Grammar and Style Notes
Last updated 31 January 1997
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These notes are a miscellany of grammatical rules and
explanations, comments on style, and suggestions on usage I put
together for my classes. Anyone who can resist turning my own
preferences into dogma is welcome to use
this HTML edition. Please send suggestions and corrections to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: The popularity of this guide is gratifying -- it's
averaging over five hundred hits a day -- but I regret that I can't
promise personal responses to grammar and style queries sent my way. You
can get a wider range of responses from the newsgroup alt.usage.english.
None of these rules is set in stone, and many are matters of
personal preference, but all may be useful in making your writing
clearer and more effective.
The entries here are of two types: specific articles on usage,
and more general articles on style. The specific articles cover
such things as when to use a semicolon
and what a dangling participle is; the
general articles discuss ways to make "proper" writing even
better. The specific articles can be further divided into two
classes: (1) grammatical rules and explanations, matters rather
of precedent than of taste; and (2) more subjective suggestions
for making your writing clearer, more
forceful, and more graceful. The specific
articles are intended for quick reference, such as when you have
to find out whether which or
that is appropriate. The general articles lend
themselves to browsing and absorbing over time.
The general articles are no less important than the "rules." In
fact, bad writing is rarely a matter of grammatical rules --
editors can clean these up with a few pencil marks. It's more
often the result of muddled thought. Bad writers consider long words more impressive than short ones, and
use words like usage instead of
use or methodologies
instead of methods without knowing what they mean. They
qualify everything with It has been noted after careful
consideration's and the facts get buried under loads of
useless words. They pay no attention to the literal sense of
their words, and end up stringing stock phrases together without
regard for meaning. They use clichés inappropriately and say the
opposite of what they mean.
I've tried to steer clear of technical terms and, wherever possible, have
tried to explain grammatical jargon. This has sometimes meant sacrificing
precision for convenience; more sophisticated writers and grammarians will
doubtless see points to quibble over, but I hope these notes get the idea
across to novices. Every article on points of grammar -- dangling participles, split
infinitives -- begins with a practical definition of the term,
followed by some useful rules, and examples of good and bad writing.
Sometimes there are suggestions on how to identify possible problems. The
definitions and discussions are not exhaustive, just rules of thumb. If
you need more detail, consider one of the books in the last section, "Additional Reading."
Lists are common in
some sorts of writing, introduced by the following and referred to
by the above. You can often make a sentence clearer with simple
pronouns: instead of the above topics, try
these topics -- the context often makes your subject clear.
An adjective is a
word that modifies a noun: it answers which
one, how many, or what kind. Some examples: "the
big one"; "seven books"; "a devoted student."
Adverbs usually modify verbs, and answer in what manner,
to what degree, when, how, how many
times, and so forth. Some examples: "He ran quickly";
"I'll do it soon"; "We went twice."
Sometimes adverbs modify adjectives or other adverbs: "She
finished very quickly" (very modifies the adverb
quickly, which in turn modifies finished); "The
work was clearly inadequate" (clearly modifies the
adjective inadequate, which in turn modifies
The best rule for spotting adverbs is to look for -ly. Be
careful, however; not all adverbs end in -ly, and not all
-ly words are adverbs: soon, twice, and
never are adverbs; friendly, ugly, and
northerly are adjectives.
Go easy on the adjectives and adverbs. While modifiers are
necessary in any sort of writing, make sure your nouns and verbs
are clear and are doing most of the work. As Strunk and White put it, "The adjective hasn't
been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight
Affect with an a is usually a verb; effect
with an e is (usually) a noun. When you affect
something, you have an effect on it. The usual adjective
is effective. Effect as a verb is a different word
altogether, which means to bring about or to
accomplish, as in "to effect a change."
One of the fundamental rules
of grammar is that the parts of a sentence should agree with each
other. It's easier to demonstrate than to define agreement.
Most agreement is instinctive in native English speakers. In
"I has a minute," the verb has doesn't agree with
the subject I. We would say "I have." In
"John got their briefcase," assuming John got his own
briefcase, their should be his. It's obvious.
It gets tricky in only a few cases. A plural noun right in front
of the singular verb can throw you off. Consider "Any one of
the articles are available": the verb are shouldn't
agree with articles, but with the subject, one: the
sentence should read, "Any one of the articles is
A preposition that governs two pronouns can also cause problems. In "He wanted you
and I for the team," the word I should be me: he wanted
you and he wanted me, so he wanted you and me. Pay
special attention to phrases like you and I, you and she,
and so forth.
See also Each, Every, Data, and Media.
All of. All of the ---- can usually be rewritten
as All the ----, All ----, or Every ----.
Alternate, Alternative. Alternate (as an adjective) traditionally means going back and forth
between two things, as in alternate Mondays (i.e., every
other Monday). Alternative means other. Traditionalists
prefer an alternative to an alternate plan.
simple rule will rarely fail you: use between for two things,
among for more than two.
And at the Beginning. See But at the
And/or. And/or is sometimes necessary in legal
documents, but just clutters other writing. One word or the
other will almost always do just as well. See Slashes.
anticipate something is to get ready for it or to do
something in advance; this is not the same as expect. If
you expect changes, you think they'll be coming soon; if
you anticipate changes, you're preparing to deal with
them. Blake certainly didn't expect Modernist poetry, but
in some ways he anticipated it by doing similar things a
century earlier. Anticipate is often wrongly used (in a
love affair with the longer word) where
expect is proper.
Apostrophe. The most common way to form a possessive in
English is with apostrophe and s: a hard day's
night. After a plural noun ending in s, put just an
apostrophe: two hours' work. But if a singular noun ends
in s, most style guides prefer s's: James's
house. Plain old s apostrophe (as in James' house) is
common in journalism, but most other publishers prefer
Note that the possessives of pronouns don't get
apostrophes: theirs, not their's; hers, not
her's; its, not it's. See It's
Apostrophes are sometimes used to make acronyms or other
abbreviations plural. This is a matter of a local house style.
My preference: don't use apostrophes to make acronyms plural --
not "They took their SAT's," but "They took their
SATs." The only exception is when having no apostrophe might
be confusing: "Two As" is ambiguous; make it "Two
A's." Never use apostrophes as quotation marks to set
off words or phrases (unless you need a quotation within a
To refer to a decade, don't use an apostrophe before the
s. Refer to the 1960s or the '60s, not the
1960's or the '60's.
Assure, ensure, insure. While ensure and
insure aren't quite so clear cut, assure is very
different from both. You assure a person that things will
go right by making him confident. Never use
assure in the sense of "Assure that the wording is
correct"; you can only assure somebody that it's
Ensure and insure are sometimes used
interchangeably, but it may be better to keep them separate.
Insuring is the business of an insurance company, i.e.,
setting aside resources in case of a loss. Ensure means
make sure, as in "Ensure that this is done by
As to whether. Plain old whether often does the
trick. See Wasted Words.
As yet. Consider using yet. See Wasted Words.
At this point, At the present time, At this point in
time. Never, never, never, never, never. See Currently
and Wasted Words.
The key to all good writing is
understanding your audience. Every time you use language, you
engage in a rhetorical activity, and your attention should always
be on the effect it will have on your audience.
Think of grammar and style as analogous to, say, table manners.
Grammatical "rules" have no absolute, independent existence; there is no
Grammar Corps to track you down for using "whose" when "of which" is more
proper, and Miss Manners employs no shock troops to massacre people who
eat their salads with fish forks. You can argue, of course, that the
other fork works just as well (or even better), but both the fork and the
usage are entirely arbitrary and conventional. Your job as a writer is to
have certain effects on your readers, readers who are continuously judging
you, consciously or unconsciously. If you want to have the greatest
effect, you'll adjust your style to suit the audience, however arbitrary
A better analogue might be clothing. A college English paper calls for
the rough equivalent of the jacket and tie (ladies, you're on your own
here). However useless or ridiculous the tie may be, however outdated its
practical value as a garment, certain social situations demand it, and if
you go into a job interview wearing a T-shirt and jeans, you only hurt
yourself by arguing that the necktie has no sartorial validity. Your job
is to figure out what your audience expects. Likewise, if your audience
wants you to avoid ending your sentences with prepositions, no amount of argument over historical
validity will help.
But just as you shouldn't go under-dressed to a job interview, you
shouldn't over-dress either. A white tie and tails will make you look
ridiculous at a barbecue, and a pedantic insistence on grammatical bugbears will only lessen your audience's respect
for you. There are occasions when ain't is more suitable than
is not, and the careful writer will take the time to discover
which is the more appropriate.
Basically. Almost always useless. Qualifiers such as
basically, essentially, totally, &c. rarely add anything
to a sentence. See Wasted Words, and read
Between versus Among. See Among
Bluntness. Writing is too often wimpy. Don't be afraid
to be blunt. Instead of "There appear to be indications that
the product heretofore referred to may be lacking substantial
qualitative consummation, suggesting it may be incommensurate
with the standards previously established by this
department," try "It's bad" or "It doesn't
work." Of course you should be sensitive to your reader's
feelings -- there's no need to be vicious or crude, and saying
"It sucks" won't win you many friends -- but don't go too far in
the opposite direction. Call 'em as you see 'em.
Boldface. There's no reason to use boldface in an
academic paper; spend your time writing, not fiddling with the
word processor. See Fonts, Italics, and Titles.
British Spellings. If you use British spellings, use them
consistently. Inconsistent British spellings are an affectation. Jeremy Smith has assembled a
catalogue of words that have different spellings in America and
Arguments over grammar and style
are often as fierce and as fruitless as those over IBM versus Mac, Coke
versus Pepsi, and boxers versus briefs. Pedantic and vicious debates over
knotty matters such as Prepositions at the End, That versus Which, and Split
Infinitives may be entertaining to those who enjoy cockfights, but do
little to improve writing. Know as much as you can about the rules, but
strive above all for clarity and grace. Think always of the effect you'll have on your audience. Over time you'll come to trust your ear,
which will be disciplined by reading the best authors and by constant
practice at writing.
Contrary to what your
high school English teacher told you, there is no reason not to begin a
sentence with but or and; in fact, these words often make a
sentence more forceful and graceful. They are almost
always better than beginning with however or additionally.
Beginning with but or and does make your writing less formal; -- but worse things could happen to most
writing than becoming less formal.
Capable. The phrase is capable of ----ing can
usually be better rendered as is able to ----, or even
turned into an active verb with can ----. See Wasted Words.
Centralized. Use central whenever possible. See
The importance of
accurate citation cannot be overstated: a paper without proper
citations is open to charges of plagiary. Be careful to cite
your source for every direct quotation and every borrowed idea.
Two standards are common in English papers: that of the MLA
Style Guide and that of The Chicago Manual of Style.
Either will do. The MLA style calls for a list of "Works
Cited" at the end of a paper in standard bibliographical form,
alphabetical by author:
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. Edited by Herbert Davis.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965.
Citations in the text of the paper would then include the
author's name (with a year or abbreviated title if more than one
work is cited) and page number; for instance:
". . . the most pernicious race of odious little vermin" (Swift 120).
The Chicago style gives a full citation in a footnote
(or endnote) on the first quotation in this form:
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell, 1965), p. 120.
Subsequent citations in the text include the page number in
quotations, with an author's name only when necessary:
"Girl threading an invisible Needle with invisible Silk" (p. 92).
Either style is acceptable, but be consistent. For full details
see the MLA Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of
Style. All citations should appear under the name of the
main author, but should include the names of editors,
translators, and so on (writers of introductions aren't
necessary). Include the city, publisher, and year of
publication. For works of prose, give a page number or a range
of pages; for works of poetry, give a line number or range of
Along with grace, the paramount writer's virtue. Your job is to
make yourself clear to your reader. Let nothing get in the way. Many of
the entries in this guide -- especially Precision, Obfuscation,
and Vocabulary -- address clarity.
clichés" is such common advice that it's almost a
cliché itself, but no worse for that. It's stated especially
clearly by Pinney:
[Clichés] offer prefabricated phrasing that may be used without
effort on your part. They are thus used at the expense of both
individuality and precision, since you can't say just what you mean in
the mechanical response of a cliché.
Be especially careful, though, not to muddle your clichés when you
do use them. Remember, for example, that the phrase is I
couldn't care less, not could. A U.S. Senator,
trying to reassure his constituents that the budget talks were going well
in spite of the apparent chaos, told reporters, "It's always darkest
before the storm," rather than "before the dawn," suggesting
that things are going to get worse, not better. Pay attention to every
word. (Don't, by the way, confuse these mangled clichés with mixed metaphors -- though a mixed metaphor
might result from a botched cliché, they're not the same
Commas. Some writers seem to think sprinkling commas
every few words is a good rule, but it makes for difficult
reading. A few places commas should be avoided:
After and, but, and or, unless the comma
sets off a phrase which can't stand alone as
a sentence. It's wrong to write "But, she did get it done on
time." Use the comma only if there's such a phrase, as
in, "But, to be fair, she did get it done on time." See
also Dependent versus Independent
Between a month and year in a date: not November, 1990,
but November 1990. The comma stops two sets of numerals
from running into one another, as in November 20, 1990.
Some style guides call for omitting the comma after very short
dependent clauses at the beginning of a sentence: not "On
Saturday, the office is closed," but "On Saturday the
office is closed." But do use a comma after long
dependent clauses: "Because the entire epic is concerned with
justifying the ways of God to man, Milton must present free will
in a positive light."
Commas are preferred before the last item in a list:
leaving them out, as in "the first, second and third
chapters," is a habit picked up from journalism. Though it
saves a little space and effort, omitting the final comma
suggests the second and third chapters are some sort of special
See also Run-On Sentences.
Comprise. Comprise traditionally means
comprehend or contain, not constitute. In
other words, a zoo comprises animals -- it's not comprised of
them (though it is composed of them). Avoid the phrase
is comprised of.
concrete words instead of vague, general ones wherever possible:
instead of "apparent significant financial gains," use "a lot of
money" or "large profits." Instead of "Job suffers a series of
unfavorable experiences," use "Job's family is killed and his
possessions are destroyed."
Considered as, Considered to be. Almost always useless.
"The section is considered as essential" or "The
section is considered to be essential" just add extra
syllables to "The section is considered essential." Even
better, ask yourself whether the word considered does
anything in the sentence -- does it matter who is considering?
"The section is essential" is best of all.
What's wrong with
now? Or even leaving it out altogether and letting a
present-tense verb do the trick? It is currently not
available is the same as It is not available or It
is not yet available.
A participle is a
verb ending in -ing, and is called dangling when the subject
of the -ing verb and the subject of the sentence do not agree. An example is "When discussing race
and gender, sensitivity is necessary." Here the subject is
sensitivity, but the sensitivity is not doing the
discussing. Better is "When discussing race and gender, the
student should be sensitive." Here the student is doing the
Pay close attention to sentences beginning with When
One way to tell whether the participle is dangling is to put the
clause with the participle right after the subject of the
sentence: "Sensitivity, when discussing race and gender, is
necessary" doesn't sound right, but "The student, when
discussing race and gender, should be sensitive" does.
Not all words in -ing are participles: in the sentence
"Answering the questions in chapter four is your next
assignment," the word answering is used as a noun, not
a verb. (Nouns in -ing are called gerunds.)
A dash (publishers call it an
"em-dash") is used to mark a parenthesis -- like this -- or an
interruption. Don't confuse it with a Hyphen, although you should use two hyphens --
like this -- for dashes in your papers.
Though it's nearly a lost cause,
purists prefer to keep this a plural noun: "The data are,"
not "the data is." See also Media and Agreement.
A clause is just a group of words with
a subject and a verb, a part of a sentence. Some groups of words
can get by on their own without any help: these are called
independent. Others can't stand alone; either they don't
have their own subject and verb, or they're subordinated to
another part of the sentence: these are dependent. (A
hint: dependent clauses often begin with words like if,
whether, since, and so on.) Knowing the difference
can help you figure out when to use commas.
For example: in the sentence "Since we've fallen a week
behind, we'll skip the second paper," the first part --
"Since we've fallen a week behind" -- is dependent,
because it can't be a sentence on its own. The second part --
"We'll skip the second paper" -- does just fine on its
own; it's an independent clause. The independent clause can be a
sentence without any help from the Since clause.
different is often redundant, as in several different
options or many different participants. Since you
can't have several of the same option or many of the same
participant, several options and many participants
will do nicely.
A direct object
is the thing (or person) acted on by a transitive verb. The indirect
object is used most often for the recipient in verbs of giving. Examples
are clearer than definitions.
"I took the paper" -- the paper is the direct
object, because the verb took acts on the paper;
the paper is the thing that was taken. "I called her
this morning" -- her is the direct object, because the
verb called acts on her; her is the person
who was called. "I gave him my suggestions" is a
bit trickier. Here him is an indirect object,
because him isn't the thing that was given; I gave
suggestions, and I gave them to him.
Suggestions is the direct object, him the indirect
See Transitive versus Intransitive
A singular pronoun which requires
a singular verb. Do not write Each of the chapters
have a title; use Each of the chapters
has a title or (better) Each chapter has a
title. See also Every.
The ellipsis (plural
ellipses) is the mark that indicates the omission of quoted
material, as in "Brevity is ... wit" (stolen shamelessly from an episode
of "The Simpsons").
There are two things to note: first, most typing manuals prefer the
periods to be spaced, thus:
Brevity is . . . wit.
(In electronic communication it's sometimes necessary to run them
together, since line-wrap is unpredictable.) Second, and more important,
is the number of periods. The ellipsis itself is three
periods (always); it can appear next to other punctuation, including an
end-of-sentence period (resulting in four periods). Use four only
when the words on either side of the ellipsis make full sentences. You
should never use fewer than three or more than four periods, with
only a single exception: when entire lines of poetry are omitted in a
block quotation, it's a common practice to replace them with a full line
of spaced periods.
One of the
distinguishing marks of clear and forceful writing is
economy of style -- using no more words than necessary.
Bureaucratic writing of every stripe (including academic writing)
loves to pad every sentence with It should continuously be
remembered that's and Moreover, it has been previously
indicated's, and it makes for slow reading. After you write
a sentence, look it over and ask if the sense is damaged by
removing a few words or phrases. Become friendly with the
"Delete Word" option on your word processor. See Wasted Words.
Effect versus Affect. See Affect versus Effect.
abbreviation e.g. is for the Latin exempli gratia,
"for example." I.e., Latin id est, means "that
is." They're not interchangeable. Both abbreviations should be
followed by a comma.
A tip: the strongest position in
a sentence is often the end, followed by the beginning. Don't waste the
beginning or the end of a sentence -- the most important parts -- with
minor words such as however, additionally, moreover,
and so on. Instead of "However, the paper was finished on time" or
"The paper was finished on time, however," try "The paper,
however, was finished on time." Dan White gives an
"I got hit by a car as I was walking to school this morning." After the
sentence's initial impact you don't hear a single word. But "As I was
walking to school this morning I got hit by a car" carries me out of my
apartment, over the bridge, and onto the hood in a sequence that sustains
my audience's engagement with today's dent in my morning routine.
Save the end of the sentence for your most important words.
Don't. Something can
be equally important, or it can be as important,
but it can't be equally as important.
Essentially. See Wasted Words.
Every is singular, and requires a
singular verb and singular pronouns. Do not write
Every one of the papers have been graded; use Every one
of the papers has been graded or (better) Every paper has
been graded. The same goes for everyone: Everyone must sign
his or her name, not their name. See also Each and Sexist Language.
straight: everyday (one word) is an adjective, and means "normal, quotidian, occurring
every day, not out of the ordinary." Other senses should be two words.
So: an everyday event happens every day.
Exists. Unless you're a professional phenomenologist,
you can live quite comfortably without the word exists in
your vocabulary. Instead of saying "A problem exists
with the system," say "There is a problem with
Facet. The metaphor is often abused; a
facet, the hard polished side of a gem, shouldn't stand in for "aspect"
where it's inappropriate.
The Fact That. Usually unnecessary. You can often
simply drop the fact and go with that alone:
instead of "The fact that the report is incomplete
makes it difficult to finish the project," write
"That the report is incomplete makes it difficult to
finish the project." Better, rewrite the sentence: "Because
the report is incomplete, it is difficult to finish the
Farther versus Further. Though very few people
bother with the difference these days, there is a traditional
distinction: farther applies to physical distance,
further to metaphorical distance. You travel
farther, but pursue a topic further. Don't get
upset if you can't keep it straight; no one will notice.
Fewer versus Less. See Less
Finalize. An ugly, jargony word.
First, Second, Third. The jury is still out on whether
to use first or firstly, second or
secondly, &c. Traditional usage had first, secondly,
thirdly, but this is too inconsistent for modern taste. Most
guides prefer just plain old first, second, third, and so
forth, without the -ly ending.
divided references to people into three categories, to refer to
I, you, and he or she. The first
person is I, me, my, we, our, and so on. The second
person is you and your. The third person is he, she,
they, their, his, hers, him, her, and so on. While you need to
pay close attention to these when you study a foreign language,
most issues of person are instinctive to native English speakers.
For the few times when you should pay attention, see Shall versus Will and Sexist Language and the Indefinite Third
The Following. See the entry under The
Don't play with fonts: leave desktop
publishing to the desktop publishers. Publishers don't want fancy fonts;
they want your writing to look as if it had been typed on a manual
typewriter, circa 1958. Don't count on having professors who judge
your work based on the typeface. Spend your time writing.
See also Justification.
Footnotes. See Citation.
functionality is too often used as a twisted way of saying
function. See also Methodology.
Grace always trumps pedantry. Don't
let rule-mongering make your prose unreadable. See Bugbears, Audience, and Clarity.
Grammar, strictly defined,
is a pretty narrow field: most questions native speakers have about a
language deal not with grammar but with usage or style.
Grammar is the more scientific aspect of the study of a language: it's
made up of morphology (the forms words take) and syntax (their relation to
one another). Grammar gives names to the various parts of speech and
their relations (see, in this guide, adjectives and
adverbs, prepositions, imperative, first person, transitive and intransitive verbs, direct and indirect objects, and agreement), so it's useful in providing a vocabulary
to discuss how language works. But if you're debating whether language
should be concrete, or where to put only in a sentence, or when to use italics -- strictly speaking, that's a question of
usage or style rather than grammar.
Hopefully. According to traditionalists,
hopefully means in a hopeful way, not I
hope. You'll keep them (and me) happy by avoiding
hopefully in writing; use I hope, we hope, I would
like, or, best of all, leave it out altogether.
A hyphen separates the two parts of
a compound word or the two elements of a range: self-conscious; pp.
95-97. (Hard-core typography nerds will point out that ranges of numbers
are separated by an en-dash, but you needn't worry about it: type a
hyphen.) A compound noun used as an adjective is
often hyphenated: a present-tense verb. An exhaustive (not to say
exhausting) list of rules and examples appears in The Chicago Manual of
Style. Don't confuse a hyphen with a Dash,
although you should type a dash as two hyphens.
I.e. versus e.g. See E.g.
Impact should remain
a noun; a proposal can have an impact, but cannot
impact anything without degenerating into jargon. The only thing that can be
impacted is a wisdom tooth.
In grammar, an
imperative is an order: instead of "You will go,"
the indicative, the imperative says: "Go." Instead
of "You will get the book" -- the indicative -- the
imperative says "Get the book."
Though the word imperative is common in business writing,
it's big and ugly and intimidating. Go with must or
should. Instead of the jargony
"It is imperative that the forms be completed on time,"
try "Be sure to complete the forms on time."
implies something by hinting at it; a listener infers
something from what he or she hears. Don't use them interchangeably.
Indicative. See Subjunctives
and Shall versus Will.
Individual. A yucky word. Usually unnecessary; use
person or someone. Use individual only when
you mean to distinguish an individual from a group or
Infinitive. See Split
Interesting. Sentences beginning "It is interesting
that" or "It is significant that" are usually as far from
interesting as can be. Don't simply state that something is
interesting: show it.
In terms of. Often useless padding.
Intransitive Verbs. See Transitive versus Intransitive
Irregardless. Not a word used in respectable company:
somewhere between Irrespective and Regardless.
Use one of these.
Use italics for book
titles, for foreign words, and for emphasis. Be careful, though,
not to rely too much on italics for emphasis; they make your
writing look amateurish. Let the words do most of the work.
Note that italics and underscores are the same thing; use one or
the other, but not both, in a paper. Publishers prefer
underscores in typescripts; they're easier for typesetters to
See Titles and Fonts.
handy short cut; all you can do is memorize the rule. It's
with an apostrophe means it is; its without an
apostrophe means belonging to it. An analogue might
provide a mnemonic: think of "he's" ("he is" gets an apostrophe)
and "his" ("belonging to him" doesn't).
Jargon is the bane of too much
writing -- not only academic writing but business English suffers from
jargon and technobabble. Of course some technical terms are useful and
even necessary, but the English language should not be abused with these
phrases: sign off on, re, imperative, impact, methodology, functionality, network, parameters, &c.
It's better to leave
your papers "ragged right" (or "flush left"): don't play with full
justification. See also Fonts.
Less means "not as much"; fewer means "not as
many." You earn less money by selling fewer
products; you use less oil but eat fewer fries. If
you can count them, use fewer.
Lifestyle. A yucky vogue word. Look for something
Listing. Don't use listing as a noun where
list will do. A phone book is a list of names and
numbers, each of which is a listing.
Literally. Use the word literally with care, and
only where what you are saying is literally true. "We
were literally flooded with work" is wrong because
the flood is a metaphorical one,
not an actual deluge. Do not use literally where
really, very, or extremely will do.
There's nothing inherently wrong
with long words, but too many people think a long word is always better
than a short one. It doubtless comes from a desire to impress, to sound
more authoritative, but it usually ends in imprecision and gracelessness.
Words like functionality and methodology have their proper uses, but
they're not the same as function and method. See also Anticipate, Utilize, Obfuscation, and Vocabulary.
According to the purists, a plural
noun: "The media are," not "the media is." See Agreement and Data.
methodology is the study of, or a system of,
methods. Usually you mean method instead of
methodology. Like functionality, methodology is a
favorite of longwordophiles.
A vivid metaphorical
imagination is one of the best signs of a good writer. We use more
metaphors than we realize, and if we don't pay attention, they become
hopelessly scrambled. The sentence "We were swamped with a shocking
barrage of work, and the extra burden had a clear impact on our
workflow" suggests images of a marsh (swamped), electrocution
or striking (shocking), a military assault (barrage), weight
(burden), translucency (clear), a physical impression
(impact), and a river (flow). Pay attention to the literal
meaning of figures of speech and your writing will come alive. ( Don't,
by the way, confuse mixed metaphors with mangled clichés -- though a mixed metaphor might
result from a botched cliché, they're not the same thing.)
A modifier simply gives
additional information about a word: instead of "bench" -- any old bench
-- we get "wooden bench"; instead of "read" -- read how? --
we get "read quickly." Modifiers are usually adjectives or adverbs.
Nature. No offense to the ecologists, but nature
is often useless. Decisions of a delicate nature would be
better if they were just plain old delicate decisions.
Necessitate. If you mean require, say
require or rework the sentence so that necessitate
is not needed.
Network was very
happy when it was just a noun; when you're outside the computer
lab, don't force it to serve double duty as a verb.
Networking summons up images of yuppies in power ties.
grammatical or stylistic rule beginning with "Never" or "Always"
should be suspect, and that includes the rules in this guide. No
word or construction in the language is completely
valueless, even if some come pretty damn close. Apply all
guidelines intelligently and sensitively, and forsake pedantic bugbears in favor of grace. See Audience and
read it twice.
Nor. Although there are other possibilities, you can't go wrong
if you use nor only after the word neither: instead of
"Keats did not write novels nor essays," use either "Keats did
not write novels or essays" or "Keats wrote neither novels nor
essays." You can say "Keats did not write novels, nor did he
Not un-. This phrase, as in "The subtleties did not go
unnoticed," is often an affectation. Be more direct.
Numbers. The high school rule about spelling out
numbers less than one hundred (some say ten) and writing them as
numerals above has enslaved too many people. It's a good start,
but here are a few more guidelines.
Never begin a sentence with a numeral:
either spell out the number, or rewrite the sentence to move the
number from the beginning.
Very large round numbers should be spelled out: not
1,000,000,000, but one billion.
In a series of numbers, either spell them out or use numerals for
every member of the list: don't switch in the middle, as
in "pages thirty-two, ninety-six, 107, and 235."
Dates should always get numerals: "October 3, 1990."
There's no reason to use both numerals and words for the same
number: unless a law firm is paying you enough money to butcher
the language with impunity, steer clear of abominations like "two
(2)" or "12 (twelve)."
The only time you should mix spelling and numerals is in very
large numbers: not 8,600,000, but 8.6 million.
Use numerals for anything difficult to spell out: not four and
sixteen seventeenths, thirteen thousand three hundred
twenty six, or three point one four one five nine.
You can spell out simple fractions like one half or two
Don't use long words where short ones will do; it makes your
writing dense and difficult to understand. Words ending in -ality,
-ation, -ize, -ization, -ational, and so forth are often guilty of
making sentences more complex than they need to be. Ask yourself if these
suffixes can be removed without damaging the sense: if you can use a
shorter form, you probably should. Many of these guidelines -- changing
methodology to method, usage to use, functionality to function -- are
applications of this tip. See Concrete Language,
Long Words, and Vocabulary.
Though it's not necessarily wrong to
place the word only nearly anywhere in a sentence, if you don't
stand to lose grace, try for precision by putting the modifier next to the word
or phrase it modifies. "We'll only write three big papers this
semester" might suggest we won't do anything else with these three big
papers. "We'll write only three big papers this semester"
makes the meaning clearer. But if it makes your sentence clumsy or
unidiomatic, nix it.
There's no hard
and fast rule for the length of a paragraph: it can be as short
as a sentence or as long as it has to be. Just remember that
each paragraph should contain only one developed idea. A
paragraph often begins with a topic sentence which sets
the tone of the paragraph; the rest amplifies, clarifies, or
explores the topic sentence. When you change topics, start a new
Parentheses. Don't use parentheses to avoid introducing important
ideas properly. Dan
White's example points out the danger of burying important ideas in
The American and French Revolutions (which were very important to English
writers of the 1780s and 90s) provided the inspiration for Blake's
See also Emphasis.
Participles. See Dangling
Passive Voice. Overuse of the passive voice makes a
passage dense. The active voice takes the form of Something
does something. The passive is in the form of
Something is done. Instead of the passive
"You will be given a guide," try the active
"We will give you a guide." Do not confuse
am, is, are, to be, and so forth with the passive
voice, and don't confuse action verbs with the active voice. The
real question is whether the subject of the sentence is
doing anything. I have been giving is active,
and I have been given is passive.
A danger of the passive voice is that it lets the writer shirk the
responsibility of providing a subject for the verb. Dan White gives an
"I'm sorry that the paper was poorly written." If you're going to
apologize, apologize: "I'm sorry I wrote a bad paper." The active voice
forces one to be specific and confident, not wimpy.
Of course some passives are necessary and useful, as in "Not all
passives can be avoided."
Per. Avoid the businessese habit of using per
instead of according to, as in per manufacturers'
Person. See First Person.
Personalized means made personal, and suggests that
something was not personal at one time but now is. This isn't
what you mean in phrases like personalized attention. Use
personal in most cases. See Obfuscation.
Plus. The use of the word plus where and
or with would be better is a bad habit picked up from
advertising copy. Try to limit plus to mathematics, and
use and or with where they're appropriate.
The guiding principle in all
your word choices should be precision, the most important contributor to
Sometimes this means choosing words a little out of the ordinary:
peripatetic might come closer to the mark than wandering,
and recondite is sometimes more accurate than obscure. But
though a large vocabulary will help you here,
don't resort to long words or obfuscation. More often precision means choosing
the right familiar word: paying attention to easily confused pairs like imply and infer, and making sure the words
you choose have exactly the right meaning. For instance, "Hamlet's
situation is extremely important in the play" means almost nothing. Try
something that expresses a particular idea, like "Hamlet's indecision
forces the catastrophe" or "The murder of Hamlet's father brings about the
Precision can also mean putting your words in just the right order, or
using just the right grammatical construction to make your point. Always
read your writing as closely as possible, paying attention to every word,
and ask yourself whether every word says exactly what you want.
Prepositions are usually
little words that indicate direction, position, location, and so forth.
Some examples: to, with, from, at, in,
near, by, beside, and above.
A quick-and-dirty rule of thumb: you can sometimes recognize a
preposition by putting it before the word he: if your ear
tells you he should be him, the word is a
preposition. Thus to plus he becomes to
him, so to is a preposition. (This doesn't help with
verbs of action; show + he becomes show him.
Still, it might help in some doubtful cases.)
Along with split infinitives, a favorite bugbear of the traditionalists. Whatever the merit of
the rule -- and both historically and logically, there's not much --
there's a substantial body of opinion against end-of-sentence
prepositions; if you want to keep the crusty
old-timers happy, try to avoid ending written sentences (and clauses)
with prepositions, such as to, with, from, at, and in.
Instead of writing "The topics we want to write on," where the
preposition on ends the clause, consider "The topics on which we
want to write." Prepositions should usually go before
(pre-position) the words they modify.
On the other hand -- and it's a big other hand -- old-timers
shouldn't dictate your writing, and you don't deserve your
writing license if you elevate this rough guideline into a
superstition. Don't let it make your writing clumsy or obscure;
if a sentence is more graceful with a final
preposition, let it stand. A sentence becomes unnecessarily
obscure when it's filled with from whom's and with
which's. According to a widely circulated (and often mutated)
story, Winston Churchill, reprimanded for ending a sentence with a
preposition, put it best: "This is the sort of thing up with which
I will not put."
Previous. Overused. Earlier may be more to the
point, and previous is often redundant, as in "Our
previous discussion." Unless you mean to distinguish that
discussion from another one (such as "the discussion before the
one I just mentioned"), leave out previous, since you're
not likely to mention discussions you haven't had yet.
Prior to. For a less stuffy and buraucratic tone, replace
prior to or prior with before or earlier
A pronoun takes the
place of a noun: it stands for (Latin pro-) a noun.
Pronouns include he, it, her, me, and
so forth. Instead of saying "Bob gave Terry a memo Bob wrote,
and Terry read the memo" we'd use the nouns Bob,
Terry, and memo only once, and let pronouns do the
rest: "Bob gave Terry a memo he wrote, and
she read it."
There are a few special sorts of pronouns: possessive
pronouns, such as my, hers, and its,
which mean of something or belonging to something;
and relative pronouns, such as whose and
which, that connect a relative clause to a
sentence: "She read the memo, which mentioned the new
In America, commas and periods go inside
quotation marks, and semicolons and colons go outside,
regardless of the punctuation in the original quotation.
Question marks and exclamation points depend on whether the
question or exclamation is part of the quotation, or part of the
sentence containing the quotation. Some examples: See the
chapter entitled "The Conclusion, in which Nothing is
Concluded." The spokesman called it "shocking," and
called immediately for a committee. Have you read
"Araby"? He asked "How are you?"
In American usage, all quoted material goes in "double quotation
marks"; if you need a quotation inside a quotation, use 'single
quotation marks' (also called "inverted commas") inside: "This
for quotations, 'this' for quotations inside quotations."
Quotations inside quotations are the only place for single
quotation marks -- don't use them to highlight individual
Punctuation and Spaces. Put one space after a comma or
semicolon; put two spaces after a period, colon, exclamation
point, or question mark. For spaces after quotation marks, base
your choice on the punctuation inside the quotation. See also Ellipses.
Quality. Quality may be the most abused and overused word
in business English. The word is a noun, and means a
characteristic or a degree of excellence. Do not use
quality as an adjective, as in a
quality product. Use well made, good, useful, or something
similar. Never use quality as an adverb, as in a quality-built product.
Perhaps the best advice is: never use quality.
Quite. Quite is almost always a space-waster; it usually softens
sentences that usually shouldn't be softened. See Wasted Words.
Quotation Marks. See Punctuation
and Quotation Marks.
Re. Avoid using re where concerning,
regarding, or about will do the trick, as in Re
your memo of 13 January. . . . It makes your writing
Redundancy. Pay attention to redundant words and
phrases, as in actual reality and anticipate for the
future. See Different.
Relative Pronouns. See Pronouns
and That versus Which.
Just as there's
nothing wrong with a long word, there's
nothing wrong with a long sentence. But it has to be
grammatical. A run-on sentence is ungrammatical, not just
long. It often happens when two sentences are run into one
without the proper subordination or punctuation. When two
grammatical sentences are glued together with only a comma, this
is called a comma splice, a kind of run-on: for instance,
"The semester runs through April, the break begins in May."
There are a number of ways of fixing this comma-splice: "The
semester runs through April. The break begins in May"; "The
semester runs through April, and the break begins in May"; "The
semester runs through April; the break begins in May"; "The
semester runs through April, whereas the break begins in May,"
and so on. See Semicolon and Dependent versus Independent
Second Person. See First
In this century, at
any rate, the semicolon has only two common uses: to separate the
items in a list after a colon (as in "The following books will
be covered on the midterm: the Odyssey, through book 12;
passages from Ovid's Metamorphoses; and the selections
from Chaucer"), and to separate two independent clauses in
one sentence (as in "Shakespeare's comedies seem natural; his
tragedies seem forced"). The first is obvious enough. For
the second use, a simple test is this: if you can use a period
and a new sentence, you can use a semicolon. In this second use,
the semicolon can always be replaced by a period and a new
sentence. In the example, "Shakespeare's comedies seem
natural. His tragedies seem forced" is correct, so a
semicolon can be used.
Sentences. A sentence should contain one idea,
though that can be a complex or compound idea. The most obscure
sentences in academic writing are sentences filled to bursting.
If your writing lacks clarity, check to
see if a long, bad sentence might make two short, good ones.
This isn't to say that all sentences should be short. Long
sentences add variety, and some ideas are too complicated to fit
into seven words. But don't turn your simple ideas into
monstrous sentences, devouring line after line without mercy.
One idea, one sentence.
Sentence Fragments. A sentence fragment is a group of
words passing itself off as a sentence without having a true
subject and a verb. Like this. Which is a bad habit. Picked up
from advertising. Not for English papers.
The movement away from potentially sexist language has
been a mixed blessing. It has replaced the obviously exclusionary
Workman's Compensation with Worker's Compensation, but it
has also produced abominations such as waitperson instead of
waiter or waitress. Most of the time it requires only a
little sensitivity. But perhaps the most confusing issue is the use of
the third person indefinite pronoun, as in "Each
student is responsible for revising his/her/their/one's papers." Which
pronoun is correct? This is a delicate question, and there is no one
Each student is singular -- the is instead of are
proves it -- so the colloquial their (a plural) doesn't agree with the verb, and is not grammatically
correct. We use this often in speaking -- "A friend of mine called
me." "What did they say?" -- but, although many writers have
used it (see examples from Jane Austen),
it often makes for bad formal writing today.
English once had an indefinite third person pronoun, one,
that helped out in certain situations; but "One should do
this" sounds too much like British royalty for informal
writing, and the word has fallen out of general American use.
. . . Leaving his and her, or some combination of the two.
"Each student is responsible for revising his papers" is
the traditional usage, but it suggests male chauvinism. "Each student
is responsible for revising her papers" is another
possibility, though it can sound patronizing and seem to beat the reader
over the head. "Each student is responsible for revising his or
her papers" or "his/her papers" are grammatical
and nonsexist, but become positively clumsy after fifteen or twenty
There are several ways out. One is to mix the occasional his or
her together with his's and her's separately; this cuts
down on suggestions of sexism without making your writing clumsy. Another
is to use his sometimes, her at other times, although this
doesn't feel natural to most writers (yet). Finally, you can avoid the
problem altogether and make your subject plural whenever possible:
"All students are responsible for revising
their papers." In any case, avoid their with singular
subjects in writing, and shy away from his/her (see Slashes). See Each and Every for singular nouns that require attention, and see
a short piece by Carolyn
Jacobson on Gender-Neutral
Language. There's also a Web page devoted to Gender-Free Pronoun Frequently
Asked Questions (GFP FAQ).
an old distinction, most common in British English, but which
comes up from time to time. In this distinction, will
usually refers to the simple future indicative: "this will
happen," "you will be surprised." Shall is called
the subjunctive, and means "let it be so," which you might see in
legal or business writing: "The employee shall produce all
required documentation," "A committee shall be appointed,"
and so forth.
Those interested in the recesses of grammar might want to
follow an obscure traditional rule. That distinction of
shall and will above should get you through in most
cases, but it only works for the second person (you) and the
third person (he, she, it, they). The first person -- I and we
-- reverses the rule, so "I shall do it" means I'm going
to get around to it, and "I will do it" shows your
mustering your resolve (let it be so).
It's nothing to worry about.
Slashes are far too
common, and almost always betray a lazy thinker: by yoking two
words together with a slash, the writer tells us the words are
related, but he doesn't know how. Replace the slash with
and or or. In a phrase such as Gulliver
encounters people much bigger/smaller than he is, write
Gulliver encounters people much bigger or smaller than he
is. Instead of his/her, write his or her.
So as to. Often the word "to" alone will do the
An infinitive is
the form of a verb that comes after to, as in to
support or to write. A split infinitive -- a favorite
bugbear of the traditionalists -- occurs
when another word comes between the to and the verb. Some
people prefer to keep the to next to the verb at all
times, and though grammar experts are divided over this rule, it's
probably better to avoid split infinitives whenever possible.
Instead of "Matt seems to always do it that way,"
try "Matt always seems to do it that
Adverbs often insinuate themselves between the
to and the verb, as in "To boldly go where no man has
gone before," or "To always keep a watch on your
Don't let split infinitives become an obsession; there are times
when split infinitives are clearer or more graceful than their ostensibly more grammatical
studied a foreign language will be glad that English has almost
entirely lost the subjunctive it once had. Grammarians have a
hard time defining subjunctive; don't worry if you don't
Unlike the indicative, which indicates that
something is true, the subjunctive expresses a wish, a command,
or a condition contrary to fact. Archaic English is full of
subjunctives, as in "Would that it were" and "Thou shalt not."
The English subjunctive still shows up in a few places, most
often in conditions contrary to fact, where we use were
instead of is: "If this were any
heavier [but it's not -- a condition contrary to fact], I
couldn't lift it"; "If she were to say that [but she's
not], I'd leave."
Some also classify shall as
a subjunctive (see Shall versus Will).
The titles of books and
other long works (plays, long poems, operas, &c.) are either
italicized or underscored (see Italics);
the titles of shorter works (essays, short poems, &c.) appear in
quotation marks. For borderline cases, the test is whether it
could be published as a book on its own: even if you're reading
King Lear in a larger anthology, it's long enough that it
could be a book, so it gets italics.
to the more quibbling self-styled grammar
experts, that is restrictive, and which is
Many grammarians insist on a distinction without any historical
justification. Many of the best writers in the language couldn't
tell you the difference between them, and many of the worst
think they know. If the subtle difference between the two
confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other
matters are more worthy of your attention.
For the curious, however, the relative pronoun
that is restrictive, which means it tells you a necessary piece of
information about its antecedent: for example, "The word processor
that is used most often is WordPerfect." Here the that
phrase answers an important question: which of the many word processors
are we talking about? And the answer is the one that is used most
Which is non-restrictive: it does not limit the word it
refers to. An example is "Penn's ID center, which is
called CUPID, has been successful so far." Here that
is unnecessary: the which does not tell us which of Penn's
many ID centers we're considering; it simply provides an extra
piece of information about the plan we're already discussing.
"Penn's ID Center" tells us all we really need to know to
It boils down to this: if you can tell which thing is being
discussed without the which or that clause, use
which; if you can't, use that.
There are two rules of thumb you can keep in mind. First, if the
phrase needs a comma, you probably mean which. Since
"Penn's ID center" calls for a comma, we would not say
"Penn's ID Center, that is called CUPID."
Another way to keep them straight is to imagine by the way
following every which: "Penn's ID center,
which (by the way) is called CUPID. . . ." The
which adds a useful, but not grammatically necessary,
piece of information. On the other hand, we wouldn't say "The
word processor which (by the way) is used most often is
WordPerfect," because the word processor on its own
isn't enough information -- which word processor?.
A paradoxical mnemonic: use that to tell which, and
which to tell that.
Third Person. See First Person.
Thrust. Strunk and White are on the mark
here: "This showy noun, suggestive of power, hinting of sex, is the
darling of executives, politicos, and speech-writers. Use it
Totally. See Wasted Words.
Transitions. Writing should flow. Each sentence should
follow on the one before it, and each paragraph should pick up
where the previous one left off. Try to make the connections
between your sentences and paragraphs logical. The paragraph's
topic sentence is a good place for this. See Paragraphs.
Not as difficult as some people think. A
transitive verb takes a direct object: it
shows action upon someone or something. Intransitive verbs take no
direct object; they need only a subject to make a sentence.
Some transitive verbs: Hit (you have to hit
something or someone; you can't just hit);
climb (you don't just climb; you climb
something); and bring (bring what?).
Intransitive verbs: sleep (you don't sleep
something; you just sleep); and fall (you
can fall down the stairs, but you don't fall the
There are a few things worth noticing. First, just because
something grammatically needs a direct object doesn't mean we
actually use it. If someone said, I swung the bat and
hit, we don't have to ask what he hit; the direct
object ball is understood.
Second, many intransitives might look like transitives, as in She
walked three hours. Here three hours is not really a direct
object; it doesn't say what she walked, but how long (it's
actually an adverbial phrase).
Third, many verbs can be both transitive and intransitive: though
ran in the paragraph above is intransitive, the same word
is transitive in He ran the program for two years.
Children can play catch, or they can just play.
Even sleep, given above as an intransitive, could become
transitive if we said He slept the sleep of the
The only real danger is when you start changing verbs willy-nilly: "We
have to think quality" (giving the intransitive think a direct
object); "I hope you enjoy" (instead of enjoy it).
Underscores. See Italics.
Unique. Unique means "one of a kind." There are
no degrees of uniqueness: something is unique, or it is not. If
you want a word that admits degrees, use special or
Usage is a guide on
how to use something properly; use is actually using it.
Thus the use of a semicolon is to separate clauses, but
its usage is the list of rules on exactly how it has to be
used. Someone who knows the use of a word understands how
it fits in a sentence; someone who knows the usage has
studied the grammatical rules and semantic relations. Each time
you use something, that's one use (the noun), not one
usage. You usually mean use rather than
Use is almost always better, whether pronounced
yooz as a verb or yoos as a noun. Don't longwordify what would otherwise be clear.
Verbal. Verbal means "related to words"; a
written agreement is just as verbal as an oral one. If
you mean something spoken, use oral. Samuel Goldwyn ignored
this distinction in his quip, "A verbal agreement isn't worth the
paper it's written on."
Very. See Wasted Words.
Having a large vocabulary
can never hurt, but you should use your energy wisely. Knowing words like
obnubiate, hebetic, and tergiversation can make you
the envy of your crossword-puzzle-playing friends, but in writing you'll
get more mileage out of knowing the precise
meaning of more common words. Can you distinguish climatic from
climactic? -- tortuous from torturous? --
incredible from incredulous? -- turgid from
turbid? They're very different, but often confused. For a good
guide, to these pairs and others, see Maxwell
Nurnberg in the "Additional Reading" section.
Don't use obscure words just because you can; ostentation leads only to obfuscation. Using mirific where
amazing or wonderful will do is just showing off and
intimidating your audience. See also Long Words.
Many words and
phrases rarely add anything to a sentence. Avoid these whenever
you can. A very short list of some of these offenders:
Quite, very, extremely, as it were,
moreover, it can be seen that, it has been
indicated that, basically, essentially,
totally, completely, therefore, it should
be remembered that, it should be noted that,
thus, it is imperative that, at the present
moment in time. These are fine in their place, but they
often slither into your writing with the sinister purpose of
tempting you into the sin of padding your sentences. See Economy.
Which versus That. See That
Who versus Whom. It's possible to memorize a rule for
distinguishing who from whom, but it's easier to trust your
ear. A simple test to see which is proper is to replace who/whom
with he/him. If he sounds right, use who; if
him is right, use whom. For example: since he did it
and not him did it, use who did it; since we give something
to him and not to he, use to whom. It gets tricky
only when the preposition is separated from
the who: Who/whom did you give it to? Rearrange the words in
your head: To whom did you give it? See Preposition at the End.
-Wise. Ad hoc words like salarywise and
timewise, meaning regarding salaries or time, are
best avoided. Strunk and White put it
well: "The sober writer will abstain from the use of this wild
There are many writing guides, most of them awful. The books
below are considered classics in the field.
- H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage. This
seven-hundred-page volume of small type includes every
conceivable stylistic point, arranged alphabetically, and written
in an informal (but quirky) tone. Some of the entries are
specific -- several pages on punctuation -- but others are
general, such as tired clichés. Almost every entry has
illustrative quotations from real life. Fowler was qualified for
the job, having just compiled the Concise Oxford
Dictionary. This classic work suffers from its focus (almost
entirely on British English), and much of it has been outdated in
the seven decades since its first edition's completion. Still
worth a look. A companion, Modern American Usage by
Follett, makes up for some of Fowler's disadvantages, but lacks
the charm of the original.
- Sir Ernest Gowers et al., The Complete Plain
Words. Ernest Gowers's Plain Words is a guide to
effective writing from the 1940s for British civil servants.
Over the years it has gone through many editions and been changed
by many hands. The most recent version, The Complete Plain
Words, still shows its focus on British usage and the civil
service, but many of its suggestions are excellent. Most of the
book is a discussion of common writing problems, with examples of
good and bad writing. There is also a long section on specific
points of usage, arranged alphabetically.
- George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language." Orwell's
essay is one of the great works on the plain style. The essay
should be available in any popular collection of Orwell's essays.
Read it daily. Keep a copy under your pillow.
- Thomas Pinney, A Short Handbook and
Style Sheet. A handy little guide to style, written
informally and accessibly. The general sections (on diction,
vagueness, wordiness, and so on) are better than those devoted to
mechanics. Pinney's work is refreshingly free of dogmatism of
- Margaret Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar. Not bad
if you're looking for very specific rules, but not highly
recommended as a general guide. It includes things like
"Capitalize nouns followed by a capitalized Roman numeral" and
the proper spelling of bête noire. Easily
available, since it's often sold with Strunk and White
- Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.
The standard high school guide to style, and useful well beyond school.
It includes a number of specific rules, dozens of often misused words, and
bundles of suggestions for improving your style. Available anywhere (now
including an on-line version
of Strunk's 1918 edition). Read it. Memorize it. Live it.
- Maxwell Nurnberg, I Always Look Up the Word
"Egregious": A Vocabulary Book for People Who Don't Need One. A
pleasant guide to building vocabulary that never becomes patronizing (the
fault of too many books for beginners) or drifts off into utterly useless
long words (the fault of too many books for fans of word games). It's
probably too sophisticated for non-native speakers and rank beginners, but
will help many others build a more powerful vocabulary.
Keith Ivey's English
Usage Page contains many valuable discussions of grammar, style, and
usage, and includes many references to the alt.usage.english newsgroup and the
excellent collection of frequently
asked questions compiled by Mark Israel. See also the Elementary Grammar at
www.hiway.co.uk, the on-line edition of Strunk's 1918 Elements of
Style, Gary Shapiro's page on It's versus Its, and my
collection of other on-line writers' resources.
Mirror sites of this page -- not necessarily up to date -- are kept at: