Some words seem to lead to confusion. Alert yourself to the problems surrounding underestimation and you will spare everyone a lot of grief, says Humphrey Evans.

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Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.

All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans. 



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In the 1978 film of The 39 Steps, the one with Robert Powell as Hannay, Timothy West, playing a pompous politician, orotundly holds forth after one or other of the assassinations carried out by dastardly Prussians: "No-one will underestimate the significance of the death of Lord Harkness."

For once someone, admittedly with legions of scriptwriters behind him, is using underestimated correctly. Keep an eye on what happens in broadcasting and in newspapers, particularly in quotes, and you will soon find how problematical a word it is.

Right after England won the Rugby World Cup, a tv commentator celebrated the achievement with the worryingly problematical statement: "The fact that they've beaten Australia in Australia, on their home ground, cannot be underestimated."

A newspaper refers to a scientist as saying that Francis Crick's work on DNA cannot be underestimated.

A magazine quotes a business travel executive, slagging off video conferencing, as saying "One cannot underestimate the importance of personal contact in business."

An animal rights activist laughing at the efforts of investigators trying to trap his group says: "We cannot underestimate the stupidity of our enemy."

The director of a long-running sports round-up on American cable identifies the reason for its success: "You cannot underestimate the importance of being first."

And an article on how to buy beds starts with the proposition that the importance of your bed cannot be underestimated.

You can see what is going wrong - people want to emphasise something and it is turning upside down on them. Personally, I blame the near double negative that is nearly always involved. People are not very good at handling negative constructions.

Here is another example. Liverpool manager Gérard Houllier, commenting upon his opponents before the 2001 Uefa cup final, said: "We cannot underestimate Alaves."

Now he is working in English as his second language so has every excuse. Subs should always help these second-language speakers and writers slide over into something approaching their first language fluency. Here you could substitute: "We should not underestimate . . ." In other circumstances you might ram in an "overestimate" if that is what you reckon the speaker or writer really intends.

Always take a second look at underestimate. That might have helped the poor old Guardian when it had to apologise for a leader run the day after the September 11 atrocities. It really didn't mean what it printed: "The hurt that all Americans must feel today cannot be underestimated."


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.



And if you want to use a photograph taken with a subeditor's sensibilities, go to and put prettygoodpics into the search box. Enter BBFBKK to find this picture of one of the heritage site gasometers in behind London's King's Cross station.


How to spot a mad art director

Subs have got to get on with designers, but they still have to assert the importance of presenting the text well, says Humphrey Evans.

A designer who is sensitive to text is a treasure to be cherished and a joy to work with. Unfortunately subeditors sometimes come up against those who fall short of this ideal.

Designers are visual people. The problematic ones don't read. They think of text as just another element in their design and an annoying one at that. Quite a lot would prefer to be handling Japanese, which you can run down the page in solid blocks, as opposed to English, which goes horizontally and is aggravatingly unsymmetric.

Give yourself some guidelines for working with designers.

Trust them to have good ideas, for instance, but don't trust their spelling one inch. And double that in spades for left-handed designers. You are the one to take responsibility for spelling.

Some years back, the Observer colour magazine perpetrated the 36pt coverline "Whatever happened to the eligible batchelors of the 1960s?" The basic answer appeared to be drink and early death but that intrusive "t" turned sadness into soup opera. My suspicion is that the front cover was seen as the art department's bailiwick and the subs never took a proper look at it.

Keep an eye on readability. One notoriously trendy designer, brilliant at front covers, has casually stated that he doesn't consider it a designer's responsibility to ensure that text on the page can be read. Hired to redesign a political magazine he specified tight-set Bodoni. Two issues later they had to undesign the redesign. Readers complained the text twinkled at them like an op-art painting.

Ask your editor to lay down some basic rules. Text reversed out of 4-colour must be bold, for instance, as any lesser weight will end up producing an unreadable colour-fringed mess.

Text overprinted on a picture must be limited to the plainer parts, such as cloudless skies. Proof it out in black and white. If it doesn't read in black and white it won't read in colour. Bear in mind that 5 per cent of your male readers are colour blind.

Captions should be in at least the text size, and possibly larger. They are, after all, what the readers read first.

What's the point, you can always ask, of paying subs to slave over text if you're going to print it in a way that leaves readers unable to read it?

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Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.

All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.



Let word play add gaiety

Life on the subs' desk benefits from the occasional laugh. Allowing words to entertain you can actually enhance your skills, says Humphrey Evans.

Stewardesses offers subeditors some relief from those mid-shift torpors. Just type the word into your computer - if necessary you can disguise it as part of a passing article - and note the oddity that you did it with your left hand only, if, that is, you touch type. Stewardesses is possibly the longest English word you can do that with. Fun, eh?

A writer named Dallas Wiebe has pushed the Stewardesses left-handed idea out to 800 words with an account of some sort of badass dinner party titled Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe, something you can think about trying to beat if you have a dead afternoon and like words along the lines of asseverated and watercress.

I learnt about stewardesses from a Nancy Banks-Smith TV review in the Guardian. Dexter Weaver showed up in a book, Oulipo Compendium, edited by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie, devoted to a grouping of writers, mainly French, who thought that constraints of various kinds might stimulate creativity.

One Oulipo member, Georges Perec, produced a full-length novel, La Disparition, written without using the letter e. It has been translated into English, by Gilbert Adair, as A Void. Translation itself demonstrates the kind of word awareness that might benefit any sub. In the Astérix cartoons, for instance, A's dog answers to Idéefix: the English translation renders that as Dogmatix. Lovely.

Subverting any given form provides a momentary uplift to the spirits as you stumble across formulations such as There was a young man from Peru / Whose limericks stopped at line two. It takes you off into other worlds, say that of the American writer Dorothy Parker, who named her canary Onan, because he spilt his seed upon the ground.

And it makes you very conscious of tone and register, something that endlessly has to be watched when you are working with other people's words. The Compendium shows where tone can take you by reprinting Richard Curtis's Skinhead Hamlet. That's the version where Hamlet expires with the line: "I'm fucked. The rest is fucking silence."

Of course, your bosses may be less than happy to find subeditors gaining enjoyment from their work, but let's burn that bridge when we get to it.


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.

All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.

Humphrey Evans has put together a number of Kindle eBooks. Quite a lot of the material on this website has gone into two of them, making it available in what you may find a more convenient format. These two are:

Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors

More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors

For more straightforward explication of what subediting involves turn to:

Subedit: 25 Instructories for Anyone Who has to Sub

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Writing wrongs spoils texts

By all means set out to improve what a writer has written, but step back from change for the sake of change, says Humphrey Evans.

Good subs know that the best way of dealing with many pieces is to leave well enough alone. Check the spelling, tidy up any really awful grammar and that's about it. Job done. Time to devote to the pieces that really need it. Best of all, if you haven't made any changes, you can't have introduced any mistakes.

A piece of mine was used not so long ago by one of those magazines that go out with the Sunday papers. In it I mentioned that people who know me also know not to ring while CSI is on. The published version says Holby City. Why did they change that?

Another writer who has done his share of subbing in the past tells of writing an article in which he described how some singer-songwriter had a piano craned into her apartment through the window. Bösendorfer is what he wrote: someone changed it to Steinway.

In a piece I wrote about the books on sale at a Beijing hotel bookstall - built around the observation that the unlikely centrepiece of the display was a beautifully bound volume titled Intellectual Property Law of the Chinese Peoples' Republic - I mentioned the more normal fare tucked away at the back. Among them, I noted, were a couple of books by Geoffrey Archer and I added a comment about this being a wonderful name for an airport novelist. Whoever subbed that destroyed what minimal joke there was by changing the spelling to Jeffrey.

Eventually, this kind of meddling can blow up in a subeditor's face. One writer rang me distraught over what had happened to an article. She is well known in her field, respected, yet somehow the piece had come out, in a magazine that she saw as significant, as a travesty of what she had written.

"Complain to the editor," I said. "I can't do that," she answered, with the perennial fear of the freelance. "I'll never work for the magazine again." But she did complain, a long letter outlining every horrific mangling of her meaning. And she got a letter back. "Thank you," it said. "I've been wanting to fire that sub for a long time and your letter has given me the leverage I need."

There is a downside to getting a reputation as a wrecking sub.


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Quotes to quote

Conventions on using punctuation around quotations often appear tricky, so go looking for guidance on how to handle quote marks, says Humphrey Evans.

Punctuation around quotes can produce turmoil in even the calmest of subbing teams as people realise others are doing it differently. One way to develop consensus is to collect samples from other publications.

In these four examples, the increasing emphasis on the break between the reporting clause, the "who said it" bit, and the quote itself throws greater and greater attention on the fact that something is being quoted.

The grammarian said punctuation requires study.

The student asked "Why is the punctuation around quotes so complicated?"

The writer said, "A comma separates introduction and quote."

The subeditor advocated another approach: "A colon marks the break, particularly when in apposition."

Remember that readers grasp the significance of a quote only when they are aware of who the speaker is.

Our journalism tutor said, "Tell your readers who the speaker is before giving the quote." Writers should bear this in mind when tempted to start an article with a quote.

"If, later on, you let the speaker's identification slide to the middle of a quoted sentence," the tutor added, "use commas to show the sense flows on."

The editor laid down the law: 'This publication uses single quotes, but double quotes within those single quotes if referring to something like the title of a poem such as Brian Patten's "Little Johnny's Confession".' An American colleague pointed out: 'In America, that full stop would have gone inside the quotes to give "Little Johnny's Confession."'

Part quotes within a longer overall sentence give particular problems.

"Look," said the copy-editor, "decide whether the punctuation belongs to the quote or to the sentence within which it appears. Looking for where the main verb falls can help."

The reporter asked: "Did the defendant say, 'Not guilty'?"

The journalism tutor said that journalistic writing should run from "left to right". The idea is that "readers should never need to cast their minds back to revise their understanding of what they have read."


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Put commas in their place

Get on top of the comma if you want your punctuation to help the reader easily extract the intended meaning of some text, says Humphrey Evans.

Commas are pesky little varmints, either popping up unwanted everywhere you look or going missing when needed.

First latch on to the idea that in journalistic writing they mark grammatical units rather than pauses or breaths. That instantly reduces the urge to sprinkle them around.

Next give yourself a sense of some of the simpler usages, say in lists such as this, that and the other. In British journalism, commas come between the items in the list - you can think of them as standing in for an 'and' - but not in front of the 'and' that attaches the final item.

Americans do have some tendency to put a comma there, which means you have to have a serious talk with any Americans turning up in your office or you'll all fall prey to the horrors of a proof war, with them putting commas in and you taking them out. It's called a serial or Oxford comma, but even Oxford University these days is advising its academics not to use it.

However, always think of the reader. Where a list features more complex items, perhaps themselves containing an 'and', do bring that extra comma into play, say when listing departed department stores such as Bourne and Hollingsworth, Marshall and Snelgrove, and Derry and Toms.

Also register the ways that commas can corral bits of sentences. A single comma can cut off something separate at the beginning or end of a sentence, as here. Doubled-up commas indicate that a section of a sentence, whether short or long, could be dropped right out as inessential to the meaning, although useful extra information.

Subeditors justify their employment by putting in the second comma that writers, particularly under pressure are prone to leave out. See, I've just left out the one that should go after pressure.

Watch out, especially, to make sure commas never cut off the subject of a sentence from its verb. This, however you dress it up cannot be right. Either drop that comma, or put one after the word 'up' to cancel it out.


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.

All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.

Caps are the darndest things

Friction over capitalisation pits publications which prefer lower case against status seekers demanding their caps. Look for ways to take the heat out of such unstructured confrontations, says Humphrey Evans.

Capital letters are firmly Style Guide territory. Take a decision, record it and live with it: don't let festering disagreements spill over into inconsistencies.

Editors taking these decisions do so against the background of a general trend in British journalism. We have been moving from the Germanic capping up of lots of significant words more towards the French model of minimal capitalisation, although there is still some way to go - look at the difference between rue de Rivoli and Regent Street.

Generally, the closer something gets to being a name or a specific designation, the more likely it is to be capped up. Ascriptions which are less personal, such as job titles, will be left lower case. So, we get President Bush but, perhaps, George Bush, the US president, or Mayor Livingstone but Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London.

Such decisions will differ from one publication to another and some have gone further than others along the de-cap route. Private Eye now puts the home secretary in charge of the home office, which strikes me as unhelpful as it fails to differentiate the institution from the space freelances like to work in.

Real problems, however, come for journalists exposed to non-journalistic influences, particularly people working for ego-ridden bodies such as local councils, the European Parliament and large corporations. Subs working in such environments have to put up with pompous blowhards barging into the office shouting "You've lower cased me."

Again, the Style Guide is the route to salvation - but you now need to negotiate it with someone with the clout to enforce it. If a CEO agrees to become a lower-cased chief executive officer, you're home and dry. More probably you'll have to accept a compromise where just the top half-dozen posts get capped (all those above the editor in the hierarchy) while lower-ranking staff don't. But should you be working for an organisation where galloping capitalitis has taken hold, try not to let it upset you. If life's too short to stuff a mushroom, it's far too short to waste time arguing over majuscules and minuscules.


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How shall we use will?

Shall and will refuse to settle down but you can give yourself as a writer or editor some guidance on how to handle them, says Humphrey Evans.

Black Dwarf, the radical UK newspaper, launched itself into the middle of the political maelstrom that was 1968. Writing a commemorative piece 40 years later, one of the prime movers quoted the slogan featured on the cover of the first issue: WE SHALL FIGHT / WE SHALL WIN. Sadly for him, a reproduction of that cover appeared alongside: WE SHALL FIGHT / WE WILL WIN.

Shall and will, it seems, can confuse anybody.

People will tell you there is a rule, although it is far from simple. For straightforward futurity you say or write: I or we shall; you, he, she, it or they will. You reverse this when assertion of command or something altogether more subjective involving intention or volition takes over: I or we will; you, he, she, it, they shall.

These same people, however, are then likely to tell you that this distinction only fully applies in southern England, and, even there, only among the more rarefied intellectual classes. Most people get by on will alone.

But shall is still out there.

It's there in the world of high political language, perhaps most famously in the US constitution's first amendment: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

It's there in legal language: "The landlord shall maintain all common areas." And in the language of national and international standards: "All welds shall be inspected." Here it effectively means "must", which is what some legislatures and lawyers have taken to using.

It's there in the prediction of the civil rights anthem: "We shall overcome." In the tentativeness of "Shall we dance?" from the musical The King and I. And in the fairy godmother's promise to Cinderella: "You shall go to the ball."

From my point of view, I've given up. My own rule when editing has become this: whatever anybody writes, leave it be. It's right for them. What I may have to do is establish the overtones and context of what they are up to and make sure the surrounding wordage conveys that meaning. Whether prediction, promise, request, command, requirement, it shall be so.


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Let's stamp out square brackets

Readers should be spared over-fussy conventions that interfere with the journalistic flow, says Humphrey Evans.

Square brackets have their place, but that place, to my mind, is not in journalism. It's in academia. When academics reproduce a quote and need to make an interpolation or slight change, they use square brackets to show that these particular words are not in the original.

Now, however, square brackets have erupted into journalism, presumably because graduate journalists are bringing their university essay training with them, and they seem irritatingly pernickety.

Here's a typical one from Liz Hurley's confession that she does a bit of work on her holiday snaps: "I don't have professional Photoshop [the most widely used image manipulation software], just the one that comes with your camera," she said blithely. "I don't do any slimming, because you need a silly program, but the colour enhancement is heaven."

Doesn't that big clunking bracketed insert just about knock any blitheness on its head?

If you feel the need for the explanation, you can shift it outside the quote marks: "I don't have professional Photoshop," she said blithely, referring to the most widely used image manipulation software, "just the one that comes with your camera."

Here's another set, in a quote where puppeteer and academic David Currell explains why tv puppet programmes with good material appeal regardless of how crummy the puppets are: "[That's because] a puppet is not an actor."

So David Currell did not actually say the words "That's because", although I suspect he could not care two hoots if you put them in for him. If you really are going to stick to some purist principle about quoting only words actually said, then I'd recommend sliding in and out of part quotes - That's because "a puppet is not an actor." This gives you flexibility without inflicting punctuation overload on the reader.

About the only time I like square brackets is when they're used to drop in the writer's own comments. Here's Mike Jempson, director of the MediaWise charity, scoffing at the Press Complaints Commission for the ineffectiveness of its judgements as he quotes from its newsletter: "The cost of failure for a newspaper to comply is not measured in terms of financial damages [whoopee!] but of reputational damage [gee whiz!]."

More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors 

Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.

All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.