Writing and formatting tips


It’s or Its?

It’s means “it is”. Think of she’s (= “she is”) and he’s (= “he is”).

Its is the possessive. “The company has changed its name.”


Hyphens and dashes – they’re different things, and they have different functions.

A hyphen joins two words together: “a ten-storey building”; the long-term outlook.

A dash does the opposite — it separates a word or group of words from the rest of the sentence. (That’s a dash in the preceding sentence.)

Dashes come in two different lengths, equal in length to either one or two hyphens.

You can use either kind of dash to separate words or groups of words, but if you choose the short one, be sure to put a space before and after it. With the long dash, the spaces are optional.

How to make a dash

To make a short dash (called an en dash), hold down the Alt key and type 0150 on the number pad. Or you can try typing two hyphens, which will sometimes turn into a dash.

To make a long dash (called an em dash), use the Alt key with 0151. Or try typing three hyphens.


Common spelling mistakes that won’t be caught by a spellcheck

The past tense and past participle of the verb to lead is led, not lead

Lose is a verb; loose is an adjective.


When to spell out numbers

You can choose from several rules. These are the most common (though somewhat simplified):

(a) spell out numbers from one to nine; use figures for 10 and up. 

(b) spell out numbers from one to ninety-nine; use figures for 100 and up.  

(c) use figures for all numbers.

Rule (a) is followed in newspapers, most magazines and some books.

Rule (b) is followed in more serious books and formal documents.

Rule (c) is followed in mathematical and scientific material.


For very large numbers, it’s common to write, for example,  ten million or 10 million.

— In percentages and where there are decimals, numbers are usually expressed in figures: 12% (or per cent), 125% (or per cent).


Short and long words — how to measure their length

If you want to compare the lengths of different words or phrases, the way to do it is to count the syllables.

A syllable is a letter or group of letters that contains one vowel sound.

Examples of words of different lengths:

1 syllable: a, if, one, lived, place, placed 

2 syllables: expressed, number, throughout, centre, centred

3 syllables: area, formulate, suitable, creation 

4 syllables: appropriate, identify

5 syllables: implementation

Note: When you’re counting syllables from the point of view of readability, just ignore the verb endings ed, ing and es.


Is it correct to start a sentence with and, but or or?

Yes, it is, but like any other construction, it can become monotonous if you do it too often. School teachers often teach their pupils that it’s wrong because children tend to do it all the time.


Is it correct to end a sentence with a preposition?

Yes it is, but again, as with any construction, don’t do it if it sounds awkward.