Plain English and short sentences (less is more)

Unnecessary words

Probably the most frequent error is the use of words that aren’t needed. … Watch for extra prepositions, as in head up; beat up on, outside of and watch on; and superfluous nouns, as in weather conditions, bush-fire situation, development process. Pleonasms (phrases that say the same thing twice) are everywhere:

  • close proximity
  • significant landmark
  • two-way dialogue
  • vital lifeline
  • surrogate mother-figure
  • important milestone
  • personal body language
  • pre-prepared

If you have trouble spotting them, just try to imagine the implied opposite: distant proximity, for instance, or an insignificant landmark. Make every word tell. 

Source: The Editor’s Companion.

The Economist on unnecessary words

Certain words are often redundant. The leader of the so-called Front for a Free Freedonia is the leader of the Front for a Free Freedonia. A top politician or top priority is usually just a politician or a priority, and a major speech usually just a speech. A safe haven is a haven. Most probably and most especially are probably and especially. The fact that can often be shortened to That (That I did not do so was a self-indulgence). Loans to the industrial and agricultural sectors are just loans to industry and farming.

Use words with care. A heart condition is usually a bad heart. A near miss is probably a near hit. Positive thoughts (held by long-suffering creditors, according to The Economist) presumably means optimism, just as a negative report is probably a critical report. Industrial action is usually industrial inaction, industrial disruption or a strike. A courtesy call is generally a sales offer or an uninvited visit. A substantially finished bridge is an unfinished bridge. Someone with high name-recognition is well known. Something with reliability problems probably does not work. If yours is a live audience, what would a dead one be like?

In general, be concise. Try to be economical in your account or argument (‘The best way to be boring is to leave nothing out’—Voltaire). Similarly, try to be economical with words. ‘As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give to your style.’ (Sydney Smith) Raymond Mortimer put it even more crisply when commenting about Susan Sontag: ‘Her journalism, like a diamond, will sparkle more if it is cut’.

Some words add nothing but length to your prose. Use adjectives to make your meaning more precise and be cautious of those you find yourself using to make it more emphatic. The word very is a case in point. If it occurs in a sentence you have written, try leaving it out and see whether the meaning is changed. ‘The omens were good’ may have more force than ‘The omens were very good’.

Avoid strike action (strike will do), cutbacks (cuts), track record (record), wilderness area (usually either a wilderness or a wild area), large-scale (big), the policymaking process (policymaking), weather conditions (weather), etc. ‘This time around’ just means ‘This time’.

Shoot off, or rather shoot, as many prepositions after verbs as possible. Thus people can meet rather than meet with; companies can be bought and sold rather than bought up and sold off; budgets can be cut rather than cut back; plots can be hatched but not hatched up; organisations should be headed by rather than headed up by chairmen, just as markets should be freed, rather than freed up. And children can be sent to bed rather than sent off to bed—though if they are to sit up they must first sit down.

This advice you are given free, or for nothing, but not for free.

Source: The Economist Style Guide

Happy New Year! More on this topic next week.

Numbers, measurement and currencies


1–9—write out one, nine, (i.e. single-digit numbers); from then on the number 10, 11 etc.

If a mix of related numbers above and below nine appears in one sentence, use figures:

  • Unbelievably, only 2 of the 110 people on the train were injured.

Always start a sentence with a word:

  • Two out of 110 people were injured.


For dollars, you can use just the $ symbol if it’s clear that it represents the local currency, but identify all other types of dollar (e.g. CAN$). When using the code and symbol, do not leave a space between the unit and quantity (e.g. US$500).

Examples of currency formats are listed below. You can also refer to the official ISO-4217 website for currency codes for all other countries.

Country Currency Symbol Currency Code
Australia Australian dollar AU$ AUD
Canada Canadian dollar CAN$ CAD
European Union euro EUR
United Kingdom pound/sterling £ GBP
United States US dollar US$ USD 

Measurement: symbols

When a number is associated with a unit of measurement, it is normally given as a digit, for example 5 volts, 3 MB. Leave a space between the figure and unit of measurement. However, the money symbol and percent symbol are always closed up. (If a currency code is used rather than a money symbol, leave a space between it and the figure.)

  • 10 MB, 20 kg, $24, 10%, USD 342 million

Abbreviated units of measurements have no full stop and take no s in the plural.

  • 10 MB, not 10 MBs

With abbreviations, capitalisation is important, for example Mb means megabits, but MB means megabytes.

Never allow the unit and amount to be separated over a new line.

Time of day

Generally, spell out even, half and quarter hours:

  • The meeting continued until half past three.
  • I’ll be there by ten o’clock.

Use figures for when you want to emphasise the exact time:

  • 6.20 a.m. (Note that in American English a colon is used between hour and minute.)

When a 24-hour clock is required, use the following style:

  • 04:00; 12:00; 15:53