A guide to writing simply and effectively

Produced by Jim Deacon

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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.

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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 comma,
  • you never lose your way in a sentence.

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.

2. Avoid colloquialisms. The reader of The Sun expects to find words such as "Gotcha!" and "clobbered". The reader of scientific work expects a bit more formality.

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 submission.

The elements of a sentence

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)
pink (adjective - a word that describes a noun)
bacterium (noun, and in this case the subject of the verb - the thing that is performing the action of the verb)
grew (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)
a (indefinite article - like the definite article, but in this case it means any medium not the medium)
medium (noun)
containing (participle - a word that serves as an adjective (describing the medium in this case) but is derived from a verb, "to contain")
glucose (noun)
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.

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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.

(1) Dogs bark.

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'.

(2) I like dogs.

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 sentences. [N.B. 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 loudly.

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 (see semicolon).

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Some guidance on style

1. Use short sentences

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.

Guidance: 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.

2. On 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.

3. On 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 clumsy sentence:

'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' construction

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.

The antibiotic, 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, gramicidin.

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 Species.

'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 insight).

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 life.

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.

6. Make the verb 'agree with' the noun [Note: lots of students make mistakes here]

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.]

In the 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.

The 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 Council

Bank of Scotland

And to 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 Council.

Some further examples of 'singular versus plural' [Again, lots of students make mistakes here.]

(1) None means "not one". So you never write 'none are' or 'none were'. Write none is or none was.

(2) 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. Correct
We tried to culture the two bacteria, to see if either are viable.

7. Use 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 washing-up."?

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 he crossed...

That's simple, clear language. That's good writing.

8. Make 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 student's essay.

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.

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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 kilograms.
  • If you had less credibility then fewer people would seek your advice.
  • 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 similarly.

3. As / like / such as, etc.

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.
Do it as the professional does it.
Do it like the professional does it.
Do it like a professional.

The rule is:

Use 'as' before a clause (which, by definition, contains a verb).
Use 'like' before a noun or phrase (which does not contain a verb).

Yes, the common expression 'Like I said' is wrong!

4. Either...or / neither...nor

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 kittens.

In other words, think of either...or as to the two sides of a see-saw - they need to be balanced.

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).

I 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 the liver.

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.

Guidance: Whenever 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 meanings.

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 polar bear.

8. Imply and infer

These two words mean different things:
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.

9. Split infinitives

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 infinitive.

We decided to boldly walk through the room.
We voted to boldly suggest that the Chairman be sacked.

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 and can

Maybe means perhaps. For example, Maybe I will do it. It is a word you will never need to use in scientific writing.

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 that...etc.;
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'.

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active/passive construction
adverbs in split infinitives
agreement (verb with subject/object)
And/But at the start of a sentence

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binomials (Latin)
book citations
brackets (using commas as)
But/And at the start of a sentence

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case (singular/plural)
citation of references
clauses - general
clauses - defining/non-defining
comma - correct uses
comma - incorrect uses
common names of organisms
common nouns
compound verbs
conclusions - essays
conjunctions - but/however

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defining/nondefining clause
definite article
diagrams (in essays)
direct/indirect writing

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each is
either (as a pronoun) is
effect as noun or verb
ellipsis (for missing words)
endings (Latin or Greek words)
essay writing
e.g. (for example)
et al. (et alia)

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figures (images, diagrams) in essays
for example (problems with) (see also e.g.)

Greek words

hanging participle
headings - hierarchies
however (punctuation required)
however - used in place of 'but'

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indefinite article
infinitives, split
intransitive verbs
-ise/ize (endings)
italics (headings)
italics (Latin binomials)

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Latin word endings
Latin binomials
lists - constructing


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names - Latin binomials
neither (as a pronoun) is
none (means 'not one')
nouns - subject/object of a verb

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object/subject of a verb

parentheses (brackets)
participles - hanging
passive/active construction
plurals - when to use an apostrophe
plural/singular endings of Latin and Greek words
prepositions - general
prepositions - at end of a sentence
proper names

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quotations - plagiarism

references -citing, lists
references: over-citation

sentences - the elements
short sentences
singular/plural endings of Latin and Greek words
spelling - common errors
split infinitives
subject of a verb

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tables (in essays)
transitive verbs

verbs - compound
verbs - transitive/intransitive
verbs - agreeing with the noun

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word endings: -ise, ize
word endings - Latin and Greek terms
word order
writing - style (guidelines)

-ize/ise (word endings)

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