The Vocabula Review

March 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3 Thursday, April 24, 2014

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 2 Robert Hartwell Fiske
Web version

Sentences and Paragraphs

 1.  When referring to one person, use a singular, not a plural, pronoun.

• Piss off an anti-war progressive and they will go home to fume on the Internet. USE he or she.

• I like to date a person whose words match their actions. USE his or her.

• The scent of this person just drives you crazy, and all you think about is seeing their face, hearing their voice, or touching them. USE his or her; his or her; him or her.

• If there is any one patient who doesn't get the care that they deserve, that's unacceptable. USE he or she.

That the English language has no pronoun that neatly includes both genders is a shame, but to use they, them, their, or themselves when you mean one person, one man or one woman, is utterly foolish. Even though many thousands of people use a third-person plural pronoun when a third-person singular is called for, you need not. Distinguish your writing and speaking from others', and you distinguish yourself.

 2.  Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly.

• Seething and scheming beneath a matronly tweed jacket, she's simultaneously diabolically scary and hugely pathetic. — People magazine

• His desk was a thick, eight-foot-wide cherry wood table with sturdy turned legs, with a tobacco-colored leather Morris chair.

Too many adjectives or adverbs weaken, not strengthen, a sentence. A judiciously placed adjective or adverb illuminates a description; too many of them becloud it.

 3.  Do not use two or more adjectives where one would serve.

• Specifically, the concern with Iran is the combination of rhetoric and the exercises have taken on a very bellicose and pugnacious tone.

• At the same time, the number of single, unmarried, widowed, and divorced people has risen recently.

• While by today's standards he may seem verbose and long-winded, taken in context he is a marvel of craftsmanship and wit.

• Usually the overwhelming crowd favorite, Federer must have been surprised to have been confronted by a vociferous and boisterous Russian fan club

• I was a fat, rotund kid, probably sensitive and shy and I liked attention.

If one adjective alone conveys the meaning you seek, there is no reason to use two or more adjectives. Using adjectives that have the same meaning also suggests you do not know the meaning of the words you write. What's worse, perhaps, is to use two adjectives that, though similar, contradict each other.

• Mine is a very bizarre and rather unusual case.

 4.  Do not use a particular word, or variations of a particular word, twice in one sentence.

• Students engage with a variety of cultures and people through various learning methods.

• I messed up on a word and paused to listen as the vigorous bashing sounds increased in frequency and vigor.

• By the 1880s the elderly Bassett, with his long gray beard and stately bearing, had come to symbolize the gentlemanly, statesmanlike qualities that represented the Senate for many at its best.

• The intuitive intelligence method refers to the practical application of intuition in combination with the analytical and emotional processes.

As you should vary the length and design of your sentences, so you should vary the words that compose them. Using one word (or variations of one word) twice in the same sentence announces your failure to think clearly and write capably.

 5.  The number of the subject is not affected by expressions such as along with, as well as, coupled with, in addition to, in conjunction with, and together with following the subject.

• Physical as well as logical protection are necessary. USE is.

• President Bush, along with Congress, have already taken the most important step to jump-start the economy. USE has.

• The International Business Centre, together with partners and companies from Italy and Poland, are involved in the SME Initiative. USE is.

• The following exercise, in conjunction with the exercises at the end of the chapter, allow you to further explore some of your knowledge. USE allows.

Because these expressions are considered parenthetical to the sentence, not part of the subject, they do not cause a singular subject to be accompanied by a plural verb.

 6.  Do not use e.g., for example, or for instance along with and others, and so forth, and so on, and such, and the like, et al., or etc.

• They typically have unpredictable ranges of occurrences, and they usually have related attributes (e.g., skill category, detailed skill description, etc.) that are of interest to the organization. DELETE e.g.

• If you're looking for general information about this university (for instance, how to apply, accommodation, fees, etc.) then you can find out more by clicking on one of these topics located on the left-hand side of this page under the heading General Information. DELETE for instance.

• Use one of these labels to assign a number and perhaps a descriptive title to each disk, for example, Disk 1: Letters, Disk 2: Spreadsheet Files, Disk 3: Reports, and so on. DELETE and so on.

Since one of these expressions means much the same as another, there is no reason to use both.

 7.  When the sentence is contrary to fact, a hypothesis or a wish, use the subjunctive tense, which usually requires were instead of some other form of the verb to be.

• I wish I was half as good as Ronald Reagan at expressing the emotions in my heart. USE were.

• If he was still a political editor in Fleet Street he would be fighting for an advanced extract. USE were.

• Gore is not running for president, yet he is being attacked as though he was. USE were.

The subjunctive were is used in statements that are not true or that express a wish.

 8.  Stop using clichés.

• Now the silence that Kate had yearned for during those childrearing years was deafening.

• It is not clear whether the former ambassador will play himself or whether Harrison Ford could step up to the plate.

• It was wonderful for my ego, and I felt I had a pick of the cream of the crop.

• Still, she fights an uphill battle, traveling the state to campaign for school funding reform.

Nothing turns a sentence as quickly as one containing a cliché. The more of these sentences you read, the more your disposition sours and your disgust mounts. Never write them yourself.

 9.  Avoid foreign terms that are not thoroughly naturalized when there is no need for them.

• It wasn't the only night Ford has been out and about in Manhattan sans spouse of late. USE without his.

• Scientology is très chic right now, at least among Hollywood starlets craving some media ink. USE very.

• Hemp is his fabric of choice; leather is verboten. USE forbidden.

• Family and friends are very, very important to me. Et tu? USE And you?

• Maybe she relies on late-night catnaps, à la her New Year's Eve nod off. USE much like.

Using a common foreign term in a sentence does not make your writing more striking or interesting; it makes your sentence yawningly common.

Words and Expressions

 10.  Avoid to be ... of (on) phrases.

I'm reliant on this technology. USE I rely on.

• Like New Orleans, Sacramento is dependent on the levees that surround it. USE depends on.

• Charlotte, North Carolina, is reflective of the huge changes now happening in the South, involving immigrants of many nationalities as well as Americans from across the nation. USE reflects.

Among the best indicators of a person's being a careless writer, these wordy phrases can almost always be rewritten.

Worse than merely wordy, these phrases never clearly convey what their rewritten versions do. And that is precisely the appeal of them; they hedge against admission.

Moreover, people create monstrous expressions using the to be ... of (on) template, for instance:

• They are so invested in worship of powerful leaders, and so admirous of power generally, that the truth is like a personal insult to them, a slap in the face.

 11.  Be sure that only is properly placed, modifying the word or phrase it is meant to modify.

• There was a time when you could only eat tomatoes in summer, peas in spring, oranges in winter, corn in summer. USE eat tomatoes only in summer.

• Still others only invest in socially conscious companies, and some bill themselves as enhanced index funds, which are designed to outperform the benchmark. USE invest only in.

• But given the level of consumer outrage, airlines should recognize that a failure to voluntarily cut back may only be greeted with the kind of takeoff and landing controls that Congress just lifted at several airports to boost competition. USE may be greeted only with.

• A drug called finasteride can also restore hair but is only approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat men's hair loss. USE is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat only men's hair loss.

Misplacing the word only results in your having written a sentence that does not mean what you intended.

 12.  If a restrictive that is correct toward the beginning of a clause, a nonrestrictive which is not correct later in the clause.

• There are two things that added to the ever-deepening shock and which threatened to take me under the waters for good. USE that or DELETE which.

• This is a market that moves $500 million and which is growing rapidly. USE that or DELETE which.

• You have some fundamentals that are very important and which assure that this model will still be valid for the years to come. USE that or DELETE which.

• David Lamb said he was at the meeting to urge Sestak to support bills that would end the war in Iraq and which would prevent the White House from launching a preemptive attack against Iran. USE that or DELETE which.

In these examples, either the which's should be that's or they should be deleted. A nonrestrictive which, it seems, seldom precedes a restrictive that. Mixing relative pronouns is inept writing.

 13.  Do not use going forward, moving forward, and similar expressions.

• What else are you working on, music-wise, going forward? — Brooke Anderson, CNN reporter

Going forward the companies will conduct business under the name TechTeam.

• With profitability and positive operating cash flows having been restored, our strategic initiatives going forward will include a greater emphasis on sales.

• We are looking for moderate growth in the U.S. economy going forward. — Ben Bernanke, Federal Reserve Board chairman

• We have a lot of small players going forward and they're getting bullied out of games and we're not playing to their strengths.

These useless expressions are spoken and written by people who seem unable to remember that the English language has both a present and a future tense. Going forward, moving forward, and the like are used instead of, or along with, present- or future-tense expressions. This may mean that, before long, people will not easily be able to distinguish between the present and the future, or that they may not be able to think in terms of the future. Already, there is evidence of this, for many of us are without imagination and foresight.

 14.  Avoid the phrase that would be.

• Let's talk about another Democratic candidate who's having some problems now — that would be Senator Joe Biden. — Wolf Blitzer, CNN reporter

• Hasbro is issuing a recall of one of its most famous products — that would be the Easy-Bake Oven.

• And Giuliani has something else going for him. That would be 9/11.

That would be is a mindless excrescence: delete it from your speech and writing.

 15.  Avoid the phrase (a; an; the) thing when you are able to.

• The mind is an amazing thing. USE amazing.

• It's a very important thing. USE very important.

• We have won the battle, but the war is an ongoing thing. USE ongoing.

• You do this by comparing something your listeners know a lot about with something they know little or nothing about in order to make the unfamiliar thing clear. USE the unfamiliar clear.

• She is an adamant reader, and prolific writer, with a list of accolades under her belt, but the most astonishing thing about her is that she is only 18! USE most astonishing.

The following sentences also should be rewritten to avoid the word thing:

• Here's the thing: at these levels, executive compensation is not about performance.

• The thing is, we didn't get a whole lot of attention until after the fact.

• Though I once heard him read from The Anxiety of Influence, I've never read the thing myself.

• The judge is doing the prejudicial thing.

• One more dramatic thing most people will see in the hall is harassment.

The amorphous thing means almost anything you might imagine, which is why it is a poor word to use. You may need to use thing to refer to something you cannot identify or describe; otherwise, take the time to think of a more exacting word, or rewrite your sentence altogether.

 16.  Distinguish between who and whom.

• I am searching for a soul mate, someone who I cannot wait to see, talk to, and get close to. USE whom.

• When it comes to Iran's involvement in Iraq, who do you believe? USE whom.

• No matter who we elect, you don't get rid of college presidents and faculty. No matter who we elect, we don't get rid of the media. USE whom. — Rush Limbaugh

Who did they hate working with? USE whom.

Knowing when to use whom is more than most people can manage. And if people rarely use whom in spoken English, they quickly become disinclined to use it in written English. Clumsy speech influences us more than careful writing does.

If the wording in the preceding sentences were rearranged, you would need to use an objective pronoun — a me or him or her or them or us — to make the sentence read sensibly. And if an objective pronoun is required, so is whom, itself an objective pronoun.

• I cannot wait to see, talk to, and get close to him. NOT he.

• Do you believe her when it comes to Iran's involvement in Iraq? NOT she.

• We elect them. NOT they.

• They hate working with us. NOT we.

 17.  Avoid the words amongst and amidst and unbeknownst and whilst.

• In a high school showdown featuring two of the best prep-academies in the nation, future K-Stater Michael Beasley proved he was certainly a man playing amongst boys. USE among.

• But unbeknownst to them, the fire had already gone through the walls and into the attic space, where it was running rampant. USE unknown.

• Players must penetrate Atombender's base, attempting to recover parts of the system password whilst avoiding deadly robots in a race against time. USE while.

• Gallop on over to Marriott’s Griffin Gate Resort, nestled amidst the lush, rolling green meadows of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Country, for a romance, dining or golf getaway and enjoy luxury accommodations and unbeatable rates. USE amid.

Using these archaic forms of among, amid, unbeknown (or unknown), and while suggests that you are a silly, not a sophisticated, writer or speaker.

Also in Vocabula:

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 by Robert Hartwell Fiske

Punctuation and Capitalization

 18.  After the word is or are (was or were), there is no need to use a comma.

• The difference is, they aren't as overt or boisterous in comparison.

• Chances are, you didn't start writing with the sole goal of making money.

• The trouble is, they're married to us.

• The point is, I would not have wanted to hear any of those stories secondhand.

• The problem was, which came first?

No comma is needed after the verb to be in sentences such as these. The pause, or caesura, comes naturally; there's no need to be cued by a comma.

 19.  Use an apostrophe to show possession, not (except in a few specific instances) to show plurality.

• The site is aimed at RedHat user's, but others could use much of the information. USE users.

• We preserve our American musical heritage as well as support the new generation of musicians, singers and songwriters from various genre's. USE genres.

• What's mine is your's. USE yours.

An apostrophe -s or -s apostrophe signifies ownership or belonging. It can indicate plurality when used with numbers or letters or words used as words:

• Suppose we split the sequences of 1's and 2's that sum to n into two groups, those that end in 1 and those that end in 2.

• The m's and n's indicate an individual's style of thinking.

• Are you sure there are no "any's" and "or's" that could be interpreted differently from what you might like?

Similarly, the plural of an abbreviation or acronym is signified by an -s, not a possessive -s:

• First American Bank is proud to provide the free use of any of our ATM's for our customers at the following convenient locations. USE ATMs.

• When researchers gave pharmacists and MD's a written test about uses, intentions, and side effects of herbal remedies, pharmacists scored significantly higher. USE MDs.

• Do the SAT's really measure intelligence? USE SATs.

• The URL's presented here are an updating of the list published in the Mathematica Journal, Volume 5, Issue 3. USE URLs.

• After 1981, failures of banks and S&L's rose to levels over ten times greater than in previous years. USE S&Ls.

 20.  When speaking numerically of a decade, use an -s, not an -'s.

Partisan Review, the quarterly journal of culture and politics that emerged from the ideological ferment of the 1930's to become the house organ for a generation of brilliant American intellectuals and writers, is ceasing publication after 66 years. USE 1930s.

• The 1960's were the most turbulent period of social change in our nation's history. USE 1960s.

• We can play from the 80's, the 90's, and the 2000's. USE 80s, the 90s, and the 2000s.

• And now, fasten your seat belt, because you may soon lose your job to a "zippie" in the 2000's. USE 2000s.

The plural of a decade is indicated by the letter s alone. The -'s suggests ownership or belonging:

• Lower restaurant profits caused by higher food and labor costs led to Vicorp's posting a loss in 2007's first quarter.

• It was the first Oscar win for Arkin, 72, who had previously been nominated for his film debut in 1966's The Russians Are Coming.

This is the second 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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The Vocabula Review.


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, forthcoming, To the Point: A Dictionary of Concise Writing.


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