Laureate? Why is it all so confusing? These are all questions I have asked myself while writing or proofreading. As always, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but here are some general guidelines on how to form the plurals of those pesky compound nouns.

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The Remedy of the Week: -ise or -ize?

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she explores when to use -ise and -ize endings.

Why does it matter?

One of the most common errors I come across when proofreading is inconsistency of verbs ending in -ise or -ize. If a word is spelled with the -ise ending on one line and the -ize ending a few lines later, this can look very clumsy. Inconsistency in spelling can distract the reader from the text; if they are doubting how something is written, they may begin to doubt what is written, too.

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The Remedy of the Week: Brackets (and how to use them)

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she discusses brackets and whether punctuation should appear inside or outside them.

Uses of brackets

Round brackets (or parentheses) are typically used to set apart information that is supplemental or incidental to the main thought. This information may be in the form of a word, a phrase or even a full sentence.

No matter what is inside the brackets, a sentence must still make sense if the brackets and their contents are deleted.

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The Remedy of the Week: e.g. or i.e.?

Each week proofreader Hannah Jones discusses and offers a remedy to common problems we encounter when writing. Today she demonstrates when e.g. and i.e. should be used.

The abbreviations e.g. and i.e. are often confused, leading to them being used almost interchangeably, but there is an important distinction between the two. Using them correctly ensures you are able to get your intended meaning across.

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The Remedy of the Week: Commonly Confused Words

One of the main reasons people hire proofreaders is because a spell checker can only go so far in ensuring a text is free from errors. Perhaps the most notable limitation of spell checkers is that, as long as a word is spelled correctly, it will not be queried even if it is the wrong word to use in that context. 

Today, I discuss some of the most commonly confused words I encounter when proofreading.

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The Remedy of the Week: Semicolons

The semicolon is a punctuation mark that many people feel unsure when to use. Friends tell me that they just stick one in when they feel like it, to make their writing look more interesting or more professional.

Many of us were so encouraged to employ semicolons during exams, to demonstrate our full range of punctuation prowess, that we still feel the need to liberally sprinkle them into our writing, without being entirely certain that we're using them correctly. 

So when should a semicolon be used? Are they even necessary in these times where punctuation is being used more and more sparingly?

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The Remedy of the Week: Hyphenation

To hyphenate, or not to hyphenate, that is the question

A question many of us spend far too long agonising over. At one time or another, we have all sat staring at a compound word, wondering, ‘Should I use a hyphen? Or is it all one word? Or is it two separate words?’ Even with the most common of phrases, it is difficult not to second-guess ourselves.

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Proofreading, Pedantry and Prescriptivism

Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism

When I started my BA course in Linguistics at the University of York, one of the first concepts I learned about was the difference between linguistic prescription (prescriptivism) and descriptive linguistics (descriptivism). Prescriptivists support the idea that there are certain forms of a language which are ‘correct’ and that other usages are inferior. As the name suggests, descriptivists instead seek to describe language as it is actually used. While linguistics may once have been concerned with enforcing rules and promoting a standard language, since the 20th century the focus has been much more on objectively analysing the nature of language and its usage by different communities. In short, linguists aim to describe what language is, rather than assert what language should be.

Owing to this attitude shift, those who strongly adhere to prescriptivism are now often seen as pedants or sticklers. They, in turn, may accuse descriptivists of not believing in rules at all.  In reality, people can fall anywhere along this spectrum with few taking the most extreme views.

The Role of Publishing

Traditionally, publishing – and in particular editing – is more associated with the prescriptive approach. What is a style guide, after all, but a set of standards to be followed? Some people may imagine a proofreader to be the stereotypical stickler for rules, ruthlessly correcting every split infinitive and condemning sentences which end in a preposition.

I don’t care if he is made to go quickly, or to quickly go – but go he must!
— George Bernard Shaw, after an editor tinkered with his infinitives.

In fact, the truth is a little more complicated. Of course, one of the roles of a proofreader is to provide the final quality check for a piece of writing, correcting spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors. However, far from tweaking every little detail and covering a proof in red pen, a good proofreader is much more practical and considerate, using their judgement and experience to decide when to intervene. Knowing when to leave well enough alone is just as important as understanding grammatical conventions and changes should be made only if it is necessary to aid the understanding of the reader.

It is also important to be sensitive to different styles, dialects and regional variations. When it comes to proofreading, consistency is key. As long as a stylistic choice is consistent and does not hinder the reader’s understanding, it should be retained.

My Approach

When I proofread, I try to stay in this middle ground between prescriptivism and descriptivism. While rules and conventions are important, linguistic innovation and creativity are what bring writing to life and it is important to respect both. If we are able to identify and implement those rules which ensure written language is as clear and consistent as possible, while not being constrained by them, remaining open to language’s inevitable variation and evolution, we will have done our jobs well. 

Welcome

... to my new blog! Here I will post about proofreading, writing and all things linguistic. I will also provide updates on my own proofreading business, The Remedy of Errors.

My first proper post will be up shortly. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!


Hannah Jones is a professional freelance proofreader and owner of The Remedy of Errors.

Visit her website at The Remedy of Errors. She can also be found on Twitter @remedyoferrors, Facebook and LinkedIn.