University of Exeter Handbook (Physics) Questions/Comments Department (Physics)

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:

Clarity and precision does not mean simplicity, for some ideas will not yield to simple expression.


Here are ten elements of good style:

  1. You should write sentences which the reader can understand with the minimum of work.
  2. You should never leave the reader in doubt as to who is speaking to whom, and what is being discussed.
  3. Your sentences must be structured logically, and be internally consistent.
  4. Use the same level of language throughout; inconsistency of tone is a distraction.
  5. Keep long winded sentences to a minimum. The reader gets lost in them.
  6. Avoid short staccato sentences. They are bad. Do not use. Join them together.
  7. You can achieve a more emphatic point by using suspense; for example, by disclosing your meaning at the end of the sentence.
  8. Employ parallelism when it is appropriate to your thought.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 dignity.

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 violated.

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 happy medium.

The Comma

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.

To separate words, phrases, or clauses in a series — as in this sentence.

To separate two adjectives each of which modifies the noun individually. (The comma can always be replaced by 'and' — this is the acid test.)

To set off a long adverbial clause or phrase coming before the main clause (optional usage nowadays.)

To set off an introductory verbal phrase (A participle, gerund or infinitive phrase). This is often omitted in modern writing.

To set off an absolute phrase in any part of the sentence- beginning, middle or end.

To prevent misreading – even temporary misreading.

To separate the year from any of its divisions.

To set off nouns in direct address.

To indicate the omission of one or more words.

To set off a short or informal quotation, for the purpose of distinguishing between the speaker and what he says.

To set off two or more contrasting statements.

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.

To set off parenthetical expressions, mild interjections, words or phrases in apposition, sentence modifiers.

The Colon

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.

To stress a word or phrase which follows.

To separate clauses where the second amplifies or contrasts with the first.

To introduce a longer formal quotation.

The Semicolon

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.)

To separate clauses or phrases which already contain commas.

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 comma.

To set off words that introduce an explanation or enumeration. (For example, that is, e.g., i.e., viz., to wit.)

The Hyphen

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:

  1. 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.
  2. To join two or more words used as a single part of speech
  3. 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: Try these without the hyphen.
  4. To separate compound numbers, fractions used as adjectives and compound fractions
  5. To avoid confusion
  6. 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?
  7. To separate some prefixes from the rest of the compound
  8. 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 Dash

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.

To separate a parenthetical expression from the main communication.

To set off a word or words in apposition or amplification, especially when several words intervene.

To set off the word or words gathering or summarising a preceding series.

To set off a word or words intended to effect suspense, climax , or anticlimax

To mark unfinished sentences.


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 sentence.

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.

Elements of Grammar


Comparisons must be complete and logical.

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.

Compare only things which can logically be compared.

Complete each comparison before modifying it.

Some adjectives are absolute and must not be compared.

Avoid the vague, half finished comparison.


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?)

Modifier Errors

Dangling participles at the beginning of the sentence.

Dangling participles at the end of sentences.

Dangling Infinitives

Dangling Gerunds

Dangling Elliptical Clauses. An elliptical 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.

Misplaced Modifiers. Such words as only, nearly, almost, hardly, scarcely, just, even, quite should be placed next to the words they modify.

Misplaced terminal phrases

Misplaced medial phrases

Misplaced modifying clauses

Parallel modifying Clauses. These parallel clauses should be combined either before or after the main clause.


Split Subject and Verb

Split Verb and Complement.

Split Infinitive.

Split Comparison

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.

Consistency of Tense

Consistency of Mood.

Consistency of Voice and Subject

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:









Study parallel constructions in passages by professional writers.

Parallelism Pitfalls

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.

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.

To ensure parallel form, repeat, where necessary, the word that introduces the parallel construction.

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.


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:

	The Outline:
			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 Roger Bowley.

University of Exeter Handbook (Physics) Questions/Comments Department (Physics)