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Sunday, 23 February 2014


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The millimeter (mm) is an SI unit. In the SI system, a space is always placed between the quantity measured and the unit. Other ways may be common, but they are wrong.

[It's not wrong here on TOP. The opposite convention is widespread, and proper, in the photography field when designating the focal length of lenses. To read "12 mm" applied to a lens merely alerts you to the fact that you are reading the words of a scientist or academician who is more familiar with standard scientific notation than with photography.

In any event, the point of this post is that each publication (Web or print) establishes its own consistency based on its own decisions regarding standards and practices. As is the case with the examples from the Times and The New Yorker, these can be nonstandard compared to other publications and other fields. --Mike]

I would have thought it simplest, and most appropriate, for foreign users of English to follow the conventions currently predominant among educated users of the language in its native land.

I don't expect you, or many of your readers, to agree. C'est la vie, as the
Academie would no doubt have it.

[That has never been the case. --Mike]

"Mrs Smith" is proper in the U.K., while in the U.S. it would be "Mrs. Smith."

Well now, I beg to differ. I'm British (in particular, English) and I was taught at school to write "Mr. Johnson". And I'm pretty sure I was also taught to write my comma inside the quotation marks (space, em dash, space) something that always irked me as I felt the comma was not a part of the quoted speech, but a means of fitting the quote into the sentence.

"...conventional editing practices and fewer and, thus, fewer and fewer of them read..."

I think you meant to use one fewer "fewer" in that sentence.

And I don't care too much about general style sheet issues, with the exception of the Oxford comma. It should always be used! (In my opinion, of course.)

Yeah, I rebelled against putting punctuation arbitrarily inside quotation marks in the early days of writing computer documentation on computers and printing it on line-printers (i.e. when there weren't many typographical tools available), and I realized that telling users to type the command "rm *." was actively misleading, yet inevitable if that was the end of a sentence. So I generally go the other way now.

Quotation marks for book titles is advocated by the Associated Press Stylebook.

I'm told it's because some of their communications systems didn't (and perhaps still don't?) support italicization.

Interestingly, proper usage on Spanish seems to be to include em-dashes on both sides of the parenthical statement, separated by a space or punctuation mark from the rest of the text —as per this self-demostrating example—, which would likely look ugly as sin to english speakers on both sides of the Atlantic but nevertheless would explain my distaste for the convention of "word dash word" of American English. It always felt oddly short to me, even if I realize now my attempt at "fixing" it by putting spaces around both sides of the dash was not quite correct, either.

With regards to commas inside quotation marks, however, I take the programmer's approach and treat them as parenthesis do in math: what's inside must be treated as its own object regardless of what's outside, thus "hello" and "hello," are different sentences and one mustn't substitute one with the other. Besides, using the same character on both sides rather than the typographically appropiate “ and ” would be the bigger sin, I'd say.

Oh, and speaking of programming and the computing world in general, around a decade ago there was a huge controversy around the use of SI prefixes in storage measurements (is 1 MB of storage 1000 KB, or 1024 KB?), involving class-action lawsuits and everything, and the end result was: convention within a field does not trump proper standards. Thus Semilog is correct, and no matter how pervasive the mistake is in the field of photography, proper use is 12 mm with a space. And if you think that space is unpleasant, think of us IT guys having to use the word "Gibibits" in formal discussions.

Ah! Style Gumbo.

I echo Ben's comment about British English and the full stop after Mrs in the UK ("Mrs Smith" is proper in the U.K.)

However, nothing is proper in the UK any more.

TOP readers might enjoy following the WSJ Style & Substance blog.

I vaguely remember for contractions (or whatever the term may be) that if the last letter is the same as the original you don't use a period; if the last letter is different from the original you use a period (or a full stop).

"Start asking people to weigh in on the serial comma,"

I was anti-serial comma until a I got a job proofreading translations of scientific and medical literature; with so much riding on the clarity or ambiguity of a sentence, it was obvious what a critical difference that one "extra" comma could make. It was the in-house style, of course.

Quotes however planted can be different for differnt phrasing. However trying to differentiate between American English, British English and then there's Canadian English can lead to a variety of
proofing disasters. David Miller's comment is probably the most accurate of any description.
And yes, I too have hand set type, so am well aware of the problems therein.

In my high school typing class, a long, long time ago, we were taught to use a full space then the short dash and another full space - like this. To me it is still easier to read than the long dash with no spaces. And I certainly don't find it to be ugly. Many writers splash commas all over their writing, in a confusing mess. A dash here and there - with spaces - can go a long ways towards clarity. Guess my mileage has varied.

On the point of whether to refer to corporations as 'it' or 'they,' it always made more sense to me to refer to them as 'it.' The reason for that (in my mind) is that corporations are looked upon as legal entities under the law, and were created for legal liability purposes. I am no lawyer, but I think that means they are an 'it' under the law. I could be very wrong about this.

My day job is copy-writer/proofreader for a scientific publisher. I concur with your statement above. Although the space between 12 and mm is required if you're using SI units, it is not necessary that you choose to adopt SI units in your style. It is commonplace to do so in scientific writing, but even there exceptions exist. Many publications continue to use Angstrom, for example, and if a journal chooses to allow that in its style, then so be it.

So when someone like me comes along and posts a comment breaking the style guide, sometimes it must really grind your gears... This article and the body of work behind it underline the quality of the edit on this site. It is extremely good and one reason why I keep coming back!

Keep up the good work!


p.s. Yesterday I shot mainly at f/2 with my 50mm in Raw and watched the UK Ireland rugby match ...

A quick search on the Sunday Times website shows consistent use of "Mr" and "Mrs" without the terminating periods. By the way, this abbreviation illustrates in part why I hate the "punctuation inside quotes" usage in American English. If I had wanted to end the sentence, "... Mr." there would be no way to tell if the period terminated the sentence or the honorific. We've chosen typographic visual esthetics despite the ambiguities.

One of the oddest (to me, anyway) New York Times styles is the use of periods in acronyms like N.S.A., C.I.A., N.R.A.; technically, they consider those to be abbreviations.

They make an exception for pronounceable acronyms (NASA) and for those that they regard as names (NFL, HBO).

Punctuation only belongs inside quotation marks if it belongs to the quote, surely ?

Whichever side of the Atlantic.

Two points:

• The Supreme Court having decided that a corporation is a person, "it" is more appropriate than "they" when referring to a single corporation.

• Punctuation is a matter of convention; there is nothing logical about it.

Ummmm....I think you mean em dash in this phrase:

"...those aping British typesetting should use full space / en dash / full space – like this, even though that's not quite correct..."


[No, because the correct form in British typography is half-space / en dash / half-space, so the closest you can come on a computer keyboard without figuring out how to type a half-space is to use whole spaces and an en dash. The en dash is also properly used for minus sign and between extremes of a range, for instance in "middle age is 45–65." --Mike]

I once worked as a proofreader at a magazine with writers, editors, and proofreaders from the US, Britain, Australia, and other English-speaking countries, as well as non-native speakers from Japan. We used APA, had a style guide, and an editor who could over-rule petty nitpickers.

Oh, how I remember the debates between all of us over such interesting topics as whether or not to use commas in dates or the always fun use of "that" or "which," and the use of the beloved semi-colon. It seemed that many writers thought that the more semi-colons one added, the more intelligent and academic the article read. (I walked away from that job firmly believing that semi-colons should be banned with long prison sentences for even thinking of using one.)

There were debates over the use of British or American standards. We just kept them consistent within each article, but there were a number of readers each month infuriated by our choices. There were a number infuriated by our decision to not use commas in dates. There were a number of readers infuriated over anything and everything which made me wonder why we just didn't farm out the proofreading and editing to these folks to do for free and then they could spend their time arguing among themselves.

After that experience, I lost all urge to be a spellchecker, a grammar nazi or a punctuation pedant. The mere thought of it gives me a headache.

Upper Case as in VIA RAIL Canada, not Via...


as well as other words; upper case in
the composition of electronic (e-mails) mail is equivalent to shouting.

Oh the shame!

I write software manuals for a living, and generally I am also my own editor, proofreader, and style guide cop, as nobody else in the companies I work for gives a hoot about editorial consistency.

Because my writing must be as unambiguous as possible, I absolutely use the Oxford comma. While it is possible to find examples where its use actually introduces ambiguity, that is very rare, so the Oxford comma wins by a 1000:1 ratio.

If anyone doubts my claim, please refer to this cartoon:


(Editorial note: I actually edited the original cartoon to make it clearer; in the original, the order of characters in text was JFK and Stalin, but visually it was Stalin and JFK. So I reversed them visually.)

"...read as if they were written by high school sophomores?"

I'm sorry. You brought the subject up (a dangling participle is something up with which I am always prepared to put).

I suppose one could also put "...read like something written by high school sophomores".

Stop location is arguable for both the preceding paras. I believe Fowler (in The King's English) suggests sensitivity to the sense of the sentence, which seems sensible.

If you think the style guides for text oriented sites and hard copy are complex, be glad you never had to deal with those for computer systems graphic user interfaces (GUIs). In addition to all the rules you need, you must deal with icons, widgets, graphics, images, overlays, tiles, and much more. Each of these has its own set of rules as to when and how presented, and in what size and color. In dynamic systems, these relationships and interactions change, changing the rules. Further, many systems require error detection and alerting or correction, which is sometimes made part of the GUI style guide. I have had occasion to write, edit, review, revise and/or approve(or not) such guides. In systems with task automation it can be even more complex, as the interactions with the 'smart' software need to be considered. It can be a challenge...

In Canada we are quite properly caught on the middle of the fence.
We have an amalgam of English spelling and grammar clashing with what passes as English south of the border.
It gets very frustrating trying to figure out what is the correct spelling of some words depending on the situation. Writing for newspapers was a good example of this.
But, then again we also have to deal with Quebec style French which is just as bi-polar.

You've opened a can of worms here, Mike.

As a Brit who has worked all his career on books destined for international distribution, I have sacrificed several years of my life expectancy to these issues.

There are really only two aspects of American style that really drive me nuts. Firstly the illogical placement of punctuation in relation to quotation marks, as in: 'He described it as a "camera superior to all others," but declined to recommend it.' The comma after 'others' should be part of the surrounding sentence, not part of the quote.

The other thing is the refusal to add a possessive 's' to proper names ending in 's': as in Sir Stamford Raffles' achievement in founding Singapore … It should be Raffles's, as in St James's Park, London.

Most the rest I just live with – while cursing the US-centric behaviour of Microsoft Word in converting everything into American no matter what I try to do with the settings.

Mr without a full stop is correct in UK English because it is a contraction, rather than an abbreviation.

Incidentally, the most useful style guide I have used in a UK context is the one published by 'The Economist', just called 'Style Guide'. Because of the semi-technical nature of the stuff they deal with, they have had to devise some very useful common-sense rules. I don't agree with everything they prescribe, and sometimes ignore it, but it's a really good starting point.

Are you going to use periods after initial letters, for instance in "U.S." and "U.K.," or not?

No. We use full stops.

And I couldn't bring myself to type a comma directly after a full stop (period) like that - even if it might be correct!

As long as you don't start referring to Apple computers as "MAC's"…

Consistency is good. But notions of right and wrong in language? And 'ugly' use of dashes? Stephen Fry has something to say that's worth listening to, cured me of my language pedantry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ovi7uQbtKas

"Mrs Smith" is proper in the U.K., while in the U.S. it would be "Mrs. Smith."

"Mrs Smith" is proper in the UK, while in the US it would be "Mrs. Smith."

'Mrs Smith' is proper in the UK, while in the US it would be 'Mrs. Smith.'

First of all, whatever you do, always be consistant.
Serious publishers have their rules, their house style.

Personally, as a graphic designer and typographer I would like to go much further. Look at the works of Jan Tschichold and make it as clean as possible. Less is more.

And it would also be more polite not to mention whether a woman is married or not.

In my opinion 'ms Smith' is an elegant lady, while in 'Mrs. Smith' is an old tart.'

Ben, I concur regarding Mr. and Mrs., and also with your inner wriggle regarding the comma inside quotation marks - I wholeheartedly agree as to its position within the sentence. You are not quoting someone else's puntuation, their quotation is within your punctuated sentence. If that makes me a rebel, so be it. And Oxford commas? If a comma is required, it is required. :-)

Have you ever read 'Eats, shoots and leaves', Mike? If you haven't, it's well worth it. Educational - even if it would inevitable have a British usage bias to a degree - but also rather funny.

One particularly grating practice from the U.K. is the way they sometimes refer companies or groups in headlines -

"Canon make the EOS Rebel" or
"Fujifilm announce a new camera"

Come on, guys! You invented the language, now use it properly!

Another Englishman here and I learned my copy editing in Oxford to boot. I agree that 'Mrs' is a perfectly acceptable alternative in the UK but punctuation in a quoted phrase would only appear outside of the quotation marks if it were not part of the quoted phrase, which is logical; otherwise pop it in. I can't bear those unspaced en dashes, but apart from that I think this is all very righteous, especially now I know that the Oxford comma is in favour on TOP, the Oxford comma is true and pure.

[That last sentence is a run-on, but I'll shut up. [VBG] --Mike]

Mike, apparently you weren't reading Jim Romenesko's web site last week, where he ran posts of media organizations talking about firing their copy-desks, because no one cares anymore about all the stuff you've said above. While I look at things like that as the end of an educated empire as we know it, apparently the sub-35's can't be bothered. Some one even brought up that they had to fire the copy-desk staff from the "e" department because they were responsible for slowing breaking news postings to the "irrelevantly-late" level!

Are you going to use periods after initial letters, for instance in "U.S." and "U.K.," or not?

I've always written United States as U.S., but United Kingdom as UK. In fact, the company I work for (it's a big global one) indicates this in its style guide.

Ahem ... "thusly"? Thus is already an adverb and thus requires no suffix ...

From one Barrie England:
'The Oxford English Dictionary records thusly as a colloquial form of thus, with an earliest citation of 1865. However, it is really quite unusual, and I wouldn’t recommend its use other than for some kind of special effect.'

Is the single space between the end of one sentence and the beginning of another (vs. two spaces) an Internet thing or has that always been around? In school we were taught it must be two spaces. Also, uppercase for Internet and my spell check suggested?

Referring to a company as "they" has always grated on me. A company (or any cohesive group) is a collective noun (a concept that seems to have been forgotten) and, thus, Canon is an "it". The other way is just plain odd.

And there are those who got no style.

It's good to see someone bothering to address these matters in a world of internet sites where sans-serif text is frequently set white-out-of-black with a measure of >100 characters per line. Which just about guarantees unreadability. By comparison these minor differences in typesetting details look pretty trivial.

Actually, it is "ƒ/11." The script ƒ is the symbol for focal length. Aperture is always given in two significant figures--0.95, 5.6, 11. The reason for a capital F denoting aperture is from a limitation in technology. When those neat seven-element lcd number displays appeared, it was only possible to create a capital F and the form stuck. As a former camera company employee in Japan, we often had these discussions. When the monitor display came on the scene, we discussed whether to continue the cap F or use a lowercase or script f. We stuck with the cap F.

Periods and commas inside quotes is US style. Outside quotes is British.


I believe the "punctuation inside or outside quotation marks" divide is slightly more complicated than that. In American English, it's almost always inside quotes. In British English, it follows logic. If the phrase in quotes would have had the punctuation on it's own, it would go inside. If not, it goes outside. Examples:

Did Sarah ask, "Where does the punctuation go?"

Did Sarah say, "The punctuation follows logic"?

"Mrs Smith" is proper in the U.K., while in the U.S. it would be "Mrs. Smith."

I would say the US is in error. The period after a word denotes an abbreviation, such as "Prof." for "Professor". But "Dr" is a contraction of "Doctor", and thus does not have a period.

Yes, I am British. Nevertheless, I agree that em dashes should have no surrounding spaces and should most certainly not be en dashes—that's just barbarism.

The American Standards Association or its successor ANSI can write whatever it wants, but does not have ultimate control over an international notation. "𝑓/11" is merely a mathematical formula, being the focal length 𝑓 divided by 11. As usual in formulas, the variable is written in italic. Where italic is not available, roman is commonly used, as in "f/11".

The "𝑓" I used here is Unicode MATHEMATICAL ITALIC SMALL F, at code point 0x1D453, but one could use HTML italics and it might be wise as old computers won't have this character. (On a Mac, you can enter the standard mathematical character by bringing up Character Viewer from the flag menu, typing "f" into the search box, and selecting it under "related characters".)

When a camera maker displays it as "F11" on a bitmap display or in an EVF, I duly note it as a piece of skeuomorphic design I can do without.

As for "50mm" vs. "50 mm", it is true that SI mandates a half space. But it's also the case that there's no easy way to make a nonbreaking half space in ordinary free text, so common practice is to omit the space to prevent a confusing line break between the number and its unit.

And, I've taken you to task about this before, but "mm-e" is not a unit. I hope you stop using it, because I see it catching on, like that silly "h" on the end of a perfectly good Japanese loan word "boke".

"That's a good enough reason to make the attempt in my book."

Will you be making the attempt anywhere else? ;-)

so I'm really cheating when I speak of my 24/2.8 lens then.. ah well. I'm often a two-dot ellipsis person also; so much for teaching me anything!

This is wonderful stuff. If you'd asked me how to correctly denote an f stop in print I don't think I'd have come close and I am reputed to be so attentive to such things. I have long marvelled at how well this site is edited, and I still can't remember seeing a typo. Whenever my kids want to bash America and the lack of erudition of Americans I simply point to TOP as an example of the great and marvellous depths of American culture. Not far away from Waukesha flourished the great US poet laureate Ted Kooser, whose gentle and insightful book 'The Poetry Home Repair Manual' is permanently by my bed. I am looking forward to the Off Topic week.

I've just checked in my battered copy of Hecht's Optics, and a second book (both American), and the variable for focal length is definitely "plain f" (written in italic as 𝑓) and not "script f", which mathematicians consider a different letter (they would say the "plain" or "script" out loud if both were present).

What Mike has been using is the character at Unicode code point 0x192, LATIN SMALL LETTER F WITH HOOK, which is actually there because it used to be the symbol for Netherlands currency. It's a totally reasonable thing to do considering the problems with all the alternatives when writing for a mass web audience, but if you look carefully they are not exactly the same:

Florin: ƒ
Italic f: 𝑓

(What you see here also varies by font.)

And "script f" has yet another Unicode code point at 0x1D4BB:


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