A User's Guide
A much-revised and expanded version of this on-line guide, with hundreds of added examples.
E-Prime (or E') — the “E” stands for “English,” and the “prime” comes from mathematics, where it indicates one variable's close relation to another (for derivatives, transformations, and set complements, for example) — designates a variety of English that uses no verbs of being. Some writers try to avoid all verbs of being, favoring the more forceful action verbs in their place. So a book written in E-Prime includes no occurrences of to be in any of its forms.
Overuse of verbs of being makes writing lifeless, and no one should object to more action verbs. In fact, beginning writers may profit from the exercise of removing all the verbs of being from their writing, since it forces them to find more forceful means of expression. Inflexibly applying any rule, though, savors of pedantry, and your fear of bugbears should never lead you into gracelessness. I've written this entry in E-Prime, and its occasional clumsiness reveals the dangers of riding any hobbyhorse too seriously. See Action Verbs, Exists, and Passive Voice. [Entry revised 30 June 2006.]
A singular noun, 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). Note two things: first, most typing manuals and house styles prefer the periods to be spaced, thus:
Brevity is . . . wit.
(In electronic communication it's sometimes convenient, even necessary, to run them together, since line-wrap can be 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 other thing. Although it's a matter of house style, note that it's usually unnecessary to have ellipses at the beginning or end of a quotation; they're essential only when something's omitted in the middle. There's no need for “. . . this . . .” when “this” will do: readers will understand you're not quoting everything the source ever said, and that there will be material before and after the quotation you give. The only time it's advisable is when the bit you're quoting isn't grammatical when it's standing on its own: “When I was a boy . . .” — that sort of thing. [Entry revised 12 July 2005.]
A distinguishing mark of clear and forceful writing is economy of style — using no more words than necessary. Bureaucratic and academic writing likes to pad every sentence with It should continuously be remembered thats and Moreover, it has been previously indicateds. Don't: it makes for slow reading. After you write a sentence, look it over and ask whether the sense would be damaged by judicious trimming. If not, start cutting, because the shorter version is usually better. Become friendly with the “Delete Word” option on your word processor. See Wasted Words. [Revised 11 June 2001.]
See Affect versus Effect.
The 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.
There are several ways to draw attention to passages in your writing that deserve special emphasis. I'll start, though, with a few means you should avoid.
First, you should never resort to ALL CAPITALS in formal writing. Bigger Type is also out; likewise boldface. They all come across as amateurish — note how rarely you see them in published prose. Professionals know that they're counterproductive. (Here I'm talking just about the body of text: boldface, caps, and larger type are permissible in section headings and things like that.) And exclamation points have to be used very sparingly.
So what's left? — Italics (or underscore; the two are interchangeable) can draw attention to a word or a short phrase, though even this should be used with some care. Use it when you want to highlight a short passage, but don't resort to it over and over again, or it loses its effect.
The best way to draw attention to particular passages, though, is to construct your sentences to put the important words in the most prominent places. 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 transitional words like however, additionally, moreover, therefore, and so on. Instead of “However, the paper was finished on time” or “The paper was finished on time, however,” save the beginning and end of your sentences for more important stuff like nouns and verbs. Try “The paper, however, was finished on time.”
Save the end of the sentence for your most important words.
The important thing to remember is that you should use visual cues sparingly. If you ALWAYS resort to BIG, BOLD, ITALICIZED!!! words, your reader is going to stop paying attention. [Revised 11 June 2001; revised again 9 May 2007.]
Enormity is etymologically related to enormous, but it has a more specific meaning: it's used for things that are tremendously wicked or evil, things that pass all moral bounds. You can use it to describe genocides and such, but it's not the same as enormousness or immensity. Saying things like “the enormity of the senator's victory” when you mean simply the great size is likely to confuse people (though there are some senators whose victories I consider tremendous evils). [Entry added 3 Jan. 2005.]
Don't. Something can be equally important, or it can be as important, but it can't be equally as important.
See Wasted Words.
Every 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.” Ditto everyone: “Everyone must sign his or her name,” not “their name.” See also Each and Sexist Language.
Keep 'em 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.
Go easy on them, okay? They can add a lot of emphasis to a sentence, but using too many of them looks amateurish. If you always seem to be shouting, your audience is going to stop listening. Understatement is usually more effective. [Entry added 26 Jan. 2005.]
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 the system” (or, maybe even better, “The system doesn't work”).
See Block Quotations.