A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
The metaphor is often abused. Don't use a facet, the hard polished side of a gem, to stand in for the more general “aspect” unless it's really appropriate.
Usually unnecessary. You can often simply drop the fact and go with that alone: instead of “I'm surprised by the fact that the report is incomplete,” write “I'm surprised that the report is incomplete.” And don't be afraid to rewrite the sentence altogether.
A vogue word and a vague word, beloved of business types, but often with precious little meaning. There's probably a more precise word. Look for it. [Entry added 24 April 2006.]
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.
The use of feel for words like think, believe, and argue is becoming unsettlingly common. It's a cliché, and a touchy-feely one at that, reducing all cognition to sensation and emotion. When I see sentences beginning “Wittgenstein feels that . . .” or “Socrates feels he is . . .” I start to feel queasy. Avoid it. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
They're easily confused, because they're both the opposite of more, but more has two meanings, one for a greater amount of stuff, the other for a greater number of things. Less means “not as much”; fewer means “not as many.” Trust your ear: if you'd use “much,” use “less”; if you'd use “many,” use “fewer.” You earn less money by selling fewer products; you use less oil but eat fewer fries. If you can count them, use fewer.
For more information, see Count versus Mass Nouns. [Entry revised 3 November 2000; moved 10 December 2006.]
An ugly, jargony word.
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.
Grammarians have 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 Person.
On a related topic: some people have been taught never to use the first person in their writing. There's something to this: your attention should be on the work you're discussing, not on yourself (unless, of course, the assignment specifically calls for a personal essay). Write about the text, not about yourself. And there's no need for endless qualifications: “I think,” “I believe,” “it seems to me,” that sort of thing. Readers will take it for granted that the paper represents your thoughts and beliefs, so there's no need to draw attention to that fact.
Still, many people take this principle too far, and resort to the Victorian pomposity of the first-person plural (“We have argued in the previous paragraph”) or bizarre contortions to turn first-person references into third-person (“The writer of this essay”) when a simple “I” or “me” would be much more direct and forceful. Don't bend over backwards to avoid using the first person: there are many times when it's the best choice. [Revised 11 Sept. 2006.]
Despite appearances, they mean the same thing. In many words, the in- prefix means “not”: think of inedible, indirect, or inconceivable. (Latin spelling rules — more than you have reason to care about — mean that it's essentially the same “not” prefix in illegal, impossible, and irregular.)
But the in- prefix on inflammable is different: instead of meaning “not,” it's an intensifier. How are you supposed to tell the difference? Well, unless you're conversant in Latin, you just have to know, that's all. The word inflammable long predates flammable — 1605 versus 1813 (the word flammability appeared in the seventeenth century, but it then disappeared until the twentieth). But in the twentieth century, flammable has been increasingly used to mean “able to be set on fire,” and inflammable has been losing ground.
The problem is that the “real” meaning of the word (that is, the traditional meaning supported by most dictionaries) is the exact opposite of what many people assume it means. Now, with words like comprise or enormity, no one's life depends on dictionary entries. But someone trying to put out a fire who sees a bucket of something labeled “INFLAMMABLE” has good reason to hope for perfect clarity.
The practical lesson to take away from this entry: if you're reasonably certain everyone in your audience knows the “real” meaning of the word, feel free to use inflammable “correctly” to mean “able to be set on fire.” And if you're writing metaphorically, it probably can't hurt to use inflammable. But if there's any chance some poor person is going to misunderstand you and go up in flames as a result, be as explicit as you can. Flammable and not flammable (or nonflammable) are probably your best bet. And if you're the one trying to put out a fire, avoid the bucket labeled “INFLAMMABLE.” [Entry added 8 May 2006; moved 10 December 2006.]
The two words are easily confused, but they aren't interchangeable, and you'll look bad if you mix them up. To flaunt is to show off or display: you can flaunt your money and you can flaunt your knowledge of trivia. To flout, on the other hand, is to show contempt for something: you can flout a rule or flout a convention. Keep them separate. [Entry added 24 April 2006.]
See The Above.
Don't play with fonts: leave desktop publishing to the desktop publishers. Publishers and professors 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 readers who judge your work based on the typeface. If you're writing for a class, some instructors will care about the typeface you use; in those cases, follow their guidelines. Others won't; in those cases pick something simple and unobtrusive. Spend your time writing.
Oh — and please don't insult your professors' intelligence by padding out a too-short paper with gigantic typefaces, narrow margins, and wide line-spacing to make it seem longer. Despite all appearances to the contrary, we're really not that dumb.
See also Justification. [Revised 14 July 2000; revised 24 April 2006.]
Foreign words and phrases shouldn't become a bête noire, but, ceteris paribus, English sentences should be in English. Clarity is the sine qua non of good writing, and the overuse of such words just confuses your readers — satis, superque. Remember, Allzuviel ist nicht gesund. Besides, there's nothing worse than trying to impress and getting it wrong. When it comes to foreign phrases, chi non fa, non falla. (Das versteht sich von selbst.)
Many — most? — of the rules in this guide are concerned with written rather than spoken English, and, what's more, with written language of a certain degree of formality. That's to say, I'm trying to describe the kind of prose that's appropriate for a college English paper. Many no-no's in a college English paper, though, are perfectly acceptable in other contexts; don't get dogmatic on me. See Audience, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, and Rules.
Fortuitous means “happening by chance,” and not necessarily a lucky chance. Don't use it interchangeably with fortunate. [Entry added 14 August 1999]
See Sentence Fragments.
There's nothing wrong with the word, but it's often just a long and Latinate way of saying often. Don't be afraid to use the shorter, more direct word. [Entry added 24 April 2006.]
Functionality is too often a twisted way of saying function. See also Methodology.