Style guide for GroundUp reporters, photographers and editors
This version applies from 7 December 2016. (Last updated 11 May 2017)
The style guide's purpose is to keep articles on the site consistent and to make reading GroundUp articles an easy, undistracted experience.
- No fact may ever be intentionally false. This is the most important rule and may never be broken. Any journalist who intentionally writes a false fact will not be allowed to write for GroundUp again.
- No plagiarism. This rule may never be broken. Credit sources. A hyperlink to the source is usually fine.
- Be fair to people or institutions criticised in articles. They should have a chance to respond. (This doesn't apply to opinion pieces.) The most common reason for us delaying the publication of an article is that the reporter has not made enough effort to get comment from someone criticised in the article. Note that being fair doesn't mean striking a false balance. For example, there's no need for an article on HIV to include comment from an Aids denialist, nor an article on climate change to include comment by a climate change denialist.
- There are many disputes about how to write English. Many of these are unimportant. (It's fine to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, start sentences with "But" or "And", and use contractions if doing so makes sentences easier to read.) The key thing to keep in mind is how to make the article read easily with no unnecessary distractions for the reader. The rules below this one can be broken if doing so makes an article easier and less distracting to read.
- Write in plain language.
- For news reports (as opposed to features), the first four paragraphs should tell the busy reader everything he or she needs to know. Everything after the first four paragraphs is additional information for especially interested readers.
- Use subheadings especially in long articles.
- Before submitting or publishing an article, read it again and remove unnecessary adjectives. We prefer understatement to overstatement.
- In nearly every article we have to consider whether to add or omit punctuation. If there's doubt, it's usually better to omit. We prefer less punctuation.
- When in doubt use lower case. However we always capitalise the Constitution; it's the document that most informs our work and deserves special respect. But we don't capitalise constitutional (except Constitutional Court). Parliament is capitalised, but parliamentary isn't (except Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health). We write Minister of Health but the health minister, President Zuma but the president. The body of ministers that rules the country is the Cabinet.
- We write dates like this: 4 June 2016. Not: 04 June 2016, nor June 4, nor June 4, 2016.
- We write times like this: 7:30am, 11:05pm. Not 7:30 am (there should be no space), nor 23:05 and definitely not 23:05pm.
- Numbers one to ten are spelt out. But there are exceptions: 3%, grade 3.
- We almost always prefer % to percent.
- Spell out millions, billions and trillions. E.g. 53 million, R300 million. Not 53m nor R300m except in headlines (to save space). But write 353,000 not 353 thousand.
- Numbers are comma separated at thousands. E.g. 1,543. Not 1 543 nor 1543 nor 1, 543 (no space between comma and 5). Use a point for decimal fractions. E.g. 1,543.87.
- We use the metric system: 29kg, 15m, 27l. Unless there are exceptional circumstances we don't use miles or feet. Be sure to convert properly from imperial units to metric.
- There is only one space between sentences.
- Put spaces on both sides of an em dash.
- British spelling: organisation. Not organization (unless it's a quote from a formal text).
- Tenses should be consistent throughout the article. There are however many reasonable exceptions to this.
- For abbreviations, use the first of these rules that applies:
(a) If it is an institution write it the way the institution writes it. E.g. SARS, TAC, Nedlac, SAPS.
(b) If the abbreviation is usually spoken as a single word, write an upper case first letter and lower case for the remaining ones. E.g. Aids.
(c) If the abbreviation is usually spoken by calling out its individual letters, use only upper case. E.g. HIV.
- The full name of an institution or place must always be spelt out on first use with the abbreviation in parenthesis following it. E.g. Treatment Action Campaign (TAC). However, the following exceptions do not need to be spelt on first use because they are so well known: ANC, DA, EFF, COSATU, USA, UK, UCT.
- Use double quotation marks to open a quotation, and then single quotation marks for a quotation inside a quotation. In the rare case of a quotation inside a quotation inside a quotation, use double quotation marks for the innermost quotation.
- Examples of how we quote:
Mandela said, "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."
Mandela said: "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it," said Mandela.
"What is your favourite ice cream?" asked Peters.
- A number of places have multiple spellings that are commonly used. We have settled on: Dunoon, Mitchells Plain, Beitbridge. More names are being added to this list.
- On first use of a person's name, write their first and last name. If they have a title other than Mr or Ms write the title on first use. From second use onwards only use the person's last name. There are exceptions when we use the first name:
(a) We refer to children by their first name.
(b) If two or more people with the same surname are referred to in an article, we use their first names to avoid confusing readers.
(c) In some cases it is too stuffy, pretentious or uncommon to use a person's last name.
- We have relented and begun using the word learner for people in school, though as a small act of defiance sometimes we will still use the word student. We're standing steadfast and using teacher instead of educator. When people are quoted, use the word they use.
- We use sex work and sex workers not prostitute and prostitution.
- We use the word immigrant not foreigner. Occasionally foreign national is ok.
- We speak of poor people but not the poor. Likewise disabled people, not the disabled, blind people not the blind, deaf people not the deaf.
- Institutions are singular third-person. E.g. In a statement the organisation said it is satisfied with the court outcome.
- We make minor edits to quotes so that they are easier to read, but never change the meaning. Many of our quotes are translated to English, in which case the final quote should be grammatically correct. Grammar errors in quotes are only kept if they add to the richness of the article or illustrate a point, i.e. rarely. Do not use grammar errors that denigrate people who are quoted unless they are hypocritical grammar mavens. Facebook and Twitter quotes are usually verbatim unless very difficult to understand. In any case, Facebook and Twitter quotes should be kept to a minimum. (Writing articles that consist primarily of embedded Facebook or Twitter quotes is almost always dreadful journalism.)
Some publications keep quotes entirely unchanged from the original. We don't believe this is a sensible approach in South Africa where many quotes are translated and English is a difficult second-language for most people.
- The ideal headline length is 55 characters or fewer.
- Use landscape photographs. They simply work better with the site's design.
- The HTML alt attribute for images should be used so that people using assistive technology can understand what the image contains. The alt attribute text should be short. E.g. Photo of protesters, Photo of woman in front of shack, Graph of GDP.
- Videos should always be filmed in landscape mode. Only on rare occasions, e.g. where an amateur video given to us is especially interesting, will we publish videos shot in portrait mode.
- Opinion articles should be clearly marked. A disclaimer should appear at the bottom of the article stating: Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp's.
There are words, usually proper nouns, that we use frequently and appear to have disputed spellings. Most of our decisions here are arbitrary, but we have settled on them so that GroundUp articles become more consistent with each other.
- Bo-Kaap (i.e. not Bo Kaap)
- Dunoon (i.e. not Du Noon)
- Constitution (not constitution) when referring to the document that governs South Africa
- Mitchells Plain (i.e. not Mitchell's Plain)
- Parliament (not parliament) when referring to the institution that make's South Africa's laws
- Toyi-toyi refers to a popular protest dance. E.g. The protesters toyi-toyied outside the government building.