Won’t somebody think of the semi-colons?

The University’s new content style guide is a large resource, and it’s a living document, so it’s only going to get larger. Within it are rules and guidelines covering everything from tone of voice to correct apostrophe use, from word choice to date format. If you find a formatting, style, punctuation or spelling situation not covered by the guide, it’s probably only because we haven’t thought of it yet. It’s really, really big.

That means it would be very hard for anyone to follow every rule in the style guide all of the time, particularly when there are lots of rules that folk won’t even know they’re breaking. Over time we’ll get better and better at this, of course, but in the meantime it’s worth asking the question: what are the style guide’s main aims? What’s most important?

To try to gain some clarity on this, we in the web content team performed a little exercise, inspired by gov.uk, where we listed some of the most common errors made during content writing and ranked them as either major or minor. We’ve categorised the errors in a similar way to the style guide itself, picking out likely key mistakes. This list is representative rather than exhaustive and was originally just for our own reference, but we found it very useful in helping us to think about what we’re trying to achieve when we write or edit content. Obviously our remit is web, not all University copy, but we think these principles apply more widely too, so we thought we’d share it!

Topic Error Categorisation
Writing: accuracy Incorrect or misleading information MAJOR
Writing: contact details Out of date contact details MAJOR
Writing: active voice Excessive use of the passive voice MAJOR
Writing: walls of text Long paragraphs of text MAJOR
Writing: word economy Using waffle or not being concise MAJOR
Straightforward language Not using clear, straightforward language MAJOR
UoD terms: Schools and Centres Incorrect title of unit MAJOR
UoD terms: the University Use of ‘Dundee University’ MAJOR
UoD terms: places Incorrect use of building names MAJOR
Degrees: courses, programme, modules Terms used incorrectly MINOR
Degrees: &/and Incorrect use of ampersands in degree names MAJOR
Formatting: abbreviations and acronyms Not using full title in first reference followed by initials in brackets MAJOR
Formatting: capital letters Using capital letters to add emphasis or imply importance MINOR
Formatting: contact details Web and phone not prefixed by appropriate symbols MINOR
Formatting: dates Incorrect date format MINOR
Formatting: headings and subheadings Not using sentence case MINOR
Formatting: lists Short phrase or single word lists not using lower case; sentences using lower case MINOR
Formatting: lists Punctuation used in short phrase or single word lists MINOR
Formatting: numbers Not written in full up to and including ten MINOR
Formatting: quotations No quote marks around quotes MAJOR
Formatting: quotations Long quotes not separated, or preceded by colon MINOR
Formatting: times of day Time not expressed in 24 hour clock MINOR
Spelling Incorrect spelling MINOR
Spelling: American and British spelling British spelling not used in unique copy MINOR
Spelling: contractions Incorrect use of contractions MINOR
Punctuation: apostrophes Incorrect use of apostrophes MINOR
Punctuation: brackets and parentheses Incorrect use of parentheses or brackets MINOR
Punctuation: colons Incorrect use of colons MINOR
Punctuation: hyphens and long dashes Incorrect use of hyphens and long dashes MINOR
Punctuation: semi-colons Incorrect use of semi-colons MINOR

Our major errors can probably be split into a few different types.

  • Errors that make our content harder to read, such as:
    • walls of text
    • excessive use of the passive voice
    • using complicated language or terminology where it isn’t necessary
  • Errors that seriously erode our identity as an institution, for example:
    • referring to us as ‘Dundee University’
    • misnaming one of our Schools
  • Errors that could actually get us in legal trouble, such as:
    • not putting quote marks around quotes
    • incorrect use of ampersands in degree names (they’re not just a stylistic choice!)
  • Straight-up incorrect information, for example:
    • misnamed buildings
    • out-of-date contact information

We’ve marked as minor those mistakes that don’t significantly affect readability, don’t result in the wrong information being imparted, and don’t seriously erode the brand. Examples include:

  • spelling or punctuation errors
  • formatting lists incorrectly
  • using the 12-hour clock in times

Wat about spelling tho?

So does this mean we don’t care about spelling or punctuation any more? Not remotely! Everything we put on the web, just like print, should be proofed and word perfect, with not a single misspelling or misplaced apostrophe. That spelling and punctuation errors are mostly marked ‘minor’ does not mean that we’re going to start ignoring them!

But what’s actually important? That every inline list has a serial (‘Oxford’) comma, or that our message is clearly worded and the information we provide is correct? Which of those could make a material difference to our reputation or conversation rates? Which issue is more likely to cause our users to lose patience or trust with our web content?

Obviously myriad cumulative errors in punctuation or spelling will pile on and become major due to the reputational risk of messy, unprofessional copy. And I mean, I think I speak for most of the web content team when I confess that it actively pains me to admit that issues like missing apostrophes and rogue semi-colons are not the literal end of the world! As far as I’m concerned they are The Worst and we will not stop fixing those things.

But the simple truth is that a single misspelled word will do far less damage to our message than a ‘wall of text’ that’s difficult or frustrating to read, or a passage that comes across as remote and unfriendly, at odds with our identity as a warm, welcoming place to study and work. This should be reflected in our priorities when we approach copy editing or proofing work.

So where do we go from here?

We’ve been guilty in the past of copy-editing without question for punctuation and spelling, but too often allowing content to pass through our hands that we know could be more concise, could use more straightforward language, could be broken up or organised better on the page. As we move forward in our ambition to make Dundee’s web presence the best it can be, we are committed to improving our web content across the board. This means working more closely with our content experts, and with one another, to produce content that is consistently meeting our standards for readability, length and clarity – not merely correctly spelled and punctuated.

If you have any questions about our style guide, please email us at styleguide@dundee.ac.uk. If you want to argue about the correct use of the semi-colon you can email me personally, but you’re taking your life into your own hands.

Written by:

Morag studied dinner table trivia at the University of Edinburgh, and has been working in web design and content for over a decade. Her primary skills are interruption, digression, and convincing you that her idea was actually your idea. Her hobbies include feminism, gin, and stockpiling for Brexit.

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