Alex Case’s guide to modern online TEFL style

The last thing I worked on for was a style guide for writers. Not all of my pet gripes made it in, and are unlikely to now I no longer edit stuff going on there, so thought I’d rant here instead:

 Abbreviations etc: Keep the use of points between initials to a minimum, avoiding them where that would still be correct. For capitals in acronyms please follow the preferred form of the organisation being referred to, e.g. BBC and NASA but Unicef.

 Accessible style: Most readers of online TEFL articles are busy teachers and/ or non-native English speakers, so please put a lot of effort into making all writing easy to understand on first reading. Keep sentences and paragraphs short, with lots of signalling phrases like “In addition”, “In contrast” and “Moving onto practical activities,…”. Use full forms wherever possible, for example keeping in an optional “that”. Explain all teaching acronyms like PPP and CLIL when you first use them, however well known you think they are, and explain what people you mention are most famous for. Section headings and use of bullet points can also help make pieces accessible, as can introductions setting out what you will explain in the piece. Please also make all attempts at humour accessible to most readers. When a more international version of a British or American expression is available, it is usually best to choose that, e.g. “movie” rather than “film” and “curtains” rather than “drapes”.

 Contractions (you’re, can’t, aren’t etc): Please be consistent with use of contractions, making sure that they match the style of the piece. In general, though, online writing reads better with contractions.

 Dashes and hyphens: A hyphen is shorter than a dash and is only used between words, e.g. “a three-second delay”. You can usually get a dash by pressing enter after putting in a hyphen. Dashes are usually better than colons/ semi-colons, but should still be kept to a minimum.

 Dates: As in formal letters and emails, there is no need for 1st, 5th etc in dates, making them simply “1 Jan 2001” and “5 July”. The exception is dates with no month, e.g. “Meet you on the 21st”.

 Exclamation marks: Should be kept to a minimum, but can be used for humour.

 Indicating errors: When writing student errors etc, please use this format, including quotation marks “I go home yesterday X”. Although * is probably more standard, a cross is clearer to the many people who aren’t familiar with the conventions.

 Links: Links quickly become out of date, and if that is true of several links in a piece it might mean the piece having to be deleted due to lack of time to update all the links. Keep the number of links to a minimum and to places which are unlikely to change or disappear. For other things it can be better to describe search terms which will bring up relevant results rather than add links. Please don’t link to things where a subscription or registration is necessary to view the thing linked to.

 Lists with bullet points/ numbers: Only use full stops at the end of bullet points and capitals at the beginning if each one is a grammatically complete sentence (which is rarely the case). Don’t use semi-colons at the end of bullet points.

 Numbers: Numbers below ten and very simple higher numbers should be spelled out (“a hundred”, “three people”, etc), and complex numbers should be given as numerals. You are free to choose with any others (“13”/ “thirteen” etc)!

 Paragraphing: Each paragraph should have one clear topic, with a new paragraph meaning changing topic (in some way). However, in modern online and magazine style it may be acceptable to split some paragraphs only because of their length. It can help to plan your paragraphs and/ or put a description of the organisation of your piece in the introduction. One-sentence paragraphs are best avoided. Given people’s typical online reading style, with the exception of reviews there is not usually any need for a final summary or conclusion. Please also keep introductions short.

 Quotation marks: Use double quotes for all uses (speech, first use of jargon, etc), with single quotes inside double quotes if necessary. Punctuation like full stops usually comes outside quotation marks unless it forms part of the quote.

 References: Keep references to the absolute minimum, limiting it to books quoted from. References should be explained in the text rather than with a list at the end. First references to authors should be by full name (or initials then family name if they are better known that way). Please make clear when an idea is not originally your own, even if you are not able to say where it originally came from. Please don’t refer to yourself as “the author”.

 Referring to books, chapters, articles, games etc: Use capital letters to make the name stand out in the text, avoiding quotation marks, italics etc whenever possible. If necessary, add expressions like “Snowden’s article…”, “The second chapter,…” and “The famous book…” to make the meaning clear. Names of tenses should be written with capitals (“Present Perfect” etc) but parts of speech should be written as ordinary words (“Ask students to brainstorm positive adjectives.” etc)

 Semi-colons and colons: Use of colons and (especially) semi-colons should be kept to a minimum. The main exception is complex lists, but even then it is often better to rewrite with bullet points or a paragraph of separate sentences. There is no need for a capital letter after a colon. The choice between a dash and a colon or semi-colon mainly depends on the formality of the style of writing being used, but dashes are usually more suitable in most online writing – and brackets are often even better.

 Spacing: Use a single space after a full stop (unless you are still using a typewriter of course!)

 Spelling: Please try to be consistent with spelling, e.g. not mixing British and American English forms.

 Titles: Titles of the actual articles etc usually look more accessible if written with only the first letter capitalised, e.g. “The best ways of correcting your students”, but references to articles in articles, including self-references, should include capitals.


Breaking my own rules above on summaries and conclusions:

– A simple, clean style with minimal everything is best. If anything can be left out (italics, semi-colons, dashes, etc), it probably should be – but see below.

– Communicating well is more important than any of the rules above.

– For those reasons, consistency is over-rated.

I have a feeling there might be some people reading who have diametrically opposed views on some of these or their own pet peeves! Have your say below…

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2 Responses to Alex Case’s guide to modern online TEFL style

  1. martinmcmorrow says:

    Useful guidelines there, Alex. With style guides and rules, I’m always reminded of George Orwell’s ‘rules’ in his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (which I’ve just conveniently Googled at

    (i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

    (ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

    (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

    (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

    (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

    (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

  2. smittenness says:

    I know it applies to fiction but I’m reminded of that “leave out all the bits you would skip as a reader”. I hate long-winded communication, especially when related to work/teaching

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