Web Services

Someone won’t think about semicolons?

The university is new Content style guide it’s a great resource and it’s a living document, so it’s only going to get bigger. Inside are rules and guidelines that cover everything from tone of voice to correct apostrophe use, word choice to date format. If you find a formatting, style, punctuation or spelling situation Not covered by the guide, it’s probably just because we haven’t thought about it yet. It’s really, really big.

This means that it would be very difficult for anyone to follow all the style guide rules all the time, particularly when there are a lot of rules that people don’t even know they are breaking. We’ll get better and better at this over time, of course, but in the meantime it’s worth asking the question: What are the main goals of the style guide? What’s up most important?

To try and shed some light on this, we on the web content team ran a little exercise, inspired by gov.ukwhere we have listed some of the most common mistakes made while writing content and categorized them as both greater OR minor. We’ve categorized the errors in a similar way to the style guide itself, identifying the likely key errors. This list is representative rather than exhaustive and was originally for our reference only, but we have found it very useful in helping us think about what we are trying to achieve when writing or editing content. Obviously our remit is the web, not all University copy, but we think these principles apply more broadly too, so we thought we’d share it!

Subject Mistake Categorization
Writing: precision Incorrect or misleading information GREATER
Writing: contact details Contact details not updated GREATER
Writing: active voice Excessive use of the passive voice GREATER
Writing: walls of text Long paragraphs of text GREATER
Writing: economy of words Use waffles or don’t be terse GREATER
Direct language Don’t use clear, direct language GREATER
UoD terms: Schools and Centres Incorrect unit title GREATER
UoD terms: the University Use of « Dundee University » GREATER
UoD terms: places Incorrect use of building names GREATER
Degrees: courses, programme, modules Terms used incorrectly MINOR
Grades: &/e Incorrect use of ampersands in degree names GREATER
Formatting: abbreviations and acronyms Do not use the full title in the first reference followed by initials in parentheses GREATER
Formatting: capital letters Use capital letters to add emphasis or imply importance MINOR
Formatting: contact details Web and phone not preceded by appropriate symbols MINOR
Formatting: dates Wrong date format MINOR
Formatting: titles and subtitles Don’t use the case of the sentence MINOR
Formatting: lists Lists of short sentences or single words that do not use lowercase letters; sentences that use lower case MINOR
Formatting: lists Punctuation used in short sentences or single word lists MINOR
Formatting: numbers Not written in full up to and including ten MINOR
Formatting: quotes No quotes around quotes GREATER
Formatting: quotes Long quotes that are not separated or preceded by a colon MINOR
Formatting: hours of the day Time not expressed in 24-hour format MINOR
Spelling Incorrect spelling MINOR
Spelling: American and British spellings British spelling not used in single copy MINOR
Spelling: contractions Incorrect use of contractions MINOR
Punctuation: apostrophes Incorrect use of apostrophes MINOR
Punctuation: brackets and parentheses Incorrect use of brackets or brackets MINOR
Punctuation: colon Incorrect use of the colon MINOR
Punctuation: dashes and em dashes Incorrect use of hyphens and em dashes MINOR
Punctuation: semicolon Incorrect use of the semicolon MINOR

Our greater errors can probably be broken down into a few different types.

  • Mistakes that make our content harder to readfor example:
    • walls of text
    • excessive use of the passive voice
    • using complicated language or terminology where it is not necessary
  • Mistakes that seriously erode our identity as an institutionFor example:
    • referring to us as ‘Dundee University’
    • mistakenly calling one of our schools
  • Mistakes that could actually get us in legal troublefor example:
    • do not put quotation marks between quotation marks
    • incorrect use of ampersands in degree names (not just a stylistic choice!)
  • Directly wrong informationFor example:
    • incorrectly named buildings
    • outdated contact information

We marked as minor those errors which do not significantly affect legibility, do not result in the transmission of misinformation, and do not seriously erode the brand. Examples included:

  • spelling or punctuation errors
  • formatting lists incorrectly
  • using the 12-hour clock in times

How about spelling?

So does that mean we don’t care about spelling or punctuation anymore? Not remotely! Everything we put on the web, just like print, should be correct and perfect, not a single spelling mistake or misplaced apostrophe. Just because spelling and punctuation errors are mostly marked « minor » doesn’t mean we’ll start ignoring them!

But what is really important? That every online listing has a serial (« Oxford ») comma or that our message is clearly worded and the information we provide is correct? Which of these could make a material difference to our reputation or conversation rates? What issue is most likely to make our users lose their patience or trust in our web content?

Obviously a myriad of cumulative punctuation or spelling errors will accumulate and become serious due to the reputational risk of messy and unprofessional copy. And I mean, I think I speak for the majority of the web content team when I confess it pains me actively admit that issues like missing apostrophes and rogue semicolons aren’t literally the end of the world! As far as I’m concerned they are the worst and we won’t stop fixing these things.

But the simple truth is that a single misspelled word will do far less damage to our message than a « wall of text » that is difficult or frustrating to read, or a passage that feels remote and hostile, at odds with our identity as a warm and welcoming place. where to study and work. This should be reflected in our priorities as we approach editing or proofreading work.

So where do we go from here?

In the past we’ve been guilty of copy-editing no doubt for punctuation and spelling, but too often we let content slip through our hands that we know could be more concise, could use more direct language, could be broken down or better organized on the page. As we move forward in our ambition to make Dundee’s web presence the best it can be, we are committed to improving our web content across the board. This means working more closely with our content experts and with each other to produce content that consistently meets our standards for readability, length and clarity, not just with correct spelling and punctuation.

If you have any questions about our style guide, please email styleguide@dundee.ac.uk. If you want to discuss the correct use of the semicolon you can write to me personally, but you are taking control of your life.