More About Writing
Copyright 1999, 2005 by Ronald B. Standler
Table of Contents
Links to other web sites on writing style
Good books on style in writing
recommended style manuals for British English
Subjunctive Mood in English
Word Usage and Common Grammar Errors
words relating to education:
pupil/student, teacher/professor, train/educate, school/college
On 25 Sep 1999, when I first posted on the Internet my handout titled
I was surprised to find only a few documents on the Internet
about style in writing and word choice.
Every college has at least one writing class,
moreover many professors outside of the English Department require
term papers or laboratory reports,
and there are more than a thousand colleges or universities in the USA,
so where are all of the handouts on style in writing?
Because most scientists and engineers are not enthusiastic
about writing, I made the deliberate decision to keep my handout on
Technical Writing short, by referring to only a few books and
including only a few links to other web pages.
Therefore, nonessential material on technical writing is here,
not in my handout on Technical Writing.
links to other web sites
university sites about writing
Online hints for technical writing from the
Online versions of handouts from
Polytechnic Institute, including style for laboratory reports.
Purdue University's Online Writing Lab.
professor's web pages about writing
to word usage, grammar, and style in writing,
by Prof. Jack Lynch, at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.
Prof. Paul Brians of the English Dept. at Washington State University posted a
comprehensive discussion of words that are
in English. Once you see his long list of words,
you will never want to write again! <laughing>
lists of links to writing resources
to resources for writers and writing instructors.
list of links to manuals on style or word usage.
Links to writing style, particularly in computer science documents, at
Gary B. Larson's ()
style manuals and writing resources. He emphasizes writing with plain language.
to material in technical writing, posted by Prof. Wilkins of the
Physics Department at Ohio State University.
that should be pruned from a rough draft. These are posted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
My first choice in grammar and style books is given at the top of
Here are some additional recommendations of books.
If one uses mathematical terms in writing, I recommend the
Mathematics Dictionary by Glenn James
and Robert James, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold.
My recommendations for books on style in legal writing are contained in
my separate handout.
I recommend dictionaries and style manuals for British English
later in this document.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has an
The Modern Language Association (MLA)
publishes a style manual that is oriented mostly toward the
humanities. The MLA has a detailed set of rules on how to format
See my list of links to online and printed
Theodore Bernstein's book titled Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins
was published in 1971. This book
listed many rigid grammar and style rules that impeded good writing.
The title refers to English teachers (e.g., Miss Thistlebottom)
who rigidly enforce rules, even if the rule makes no sense.
There are several major hobgoblins:
Personally, I will not end a sentence with a preposition.
- Never end a sentence with a preposition.
In German, there are verbs with separable prefixes. When these verbs
are used without an auxiliary verb (i.e., without can, may, should, ...,
have, is, ...) then the prefix goes at the end of the German sentence.
These German verbs with separable prefixes entered the English language
through the Saxon part of the Anglo-Saxon heritage.
For example, "Ich wache auf.", literally "I wake up."
In this example, the preposition up can be avoided by saying
"I awaken." My unhappiness with prepositions at the end of sentences
is that, by their very name, prepositions precede a noun or
pronoun in a prepositional phrase. Prepositions should not be slung
at the end of an English sentence as a relic from German verbs with
A really atrocious example of ending sentence with prepositions is
when a child asks their parent "What did you bring that book that
I don't like to be read to out of up for?"
This sentence should be revised: "Why did you mention the book that you
read to me, but I don't like?"
Sometimes a preposition at the end of a sentence can be avoided
by reordering the words and adding a missing whom. Example:
- I was told "no" by the clerk who I spoke to. >
I was told "no" by the clerk to whom I spoke.
There are a number of examples where a preposition at the end of a sentence
can not be avoided by merely reordering the words. However, the
preposition can be avoided by rewriting the sentence, often
omitting needless words in the process.
Examples from the Oxford Guide to English Usage
of allegedly unavoidable prepositions at the end of a sentence:
- What did you do that for? >
Why did you do that?
- What a mess this room is in! >
This room is a mess!
- Never split an infinitive.
In Latin and German, an infinitive is a single word, so one can not
insert an adverb inside an infinitive. However, in English an
infinitive is formed by to + a verb, so it is possible to
insert an adverb between to and the verb, thereby splitting the
infinitive. For example, the opening of StarTrek mentions "to boldly go...".
- Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
This is a really stupid rule. One way to avoid long sentences,
which are more difficult to read, is to break the sentence so that
a conjunction (e.g., and, but) begins the second sentence.
I do not care about split infinitives, although I try to avoid
them in my formal writing, to reduce the amount of criticism that I receive.
I have no problem in beginning a sentence with a conjunction, if
it follows another sentence on the same topic.
Because British English is spoken worldwide (except in the USA
and, to a lesser extent, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand),
it is arguable that British English is the standard English.
I object to the concept that one dialect is better than another:
it smacks of "Deutschland über Alles".
Nonetheless, a writer in the USA who writes for an international
audience would do well to avoid misunderstandings by people who use
Another reason for Americans to learn British English is that
bilingual dictionaries (e.g., German-English) generally go to
British English, not American English.
There are several Internet site with commentary on differences
between American and British word usage and spelling:
There are a number of differences in word usage.
Let's begin by considering some instances where the Americans and British
use completely different words for the same concept:
- Americans say "apartment for rent", British say "flat to let"
- Americans use the services of an "attorney" or "lawyer",
British use a "solicitor" for legal advice, drafting contracts, etc. and
a "barrister" to argue in court.
- Americans say "candy", British say "sweets"
- Americans say "cookie", British say "biscuit"
- Americans play "checkers", British play "draughts"
- Americans draw electrical current from "the power line",
British from the "ac supply mains"
- Americans use an electrical "ground", British use "earth"
- Americans use a "flashlight", British use a "torch"
- Americans eat "french fries", while British eat "chips"
(or the French pommes frites).
Similarly, Americans eat "potato chips", while British eat "potato crisps"
- Americans put a "period" at the end of a sentence,
British put a "full stop"
- Americans say "pharmacist", British say "chemist"
- A few American children go to a "private school",
which the British call a "public school".
Further, what Americans call "public schools" are known
in Britain as "maintained schools".
- Americans go on "vacation", British go on "holiday".
Further, a weekday when government employees do not work is
a "[legal] holiday" in the USA,
but a "bank holiday" in British English.
It is convenient to gather all of the automobile terms in one place:
- Americans refer to the "hood" of their automobile, British say "bonnet"
- Americans refer to the "trunk" of their automobile, British say "boot"
- American automobiles consume "gasoline", British cars consume "petrol"
- American automobiles ride on "tires", British cars ride on "tyres"
- Americans have a "truck", British a "lorry"
And then there are examples where the same word means different things
in American and British English:
- The word billion means 109 in the USA,
but sometimes means 1012 to the British.
- In the USA means a flop or disappointment,
but means a great success to the British.
- In the USA means "in the immediate future" or "soon",
while in England it means "for a short time" or "temporarily".
- In the USA, pants are what the British call trousers.
In England, pants are what Americans call underpants or "boxer shorts".
- In the USA means now, in England it means soon.
- In parliamentary procedure, Americans table a document when
they want to postpone consideration, British table a document
when present the document for consideration.
Given the opposite meanings, the word table should not be
used at international meetings!
- Americans use the word redundant to indicate an extra or duplicate
item, while the British use the same word to mean loss of employment
or no longer needed.
- In American English scheme has nefarious connotations
(e.g., a scheme to defraud), while the British use scheme
to mean plan or program without any pejorative connotations
There are a number of differences in spelling, mostly from spelling reforms
introduced in American English by the lexicographer Noah Webster
around the year 1830:
- Americans use -er, British use -re in words like
caliber, center, fiber, liter, meter, somber, theater
- Americans omit the -ue ending from words like
analog, catalog, dialog
- Americans write amid, among; British write amidst, amongst.
- Americans use or, British use our in words derived from French:
armor, behavior, color, flavor, honor, humor, labor, neighbor, odor, rumor, vapor
- Americans use ce, British use se in words like
- Americans use se, British use ce in words like
defense, license, offense, pretense, vise
- Americans use ze, British use se in words like
analyze, dialyze, materialize, organize, recognize, standardize, vaporize
- Americans write "program", British write "programme"
- Americans write a "check", British write a "cheque"
- Americans form past participles with the -ed suffix,
while the British sometimes use -t, for example:
burned vs. burnt,
spelled vs. spelt,
spoiled vs. spoilt.
- Americans write e for words of Greek or Latin origin that
contain "æ" or "oe":
- Americans write "estrogen", British write "oestrogen"
- Americans write "demon", British write "dæmon"
- Americans write "fetus", British write "foetus"
- Americans write "gynecology", British write "gynæcology"
- Americans write "medieval", British write "mediæval"
recommended dictionaries and style manuals for British English
In my opinion, the best English dictionary is
The New Oxford Dictionary of English,
published in 1998. With a total of 2152 pages, this book can
sit next to one's desk, unlike the 20 volumes of the full
Oxford Dictionary that was published in 1989.
This book includes American English usage, as well as British English.
For matters of style in British English, I use the Oxford Guide to
The Economist Style Guide.
The Economist is a respected international newsmagazine in
London, England, that has a focus on business and economics.
Fowler: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
first edition, 1926; second edition revised by Ernest Gowers in 1965
Idiosyncratic in places, but generally intelligent choices.
Contains an excellent discussion of the difference between
restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.
The following rules are adapted from
Webster's Standard American Style Manual, 1985 edition, and
are generally consistent with the rules in
The Chicago Manual of Style, 1982 edition.
A simple rule that gives the correct result in
most cases is:
- Form the possessive by adding 's to the end of the noun.
There are a few exceptions to this simple rule, in which one
adds only an apostrophe to the end of the noun.
- For a plural noun that ends in an s sound,
form the possessive by adding only an apostrophe to the end of the noun.
- For a multisyllable singular noun
that ends in an s or z sound,
then form the possessive by adding only an apostrophe
to the end of the noun.
- followed by a word that begins with s, or
- the noun is a name of a person,
For example: "the illness' symptoms",
"for convenience' sake",
"for conscience' sake",
"Aristophanes' plays", "Achilles' heel",
"Jesus' time", "Moses' law".
Note that a one-syllable name of a person that
ends in s or x (e.g., Gauss, Jones, Burns, Marx),
forms the possessive by adding 's to the end of the noun.
Note that, if the final s, x, or z is silent, then
treat the noun as not ending in s, i.e.,
form the possessive by adding 's to the end of the noun.
Example: "Arkansas's capital", "Delacroix's paintings"
Use an apostrophe with the last word of a series to show joint possession.
Example: "Smith and Green's theory"
But, if Smith and Green have different theories, then "Smith's and Green's theories".
Finally, there is a disagreement amongst authorities on the use of
apostrophes, which some authorities frankly admit, and other authorities
pass over silently perhaps because they know their rules are the
only correct rules. <sarcastic grin>
possessive form of pronouns
- For indefinite pronouns (e.g., anyone, anybody,
everyone, everybody, someone, somebody),
form the possessive case by adding 's to the end of the noun.
- Possessive pronouns (e.g., mine, yours, his, hers, its,
ours, theirs) have no apostrophes.
"It's" is a contraction for "it is".
other situations using the apostrophe
- Indicate the omission of a few letters or numbers by inserting '.
Example: can't, spirit of '76, class of '71
The writer is cautioned that such omissions may not be acceptable in formal writing.
- Form the plural of isolated letters by adding 's.
Example: "dot your i's and j's".
If one italicizes the i and j, to indicate
letters or symbols as such, then the "'s" is not italicized.
But the 1990 American Institute of Physics Style Manual
and the 1985 MLA Style Manual
say, to form the plural of numbers, just add s.
Example: "During the 1970s, ...."
Other authorities suggest "1970's", but I prefer
the American Institute of Physics's rule.
For the case of a letter (e.g., i's) the apostrophe
separates the plural ending from the letter, but there is no need
to separate a plural ending from a number.
Subjunctive Mood in English
It is well known that the subjunctive mood is rarely used in contemporary
American English, except by some judges in their formal opinions and
in a few idiomatic phrases (e.g., "Be that as it may, ....").
The loss of subjunctive makes English poorer in several ways, plus
it makes French and German languages more difficult for native speakers
of English to learn.
The conjugation of to be in subjunctive mood is simple:
present tense: I, you, he, we, they be.
past tense: I, you, he, we, they were.
For other English verbs, the present tense subjunctive is the same as the
present tense indicative, except for the third-person
singular, where the subjunctive lacks the s ending.
Example: indicative is "he faces", subjunctive is "he face".
The past tense subjunctive is the same as the past tense indicative.
There is no need to know the present perfect or past perfect tenses, and
there is no future tense of subjunctive mood.
There are only a few surviving uses of subjunctive in English:
- Use the past tense subjunctive in contrary-to-fact statements.
Note that the past tense subjunctive refers to present time.
- If he were here now, ....
- If I were you, then ....
- He acts as if he were crazy.
- I wish that she were here now.
The Germans avoid this misleading temporal nomenclature,
by calling this tense Subjunctive II.
- Use the present tense subjunctive for wishes (i.e., the optative subjunctive)
and exhortations (i.e., the hortatory subjunctive).
Aside: Wishes are sometimes introduced by the
auxiliary verbs may or would.
- God be praised!
- Heaven help him! or God help you!
- Heaven forbid!
- Perish the thought!
- Long live the king!
- Be that as it may, ....
- Come what may, we will continue.
- Far be it from me to ....
- Suffice it to say, ....
- So be it!
- Let us ... [exhortation follows]
- Please be on time.
Examples: "[May you] live long and prosper."
"[May] God bless [you]."
This form may be descended from the German subjunctive verbs
ich möge and ich wolle.
- The present tense subjunctive is used in a that clause
- a parliamentary motion. Example:
- I move that we be adjourned.
After the motion passes, the Chairman will say "We are adjourned." or
"The meeting is adjourned." (Present tense, indicative mood,
- a demand, command, or requirement. Examples:
- It is important that you be on time.
- It is imperative that every player be familiar with the rules.
- The teacher insists that he speak French in class.
- a request, recommendation, proposal, or suggestion. Examples:
This usage of subjunctive mood is not common in modern American English.
- I recommend that he come to New York.
- I urge that we be careful.
- I ask that he remain.
- The present tense subjunctive, introduced with if or unless,
can also be used in hypothetical statements where the truth is unknown,
or for statements of possibility or doubt.
This usage is not common in modern American English, and some people
would regard this usage as either pretentious or needlessly formal.
- If this be gold, then we are wealthy.
- If this analysis be correct, then we should change our plans.
- Other uses of the subjunctive in English are thoroughly obsolete.
The subjunctive in English has a general theme of expressing something
that is untrue or unreal: the contrary-to-fact statements
in (1) above, the wishes and exhortations in (2) above, or
the statements not yet known to be true in (4) above.
Commands and requests in (3) above appear to be an exception to the
unreality expressed by other uses of the subjunctive.
My guess I am not certain
is that putting commands or requirements in the subjunctive mood makes a more
delicate expression (i.e., more polite) by reference to the
unreality of other uses of the subjunctive mood.
This use of the subjunctive is distinguished from
using the imperative mood for a command: the latter expresses a brutal
exercise of raw power and authority.
For example, it would be disrespectful to the Chairman and to other members
of a committee, if a member expressed a motion in indicative mood,
as the motion is only a tentative request, not yet decided.
Use of the indicative mood would usurp the power of the committee to decide.
This kind of finesse in the use of language is sadly lacking in
the USA, and I hope these notes will encourage more speakers to use
Word Usage and
Word misuse that affects the meaning is discussed in my handout on
The following list contains errors that do not mislead the reader,
but are nonetheless evidence of sloppy writing.
Common Grammar Errors
A singular subject must have a singular verb,
a plural subject must have a plural verb.
Everyone knows this rule, but it is easy to violate, as
in the following example:
- Full text of major wire services (e.g., Reuters, Associated Press,
United Press International) are available.
- The error is that the verb agrees with the plural noun services
in the prepositional phrase, instead of the singular noun text
that is the subject of this sentence. It is an easy error to make
the verb agree with the nearest preceding noun.
Fowler calls this error in number a "red herring".
Each refers to individual items (i.e., considered one at a time)
in a collection of two or more.
Every refers to all of the items, considered simultaneously,
in a collection of two or more.
- Each arrester is tested before it is delivered to a customer.
- Every arrester in our catalog is expensive. =
All of the arresters in our catalog are expensive.
Less refers to noncountable items,
fewer refers to countable objects.
For example, the express line in the grocery store should be
labeled "ten items or fewer", not "ten items or less".
In mathematics, the proper relative expressions for quantity
are "less than" or "greater than".
The terms "smaller than" or "bigger than" properly refer
to geometrical size, not quantity.
words relating to education
In careful writing, one makes a distinction between general education
for children and higher education for adults.
The word pupil refers to children in elementary schools and high schools.
The word student only refers to adults in undergraduate college
Instructors in elementary schools and high schools are teachers.
The word professor applies only to instructors in undergraduate
college and above, who hold a professorial appointment (which generally
requires an earned doctoral degree, and a professor is generally
actively engaged in scholarly research).
One trains laborers to do repetitive chores
requiring little or no creativity.
One educates professionals (or future professionals)
to think critically and to make discretionary decisions.
It is inappropriate to use the word training
to describe classes in a college or university, unless one is
referring to remedial or vocational classes.
The word college is somewhat ambiguous in American English.
- In one sense, a college is a subset of a university, for example,
a university might be composed of a College of Arts & Sciences,
a College of Engineering, a College of Music, a College of Business
Administration, a College of Medicine, and a College of Law, each
administered by a Dean. To add to the confusion, there is also
a Graduate College, that administers programs leading to
a master's or doctoral degree in humanities, science, and engineering,
but in neither medicine nor law, which are purely graduate programs.
- In another sense, a college might be an educational
institution that typically focuses primarily on undergraduate teaching,
not on scholarly research, and does not award doctoral degrees.
Colleges are often located in small towns in rural communities,
e.g., Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Oberlin College in Ohio,
Grinnell College in Iowa.
- In yet another sense, a college might be a "community college"
or "junior college", which is an institution that provides only
the first two years of undergraduate education, plus perhaps some
- In the USA, a college might be a "bible college",
which is an institution that prepares people to become Christian
ministers. A bible college has an academic program that is weak
in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology.
The word school is even more ambiguous in American English than college.
School can mean:
- elementary school, the first 5 or 6 years of formal education
- middle school or junior high school, years (6 or 7) to (8 or 9).
- high school, years (9 or 10) to 12.
- law school (which students attend after attending
12 years of school and earning a bachelor's degree in
4 years of full-time college)
- medical school (which students attend after attending
12 years of school and earning a bachelor's degree in
4 years of full-time college)
- a generic term for any educational institution
(e.g., "He is not here now, he is at school.")
words relating to websites
The word website properly refers to a collection of documents,
including the homepage, not any single document.
The word homepage properly refers to the document that one sees
when one types the URL without any file name (e.g., www.rbs2.com/).
Typical file names for homepages include:
A homepage typically contains links to documents at that website,
as well as a brief description of the website.
three different words: to, two, too
There are three words in Englisch that sound the same when spoken,
but have different spellings and meanings.
In the following explanations, I give some comparisons with the German language.
- "to", which has several different functions:
- preposition, e.g., to Berlin, to Susan, from four to six (auf deutsch: nach Berlin, zu/an Susan, vier bis sechs)
- part of the infinitive form of a verb (z.B., bleiben = to stay)
- expression of the dative case, e.g., You give the book to me. (auf deutsch: Geben Sie mir das Buch.)
- in reading numbers aloud: "ten to the third [power]" = 103; "two to the eighth" = 28
- "two", the same as the digit 2
- "too" is an adverb, which can mean either:
- "more than enough", e.g., too much food, too big, too fast, (auf deutsch: zuviel)
- "also" e.g., I agree too. Me too.
- "moreover" (when adding a second point) e.g., My automobile is reliable and inexpensive too.
- or adds emphasis (e.g. not feeling too good, not too pleased,
when disagreeing with someone: I will too!)
this document is at
Original version October 1999; last revised 15 Oct 2008
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