The Vocabula Review

February 2007, Vol. 9, No. 2 Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Few Rules of English-Language Use That, if Observed, Will Help Ensure Your Being Thought Well of, Employable, and Even, Perhaps, Fit for Office — Part 1 Robert Hartwell Fiske
Web version

Sentences and Paragraphs

 1.  Write in sentences, not in phrases.

• Quiet, industrious, patient, and organized.

• Well, lots of critics, to start.

• Because a disembodied voice won't do.

• And no wonder.

• The greatest love of all? Maybe not.

• With the possible exception of money.

Writing phrases is unremarkable, talentless. If you want to distinguish your writing, avoid writing flat, uninspired phrases as though they were sentences.

A sentence is a selection of words that includes a subject and a verb and that expresses a complete thought. One other measure of a sentence is that it can be well or badly written. Phrases are neither well nor badly written.

 2.  Do not start a sentence, much less a paragraph, with the word which.

Which is great, but it's only one part of the equation.

Which suggests that by participating in these creative pitches, many agencies are giving away their family silver for nothing.

Which revives the perennial question: If blacks are a vital part of American history, then why put them in a separate month?

In the next two sentences, which begins not only a sentence but a paragraph, which is doubly ridiculous.

Which brings us back to the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Which is why the report to be released tomorrow by the Democratic activist group Third Way is so remarkable. — New York Times

The wayward which clause, another form of nonsentence, is common in the writing of uncertain journalists, bad novelists, and others who think that separating a subordinate clause from the sentence in which it belongs is a stylish literary contrivance. As you see in the following examples, the which clause can sometimes be avoided altogether, usually redounding to the credit of the writer and the benefit of the reader.

• But there are those who believe that the doctrine of Original Intent has the capability to solve all present-day problems. Which is nonsense. USE But there are those who believe that the doctrine of Original Intent has the capability to solve all present-day problems, which is nonsense.

• Gambling indirectly hurts children, they argue. Which is true. USE Gambling indirectly hurts children, they correctly argue.

• The transfer could take years because both state governments and Congress must approve. Which they should, says a Utah state senator. USE The transfer could take years because both state governments and Congress must approve, and, says a Utah state senator, they should.

• Producers, reporters, directors, and engineers are too busy to wonder whether Chet and Nat are talking to each other. Which they are. USE Producers, reporters, directors, and engineers are too busy to wonder whether Chet and Nat are talking to each other. They are.

 3.  When using the phrase there is or there are, be sure your subject corresponds to your verb.

There's twenty-six letters in the alphabet. USE There are.

• I'm sure there's enough patriotic Americans who will join the military. USE there are. — Senator John McCain

There's no wires and no complicated installation. USE There are. — television ad

There now exists serious discrepancies between learner and teacher goals. USE There now exist.

• And I think that's why there's a lot of people that are taking the position that they are. USE there are. — Senator George Voinovich

• NewsCenter 5's Gail Huff reported that in Worcester there was about 3 inches on the ground by noon. USE there were.

There's certainly times when I have fallen short of God's standards. USE There are. — Newt Gingrich

This mistake — usually there's or there is instead of there are — is made when people do not think before they speak. This mistake is also made when people do not think after they write: when they do not review what they have written. Thinking before and reviewing after are hallmarks of being human.

 4.  Try to rewrite sentences that begin with there is or there are.

There are two matters that need to be emphasized.

Two matters need to be emphasized.

There were eight females and five males who participated in the follow-up study.

Eight females and five males participated in the follow-up study.

There are multiple jurisdictions involved in this case.

Multiple jurisdictions are involved in this case.

• Although many initiatives are being proposed for improving language capacities in the United States, there is no single authority responsible for coordinating these efforts across the five language capacity sectors.

Although many initiatives are being proposed for improving language capacities in the United States, no single authority is responsible for coordinating these efforts across the five language capacity sectors.

Beginning a sentence, there is and there are are often unnecessary. If you want your writing to be more engaging, more readable, refrain from beginning your sentences with these phrases.

 5.  Use the possessive pronoun, not the personal pronoun, before verbal nouns ending in the suffix -ing.

• They had to wait until he was lying down, and when they removed the cast, they discovered some reason for him feeling pain. USE his.

• Aside from him being an athlete and me being an athlete, he's my husband and I'm here to show support for him. USE his; my.

• Senator Lugar, I very much appreciate you for joining us. USE your.

• So what name do you belong to, if you don't mind me asking? USE my.

• Do you mind us going? USE our.

• There is no prohibition against them making this information available either to FDA or to their customers. USE their.

• By law, Option One has to pay you off within thirty days of us paying them off. USE our.

Before a gerund (a verbal form ending in -ing that is used as a noun), use the possessive pronoun (my, his, her, our, their, your). Observing this rule marks your writing and speech as not observing it mars others'.

Use an objective pronoun (me, him, her, us, them) only when you mean to emphasize the person rather than the occurrence or action, as in this example:

• What's the point of him going to school if he's just going to skip classes?

 6.  Do not use a reflexive pronoun, like myself, where a personal pronoun, like me or I, is needed.

• Over 150 senior citizens, including myself, are scheduled to watch the dress rehearsal for Les Miserables. USE me.

• A while ago a friend of mine and myself were debating whether a certain news item from Fox News had any truth in it. USE I.

• I have the highest degree, other than herself. USE she.

• He reached the conclusion that no one could do the job better than himself. USE he.

• It takes a special guy to approach sophisticated women like ourselves. USE us.

Some people are reluctant to use the word me, considering it a humble substitute for the more stately sounding myself. Others rely on the reflexive pronoun myself (or himself, herself, yourself, themselves, ourselves, yourselves) when they are unsure of which case to use — the nominative (I) or objective (me).

Use a reflexive pronoun when referring to another word in a sentence:

He corrected himself to say she was the single best. And he corrected himself again to say she was the best in the state.

Or when emphasizing another word in a sentence:

• Firefighters attached the orange rope to the backs of their thick, buoyant rescue suits in case they themselves fell through a soft spot.

 7.  Avoid using the plural pronoun they, them, or their following words like each and every, everyone and everybody, anyone and anybody, someone and somebody, and no one and nobody when the antecedent is clearly singular.

• This was a particularly brutal incident about whipping somebody, and beating them. USE him.

• No one has said they can't handle it. USE he or she or he or she.

• I learn continuously from my patients, each of whom brings a new story of their own into my office. USE his or her.

• Everybody has a right to write a book about their lives. USE his or her or his or her.

• These two men really need each other to become the visionary and businessman extraordinaire that each wishes they were individually. USE he was.

• Shelia's big Irish family never let anyone take themselves seriously. USE himself or herself.

All these words — each and every, everyone and everybody, anyone and anybody, someone and somebody, no one and nobody — are singular in number. They therefore require singular, not plural, pronouns. If you must use the plural they, them, their, or themselves, change the antecedent to a plural expression such as all of them or people.

 8.  Do not use like when as is required.

Like I said, if the right situation comes along, it might be interesting. USE As.

• But no one knows for sure why she behaved like she did. USE as.

• She voted based on the information given to her at the time — just like President Bush did, just like Senator Edwards did, just like all senators did at that time. USE as.

Like would be correct in this sentence if it were written thus:

She voted based on the information given to her at the time — just like President Bush, just like Senator Edwards, just like all senators at that time.

• We appreciate the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company would, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible. USE as.

Like would be correct in this sentence if it were written thus:

We appreciate the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible.

Like is a preposition; a noun or noun phrase (such as, in the preceding example, "any responsible company") must follow it. As is a conjunction; a clause must follow it (in the preceding example, "as any responsible company would"). Using like instead of as is considered incorrect and uneducated.

 9.  Do not use like when as if or as though is required.

• The intelligence reports that led to the war in Iraq were not only inaccurate, it looks like they were manipulated. USE as if or as though.

• He doesn't feel like he's being clear enough. USE as if or as though. — Dr. Frank Luntz, author of Words That Work

• It's not like there's a shortage of weapons in Iraq. USE as if or as though.

• It's like he's having a midlife crisis. USE as if or as though.

• Her hair looks like she was stuck outside in the rain without an umbrella. USE as if or as though.

In these sentences, as if or as though, instead of like, is correct. Like is a preposition that introduces a noun or noun phrase. As if and as though are conjunctions that introduce clauses. Using like screams clumsiness or ineptitude.

Similarly, do not use like instead of that before a verb clause that begins with feel or think or similar words.

• He felt like he was running out of time. USE that.

• We felt like he was the best fit. USE that.

• If a business owner thinks like they are going to franchise it, they will create a business that runs all on its own, without the business owner. USE that.

After words like feel or think, you often may use that, instead of as if or as though, when a verb clause follows.

 10.  Use had, not would have, in a sentence that states or implies a condition.

• If she would have come home, she would have just felt like a victim. USE had.

• I wish I would have figured it out sooner and enjoyed those years a little more. USE had.

• If they would have toned down the drama they could have had a somewhat decent movie. USE had.

• If the police would have asserted control over on-ramps they could have given preference to vehicles that have more passengers. USE had.

The subjunctive had is correct in these sentences in which a clause is contrary to fact. Using would have instead of had strips your sentence, and the thought it expresses, of grace and style.

Words and Expressions

 11.  Avoid the word way when it's meant to mean far or much.

• I'm way better than this. USE much.

• The Internet is potentially way more powerful than television ever dreamed of being. USE far.

Also in Vocabula:

Thirty-Five Questions by Robert Hartwell Fiske

• In some places, it is way below zero. USE far.

Way too frequently, the family goes on a trip. USE Far. — Time magazine

• It's way too soon to say they are going to begin an investigation. USE much.

Way in the sense of much or far, is informal, even ugly. It's unacceptable to use this sense of way in your writing, and it's unbecoming in your speaking.

 12.  Avoid scatological phrases and swear words.

Shit, we wouldn't even see the damn thing from here, where people in the culturally diverse school I work at barely scrape by well beneath the poverty level.

• It occurred to me today that I was a little harsh on myself yesterday, talking of my young creative writing graduate school self as an arrogant snot-nosed little shit.

Fuck. If you're an anchor in Philadelphia and you hate Barbaro, can you please email me?

• Of course, leave it to Boston's own Ron Borges to piss all over everything.

• And to be real, this endless string of bullshit is starting to cast a pretty dark cloud over the hip hop world.

Swear words are among the least expressive words available to us. They are boring and boorish at once. Using scatological phrases and swear words no longer shocks anyone and suggests only that you are not clever enough to think of better, more meaningful words. Very likely, your writing is no more readable than you yourself are companionable.

 13.  Distinguish between the relative pronouns that and which.

• The situation is changing rapidly, in directions which are unfamiliar to Americans because we are not used to dealing with people who are willing to kill themselves in this manner. USE that. — Henry Kissinger

• The Feith office is the one that produced the key alternative analysis which provided that material. USE that.

• There's been a reverberation which the news media hasn't covered. USE that.

• The average Ghanaian is born with an innate nobility which is revealed in all his ways. USE that.

In the United States (though not in England or Canada, for instance), the restrictive, or defining, that is used when the clause it begins is necessary to the meaning of a sentence; the nonrestrictive, or nondefining, which is used when the clause is not necessary, when it is parenthetical, to the sentence. Which clauses are generally separated by commas, dashes, or parentheses; that clauses are not.

The following sentences show the which clause properly used:

• The group, which began as a bluegrass outfit, had surrendered much of its musical identity.

• The House Joint Resolution — which is being debated by the Senate — would cut about $3.1 billion from the Bush administration's requested $5.6 billion for BRAC changes.

 14.  Do not use the word as in the sense of because or since or for.

• Review this information each time you renew your prescription to Vytorin as there may be new information. USE since. — Vytorin magazine advertisement

• The players who have seen the fast paced hockey come to the boys' tournament a few weeks ago, are happy as this means a lot of welcome changes. USE because.

• I will not be able to speak with her until about 4:30 today as she is taking a day-long test. USE since.

• I'm pretty sure he included a biography with the manuscript, as I know I gave him one, but as he's out of the office this afternoon, here is another. USE since.

The two-lettered as has a good many meanings, some of which people seem unfamiliar with. Perhaps the most common meaning of as is because or since or for, but this is also the least recommended. As, especially, midsentence, sounds as though it may mean while; it also sounds loutish. Abstain from using it.

 15.  Do not use the expression quite the ... as a modifier.

• Given that she has quite the evening ahead of her, I hope she'll stop by and talk to us.

• He's also quite the socialite, man about town, when he's not working 15-hour days.

• It amazes me that what started off as a mean 12-year-old girl, teasing a shorter 13-year-old boy, turned out to be a wonderful family and quite the love story.

Though quite the contrary and quite the opposite are well-established expressions, quite the evening, quite the socialite, and the like are not. They are silly, dull, mindless expressions.

 16.  Never use the phrase in (with) regards to.

With regards to partial birth abortion, I think you have an overwhelming consensus in this country that it's wrong, that it should be banned, and for that reason, I would ban it nationally. With regards to abortion, I think the Supreme Court in the Casey decision, forecast that after a couple of decades of Roe v. Wade being in practice, that abortion would be accepted in America. USE With regard to. — Mitt Romney, 2008 presidential candidate

• Are there gender differences with regards to foreign language study, and if so, do they change over time? USE with regard to.

• I mean that in regards to spending, in regards to operations, in regards to future planning and in regards to budgeting. USE in regard to.

Ill bred and ill read, those who use in regards to or with regards to ought not to be thought well of, might not be employable, and are not fit for office.

Punctuation and Capitalization

 17.  Avoid using hyphens to form compound adjectives longer than two words.

• Some not-fooling-around cold is coming in from the Northeast this morning.

• In the master bedroom, a quilted throw was tossed on an all-white-linen bed, and floaty white drapes had been artfully hung at the windows, disguising the room's brick-wall-facing northern exposure. — New Yorker

• Or are reporters permitting the entire matter to recede — because the Kerry and Bush camps are no longer out there trading accusations about it, because the what-will-the-missing-explosives-mean-for-the-presidential-election angle is now moot?

• At first glance, the ads, like a Will Ferrell comedy, seem to be mining the wry I-am-making-fun-of-myself-making-a-joke-even-as-I-make-a-joke brand of humor. — New York Times

• I am talking about that real, out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full, and deep-throated mirth. — Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair

Using serial hyphens is the sign of an unaccomplished writer who thinks he's being clever, or, equally likely, a capable writer who dislikes writing and has scant respect for his readers. Stringing hyphenated words together is easy; thinking of a better arrangement of words, less so.

 18.  Avoid using the slash or virgule (/) in place of words.

• The Quigley Corporation makes no representation that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or any other regulatory agency will allow the aforementioned Compounds to be tested and/or marketed in humans and/or animals.

• An epigraph or footnote could be included so that readers who didn't remember/didn't know the myth would be satisfied with some degree of clarity after reading/hearing the poem.

• In some situations, a businessperson may be evasive. One way he/she can do this is by changing the subject.

• The Council has 25 members, including trustees, alumnae/i, businesspeople, and citizens interested in international education.

• I love the company of friends/family/partner.

S/he will also have a record of encouraging and nurturing collaboration by example and deed.

This is slapdash writing. The inadvisability of using the virgule is apparent if you try reading these sentences aloud: they are scarcely readable. The word or or and can most often be used in place of the slash.

Worse still is the word slash:

• Brody's first step toward stardom started with enlisting the help of Spencer Pratt, Jenner's "Hills" co-star and so-called manager-slash-publicist-slash-agent-slash-stylist.

 19.  The terms administration, federal government, governor, congressperson, senator, president should be written in lowercase letters.

• However, the contents of the paper do not necessarily represent the policy of the Department of Education, and one should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government. Use federal government.

• We now know that several people in the Administration told several journalists that Valerie Plame Wilson was CIA. USE administration.

• In any case, the President repeated the mantra to dismiss any suggestion that the war was going badly. USE president.

• The event, which wrapped up a weekend of speeches throughout New Hampshire, also served to clarify the Senator's position on current efforts to increase the troop presence in Iraq. USE senator's. — The Dartmouth

• The editorial pages of two of California's newspapers each supported AB 2197 and asked for the Governor's timely signature on the bill. USE governor's.

The government, like those who compose it, merits no special treatment. The words administration, federal government, senator, congressperson, president are all lowercase. Only if a surname is attached to any of the last three are the first letters of these words capitalized:

• You may have seen freshman Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) plant a big kiss on President Bush after his recent State of the Union speech.

• Two key black leaders in South Carolina who backed John Edwards in 2004 are supporting Senator Hillary Clinton's 2008 White House bid.

 20.  The ampersand (&) should never be used in place of and unless it is part of a proper name or title.

• The complete first & second season is available now on a DVD 4-volume set.

• The Goldman Sachs Foundation announces $2.5 million in grants for international education projects in Europe, Africa, Asia & South America.

• Read about our responsibilities and find passport information, visa regulations, travel tips, & voting procedures.

• My idea is also to turn you on to writers' efforts, flaws & fortes, & my interviews reveal some of the passion, adventures & everyday labor that go into making a book happen.

Use an ampersand (&) only in proper names — business names, book titles, and the like — that use it themselves; never use it in place of the word and. Aside from the hurried, the only people inclined to use & in place of and are those who have scant sense of self and scant sense of style, and believe using & somehow swells them both.

This is the first of several articles from A Few Rules of English-Language Use That, if Observed, Will Help Ensure Your Being Thought Well of, Employable, and Even, Perhaps, Fit for Office, which is likely to be published in 2008. If you have any criticisms or concerns about what you read in these pieces, I'd be pleased to hear them (and I might include them in the book).

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Robert Hartwell Fiske

Robert Hartwell Fiske :: Move me  

Robert Hartwell Fiske is the editor and publisher of The Vocabula Review. He is the author of The Dictionary of Unendurable English and To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing.


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