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Guide to Grammar and Style

By Jack Lynch

Last revised 21 December 2006.

Note: I've been working on a new guide that might help some readers of this one, called "Getting an A on an English Paper." It's far from finished, but it may still be useful.
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I've also been experimenting with a new search engine. It's very rudimentary, but may be useful.


These notes are a miscellany of grammatical rules and explanations, comments on style, and suggestions on usage I put together for my classes. Nothing here is carved in stone, and many comments are matters of personal preference — feel free to psychoanalyze me by examining my particular hangups and bêtes noires. Anyone who can resist turning my own preferences into dogma is welcome to use this HTML edition. Feedback is always welcome.

I should be clear up front: I'm not a linguist, nor a scholar of the history of the language. (If you're curious about who I am, you can look at my CV and decide whether I'm worth listening to.) Linguists are wary of "prescriptive" grammars, which set out standards of "correct" and "incorrect" usage — grammars that usually insist correctness reigned in the good old days, whereas we've been on the road to hell ever since. Professional linguists are adamant that the language isn't "declining," and that many usages censured by self-styled grammarians are in fact perfectly reasonable, whether on historical grounds, logical grounds, or both.

And they're right. I reject any model of linguistic decline, in which the twenty-first century speaks a decadent version of the language of some golden age. I don't lie awake at night worrying about the decline of "proper" English. (In my grumpier moods, I'm convinced the whole world's going to hell — but then, I'm convinced the whole world's been going to hell since time out of mind. In my more sanguine moods, I wonder whether hell isn't such a bad place to be after all.) I know, too, that many things offered as "good" grammar or style have little basis in history or in logic.

* * * * *

Why, then, have I spent so much time on a prescriptive and fairly traditional usage guide? Because these notes may be useful in making your writing clearer and more effective. I'm not out to make definitive statements about what's right and what's wrong, and Lord knows I wouldn't be qualified even if I tried. I can, however, make suggestions on things that are likely to work — by which, as you'll see throughout this guide, I mean have an effect on your audience.

The entries here are of two types: specific articles on usage, and more general articles on style. The specific articles cover such mechanical things as when to use a semicolon and what a dangling participle is; the general articles discuss ways to make "proper" writing even better. The specific articles can be further divided into two classes: (1) grammatical rules and matters of house style, matters rather of precedent than of taste; and (2) more subjective suggestions for making your writing clearer, more forceful, and more graceful. The specific articles are intended for quick reference, such as when you have to find out whether which or that is appropriate. The general articles lend themselves to browsing and absorbing over time.

These general articles are no less important than the "rules." In fact, really bad writing is rarely a matter of broken rules — editors can clean these up with a few pencil marks. It's more often the result of muddled thought. Bad writers consider long words more impressive than short ones, and use words like usage instead of use or methodologies instead of methods without knowing what they mean. They qualify everything with It has been noted after careful consideration, and the facts get buried under loads of useless words. They pay no attention to the literal sense of their words, and end up stringing stock phrases together without regard for meaning. They use clichés inappropriately and say the opposite of what they mean.

I've tried to steer clear of technical terms and, wherever possible, have tried to explain grammatical jargon. This has sometimes meant sacrificing precision for convenience; more sophisticated writers and grammarians will doubtless see points to quibble over, but I hope these notes get the idea across to tyros. Every article on points of grammar — dangling participles, split infinitives — begins with a practical definition of the term, followed by some useful rules, and examples of good and bad writing. Sometimes there are suggestions on how to identify possible problems. The definitions and discussions are not exhaustive, just rules of thumb. If you need more detail, consider one of the books in the last section, "Additional Reading."

Additional Reading

There are countless writing guides, most of them awful. The books below are either classics in the field or my own faves.

  • H. W. Fowler, Modern English Usage. This seven-hundred-page volume of small type includes every conceivable stylistic point, arranged alphabetically, and written in an informal (but quirky) tone. Some of the entries are specific — several pages on punctuation — while others are general, such as tired clichés. Almost every entry has illustrative quotations from real life. Fowler was qualified for the job, having just compiled the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Yanks may find this classic work unsuitable because of its focus on British English, and much of it has been outdated in the eight decades since its first edition's completion. Still worth a look. A companion, Modern American Usage by Follett, makes up for some of Fowler's disadvantages, but lacks the charm of the original.
  • Sir Ernest Gowers et al., The Complete Plain Words. Ernest Gowers's Plain Words is a guide to effective writing from the 1940s for British civil servants. Over the years it has gone through many editions and been changed by many hands. The most recent version, The Complete Plain Words, still shows its focus on British usage and the civil service, but many of its suggestions are excellent. Most of the book is a discussion of common writing problems, with examples of good and bad writing. There is also a long section on specific points of usage, arranged alphabetically.
  • George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language." Orwell's essay is one of the great works on the plain style. The essay should be available in any popular collection of Orwell's essays. Read it daily. Keep a copy under your pillow.
  • Thomas Pinney, A Short Handbook and Style Sheet. A handy little guide to style, written informally and accessibly. The general sections (on diction, vagueness, wordiness, and so on) are better than those devoted to mechanics. Pinney's work is refreshingly free of dogmatism of any sort.
  • Margaret Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar. Not bad if you're looking for very specific rules, but not highly recommended as a general guide. It includes things like "Capitalize nouns followed by a capitalized Roman numeral" and the proper spelling of bête noire. Easily available, since it's often sold with Strunk and White (below).
  • Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. The standard high school guide to style, and useful well beyond school. It includes a number of specific rules, dozens of commonly misused words, and bundles of suggestions for improving your style. Available anywhere (now including an on-line version of Strunk's 1918 edition). Read it. Memorize it. Live it.
  • Maxwell Nurnberg, I Always Look Up the Word "Egregious": A Vocabulary Book for People Who Don't Need One. A pleasant guide to building vocabulary that never becomes patronizing (the fault of too many books for beginners) or drifts off into utterly useless long words (the fault of too many books for fans of word games). It's probably too sophisticated for non-native speakers and rank beginners, but will help many others build a more powerful vocabulary.
  • The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed. Not only a good desk dictionary for providing definitions, but also a handy guide to usage on controversial questions. AHD has a panel of writers who vote on whether certain usages are acceptable.
  • Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. It's not a comprehensive treatise to answer all your questions, and it describes British rather than American practice (well, practise). And the "zero-tolerance" stuff shouldn't be taken too seriously. But the book's a hoot, and if you're curious about the finer points of punctuation, check it out.

On-Line Sources

Keith Ivey's English Usage Page contains many valuable discussions of grammar, style, and usage, and includes many references to the alt.usage.english newsgroup and the excellent collection of frequently asked questions compiled by Mark Israel. See also the Elementary Grammar at www.hiway.co.uk, the on-line edition of Strunk's 1918 Elements of Style, and Gary Shapiro's page on It's versus Its. I also maintain another collection of on-line writers' resources.

Mirror sites of this page are available around the world. Most of them are unauthorized (only a few were considerate enough to ask for my permission before reproducing my work), and most of them represent versions long out of date. I assume responsibility only for this version, at http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/. But if you have trouble connecting to this site, feel free to try the others, for what they're worth.

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