What hashtags are *really* for

I was pointed towards an article yesterday about the futility of hashtags. My view is that it misses the point.

There are, in my mind, three purposes for hashtags:

Let’s take these in order. For a hashtag to be of any use in aggregating tweets, it needs to be relatively niche. Given that it’s made up of a single word or string, and given the manner in which tweets are structured and consumed, there’s little search engines can do to make tweets relating to the #SuperBowl or the #budget2013 of any use to either man or beast. So the event needs to be more targeted to be of any use here.

Second, people can use them for suppression. If I have a lot of followees watching the Uefa Champions League, and for whatever reason I don’t give two hoots about it, I can filter out all tweets mentioning the #ucl hashtag. This I see as useful.

Third, irony. It’s not a traditional use of a hashtag; but it’s one I like. I often use hashtags in Facebook updates. I occasionally use them in emails, sometimes in the workplace. If I still wrote letters by hand, I’d use them there too. (Hell. I may even use one as a reference for #HMRC to use when I pay my corporation tax later today.) I know they’re neither clickable nor useful. But they can add humour. Even on Twitter, I’ll use hashtags that are useless for humour value.

Wife watching programme about women who were convicted of the murder of their husbands. She is criticising them for being “sloppy”. #nervous

So to me, the article missed the point of the hashtag entirely. They’re a wonderful introduction that adds playfulness to the English language.


Grammatical standards in ebooks

I am a big fan of my Kindle. I’ve read countless ebooks over the last two years since buying it. Not literally – I guess I could count them. I just choose not to. (This despite writing a rather damning post upon their introduction back in 2007.)

But I’ve noticed that in publishing ebooks, authors seem to be bypassing an important step that was rarely bypassed in the production of the printed book: proofreading.

I’ve read quite a few works of fiction over the last few months. And every single one falls short of the mark. There are words in the wrong order, words that are missing completely, hyphens in place of en dashes, British spellings creeping into an otherwise American style guide, and countless (more literally) other niggling gripes. Sometimes I’ve seen three or four errors on a single page, which given that Kindle pages are less text-heavy than standard book pages, is rather unsettling.

(For the grammar stalwarts among you, a recent book I read started all parenthetical clauses with an en dash but finished them with a hyphen – frustrating in the extreme.)

As well as making publishing more accessible to the masses, the Kindle has lowered the standards needed for a work to be published. And future generations will note the sudden drop in standards that electronic book publishing brought about.

A crying shame. But a trend that will continue, I fear.

Grammatical standards by medium

For me, each written communication medium comes with its own grammatical rules of engagement. Here are those that I employ, in descending order of formality:

What are your rules?

Fucking Hobnobs

Earlier today, my friend Paul Clarke tweeted thus:

There are few challenges that cannot be surmounted with the aid of a dark chocolate Hob Nob.

I corrected him, suggesting that HobNob was one word, camel case. My source: Wikipedia. (Topical.) Discussion ensued, and I think it was settled that that the current standard is actually Hobnob—one word, no camel-casing.

The reason for the confusion was that the McVitie’s branding is inconsistent. It seems that it’s changed over the years, switching from HobNob to Hobnob. The current standard is certainly Hobnob.

As such, I’ve spent part of my Friday evening updating the Hobnob Wikipedia page to reflect the revised branding.


The proof is in the pudding. Or some such

Among other things, I am a proofreader. And it’s a profession for which many elements might have been commoditised by the internet.

If you’re unsure whether to use affect or effect (or indeed effect), then it’s easy to find out on the internet. Is it yours or your’s? (Ouch, that hurt.) Again, the internet is your friend. Google will tell you.

But the issue is twofold. People don’t know what needs checking. And even if they did, many wouldn’t have the wherewithal to check it.

One day, proofreading will become a true commodity. Upload a document and download it in perfect English. (If the document itself is a crock of shit, this attribute will remain.) In the meantime, you know where I am.

Shop names: an idiot’s guide

Here’s a little advice for you, to make your lives more rewarding and mine less frustrating. It relates to how shop names should be said and written. Here goes.

Asda and Tesco are singular. There is never a need to saying you’re going to Asdas, unless you’re going to Asdas up and down the country in search for the last remaining Pokemon on Christmas Eve. If you need to pluralise Tesco in such a way, it’s Tescos.

McDonald’s and Sainsbury’s should both be written and said such. I went to McDonald’s. While this is a lie, it’s at least grammatically correct. In writing, avoid at all costs using these with a possessive apostrophe, as this is how wormholes are created. Talk of the profits that McDonald’s made, not of McDonald’s’ profits, or however it might be written.

Marks and Spencer doesn’t have an S at the end. Feel free to abbreviate to Markses, but only if you want to go to Hell.

That is all.

Language: if in doubt, blame the Americans

Yesterday, the BBC published an article titled “Americanisms: 50 of your most noted examples“. It included 50 “Americanisms” sent in by the ill-educated British public—together with 1,295 comments—before it closed the forum. Some highlights from the 50:

Most of the people that commented, I expect, are British sticklers ill-at-ease with change, writing letters on a regular basis to the Telegraph and Points of View. (Apparently, it’s still on air! Who knew?) But many are ill-educated buffoons of the opinion that any phrase that grates must be down to the Yanks. In actual fact, a good number of the top 50 entries constitute either language changes through business use, or Olde English words that have fallen out of British English usage, but that still form part of the American lexicon.

So people: get over yourselves. Stop blaming the Americans for the beautiful enhancement of our shared language. British and American English should live together in harmony, each celebrating its quirks, but not disparaging the other for infiltrating its own with a phrase that has become common parlance. Oh, and here’s my post on developing a single written version of English.

End of.

Single space: the final frontier

Right now, I am a troubled little soul.

You see, I was taught at school that there should be much space in between sentences. Indeed my teacher at the time, in the days of yore before computers were standard issue, literally applied a rule of thumb: there should be a full thumb’s width between a full stop and the subsequent sentence. Even with my rather petite thumbs, this amounted to quite a hefty gap.

On the second day, God invented computers—PCs in the morning; Macs and handheld devices in the afternoon, I believe. To allow me to move beyond my first typed sentence, I subconsciously—if I don’t remember correctly—converted the SI unit of space measurement in the handwritten world (the thumb) into two spaces in the space age, for want of a better phrase. (I’m laughing at that one, even if you’re not.) And ever since the mid-1980s, sentences emanating from my fingers have been succeeded by a double-tap of my right thumb.

(I later discovered that my mum has ever used three spaces, a behaviour that I can only describe as deranged (in the loving sense, of course), similarly deranged to the way in which sticklers will no doubt describe my own double-space habit.)

I always thought it was a style thing, a view likely encouraged by my mum’s quirky behaviour on this front. But my behaviour has drawn an increasing number of frowns of late. Those in the world of publishing—both online and offline—have reliably informed me that such behaviour is not to be accepted, and that one space is the standard.

This is a revelation that I’m happy, nay eager, to embrace. But I expect it will be my equivalent of giving up smoking. Or putting your socks on in the opposite order to which you generally do it (my modus operandi is left, right, btw). It sounds easy. But it’s not. For the split second for which my right foot is besocked and my left one is bare, my world is in utter turmoil.

I will need a support mechanism to help me through the months ahead, to unlearn something that has been a subconscious action for well over half my life.

If you catch me using two spaces, please take me to one side and slap me gently across the face. I expect it will be a rough ride, but I’m hoping you can help me reach the other side a stronger and better person.

Proofreaders: know your game

Proofreading is unique.  Unique in the sense that as well as your CV and cover letter/email containing all of the specifics of your career and experience, they also embody the quality of your work.  Before you’ve even been invited in for an interview, I’ve had a small taster for how good you are at submitting error-free documents.

Yet it’s frightening how many people have emailed me recently asking for work in this very area—my business specialises in document editing—only for their covering emails to be littered with errors.  Admittedly, if I’d received the emails from people outside the field, people not looking for related work, I would have let the mistakes pass me by.  But their context has meant that I’ve either responded with some heartfelt, cotton wool-lined guidance, or responded with a pleasantry only to confine the email to the Never hire folder.  (Actually, the latter step is a given.)

Paragraphs have lacked closing periods, proofreader has been written as two words (yet as a single word within the same email), the Oxford comma has been used whimsically, appearing in some places but not in others, hyphens have appeared instead of em dashes, and quotation marks have been used in instances where one might not even expect someone to sign them in a bar with their hands.

Some (all?) of these points might sound pedantic.  And they are.  But then proofreading is all about pedantry, and if you can’t get your covering email right, what hope do I have that you’ll fare any better with a client’s document?

My name’s Dan and I read my own blog

It’s a bit sad, isn’t it? But I subscribe to my own blog in Google Reader. And I read most of the posts that appear there.

Before publishing a post, I’ll preview it, allowing me to assess the prose before it is exposed to its audience, however small that audience may be. This gives me the opportunity to correct any issues with flow, and any howlers I may have made along the way.

And some time after I’ve hit the Publish button, the post will pop up in Google Reader. And invariably, I’ll read it in its entirety. Occasionally, I’ll spot a mistake that slipped through the net—I find my own work the most difficult to proofread, as I’m too close to it—but more importantly, I’ll read it as an audience member, given the delay since having read it.

And I like little better than stumbling upon old posts from years back to see what I had to say. I’m happy to say that my writing has improved over the last five years, as has by my grammar. Notwithstanding, I enjoy the things I had to say back then.

I’d be interested as to whether others out there read their own work.

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