English Usage in Approved Entries

4 Conversations

Most publications have their own style guides, and h2g2 is no exception. This Help Page covers our policies on grammatical and language matters. 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 may be blindingly obvious, but we've included them in an attempt to cover everything. No doubt we've forgotten some things, and we'll probably be adding to this list for as long as the English language continues to evolve.

Major Things

  • Use British-English spelling rather than American-English. However, in instances where an American author is writing on an American subject, then use of American spelling for that Entry is both sensible and acceptable. Take care that whichever spelling system you use; it should be consistent throughout the entire Entry, and does not change from one to another1.

  • In general, write your Entries in the third person. Avoid using I, my, mine and other words referring to yourself. If a reference to the author or another Researcher is really necessary, you can use the word Researcher instead2. An Approved Entry has the potential to be updated by one or more Researchers, so if an Entry is written in the first person singular and then added to by others it can appear inconsistent3.

    Entries that positively benefit from being in the first or second person, and which are unlikely to be updated by other Researchers, may be exempt from this rule. Some examples include:

    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

  • Try not to use unnecessary capital letters as this gives words unneeded significance and makes for difficult reading. On the other hand, titles and headers should be properly capitalised. 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.

  • 'Researcher', 'Editor', 'Sub-editor', 'Ace', 'Scout' (in other words titles relating to h2g2 and used as a formal title) should be capitalised, but general professions should be in lower case: 'doctors', 'journalists', 'managing directors' and so on.

  • We capitalise 'Approved Entry' and 'Entry' (as an abbreviation of either of these), as we believe all of these are worthy of uppercase status. However, use lower case when talking about entries in general eg, 'the entry of Elvis into the building was unexpected', 'the Encyclopaedia Britannica's entry on granite rocks'.

Using Footnotes

  • Footnotes are traditionally used to cite academic or literary references and quotes. However, they can also be used to add additional information such as pronunciations of words and explanations of foreign terms (see footnote two in Syktyvkar, Komi Republic, Russia)4.

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

Using footnotes can, however, cause your quips and canny explanations to be lost way down at the bottom of your Entry. Having to skip down to the bottom to read footnote after footnote can break up the flow of the Entry, so try not to use them too often. Instead, try to work the text of a footnote into the main text (perhaps in brackets).

One alternative to a footnote is a link to a suitable web page or another h2g2 Entry which explains terms better. An example is Vegemite, which links to the Entry on Marmite in the opening paragraph. Remember, though - if you want your Entry to make it into the Approved version of the site, you can only link to Approved Entries. Links to non-edited Entries will be removed during the sub-editing process.

Titles, Headers and Subheaders

You should use headers to break up your entries into chunks, thus making them more readable. We used to ask Researchers to use subheaders to further break up their entries into small sections. However, subheaders have since gone out of fashion, so please keep to using headers to break up your text.

Some basic rules first:

  • Capitalise each major word in titles and headers.

  • Don't include any punctuation, such as full stops or colons, at the end of titles or headers. Questions marks can, however, be used where appropriate.

Please don't start an Approved Entry with a header. The first part of the Entry should introduce the topic described by the title, following which you can start using headers with gusto!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


Someone on the Editorial team5 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', or 'post-reformist'. 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., eg not e.g., 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 spelled out (except for numbers used in dates, statistics in tables, weights and measurements); numbers 11 onwards should be in figures. Also use 'zero' and 'infinity'. Though numerical format works fine, numbers over a million can look much nicer if written (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 exception to the above 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. Note that we shouldn't be calling decades 'the '60s' etc, because with the new millennium this will become ambiguous sooner than we currently would think. It is acceptable, however, to say 'the 1960s and 70s' rather than insisting on 'the 1960s and 1970s'.

  • 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 hyphen with a gap on either side.

  • Times are written 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 - cafe is a good example of this). Also, names of ships should be written in italics but their prefixes ('HMS', 'USS') should not, hence 'HMS Invincible'.

    You should not use any GuideML in the title of an Entry, simply because it displays badly in some 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.

  • In the main body of an Entry, 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 encyclopaedic. Some very basic, but very important points are made in this section.

  • To an extent, parentheses (( )), semicolons (;), hyphens (-) and footnotes6 can all be used to add side notes. Try not to overuse parentheses, as the feel of the text inside them is rather under-confident. Some examples of side notes:

  • Parentheses (also commonly referred to as brackets) can be used to add side notes.

    Semicolons can be used to add side notes; however, they require more care.

    Hyphens aren't really meant to be used for side notes - dashes should be used instead - but they are still widely used in this way.

    Clicking on a footnote takes you to the bottom of the page7.

  • When writing side notes and asides, try to use 'en dashes' (using the code –) instead of hyphens. You can also use an 'en dash' in place of a hyphen in number series (see above) and in compound adjectives where neither word modifies the other (such as 'the Duckworth–Lewis method'). Bear in mind that the en dash should be used with spaces either side – like this – and that 'em dashes' should not be used.

  • Make quote marks singles (') not doubles ("), as it saves space and looks nicer8. Quotes within quotes should be double quotes, of course - and GuideML tag attributes9 always require double quotes for them to work.

  • When creating a dramatic pause mid-sentence, or when leaving a sentence hanging in the air, we use an ellipsis (...)10. 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 in brackets ([....]) 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.'

    • As one Researcher explained: 'His philosophy is "don't talk to me about life".'

  • As we've said, if a 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.' However, 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'.

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

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

  • 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'. There are, of course, exceptions, such as 'the men's cricket team'.


When describing something in terms of its biological 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 very, very 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 '21st 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 of the compound adjective: '20th-Century fashions', for example.

  • It's 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', not 'Hitch Hiker's' or 'Hitch-hiker's'. That's because Douglas said so, so there11.

  • 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, and spelled rather than spelt.

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

This page is an update of the original at A266131.

Last updated: 4 December, 2011

1This update to the Guideline is for future Entries, and not to be retrospectively applied.2An example from The Jam - The Band: 'However, Foxton's lyrics are somewhat simplistic and it's regarded by many as the band's weakest single, although this Researcher does have something of a soft spot for it.'3One of the best things about h2g2 is that it is collaborative (see Games You Can Play in the Office) 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!4This 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).5This would be the old Editorial Team, in the days when the site was run by the BBC, but the new Team agree with whoever it was.6This is a footnote.7Where you will, of course, find the side note.8Also, try to use ordinary single quotes (' and ") rather than the auto-corrected ones produced by a certain word processor (‘ and “).9Such as the HREF in <LINK HREF="http://www.h2g2.com"/>10Again, a certain word processor may try to auto-correct these, in this case to (…), so watch out.11Despite 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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