The Alternative style guide

A quick lesson in the style guide we follow here at The Alternative.


Write simple. Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to tell the shortest story, in 6 words. And this is what he wrote:
For sale: baby shoes, never used.

UK English is the house style. Set your word style to the same and avoid sending us copy with colors, travelers or neighbors.

Introducing people  – Write the full name in the first reference, such as Brad Pitt. In subsequent references, please use the last name of the person. ‘Pitt was of the opinion that fame makes you feel permanently like a girl walking past construction workers.’

Abbreviations – Except for a few well known abbreviations (eg. UN, NGO), expand on first reference. Subsequently, abbreviated forms can be used.

Numbers. Use the word for numbers between zero and ten. Any number above ten is expressed as digits (11).

First to tenth centuries, the 11th century, a 29-year-old man, a man in his 20s, 20th anniversary, in a 100 years’ time

Dates. Month, day, year in that order, with no commas:

July 5th
Monday July 5th
July 5th 2005
July 27th – August 3rd 2005
July 2002
1996-99
2002-05
1998-2003
1990s
June 10th and 14th
December 14th and 25th

Currency. Place the currency before the amount. Rs. 300.

Capitalisation. Use small letters while referring to the designation – chief minister, prime minister etc. But Prime Minister’s Office, High Court, Supreme Court. Capital letters when referring to the full name and designation – BWSSB Chairman Gaurav Gupta. Use capitals sparingly. Don’t capitalize something just because You Think It Is Important.

Active voice makes for better writing.

Be positive, not negative. Say economical rather than not costly.

Avoid adjectives. It is better to describe situations and allow readers to make their own judgements. For example, describe the way a school functions and let the reader decide whether it is a ‘good school’.

A or an? Use an before a silent ‘h’: an hour, an heir, an honourable man, an honest woman; a hero, a hotel, a historian (but don’t change a direct quote if the speaker says, for example, “an historic”).

Act – Capitals when using full name, eg Right to Information Act; but lower case on second reference, eg “the act”, and when speaking in more general terms, eg “we need a radical freedom of information act”; bills remain lower case until passed into law.

Among or between? Contrary to popular myth, between is not limited to two parties. It is appropriate when the relationship is essentially reciprocal: fighting between the many peoples of Yugoslavia, treaties between European countries. Among belongs to distributive relationships: shared among, etc

Brackets  — If the sentence is logically and grammatically complete without the information contained within the parentheses (round brackets), the punctuation stays outside the brackets. (A complete sentence that stands alone in parentheses starts with a capital letter and ends with a stop.) “Square brackets,” the grammarian said, “are used in direct quotes when an interpolation [a note from the writer or editor, not uttered by the speaker] is added to provide essential information.”

Be sensitive. Given we are a platform that publishes on sustainability and social issues, one of the uppermost concerns in our mind is that we don’t marginalize issues further by how we refer to them.

Use positive language about disability, avoiding outdated terms that stereotype or stigmatise. Terms to avoid include victim of, suffering from, afflicted by, crippled by (prefer person who has, person with).

Disabled itself can be replaced with ‘challenged.’ Some terms to be avoided with acceptable alternatives in brackets are wheel chair bound (uses a wheel chair); invalid (disabled person); mentally handicapped, backward, retarded, slow (person with learning difficulties); deaf, dumb and blind (deaf and speech-impaired, hearing and speech-impaired).

Take care using language about mental health issues. In addition to such clearly offensive and unacceptable expressions as loony, maniac, nutter, psycho and schizo, terms to avoid — because they stereotype and stigmatise — include victim of, suffering from, and afflicted by; “a person with” is clear, accurate and preferable to “a person suffering from”. Never use schizophrenic to mean “in two minds”. And avoid writing “the mentally ill”— people with mental health issues or mental health challenges.

Use able bodied rather than normal to refer to those without special needs.

Elderly – Do not use to describe anyone under 70, and say elderly people (or even better, older people), never “the elderly”

Caste sensitivities: Avoid using harijan. Dalit is acceptable . Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe are the official terms.

NEVER use any of these terms as adjectives – handicapped, gay, homosexual, blind, deaf, mute.


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