Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader


February 25, 2011

Usage: On discussing women politely

The following guidelines have always been my preference, but since the AP Style Guide backs me up, I’m going to feel free to recommend these as general rules (there’s nothing more satisfying than finding that a long-standing pet peeve is codified in a style guide).

Use “woman” as a noun, and “female” as an adjective. Don’t use “lady” unless you’d use “gentleman” for a man in the same context. (“This drug may cause beard growth in women.” “She will be the first female president.” “A lady never tells.”)

Referring to someone as “a female something” is fine, but referring to someone just as a “female” is depersonalizing. In everyday speech it tends to have a derogatory sound: “He arrived with some female or other in tow.” In medical writing it’s not rude, but it has a jargony sound: “Our study showed that 38% of females experienced ...” In some contexts, perhaps if you’re referring to women of all ages, you might choose to use “females” instead of writing something like “female infants, girls, and women,” but wherever possible, I would stick to “women,” “girls,” etc.

I can’t say that using “woman” as an adjective is wrong, because I see respectable writers doing it all the time. But I find it really unaesthetic: “Stress fractures are more common in women runners” (I recommend “female runners”). I think people are aware of the negative connotations of using “female” as a noun, and overcorrect by not using the word at all. Don’t worry, it’s OK to say that someone is female.

“Lady” for “woman” is . . . unnecessary? patronizing? Perhaps the AP Style Guide says it best: “Lady may be used when it is a courtesy title or when a specific reference to fine manners is appropriate without patronizing overtones.”

Not as jarring to my ear, but also worth mentioning is another guideline from AP Style: use “girl” only up until the 18th birthday. For adults, use “woman” or “young woman.”

February 20, 2011

Making your science papers look good

The more polished your paper is when it goes to reviewers and committees, the more likely it is to be read favourably. Getting the small things right will inspire confidence that you got the big things right too, but a lack of consistency and attention to detail in layout, spelling, and punctuation will make the reader wonder what else you didn’t pay attention to. Here are some basic points that I often find myself correcting when editing papers.


Put a space between the number and the unit (5 km, 200 g). The exceptions are degrees of temperature or latitude (N 49°15′48.14″, W 123°9′43.34″, 5°C, 5°F), percent signs (5%), and prime signs (6′2″). Some styles allow a space before the degree symbol in temperatures (5 °C). (The symbols for minutes and seconds in latitude and longitude or feet and inches are the prime and double prime. See “Special characters” below.)

Capitalization: the abbreviation for litre (L) and millilitre (mL) may use a capital L to distinguish it from a 1 (one).

When two quantities go together, repeat the symbol only if there is no space between the number and symbol (CMOS 9.17): 3%–5%, 4–5 km, 6″ × 9″, and 39°C–40°C.


You’re likely to have a lot of numbers in your text. Here are a few guidelines.
  • Use en dashes instead of hyphens in ranges of numbers (8–10). The en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen.
  • When writing in English, use a period (not a comma) for the decimal point, and commas (not periods) to separate groups of three digits. Some styles use spaces to separate groups of three digits. It is also permissible to omit the comma in a four-digit number. Be consistent.
  • Numerals versus spelled-out numbers. In the absence of other instructions, a safe policy is:
    • Spell out single-digit numbers and use numerals for all others: “all three study areas,” “in 2.3% of the samples.”
    • If a number is given with a unit, use the numeral even if it’s a single-digit number: “each test tube contained 2 mL of solution” (not “two mL”).
    • If you start a sentence with a number, it should be spelled out: “Twenty-seven of the volcanoes ...” But if the number takes a unit (“Two mL of solution was put in each test tube”), then I recommend you rewrite the sentence.

Spacing with mathematical symbols

  • There should be no space between the number and sign: “−1°C,” “1000× magnification.”
  • There should be spaces around the operator in a binary operator “p < 0.005.”

Some codes for special characters

  • En dash: Unicode U+2013, HTML &ndash;, option-hyphen on a Mac
  • Degree symbol: Unicode U+00B0, HTML &deg;
  • Primes and double primes for latitude and longitude: Unicode U+2032 and U+2033, HTML &prime; and &Prime;
  • Minus sign: Unicode U+2212, HTML &minus;
  • Multiplication sign: Unicode U+00D7, HTML &times;
  • How to write typographers’ quotes (smart quotes) in HTML

Scientific names of organisms

See writing scientific names of organisms.

Spacing between sentences

Unless you are writing for a journal that specifies otherwise, use only one space after a period or colon. It will save your publisher from having to remove the extra spaces, and they’ll like you better if you don’t make them do that. If you’re writing for the web or working on a thesis, leave the extra spaces out; they’ll just look awkward and unprofessional.

Text alignment

I suggest aligning your text on the left instead of justifying it. Publishers usually request left alignment in manuscript submissions, and the consistent spacing between words makes it easier to read and edit.

Further references

February 13, 2011

Vancouver events: Editing workshops with the EAC

Registration is open for two workshops put on by the BC Branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada this spring.

Grammar fundamentals

Taught by Frances Peck
Saturday, March 12: 9:30 to 4:00

Always Pity the Poor Reader: Copy Editing 101

Taught by Rob Dykstra
Saturday, May 14: 10 to 4

Both workshops will be at SFU Harbour Centre. See the EAC-BC seminars page for more information and online registration. Cost of the seminar ranges from $100 (early registration/member) to $180 (late registration/non-member).

February 12, 2011

Volunteer appreciation

Glass heart ornament I received this lovely token of appreciation from CNIS (Canadian Network for International Surgery) at their volunteer night last week (thank you for supporting CNIS, Robert Held). CNIS sends volunteer surgeons and obstetricians from Canada to help teach surgical skills in Africa. I’ve been helping format and edit some of the course manuals that CNIS has developed. It was great fun to meet some of the other volunteers at the event and hear about what they do. One of the more creative teaching techniques that CNIS has come up with is providing low-cost medical simulators in the form of hand-sewn models, and the sewing team that puts together these cloth uteruses was given a special appreciation award.

February 5, 2011

Garner’s Modern American Usage

Garner's Modern American Usage
My favourite usage guide is Bryan A. Garner’s book Garner’s Modern American Usage. It’s an impressive collection of essay entries on the usage of both individual words and more general categories, such as grammar and punctuation.

His philosophy is a combination of prescriptivism and descriptivism: on the one hand he describes certain usages as “inferior,” on the other hand he justifies that judgement by placing usages in the context of his language-change index. Usage changes over time (“terrific,” after all, used to mean “causing terror”) but that doesn’t mean that certain changes aren’t unnecessary (“priorize” for “prioritize”) or illogical (“could care less” for “couldn’t care less”). The language-change index goes from Stage 1: “rejected”, through Stages 2 through 4 (“widely shunned”, “widespread but . . .”, and “ubiquitous but . . .”) and finally arrives at Stage 5: “fully accepted.” To illustrate the language-change spectrum still further, he uses analogies from various other fields: golf (triple-bogey, double-bogey, etc.), legal infractions (felony, misdemeanor, ticket, warning), and—my favourite—etiquette, which compares a Stage 1 infraction to “audible farting.”

I was thinking that the language-change index could be analogized in fashion terms. Here’s a shot at it:

  • Stage 1: B.O.; wardrobe failure; fly undone
  • Stage 2: thong showing (“whale tail”); fluorescent-pink Crocs
  • Stage 3: Uggs; socks and sandals
  • Stage 4: wearing white after Labour Day; shoes don’t match handbag
  • Stage 5: ready for the Oscars; royalty at a garden party
Some further reading:
  • How I first heard about this book: David Foster Wallace, whom I like very much, wrote “Tense Present,” a very entertaining review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, the previous edition of Garner’s.
  • Interview with Bryan Garner in Vice Magazine: “I’m beyond the state of pet peeves. There are 3,000 things that seriously bother me . . .”
  • Go to LawProse.org to sign up for Bryan Garner’s usage tip of the day, as well as for videos and other material.
  • Find Bryan Garner’s Twitter feed at @BryanAGarner

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.

February 2, 2011

Margaret Atwood performance and auction

OK, this is pretty late notice, but on February 3, Margaret Atwood will be in Vancouver at the Fairmont Hotel, to narrate a performance based on The Year of the Flood.

See the Writers’ Trust site for more information.