Ballotpedia:Textual style guide

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This is Ballotpedia's style guide for grammar. For visual style, see our visual style guide. Here we seek to codify punctuation, grammar preferences, and tricky elements such as how to write about certain subjects objectively, rather than using loaded terms and persuasive definitions.


Punctuation is always in transition. There is probably no hope on a wiki project such as Ballotpedia to enforce rules on arcane issues, like the progressive comma.[1] But other punctuation preferences, such as the American "quotation mark" system, should be favored over the British 'inverted comma' style.


Apostrophes confuse modern Americans more than other punctuation marks; apostrophe errors are the most common punctuation errors. So remember: Apostrophes are used for contractions and possessives, and for certain plurals (the latter usage deprecated on this site).

Possessive nouns

You add apostrophe-s for possessive nouns: a dog's bite, a politician's bark, a petitioner's whimper.

When you have plural nouns, you add, simply, the apostrophe after the "s": dogs' bites, politicians' barks, petitioners' whimpers.

Possessive proper nouns

People tend to get confused, however, when the noun is a proper noun, a name. The rule remains the same, though: add an apostrophe-s: Dr. Dogg's bite, Senator Sharks's bark, Mr. Wink's whimper. Note that even when the name ends in "s" you still add the apostrophe-s.

This rule is falling by the wayside, and for one simple and forgivable reason: as a result of the traditional exception, when names end in "s-vowel-s." When we say "Jesus' sake," it's too cumbersome to add the vowel-s suffix, even in speech. So, it is elided in print. Same with "Moses' tablets" and "Mises' treatises."

Unfortunately, people tend to forget that this was born of fear of excessive repetition of s-vowel-s syllables, and have extended the rule to all proper names' possessives -- yielding examples like "Scopes' prosecution" and even (because of the hidden "s" sound) "Marx' maledictions" -- and even singular possessives -- yielding signs saying barbarisms like "glass' breakage."

Contractions vs. Possessives

Most people realize that apostrophes belong in contractions, such as "can't" for "cannot." But "it's" for "it is" confuses when compared with "its" as the possessive of "it." Because possessives of nouns use the apostrophe-s suffix, why not possessives of pronouns? It would be logical. But it is not correct. But this train of thought leads to bizarre errors like "her's" (which the webmaster once had as an exhibit in his glassware: "his" and "her's" on matching tumblers).

For other errors of punctuation, please consult a book on the subject; every writer should have at least one.[2]

Plural acronyms and numbers

An additional problem with possessives and commas arises when dealing with acronyms. What do you do when there are two or more of something, and that something is designated in all capital letters, like "ATV"? Ballotpedia recommends barreling ahead and just adding an "s," as in "The three ATVs ran circles around the sheep." The most commonly accepted rule, however, would have you place an apostrophe before the "s" -- why? Because it looks so funny to write "ATVs"! It is generally thought that "ATV's" looks better.

The trouble with this rule is that it just leads to confusion. The reader often does a double-take, expecting a possessive of the ATV, and then realizing there is more than one ATV.

In politics and law and bureaucracy (three subjects covered on Ballotpedia), acronyms are very common, so this rule will be of some use: Plural acronyms need only an additional "s" at the end.

Similarly, the rare occasions when a number is printed in numeral form, and can be used a as a plural, gets the same treatment: "May your 6's and your 7's be neat as a trivet." If at all possible, avoid this by spelling out all numbers below 13 (thirteen). The general rule on this is to spell out all numbers below eleven, but the oddity of the English numbering system (with regularity in nomenclature starting at 13 and not eleven, as one might expect) suggests that writing out one through twelve makes the best sense. Further, when on those occasions you find yourself having to refer to "three ninety-nines," either write it out as here, or skip the apostrophe, at risk of breaking a rule: "three 99s."

Some rules just confuse people, are of little value anyway, and should be avoided for that reason.

Grammar preferences

Figures of speech

Encyclopedias aim to provide emotionally level presentations of information. For this reason, many figures (schemes and tropes) of speech would best be avoided, no matter how natural they may seem to the writer in his or her normal discourse. Examples include:

Asyndeton and polysyndeton

An asyndeton is the use of no connectives in a list, where one would be usual: "Lying, cheating, whoring, stealing" instead of the more normal "Lying, cheating, whoring and stealing." The polysyndeton places a connective where the commas would usually go: "Lying and cheating and whoring and stealing." The King James Version of the Bible has examples of both, as does Shakespeare and many other great poets and writers. Ballotpedia is not the Bible, and you are not Shakespeare; neither should be used on Ballotpedia, except in quotations.


Irony so often misfires, and is so unexpected in an encyclopedia, as to qualify it for prohibition.


This common trope emphasizes the magnitude of something by denying its opposite, as in "not unwelcome" or "not bad"; it should be used sparingly, when it is necessary to widen the scope of a claim to include a middle or level of indifference. It should not be used for wit.


The listing of members of a group to indicate the whole group, or merism, is, like metonymy and synecdoche, almost certainly best avoided on this site.

Avoiding loaded terminology

The place in politics for loaded terms and "persuasive definitions" is in obviously persuasive speech and writing, not in an encyclopedia. Here we will list controversial terms and their preferred usage on Ballotpedia.

"Extending term limits"

Opponents of term limits often seek to do something they call "extend term limits," but which, on examination, turns out to be an extremely loaded -- indeed, deliberately misleading and self-contradictory -- usage. What is meant is "extending terms." To extend the limits, as opposed to the terms, one could either mean extend the limits to other positions or jurisdictions, or extend them by shortening the terms.

This is quite elementary. We certainly can expect opponents of term limits to use the phase "extending term limits" to do just the oppposite -- that is, engage in "Unspeak"[3] -- but it is witless for proponents of term limits to fall into this usage, and bad manners for encyclopedists to favor one side over the other in the very words chosen.

So whenever quoting a term extension proposal billed as "extending term limits," the Ballotpedia Style is to describe the measure, separately, always as a term extension measure.

Journalists should universally follow suit, to avoid taint of partisanship. And, indeed, as a measure of good will, opponents of term limits might also consider the phrase "extend term limits" to be unfair verbal loading.


  1. The progressive comma is the last comma that could be placed on a list: "Lying, cheating, whoring, and stealing" uses the progressive comma; without it, it would read: "Lying, cheating, whoring and stealing." Both are correct.
  2. O'Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, Riverhead Books, 1996; Strunk, William, and White, E.B., The Elements of Style: Third Edition, Macmillan Publishing, 1979 -- both provide good help, and there are many others.
  3. Poole, Steven Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How That Message Becomes Reality, Grove Press, 2006