Welcome to my English User Guides. These pages are formatted for your computer screen or iPad rather than the smartphone you carry with you everywhere. Sorry about that, but there is a good reason. Core learning points are here presented in table form with clear examples always in view alongside. Lengthy explanation and excessive scrolling up and down can thus be avoided, which should appeal to busy students preparing to sit exams.
Where appropriate, important terms are hyperlinked to their definitions elsewhere on the site, and in the British and American vocabulary glossaries words with differering meaning on either side of the Atlantic are cross-linked for rapid comparison.
After teaching English in Japan and Sweden for three decades, and also studying foreign languages, I guess my approach to grammar is a rather traditional one. I remain convinced that — just as with safe driving — language acquisition and effective communication are helped along by some basic rules of the road.
The color scheme of this website has been kept simple, with good contrast throughout to make reading easier for all age groups.
Whether you are a native speaker of English or a non-native learner, I trust you will find something of interest. Send in comments via the feedback page, and thank you for today's visit!
- The power of punctuation
- Outdated grammar rules
- Choosing your style
- Avoiding ambiguity and absurdity
- Coping with homonyms
- Spelling vs. pronunciation
Imagine you're a prisoner on death row, pinning all your hopes on that last-minute reprieve. One single typing error from the state governor's office could so easily make all the difference to your fortunes. Supposing the unforgiving governor dictates the following words to a junior clerk because his regular secretary is away: "I've thought very carefully about pardoning the prisoner and have decided not to. Go ahead and execute him."
Feeling sorry for the man, however, what the clerk actually puts down on paper is: "I've thought very carefully about pardoning the prisoner and have decided not to go ahead and execute him."
Very same words but with radically altered meaning. The clever clerk understood what a powerful tool punctuation can be in English — and you can too if you take time out to digest our easily digestible Guide to Writing with Precision.
Punctuation can impact reputations
it tongue-in-cheek humor? Either by accident or design, the author of this Sky News breaking news caption
left out some all-important quotation marks.
<< Double click thumbnail!
Punctuation can also define relationships
I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
by Kivi Leroux Miller
No matter what your fifth-grade English teacher says, some grammar "rules" no longer apply. The style mavens of our day all agree that the ability to communicate clearly and concisely takes precedence over archaic grammar rules. Stop chewing your pencils and forget about these rules. Each rule is followed by a grammatically correct sentence.
1. Never split an infinitive
I want to carefully consider all of the options presented to me.
Following this rule all of the time will make your prose unnecessarily academic and stuffy. When in doubt, don't split the infinitive. But if splitting the infinitive conveys your meaning more clearly and concisely, split away.
2. Active verbs are always
better than passive verbs
Jerry was robbed. (The active alternative: Somebody robbed Jerry.)
Generally, active verbs are better. In the following cases, however, passive tense works just fine:
- When you don’t want to mention who did it
- When you don’t know who did it
- When who did it is irrelevant
- When the passive voice places the emphasis where you want it
3. Never start a sentence with
a conjunction (and, or, but )
And then he left, never looking back.
Starting a sentence with a conjunction can help transition from one idea to another or add a dramatic tone to a passage. If you start sentences this way too often, your paragraphs will sound like one long run-on sentence. Use conjunctions at the start of sentences judiciously.
Never start a sentence with there are
or there is
There is no excuse for your behavior.
Sentences that begin with there are and there is are usually weak sentences in need of a stronger noun. But making a conscious decision to start a sentence this way to place emphasis on specific words is perfectly acceptable. "Your behavior is inexcusable" and "You have no excuse for your behavior" just don't sound as stern as the sentence above.
5. Never end a sentence with a
What is he pointing at?
This holdover from the 18th century has no place in modern language. Imagine how stilted and formal our language would be if we followed this rule! According to Words into Type, Winston Churchill once said, "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put" in defense of the terminal preposition.
Always use more than
instead of over with
The relic is over 300 years old.
Over, more than and in excess of can all be used with numbers. Let your ear, rather than a rigid rule, be your guide.
Data is plural, so the
verb must always be plural
The data proves his thesis.
Like several other plural words with Latin origins, data is now accepted as either singular or plural, as any up-to-date dictionary will confirm. When was the last time you heard someone use the word datum (the singular of data) in a sentence?
© 2005, Kivi Leroux Miller. All Rights Reserved.
Tongue-in-cheek advice by Anonymous
- Avoid alliteration. Always.
- Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
- Avoid clichés like the plague. (They're old hat.)
- Employ the vernacular.
- Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
- Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary (and in poor taste).
- It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
- Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
- Foreign words and phrases are not apropos; in toto.
- One should never ever generalize.
- Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
- Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
- Don't be redundant; don't use more words than
necessary; it is highly superfluous;
be concise and understandable. Do not repeat yourself in any case.
- Vulgarity is damned well unappreciated.
- Be more or less specific whenever possible.
- Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earthshaking ideas.
- One word sentences? Eliminate.
- Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
- The passive voice is to be avoided.
- Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
- Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
- Who needs rhetorical questions?
- Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
- If you cant spel gud then at least write right. Right?
compiled by David V. Appleyard
Drunk Gets Nine Months in Violin Case
Survivor of Siamese Twins Joins Parents
Iraqi Head Seeks Arms
Stud Tires Out
Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over
British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands
Eye Drops Off Shelf
Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim
Enraged Cow Injures Farmer with Axe
Miners Refuse to Work after Death
Stolen Painting Found by Tree
Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge
Deer Kill 17,000
Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead
Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge
New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group
Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft
Kids Make Nutritious Snacks
Arson Suspect is Held in Massachusetts Fire
Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half
New Vaccine May Contain Rabies
Steals Clock, Faces Time
Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors
Some Pieces of Rock Hudson Sold at Auction
Sex Education Delayed, Teachers Request Training
Include Your Children When Baking Cookies
Police Confirm Shotgun Attack on Bullet Train
Fake Cardiologist Breaks Woman's Heart
Seasoned Turkey Takes Stuffing Out of China
Virgin Celebrates First Mid-Air Birth
Last Settlers to Leave Gaza Strip
- Notice how many of these unfortunate ambiguities could have been avoided with better punctuation. In particular, more frequent use of commas and hyphens would clearly show which words belong together syntactically.
We have to polish the Polish furniture.
To take the lead I must take the lead out of my shoes!
A farm can produce produce.
The dump was so full it had to refuse refuse.
The soldier found it hard to desert in the desert.
A good time to present the present is the present.
At the army base, a bass was painted on a bass drum.
The dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance for the invalid was invalid.
The bandage was wound around the wound.
The first row of oarsmen had a row about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
A sewer went down to stitch the tear in the sewer line.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
My jaw got number after a number of Novocain injections .
She shed a tear when she saw the tear in her skirt.
The researchers had to subject the subject to many tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
I spent all last evening evening out a pile of dirt.
with box, and the plural is boxes;
But the plural of ox should be oxen, not oxes.
Then one fowl is goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a whole lot of mice,
But the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men,
Why couldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
The cow in the plural may be cows or kine,
But the plural of vow is vows, not vine.
And I speak of a foot, and you show me your feet,
But I give a boot — would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?
If the singular is this and plural is these,
Why shouldn't the plural of kiss be nicknamed kese?
Then one may be that, and three may be those,
Yet the plural of hat would never be hose;
We speak of a brother, and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
The masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine she, shis, and shim!
So our English, I think you will all agree,
Is the trickiest language you ever did see.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead; it's said like bed, not bead;
For goodness sake, don't call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother.
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there's dose and rose and lose
— Just look them up — and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I've hardly made a start.
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I'd learned to speak it when I was five,
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I'll not learn how 'till the day I die.
Before YOU give up altogether, check out our Guide to English Spelling Rules.
BBC Skillswise: English (Literary skills for adults)
Cambridge English Language Assessment (Guide to all Cambridge English exams and teaching qualifications)
LanguageGuide.org (A speaking picture-dictionary of English)