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The Elephate Style Guide

Since the publication of “Style Guides, Newsrooms & Deadlines: Delivering Content at Elephate” many people have reached out for access to Elephate’s official Style Guide. Never one to disappoint an audience (they don’t call us “the Best Small SEO Agency” for nothing!), we are posting our most recent version (3.0) here.

Some Notes

This Style Guide was written for Elephate’s in-house writers as an attempt to get everyone on the same page. When I tackled this, I wanted to write the Style Guide as an informal letter to the writers rather than a stuffy formal document that you would force on high school students. And while this project turned into more than a “letter,” I certainly hope that it’s a fun read.

More importantly, the Elephate writers come from all walks of life and are using English as their second or third language – a detail that continues to amaze me when I see what they’re accomplishing in their work every day. This is why there are observations about the differences between Polish and English, which isn’t something usually addressed in typical style guides.

If you have any questions about some of my choices, please feel free to comment below.

 

Table of Contents

I. American English over British English

A. Spelling

B. Grammar
1. Present Simple vs. Present Perfect
2. Verb Endings
3. Collective Nouns
4. Auxiliary Verb: Shall

C. Formality

II. Capitalization (Words and Titles)

A. Words
B. Titles (Words to Capitalize)
C. Titles (Words to Not Capitalize)
D. Examples of Corrected Titles
F. Bonus: Titles as Questions?

III. General Article Use

IV. Publications, Articles, Websites and More

V. Writing and Style

A. Tone and Voice
B. What’s the point?
C. Write Actively, Not Passively
D. Leave a Tip
E. Don’t Force a Joke
F. Quality over Quantity
G. Kill Your Darlings (Edit Yourself)
H. Know Your Audience
I. If You Love It, Show It
J. In Conclusion

VI. Gender Use

VII. Symbols, Punctuation & Emoticons

A. Hyphen-Use
B. Spaces
C. The Dreaded Oxford Comma
D. Numbers
E. Punctuating Bullet Points or Lists
F. Dates
G. Money
H. Acronym Use
I. Ellipsis
J. Using Quote Marks
K. That’s [sic]!
L. Emoticons and Punctuation
M. Other Symbols

VIII. Common Mistakes to Avoid


I. American English over British English

One of the most noticeable problems with the content on Elephate is the inconsistent use of American English and British English. Mismatched spelling and grammar can often occur in the same sentence with sometimes confusing results.

As you already know, the differences between British and American English are substantial. To put this in perspective, the Harry Potter books are translated for American audiences, mostly because many Americans aren’t inherently aware that there are different versions of the language. It’s also why they insist on people speaking “American” when they mean to say “English.”

Now, I’m confident that most of your education with the English language was European-based, and thus your books and material were based on British English. Unfortunately, for good and bad, American English has and continues to control and shape Global English, especially when it comes to online content.

American English should be our preference for content on the Elephate website. The elasticity of American English – particularly in print – should be viewed as an advantage, especially considering the technical nature of our content.

To keep things simple, I want to focus on spelling and grammar, and then wrap it up with formality. Once you fully understand these three areas, I know that the rest will work itself out.

A. Spelling

Let’s start with the easy part. Below are some common words I have come across in our content so far that need to be addressed:

BRITISH SPELLINGAMERICAN SPELLINGBRITISH SPELLINGAMERICAN SPELLING
OptimiseOptimizeTravellingTraveling
OrganiseOrganizeNoughtNaught
BehaviourBehaviorCentreCenter
RecogniseRecognizeMinimiseMinimize
LicenceLicenseFavouriteFavorite

B. Grammar

1. Present Simple vs. Present Perfect

British English tends to take an “additional step” when it comes to tenses. A Brit would say, “I have lost my keys,” (Present Perfect) whereas an American would say, “I lost my keys” (Past Simple). Both versions are equally correct; however, to an American, the British use of present perfect in this context doesn’t flow [1].

BRITISH ENGLISHAMERICAN ENGLISH
Larry has eaten too much at the party.Larry ate too much at the party.
I have already read it.I already read it.

This isn’t to say to do away with present perfect entirely, but to recognize that American speakers rely less on them than British speakers.

2. Verb Endings

Many verbs in the past tense in American English end with -ed, whereas British English utilizes the -t ending. I would say, “I burned down my house,” and someone from England might say, “I had burnt my house down.” I would say, “I dreamed about a unicorn last night,” and they would say, “I had dreamt [2] about a unicorn last night.” While most people know the different endings anyway, the goal here is to be consistent in our writing, so we will be using the -ed ending. Also, unicorn dreams are pretty awesome.

3. Collective Nouns

Collective nouns (army, class, crew) are treated as singular in American English. British English is the opposite most of the time, but they can go either way. Because we want to use American English, we’ll keep it singular.

BRITISH ENGLISHAMERICAN ENGLISH
The band are playing tonight.The band is playing tonight.
The staff are meeting at 11.The staff is meeting at 11.

4. Auxiliary Verb: Shall

The auxiliary verb shall is a victim of the lack of formality in American English. Whereas most Americans understand it, they rarely use it, especially in writing. It sounds clunky.

BRITISH ENGLISHAMERICAN ENGLISH
I shall do it as soon as I return to work.I will do it as soon as I return to work.
Shall we go?Should we go?

C. Formality

The use of present perfect, verb endings, collective nouns, etc. will just feel wrong to American readers, even if they can’t tell you why. And they will sense an additional clunkiness with British English due to formality. Even if a sentence using British English construction isn’t being formal, it will feel formal, and that is more than enough to turn off an American audience.

If the goal of our content is to reach the broadest niche possible, we need to minimize the perceived formality that British English brings to the table, especially in print. If the English feels wrong, we are pushing the readers away from our content.


II. Capitalization (Words and Titles)

A. Words

This is probably the second most common inconsistency we have. Unfortunately, this is a widespread problem that I am seeing with most of our competitors as well. There is a lack of consensus on what words – especially tech-related words – to capitalize. Simple words like internet and web can cause a lot of confusion. Here is a list of words that I’ve seen in our own content that should be addressed (yes, I know some of these are obvious):

internetYouTubeBcc, Cc
web [3]WordPresshomepage
websiteusersWorld Wide Web
AdBlocksocial mediaPolish (all nationalities)
Google/GooglingOnlineGitHub
TwitterEmailFacebook

B. Titles (Words to Capitalize)

Here are some basic rules regarding the capitalization of titles:

  1. Capitalize the first and last words in the title.
  2. Capitalize the most important words in the title.
    • Nouns (Content, Crawlers, Facts)
    • Verbs (Turbocharge, Secure, Know, Tank)
    • Adjectives (Difficult, Easy, Ten)
    • Adverbs (Badly, Honestly, Easily)
    • Pronouns (She, He, They)
    • Subordinating conjunctions (That, As, So)
  3. First word after a dash or hyphen in the title.

C. Titles (Words to Not Capitalize)

Meaning: not the first word of the title:

  1. Articles (a, an, the)
  2. Prepositions; particularly short ones (at, by, on, from)
  3. Coordinating conjunctions (but, and, for)
  4. The second word in a hyphenated word (Click-through)

D. Examples of Corrected Titles

ORIGINAL TITLECORRECTED TITLE
How to determine if website is a good link building opportunityHow to Determine If a Website is a Good Link Building Opportunity
Information architecture and SEO – 5 strategic steps you can take todayInformation Architecture and SEO – 5 Strategic Steps You Can Take
Click-Through Rate is not a ranking factor – case studyClick-through Rate is Not a Ranking Factor – A Case Study
The More Visual Content, The Better VisibilityThe More Visual Content, the Better Visibility
Penguin 3.0 is coming – are you ready for it?Penguin 3.0 is Coming – Are You Ready for It?
Polish link networks penalized (again)Polish Link Networks Penalized (Again)
Negative SEO: don’t be a victimNegative SEO: Don’t Be a Victim
Let luxury brands teach you the art of content marketingLet Luxury Brands Teach You the Art of Content Marketing

E. Bonus: Titles as Questions?

This doesn’t have anything to do with capitalization, but it’s worth pointing out here: the overuse of turning statements into questions in the headlines. It mostly relates to “How to” headlines. Here are some examples from Elephate and beyond:

INCORRECT EXAMPLES
How to Build Relationships for Links?
How to Diagnose Penguin 3.0?
How to create titles compelling to people and why it’s important?
What You Need to Know About Penguin?

We can see how this mistake happens, but it’s important to recognize that these examples are not questions.


III. General Article Use

As a teacher with over a decade’s experience teaching in Poland, please understand the following: EVERY Polish student, whether they are A1 or C2, has difficulty with articles in English. The same can be said about prepositions, but articles are more problematic because you simply don’t have them in Polish. And while there are rules for article use to guide you, the exceptions to every rule generally offer more confusion than assistance. The point is, if you are struggling with this issue, you are not alone.

That said, let me offer you some guidance to better help your content writing based on what I’ve seen from the website:

Incorrect Article UseCorrect Article Use
For an example,For example,
Few examplesA few examples
An information belowThe information below
From technical point of viewFrom a technical point of view
Use Content Ideator toolUse the Content Ideator tool, or Content Ideator
A most important part of thisThe most important part of this
SEO agencyAn SEO agency
TF*IDF algorithmThe TF*IDF algorithm, or TF*IDF
UnGagged conferenceThe UnGagged conference, or UnGagged
It’s a perfect solution for usersIt’s the perfect solution for users
I cannot treat those drops as a proof for PenguinI cannot treat those drops as proof for Penguin
a pure definition of a “paid link”the pure definition of a “paid link”


IV. Publications, Articles, Websites and More

Here is a quick chart on how to format publications, articles, websites, and more in our articles.

What is it?How to format it in an article?Examples
Newspapers ItalicsWe earned front page coverage in Gazeta Wyborcza.
Magazines ItalicsThe article was published in the latest Newsweek.
Articles“in quotations”The best article in the latest Newsweek was “Interview with a Cat Lover.”
WebsitesItalicsThe social impact of Twitter and Facebook is enormous.
MoviesItalicsI recently watched Fight Club after reading a review at IMDB.
TV ShowsItalicsI binge watched all of Stranger Things on Netflix
YouTube Videos“in quotations”“OMG he totally crashed” is one of the most popular videos on YouTube.


V. Writing and Style

A. Tone and Voice

Most of the writing on the Elephate website is meant to educate readers on specific trends while establishing a trust with Elephate. Bartosz has instilled his voice in most of the writing with a friendly and informal style that’s to-the-point, straightforward and personable. It’s also positive. This is a good template to follow as we evolve the house brand.

However, it’s equally important that you work in your own voice and personality into your writing. Your knowledge filtered through your unique perspective is the most valuable thing we have here at Elephate, so let’s start taking advantage of it.

B. What’s the point?

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably been asking yourself this very question. I know.

When laying out the topic you want to write about, you need to ask yourself “what is the point of this article?” and then make sure you follow through to the end. Keep in mind that the conclusion of the article should reinforce this point.

Often times, as you get into the writing, you find yourself going in a lot of different directions. When this happens, you need to look at every section, paragraph, sentence, and so on and consider if it reinforces or distracts from the main point of the article. If an entire section is a tangent away from the point, then remove it (but keep it! You may be able to use it in another article in the future).

One of the consistent problems with the submitted articles here at Elephate is that the articles don’t follow through with one goal. Sometimes there are two or three articles being pushed into one. And other times you’re literally introducing new concepts in the conclusion.

And that’s why Kardashians will become extinct by 2050.

C. Write Actively, Not Passively

Use the active voice over the passive voice. There’s a difference between “The user logged into the account” and “The account was logged into by the user.” Be careful when you are overusing words like by and was, as that might be a clue that you’re leaning to heavily into the passive voice.

D. Leave a Tip

While we can never guarantee that every reader is going to understand every article, there should be at least one golden nugget in every piece – a small fact, anecdote or observation that makes the reader feel smarter for having read it. I call this leaving a tip (hat tip to Billy Crystal), something the reader can take with them when they walk away from a story.

Did you know that a Smurf is three apples high? Did you know that Teddy Bears were named after Theodore Roosevelt? Did you know that Mars is the only planet with a 100% robot population? A lot of times, the value of a piece isn’t determined by its ability to educate, but rather by its ability to make the reader feel smart.

For instance, you might hate this style guide with all your heart, but you might still be thankful that you learned that dreamt is the only word in English ending with -mt.

E. Don’t Force a Joke

Humor can be a great tool, especially when you’re writing about something that might be dry and boring. Readers don’t traditionally expect a lot of personality or humor in technical writing and it can be another way of leaving a tip. That said, don’t try and force it. If a joke comes to you organically while writing, then chances are it’s going to work. But if you are sitting at the computer trying to force a joke somewhere in the piece, then it’s more than likely that the reader will sense that you were trying too hard.

F. Quality over Quantity

We are living in a burst culture, which means that there are an infinite amount of entertainment possibilities and we only have a finite amount of time to consume it all.  If you’re a music lover, you must come to terms with the fact that you will never experience every song [4]. The same can be said for books, movies, television shows, and so on. Factor in the severe fragmentation of the internet due to social media and the like, and what you have is a generation of people making conscious choices about how they consume entertainment (why spend 60+ hours reading all the Harry Potter books when you can get a similar experience watching the movies in less than 20 hours?).

Anyway, while length is important to good content (and good links, of course), none of that really matters to the average reader. If that scroll bar on the left is too long, or that article requires a reader to click through five pages, there’s a very good chance that most readers won’t be there at the end of the piece.

G. Kill Your Darlings (Edit Yourself)

Edit yourself. There is no such thing as a perfect first draft. And don’t be afraid to delete that one paragraph that you love if it means it will make the article work better.

And while it’s important to care about what you’re writing, don’t get too precious with your work, especially when it finally comes to me and I start the editing process.

H. Know Your Audience

Understand who you are writing to and take them into consideration. This is particularly important when it comes to the niche audience you’re writing for. Do I need to be specific or general? Do I need to explain every thing or can I assume the readers will already know this information?

I. If You Love It, Show It

I know that content writing isn’t the most exciting thing in the world. It can be laborious and often dry. When you are writing about something you know and love, then show it in your work. Show us why it’s worth getting excited about. It can make all the difference in the world in the final product.

J. In Conclusion

Whether it’s to “Sum Up,” “In Summary” or “In Conclusion,” make sure you know how to end your article. I’ve been reading too many articles with endings that feel like the beginning of another piece entirely. When you started the article, you should have had an idea what you were aiming to communicate, so if that’s not being mentioned in the wrap up, then maybe you need to step back and look at your article again.


VI. Gender Use

The world is changing and the way we write needs to change with it. We need to avoid using he/she, s/he and (s)he, as well as his/her, in our content. Not only is it distracting to the reader, but it’s fast becoming outdated. The options-approach (like: Dear Sir or Madam,) is problematic because in its attempt to be all inclusive, it invariably becomes all exclusive – that is, what it doesn’t include outweighs what is included.

Also, it’s important to remember that the words sex and gender are not interchangeable. Sex is meant to refer to male and female, whereas gender refers to masculine and feminine, usually in relation to social expectations and behavior.

Do not use “guys” to address an audience, “man” to address a reader, and “girls” to label a group of women.

Use gender-neutral job titles, especially when speaking generally:

INCORRECT USECORRECT USE
A businessman may have an advantage in a startup.A businessperson may have an advantage in a startup. OR: A person in business may have…

For the purposes of our writing, we will use the singular they, and thus, use them, their and themselves:

INCORRECT USECORRECT USE
Your content writer can create his/her own account.Your content writer can create their own account.
If a user is considering signing up, he/she can…If a user is considering signing up, they can…

Remember, the writer’s intent and the reader’s response are usually two different things. Let’s not create any opportunities – especially today – for a misunderstanding, especially those that are within our control.


VII. Symbols, Punctuation & Emoticons

A. Hyphen-Use

Like capitalization, hyphen use is another area where no one seems to agree on anything. For example, CTR is either clickthrough rate or click-through rate depending on the writer.

Click-worthy
Web-based
Click-through
Follow-up (noun, adjective)

B. Spaces

We will use only ONE space at the end of every sentence. Not two. One. Two spaces at the end of a sentence is your way of communicating that you hate life. It’s like someone coming to a party with a ukulele: they want to party, but they clearly don’t know how.

C. The Dreaded Oxford Comma

This is a controversial topic for grammar nerds. The Oxford comma has become a lot like a gall bladder – a lot of people have discovered they can live without it. Many institutions have gone as far as to ban it from use. We will not be one of those institutions. Not using it causes more confusion than not.

INCORRECT USECORRECT USE
The advantages for using this program are x, y and z.The advantages for using this program are x, y, and z.

D. Numbers

Spell out the number in words for one to ten. Write the number for 11 and beyond. Note: this does not apply to expressions in English, like A picture is worth a thousand words

Use commas for any number over 3 digits: $100,000.

Use a period or full stop to indicate time or size: 3.7 seconds and 1.8 GB

Spell out words for first, second and so on up to tenth. Use numbers and -st, -nd, -rd, and -th for larger numbers.

E. Punctuating Bullet Points or Lists

The best way to punctuate lists and/with bullet points:

  • is to use a period for a sentence that finishes the above introduction.
  • Use a period for every item that is a proper sentence.

Try not to use punctuation for sentence fragments. And especially don’t mix fragments with complete sentences in the same list.

If you are listing off short words or phrases, there is no need to punctuate.

Working for Elephate is:

  • Fun
  • Exciting
  • Never boring

F. Dates

When writing dates, use numbers (1, 2, 3…) instead of ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd…).

EXAMPLES
Our new website went live on November 15.
On November 15, 2017, our new website went live.

Do not use an apostrophe when writing about decades:

INCORRECT USECORRECT USE
The internet was a different place in the 90’s.The internet was a different place in the 90s.

G. Money

Always use figures and symbols for percentages (%), measurements (m, cm) and currency ($).

H. Acronym Use

It’s nearly impossible to write content about SEO without using acronyms [5]. When using acronyms, please translate the acronym the first time it is used in an article in parentheses, and then continue to use the acronym throughout the rest of the text. When pluralizing acronyms, do not use apostrophes (SERP’s → SERPs; PM’s → PMs). And remember, it’s not like it’s TEOTWAWKI.

I. Ellipsis

An ellipsis is a set of three dots (…) designed to indicate to readers of an omission from a quoted text, or – what is more often the case online – to suggest a pause in your writing.

When using an ellipsis to indicate the former, please put a space between the dots:

ELLIPSIS TO INDICATE OMMISSION
An ellipsis is a set of three dots (…) designed to indicate to readers of an omission from a quoted text, or . . . to suggest a pause in your writing.

And when using an ellipsis to do the latter, which to be honest, should be sparingly, it is not necessary to use a space between the dots:

ELLIPSIS TO A PAUSE
And the winner is…you guessed it, no one. No one won. We are all losers.

What is paramount is that you don’t ellipsis-crazy in your writing, like this:

WHAT NOT TO DO WITH AN ELLIPSIS
And the winner is…………………………. you guessed it, no one!!!!!!!!

The above example is a great way to inform the reader of how much the writer hates their life.

J. Using Quote Marks

Another difference between American English and British English is their use of quotation marks, or inverted commas. British English utilizes the single ‘quote’ mark, whereas American English uses the double “quote” mark. For the purposes of our writing, we will be using the double mark.

That said, if you are getting Inception-like using a quote inside a quote, then you can use the single mark:

THE INCEPTION QUOTE MARK
She said, “The rollout should happen next year, barring ‘unforeseen circumstances,’ as John mentioned.”

As you can see in the example above, when ending a sentence with a quotation mark, please put the punctuation inside the quote.

INCORRECT USECORRECT USE
Google assured us that “Googlebot will crawl JavaScript sites”.Google assured us that “Googlebot will crawl JavaScript sites.”

The exception to the aforementioned example is when you are, for instance, explaining how to use a program and you are using quote marks to indicate buttons or functions:

AN EXCEPTION
Once you put the information into the relevant fields, hit “Submit”.

K. That’s [sic]!

When quoting something that has a mistake in it, please identify the error with [sic] to let the reader know that you’re quoting something directly, mistake and all.

Here is a good example:

Let’s say we are describing something from the above image:

CORRECT USE OF [SIC]
You can view the details under “Does not uses [sic] Images with appropriate aspect ratio”.

L. Emoticons and Punctuation

While we might want to minimize the use of emoticons in our official content (depending on formality and voice, of course), it is important to treat emoticons as punctuation: meaning it is unnecessary to add punctuation after the emoticon 😊

Also, like a comedian saying a shocking word in a set, use emoticons purposely and sparingly for greater effect.

M. Other Symbols

Do not use # for number, as in the # of downloads.

When using etc. at the end of a list, place a comma before etc., as in the colors are red, blue, etc.

VIII. Common Mistakes to Avoid

Here are some common mistakes to avoid in your writing.

  • Chrome Developer Tools is a compound noun and is treated singular.
  • Despite what you see online, “should of” is not the same as “should’ve.”
  • Avoid misusing these confusing words [6]:
YourYou’reItsIt’s
ToTooThanThen
TheirThere/They’reAffectEffect
AcceptExceptLooseLose
AdviseAdviceWhoseWho’s

 

  • Be careful with learn and teach.
  • Thesis is not the same as hypothesis. Also, you don’t have a theory, you have a hypothesis. If you say, “I have a theory that this pizza is gluten free,” you are putting this hypothesis regarding a pizza at the same level of Einstein’s theory of relativity.
  • Avoid the confusion between good and well. For instance, you can’t eat good, you can only eat well.
  • Do not use irregardless. Simply use regardless.
  • It’s “in regard to” and not “in regards to.”
  • For the purposes of our writing, we are going to treat data as singular (Meaning: The data is…). Yeah, I know. Deal with it.
  • Delete the comma before and after the word that. You’ll be right more often than wrong.
  • Years old vs. Year old: “Adam, who is 60 years old, is dating a 20 year old.”
  • Use people instead of persons.
  • Be careful with said and told: She told us everything he said.
  • In formal letter/email writing, don’t sweat the difference between sincerely, best regards, and faithfully. No one knows the difference anymore.
  • The rules say you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t worry about it.
  • It’s a lot, never alot.
  • Despite what politicians like to tell us, companies and corporations are not people. Do not refer to them as they.
  • Understand that at the end of your article, the CONCLUSION or IN SUMMARY is often the summarizing of the main point of your writing followed by its natural conclusion, whereas WRAPPING UP is more informal and allows you room to creatively conclude the article.
  • Fundamentally, it’s not about using English perfectly, but being consistent and understood. Do not lose sleep trying to learn the language perfectly for people who do not use it perfectly themselves.

[1] I hate to use “flow” here when it comes to writing, but it’s a simple way of addressing the simple fact that native speakers of English often know their language without understanding its mechanics. So when an American, for instance, hears/reads “I have lost my keys,” they recognize that something is off without understanding why. The goal of our writing should not only aim for grammatical perfection (whatever that is these days), but smoothness as well.

[2] FUN FACT: Dreamt is the only word in English that ends with -mt.

[3] Not capitalizing internet and web is recent and has been accepted by most major tech publications.

[4] FUN FACT: There are over 40 million songs on Apple Music, which is over 200 years of listening.

[5] See what I did there?

[6] Especially for native speakers of English and autocorrect.

Published
  • 17 May 2018
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