Style Guide for Members

This style guide covers form, composition, punctuation, and word usage. These constitute only a part of copy editing—you will also have to cut (or build) the article to an appropriate length (usually 2,000 to 2,500 words); organize and structure the article so that it is coherent and understandable; and, generally, ensure that the article contains clear, evocative, and good writing. The goal is to present important human rights issues as compellingly as we can; so, without disrespecting the hard work and thought the author put into her article, and without stealing her voice, you should do your best to make the article into its best.

I know you don’t really want to read through six pages of copy editing guidelines, but, really, please just take a look. I think that having all of this on paper makes the whole process easier on all of us. First, it puts us on the same page. Also, you can basically use this as a checklist—take a glance at these guidelines after you edited your article just to make sure you remembered to look for all of the important stuff. Clearly, this list isn’t comprehensive. And, anyway, I trust you all to do excellent edits without my overbearing style guide. But this might help, and, if you don’t, Julie will eat your firstborn children.

Seriously, take 10 minutes and just make sure this is all in the back of your mind.

The following resources might be helpful:

The Elements of Style by Strunk & White

The Oxford English Dictionary

The Economist Style Guide

Make sure to check the Six Degrees style guide first, though, because there are differences.


ACRONYMS: Use periods for initialisms, don’t use periods for acronyms (e.g., U.S., U.N., NATO, UNICEF)—i.e., if the initials are unpronounceable (e.g., K.G.B.) use periods; defer to common usage if periods or their absence looks odd; be sure to spell out the first use of an acronym or initialism; try to use U.S. and U.N. only as adjectives (e.g., a U.S.-led peacekeeping mission vs. the United States led a peacekeeping mission)

DASHES: Leave no space on either side of em dashes (e.g., I admit I overuse dashes—they’re oddly fulfilling.)

FOREIGN WORDS: For foreign (i.e., non-English) words, italicize the first instance of the word only, and do not italicize commonly used words (e.g., before you had these guidelines, you would have had to make ad hoc decisions about italicizing words like maquiladoras, gacaca, and laissez faire.)

E-EXPRESSIONS: Use the following forms: Internet, website, webpage, e-mail, online.

ITALICS: Italicize and capitalize the initials of the titles of long literary works and publications (e.g., Six Degrees); put shorter works such as essays or articles in quotation marks (e.g., “Voodoo, Violence, and Politics in Haiti”); underline the titles of books

LISTS: In any list of three or more items, put a comma after every item except the last (e.g., many misguided publications don’t follow this sensible rule, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Stanford Daily.)


➢ Spell out number below 10; use numerals for numbers 10 and above
➢ Always spell out a number at the beginning of a sentence (if it looks odd, rewrite the sentence without the number at the beginning)
➢ Very large, round numbers should be spelled out (e.g., one billion not 1,000,000,000)
➢ Avoid switching standards mid-sentence (e.g., avoid pages 48, 75, 92, and one hundred)
➢ Use numerals for dates (e.g., November 1, 2005)
➢ Only mix spelling and numerals for large, non-round numbers (e.g., 8.75 million)
➢ Use numerals for anything that is difficult to spell out (e.g., 16/17 not sixteen seventeenths) but not for simple fractions (e.g., two thirds)
➢ For percentages, spell out percent after the number
➢ Spell out ordinal numbers (e.g., first, twentieth) unless there are three or more words (e.g., 225th)
➢ Put commas behind the thousands place in a numeral (e.g., 1,000 or 375,000)

➢ Ellipses (…) used to indicate missing words in a quotation should not have brackets around them and should have a single space on either side (e.g., Robert Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation … It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped.”)
➢ Capitalize the first letter of the first word of a quotation if it stands alone as an independent clause
➢ Use brackets around necessary insertions into or alterations to a quotation
➢ If a quotation has a spelling or grammatical error, insert [sic] after the mistake (e.g., “Grammer is the foundation of civilization” becomes “Grammer [sic] is the foundation of civilization”)

SPACES: Leave two spaces after the end of every sentence (e.g., in the past, I’ve had to scroll through reams of articles adding spaces after periods. It made me hate my life.)

TITLES: Capitalize the initials of a title only if it is directly before a name (e.g., President Bush, but George Bush, president of the United States)


➢ The active voice is often more direct and persuasive (e.g., human rights must always be respected by us vs. we must always respect human rights).
➢ The passive voice introduces the danger of being indefinite, leaving out vital information (e.g., to make the prior example more concise, one could write: human rights must always be respected—but who must respect human rights?).
➢ Of course, there are times when the passive voice reads more naturally or places needed emphasis on the object. In general, though, write in the active voice and be wary of the passive voice when editing.

• Put statements in POSITIVE FORM
➢ Use the word not as a means of denial or antithesis, never as a means of evasion (e.g., dishonest rather than not honest; forgot rather than did not remember; ignored rather than did not pay any attention to)
➢ Placing negative and positive in opposition makes for a stronger structure (e.g., “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”).
➢ Save the auxiliaries would, could, should, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty

➢ When who introduces a subordinate clause, its case depends on its function in that clause (e.g., Bush is the candidate who I thought would win, but he is not the candidate for whom I voted).
➢ Avoid “understood” verbs by supplying them (e.g., Kate is fare more sensitive to the frigidness of Storke than I am.)
➢ Use the simple pronoun as a subject (e.g., Hambone and I… not Hambone and myself…)
➢ Gerunds (which take the form of nouns) usually require the possessive case (e.g., I have little sympathy for Kate’s complaining about Storke).
➢ On the other hand, a present participle (also with an –ing ending) as a verbal takes the objective case (e.g., we watched Kate shivering but no one offered the poor girl a sweatshirt).

➢ Avoid inserting an adverb between to and the infinitive unless you intend to place unusual stress on the adverb (e.g., write to inquire diligently not to diligently inquire)

➢ Be careful to make sure that the number of the subject determines the number of the verb, even when they are far apart
➢ Don’t use the singular verb after a relative clause like “one of…” when the relative is the subject (e.g., one of the men who are… not one of the men who is…)
➢ Use the singular verb forms after each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, and someone
➢ Use the singular verb form after none when it means “no one” or “not one”; use a plural verb when it suggests more than one thing or person (e.g., none are so foolish as those who write copy editing guidelines instead of studying for a midterm.)
➢ Use a singular verb for a singular subject even if other nouns are connected to it by with, as well as, in addition to, except, together with, or less than


➢ Don’t use apostrophes to make abbreviations plural (e.g., SATs not SAT’s), except in cases when having no apostrophe is confusing (e.g., my name is spelled with two A’s.)
➢ When referring to decades, do not use an apostrophe (e.g., 1990s not 1990’s)
➢ Never use apostrophes as quotation marks unless needed to identify a quotation within a quotation

➢ Use a colon to do the following: introduce a list; pause and explain; give an example
➢ Don’t capitalize the first letter of the word following a colon unless it starts an independent clause beginning a series of complete sentences or a quotation

➢ Don’t use commas before a conjunction that separates two clauses if both aren’t independent
➢ Use common sense to determine whether a comma should follow a short phrase that starts a sentence; if a pause feels unnatural, don’t use a comma
➢ Remember to use commas before and after parenthetical remarks (e.g., I have a tendency to use commas often, perhaps too often, when I write.)
➢ Do not put a comma after a question mark at the end of a quotation

➢ Use hyphens to do the following: to join two words serving as a single adjective before a noun (e.g., one-way street), but not if the first word is an adverb with an ¬–ly ending;
➢ For fractions and compound numbers at the beginnings of sentences (e.g., two-thirds);
➢ To avoid awkward combinations of letters or confusion (e.g., re-sign vs. resign, semi-independent, or third-world war vs. third world war);
➢ Following the prefixes ex, ¬self, and all, before the suffix elect, and between a prefix and a capitalized word;
➢ For certain titles such as attorney-general, under-secretary, and lieutenant-colonel;
➢ For nouns formed from prepositional verbs (e.g., a set-up, a pay-off);
➢ For ethnic hybrids (e.g., African-American)
➢ Consult O.E.D. to see if a word contains a hyphen

➢ Commas and periods go inside quotation marks, while semicolons and colons go outside quotation marks, regardless of the punctuation of the original quotation.
➢ The placement of question marks and exclamation points depends on whether the question or exclamation is part of the original quotation or part of the sentence containing the quotation (e.g., Who wrote the op-ed called “Little Black Lies”?).
➢ Only use single quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation, never for highlighting individual words or phrases (i.e., avoid “scare quotes”)

➢ Semicolons have two common uses: to separate items in complex lists, namely in ones following a colon or in which the listed items themselves contain commas;
➢ And to separate two related but independent clauses. The test here, obviously, is whether the clauses can stand alone as sentences. When the clauses are short and alike in form, however, or when the tone is conversational, commas are acceptable (e.g., here today, gone tomorrow or lightning struck, thunder clapped, the door swung open).


Affect vs. Effect: Affect is usually a verb; effect is usually a noun (e.g., when I affect something, I have an effect on it). The exceptions are: Affect, as a noun, means: “The conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes.” Effect, as a verb, means: “To bring about (an event, a result); to accomplish (an intention, a desire).”

Among vs. Between: One distinguishes between two things, among more than two things.

And/or: Avoid this device. E.g., instead of writing staff members may edit articles and/or sit on the selection committee, write staff members may edit articles or sit on the selection committee or both.

Anticipate vs. Expect: To anticipate something is to get ready for it or prepare in advance; on the other hand, if one expects changes, she merely thinks they will come soon. Had she anticipated them, she would have prepared to deal with them.

Comprise: Comprise means to comprehend or contain, not constitute (e.g., a zoo comprises animals). A zoo is not comprised of animals, though it is composed of animals. Always avoid the phrase is comprised of.

Continual vs. Continuous: Continual means repeated or happening over and over again. Continuous means uninterrupted or happening constantly without stopping. If one is continually writing, it means he writes often and repeatedly; if he is continuously writing, it means that he never stops.

Data: Like strata, phenomena, and media, data is a plural and is best used with a plural verb.

Different: The word different is often redundant, as in several different options or many different participants. In general, avoid different than and use different from (e.g., the food at Stern Dining is certainly different from the food at Middle Earth, however, I don’t think the chefs at Stern use different ingredients than the chefs at Suites use).

Disinterested: means impartial, not to be confused with uninterested, which means not interested in

E.g. vs. I.e.: The abbreviation e.g. stands for the Latin exempli gratia, or for example; i.e. stands for id est, or that is. I.e., use e.g. to give an example; use i.e. to restate a thought in “other words.”

Further vs. Farther: Farther applies to physical distance, further to metaphorical distance or degree (e.g., one travels farther but pursues a topic further).

However: Avoid starting a sentence with however when it means nevertheless. However usually serves better when not in the first person. When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.

Irregardless: NOT A WORD. Well, not a respectable word, at least. The ir- is redundant as the –less does the job as a negative. Regardless or irrespective work much better.

Less vs. Fewer: Less means not as much, whereas fewer means not as many. Less refers to quantity, fewer to number (e.g., his troubles are less than mine means his troubles are not so great as mine. His troubles are fewer than mine means his troubles are not so numerous as mine).

Over and Under: Over and under specify spatial relations (e.g., the birds flew over us); do not use them with quantities (e.g., there are more than six million small arms in the world not there are over six million small arms in the world)

Presently: Has two meanings: in a short while and currently. Because of this ambiguity, it is a good idea to restrict its meaning to the former.

Quote vs. Quotation: Quote is a verb, quotation is a noun. One quotes by way of a quotation.

Secondly, Thirdly, etc.: Unless you start with firstly, which may not be the best idea, avoid using secondly, thirdly, etc. It is better to use simply first, second, third, etc.

That vs. Which: Which is nondefining or nonrestrictive; that is the defining or restrictive pronoun. The former adds a fact about the subject, the latter tells which one it is (e.g., The tofu that is terrible in Stern Dining specifies the terrible tofu—I’m going with braised—amongst all the types of tofu at Stern. The tofu, which is terrible, is in Stern Dining adds a fact about the tofu at Stern—in this case, I’d say the latter statement is more accurate).

Who vs. Whom: Although I covered these earlier, here’s a simple test to determine which is appropriate: replace who or whom with he or him. If he sounds right, then use who; if him sounds right, then use whom. If the preposition is separated from the word in question, try rearranging the words.


%d bloggers like this: