HOW TO WRITE PROPER!
guide to writing simply and effectively
by Jim Deacon
Do YOU need this site? To find out, try the
There is only one way to write
properly (Yes, you spotted it!). It is to write
in such a way that your meaning is clear to the reader.
It's as easy as that!
Well, perhaps it's not so easy. There
are lots of styles of writing - from the simple, direct
style of The Sun or Daily Record
to the almost impenetrable style of some academic
journals. All are correct in their way, because they
address particular types of reader. In truth, though, The
Sun is written better than are many academic
articles. Perhaps that's why it seems more interesting!
In order to make our meaning
understood, we must follow the basic rules and
conventions of the English language. These rules and
conventions are not too difficult, but if you get them
wrong you will be in trouble. Employers expect
graduates to be educated, so if you cannot write clearly
and correctly, or if your spelling lets you down, then
you are unlikely to get a job. As I write this, I am in
the process of ranking Edinburgh students' applications
for study on the North American Exchange Programme. The
candidates must write a summary of why they wish to study
overseas. One candidate wrote 126 words and managed to
include five spelling errors - experiance
(twice), independant, thouroughly, and exhilerating.
That's not very impressive!
Help is at hand, but it is up to YOU
whether you take it or leave it. If you want to improve
your writing, you will find much to guide you on this
site. If your spelling is poor then you should always use
the Spelling tool of a word-processor.
One final point: I have written this
site in a conversational style, but for most of your
submitted work you will need to be a little more formal -
avoid exclamation marks and words like don't.
Most of all, avoid it's at all costs -
it's always going to let you down! (see Its and
it's). But, whatever you do,
try to avoid being dull.
Writing in style: the basics explained
You can miss this section if:
- you really know how to
use words to make your meaning clear,
- you never separate a verb from its
subject or object by a comma,
- you never join sentences by a
- you never lose your way in a
Otherwise, you would be well
advised to read these notes.
Scientific writing tends to be simple
and direct, because the essence of science is information
and its interpretation. However, scientific writing need
not be boring. Indeed, it should not be boring!
That's a matter of style, and style comes with practice.
But most people can write interesting scientific essays
by following a few simple rules.
1. Write in the way that comes
naturally to you, while following the basic rules.
colloquialisms. The reader
of The Sun expects to find words such as
"Gotcha!" and "clobbered". The
reader of scientific work expects a bit more
3. Organise your material so that
your work has a clear structure, with logical flow of
examples and arguments; then the subject content will
interest the reader.
4. Don't try to be clever: use
simple, common words instead of obscure words; use a
simple, direct form of writing rather than putting on
airs and graces.
5. Make sure that your meaning is
absolutely clear to the reader.
6. Produce a draft, and expect to
rework it two or three times before it is ready for
The elements of a
The following sentence contains most of
the common elements that make up the English language.
The pink bacterium grew well on a
medium containing glucose and peptone.
The (termed the definite article - in this case it defines a particular
bacterium, not any type of bacterium)
- a word that describes a
in this case the subject
of the verb - the thing that is
performing the action of the verb)
well (adverb - a word
that describes a verb, in the same way as an adjective
describes a noun)
on (preposition - a word placed before a noun or a phrase to
indicate some relationship with what follows)
article - like the
definite article, but in this case it means any medium
not the medium)
containing (participle - a word that serves as an adjective
(describing the medium in this case) but is derived from
a verb, "to contain")
and (conjunction - a "joining" word)
Our sentence also contains a
clause (the first underlined section - 'The pink
bacterium grew well') and a phrase (the
second underlined section - 'a medium containing glucose
and peptone'). A clause contains a verb, whereas a phrase
does not contain a verb.
The simplest types of
sentence: two examples
In order for something to qualify as a
sentence, it must have two elements - a
noun and a verb. It can have lots of
other elements, but these just add extra information.
That is a perfect sentence, even
though it would not win a prize for originality. It
has the necessary elements - a noun and a verb. The
Noun 'dogs' is the subject
of the verb 'bark'.
That also is a perfect sentence.
The noun 'I' is the subject
of the verb 'like', and the noun 'dogs'
is the object of the verb 'like'.
[These two sentences differ only
because of the types of verb they contain. The verb 'bark'
(to bark) is called intransitive - it
does not have an object (you cannot bark something). The
verb 'like' (to like) is transitive
- it must have an object (you cannot like without saying
what you like).
Building on the simple
This part is IMPORTANT - lots of people get it wrong!]
We can build by adding adverbs. For
example: Dogs bark loudly.
We can build by adding adjectives. For
example: Noisy dogs bark.
Or we can add both: Noisy dogs bark
We can use prepositions (because, when,
if, etc.) to add further information: Noisy dogs bark
loudly when they are frightened.
We could go on and on, adding more and
more information, provided that our sentence continues to
express a single train of thought.
BUT we cannot
introduce a completely new train of thought into our
sentence. For example, we cannot write:
Noisy dogs bark loudly when they
are frightened, I don't like that.
There are two separate sentences here -
two separate trains of thought - and they have been
separated by a comma. That's absolutely wrong, but it is very
common in students' essays!
You can do two things to
correct this common error.
- Make two sentences, separated by a
full stop (the simplest solution).
- Use a semicolon instead of a comma
Some guidance on style
If you do not feel confident about your
writing skills (or even if you do), the best advice is to
write short sentences. In fact, short sentences can make
for an interesting style. Here is a brief extract from a
book, The Due Process of Law, by Lord Denning,
who was "Master of the Rolls" - one of
Britain's most distinguished judges. The book, believe it
or not, is fascinating - well worth reading.
"Now I return to the
commentators. The reaction from England was expressed
in two anonymous postcards that I received. One said
'You lousy coward'. The other said 'You ought to
resign'. But the reaction from Wales was one of
entire satisfaction. The newspapers applauded us. A
Dean of Divinity wrote simply, 'Thank you for doing
justice by our young people'."
You might not like that string of
staccato sentences. But you have to admit that each
sentence makes a point. The story flows. And it is hard
to go wrong if you keep your sentences simple.
short sentences can make strong, single points, but the
best writing uses a combination of short and long
sentences, to give variety and keep the reader interested.
starting a sentence
You might not like sentences that begin
with But or And. Such things were
taboos to the grammarians of the past, but never with
justification. You will find thousands of sentences that
begin with 'And' in the Bible (Genesis, Exodus,
Leviticus, Numbers...). And words like 'however' (for
but) or 'additionally' (for and) can sound a bit pompous
when the simpler word will do.
However (But), you have to admit
that each sentence makes a point.
Additionally (And), it is hard to go wrong if you
keep your sentences simple.
Guidance: you can start
a sentence with And or But, but don't overdo it. 'But'
has become quite acceptable; 'And' less so.
ending a sentence
There used to be a rule
that you do not end a sentence with a preposition. [The
word 'with' is a preposition in that sentence -
it is put before (pre-positioned) a noun or its
equivalent, to suggest some relationship.]
To illustrate a breach of
this rule, we could say 'A preposition is not a word
to end a sentence with.'
Admittedly, this looks a
bit ugly, but sometimes the alternative is worse,
sounding rather affected: 'A preposition is not a
word with which to end a sentence'. Even the
grammarians have ceded this point.
The advice is:
if it 'sounds' right then it is probably alright.
To illustrate this, there
is a story that Sir Winston Churchill was so irritated by
the highly formal writing of one of his officials that he
made the following marginal note against a particularly
'This is the sort
of English up with which I will not put.'
[Churchill knew that this is wrong - after all, he did
receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The sentence
should be: This is the sort of English that I will
not put up with, because the verb is a compound verb
- 'to put up with'.]
4. On 'active' versus 'passive'
It is always best to write
in the 'active' (direct) sense/voice rather than the
'passive' (indirect). To illustrate this,
compare the following two sentences.
gramicidin can penetrate the wall of Gram-positive
bacteria. [Active because the word (noun) that
is doing the penetrating occurs before the verb]
The wall of
Gram-positive bacteria can be penetrated by the
antibiotic, gramicidin. [Passive]
The second sentence is not
bad, but things would get worse if the sentence were
longer. In the examples below, the first sentence
(passive) is harder to follow than is the second sentence
(active) because the writer keeps us waiting for the main
point - that gramicidin penetrates the wall.
1. The wall of
Gram-positive bacteria, composed of a thick layer of
peptidoglycan and associated teichoic acids, and
known to be able to exclude the passage of many types
of substance, can be penetrated by the antibiotic,
2. The antibiotic,
gramicidin can penetrate the wall of Gram-positive
bacteria, composed of a thick layer of peptidoglycan
and associated teichoic acids, and known to be able
to exclude the passage of many types of substance.
5. On word order
Always try to put
the words that relate to one another as close together as
possible; otherwise you keep the reader waiting
to understand the sentence. We saw this in the last
example, but now we shall see it in extreme, using a
single sentence from Darwin's On the Origin of
'Yet reason tells me,
that if numerous gradations from a perfect and
complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each
grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to
exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so
slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is
certainly the case; and if any variation or
modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal
under changing conditions in life, then the
difficulty in believing that a perfect eye could be
formed by natural selection, though insuperable in
our imagination, can hardly be considered real.'
Phew! Times have changed.
Today we might write it something as follows (though we
would give our eye teeth for even a fraction of Darwin's
It might be difficult
for us to believe that a perfect eye could be formed
by natural selection. But this would be feasible -
even likely - if the following three conditions hold:
(a) if there are numerous gradations from a perfect
and complex eye to a very imperfect and simple eye,
each grade being useful to its possessor; (b) if the
eye varies ever so slightly, and the variations are
inherited; (c) if any variation or modification is
useful to an animal under changing conditions in
Note the punctuation in
the second sentence of my version: colons, semicolons and
commas were used in a hierarchy. They were needed in this
case. You would seldom need to write such a sentence, but
you would be well-advised to brush up on colons, semicolons and commas.
the verb 'agree with' the noun [Note: lots of students make mistakes
In a long or complex
sentence it is very easy to lose your track and create
grammatical nonsense. To illustrate this, consider the
following two sentences.
1. The area of
ground is small. Correct
2. The area of
ground consisting of gardens and fields are small.
Wrong! - because the area (singular) must
always be followed by is, even if it is an
area containing lots of things.
The only way to avoid this
sort of error is to go through each sentence, asking Does
the subject of the verb (singular or plural) agree with
the form of the verb I have used?
If you think this is
trivial, and that you would never make
such a silly error, then read the following notice - a
plaque displayed for tourists in Princes Street Gardens.
[You will see this plaque just inside the gate near the
roundabout at the foot of Cockburn Street.]
middle of the 15th C this area was flooded to
form part of the Nor Loch which served as the
northern section of the city's defences until the
mid 18th C. At this time the ground adjoining was
occupied by tanners' premises, slaughter houses
and gardens. Around 1825 the banks of the Nor
Loch were soiled over and planted with trees. The
level area of the gardens were leased to a local
nurseryman until the coming of the Railway in
1845 which divided the gardens from east to west.
At this time the whole of Princes Street Gardens were fenced and
transformed into a Public Garden for the benefit
of the citizens of Edinburgh.
area of Land to the south of the Railway is owned
by the Bank of Scotland and has been leased to
the City of Edinburgh since 1849
City of Edinburgh District
Bank of Scotland
think that Edinburgh, in the time of David Hume, was
internationally renowned as the City of Enlightenment.
That was before the Age of the City of Edinburgh District
examples of 'singular versus plural' [Again, lots of students
make mistakes here.]
means "not one". So you never write 'none are' or 'none
were'. Write none is or none
When used as pronouns
(substitutes for nouns), neither, either,
each and every (including
everyone) should always
take a singular verb.
We tried to
culture the two bacteria, to see if either is viable.
We tried to culture the two bacteria, to see if
either are viable. Wrong
common, everyday words
rather than obscure or complex words. Don't be pompous!
It is tempting to try to impress the reader by your
erudition. But the best writing speaks for itself; it
gets the message across simply and effectively.
Here is a very common example of scientific pomposity.
How often do you read (or write):
The experiment was performed...?
It conjures up all sorts of images. Did the person
dress up specially for this performance? Was it done with
a flourish? With an audience? Do you perform the
washing-up every night? Even if you do so, would you say
to your flatmates "I'll just go and perform the
Similarly, The experiment was carried out. Do
you carry out the washing-up?
Instead of this nonsense, write:
The experiment was done, using the
procedure on page 55 of the manual.
Gregor Mendel did an experiment in which
That's simple, clear language. That's good writing.
the pronoun relate to the noun.
[Important - lots of people
make mistakes here]
Pronouns such as it, he, she,
they, them, their are
extremely useful. They are substitutes for nouns, and
they avoid the need for repetition. For example, they
save us writing sentences such as:
We decided to buy the dog with the long hair,
the short legs and the turned-up nose because the
dog with the long hair, the short legs and the
turned-up nose touched our hearts.
Instead of this we could have replaced the underlined
phrase with it (though, to
avoid any possible confusion, we might say exactly what
touched our hearts - the dog or the turned-up nose).
This illustrates that we always should be careful that
the reader understands what the pronoun refers to. For
example, here is a short extract from a first-year
Spiders hunt at night and rely on their
tactile sensors instead of their eyes.
They are very are highly adapted
for night-time hunting.
The question is, What does they
refer to - the spiders or the tactile sensors? This is a
case where the writer could have spotted the potential
confusion, if he or she had taken the trouble to read
through the sentence and make sure that it said exactly
what it was meant to say.
Some common problems
Here we deal with several bits and
pieces that sometimes cause problems. Some of them are
not important, but the little things can count, showing
that you really do understand how to use words.
1. Fewer / less
Fewer is used for numbers of
things; less is used for amounts.
- If you had less weight
then the scales would show fewer
- If you had less
credibility then fewer people would seek
- If you had less sugar in
your coffee then you would have fewer
problems with your teeth.
2. Meter / metre
A meter is something that
records measurements - e.g. a thermometer, pedometer,
mileometer (also spelled milometer).
A metre is 39.37 inches.
Centimetres, kilometres and millimetres are spelled
3. As / like / such as,
The only problem likely to occur is the
use of like in place of as.
Do it as I showed you. (Correct)
Do it like I showed you. (Wrong)
Do it as the professional does it. (Correct)
Do it like the professional does it. (Wrong)
Do it like a professional.(Correct)
The rule is:
before a clause (which, by definition,
contains a verb).
before a noun or phrase (which does not
contain a verb).
Yes, the common expression 'Like
I said' is wrong!
4. Either...or /
The rule is that whatever follows either
(or neither) must be matched (grammatically) by whatever
follows or (or nor).
For example: Either cats or
dogs. Neither you nor I. Either we
go or we stay.
But not: Either
we go or stay. [But you could rearrange this as We
either go or stay.]
This also is correct: We had a
choice of either the cat or a litter of kittens.
So is this: We had a choice either of the cat or
of a litter of kittens.
But not: We
had a choice either of the cat or a litter of
In other words, think of either...or
as to the two sides of a see-saw - they need to be
5. Me, I and myself
This subject is really difficult - you
can spend ages agonising over it, especially if what you
want to say is not straightforward. The key is to think
about the subject and the object
of a verb. (For example 'I like dogs',
where I is the subject and dogs is the
object of the verb like).
is always the subject. Me
is always the object. So the following are correct.
He gave it to me.
I like dogs, because dogs like me.
The present was given to you and me. [And - I
can't resist it - The future is ours.]
They have asked John and me to a party.
It was me who said it. [But I admit that we
could argue about this one]
'Myself' is needed rarely. In fact,
it should be used only to emphasise: I do not
like it myself, but I can see why you might like it.
Perhaps the best advice is
to let your ear be the judge - say the
sentence aloud and if it sounds right then it is
likely to be right. For example, 'I like me'
is (I think) technically correct, but you would say I
like myself (if you dared to say it at all).
6. Who, whom, who's, whose
Who and whom are
pronouns. Follow the guidance on 'I, me and myself'
(point 5 above) by thinking about the subject
and object of a verb.
'Who does this to whom?', asked
the actress, looking anxiously at the script. [Who
is the subject, and whom is the object of
whatever will be done]
To whom should I reply? [Whom
is the object - the person who will receive the
reply, not the person who will give the reply]
Who should I reply to?
[You might say this, in speech, because 'whom' sounds
rather toffee-nosed. But in writing the correct form
would be Whom should I reply to?, because whom
is the object of the reply. This is a good case for
rearrangement - change the word order and it becomes To
whom should I reply?]
Who's and whose
mean different things. Who's means who
is. Whose means belonging to whoever
we are talking about.
For example: Who's going to do
this? The person whose job it is.
7. Which and that
Which and that
might seem interchangeable - and often are treated as
such. But there are cases where the whole meaning of
a sentence hinges on the use of which or that.
1. He died from a disease that
affects the liver.
2. He died from a disease which affects
In both sentences the final clause
has been underlined. In sentence 1, it is termed a defining
clause - it precisely defines the disease as
a disease that affects the liver. In sentence
2 we have a non-defining clause - it
tells us more about the disease but the implication
(by using which) is that this is extra
information and non-essential.
you write something like this, ask yourself:
"Can I put a comma before 'which' and
still keep the meaning I want to convey?" [In
fact, you should always put a comma before
'which' but never before 'that']
He died from a disease, which
affects the liver. Now you are showing us that
the extra information is non-essential.
If the distinction between 'which'
and 'that' is still not clear, then read the
following sentence and ask yourself "what
meaning do I read into it?"
The River Thames that flows
through London is highly polluted.
Clearly, one meaning is obvious -
that the Thames is highly polluted. But you perhaps
were puzzled by 'The River Thames that
flows through London..." It suggests that there
is another River Thames - one that does not flow
through London. If you were puzzled then you have
grasped intuitively the difference between a defining
clause and a non-defining clause. The author found it
necessary to use 'that', to define
the River Thames that he or she had in mind.
Here is another example:
1. There are only a few
abbreviations that you will need to use.
2. There are only a few abbreviations which
you will need to use.
Following our rule that you
should always put a comma before 'which',
we have two sentences with entirely different
Sentence 1 says only one thing:
that you will need to use only a few abbreviations.
Sentence 2 tells us two things,
both of which are wrong! First, that there are only a
few abbreviations (in truth there are hundreds of
them); second, that we will need to use them (whether
we like it or not).
One final example, from a
first-year student's essay on the bear family:
The only member of the Ursidae
family, which can be found in the extreme environment
of the arctic, is the polar bear.
Here the meaning is abundantly
clear - there can be no confusion. The writer told us
that there is only one type of bear (the polar bear),
and it can be found in the arctic. Presumably, the
writer meant to say:
The only member of the Ursidae
family that can be
found in the extreme environment of the arctic is the
8. Imply and infer
These two words mean different
to imply is to suggest
or to signify or to mean,
to infer is to derive or to
conclude from or to deduce.
The author implies
that sharks are able to tear their food, so I infer
that sharks have teeth.
An implication is something
that is suggested, but not stated specifically. In
contrast, an inference is a deduction.
When something is implicit
it is suggested. When something is explicit
it is stated directly and clearly.
We must say something about split infinitives because
a site like this is expected to say something
about them! However, we need worry about them only when
the meaning of a sentence is unclear.
What are we talking about? In the
English language an infinitive is formed when 'to' is
added to a verb (e.g. to walk, to argue,
and to suggest are infinitives). The following
are examples of split infinitives
because an adverb (e.g. boldly) is placed within the
We decided to boldly walk through the room.
We voted to boldly suggest that the Chairman be
These two examples, although technically incorrect, do
not really confuse the meaning of the sentence, so we can
safely ignore them. But the following examples
show that careless placement of an adverb can change the
meaning of a sentence.
1. We quickly decided to change our current
policy. [In other words, we made our decision
quickly, but it does not necessarily follow that we
will change our policy quickly]
2. We decided quickly to change our current
policy. [It is impossible to know what this
means - did we decide quickly or did we decide to
quickly change our policy?]
3. We decided to quickly change our current
policy. [This is a split infinitive, but the
meaning is very clear]
4. We decided to change our current policy
quickly. [We avoid the split infinitive, and our
meaning is clear - we will change our policy quickly.
But perhaps it is not as clear as in sentence 3.]
The guidance is: do not worry about
split infinitives; it is much more important that you
make your meaning clear.
10. Maybe / may be / might, may
Maybe means perhaps.
For example, Maybe I will do it. It is a
word you will never need to use in scientific
May be is a (conditional) verb.
For example. It may be significant that...
It is wrong
to write It maybe significant that...
because this makes no sense at all. You are saying
"It perhaps significant that...".
Might, may and can
sometimes cause confusion, so it is wise to use them
to express different things:
might, to indicate that something
is a possibility - it might happen or it
might have worked or it might be significant
may, to mean giving permission - yes,
you may go to the cinema (I allow you to go);
can, to mean something you know to
be possible - hydrogen can react with oxygen.
So, if you say to someone 'You may believe
that the world is flat' then you should expect
the reply 'Thank you'.
adverbs in split infinitives
agreement (verb with subject/object)
And/But at the start of a sentence
brackets (using commas as)
But/And at the start of a sentence
clauses - general
clauses - defining/non-defining
- correct uses
comma - incorrect uses
names of organisms
conclusions - essays
conjunctions - but/however
diagrams (in essays)
(as a pronoun) is
effect as noun or verb
ellipsis (for missing words)
endings (Latin or Greek words)
e.g. (for example)
et al. (et alia)
figures (images, diagrams) in essays
for example (problems with) (see also e.g.)
however (punctuation required)
however - used in place of 'but'
Latin word endings
lists - constructing
names - Latin binomials
(as a pronoun) is
(means 'not one')
- subject/object of a verb
object/subject of a verb
participles - hanging
plurals - when to use an apostrophe
plural/singular endings of Latin and
prepositions - general
prepositions - at end of a sentence
quotations - plagiarism
sentences - the elements
singular/plural endings of Latin and
- common errors
of a verb
tables (in essays)
verbs - transitive/intransitive
verbs - agreeing with the noun
word endings: -ise, ize
word endings - Latin and Greek terms
writing - style (guidelines)
-ize/ise (word endings)