Monthly Archives: March 2013

Top tips inspired by Robbie Williams

Today I’ve been listening to music from the 90s. Why? Because of the public battle (if you can call it that) between Robbie Williams – who was in a band I loved – and Brett Anderson – who was also in a band I loved. What a great excuse to journey back to my youth.

The spat was over Anderson’s comment to The Sun: “There has always been cr*p pop music.” He went on to explain his opinion that record companies didn’t have the financial freedom to gamble on non-manufactured music.

Fair enough. It’s an opinion. Also fair that Williams didn’t agree, responding in his blog that all the rock music produced in the 90s, including by Suede, was rubbish.

I don’t have a problem with either of these chaps having an opinion. I don’t agree with either of them, but that’s just how it goes. What I do not appreciate is a public figure very publicly communicating in a sub-standard way. So far, Williams’s blog post has had 2,200 likes on Facebook, 404 Tweets and 168 comments. That’s a lot of exposure for a piece of writing with quite some mistakes, likely to have been read by many impressionable people.

So here are a few top tips inspired by his blog, with examples.

  • Capital letters look like shouting – writing an entire blog in capitals makes it pretty difficult to read
  • When you quote the name of a publication it should be in italics – i.e. The Sun
  • A sentence should be finished with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark
  • If you want to use an ellipsis, make sure it has three dots. Anything else is just a strange number of full stops
  • Talking of ellipses, their overuse gives the impression of a stream of consciousness, which isn’t easy to follow
  • Commas are your friends. If you pause when speaking, consider using a comma when writing (i.e. instead of using paragraph breaks with no punctuation)
  • You do not need to use an apostrophe when writing a decade, e.g. 90s

And here’s a brilliant song from the 90s – Me and You Vs The World by Space.

Why I don’t like red pen

My first assignment during my Master’s degree was an essay on the origin of science. As an academic subject, history isn’t as black and white as science, and, having come straight from a degree in genetics, I wasn’t used to that. When my essay came back from my tutor I could barely see my proudly (but naively) typed words beneath his red corrections. Like he’d bled all over the pages.

I want to be clear here: my first essay was a disaster. I deserved the comments, edits, questions. I deserved the lines and circles and slashes. It wasn’t a good essay. But I’ll always remember the effect that red writing had on me. My heart rate increased, my palms became sweaty, my vision blurred slightly. I was terrified.

Since then I’ve had cause to edit hundreds of pieces of other people’s work. My first tough experience has stayed with me; I always imaging how the other person feels when I comment on their work and make changes. It may be old fashioned, but I edit on paper when I have the chance. And I use this:


It’s pink. Pink reminds me of roses and sweets. Not of blood and hell. It makes my heart feel lighter, puts a spring in my step. (Ok, so I’m exaggerating slightly, but you get the idea.) I assume that other people have similar feelings to me, so this is my favourite editing pen. I also have green, purple and turquoise, which have a similar effect.

Red’s so harsh, so mean, so old-fashioned. Editing is a creative process, and I think the colour of the edits should be inspiring – it should induce ideas, not tears.

Oxford Comma by Vampire Weekend – do you care?

“Who gives a f**k about an Oxford comma?” A good question indeed. Do you?

Here’s a fun poll.

Become a presentation pedant

*By popular demand, my edit of the example slide is below. See if you agree!*

We all broadcast messages every day: on the phone, by email and on social media. But one place people all too often neglect to check their grammar is in presentations. One of the most blatant broadcasts you can make.

Some may argue that you shouldn’t be using text in a presentation at all. While I tend to agree (it’s distracting and forces people to listen to you less intently), the reality is that text-based presentations are alive and well. Well, alive.

Consistency is key when it comes to presentations. A misplaced full stop, double space or odd font can look very unprofessional, and can draw attention away from what you’re saying. They will also reduce your credibility.

So here are my eight top tips for editing your presentation slides.


  1. Write your text using a word processing programme, like Microsoft Word. Check your spelling before transferring to your presentation template. Show paragraph marks and remove any double spacing.
  2. Ask someone else to edit your slides for you. You’ll never see all the mistakes yourself, and it’s always best to get a fresh pair of eyes on your words before you share them with the world.
  3. Cast your eye over the presentation. Does anything look strange? If it does, it usually is.
  4. Check text size, font and colour. A subtle difference on the screen will be amplified by a projector.
  5. Check your punctuation. Just because it’s a presentation, that doesn’t mean you can get away with missing apostrophes and commas.
  6. Check your bulletpoints. Do you use a full stop at the end of a bulletpoint? Then make sure all the bulletpoints in your presentation have a full stop. Don’t use full stops on one slide, then semicolons on the next. It looks like you can’t make a small decision.
  7. Check your use of capital letters. Have some respect for capital letters – don’t drag them out just because you want to make something look more important than it is. Capital letters should only be used at the start of a sentence, and for proper nouns. If you use them in slide headers (I wouldn’t recommend this), then use them consistently.
  8. Perform a sanity check. Do a test run with someone, and ask them to point out errors.

Of course, if you’re using a bright yellow background and white text all this won’t help you. There are plenty of books you can read with tips on how to make a good presentation. But whatever you do with the layout, colours and animation (gulp), make sure your text is top notch.

Here’s my edit of the slide.



  • Get your grammar right – ‘you’re’ is a contraction of ‘you are’. It should be ‘your’
  • If you’re planning to capitalize titles (which I wouldn’t recommend, but more on that another time), make sure they are fully capitalized

Point 1

  • This is in English, not German, so ‘presentation’ doesn’t need a capital letter
  • In this example, we’re using semicolons at the end of each bulletpoint, so the full stop should be replaced by a semicolon

Point 2

  • Well done. (Although you could contract ‘does’ and ‘not’ to ‘doesn’t’, depending on the overall tone of your presentation)

Point 3

  • There are spaces before the first word, making it look uneven. Delete the spaces
  • ‘when’ should have a lowercase ‘w’ and the additional space in front of the word should be deleted. Only one space between two words is required

Point 4

  • As per the rules for this example, add a semicolon at the end of the line

Point 5

  • This is a different size. If you want to make an impact, make it obvious – orange, bold, centred – like this it just looks like a mistake
  • The full stop at the end of this line is correct. In a bulletpoint list with semicolons at the end of each point, the final point should have a full stop

There, their (they’re)

One of the wonderfully tricky things about the English language is that it contains a huge selection of words that sound the same but have different meanings and different spellings. (There are also, of course, words that sound and look the same but have several meanings, but we’ll save that for another time.) The one that sticks out the most for me is there, their and they’re. And this also lets me rant a teeny bit about apostrophes, which is nice.

This one’s not just for companies, people. We all need to get this right.


Samantha here didn’t even take a side – she just went with the middle ground. Ther. Which also sounds the same.

Here’s the thing – if you get there/their/they’re wrong, it looks daft. This isn’t just something companies in the Fortune 500 have to get right, it’s something that drives me nuts on Facebook (in particular), Twitter, blogs, emails… Self-published electronic media. So here are a few simple ways to remember which one to use.

Refers to a place (or indicates existence when used with the verb ‘to be’, as in ‘there are’). If you can replace it with ‘here’ in your sentence, you’re on the right track. ‘I’d love a cup of tea, thank you; my cup is over there.’

Indicates possession of something. ‘Their cups are in the kitchen.’ If you can replace it with ‘your’, good work.

Has an apostrophe, which is hiding a missing letter. This is a contraction, and it’s short for ‘they are’. ‘They’re really thirsty – put the kettle on!’ Try replacing it with ‘they are’ in your sentence. This one makes me a bit sad, because people seem to be too scared to use it. I think it’s the apostrophe that puts them off. One of the many uses of an apostrophe is to stand in for missing letters (ever see someone write ”Hallow’e’e’n”?). So always remember to use it if referring to something that ‘you are’. Help save the apostrophe.

That’s it. Simple.

So I’ll be scouring posts for offenders. Be warned. (First I’m going to boil the kettle. All this talk of tea is making me thirsty.)

Why you should care – part one: companies

Every day we see mistakes made by companies – the missing comma on the shampoo bottle, the stray apostrophe on the shop sign, the inconsistency on a company website. And here comes the response I’ve heard the most over the years…

‘I don’t care.’

It doesn’t matter. Nobody will notice.

But here’s the thing – they will. I do. I noticed the missing comma, the useless apostrophe, and the lack of consistency on your website. And these things made me judge your company, and judge your services, in a certain way. These things make it look like you fail to work with care and attention, that you’re not very good at what you do. These things make you look unprofessional.


Do I trust the managers referred to in this sign? Do I want to rely on their expertise?

It’s the little things that can propel one company ahead of another. Little things like grammar and punctuation help me decide what I think of a company. So think about the details – pay attention to them – and give your business the chance to look professional.

Starting with split infinitives

Ten years ago, I met someone who changed my life. It was my supervisor at university. I thought I would learn from him all sorts of things about the innermost workings of tiny creatures. I did, of course, but far more importantly he taught me to be a writer. Or at least to think about being a writer.

Let’s be honest here – I’m a terrible scientist. Really. I was treated for acid in the eye more than once, and spent some time cleaning herpes off the pages of my lab book. Bad scientist. Because of this, my very understanding supervisor allowed me to do an entirely text-based dissertation, on the origin of life on earth and early bacterial evolution. I enjoyed writing it enormously, and he gave me very positive feedback. Except for one point (which he really hammered home): don’t split infinitives.

I nodded, with a blank expression on my face, the first time he said that. I didn’t have a clue what it meant. It turned out I’d been splitting infinitives left, right and centre. It was completely normal for me – thoughts ran from my head directly onto the page, and never got checked or refined. I wrote how I spoke. With split infinitives.

Strange things have happened since that day. I’ve learnt to hate split infinitives. Of course, I know it’s ridiculous (‘to go boldly’ doesn’t have quite the same kick as ‘to boldly go’), old-fashioned and stuffy. But I can’t help it. Sometimes I consciously override my natural instincts, sometimes I just let them be.

This sort of illustrates the reason I’ve started this blog. The split infinitive should be discussed. It should be debated. We should all have an opinion, or at least understand it enough to decide not to have an opinion. Sadly, I feel this kind of care for the English language is disappearing. It’s time to save the apostrophe.