Some notes on our house style

Looking for a point of reference?

It has been the practice of the publishers of BHWs to be guided by the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (ODWE), Hart’s Rules (OUP) and Chambers Dictionary. Bear in mind that these are updated at least every decade or so. The US Merriam Webster Dictionary can also be useful as it can go in to more detail about words that look just like UK English but which have different meanings. It also contains words that do not appear in UK dictionaries.

UK English or US English?

British authors should use UK English grammar, syntax and spelling at all times in the narrative. US colloquialisms and slang may of course be used in dialogue, but with some caution. It may be worth remembering that in the 19th and early 20th centuries expletives in what is now the US tended to be profane rather than sexual, scatological or lavatorial, and that slang dates very quickly yet very often retains the recognizable aura of the period in which it was current.

The US style of linking two words that are different parts of speech, e.g.   ‘anymore’ and ‘underway’ should be avoided; also the difference between e.g. ‘nearby’ (adjectival = ‘a nearby house) and ‘near by’ (prepositional = ‘the house was near by’) should be observed.

For verbs ending in –ise/-ize such as organise/organize, please spell with –ize.

Setting the pace

The best narratives have pace and flow. To this end, short sentences are pacier than longer ones, paragraphs should match the phases of an action or event.

Repetition of ‘and’ inhibits the pace and flow of the narrative, most particularly in fight scenes. It is better not to use it more than once in a sentence (unless the sentence includes a phrase such as, e.g. ‘Stars and Stripes’, or ‘high and mighty’). It can often be replaced by a semicolon, or even a full point. ‘And’ should not be used to begin a sentence except occasionally in dialogue or, rarely, for deliberate effect.

Infinitives may be split rather than pedantically avoided when it is clear that the sense of a verb is thereby made sharper.

Avoid the misuse of present-participial phrases as in, e.g.: ‘Pulling on his socks and boots he ran to the door.’ Clearly he did not do all these three things at once. One could say: ‘He pulled on his socks and boots and ran to the door.’ (An instance, incidentally, where two ‘ands’ in the same sentence would be OK.) Or, avoiding two ‘and’s in the same sentence, one could say: ‘Staying only to pull on his socks and boots he ran to the door.’ Even when an ‘-ing’ phrase can be used making good sense it is better not to have more than one of them in the same paragraph. (It is, of course, better to avoid any repetition of words or similar-sounding words in the same paragraph unless for deliberate effect.)

It used to be received wisdom that ‘a preposition is not the sort of word to end a sentence with’, and in narrative it is probably better not to do so, although it is usually OK in dialogue. However, there is an increasing tendency in UK English to follow the US style of omitting prepositions altogether, which goes along with an inclination in US English to use an intransitive verb transitively: e.g. ‘He jumped out the window’, meaning that he ‘jumped out through the window’ but which in UK parsing means that ‘he caused the window to jump out of its frame’.   Common examples of this (which also often appear in UK journalese) are e.g.: ‘The prime minister departed the airport …’ and ‘The criminals fled the scene of the crime.’ The PM did not actually do anything to the airport, nor did the criminals do anything to the scene of the crime. The PM ‘departed from the airport’ and the criminals ‘fled from the scene of the crime.’

Try to avoid long stretches of narrative unrelieved by dialogue. Dialogue can not only be the most immediate means of revealing character, it can often be used to advantage in furthering action, rather than depending on reported speech.

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A change of scene should be identified by a blank line and it helps to have a hash or asterisk in the space.

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The first line of the first paragraph in a chapter should have no indent; all subsequent paragraphs should be indented.

For dialogue, please use single inverted commas.