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issue 46

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Training Bulletin Issue 46

The computer made me do it!

Who is old enough to remember what work was like before computers? Hands up! I’ll confess, I date back to the ancient times of Tippex and carbon paper, with typists trying to decode my awful handwriting, then sending me typed reports with copies on flimsy paper to check and correct.

Try watching a movie from over 20 years ago that is set in an office. Or the TV series, Mad Men. Computers have completely changed the office landscape, but that’s not all they’ve changed. We work very differently these days, and of especial relevance to this bulletin, we write differently.

So how has the computer changed the way we write? Well, for a start, who remembers putting full stops after abbreviations? Mr., Dr., etc., e.g., all tend these days to be written without any punctuation at all. Should we even care?

I think we should, because all organisations are judged, to a certain extent, by their written work. So we need to know what is considered correct these days, and what looks old-fashioned. Read on for other ways in which computers have changed the way we write.

Capitalising titles and headings

Title capitalisation: if applied by a human, we capitalise the first and last words, the main nouns and verbs but generally not the prepositions (at, in, on, by, etc) articles (the, a, an) or conjunctions (with, and, or, but, when, while etc). When you apply title capitalisation with Word, it capitalises all words in the selected text.

Accidental caps lock

And here’s a useful hint: I am always surprised at the number of people who tell me they re-type the text if they accidentally have Caps Lock on. Instead, select the text then press Shift+F3. It toggles through the options of all caps, all lower case or just the first letter of each word capitalised.

If you have an entire sentence selected, including the full stop, it offers sentence capitalisation (just the first word capitalised) as an option instead of title capitalisation (every word capitalised).

Should you double space after a full stop?

Short answer: no.

Why not, then? This question often comes up because it’s a habit of long standing. It dates from the use of typewriters, which used what is called a fixed width font, where each letter and punctuation mark was allocated the same amount of space on the page.

Because of this, the visual difference between the end of one sentence and the start of the next was not very obvious. Two spaces after a full stop were the way to make it clearer that there was a break.

With word processors, fonts are variable width so the letters and punctuation marks occupy different amounts of space and the text does not look so uniform. A word processor also adjusts quite finely the space between words and letters (called kerning) and it automatically leaves a wider space after a full stop than it allows between words. This means that with word processors there is no need to double space after a full stop.

Look at the difference between these two lines of text.
Look at the difference between these two lines of text.

The first line is in Times New Roman, a common word processor font. The second line is Courier New, a font which is designed to look like typewriter text. You can see what a striking difference there is between variable and fixed width fonts.

There is no denying that word processors are better – who wants to swap the delete key for a bottle of Tippex these days?

Bulleting lists

We used not to capitalise the first word of bulleted lists but now Word does it automatically if you click the bullet button first then write your list. It does not apply the capitals if you write the list first as continuous text then break it up and bullet it so look out for this or you may end up with inconsistent use in your document.


The old convention for setting out your paragraphs was to indent the first line with the tab key. The next paragraph began on the line below the previous one.

Now, we don’t indent any more, and we often have a blank line between paragraphs. Some paragraph styles automatically put a wider space above or below each paragraph.

Are you up to date?

If you want to make sure your usage is current and projects the right image, sign up for one of our writing skills courses. You'll learn how to write clearly and concisely as well as correctly.

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Kind Regards
The Plain Words Training Team

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