Etica's Guide to written English

Contents


to top

INTRODUCTION



The English language is a rich language: it has a huge vocabulary and is spoken, in one guise or another, in every continent on the planet. It is fast becoming the global language. But this richness comes at a price, and that is it is a highly complex language. Its rules are many and varied and can often seem illogical or contradictory. Mastery of the language is a requirement of many professions, and it is highly desirable in many others. But nobody comes naturally equipped with this mastery. Standard English has to be acquired, usually by formal education. Sadly, however, in recent years schools in most English-speaking countries have pulled back from teaching this material, either through lack of time, resources or a misguided philosophy that language cannot be governed by rules (a spoken tongue cannot and should not be ‘corrected’), and therefore such rules should not be taught. Perhaps this problem has been with us longer than we realise: George Bernard Shaw was moved to say, in Pygmalion, ‘The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. . . . It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman despise him’

Anything that helps to bring order to a language as unruly and idiosyncratic as English is almost by definition a ‘good thing’. Even the most ardent structuralist would concede that there must be at least some conventions of usage (otherwise, as Shaw, again, once remarked, we might as well spell ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’: ‘gh’ as in ‘tough’, ‘o’ as in ‘women’ and ‘ti’ as in ‘motion’). At the same time, rules of language must be its servant rather than its master. Much as we cherish our language for its beauty and power, it exists to enable us to communicate more effectively; any rule that obstructs or hinders such communication is almost by definition therefore a rule that does not deserve to be followed.

Those who wish to understand the full depth and intricacy of the language and its everyday use are urged to consult one of the major works on the subject, such as Fowlers Modern English Usage. How the ‘rules’ of the language should be put into practice in written English are best explained in Nicola Harris Basic Editing or Judith Butcher Copy-Editing. Here I have tried to do no more than draw together answers to some of the more common questions that users of the language have. In doing so, I have relied very heavily on a number of sources, namely Bill Bryson’s excellent work Troublesome Words (2nd edn, 1987, Penguin), RL Trask’s equally absorbing Mind the Gaffe (2001, Penguin), and the wonderful OED website AskOxford.com.

back

Common conceptions and misconceptions

The famous American essayist, HL Mencken, was once moved to say (perhaps in the ‘heat and agony’ of the moment!) that ‘Correct spelling, indeed, is one of the arts that are far more esteemed by schoolma'ams than by practical men, neck-deep in the heat and agony of the world.’ So, do rules of grammar really matter? ‘Why care for grammar as long as we are good?’, as Artemus Ward would have it. Had Shakespeare said ‘Shall I compare thee with a summer’s day’, would we have thought any less of his work? It is surely not necessary to go quite so far as the great French novelist Montaigne, who once said ‘The greater part of the world's troubles are due to questions of grammar’. But surely we can agree that if language is truly ‘the dress of thought’, then observance of the basic rules will help ensure we are not embarrassingly exposed. These are a few that should be considered.




GRAMMAR AND WORDS


A/An: the indefinite article

Which form of the indefinite article should be used before a word beginning with an 'h'? If the h is silent, of course, then an must be used: an honest man, an hour or two. (Honour and heir are other words with a silent h.) If the h is pronounced, and the first syllable is stressed, then only a is possible: a history of Wales is right, while an history of Wales is never acceptable.

The problems arise when the first syllable is unstressed: should we write a historical event or an historical event? The second derives from the days when many people pronounced these words with no h: that is, they actually said an 'istorical event, and so that is what they wrote.

Today though, almost everyone now pronounces an h in such words, and you are firmly advised to prefer a historical event: the other now looks strange or worse to most readers. The same goes for a hotel, which is better than an hotel.

Otherwise, the choice between a and an depends entirely on the pronunciation of the following item, not on its spelling. Write a union, because union is pronounced with an initial consonant sound (just like a Yule log), but write an MP, because MP is pronounced with an initial vowel sound (just like an empty box).

Errors of this sort are common before numbers: write an £80 million contract and not a £80 million contract.

to top

Adverbs

The normal way to form an adverb is to add -ly, as in stupidly, publicly, or humorously. However, there are exceptions:

All right/alright

Despite the precedents (we say almost rather than all most and altogether rather than all together), alright continues to be frowned upon in written English and is best, for now, avoided.

As and like

Use like before a noun, as in 'She's very like her mother'. Where a clause follows, you should use as or as if, eg 'He's behaving as if he owns the place' (not 'like he owns'), or 'You don't know him as I do' (not 'like I do').

to top

Comparatives and superlatives

The usual way to form comparatives and superlatives of adjectives is to add -er and -est: great, greater, greatest. There are four groups of exceptions:

Compare to/Compare with

These two can be carefully distinguished. Compare to should be used to liken things: compare with to consider their similarities and differences. He compared London to Bombay means he considered London to be like Bombay; he compared London with Bombay means he considered the similarities between London and Bombay, and assessed their differences.

to top

Confusing words

Andrew Jackson is once reported to have said that ‘It's a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!’ And on similar lines, Mark Twain retorted that he didn’t ‘give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.’ While it is tempting to agree, it seems more likely that simple confusion rather than an adherence to this philosophy, is usually responsible for an inappropriate word being used because it looks or sounds so like another. The list of such words is a long one, but these are some of the more common. So, do not confuse:

to top

back

Double consonants

One of the most common types of spelling error is a mistake over whether a word is spelled with a double or a single consonant. There are several possibilities:

Some mistakes are caused by trying too hard – you may remember a difficult point about one word and wrongly think that it applies to another that looks or sounds similar. For instance, though accommodate has a double m following a double c, in accumulate the m is single; harass has only a single r even though the r in embarrass is double.

In general, many mistakes in the use of double and single consonants arise from comparison with words that sound or look similar, or with related words. For example, many people spell inoculate with a double n, influenced by words such as innocent and innocuous; while the number of words beginning with irr- (irregular, irritable etc.) makes the single r in iridescent harder to remember. Even trickier are words like fulfil and skilful, set beside full, skill, and fill.

to top

Groups of consonants

Words with a cluster of two, three, or more consonants are easy to misspell: you may put the letters in the wrong order, or use too few or too many:

Some vowel combinations are tricky too:

Contractions

In words such as isn't, I'm, or don't, the apostrophe indicates that one or more letters have been left out.

Dangling participles

Dangling participles often make good jokes; but they can be confusing and it is best to avoid them. A participle should describe the grammatical subject of the main clause, as in the sentence 'Walking down the road, I bumped into a friend'. A dangling participle is one that the speaker really intends to describe something other than the grammatical subject of the sentence. If we interpret 'Riding along on my bicycle, a dog knocked me over' grammatically, the participle riding must relate to dog, so we end up with a dog that has first stolen a bicycle and then ridden it carelessly! The speaker really means riding to relate to me, and anyone reading or hearing the sentence would understand this. As a rule, however, it is best to construct sentences so that they say what you really mean them to.

to top

Derivatives

Words that are formed from existing words can also be confusing – sometimes the original spelling stays the same and sometimes it changes. Some to remember are:

Double negatives

Be sure that you know what you are trying to say if you use two negative words in a sentence. In English, two negatives cancel each other out rather than double the negative force of your sentence. 'I didn't see no one' is a rather strange way of saying that you saw someone, rather than an emphatic way of saying that you saw no one.

It is also wrong to say something like 'There wasn't hardly anyone there'; hardly and scarcely should not be used with negatives. Similarly, the verb miss already has a negative meaning, and doesn't need to have a negative added: say `I miss seeing her', not `I miss not seeing her'.

Due to/owing to

Most authorities continue to accept that due is an adjective only and must always modify a noun, so that he was absent due to illness would be incorrect, and should be recast as his absence was due to illness. Owing to can be used in all cases (so he was absent owing to illness or his absence was owing to illness would both be acceptable). Often because can be used instead of either!

Equally

Do not say 'equally as', eg 'This model is equally as effective'. You can use either equally or as on its own. In sentences such as 'My new car is just as good as the old one', where two nouns are compared, you could replace just as with as, but it would be wrong to use equally.

to top

Forming plurals

The usual way to form a plural is to add an -s, eg dogs, popes.

If the word ends in -ch, --s, -sh, -x, -z, then add -es, eg branches, masses, bushes, boxes, chintzes.

Most words that end in -f or -fe change the ending to -ves (eg wives, calves), although there are exceptions (eg beliefs, chiefs, dwarfs, gulfs, proofs, roofs).

For words that end in a vowel + y, add -s, eg days, boys.

If a word ends in a consonant + y, change the -y to -ies, eg babies, spies. Words that end in -o normally just add -s, but there is a group of words that add -oes: these include buffaloes, dominoes, echoes, goes, grottoes, haloes, heroes, mangoes, mosquitoes, potatoes, tomatoes, tornadoes, torpedoes, vetoes, and volcanoes.

Haves and have-nots

Remember the had in sentences like 'I had better go now'. Because 'I had' can be contracted to 'I'd', people often hear it as I and leave out had altogether. 'I better go' is not correct in standard English; always use I'd or I had.

Avoid ‘Should of’! In sentences like 'I might have known' and 'You should have gone', many people use of instead of have. This too is based on a mishearing, and is wrong: remember to use have.

to top

He, she, or they?

People are increasingly using the plural pronoun they to refer to one person if they do not know whether that person is male or female. Until quite recently, he was generally used to refer to a person of either sex, as in `Every child needs to know that he is loved', but nowadays many people feel that such a use is sexist. He or she is possible, but is rather awkward. They is generally accepted in sentences using words such as someone or anyone, eg 'Anyone can join if they are a resident'. More people object to they being used after a single noun, as in 'Ask a friend if they can help'. Partridge continued to do so in Usage and Abusage (1973 revision):

‘they, their, misused for he, his as in "Anyone thinks twice when their life is at stake", read "his life’’.’

Although Fowler (in 1926) disliked the practice, the latest edition notes that ‘the process seems irreversible’. The OED, while admitting that it was ‘not favoured by grammarians’, gives several examples dating from the fifteenth century to George Bernard Shaw’s Candida: ‘It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses’ (1898).

Part of our earlier teaching was the result of a tendency to use the third person plural pronouns in a vague and unattributable way, such as ‘They say that’, ‘They should do something about it’, when ‘it is said that’ and ‘Mrs Bloggs told Mrs Jones, who whispered to me’ or ‘The parish council should take action’ would at least give a clearer direction. The lack of a named subject is irritating and careless in such contexts but that doesn’t make the use of the third person plural wrong. Indeed, according to Longman’s Guide To English Usage (1988):

‘It is perfectly legitimate to use "they" for "people in general" (They say we’ll have a hard winter) or for "the authorities" (They took my licence away). It is often better to do this than to rely constantly on the passive, as in "My licence was taken away".’

In communications referring, for example, to groups of people such as ethnic minorities or elderly patients, the use of the third person plural is not only widespread but it is also, more crucially, much easier to read:

‘If you feel that your friend or relative needs additional support, ask for an assessment of their needs.’

‘It is important that your friend or relative has regular eye tests so that they can continue to make the most of the sight that remains to them.’

to top

Headings

Headings can be a very effective way of guiding the reader through a narrative. They are at their most effective when kept short, and to the point. You should ensure too that the first sentence under a heading can stand on its own were the heading to be removed: the heading should not be treated as the start of the sentence which follows it.

I or me?

Be careful to use the pronouns I and me, he and him, she and her, we and us, and they and them in the right place. Use I, we, etc when you are talking about someone who has done something (ie who is the subject of the sentence), and use me, us, etc. when you are talking about someone who has had something done to them (ie who is the object of the sentence). People most often make mistakes over this when they are talking about more than one person:

A good guide in cases like these is to see whether the sentence sounds right with only the pronoun. If 'Me had a dog' is wrong, then so is 'Annie and me had a dog'; if you wouldn't say 'Watch I while I show you', you shouldn't say 'Watch Helen and I'.

It's right to say 'between you and me', and wrong to say 'between you and I'. This is because a preposition such as 'between' should be followed by an object pronoun such as 'me', 'him', 'her', and 'us' rather than a subject pronoun such as 'I', 'he', 'she', and 'we'.

to top

I before e

The spelling rule that most people know best is ‘i before e except after c’. Generally it is safe to follow this rule – eg achieve, believe, niece, siege, and yield beside ceiling, conceive, deceive, and receive. One very important exception is seize, spelled with e before i; others are caffeine and protein. Species goes the other way, with ie following c.

I and e in combination can represent a lot of sounds besides long e; you may have problems with some of these as well:

Long e can cause some problems when it's spelled in other ways too. A and e are worth noticing:

Less or fewer?

Use the comparative form fewer with plural nouns, eg 'There are fewer people here than there were yesterday', rather than saying 'There are less people . . . ' Use less with uncountable nouns – that is, ones with no plural form, eg 'He has less money than I have'. Strictly speaking, ‘eat less cake and biscuits’ should be rendered ‘eat less cake and fewer biscuits.’ This is perhaps an example of when it is better to apply good sense and preserve the flow of the text, rather than strictly apply the ‘rules’ of the language.

Might or may?

People often confuse 'may have' and 'might have'. 'May have' should be used only when you are not sure whether or not something happened. If you want to say that at some time in the past it was possible for something to happen but in fact it did not, use 'might have'. So saying 'an accident in which two people may have drowned' implies that you do not know whether the people are alive or dead; if you say 'two people might have drowned', you are implying that they survived, although the accident could in other circumstances have led to their deaths.

to top

Paired words

When you use pairs like 'both . . . and', 'not only . . . but also', or 'neither . . . nor', make sure that each word in the pair is in the right place. The two words should introduce symmetrical structures, eg 'both at home and at work', not 'both at home and work'.

Strictly speaking, you should say either 'He looked neither to right nor to left' or 'He looked to neither right nor left', but not 'He looked neither to right nor left'. Similarly, a sentence like 'She is not only a talented singer but writes her own songs' is badly formed. You could rewrite it as either 'She is not only a talented singer but also a composer' or 'She not only sings but also writes her own songs'.

Possessives

Prepositions

The ‘rule’ that a preposition should not end a sentence is almost a century out of date. The rule was enshrined by eighteenth-century man of letters Bishop Robert Lowth in his idiosyncratic Short Introduction to English Grammar, where he urged readers not to end sentences with a preposition if they could decently avoid it. Too many people took him too literally and today the ‘rule’ is widely considered an affectation. Indeed, some sentences are difficult to imagine with the preposition anywhere but at the end of the sentence: ‘this bed has not been slept in’, ‘what is the world coming to?’, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’. Churchill’s famous scribbled comment ‘This is the sort of English up with which I will not put’ is often cited in support by those seeking to preserve the old ‘rule’, whereas in fact Churchill was quite deliberately demonstrating the absurdity of the rule.

to top

Silent letters

Words are often misspelled when they contain a letter that is not pronounced – the silent p in psychology and related words is an obvious example. It's easy to leave out these silent letters. Some letters are particularly likely to give trouble:

Remember too the t in mortgage and the b in debt, doubt and subtle. Watch out as well for the i in parliament.

Some words may have whole syllables that are not pronounced and may be left out in writing. Contemporary is is often pronounced and spelled contempory; itinerary is similar.

Sometimes the omission of a letter or syllable comes from a mistaken pronunciation. Many people fail to pronounce the c in Arctic and Antarctic, and so leave it out when writing the words. The first r in February is often left out in both speech and writing, as is the first r in secretary. Quantitative may be shortened in speech to the more manageable quantitive, and spelled accordingly.

Sitting and standing

Say 'I was sitting on the bus' and 'I was standing in the queue', not 'I was sat' and 'I was stood'.

to top

Sounds like

Sometimes a word sounds as though it contains another familiar word:

Sometimes it is just part of another word that causes a mistake:

Sentence fragments

A sentence fragment is a piece of a sentence punctuated as though it were a complete sentence. Used judiciously, this can be very effective in informal writing: eg ‘Can Arsenal win the Premiership this year? Probably not’. ‘Probably not’ is a sentence fragment. Sentence fragments are out of place in formal writing and, where they occur, are usually mistakes. Make sure your sentence has a subject (the noun) and an action (the verb): it sounds obvious, but one or other is surprisingly often omitted.

to top

Split infinitives

Whatever you may have been taught at school, it is incorrect to say that the split infinitive is a grammatical error. It is not. At worse, it is a rhetorical fault – a question of style. Nor is the split infinitive widely condemned. That too is untrue. As Bryson says ‘No one would ever argue that a split infinitive is a virtuous thing, but it is certainly no worse that some of the excruciating constructions foisted on us by those who regard it with an almost pathological dread’ He goes on to give some examples from the Times, all with a certain ring of desperation about them: 'The agreement is unlikely significantly to increase the average price; 'It was a nasty snub for the Stock Exchange and caused it radically to rethink its ideas’; ‘The education system had failed adequately to meet the needs of industry and commerce, he said’.

The problem in each instance is one of a simple conflict between the needs of the infinitive and the needs of the adverb. The natural position for the two elements of a full infinitive is together: 'He proceeded to climb the ladder’. With adverbs the most natural position is, very generally, just before the verb: ‘He slowly climbed the ladder’. The problem of the split infinitive occurs when the two are brought together: ‘He proceeded to slowly climb the ladder’.

The authorities are almost unanimously agreed that there is no reason to put the needs of the infinitive above those of the adverb. In practice the problem can usually be circumvented. Most adverbs are portable and can be moved to a position from which they can perform their function without interfering with the infinitive. In the example above, for instance, we could say: ‘He proceeded to climb the ladder slowly’ or ‘Slowly he proceeded to climb the ladder’. But that is not to say that there is any grammatical basis for regarding the infinitive as inviolable.

When moving the adverb produces ambiguity or, to use Fowler’s words, ‘patent artificiality’, the cure is at least as bad as the disease. Consider again one of the Times sentences: ‘The education system had failed adequately to meet the needs of industry and commerce, he said’. The adverb here is clearly out of place. As written, the sentence suggests that the education system had set out to fail and had done so adequately. Partridge cites this sentence: ‘Our object is to further cement trade relations’. Moving the adverb could only result in clumsiness (‘further to cement’) or ambiguity (‘to cement further’). Bernstein cites these constructions, all crying out to be left alone: ‘to more than double’, ‘to at least maintain’, ‘to all but insure’.

to top

That/Which

According to the self-styled grammar experts, that is restrictive, while which is not. Many grammarians insist on such a distinction without any historical justification. Many of the best writers in the language could not tell you the difference between them, while many of the worst think they know. If the subtle difference between the two confuses you, use whatever sounds right. Other matters are more worthy of your attention.

For the curious, however, the relative pronoun that is restrictive, which means it tells you a necessary piece of information about its antecedent: for example, 'The word processor that is used most often is WordPerfect.' Here the that phrase answers an important question: which of the many word processors are we talking about? And the answer is the one that is used most often. In the sentence 'I've lost the book that I was reading yesterday', that introduces information that the listener needs in order to know what book is being talked about.

Which is non-restrictive: it does not limit the word it refers to. An example is 'Penn's ID center, which is called CUPID, has been successful so far.' Here that is unnecessary: the which does not tell us which of Penn's many ID centers we're considering; it simply provides an extra piece of information about the plan we're already discussing. 'Penn's ID Center' tells us all we really need to know to identify it. Similarly, in the sentence 'This book, which I bought yesterday, is very interesting' which tells the listener something new about a book that has already been identified. You should not use that in sentences of this kind.

It boils down to this: if you can tell which thing is being discussed without the which or that clause, use which; if you can't, use that.

There are two rules of thumb you can keep in mind. First, if the phrase needs a comma, you probably mean which. Since 'Penn's ID center' calls for a comma, we would not say 'Penn's ID Center, that is called CUPID.'

Another way to keep them straight is to imagine by the way following every which: 'Penn's ID center, which (by the way) is called CUPID. . . .' The which adds a useful, but not grammatically necessary, piece of information. On the other hand, we would not say 'The word processor which (by the way) is used most often is WordPerfect,' because the word processor on its own isn't enough information – which word processor?

A paradoxical mnemonic: use that to tell which, and which to tell that.

to top

This or these?

A common mistake is to use the expression 'These kind' or 'These sort', as in 'These sort of situations are always difficult'. The correct forms are 'This kind' and 'These kinds' – you could say either 'This kind of situation is difficult' or 'These kinds of situation are difficult'. A more formal expression is 'Situations of this kind'.

Verbs and subjects

Remember to use a plural verb with a plural subject and a singular verb with a singular subject. This may sound obvious, but there are several reasons why it may become less straightforward:

to top

Unstressed syllable

Many words are easy to misspell because of the way in which their stress pattern affects their pronunciation. When they occur in unstressed syllables, the different vowel sounds merge into a sound like ‘uh’ or ‘er’. You may then find it difficult to remember which vowel is correct in a particular word.

In unstressed syllables, e sometimes has a short i sound. You may find it hard to remember which words spell this sound with an e (eg artefact, benefit, indigenous, liquefy) and which spell it with an i (eg dilapidated, purify). It is easy to confuse elicit with illicit.

to top

Verb Inflections

Some words that are already hard to spell can give further trouble when endings are added, eg to put a verb into the past tense. Enthral, for example, sounds as though it should be spelled with a double l but in fact has only one; but the l is doubled in enthralled and enthralling. The i in profited and profiting is short, which makes it sound as though there should be a double t; but in fact there is only one, as in the present tense profit.

These examples may be confusing; but a few basic rules will help:

When you form the past tense of a verb, or add -ing, remember:

to top

Who or whom?

Strictly speaking, it is correct to use who as the subject of a verb and whom as the object, eg 'Who saw you?' but 'Whom did you see?' It is also strictly right to use whom after a preposition, as in 'To whom were you talking just now?' In practice, few people follow this rule; most use who all the time, and a sentence like 'To whom were you talking?' can sound too formal.

Wordiness

Why use three words when one will do, even if you are a lawyer? If you keep it simple, there is a better chance of conveying your meaning. Here are some examples:

Instead of                         Use

As to whether                       whether

at the present time                    now

at this moment in time              at present or now

because of the fact that           because

by virtue of the fact that               because

due to the fact that                   because

has a tendency to                tends to

in the absence of                  without

in the event of                      if

in the near future                  soon

in the not too distant future         eventually

prior to                              before

subsequent to                      after

the question as to whether           whether

to top

PUNCTUATION


That great Thespian Ralph Richardson once observed ‘In music, the punctuation is absolutely strict, the bars and rests are absolutely defined. But our punctuation cannot be quite so strict, because we have to relate it to the audience. In other words we are continually changing the score.’ While the greatest of actors are free to take liberties with their scripts, the writer’s relationship to his or her audience is perhaps a little less forgiving. What follows is a brief guide to punctuation: what to use and when, and some of the more common pitfalls. For a more detailed study, see the Penguin Guide to Punctuation.

Apostrophe

The main functions of the apostrophe are to indicate: (a) omitted letters (don‘t, can’t, note that the apostrophe replaces the missing letter, rather than indicating where the words divide: wouldn’t rather than would’nt); and (b) to show the possessive (ie genitive) case (Don’s horse, the school’s computer, the people’s choice). Do not use an apostrophe to form a plural. A sentence like 'Please keep the gate's clear' is wrong.

Two other types of error occur with some frequency and are worth noting. They involve:

  1. Multiple possessives. This problem can be seen here: ‘This was first seen in Arthur Sullivan’s and William Gilbert’s much-loved operetta The Pirates of Penzance. Are both of the apostrophes necessary? The answer in this case is no. Because the reference is to a single operetta, written jointly, only the second-named individual needs to be in the pos­sessive. Thus it should be: ‘Arthur Sullivan and William Gilbert’s operetta’. If the reference were to two or more operettas written separately, both names would have to carry apostrophes. The rule is: when pos­session is held in common, only the nearer antecedent should be possessive; when possession is separate, each antecedent must be in the possessive.
  2. Plural units of measure. Regardless of the size of the unit of measure, you should include the apostrophe. So, just as you would say ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ you should also say ‘He was given 30 days’ credit’ and ‘Mr Johnson, who had 25 years’ service with the company’. Note the position of the apostrophes in these examples; as days and years are plurals, the apostrophes follow the s.

Colon

The colon marks a formal introduction or indicates the start of a series. A colon should not separate a verb from its object in simple enumerations. Thus it would be wrong to say: ‘The Magi were: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar’. The colon should be removed. But it would be correct to say: ‘The Magi were Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar’ or ‘Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar were the Magi’. The use of the colon should be distinguished from the use of the semi-colon (below); they are not interchangeable.

to top

Comma

The trend these days is to use the comma as sparingly as form and clarity allow. But there are certain instances in which it should appear but all too often does not. Equally, it has a tendency to crop up with alarming regularity in places where it has no business. It is, in short, the most abused of punctuation marks and one of the worst offenders of any kind in the English language. Essentially there are three situations where the comma’s use is compulsory and a fourth where it is recommended.

  1. When the information provided is clearly parenthetical: ie where the information between the commas is incidental to the main thought: you could remove it and the sentence would still make sense. The sentence ‘Mr Jones, known for his aversion to spiders, leapt in the air’ is correctly punctuated (‘Mr Jones leapt in the air’ still makes sense without the words between the commas). Failure to put in a comma is particularly common after a parenthesis, as here: ‘Mr Doyle, director of the Institute of Management Research (IMR) says ...’ Sometimes the writer recognises that the sentence contains a parenthetical thought, but fails to discern just how much of the in­formation is incidental, as here: ‘At nine she won a scholarship to Millfield, the private school, for bright children of the rich’. If we removed what has been presented as parenthetical, the sentence would say: ‘At nine she won a scholarship to Millfield for bright children’. There should be no comma after ‘school’ because the whole of the last statement is parenthetical.

    When the incidental information could stand alone as a sentence, it needs to be set off with stronger punctuation – either dashes or parentheses.

    Do not use a comma if the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence. In 'The man who lives next door is very helpful', the words 'who lives next door' tell us which man is being talked about. You could only say 'The man, who lives next door, is very helpful' if you had already identified the man in some other way.

  2. When the information is non-defining. The problem here is related to that discussed above. Consider the sentence ‘The chances of winning the Premiership again are excellent, the manager of Manchester United Sir Alex Ferguson claimed last night’. The writer has failed to understand the distinction between (a) ‘Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson claimed last night’ and (b) ‘The manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, claimed last night’. In (a), the name Sir Alex Ferguson is essential to the sense of the sentence; it defines it. If we removed it, the sentence would say: ‘Manchester United manager claimed last night’. In (b), however, the name is non-defining. In effect it is parenthetical. We could remove it without altering the sense of the sentence: ‘The manager of Manchester United claimed last night’. When a name or title can be removed, it should be set off with commas. When it cannot be removed, the use of commas is wrong.

    When something is the only one of its kind, it should be set off with commas; when it is only one of several, the use of commas is wrong. The error frequently occurs when a marriage partner is named: ‘Mrs Thatcher and her husband Denis left London yesterday’. Since Mrs Thatcher has only one husband, it should be ‘and her husband, Denis, left London yesterday’.

  3. With forms of address. When addressing people, commas are obligatory around the names or titles of those addressed. ‘I’m choking doctor’ should, one assumes, be written ‘I’m choking, doctor’.

  4. With interpolated words or phrases. Words such as moreover, however, meanwhile and nevertheless and phrases such as for instance and for example traditionally have taken commas, but the practice has become increasingly discretionary over the years. In Britain they have been more freely abandoned than in America; Fowler, for instance, seldom uses them. They should be used when they suggest a pause or when ambiguity might result. This is especially true of however. Consider these two sentences: ‘However hard he tried, he failed’; ‘However, he tried hard, but failed’. To keep from confusing the reader, if only momentarily, it is a good idea to set off however with commas when it is used as an interpolation.

Note that the subject of a sentence can never be separated from the following predicate by a single comma, no matter how long that subject is. The sentence ‘The fairy tale castle of Neuscchwanstein, stands on a hill overlooking the plain’ is incorrectly punctuated.

to top

Dash

Dashes should be used in pairs to enclose parenthetical matter or singly to indicate a sharp break in a sentence (‘What’s that heading this way – ouch!’) or to place emphasis on a point (‘Only two things in life are certain – death and taxes’). The more common errors with dashes are similar to those already observed with commas, namely:

  1. Failing to mark the end of a parenthetical comment with a second dash: ‘The team – widely regarded as the best in the world, expects to win another championship this year’: the comma should be replaced by a dash.
  2. Allowing a word or phrase from the main part of the sentence to become locked within the parenthetical area, as here: ‘There is another institution which appears to have an even more – shall we say, relaxed – attitude to security’. Removing the words between the dashes would give us an institution with ‘an even more attitude’. Relaxed belongs to the sentence proper and needs to be put outside the dashes: ‘There is another institution which appears to have an even more – shall we say? – relaxed attitude to security’.

Ellipsis

An ellipsis (sometimes called an ellipse) is used to indicate that material has been omitted. It consists of three full stops (. . .), usually spaced. When an ellipsis occurs at the end of a sentence, a fourth full stop is normally added. The fourth full stop is not part of the ellipsis and therefore there should not be a space between it and the ellipsis: ie . . ..

Exclamation marks

Exclamation marks are used to show strong emotion (‘Out, damned spot!’) or urgency (‘Help me!’). Do not use to emphasise a simple statement of fact.

Full stop(or period)

There are two common errors associated with the full stop, both of which arise from its absence. The first is the run-on sentence (that is, the linking of two complete thoughts by a comma). For instance: ‘Confidence is growing that opec will resolve its crisis, however the Treasury is drawing up contingency plans’. Here the comma should be replaced by a full stop, to form two complete sentences. The second lapse arises when a writer tries to say too much in a single sentence. There is no quota on full stops. When an idea is complicated, break it up and present it in digestible chunks. One idea to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.

to top

Hyphen

The principal function of the hyphen is to reduce the chances of ambiguity. In general, hyphens should be dispensed with when they are not necessary. A hyphen is used in the following circumstances:

to join two or more words so as to form a compound or single expression, eg

Today people are increasingly doing without such hyphens:

to join words in a compound expression that is put before a noun, eg

to join a prefix to a proper name, eg

to make a meaning clear by linking words, eg

twenty-odd people/twenty odd people

or by separating a prefix, eg

to separate two identical letters in adjacent parts of word, eg

to represent a second element that is shared by all the items of a list, eg

to divide a word if there is no room to complete it at the end of the line, eg

The hyphen comes at the end of the line, not at the beginning of the next line. In general, words should be divided at the end of a syllable: dicti-onary would be wrong. It is best not to divide words at all, if possible.

One place where they are not required by sense but fre­quently occur anyway is with ‘-ly’ adverbs, as in ‘newly-elected’ or widely-held’. Almost every authority suggests that they should be deleted in such constructions.

to top

Parentheses

Parenthetical matter can be thought of as any in­formation so incidental to the main thought that it needs to be separ­ated from the sentence that contains it. It can be set off with dashes, brackets (usually reserved for explanatory insertions in quotations), commas or, of course, parentheses. It is, in short, an insertion and has no grammatical effect on the sentence in which it appears. It is rather as if the sentence does not even know it is there.  Again, to be sure that you have the parentheses in the right place, try removing the words enclosed by the parentheses: if the sentence still makes sense, then there is a good chance the parentheses are correctly positioned.

When a parenthetical comment is part of a larger sentence, the full stop should appear after the second parenthesis (as here). (But when the entire sentence is parenthetical, as hero, the full stop should appear inside the final parenthesis.)

to top

Question mark

The question mark comes at the end of a question. This sounds obvious, but the question mark is surprisingly often omitted.

Occasionally question marks are included when they are not called for. Sometimes, the problem is a failure to distinguish between a direct question and an indirect one. Direct questions always take question marks; ‘Where are you going?’. Indirect questions never do: ‘I would like to know where you are going’.

When direct questions take on the tone of a command, the use of a question mark becomes more discretionary. ‘Will everyone please assemble in my office at four o’clock?’ is strictly correct, but not all authorities insist on the question mark there.

A less frequent problem arises when a direct question appears outside a direct quotation: ‘Why does this happen to us? we wonder’ is, strictly speaking, the correct construction. But such construc­tions are clumsy and are almost always improved by being turned into indirect questions: ‘We wonder why this happens to us’.

to top

Quotation marks(inverted comas)

Quotation marks are used to enclose a direct quotation (he shouted ‘give it to him’), to distance the writer from a word or phrase (he was said to be a ‘man of the people’, whatever that means), and to set off a word or phrase which is merely being talked about, rather than used (Men are stronger than women: ‘men’ is an irregular plural).

An issue that arises frequently in Britain, but almost never in America, is whether to put full stops and other punctuation inside or outside quotation marks when they appear together. The practice that prevails almost exclusively in America and is increasingly common in Britain is to put the punctuation inside the quotes. Thus: ‘He said: “I will not go.”’ But some publishers prefer the punctuation to fall outside except when it is part of the quotation.

When quotation marks are used to set off a complete statement, the first word of the quotation should be capitalised (‘He said, “Victory is ours”’) except when the quotation is preceded by ‘that’ (‘He said that “victory is ours”’). Fowler believed that no punctuation was necessary to set off attributive quotations; he would, for instance, delete the commas from the following: ‘Tomorrow’, he said, ‘is a new day’. His argument was that commas are not needed to mark the interruption or introduction of a quotation because the quotation marks already do that. Logically he is correct. But with equal logic we could argue that question marks should be dispensed with on the grounds that the context almost always makes it clear that a question is being asked. The commas are required not by logic but by conven­tion.

Semicolon

The semicolon is heavier than the comma but lighter than the full stop. Its principal function is to divide contact clauses – that is, two ideas that are linked by sense but that lack a conjunction. For instance: ‘You take the high road; I’ll take the low road’. Equally that could be made into two complete sentences or, by introducing a conjunction, into one (‘You take the high road and I’ll take the low road’). The semicolon cannot be used if what precedes or follows is not a complete sentence: ‘In 1991, the music world was shaken by a tragic event; the death of Freddie Mercury’. Here a colon should replace the semicolon. ‘I don’t like him; not at all.’ In this case a comma should replace the semicolon.

to top