Writing Conventions

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/Plain language - what do we mean... where / when appropriate /

Editorial Style Guide Project: Writing Conventions Text


An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase. Usually, an abbreviation is a group of letters taken from the word or phrase.

Example: the abbreviation for abbreviation is abbr., abbrv., or abbrev.

An acronym, a type of abbreviation, is derived from the initial letters of a compound term, which is read as a single word.

Example: NATO or UNICEF

An initialism, another form of abbreviation, refers to terms read as a series of letters.

Example: BBC, ATM, DNA

When to use abbreviations

Use an abbreviation in the following situations:

  • When space is limited, for example, in a figure description
  • When an abbreviation is more immediately recognizable, for example modem, NAFTA, HIV.
  • Only in contexts where they are clear to the reader
  • Only when necessary, since an overuse of abbreviations can inhibit understanding and clarity
  • Only when the term that you want to abbreviate appears at least more than twice in a module


  • Expand all abbreviations and acronyms at their first use within a module (or in a paper or chapter), except for commonly known standard abbreviations such as laser or modem. After this expanded name, enclose the acronym or abbreviation within parenthesis marks. The next time you want to refer to the acronym or abbreviation in the same chapter, you can use the acronym by itself.
  • Spell out a unit of measure the first time you use it in a module (or in a paper or chapter), followed by its abbreviation in parentheses. After its first use, use the abbreviation in text as well as in figures and tables.


Use a lowercase font to expand an acronym, unless it is a proper noun or product name.

Example: use severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and International Business Machines (IBM).

Write abbreviations of words and units of measurement in a lowercase font, except those derived from a proper name.

Example: use 6 ft and 200 Hz.


Add a lowercase “s” to an abbreviation or acronym to make it plural. If an acronym is already plural, do not add an “s.” Do not put an apostrophe before the final “s” in a plural acronym or initialism.

Example: use central processing units (CPUs) and bachelors of business administration (BBAs).


Do not use periods in an abbreviation unless the term is an official or registered abbreviation that contains them.

Example: use a.m., p.m., B.A.

If a reader might confuse an abbreviation with another word, use a period after an abbreviation.

Example: use no. for number and in. for inch

Use periods in abbreviations of titles.

Example: Mr., Mrs., Dr.

Never use periods with metric abbreviations.

Example: cm, m, km, L

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary uses periods with imperial abbreviations.

Example: lb., in., qt., yd.

Latin terms [move to somewhere else]

Italicize Latin terms when spelled in full. Spell out Latin terms on the first instance in a document. Do not italicize Latin abbreviations. Restrict use of Latin, if possible, by substituting with a commonly used word or phrase. Et cetera and etc.

Italicize abbreviations

Set common abbreviations in the font that you are using. Italicize abbreviations only if they stand for a term that would be italicized if spelled out—for example, a title of a book or journal. Do not italicize Latin abbreviations. (See also Latin Terms.)

Example: Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD); Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA); ibid., etc., e.g., i.e.
Note: Parentheses are not in italics.

Articles (a, an, the) preceding an abbreviation

When an abbreviation follows an indefinite article, choose a or an depending on the way the abbreviation sounds when read aloud.

Example: an HMO, a UFO, a NATO member, an NBA coach, an HIV test, an MS symptom (a symptom of multiple sclerosis), a MS (would be read as “a manuscript by…”)

Acronyms are read as words and, except when used adjectivally, are rarely preceded by a, an, or the.

Example: member nations of NATO

Initialisms are read as a series of letters and often are preceded by an article.

Example: member nations of the EU

Page / table / textual / References to non-OL materials [Revisit this …]

In course documents / text, use page or pages, rather than p. or pp. In parenthetical references and reference lists, these abbreviations are acceptable.

Spell out the textual reference in full, rather than using an abbreviated form.

Example: page not p., figure not fig.

Active Voice

Use the active voice whenever possible, unless genre conventions specifically require the passive voice. Eliminate the passive voice whenever possible by replacing passive verbs with active verbs, converting nouns to verbs, and identifying the subject. Put the subject in front of the verb.

In the active voice, the subject of the sentence acts; in the passive voice, the subject is acted upon. In other words, in the active voice, the subject performs an action, and in the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb.

In the passive voice, the agent of the action often comes at the end of the sentence, or the agent is minimized, unnamed, or unknown. When you do not identify the agent performing the action, the meaning of the sentence is often ambiguous.

Example of passive voice: The environmental damage was caused by the negligent oil company.
Example of active voice: The negligent oil company caused the environmental damage.

Passive Voice

(See Active Voice)

New material added from this point forward.


Anthropomorphism attributes human qualities (or characteristics assumed to belong only to humans) to inanimate objects, non-living things, or abstract concepts such as organizations and governments.

Avoid anthropomorphism whenever possible by not using the possessive case with inanimate objects, non-living things, or abstract concepts, since this construction implies that they can possess something.

Example of anthropomorphism: The financial market’s impact on the 2008 recession was wide and deep.
Correct version: The 2008 recession was widely and deeply impacted by the financial market.

An exception to this guideline is the use of anthropomorphism as a literary device, for example, in fables or mythological traditions. Also, some philosophical strands of the environmental movement consider the Earth or Gia to be a living biological interdependent organism.

In addition, animism is a set of beliefs that animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains and rivers, and other entities of the natural environment are conscious, spiritual beings, and that the physical and spiritual world are not separate dimensions. On the other hand, when someone assumes that only humans possess certain traits, this assumption is called anthropocentrism, which is a conscious or unconscious belief in human exceptionalism. For example, in The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin dismissed the idea of human exceptionalism by arguing that humans differ “only in degree, and not kind” from other living organisms.


The possessive form of most singular common nouns and some pronouns is formed by adding an apostrophe followed by an s; in addition, an apostrophe followed by an s also is used to indicate the contraction of two words.

Examples: the horse’s mouth, children’s literature, anyone’s guess, haven’t, it’s

Use an apostrophe followed by an s to indicate the possessive form of singular proper nouns, even if they end in s, x, or z. Also, this general guideline applies to letter and numbers.

Examples: Toronto’s lakefront, London’s Big Ben, Dickens’s novels, Marx’s economic theories, Robbie Burns’s poems, 1999’s worst storm, ABC’s of finance

Some exceptions

When a singular form of a noun that ends in s looks like a plural, and the plural form is the same as the singular, create the possessive of both the singular and plural by adding an apostrophe only.

the species’ first emergence
politics’ best function

If this appears ambiguous, use of to avoid the possessive.

the government of the United States rather than the United States’ government

(this use also has the added advantage of not being an anthropomorphic construction)

Appropriate Language

Gender bias

Gender-related bias privileges either the masculine or feminine gender when referring to both genders. When referring to both genders, the ideal is to use gender-neutral language. Editors and writers can achieve this ideal, but it takes thought and hard work.

Do not use either he or she to represent both genders. When possible, within the bounds of clarity and making sense, use the plural pronoun rather than a singular gender-specific pronoun.

Incorrect: The student logs on using his or her password.
Correct: The student logs on using their password.
Incorrect: Complete your initial draft after you enter her comments.
Correct: Complete your initial draft after you enter the editor’s comments.
Incorrect: man-hours
Correct: work hours
Incorrect: workman
Correct: worker
Incorrect: manpower
Correct: staff, human resources

Jargon and colloquialisms

Avoid jargon and idiomatic or colloquial expressions. Jargon is the language used by people who work in a particular discipline or area, or who share a common interest. Since members of these groups use jargon as a kind of short-hand to express frequently discussed ideas in their area, it often becomes a barrier to communication for those not familiar with the ideas and language of these groups.

Colloquialisms are words, phrases, or paralanguage employed in conversational or informal language, but should not be used in formal speech or formal writing. Colloquialisms often have a regional specificity.

Examples of words: cool, y’all, wanna
Examples of phrases: dead as a doornail (instead of deceased), raining cats and dogs (instead of a downpour)
Examples of paralanguage: Usually, paralanguage is crucial to a work of written fiction and can be used in the following ways:
1) tags: for example “he hissed,” “she whispered”;
2) descriptions of all the things that people do with their bodies: laughing, sighing, sneezing, frowning, rolling their eyes, touching their face at various places, hand gestures, and so on.

In the following list of items to be included in the Style Guide, those highlighted in yellow were added during our editorial meeting to discuss the style guide on Aug 1, 2012.

  • Appropriate language
  • Articles
  • Bold text
  • Capitalization
  • Captions
  • Colon
  • Colloquialisms, idioms, non-standard English, slang
  • Comma
  • Concision
  • Contractions
  • Copyright notices
  • Dashes
  • Dates
  • Determiners
  • Direct address
  • Ellipsis
  • Figures and figure captions
  • Footnotes
  • Foreign terms
  • Gerunds
  • Headings
  • Hyperlinks
  • Hyphen
  • Italics
  • Lists
  • Latin terms (use sparingly)
  • Measurement conventions
  • Miscellaneous
  • Numbering
  • Parallelism
  • Parenthesis, brackets, and braces
  • Passive voice (see anthropomorphism for situations when passive voice is acceptable)
  • Per cent or %
  • Pet peeves
  • Plain English
  • Plurals
  • Positive statements
  • Precision
  • Procedures [click (v.), not click on]
  • Pronouns
  • Quotation marks
  • References
  • Repetition (Wordiness, concise instructions ??)
  • Semicolon
  • Slash
  • Spelling
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Subordinate sentence structure
  • Tables
  • That and which
  • URLs
  • User interface terminology and style
  • Verb tense
  • Word choice
  • Would and will (added since Aug meeting)

Note: Also write a procedure about how to use the comment tools in Acrobat Pro and Acrobat Reader.