basic guidelines for better writing
The quickest way to improve your grammar is to simplify your writing as much as possible.
Grammar is a combination of a number of different aspects of language
- sentence construction
- spelling and vocabulary
- agreement and syntax
The best approach is to tackle these issues one at a time.
Don’t try to improve your grammar by memorising rules – because there are many exceptions to most of them.
In most writing, all normal sentences should begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop.
A normal sentence in English usually contains at least three elements: a subject, a verb, and an object.
Subject Verb Object The cat eats the goldfish My friend is tall Some sheep are black
If you are in any doubt at all, follow this pattern. Sentences which go out of grammatical control often lack one of these elements, or they have them placed in a different order.
Short, clear, and simple sentences are usually more effective than those which are long and complex. Avoid piling up clause upon clause.
In the majority of cases, you should aim for clarity and simplicity in your written style. If in doubt, remember this rule: Keep it short. Keep it simple.
You should avoid starting sentences with words such as ‘Again’, ‘Although’, ‘But’, ‘And’, ‘Also’, and ‘With’. These words normally belong in the ‘middle’ of a
sentence, not at its beginning. Sentences which start with a conjunction are often left incomplete.
Punctuate your work firmly, making a clear distinction in your writing between marks such as the comma, the semicolon, and the full stop.
The comma [,] is used to show a slight pause in a sentence.
It is also used to separate words, clauses, or phrases.
He will never do it, whatever he says.
She bought some butter, a pint of milk, and some jam.
Cars should turn left here, whilst vans should turn right.
It separates two items when the first is not closely associated with the second:
She is a famous singer, whilst her husband remains unknown.
A very common use for the comma is to separate the items in a list:
The box contained a book, some pencils, and a knife.
The semicolon [ ; ] marks a long pause in a sentence.
It is half way between a comma and a colon.
Semicolons are used between clauses which could stand alone, but which are closely related.
He ran with his shirt over his head; he had forgotten his umbrella once again.
She couldn’t dance in her favourite ballroom; it was being renovated.
Semicolons are also used to punctuate mixed lists in continuous prose writing:
Four objects lay on the desk: a large book; a spiral-bound notepad; a glass vase containing flowers; and a silver propelling pencil.
If you are in any doubt at all concerning the correct use of the semicolon – then avoid using it entirely.
It is perfectly possible to write clearly and effectively using only the
comma and the full stop.
The full stop [.] (sometimes called the period) is a punctuation mark indicating a strong pause.
It is used most commonly at the end of a complete sentence – like this one.
This is a short sentence. This is another.
It happened suddenly in 1996.
There are two reasons for this (in my opinion).
The only common exception to this rule occurs when the sentence is a question or an exclamation.
Is this question really necessary?
What a mess!
Notice that both of these punctuation marks include a full stop.
If you are not sure about the correct spelling of a word, look it up in a good dictionary.
The best ways to improve your spelling are:
- learn commonly mis-spelled words
- learn the common rules of spelling
- learn good spelling strategies
The most commonly mis-spelled words are probably there/their, its/it’s, to/too/two, and are/our.
This problem is caused because these words sound the same as each other. Here’s how to tell them apart.
There refers to a place, whereas their means belonging to them.
The table is over there, in the corner [place]
We are going to their house [belonging]
Its means belonging to, whereas It’s is a shortened form of It is.
The dog is in its basket [belonging]
It’s too late now [It is]
To means ‘towards something’, too means ‘very or in addition’, and two is the number 2.
We are going to the concert [towards]
It was too cold for swimming [very cold]
He ate two chocolate bars [number 2]
Agreement and Syntax
There must be grammatical logic or coherence in the links between parts of a sentence.
This is called ‘case agreement’.
If the subject of a sentence is singular, then the verb form must be singular as well.
The shop [singular] opens at nine o’clock.
On Thursdays the shops [plural] open late.
Sometimes confusion occurs because a statement begins in the singular but then drifts into the plural
It can be argued that a person has the right to know when they are dying.
The easiest solution to this problem is to make the subject plural and its verb plural as well.
It can be argued that people have the right to know when they are dying.
Syntax is the grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence.
It concerns both word order and agreement in the relationship between words.
The following statements follow normal English word order:
The cat sat on the mat.
My old brown leather suitcase.
The following statements do not follow normal English word order:
The cat on the mat sat.
My brown leather old suitcase.
© Roy Johnson 2004