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Style Guide

For editors, writers and sub-editors


The aim of the style guide is to ensure tidy copy that is easy on the reading eye and has the clearest possible meaning.


The main elements in this guide are:






Punctuation plus a separate section on commas





Remember: stories and articles have to be sold to the reader. Aim to grab attention when writing headings.


Measurements: use imperial as a general rule, not metric (we’re leaving the EU after all . . . ) Write as: 1,200ft, 6ft 2ins etc.


One word banned by virtually all style guides is boffin. I happen to like it and find it funny, so it is OK in British Intelligence.


LAW: If you wish to write for any publication you should be familiar with the basics of media law. If you have the slightest doubt about any story, seek advice and do not publish until reassured. Always be vigilant for libellous or defamatory statements or assertions. Always consider ‘softening’, and inserting plenty of ‘it is claimed’, ‘it alleged’, ‘it was alleged’. Editors and subs’ should obtain and study McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists. Do not comment on, nor accept commentary about, ongoing trials or legal actions. Anything that may touch on such things should have public comments disabled.



Capitalisation:  too many capital letters are ugly and distracting. Capitals are often unnecessary. Try to avoid them unless to do so causes confusion or looks absurd. There will always be room for discretion and common sense, and clarity is more important than consistency, but if in doubt use lower case. Do not use capitals to indicate importance or (with some rare, specified exceptions) as a mark of respect.


The following guidance sets out some general principles.


Left, Right. ‘On the Right’; ‘On the Left’; but right-wing, left-wing, leftists.


Almost all job descriptions should be lower case. This includes all company chairmen, vice-presidents, managing directors, chief executive officers, general secretaries, ambassadors, editors, etc.


There are, however, some (not many) job descriptions that are also titles, ie that are commonly (and formally) used in conjunction with the proper name of the person holding the position in question. These take a capital when used as titles in front of the name but lower case at all other times. So, for instance, we would refer to President Trump but to Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States. We would refer to President Putin but to the Russian president’s influence on the world. We would refer to Professor Jones, but to the professor’s latest book.


In British usage political job descriptions are not generally attached to names as titles in this way. We do not refer to Prime Minister May, or to Chancellor of the Exchequer Hammond or to Foreign Secretary Johnson. These should all, therefore, be lower case at all times. Theresa May, the prime minister; Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the exchequer; Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary. Similarly the secretary of state for defence, the permanent secretary, the shadow chancellor, the cabinet secretary, the  leader of the opposition, the minister of state for policing, criminal justice and victims at the Home Office. This may seem unsettling at first, but it is clearer and more consistent than any of the other options. The Speaker is a rare exception, as clarity seems to demand a cap (a deputy speaker remains lower case, however, as there is no risk of comparable confusion); be prepared to consider similar exceptions as they arise; do not pursue consistency at the expense of clarity or common sense.


The titles of ecclesiastical dignitaries may be said to describe a position or job, but they also name an individual holder of that position (even when no surname is given), and they may be attached as titles in front of a name (as political or other job titles in British usage are not). As a courtesy, they take a capital letter when used as names (which in practice will generally be at first mention); subsequent references are lower case; in this they are treated in the same way as aristocratic titles (see below) rather than eg political jobs. This may be slightly anomalous, but it is probably what most Times readers expect, even in a secular age. So, the Archbishop of Canterbury, or Archbishop Welby, but then the archbishop; the Bishop of London, or Bishop Chartres, then the bishop; the Dean of St Paul's, or Dean Inge,  subsequently the dean; the Archdeacon of Barchester, or Archdeacon Grantly, then the archdeacon. Lower case when referring not to the individual but generally to holders of the office: future archbishops of Canterbury, the role of dean of Westminster, the first woman bishop of Gloucester etc.


Royalty etc: The Queen, exceptionally, and as a courtesy, remains the Queen (upper case) at subsequent mentions, whenever the individual monarch is intended (likewise in historical stories referring to the reigning monarch of the day). There is no need for other monarchs or for senior members of the royal family to have capitals at all times: so, treat in the same way as senior clergy or non-royal dukes: the King of Spain, then the king; the Duke of Edinburgh, then the duke; the Prince of Wales, or Prince Charles, then the prince; the Duke of Cambridge, then the duke; Prince Harry, then the prince. The courtesy of a capital at all times is also extended to the Pope, whenever the individual pontiff is intended. When referring to the position of queen or pope rather than the person, use lower case: “the Queen (or Queen Elizabeth II) has had an impressive reign, which any future queen will struggle to match”; “the Pope (or Pope Francis) is the first pope to come from Latin America”.


Aristocrats: The Duke of Wherever is thus at first mention; subsequently the duke; never Lord W.  Other aristocrats  take a capital when named in full: the Marquess of X; Viscount Y; the Earl of Z; at subsequent references all normally become Lord X, Y, Z (although the marquess, the viscount, the earl etc would be acceptable for occasional variety).  Lower case when not naming individuals: an earlier marquess of Bath,  future earls of Oxford, the seat of the dukes of Devonshire etc


Similarly with military ranks: General Jackson would usually remain General Jackson at subsequent mentions, but the general might be used if variety seems necessary. Police ranks are capped when attached to names: Chief Inspector Morse etc;  subsequently the chief inspector or Mr Morse; chief constable, like prime minister, is not generally used with a name. We don’t say Chief Constable Jones, it remains lower case: Mr Jones, the chief constable; the chief constable of Merseyside etc.


With few exceptions, such as those indicated, resist using capitals to indicate the dignity or supposed dignity of a position.


Government departments etc The names of specific government departments and other significant national or international bodies or organisations are upper case when the full name is used (the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Education, the European Commission, the Law Society, the Football Association, the Independent Press Standards Organisation) but otherwise (or subsequently) lower case: the ministry, the education department, the commission, the regulator etc. The Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury remain upper case. All committees, etc, are lower case. In local government, generally upper case only for the name of the place: Norwich city council, West Somerset rural district council planning department (if such a thing exists).


Political terms in general  government, parliament, administration and cabinet are always lower case except when used as part of an official title, such as Government House, Houses of Parliament, Her Majesty’s Government or the Cabinet Office. The opposition is likewise lower case; there is some risk of ambiguity, but context will usually make quite clear what is meant. (Her Majesty’s Opposition, like Her Majesty's Government,  would be upper case if for some reason used.) Also lower case for all references to the state (except in naming eg the US State Department): a state visit, the state opening of parliament, church and state. The word party is upper case where it it integral to the title: thus Labour Party, Conservative Party, Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). Similarly in the case of foreign parties where the equivalent word is integral to the title: Popular Party (Partido Popular of Spain), Workers’ Party, Freedom Party etc.


Terms derived from proper names:  there  are grey areas here and common sense is required.


As a general principle, with terms derived from the names of people (or peoples), the closer the connection with the proper name, the more likely it is to be upper case.  Christian values, Thatcherite Tories, Homeric epithets and Marxist academics, for instance,  all depend for their significance on the proper noun from which they derive; without knowing something of Christ, Margaret Thatcher, Homer or Karl Marx, we will not understand what is meant.   When we talk of spartan conditions, herculean tasks, gargantuan appetites and quixotic acts, however, we are using words which have become common adjectives; they denote familiar attributes, and their meaning may be understood by people who know nothing of Greek history or myth, and who have never read Rabelais or Cervantes .


 It will often be difficult to draw such a neat distinction, however.   In such cases, rather than waste time worrying over how close the connection may be between a word and the person or place to which it refers,  consider what is likely to seem  more natural to the reader.  This is an area in which our general  preference for lower case may have to be qualified.  Because we are so used to seeing them capped, the names of people and places (and the proper adjectives derived from them) tend often simply to look wrong when lower case.


God cap when referring to the deity of monotheistic religions. No need for he, his, him to take cap unless there is a risk of confusion. Where there are many gods, use lower case, as in the Greek gods (or eg the Greek god of war).


When spelling out capitalised abbreviations such as CAP (common agricultural policy) use lower case


Compass points and other terms indicating location except in proper place names, these are now generally lower case: east London, central London, west Africa, eastern Europe etc.


Punctuation  No sentence should be confusing or open to double meaning. No paragraph should need to be read twice. A sentence other than an exclamation should have a subject and a verb. The best punctuation is the full stop. Commas should usually be kept for punctuating lists and breaking up sentences to avoid confusion. They should not join sentences that are better separated by a full stop. Semi-colons are generally best confined to separating lists of phrases. Colons have a specific use, throwing meaning forward. Dashes are a bad habit, often used to pursue a line of thought that the writer cannot be bothered to construct some other way. Brevity is all.


Some important reminders:


  1. Keep commas where they should be logically in “broken” sentences. Thus, the comma goes outside in the following example: “The trouble is”, he said, “that this is a contentious issue.” Omit the comma before if, unless, before, since, when unless the rhythm or sense of the sentence demands it. Avoid the so-called Oxford comma; write “he ate bread, butter and jam” rather than “he ate bread, butter, and jam”, EXCEPT where to do so creates nonsense or confusion. There is no need to put a comma between adjectives that form a kind of unit or where the last adjective is in closer relation to the noun than the preceding one(s), eg fine dry evenings, a good little boy. See commas

  2. Dashes should not be used in place of commas. Too many dashes can be ugly and disruptive. Note that punctuation marks go inside the inverted commas if they relate to the words quoted, outside if they relate to the main sentence, eg She is going to classes in “health and beauty”. If the whole sentence is a quotation, the final point goes inside, eg “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

  3. Interrogation marks are never used with indirect questions or rhetorical questions, eg “She asked why he did not laugh.”

  4. Parentheses should be used sparingly; try to use commas instead. Use square brackets when writing words into a direct quote that were not said, but which explain context or meaning, eg “I condemn [this totalitarianism]” when a speaker has said “I condemn it”.

  5. With ellipses, use three points with full non-breaking space after last word, then thin-spacing between points, then full space before next word; for example, not only ... but also



Commas  Unnecessary commas interrupt the flow of a sentence; omit the comma before if, unless, before, after, as, since, when etc unless the rhythm or sense of the sentence demands it. Keith Waterhouse, as so often, had sound advice: “It is not the function of the comma to help a wheezing sentence get its breath back. That, however, is how the comma earns much of its living in journalism.”  If your sentence needs a comma just to stop the reader collapsing in a heap before reaching the end, you might do better to recast it as two sentences anyway.


There is often no need for a comma after an adverbial formation at the beginning of  a sentence: “Last week we were told etc”,   “Until now there has been no need etc”,  “In opposition the Lib Dems said etc”, “Minutes later the announcement was made”.


Avoid the so-called Oxford comma; write “he ate bread, butter and jam” rather than “he ate bread, butter, and jam”, except where to do so might create nonsense or  confusion:  “For lunch they had lamb with roast potatoes, and chocolate mousse.”


Commas with names and descriptions may help to indicate number. If  “he was accompanied by his brother John” suggests that he has other brothers who did not accompany him, then “he was accompanied by his brother, John” makes clear that John is the only brother he has. With brothers the distinction may seem too subtle to bother about; it is worth bearing in mind when naming someone’s wife


There is no need to put a comma between adjectives that form a kind of unit or where the last adjective is in closer relation to the noun than the preceding one(s), eg fine dry evenings, a good little boy.


Keep commas where they should be logically in “broken” sentences. Thus, the comma goes outside in the following example: “The trouble is”, he said, “that this is a contentious issue”


Italics  avoid in headlines and be as restrained as possible in their use in text. Do not use italics in captions. In text certain areas always take italics:


All works of art; thus, for titles and subtitles of books, poems, short stories, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, chapter headings, programmes on radio and television, films, plays, computer games, musical works including operas, songs, hymns, album titles etc (see musical vocabulary), paintings, drawings, sculptures, titles of exhibitions.

Uncommon, non-anglicised foreign words go in italics, but roman is to be preferred if at all possible (eg in extremis, hors d’oeuvre, angst, de rigueur).

Names of ships, aircraft, locomotives, spacecraft etc.

Take care in presenting algebraic expressions: individual terms should be in italics, and be sure that superscripts, including squares, and subscripts are properly rendered, ie with any figures in roman, eg E=mc2 (superscript figure 2 in roman). See algebra

A word may be italicised for emphasis, but be extremely sparing with this device: let good writing show the reader where the emphasis is.

British Intelligence, the publication, should be referred to in italics.



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