Help:Style guide/A-Z

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This article is an A-Z Style guide for the Portal Wiki.


A or an?
Use "an" before a silent H (e.g. "an hour", "an heir", "an honorable man", "an honest woman") or a vowel-type sound. Use "a" before a strong H (e.g. "a hero", "a hotel", "a historian") or a consonant-type sound. However, do not change either "a" or "an" in a direct quote if the speaker says, for example, "an historic". With abbreviations, be guided by pronunciation (e.g. "an LSE student").
Abbreviations and acronyms
If an abbreviation or acronym that readers may not immediately recognize is to be used more than once, put it in brackets at first mention, e.g. Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This saves people having to search back through the article to find the original reference.
Use common sense; however, it is not necessary to spell out well-known ones such as EU, UN, CIA, FBI, CD, NASA, etc.
Cap up single letters in such expressions as "C-list", "F-word", "the word assassin contains four S's", etc.
Do not use hyphens after adverbs ending in '-ly' (e.g. "a hotly disputed penalty", "a constantly evolving world", "genetically modified food", etc); but hyphens are needed with short and common adverbs, e.g. "ever-forgiving family", "ill-prepared report", "much-loved character", "well-founded suspicion".
'"Affect" and '"effect'" have no senses in common. As a verb, '"affect" is most commonly used in the sense of "to influence", e.g. "how smoking affects health". As a noun, "effect" means "to bring about or execute", e.g. "layoffs designed to effect savings". Thus, the sentence "These measures may affect savings" could imply that the measures may reduce savings that have already been realized, whereas the sentence "These measures may effect savings" implies that the measures will cause new savings to come about.
They indicate a missing letter or letters ("can't", "we'd") or a possessive ("David's book").
Contractions can affect the tone of an article and make it appear informal and even inelegant: "what's more" may work but "what is more" may be more appropriate.
The possessive in words and names ending in 's' normally takes an apostrophe followed by a second 's', e.g. Jones's, James's, but be guided by pronunciation and use the plural apostrophe where it helps, e.g. Mephistopheles', Waters', Hedges' rather than Mephistopheles's, Waters's, Hedges's.
Plural nouns that do not end in 's' take an apostrophe and 's' in the possessive, e.g. "children's games", "old folk's home", "people's republic", etc.
Phrases such as "butcher's knife", "collector's item", "cow's milk", "goat's cheese", "hangman's noose", "writer's cramp", etc. are treated as singular.
Use apostrophes in phrases such as "two days' time", "12 years' imprisonment", and "six weeks' holiday" – where the time period (two days) modifies a noun (time) – but not in "nine months pregnant" or "three weeks old" – where the time period is adverbial (modifying an adjective such as pregnant or old). If in doubt, test with a singular such as "one day's time" or "one month pregnant".
As or since?
"As" is causal: "I cannot check the online style guide as the connection is down".
"Since" is temporal: "Luckily, I have had the style book on my desk since it was published".
Average, mean, and median.
Although we loosely refer to the "average" in many contexts, e.g. pay, there are two useful averages worth distinguishing.
What is commonly known as the "average" is the "mean": "Everyone's wages are added up and divided by the number of wage earners". The "median" is described as "the value below which 50% of employees fall", i.e. it is the wage earned by the middle person when everyone's wages are lined up from smallest to largest. (For even numbers, there are two middle people, but you calculate the mean average of their two wages.)
The "median" is often a more useful guide than the "mean", which can be distorted by figures at one extreme or the other.


A colon should also be used (rather than a comma) to introduce a quotation: "He was an expert on punctuation", or to precede a list: "He was an expert on the following: the colon, the comma, and the full stop."
Use a colon between two sentences, or parts of sentences, where the first introduces a proposition that is resolved by the second (example: "Fowler put it like this: to deliver the goods invoiced in the preceding words").
This is an example of the tendency to use a semi-colon where only a colon will do: "Being a retired soap 'treasure' must be a bit like being in the army reserves; when a ratings war breaks out, it's time to dust off your uniform and wait by the phone."
There is a distinction between a colon and a semicolon; many writers seem to think they are interchangeable, but to make it clear they are not.
(see semicolon)
A misplaced comma can sabotage a sentence, as in this example: "Neocon economists often claim a large, black economy turbo-powers growth..." The writer was talking about an expansive black economy, not an economy that is both big and black in color. Compare the meanings of "The panda eats, shoots and leaves." versus "The panda eats shoots and leaves."
Do not overuse contractions such as "aren't", "can't", "couldn't," "hasn't", "don't", "I'm", "it's", and "there's"; while they might make a piece more colloquial or easier to read, they can be an irritant and a distraction, and make a serious article sound frivolous.


Use one word whenever possible; hyphens tend to clutter up text (particularly when the computer breaks already hyphenated words at the end of lines).
Inventions, ideas, and new concepts often begin life as two words, then become hyphenated, before finally becoming accepted as one word. Why wait? "Wire-less" and "down-stairs" were once hyphenated.
Words such as "handspring", "madhouse", and "talkshow" are all one word, as are" thinktank" (not a tank that thinks), "longlist" (not necessarily a long list), and "shortlist" (which need not be short).
Prefixes such as 'macro-', 'micro-', 'mega-', 'mini-', 'multi-', 'over-', 'super-', and 'under-' rarely need hyphens. Examples are listed separately. Follow when a word or phrase is not specifically listed in this guide.
There is no need to use hyphens with most compound adjectives, where the meaning is clear and unambiguous without, e.g. "civil rights movement", "financial services sector", "work inspection powers", etc.
Hyphens should, however, be used to form short compound adjectives (e.g. "two-tonne vessel", "stand-up comedian"," three-year deal", "19th-century artist", etc).
Also use hyphens where not using one would be ambiguous, for example, to distinguish "black-cab drivers come under attack" from "black cab-drivers come under attack".
Do not use hyphens after adverbs ending in '-ly'(e.g. "politically naive", "wholly owned")
When an adverb is also an adjective (e.g. "hard"), the hyphen is required to avoid ambiguity – it's not a "hard, pressed person", but a "hard-pressed one"; it is an "ill-prepared report", rather than an "ill, prepared one".
Use hyphens with short and common adverbs, e.g. "much-needed grammar lesson", "well-established principle of style" (however, note that in the construction "the principle of style is well established" there is no need to hyphenate).
Hammer units
Hammer units should always be written with a lowercase "u" and abbreviated as "Hu" rather than "HU".


If not
This can be ambiguous. Does "it is the most beautiful castle in France, if not the whole of Europe" mean "and maybe in the whole of Europe" or "but not in the whole of Europe"?
Into or in to?
One word if you go "into a room", but two words in such sentences as "I called in to complain", "I listened in to their conversation", and "I went in to see my friend".
It's or its
"It's" is the shortened form of "it is" or "it has", e.g. "it's a big dog"; "it's been ages since I saw her". "Its" is the possessive form of "it", e.g. "the dog is eating its bone".
Titles of works (comics, games, books, movies, music) are generally italicized and not placed in quotation marks, e.g. Team Fortress 2.


May or might?
"May" implies that the possibility remains open whereas "might" suggests that the possibility no longer remains open. "They may have played tennis, or they may have gone boating" suggests I don't know what they did; "they might have played tennis if the weather had been dry" means they didn't, because it wasn't.


No one
Not "no-one".
When used within a sentence, spell out from one to nine; integers from 10 to 999,999 thereafter use m or bn for sums of money, quantities, or inanimate objects in copy, e.g. "£10m", "5bn tonnes of coal", "30m doses of vaccine" – but million or billion for people or animals, e.g. "1 million people", "3 billion rabbits", etc; spell trillion in full at first mention, then tn; in headlines use m, bn, or tn.


If a word is too difficult to pronounce, the correct pronunciation isn't something most people know, or the word is not part of the English language, then provide the correct pronunciation. Use IPA pronunciation if the word is non-English. Use Merriam-Webster pronunciation if the word is English or is a place name. Also, where it is appropriate, provide a recording of the word being said clearly and correctly -- leave some silence at the end of a recording for those browsers and players that truncate sound files.


Quotation marks
Use double quotes at the start and end of a quoted section, with single quotes for quoted words within that section. Place full points and commas inside the quotes for a complete quoted sentence, otherwise the point comes outside, e.g.
"Anna said, 'Your style guide needs updating,' and I said, 'I agree.' "
but: "Anna said updating the guide was 'a difficult and time-consuming task'."
When beginning a quote with a sentence fragment that is followed by a full sentence, punctuate according to the final part of the quote, e.g. The minister called the allegations "blatant lies. But in a position such as mine, it is only to be expected."
For parentheses in direct quotes, use square brackets.


Re or re-?
Use 're-' (with hyphen) when followed by the vowels 'e' or 'u' (not pronounced as "yu"), e.g. "re-entry", "re-examine", "re-urge".
Use 're' (no hyphen) when followed by the vowels 'a', 'i', 'o', 'u' (pronounced as "yu"), or any consonant, e.g. "rearm", "rearrange", "reassemble", "reiterate", "reorder", "reuse", "rebuild", "reconsider".
Exceptions are "re-read" or where confusion with another word would arise, e.g. "re-cover"/"recover", "re-form"/"reform", "re-creation"/"recreation", "re-sign"/"resign".


Self-control, self-defense, self-esteem, self-respect
These are hyphenated.
Used correctly, the semicolon is a very elegant compromise between a full stop (too much) and a comma (not enough). "Some reporters were brilliant; others were less so".
Subject-verb agreement
The number of the verb should agree with the number of the subject. RED and BLU are each single companies, so associated verbs should be singular; write "RED is" or "BLU has" rather than "RED are" or "BLU have".


That or which?
"That" defines, "which" informs:
"This is the house that Jack built, but this house, which John built, is falling down".
This and that
"That was then, but this is now"; "this looks forward, that looks back"; a man showing his son and heir the lands lying in front of them says, "One day, son, all this will be yours." and then he points behind him to the house and says, "But that remains mine".


y or ie?
As a general rule '-y' is an English suffix whose function is to create an adjective (usually from a noun, e.g. "creamy"); '-ie' was originally a Scottish suffix, whose function is to add the meaning of "diminutive" (usually from a noun, e.g. "beastie").
So in most cases where there is a dispute over whether a noun takes a '-y' or an '-ie' ending, the correct answer is '-ie', e.g. "She's a girly girl, but she's no helpless girlie". Think also "scrunchie", "beanie", "nightie", "meanie",... There are exceptions ("a hippy", "an indie band"), but where specific examples are not given, use '-ie' for nouns and '-y' for adjectives.


This word has no hyphen.