A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
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 paragraph.
Be sure your paragraphs are organized to help your argument along. Each paragraph should build on what came before, and should lay the ground for whatever comes next. Mastering transitions can make a very big difference in your writing.
A matter of mechanics and house style: it's customary (at least in America) to indicate new paragraphs in most prose by indenting the first line (three to five spaces), with no skipped lines between paragraphs. Business memos and press releases tend to skip a line and not indent. (As you can see from this guide, most Web browsers use the skip-a-line-and-don't-indent style.) In papers for English classes, don't-skip-but-indent is preferable. [Entry revised 14 July 2000]
Use this nasty vogue word, and I'll forgive you only if you're a mathematician, a scientist, or a computer programmer. (Even then, I'll probably forgive you only grudgingly.) The rest of the world can safely do without. [Entry added 14 August 1999]
Don't bury important ideas in parentheses. Dan White's example points out the danger of using parentheses for important thoughts:
The American and French Revolutions (which provided the inspiration for Blake's prophetic poetry) were very important to English writers of the 1780s and '90s.
Here the substantial part of the sentence is buried in a parenthesis, while the weaker part (note the word “important”) is in the main clause. See also Emphasis.
Note that sentence-ending periods should go outside the parentheses if the parenthetical remark is part of a larger sentence, but inside the parentheses if it's not embedded in a larger sentence. This is an example of the first (notice the punctuation goes outside, because we're still part of that outer sentence). (This is an example of the second, because we're no longer inside any other sentence; the parenthesis is its own sentence.)
See Dangling Participles.
This particular word, in many particular circumstances, usually serves no particular purpose. Give particular attention to the particular prospect of cutting it out. [Entry added 5 July 2001.]
Old-fashioned grammars stated quite straightforwardly that there were eight parts of speech:
All of that's worth knowing, but it's not worth taking the number eight too seriously. A few lessons about this messy language we speak.
First, although dictionaries usually tell you the part of speech for each word, it's not always that simple. In many languages, parts of speech are clearly marked in the form of each word: Latin umbra, for instance, can be only a noun (“shade”). If you want the verb, it's umbro; if you want an adjective, it's umbrosus. In English, though, we don't clearly signal parts of speech in our word forms, and words have a habit of being used in various ways: think of in the shade (shade as a noun), a shade tree (as an adjective), and shade your eyes (as a verb). Nouns can function as adjectives: department, for example, is a noun; but put it in front of another noun — department store — and now it functions as an adjective, modifying the word store. (The two-word noun phrase department store can in turn become an adjective if we put it in front of another noun — “I don't want to pay department store prices” — and the three-word noun phrase can in turn become another adjective, and so on, for as long as your ingenuity holds up.) Adjectives can also function as nouns in a sentence: “Sleep is for the weak.” Here weak — which we usually think of as an adjective — is operating “absolutely,” and it's playing the role of a noun. Take the adjective dark and stick it in front of an adjective like green, and now it's acting as an adverb.
Rather than thinking of parts of speech as properties of specific words, then, it's better to think of them as functions within a sentence. These functions can be played by single words or groups of words.
Second, English is a very flexible language — it always has been; this isn't some horrible modern development — and words have a habit of changing their parts of speech over time. Some are now perfectly acceptable: although move began its life as a verb (with the associated nouns movement and motion), no one objects to its use as a noun today (“She showed me some impressive moves”; “He took his opponent's rook on his fourth move”; “This is our third move this year”). Block went the other way, from a noun to a verb. Other words are still more or less controversial. Like (as in “this is like that,” not “cats like tuna”) is traditionally a preposition, though it's increasingly being used as a conjunction, and most likely that will someday be the norm; to transition, though common in businessese, makes some people woozy (it was first used in 1975). And some of these changing parts of speech are clearly neologisms or nonce words; while they probably won't become part of Standard English, they don't present any serious trouble: “We had to bookcase-over the hole in the wall so the landlord wouldn't see it.” That one is unlikely to catch on, but some do. You might not like it — as Bill Watterson put it in Calvin and Hobbes, “Verbing weirds language” — and many of them are ugly, but that's the way the language works.
Finally, don't get too hung-up on exactly which part of speech a word is playing — and don't approach the “eight parts of speech” with fundamentalist rigor. We use these terms to describe the language; to force the language into the categories is to put the cart before the &c. A good, modern, technical grammar will give you some more insight into how the language really works. [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004; revised 19 Aug. 2006.]
The active voice takes the form of “A does B”; the passive takes the form of “B is done [by A].”
Writers are often instructed to avoid the passive voice, and there are two reasons for this advice. The first is that sentences often become dense and clumsy when they're filled with passive constructions. The more serious danger of the passive voice, though, is that it lets the writer shirk the responsibility of providing a subject for the verb. Dan White gives an example:
“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.
And the stakes can be higher when you're talking about atrocities worse than bad papers. This is why nefarious government and corporate spokesmen are so fond of the passive voice: think of the notorious all-purpose excuse, “Mistakes were made.” Then think about how much weaseling is going on in a sentence like “It has been found regrettable that the villagers' lives were terminated” — notice especially how the agency has disappeared altogether. It should make you shudder.
In your own writing, therefore, it's wise to favor the active voice whenever you can. Instead of the passive “The point will be made,” try the active “I will make the point” — notice the agent (“I”) is still there.
Don't go overboard, though. Some passives are necessary and useful. In scientific writing, for instance, sentences are routinely written in the passive voice; the authors are therefore given less importance, and the facts are made to speak for themselves. Even in non-scientific writing, not all passives can be avoided.
Don't confuse am, is, are, to be, and such 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, or having something done to it. I have been carrying is active, while I have been carried is passive.
There's an admirably thorough and precise discussion of the English passive in the Language Log blog — worth checking out if you want a better understanding.
Avoid the businessese habit of using per instead of according to, as in per manufacturers' guidelines. Ick.
This isn't a comprehensive guide to period usage; that would take more time and energy than I can spare. Besides, you already know most of the rules: a period ends a declarative sentence, and sometimes is used in abbreviations. Still, a few things aren't obvious.
For instance: when do you use periods in acronyms or other abbreviations? Alas, there's no reliable rule: some get periods, some don't, and only a dictionary will tell you for sure which they are. (Even the dictionaries are only reporting on their sense of the prevailing usage; no one standard is “right,” and dictionaries will differ from one another). A few rough guidelines, though, might help. Academic degrees usually get periods (Ph.D., D.Ed.), as do awards and other distinctions (F.R.S. for Fellow of the Royal Society, D.S.C. for Distinguished Service Cross). Abbreviations usually presented in lowercase (e.g., i.e., a.m., etc.) usually get periods. Acronyms — abbreviations that form pronounceable words (NASA, AIDS, NIMBY) — usually go without.
But these are only rough guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. Different house styles treat words in different ways; they leave a lot uncovered altogether; and they don't address those wacky abbreviations that take other forms (like A/C for air conditioning). Hie thee to the dictionary and, if you're writing for publication, don't be surprised if your editor overrules you.
More important: what if one of those abbreviations with a period appears at the end of a sentence? — do you use another period to end the sentence, or is one enough?
This one is simple enough: never double up periods. If a statement ends with “etc.” the period in the abbreviation does double duty, serving as the full stop to end the sentence. If, however, you need another mark of punctuation after an abbreviation, you can put it after the period. So:
The only thing to remember: don't double the periods. Everything else is logical enough. [Entry added 26 Jan. 2005.]
See First Person.
Personalized means made personal, and suggests that something was not personal but now is. This isn't what you mean in phrases like personalized attention. Use personal. See Obfuscation.
A tricky one. The traditional meaning of peruse is (in the words of the OED) “To examine in detail; to scrutinize, inspect, survey, oversee; to consider, to take heed of,” or (in the words of the American Heritage Dictionary) “To read or examine, typically with great care.” The per- prefix here means “thoroughly, completely, to completion, to the end.” But peruse is increasingly being used to mean “to look over briefly or superficially; to browse” (OED) or “to glance over, skim” (AHD).
Most prescriptive guides will tell you the “skim” meaning is simply wrong: Bryan Garner writes (in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage) that “Some writers misuse the word as if it meant ‘to read quickly’ or ‘scan,’” and two out of three members of the American Heritage Usage Panel find this meaning unacceptable. On the other hand, my guess is that only a tiny fraction of the reading public knows the “real” meaning, so you can't count on them to understand you if you use it. Advise people to peruse a memo, and they'll probably think it means “glance at it.” Your best bet, then, is probably to avoid the word, unless you're certain your readers will get your meaning. [Entry added 14 May 2006.]
A plural noun: the singular is phenomenon. [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]
Plural means “more than one.” English handles these things more simply than many languages. You already know the basic rules: most nouns take an s or es at the end; singular nouns ending in y usually end in ies in the plural. Our adjectives don't change form at all. There are a handful of irregular nouns — child, children; woman, women — but native speakers learn the important ones early, and non-native speakers can find a list of them easily enough.
A few exceptions require special care. In some noun phrases, the “head noun” gets the plural, even if it's not at the end of the noun phrase: mothers in law, attorneys general, courts martial. (Such forms may be disappearing, but they're still preferred.)
Many people get spooked by the plurals of proper names: the rules really aren't that different. Papa Smith, Mama Smith, and Baby Smith are the Smiths; Mr. Birch, Mrs. Birch, and Junior Birch are the Birches. The only difference is that proper names ending in y shouldn't change form in the plural: just add an s. The members of the Percy family are the Percys, not the Percies.
Resist the urge to put an apostrophe before the s in a plural, whether in common or proper nouns. The term for this vulgar error is the “greengrocer's apostrophe,” from the shopkeepers' habit of advertising their “potato's” and “apple's.” The only occasions on which you use apostrophes to make plurals are spelled out in my entry for apostrophes. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
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 possessive is used to indicate belonging: Carol's car (“the car that belongs to Carol”), my brother's apartment (“the apartment that belongs to my brother”), my neighbors' yard (“the yard that belongs to my neighbors”), his name (“the name that belongs to him”), and so on. You could also express most of them with of: “the car of Carol,” “the apartment of my brother,” “the yard of my neighbors,” “the name of him.”
The rules for forming possessives are simple:
The only time for hesitation is when you have a singular noun that ends in s or an s sound: bus, James, house. This is a matter of house style: most guides suggest the same rules as before: the bus's route, James's friends, my house's roof. Others (especially in journalism) suggest just an apostrophe without the additional s. Some have different rules depending on whether the s is sounded like an s or a z; some have different rules based on whether it's a word of one syllable or more. But it's usually best to go with apostrophe-s with all singular nouns, whether or not they end in s. [Entry added 12 July 2005; revised 24 December 2006.]
The guiding principle in all your word choices should be precision, the most important contributor to clarity.
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 while 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 crisis.”
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 mean.
A declarative sentence (or independent clause) is made up of two bits, the subject and the predicate. The subject — usually containing one or more nouns or pronouns, along with their accompanying modifiers — is who or what does the action of the sentence. The predicate is what's said about the subject: it consists of the main verb, along with all its modifiers and objects.
(That simplifies things quite a bit. The subject doesn't have to be a noun or a pronoun; it can be a that clause, for instance: “That William Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him is beyond doubt.” The subject isn't “William Shakespeare,” but the whole that clause. And some sentences have only “dummy” noun phrases, like “It's raining,” where the it means nothing.)
Why should you care? In some style guides, some compound modifiers — especially when adverbs that don't end in -ly modify adjectives — are hyphenated when they appear in the “attributive” position, but not in the “predicate” position. In other words, there's no hyphen if the adjective phrase is what is being predicated. That usually means they should be hyphenated when they come before the noun they modify, but not after, although that's not always the case. For example:
It's a subtle distinction, and not one to get too worked up about. Some style guides are backing away from this rule, preferring to give the general advice that such phrases should be hyphenated whenever they aid clarity. [Entry added 18 Jan. 2005.]
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 usually recognize a preposition by putting it before the word he. If your ear tells you he should be him, the word might be 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 always 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. For instance, “He gave the public what it longed for” is clear and idiomatic, even though it ends with a preposition; “He gave the public that for which it longed” avoids the problem but doesn't look like English. A sentence becomes unnecessarily obscure when it's filled with from whoms and with whiches. 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.” [Revised 12 Jan. 2007.]
The grammar books you're used to are what linguists call prescriptive: that is, they prescribe rules for proper usage. For several hundred years, “grammar” was synonymous with “prescriptive grammar.” You went to a book to get the definitive ruling: thou shalt not split infinitives, thou shalt not end sentences with prepositions. (This is presumably why you're reading this guide now: to find out what's “right” and what's “wrong.”)
Linguists today are justly suspicious about such things, and most spend their time on descriptive grammars: descriptions of how people really speak and write, instead of rules on how they should. They're doing important work, not least by arguing that no language or dialect is inherently better than any other. They've done a signal service in reminding us that Black English is as “legitimate” a dialect as the Queen's English, and that speaking the way Jane Austen writes doesn't make you more righteous than someone who uses y'all. They've also demonstrated that many self-styled “grammar” experts know next to nothing about grammar as it's studied by professionals, and many aren't much better informed about the history of the language. Many prescriptive guides are grievously ill informed.
Fair enough. Sometimes, though, I enjoy picking fights with those linguists, usually amateur, who try to crowd prescription out of the market altogether. The dumber ones make a leap from “No language is inherently better than another” (with which I agree) to “Everything's up for grabs” (with which I don't). The worst are hypocrites who, after attacking the very idea of rules, go on to prescribe their own, usually the opposite of whatever the traditionalists say. These folks have allowed statistics to take the place of judgment, relying on the principle, “Whatever most people say is the best.”
These dullards forget that words are used in social situations, and that even if something isn't inherently good or evil, it might still have a good or bad effect on your audience. I happen to know for a fact that God doesn't care whether you split infinitives. But some people do, and that's a simple fact that no statistical table will change. A good descriptivist should tell you that. In fact, my beef with many descriptivists is that they don't describe enough. A really thorough description of a word or usage would take into account not only how many people use it, but in what circumstances and to what effect.
Much can be said against old-fashioned bugbears like end-of-sentence prepositions and singular they. They're not particularly logical, they don't have much historical justification, and they're difficult even for native speakers to learn. But you don't always get to choose your audience, and some of your readers or hearers will think less of you if you break the “rules.” Chalk it up to snobbishness if you like, but it's a fact. To pick an even more politically charged example, Black English is a rich and fascinating dialect with its own sophisticated lexicon and syntax. But using it in certain social situations just hurts the speaker's chances of getting what he or she wants. That's another brute fact — one with the worst of historical reasons, but a fact still, and wishing it away won't change it.
That doesn't mean the old-fashioned prescriptivists should always be followed slavishly: it means you have to exercise judgment in deciding which rules to apply when. Here's the principle that guides what I write and say whenever traditional (“correct”) usage differs from colloquial (“incorrect”) usage.
For me it's a simple calculation: which usage, the traditional or the colloquial, is going to be more effective? Since most traditional usages work in most colloquial settings, and since many colloquial usages don't work in formal settings, I usually opt for the traditional usage.
Some determined iconoclasts consider it pandering to follow any traditional rule they don't like, and do everything they can to flout the old grammar books. I suppose some think wanton infinitive-splitting shows the world what free spirits they are, and some think giving in to “White English” is unmitigated Uncle-Tomism.
Maybe. If rebellion makes you happy, go nuts; I won't stop you. But as I make clear throughout this guide, writing is for me a matter of having an impact on an audience, and my experience, if it's worth anything, is that some usages help you and some hurt you. Think about each one, not in terms of what you're “allowed” to say, but in terms of what your words can do for you. A dogmatic prejudice against the rules is no better than a dogmatic prejudice in their favor.
See my entries on Audience, Grammar, Rules, and Taste. [Entry added 29 Jan. 2001.]
Presently traditionally means “very soon” or “immediately”: “She'll arrive presently”; “I'll get to it presently.” Avoid using it to mean “now,” not least because we've already got a perfectly good word that means “now” — viz., now — that's one syllable instead of three. Besides, the present tense is usually all you need.
See also Currently. [Entry added 26 Jan. 2005.]
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.
Principal can be either an adjective or a noun; principle is strictly a noun.
Worth keeping straight. The most common booboo is probably using principle as an adjective. Don't. [Entry added 20 Jan. 2005.]
For a less stuffy and bureaucratic tone, replace prior to or prior with before or earlier whenever possible.
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 system.” (For a warning on relative pronouns, see Sentence Fragments.) [Revised 14 Sept. 2004.]
Lord knows this guide irritates enough people already; I don't want to alienate the rest of the Anglophone world by issuing decrees on how words should be pronounced. My concern in this guide is with the written rather than the spoken language. But many things I've said about writing apply to speech as well. Start with the entry for Shibboleths, and follow some of the links from there.
If you have any questions about orthoepy — a delightfully obscure word that means “proper pronunciation” — start with a good dictionary. Though it takes a while to get the hang of it, consider learning IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet), which allows greater precision in rendering pronunciations (it distinguishes the th sound in thin from the one in they, for instance, to say nothing of the two sounds that the letters th make in hothead). And Charles Harrington Elster has written a few enjoyable books on the subject, collected into one omnibus volume as The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide for the Careful Speaker (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999). [Entry added 21 Dec. 2004.]
You should always read over your wrok carefully before handing it to someone esle, looking for typoos, mispelled words, problems with agreement, words that missing, and so on. There's nothing wrong with using a spelling checker, but they routinely miss so many things that you still have to read your work closely. (Don't depend on grammar checkers, which usually make your writing worse, not better.)
Remember, though, that proofreading is only one part of the revision process. [Entry revised 14 August 1999]
In America, commas and periods go inside quotation marks, while 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:
Note that in American usage, all quoted material goes in “double quotation marks,” except for quotations within quotations, which get single quotation marks.
There are a few instances where it's wise to put the punctuation outside the quotation marks — cases where it's really important whether the punctuation mark is part of the quotation or not. A software manual, for instance, might have to make it very clear whether the period is part of a command or simply ends the sentence in which the command appears: getting it wrong means the command won't work. Bibliographers are concerned with the exact form of the punctuation in a book. In these cases, it makes sense. Most of the time, though — when lives don't depend on whether the comma is or isn't part of the quotation — stick with the general usage outlined above; it's what publishers expect. [Revised 3 Jan. 2005; revised 12 July 2005.]
The traditional rule, and one especially suited to the monospaced fonts common in typescripts (as opposed to desktop publishing): put one space after a comma or semicolon; put two spaces after a (sentence-ending) period, exclamation point, or question mark. Colons have been known to go either way. For spaces after quotation marks, base your choice on the punctuation inside the quotation. Publishers often (but not always) use standard word spacing between sentences (it's a matter of house style), and it seems to be gaining ground among typists today, perhaps through the influence of desktop publishing. In any case, it's nothing to fret about.
I get a ridiculous amount of mail about this one point — at least one (often heated) message a week, more than on all the other topics in this guide put together. I wish I understood this strange passion. My only advice to those who want to quarrel about it is that your time would be better spent worrying about other things.
See also Ellipses.