English Usage in the Edited Guide

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Every publication has a guide to the style used in that publication, and h2g2 is no exception. This document covers our policies on grammatical and language matters, and you might find it useful if you're writing entries for Peer Review, if you're a Sub-editor, or if you're simply looking to improve your writing skills.

Most of the following conventions come from generally accepted rules of printed English. Some of these rules are totally, blindingly obvious, but we've included them to try to cover everything. No doubt we've forgotten some things and we'll be adding to this list for a long time to come... but that's to be expected really, as language evolves and this is an on-going process.

Major Things

  • Use British-English spelling rather than American-English.

  • In general, write the entry in the third person. This is for a very simple reason - each entry has the potential to be updated with additional research from one or more Researchers1. If the initial entry is written in the first-person singular, and then a number of good points are added later, then having a mixture of first-person narrative and third-person would make the entry inconsistent throughout.

    However, there are exceptions to this rule, namely entries which positively benefit from being in the first or second person, and which are unlikely to be updated by other Researchers. These include personal experiences of things like diseases (such as Diabetes - A Personal View or My Experience as a Bone Marrow Donor), or entries which are solely based round the experience of the author (such as Driving from Bristol to Dresden in a Citroën DS23 EFI).

    Use your discretion with each individual entry when deciding whether to change it into the third person. Bear in mind that entries that reach the Sub-editors have already been accepted by the Scouts, so if a first-person entry does turn up to be subbed, it's probably fine. If in doubt, ask.

Using Capital Letters

  • Generally, try not to use loads and loads of capitals as this gives words unnecessary significance, which inhibits the reader a bit. You can, however, use capitals in headlines (see below), that is, where emphasis is needed. Do not use capitals for emphasis in text, use italics. So use 'He told them' rather than 'He TOLD them'.

  • Capitalise brand names like Cola-Cola, Sony, United Airlines.

  • Internet and Web should also be capitalised.

  • Also, the subject of entries doesn't need to be capitalised throughout an entry, unless it's a proper name such as Jimi Hendrix.

  • 'Researcher', 'Editor', 'Sub-editor', 'Ace', 'Scout' (in other words titles relating to the site and used almost as a name) should be capitalised, but general professions should be in lower case: 'doctors', 'journalists', 'managing directors' and so on.

  • We capitalise 'Edited Entry', 'Guide Entry' and the 'Guide', as we believe all of these are worthy of uppercase status. However, use lower case when talking about entries in general.

Using Footnotes

  • Footnotes are traditionally used to cite academic or literary references, or quotes such as in the entry on Idiot Sticks.

  • Footnotes are also useful to add in additional information, such as pronunciations or explanations of foreign terms (see footnote two in Syktyvkar, Komi Republic, Russia).

    This is exactly the sort of information which re-enforces h2g2's role as an international peacekeeper, allowing ideas to cross borders and bringing nations to a greater understanding of one another (see Trousers versus Pants and Football).

  • Footnotes are also used to great effect on h2g2 as witty asides (see Limericks, for example).

Using footnotes is, however, a slightly thorny issue because pertinent quips and canny explanations get lost way down at the bottom of an entry. That means that you end up scrolling up and down the page to read them, putting you in terrible danger of losing your place. Perhaps it's best if you don't use them too often. Instead try and work the text of a footnote into the main text (perhaps in brackets) then it will enhance the text and it reduces annoying scrolling scenarios.

One alternative to a footnote is linking to a suitable URL or another entry which explains terms better, as someone did in Vegemite, which links to Marmite in the opening paragraph. Remember, though - if you want your entry to make it into the Edited Guide, you can only link to other Edited Guide Entries. Links to non-edited entries will be removed during the subbing process.

Titles, Headers and Subheaders

Please don't start an Edited Entry with a header: having a preamble introduction is a nicer way to ease the reader into the topic. Then you can begin to use headers with gusto! If the entry is a particularly long one, and the information under the header needs to be divided again, you can use subheaders within headered sections; for a good example of how headers and subheaders are used together see The A Team.

It's best if titles are as short and simple as possible. A title such as 'Bass (Guitars, not Fish)' though humorous, can be simplified to Bass Guitars.

However, titles should also accurately describe what is in the entry. Getting Lost on the Way to Somewhere New, though long, is a precise title. Good titles lead the reader into an entry that they're expecting - please specify films, books and people thus: 'Seven Samurai' - the Film, 'To Serve Them All My Days' - the Novel and John Williams - Film Composer.

There shouldn't be any colons, full stops or anything else after titles, headers, or subheaders of any kind.

When including names with initials in titles, or anywhere else for that matter, take out the full stops and nudge single capitals together so that H. P. Lovecraft will become HP Lovecraft. Much nicer, don't you think? See also 'abbreviation' below.

Capitalise each major word in titles, headers and subheaders.

Don't forget that when you come across a compound adjective in a title, header or subheader, you should hyphenate it and assign a lowercase letter to the second word of the compound adjective, thus: Cheese and the Ever-shrinking Lunchbreak.


Someone on the Editorial team is extremely fond of hyphenation in all the right places. The compound adjective is just one of the many grammatical areas that you can use hyphens. Here are some examples:

  • 'A well-kept garden' (but 'the garden was well kept')
  • 'Quick-witted response' (but 'the response was quick witted')
  • 'Beady-eyed neighbour' (but 'the neighbour was beady eyed')
  • 'Broad-shouldered workers' (but 'the workers were broad shouldered')
  • 'Tight-lipped confidante' (but 'the confidante was tight lipped')
  • 'Madonna-like pose' (but 'the pose was like Madonna's')
  • 'Italian-style, full-bodied coffee' (but 'the coffee was Italian styled and full bodied')
  • And so on...

Hyphens should also go after prefixes, as in 'Sub-editor', 'co-operative', 'pre-1999', 'post-reformist', 'neo-classical'. Stuff like that. Words starting 're' should not be hyphenated unless the first letter after 're' is a vowel, so it's 're-use' and 're-educate' but 'remastered' and 'rekindled'.

There are loads of other hyphen rules which we won't go into here, but do be aware of using too many hyphens, as in 'an-oh-so-efficient-manner', because really long hyphenated phrases don't wrap around on the screen. Put the phrase in quotes instead, and remove the hyphens. So it would be 'alternative rock meets classical music', rather than alternative-rock-meets-classical-music.


Abbreviation points can be distracting and make the page dotty, so it's best not to overuse them even if (strictly) they should be there. Hence we use USA not U.S.A., ie not i.e., etc not etc. (though if etc is at the end of a sentence, we obviously add a full stop). Please note that 'Dr.' and 'Mr.' are never correct - 'Dr' and 'Mr' should always be used in the Edited Guide.

Numbers, Dates and Times

  • The numbers one to ten should be written out (excluding numbers used in dates, of course, statistics in tables, weights and measurements); numbers 11 onwards should be in figures. Also use 'zero' and 'infinity'. The grey area covers numbers over a million. While numerical format works fine, it's true to say that it's much nicer to look at if written as one million, two million, and then ten million, 11 million, 12 million, etc. When writing in numerical form, use commas in numbers above 999, thus two million should be written out 2,000,000. One final exception is when you're discussing units - hence 'hundreds and thousands', not '100s and 1000s'.

  • Dates should be written 'day date month, year' as in 'Monday 27 September, 1999'. Note the comma between the date and the year, and the lack of 'st', 'th' and 'rd' after the date. Also spell out the whole words for dates, don't abbreviate to 'Mon' or 'Sept', for example.

  • When referring to decades, use 1960s. Don't spell it out (nineteen-sixties) or insert any apostrophes (1960's is always wrong anyway). Note that we shouldn't be calling decades 'the '60s', because with the new millennium this will become ambiguous sooner than we currently would think.

  • When referring to an era, use BC ('Before Christ' - ie before the Western Year 1) and AD ('Anno Domini' - 'In the year of our Lord' - ie after the Western Year 1). Separate the year and the era with a space: 55 BC and 1215 AD.

  • In the case of number series such as 'in the years from 1998 to 2000' and 'Serves 4 to 6 persons', if you'd like to use hyphens to indicate the sequence, annotate the numbers like this 1998 - 2000, and 4 - 6, ie a combination of hyphens and gaps.

  • Times go like this 'I get up at 9.05am, and go to bed at 11.30pm'.

Using Italics

  • Italicise names of films, TV shows, plays, books, newspapers, magazines, titles of albums (but not singles or individual songs), poems of book length, scientific names (such as Homo sapiens) and foreign phrases (but not the ones that have been around for ages and are almost in constant use - café is a good example of this). Also, interestingly, names of ships should be written in italics.

    You should not use any GuideML in the title of an entry, simply because it displays badly in a couple of places on-site, and also affects alphabetisation. Where you would normally use italic tags in a title (eg in an entry about a film), use single quotes instead.

  • Thereafter, titles of chapters of books, newspaper articles, names of poems, names of artworks, and songs on albums should be put in single quotes, as in:

    'Fixing a hole' is one of the best tracks on The Beatles' Sgt Pepper album.

Grammar and Punctuation

This is just the beginning of something that could become encyclopedic. Some very basic, but very important points are made in this section.

  • To an extent, parentheses (( )), semicolons (;), dashes (-) and footnotes2 are interchangeable (okay, we can't do real en-dashes and em-dashes, so hyphens will have to do). Try not to over-use parentheses, as the feel of the text inside them is rather under-confident.

  • Make quote marks singles (') not doubles ("), as it saves space and looks nicer. Quotes within quotes should be double quotes, of course - and GuideML tag attributes are always double-quoted.

  • When creating a dramatic pause mid-sentence, or when leaving a sentence hanging in the air, we use an ellipsis. This is made up of three full stops. In the case of a pause mid-sentence, the full stops begin straight after the word from where the pause starts... and a space is left between the last full stop and the following word that ends the pause. If a sentence is left hanging in the air just add three full stops. The exception to this is when you're quoting from a long passage and skipping more than a few lines, in which case, four dots should be used to denote the part that you've skipped.

  • Note the positioning of full stops when using quotes. For example:

    Plastic Ono Band is known as John Lennon's 'primal scream album'.

    Here the full stop goes outside the quotes because the quote is not a full sentence in its own right. If, however, your quote is self-contained or you are in speech, then the punctuation normally goes inside the quotes, as in:

    • 'Hello,' he said. 'Fancy seeing you here.'

    • She said: 'Yes, I'm perfectly happy, thanks.'

    • As Marvin so beautifully puts it: 'Life. Don't talk to me about life.'

    • My philosophy is 'don't talk to me about life'.

  • It's = it has or it is (eg 'it's very cold')

    Its = possessive (eg 'I tied its legs')

    That's it: there's no magic in it's/its, but most people still manage to screw it up.

  • With other possessives, the usual rules apply. 'The apple has a core' becomes 'the apple's core'. With plurals, 'The apples have cores' becomes 'the apples' cores'.

  • As for closing-quote marks, it depends on the context. If the quote is a whole sentence, then the full-stop should go inside the closing quote marks, eg: 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.' Though if it's part of a sentence, it should go outside of the quote marks, eg: The opening words to A Tale of Two Cities are, 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times'.

Zoological Taxonomy

When describing something in terms of its botanical or zoological taxonomy, always do so in the following sequence:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Primates
  • Family: Hominoidea
  • Genus: Homo
  • Species: Sapiens

Note the use of italics, which is very important to taxonomers; nothing above the level of genus should be italicised. Italicising Homo sapiens is correct, but doing the same to Primates would be wrong.

Bits and Pieces

  • On h2g2, we use '-ise' spellings. '-ize' spellings are allowed when quoting from a written source that uses that form, but otherwise the '-ise' have it.

  • Explaining terms well is particularly pertinent to h2g2, bearing in mind the global nature of our community. For example, a local term or television programme such as Blue Peter might mean something to someone in the UK, but won't necessarily mean anything to anyone anywhere else. So ensure that terms are explained fully.

  • For pricing items in euros, use the Special Character Code - '€' rather than EUR.

  • Use '20th Century', where 'Century' is spelled out and has an initial capital and the number is expressed in figures. If you're discussing something from a specific century, note the hyphenation here - '20th-Century fashions', for example.

  • If an entry is about a location (like a city or county) then put the state/county and country in too, if you know it. Thus we have 'Dallas, Texas, USA' and 'Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK' as entry titles.

  • It's 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', not 'Hitch Hiker's' or 'Hitch-hiker's'. That's because Douglas said so, so there3.

  • There shouldn't be any spaces either side of slash characters - so it's 'red/green' not 'red / green'. And there shouldn't be any spaces between figures and measurements thus: 7cm not 7 cm, 47km not 47 km.

  • If you come across any rude words, take them out or *** them out unless you think the use is absolutely justified (in which case you might have to discuss this with us in the h2g2 feedback forum).

  • Please use while rather than whilst, as the latter is considered to be antiquated now.

  • Please use the word spelled rather than spelt. There was a long-running discussion about it and 'spelled' won 10 votes to 8. Besides, loads of people thought that 'spelt' was a type of wheat. Schpelled and spellted were among the other suggestions. But no, you can't use them.

  • Please notate temperatures with the entity tag ° (°) rather than writing out the word 'degrees'. So it would be 25°C. We would favour Celsius, what with it being the most modern measurement of temperature, but people still use Fahrenheit, especially if that's all that appears on the dial of their old cooker at home.

1One of the best things about the Guide is that it is collaborative (see Gnats) and ever-growing (see the Ultimate Cocktail List). Nevertheless, some entries, such as Tiddlywinks, seem to be so exhaustive that it's difficult to think of anything more to say!2This is a footnote.3Despite the fact that his own radio shows, TV shows and books were inconsistent on this matter, this is what was retroactively decided, and who are we to argue?

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