Use of English
These notes were prepared by Professor R. M. Bowley of the University of Nottingham.
We are grateful to him for permission to republish them here.
Improving Your Sentences
Whatever blocks or distorts a sentence, whatever obscures its point or impedes its readability,
must be corrected no matter how much distress it may cause the author.
Here are some headlines that are not clear:
- Child's stool great for use in garden
- Stud tires out
- Stiff opposition expected to casketless funeral plan
- Drunk gets nine months in violin case
- Iraqi head seeks arms
- Queen Mary having bottom scraped
- Columnist gets urologist in trouble with his peers
Clarity and precision does not mean simplicity, for some ideas will not yield to simple expression.
Here are ten elements of good style:
You should write sentences which the reader can understand with the minimum of work.
You should never leave the reader in doubt as to who is speaking to whom,
and what is being discussed.
Your sentences must be structured logically, and be internally consistent.
Use the same level of language throughout; inconsistency of tone is a
Keep long winded sentences to a minimum. The reader gets lost in them.
Avoid short staccato sentences. They are bad. Do not use. Join them
You can achieve a more emphatic point by using suspense; for example, by
disclosing your meaning at the end of the sentence.
Employ parallelism when it is appropriate to your thought.
Gain emphasis by placing important words at the beginning of the sentence,
or at the end, or repeat them during the course of the sentence.
Vary the length and structure of your sentences, always striving for
sentences pleasing to the ear.
There are different levels of usage. Standard English is either formal or
informal: formal is used in official reports and reference books; informal is
used in conversation and informal writing. Substandard English is unacceptable
in polite society; it can be illiterate, vulgar, embarrassing. Worse in some
ways is pompous writing, an absurd attempt at formal usage. Today, the informal
level of usage dominates both spoken and written English. It carefully avoids
being either vulgar or pompous, but it possesses at its best liveliness and
Clarity, Exactness, Correctness and Economy: These are the watchwords for
good style. The fewest exact words produce the strongest prose. But aim for
freshness and vividness. Scientists often write prose that is clear, exact, and
economical, but rarely vivid. To be vivid, the written word must be concrete,
but imaginative, capable of stirring the reader's imagination and arousing his
feelings. Use live, vigorous verbs.
To summarise: Choose the appropriate level of usage, concrete words, precise
synonyms. Use denotative and connotative words sparingly. Choose 'live' parts of
speech, and original figures of speech. Avoid the vulgar, the pompous, the trite
and the overwrought.
The general principles governing the use of punctuation are: (1) that if it
doesn't clarify the text it should be omitted; (2) that in the choice of placing
the punctuation marks, the sole object is to bring out the writer's thought. In
other words punctuation is governed by communication and not by rules. If
violating a rule enhances the sense or even the grace of the sentence, then the
rule should be violated; otherwise the sentence and the reasons for the rule are
Two kinds of practice are in vogue: formal punctuation, which prefers to use
all marks not expressly forbidden, and informal punctuation, which prefers to
omit all marks not definitely required. In practice most authors try to strike a
The comma separates sentence elements. It is the least emphatic of the punctuation marks. It is used:
To separate two independent clauses joined by a co-ordinating conjunction.
A rabbit's foot may bring you luck, but it brought little to the rabbit.
To separate words, phrases, or clauses in a series — as in this sentence.
The pebbles have been sorted, arranged, selected.
To separate two adjectives each of which modifies the noun individually. (The comma can always
be replaced by 'and' — this is the acid test.)
He was a brilliant, forthright speaker.
To set off a long adverbial clause or phrase coming before the main clause
(optional usage nowadays.)
By resolute malice and unblinking devotion to the spirit of the law,
he managed to bring in another conviction.
To set off an introductory verbal phrase (A participle, gerund or
infinitive phrase). This is often omitted in modern writing.
To see infinity in a grain of sand, one needs vision rather than eyesight.
To set off an absolute phrase in any part of the sentence- beginning,
middle or end.
Perhaps we waste our energies, sunshine being more general than showers,
by preparing so diligently for rainy days.
To prevent misreading – even temporary misreading.
Eighth army push, bottles up Germans.
In brief, dresses will be shorter.
When I wish to dance, well women grow sick.
To separate the year from any of its divisions.
To set off nouns in direct address.
Jane, answer the telephone.
To indicate the omission of one or more words.
I like roast chicken; my wife, lamb.
To set off a short or informal quotation, for the purpose of distinguishing
between the speaker and what he says.
'Stupid People', said Michael Arlan,' have an uncanny way...'
To set off two or more contrasting statements.
Millions for defence, not a damned penny for tribute.
To set off non-defining phrases and clauses. To define something use the word that; it is
as if you were pointing to it. If you are merely describing something use which
and precede the non-defining phrase with a comma.
Rolls Royces, which have four wheels, are more expensive than Fords, which
likewise have four wheels.
BUT: Rolls Royces that have three wheels are cheaper than Fords that have
four wheels. (Defining).
He stopped the second car, which was driven by a woman
BUT: He stopped the second car that was driven by a woman. (Defining)
To set off parenthetical expressions, mild interjections, words or
phrases in apposition, sentence modifiers.
The Home Secretary's problems are difficult enough, as the annual ordeal
of the Conservative Party Conference looms, without a record quarterly rise in
the crime rate.
His position, nevertheless, was shaky.
The Colon signals that a statement, an enumeration or an explanation follows.
It is a mark of anticipation primarily. It is used:
To introduce a series.
There are three kinds of women: the beautiful, the intellectual and the
A salad needs three things: a miser for the vinegar, a spendthrift for the
oil, and a madman for the tossing.
To stress a word or phrase which follows.
He attributed his error to a single cause: stupidity.
Darwinism is the answer to the biggest question of all: Why do we exist?
To separate clauses where the second amplifies or contrasts with the first.
When angry, count four: when very angry swear.
To introduce a longer formal quotation.
The best known of Naom Chomsky's 'sentences' which are grammatically
correct but otherwise meaningless is: 'Colourless green ideas sleep
This lies between a comma and a full stop. The semicolon sets off elements
of equal rank. It is used:
To separate two (or more) independent clauses not linked by a coordinating
conjunction. ( Even with ''and'' or ''but'' present you can still use a semi
colon for emphasis.)
Man can only have a certain number of teeth, hair and ideas; (and) there
comes a time when he loses his teeth, hair, ideas.
To separate clauses or phrases which already contain commas.
As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice in it;
as he was valiant, I honour him; but as he was ambitious, I slew him.
To set off a conjunctive adverb; for example therefore, nevertheless, hence, thus, however ...
Note when the conjunctive adverb starts first in its clause it has a comma after it which is
sometimes omitted in modern usage. When it doesn't start the clause then it is preceded by a
There are certain invariable deductions; consequently, the science of
logic is possible.
To set off words that introduce an explanation or enumeration. (For
example, that is, e.g., i.e., viz., to wit.)
He was a behaviourist; that is, one who extracts habits from a rat.
'A Cooking Egg' (by T. S. Elliot) demands that first of all we recognise
the meaning of its title; namely, the kind of egg used when the strictly
fresh is not required.
The hyphen is a combining mark which fuses parts into a new whole. For
example, a motorised car becomes a motor-car, the hyphen joining two parts
to make a new word. When the combination becomes familiar there is a
tendency to omit the hyphen and consolidate. Thus motor-car becomes
motorcar. The hyphen can then be a transitory mark, something which evolves
with time. If you are worried that your usage is out-of-date, consult the
current edition of a good dictionary to find the latest opinion.
Alternatively try to write so that you can omit the hyphen. To adopt this
strategy you need to know when a hyphen is advisable. It is used:
- To join two or more words used as a single adjective before a noun.
But note: if the compound adjective comes after the noun it is not hyphenated: 'His ideas were out of date years ago'.
In modern writing you may see phrases such as
'A come-up-and-see-me-sometime glance'.
Such ephemeral constructions are called 'nonce compounds': they are used once
and forgotten rapidly. Used sparingly they can enliven writing.
A most-favoured-nation clause,
A never-to-be-forgotten experience,
- To join two or more words used as a single part of speech
- hero-worship (do you like heroworship?)
- door-to-door (do you prefer doortodoor?)
- To join two or more words when one is a participle
After long usage some hyphenated words become consolidated: sunburnt legs, widespread practice,
... But be careful, for omitting the hyphen can lead to comic ambiguity:
- worm-eaten apple,
- hard-working woman (compare to a hard working-woman)
- shallow-thinking journalist
- a woman-hating man needs a gun
Try these without the hyphen.
Near the hotel is a large moor reserved for shooting-visitors.
He was surprised to come across a man-eating tiger.
To separate compound numbers, fractions used as adjectives and compound fractions
twenty-one twenty-fifths of those voting
To avoid confusion
recreation is not the same as re-creation
recover is not the same as re-cover
resign is not the same as re-sign
To prevent ugly words entering the language: those with three identical
consonants, two identical vowels, or small letter and a capital letter
coming together are especially repulsive.
I prefer 'sea air' to 'seaair', and 'sea urchin' to 'seaurchin', but others — particularly those from the
USA — are less squeamish about such words. They will write as 'counterexample' and 'aftereffects';
I prefer counter-example and after-effects. There are no hard-and-fast rules, or is that hardandfast?
- hall-lamp (not halllamp)
- shell-like (not shelllike)
- re-echo (not reecho)
- no-one (not noone)
- semi-invalid (not semiinvalid)
- anti-Semitism (not antiSemitism)
To separate some prefixes from the rest of the compound
To separate two or more compounds with a common base
The hyphen is also used to break words into parts so that the beginning part
can fill the remainder of one line of text, the end starts the next line.
The break occurs at the end of a syllable, preferably in the middle of the word.
But that is more the concern of professional typesetters.
- The x-, the y-, and the z-directions
- 1- and 2-inch nails
The dash (denoted as —) is used:
To mark a sudden turn in the thought or structure of a sentence,
or an afterthought tacked on to the main thought.
'Women who write always have one eye on the page and the other on some man
— except the Countess Haan-Haan, who had only one eye.'
To separate a parenthetical expression from the main communication.
Bacon believed — rightly, as we now know — that science could provide
a more powerful magician's wand than any that had been dreamed of by
necromancers of former ages.
To set off a word or words in apposition or amplification, especially when several words intervene.
I feel that this award (the Nobel Prize for literature) was not made to me
as a man but to my work — a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human
spirit, not for the glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of
the materials of the human spirit something that was not there before.
To set off the word or words gathering or summarising a preceding series.
Amos on the Tekoan hills, the Great Isiah by the waters of the Shiloah,
Job in the... Daniel by the river Ulai — these were men of dreams and of
visions who struggled with the questions that beset us all.
To set off a word or words intended to effect suspense, climax , or anticlimax
He who laughs — lasts. First year essays generally have an
introduction, a body, a climax — and an anticlimax.
To mark unfinished sentences.
- Heroes do not write epics. Heroes — What do they do? They die.
Use ( ) to enclose supplementary or explanatory material of smaller relevance to the
communication than that set off by the comma or the dash. The sentence is punctuated always as
if it contained no brackets; the words in brackets are punctuated independently of the rest of
The road seemed endless. (It was ten miles long, actually. But we were in
no mood for statistics.)
Use [ ] for material which is entirely independent of the sentence—usually comments,
queries, corrections, or directions inserted by someone other than the original writer.
Note: Punctuation following brackets disregards their existence:
any mark correct without them is correct with them; any incorrect mark without
them is incorrect with them.
A thing has its' [sic] law.
The trouble with Harry [Henry James] seems to be that he has learned to
swim without going near the water.
Shakespeare was born in 1563 [1564 is the correct date] and died in 1616.
Elements of Grammar
Comparisons must be complete and logical.
Example: Of Orwell's two satires, I think Animal Farm the better.
When the comparative degree of an adjective or adverb is used, exclude
the subject of the comparison from the class to which it is compared.
Example: Writers are generally more neurotic than other people.
Compare only things which can logically be compared.
Example of misuse: His skis are as well polished as an Olympic champion.
(Better— those of an Olympic champion).
Complete each comparison before modifying it.
Example of misuse: Our Bentley is as old as, if not older than, Bill's.
Some adjectives are absolute and must not be compared.
Examples: unique, round, square, perfect, empty, dead, opposite, entirely.
Avoid the vague, half finished comparison.
Example: It was so pleasant.
Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses which alter the meaning of other
sentence elements by limiting, describing or emphasizing them. Example: I wear a
coat of brocaded silk in the woodland house that I share with my mother. When
each modifier is in its proper place, it adds to the depth of an otherwise
simple statement. But modifiers must modify precisely, otherwise they distort or
obscure the meaning. The main way this happens is Dangling Modifiers: they
dangle when there is no word to which they can logically relate.
Example: 'Having reached home', the door closed behind him. (The door reached home?)
Dangling participles at the beginning of the sentence.
Example: Dancing and drinking every night, her reputation in the village
suffered. (Better: Dancing and drinking every night, she lost her reputation
in the village.)
Dangling participles at the end of sentences.
Example: Our vacation passed happily, swimming and playing tennis.
(Better: We passed our vacation happily, swimming and playing tennis.)
Example: To prepare for an examination, solitude and concentration are
essential. (Better: To prepare for an examination, a man needs solitude and
Example: After seeing the dentist, his teeth stopped aching. (His teeth
saw the dentist?)
Dangling Elliptical Clauses.
construction from which the subject or predicate has been omitted are generally
acceptable provided the subject corresponds to the subject of the main clause
and if the predicate is clear.
Example of misuse: While asleep in the underground, a thief picked my
pocket. (Who was asleep, me or the thief?)
Such words as only, nearly, almost, hardly, scarcely,
just, even, quite should be placed next to the words they modify.
Example: I only told the jury what I had seen. (Only I, or only told, or
only what I had seen?)
Example: People who teach rarely get rich. (Better: Rarely do people who
teach get rich.)
Misplaced terminal phrases
Example: Harold kept the child who misbehaved in the corner. (Better: The
child misbehaved, Harold kept him in the corner.)
Misplaced medial phrases
Example: I asked him the next time to invite more lively people. (Better:
I asked him to invite more lively people the next time.)
Misplaced modifying clauses
- Example: The face of the man looking through the window which was cruel
and sardonic startled Sweeney. (Better: The cruel and sardonic face of the man
looking through the window startled Sweeney.) To avoid confusion place the
relative clause immediately AFTER its antecedent.
Parallel modifying Clauses. These parallel clauses should be combined
either before or after the main clause.
Example: After Oedipus, our cat, has crouched behind the chair, he leaps
at our ankles, as soon as he has decided we no longer suspect him. (Better is:
After Oedipus, our cat, has crouched behind the chair, and has decided we no
longer suspect him, he leaps at our ankles.)
Split Subject and Verb
Example: David, after deceiving Uriah and sending him to the battlefield,
repented. (Better: After deceiving Uriah and sending him to the battlefield,
Split Verb and Complement.
Example: The teacher suggested, since so many students had failed to do
their homework, that they remain after school. (Better: Since so many students
had failed to do their homework, the teacher suggested that they remain after
Example: The editor intended to closely and painstakingly scrutinize the
manuscript. (Better: The editor intended to scrutinize the manuscript closely
Example: Greek ruins are as interesting, if not more interesting than,
Roman ruins. (Better: Greek ruins are as interesting as Roman ruins, if not
more interesting.) At least complete the comparison properly.
Shifts in the Point of View
'A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds', but stylistic
consistency is not foolish. An easy mastery of varied writing techniques
characterizes the mature writer; to sustain it, his writing must be resolutely
consistent. Shifts in person, in number, in voice dismay the reader and
consequently damn the writer.
Consistency in Number and Person.
Example: We were frightened during our drive along the motorway, for one
saw everywhere wreckage from previous car accidents. (Change from we to one)
Consistency of Tense
Example: We hurried to the door, but nobody is there (Change from past to present)
Consistency of Mood.
Example: Address the chairman first and then you will be recognised.
(Change from imperative to indicative)
Consistency of Voice and Subject
Example: He abhorred prejudice, and all people were considered equal by
him. (Subject goes from he to people and voice from active to passive.)
Consistency of Tone. A shift from serious factual discussion to
dubious humour disrupts the tone.
To master parallelism is to control one
of the principal techniques of English prose. No other single device helps to
clarify relationships between kindred ideas. Parallelism signifies the
grammatical balance of two or more logically related sentence elements:
Socrates had ability, knowledge, honesty and courage.
Socrates was intelligent, able, honest and courageous.
Socrates analysed, discussed, questioned, and generalized.
Socrates faced his trial fearlessly, insisting on the truth as he saw it,
and rejecting expedient compromises.
Socrates won fame by asking embarrassing questions and by giving ironic
Socrates loved to trap his friends into seemingly innocent statements and
then to expose their errors in logic.
Socrates confronted his accusers with complete assurance and with
Socrates believed that the ideal state should be governed by intellectual
aristocrats and that democracy was a dangerous creed.
Study parallel constructions in passages by professional writers.
A great nose indicates a great man — genial, courteous, intellectual,
virile, courageous.' (Rostand)
'Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and
honour those whom they have slain.' (Dostoevsky)
'What another would have done as well as you, do not do it. What another
would have said as well as you, do not say it; written as well, do not write
Parallel sentence elements linked by a co-ordinating conjunction should be
parallel in form: noun must parallel noun, adjective must parallel adjective,
phrase must parallel phrase, etc.
Example: A good scholar must be precise and possess originality. (Better:
A good scholar must be precise and be original.)
Parallel sentence elements linked by correlative conjunctions (either ...or, not only ... but
also, whether ... or) must be parallel in form. If an adjective follows the
first conjunction an adjective must follow the second, etc.
Example: The witness not only accused the defendant but also his entire
family. (Better: The witness accused not only the defendant but also his
To ensure parallel form, repeat, where necessary, the word that introduces the parallel construction.
Example: Electrical contractors face involved problems in estimating costs
and (in) maintaining supplies.
Sentence elements must be parallel in meaning as well as in form: action must parallel action,
description must parallel description, etc. If the elements are not parallel in meaning then the
sentence must be recast.
Example: Entering the room and being good natured, Tom genially welcomed
his guests. (Better: Being genial and good natured, Tom welcomed his guest as
soon as he entered the room.)
The function of a paragraph is to link several related sentences, sentences
which focus on the same topic, that amplify it, explain it, defend it.
Paragraphs link sentences and are themselves linked to one another. A logical
union of paragraphs and a proportionate development of each requires a
preliminary outline of the work, a skeleton upon which the flesh can be added.
If the work is long and complex then an outline might be formally presented as:
tendency to adhere rigidly,
tendency to stifle initiative,
Of course the headings and subheadings may require more elaboration: instead
of words or phrases, the writer may need sentences or paragraphs to construct an
outline. On the other hand, for a short and simple piece of work, they may need
to jot down only a few points.
CLARITY. The topic sentence: You should construct a clearly defined topic
sentence for each paragraph. A topic sentence is one that states or summarizes
the theme of a paragraph. Usually it is the first or second sentence in a
paragraph; occasionally it is the last. Every other sentence in the paragraph is
connected to the topic sentence.
COHERENCE. You should interrelate the sentences of your paragraph. Each
sentence should follow logically from the previous one. Each ought to give a
sense of uninterrupted flow of the mind as it follows a train of thought.
FORCE and VIGOUR. You should place your important idea at the beginning or at
the end of a paragraph, or else (rarely) isolate it in a one sentence paragraph.
FOCUS. You should concentrate on one dominant idea per paragraph. Avoid
discussing anything which does not continue or exemplify your central thought:
if it is worth saying there are other paragraphs to say it in.
VARIETY. You should vary the length and structure of your paragraphs. Variety
spices discourse; and sometimes it is a subtle spice. The pace and the pauses,
the shifting rhythms, diverse stresses, changing cadence of the paragraph -
these, rather, give them variety.
CONCRETENESS. You should illustrate your thought concretely. Just as it is
better to say 'They punish by hanging, burning and torturing' than to say 'The
regulations of their penal code are severe', so is it better to describe a man's
nose, ears, eyes and skin than to call him ugly or handsome. One is definite,
evokes a picture; the other is vague, evokes a blur.
If you want to tell me where my English is poor, write to