Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader


February 25, 2011

Usage: the AP Style Guide on women, girls, females, and ladies

There’s so much to say about how to write about specific groups of people with respect. I find that the style guide of the Associated Press (AP) has a lot of useful information. Here are some notes, in line with AP style, on writing about women.

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 (“Stress fractures are more common in women runners”) is wrong, because I see good writers doing it all the time, but find it unesthetic. AP style is to use female as the adjective and woman as the noun. Maybe 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 (if they identify as female; see the GLAAD Media Reference Guide and recent editions of the AP stylebook for some notes on writing about transgender people).

“Lady” for “woman” is . . . unnecessary? patronizing? Perhaps AP 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” (Associated Press Stylebook 2013).

Also worth mentioning is another guideline from AP: use “girl” only up until the eighteenth 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; use a thin non-breaking space if possible. 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 an abbreviated 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

Use only one space after a period or colon.

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

  • Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. There’s a free 30-day subscription available. Subjects to check out: guidelines for hyphenation, setting mathematics in type, extensive notes on citations and references.
  • Butcher’s Copy-Editing has 43 pages on science and mathematics. Chapter 13: “Science and Mathematics books” has sections on nomenclature, units, astronomy, biology, chemistry, computing, geology, medicine, and references. There is also material on indexes, special characters and mathematical symbols, and how to produce illustrations that are suitable for publication.
  • New Hart’s Rules also has a section on scientific naming and style. (This book is much cheaper than Butcher’s, so if you only want to buy one style guide, that’s worth keeping in mind.)
  • Two good articles on preparing your paper and the submission process: “How do I write a scientific paper?” and “How do I submit a paper to a scientific journal?” This last article is by Maxine Clarke, executive editor of Nature.
  • Journal Title Abbreviations
  • Subtleties of Scientific Style by Matthew Stevens has some very good suggestions for making academic writing more clear. His book is available for download as a PDF file.

February 5, 2011

Garner’s Modern American Usage

[Edit: the fourth edition is called Modern English Usage and now covers global English usage.]

Garner's Modern American Usage
Bryan A. Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage is 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:

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.