A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
I've also been experimenting with a new search engine. It's very rudimentary, but may be useful.
These notes are a miscellany of grammatical rules and explanations, comments on style, and suggestions on usage I put together for my classes. Nothing here is carved in stone, and many comments are matters of personal preference — feel free to psychoanalyze me by examining my particular hangups and bêtes noires. Anyone who can resist turning my own preferences into dogma is welcome to use this HTML edition. Feedback is always welcome.
I should be clear up front: I'm not a linguist, nor a scholar of the history of the language. (If you're curious about who I am, you can look at my CV and decide whether I'm worth listening to.) Linguists are wary of “prescriptive” grammars, which set out standards of “correct” and “incorrect” usage — grammars that usually insist correctness reigned in the good old days, whereas we've been on the road to hell ever since. Professional linguists are adamant that the language isn't “declining,” and that many usages censured by self-styled grammarians are in fact perfectly reasonable, whether on historical grounds, logical grounds, or both.
And they're right. I reject any model of linguistic decline, in which the twenty-first century speaks a decadent version of the language of some golden age. I don't lie awake at night worrying about the decline of “proper” English. (In my grumpier moods, I'm convinced the whole world's going to hell — but then, I'm convinced the whole world's been going to hell since time out of mind. In my more sanguine moods, I wonder whether hell isn't such a bad place to be after all.) I know, too, that many things offered as “good” grammar or style have little basis in history or in logic.
Why, then, have I spent so much time on a prescriptive and fairly traditional usage guide? Because these notes may be useful in making your writing clearer and more effective. I'm not out to make definitive statements about what's right and what's wrong, and Lord knows I wouldn't be qualified even if I tried. I can, however, make suggestions on things that are likely to work — by which, as you'll see throughout this guide, I mean have an effect on your audience.
The entries here are of two types: specific articles on usage, and more general articles on style. The specific articles cover such mechanical 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 matters of house style, 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.
These general articles are no less important than the “rules.” In fact, really bad writing is rarely a matter of broken 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, 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 tyros. 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.”
There are countless writing guides, most of them awful. The books below are either classics in the field or my own faves.
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, and Gary Shapiro's page on It's versus Its. I also maintain another collection of on-line writers' resources.
Mirror sites of this page are available around the world. Most of them are unauthorized (only a few were considerate enough to ask for my permission before reproducing my work), and most of them represent versions long out of date. I assume responsibility only for this version, at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/. But if you have trouble connecting to this site, feel free to try the others, for what they're worth.