More About Writing

Copyright 1999, 2005 by Ronald B. Standler

Table of Contents

Links to other web sites on writing style

Good books on style in writing


British English
        recommended style manuals for British English


Subjunctive Mood in English

Word Usage and Common Grammar Errors
          words relating to education: pupil/student,   teacher/professor,   train/educate,   school/college
          website, webpage


On 25 Sep 1999, when I first posted on the Internet my handout titled Technical Writing, I was surprised to find only a few documents on the Internet about style in writing and word choice. Every college has at least one writing class, moreover many professors outside of the English Department require term papers or laboratory reports, and there are more than a thousand colleges or universities in the USA, so where are all of the handouts on style in writing?

Because most scientists and engineers are not enthusiastic about writing, I made the deliberate decision to keep my handout on Technical Writing short, by referring to only a few books and including only a few links to other web pages. Therefore, nonessential material on technical writing is here, not in my handout on Technical Writing.

links to other web sites

university sites about writing

Online hints for technical writing from the MIT Writing Center.

Online versions of handouts from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, including style for laboratory reports.

Purdue University's Online Writing Lab.

professor's web pages about writing

Guide to word usage, grammar, and style in writing, by Prof. Jack Lynch, at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.

Prof. Paul Brians of the English Dept. at Washington State University posted a comprehensive discussion of words that are misused in English. Once you see his long list of words, you will never want to write again! <laughing>

lists of links to writing resources

Lynch's list of links to resources for writers and writing instructors.

MIT Libraries' list of links to manuals on style or word usage.

Links to writing style, particularly in computer science documents, at Carnegie-Mellon Univ.

Gary B. Larson's (Garbl's) style manuals and writing resources. He emphasizes writing with plain language.

Links to material in technical writing, posted by Prof. Wilkins of the Physics Department at Ohio State University.

Deadwood Phrases that should be pruned from a rough draft. These are posted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

good books

My first choice in grammar and style books is given at the top of my essay Technical Writing. Here are some additional recommendations of books.

If one uses mathematical terms in writing, I recommend the Mathematics Dictionary by Glenn James and Robert James, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold.

My recommendations for books on style in legal writing are contained in my separate handout.

I recommend dictionaries and style manuals for British English later in this document.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has an online search.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) publishes a style manual that is oriented mostly toward the humanities. The MLA has a detailed set of rules on how to format a bibliography.

See my list of links to online and printed German dictionaries.


Theodore Bernstein's book titled Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins was published in 1971. This book listed many rigid grammar and style rules that impeded good writing. The title refers to English teachers (e.g., Miss Thistlebottom) who rigidly enforce rules, even if the rule makes no sense.

There are several major hobgoblins: Personally, I will not end a sentence with a preposition.
I do not care about split infinitives, although I try to avoid them in my formal writing, to reduce the amount of criticism that I receive.
I have no problem in beginning a sentence with a conjunction, if it follows another sentence on the same topic.

British English

Because British English is spoken worldwide (except in the USA and, to a lesser extent, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), it is arguable that British English is the standard English. I object to the concept that one dialect is better than another: it smacks of "Deutschland über Alles". Nonetheless, a writer in the USA who writes for an international audience would do well to avoid misunderstandings by people who use British English. Another reason for Americans to learn British English is that bilingual dictionaries (e.g., German-English) generally go to British English, not American English.

There are several Internet site with commentary on differences between American and British word usage and spelling:
There are a number of differences in word usage. Let's begin by considering some instances where the Americans and British use completely different words for the same concept:
It is convenient to gather all of the automobile terms in one place:
And then there are examples where the same word means different things in American and British English:
The word billion means 109 in the USA, but sometimes means 1012 to the British.

In the USA means a flop or disappointment, but means a great success to the British.

In the USA means "in the immediate future" or "soon", while in England it means "for a short time" or "temporarily".

In the USA, pants are what the British call trousers. In England, pants are what Americans call underpants or "boxer shorts".

In the USA means now, in England it means soon.

In parliamentary procedure, Americans table a document when they want to postpone consideration, British table a document when present the document for consideration. Given the opposite meanings, the word table should not be used at international meetings!

Americans use the word redundant to indicate an extra or duplicate item, while the British use the same word to mean loss of employment or no longer needed.

In American English scheme has nefarious connotations (e.g., a scheme to defraud), while the British use scheme to mean plan or program without any pejorative connotations

There are a number of differences in spelling, mostly from spelling reforms introduced in American English by the lexicographer Noah Webster around the year 1830:

recommended dictionaries and style manuals for British English

In my opinion, the best English dictionary is The New Oxford Dictionary of English, published in 1998. With a total of 2152 pages, this book can sit next to one's desk, unlike the 20 volumes of the full Oxford Dictionary that was published in 1989. This book includes American English usage, as well as British English.

For matters of style in British English, I use the Oxford Guide to English Usage.

The Economist Style Guide. The Economist is a respected international newsmagazine in London, England, that has a focus on business and economics.

Fowler: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

first edition, 1926; second edition revised by Ernest Gowers in 1965
Idiosyncratic in places, but generally intelligent choices. Contains an excellent discussion of the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.


The following rules are adapted from Webster's Standard American Style Manual, 1985 edition, and are generally consistent with the rules in The Chicago Manual of Style, 1982 edition.

A simple rule that gives the correct result in most cases is:
  1. Form the possessive by adding 's to the end of the noun.

There are a few exceptions to this simple rule, in which one adds only an apostrophe to the end of the noun.
  1. For a plural noun that ends in an s sound, form the possessive by adding only an apostrophe to the end of the noun.

  2. For a multisyllable singular noun that ends in an s or z sound, if either
    1. followed by a word that begins with s, or
    2. the noun is a name of a person,
    then form the possessive by adding only an apostrophe to the end of the noun.
    For example: "the illness' symptoms",   "for convenience' sake",   "for conscience' sake",   "Aristophanes' plays",   "Achilles' heel",   "Jesus' time",   "Moses' law".

Note that a one-syllable name of a person that ends in s or x   (e.g., Gauss, Jones, Burns, Marx), forms the possessive by adding 's to the end of the noun.

Note that, if the final s, x, or z is silent, then treat the noun as not ending in s, i.e., form the possessive by adding 's to the end of the noun.
Example: "Arkansas's capital", "Delacroix's paintings"

Use an apostrophe with the last word of a series to show joint possession.
Example: "Smith and Green's theory"
But, if Smith and Green have different theories, then "Smith's and Green's theories".

Finally, there is a disagreement amongst authorities on the use of apostrophes, which some authorities frankly admit, and other authorities pass over silently – perhaps because they know their rules are the only correct rules. <sarcastic grin>

possessive form of pronouns

other situations using the apostrophe

Subjunctive Mood in English

It is well known that the subjunctive mood is rarely used in contemporary American English, except by some judges in their formal opinions and in a few idiomatic phrases (e.g., "Be that as it may, ...."). The loss of subjunctive makes English poorer in several ways, plus it makes French and German languages more difficult for native speakers of English to learn.

The conjugation of to be in subjunctive mood is simple:
present tense: I, you, he, we, they   be.
past tense: I, you, he, we, they   were.

For other English verbs, the present tense subjunctive is the same as the present tense indicative, except for the third-person singular, where the subjunctive lacks the s ending.
Example: indicative is "he faces", subjunctive is "he face".
The past tense subjunctive is the same as the past tense indicative.

There is no need to know the present perfect or past perfect tenses, and there is no future tense of subjunctive mood.

There are only a few surviving uses of subjunctive in English:
  1. Use the past tense subjunctive in contrary-to-fact statements.
    If he were here now, ....
    If I were you, then ....
    He acts as if he were crazy.
    I wish that she were here now.
    Note that the past tense subjunctive refers to present time.
    The Germans avoid this misleading temporal nomenclature, by calling this tense Subjunctive II.

  2. Use the present tense subjunctive for wishes (i.e., the optative subjunctive) and exhortations (i.e., the hortatory subjunctive).
    God be praised!
    Heaven help him!   or   God help you!
    Heaven forbid!
    Perish the thought!
    Long live the king!
    Be that as it may, ....
    Come what may, we will continue.
    Far be it from me to ....
    Suffice it to say, ....
    So be it!
    Let us ... [exhortation follows]
    Please be on time.
    Aside:   Wishes are sometimes introduced by the auxiliary verbs may or would.
    Examples: "[May you] live long and prosper."   "[May] God bless [you]."
    This form may be descended from the German subjunctive verbs ich möge and ich wolle.

  3. The present tense subjunctive is used in a that clause following:
    1. a parliamentary motion.   Example:
      I move that we be adjourned.   After the motion passes, the Chairman will say "We are adjourned." or "The meeting is adjourned." (Present tense, indicative mood, passive voice)
    2. a demand, command, or requirement.   Examples:
      It is important that you be on time.
      It is imperative that every player be familiar with the rules.
      The teacher insists that he speak French in class.
    3. a request, recommendation, proposal, or suggestion.   Examples:
      I recommend that he come to New York.
      I urge that we be careful.
      I ask that he remain.
      This usage of subjunctive mood is not common in modern American English.

  4. The present tense subjunctive, introduced with if or unless, can also be used in hypothetical statements where the truth is unknown, or for statements of possibility or doubt.
    If this be gold, then we are wealthy.
    If this analysis be correct, then we should change our plans.
    This usage is not common in modern American English, and some people would regard this usage as either pretentious or needlessly formal.

  5. Other uses of the subjunctive in English are thoroughly obsolete.

The subjunctive in English has a general theme of expressing something that is untrue or unreal: the contrary-to-fact statements in (1) above, the wishes and exhortations in (2) above, or the statements not yet known to be true in (4) above.

Commands and requests in (3) above appear to be an exception to the unreality expressed by other uses of the subjunctive. My guess – I am not certain – is that putting commands or requirements in the subjunctive mood makes a more delicate expression (i.e., more polite) by reference to the unreality of other uses of the subjunctive mood. This use of the subjunctive is distinguished from using the imperative mood for a command: the latter expresses a brutal exercise of raw power and authority.

For example, it would be disrespectful to the Chairman and to other members of a committee, if a member expressed a motion in indicative mood, as the motion is only a tentative request, not yet decided. Use of the indicative mood would usurp the power of the committee to decide.

This kind of finesse in the use of language is sadly lacking in the USA, and I hope these notes will encourage more speakers to use the subjunctive.

Word Usage and
Common Grammar Errors

Word misuse that affects the meaning is discussed in my handout on Technical Writing. The following list contains errors that do not mislead the reader, but are nonetheless evidence of sloppy writing.

A singular subject must have a singular verb, a plural subject must have a plural verb. Everyone knows this rule, but it is easy to violate, as in the following example:
Full text of major wire services (e.g., Reuters, Associated Press, United Press International) are available.
The error is that the verb agrees with the plural noun services in the prepositional phrase, instead of the singular noun text that is the subject of this sentence. It is an easy error to make the verb agree with the nearest preceding noun. Fowler calls this error in number a "red herring".

Each refers to individual items (i.e., considered one at a time) in a collection of two or more. Every refers to all of the items, considered simultaneously, in a collection of two or more. For example:
Each arrester is tested before it is delivered to a customer.
Every arrester in our catalog is expensive.   =   All of the arresters in our catalog are expensive.

Less refers to noncountable items, fewer refers to countable objects. For example, the express line in the grocery store should be labeled "ten items or fewer", not "ten items or less". In mathematics, the proper relative expressions for quantity are "less than" or "greater than". The terms "smaller than" or "bigger than" properly refer to geometrical size, not quantity.

words relating to education

In careful writing, one makes a distinction between general education for children and higher education for adults. The word pupil refers to children in elementary schools and high schools. The word student only refers to adults in undergraduate college and above.

Instructors in elementary schools and high schools are teachers. The word professor applies only to instructors in undergraduate college and above, who hold a professorial appointment (which generally requires an earned doctoral degree, and a professor is generally actively engaged in scholarly research).

One trains laborers to do repetitive chores requiring little or no creativity. One educates professionals (or future professionals) to think critically and to make discretionary decisions. It is inappropriate to use the word training to describe classes in a college or university, unless one is referring to remedial or vocational classes.

The word college is somewhat ambiguous in American English.
  1. In one sense, a college is a subset of a university, for example, a university might be composed of a College of Arts & Sciences, a College of Engineering, a College of Music, a College of Business Administration, a College of Medicine, and a College of Law, each administered by a Dean. To add to the confusion, there is also a Graduate College, that administers programs leading to a master's or doctoral degree in humanities, science, and engineering, but in neither medicine nor law, which are purely graduate programs.

  2. In another sense, a college might be an educational institution that typically focuses primarily on undergraduate teaching, not on scholarly research, and does not award doctoral degrees. Colleges are often located in small towns in rural communities, e.g., Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, Oberlin College in Ohio, Grinnell College in Iowa.

  3. In yet another sense, a college might be a "community college" or "junior college", which is an institution that provides only the first two years of undergraduate education, plus perhaps some vocational courses.

  4. In the USA, a college might be a "bible college", which is an institution that prepares people to become Christian ministers. A bible college has an academic program that is weak in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology.

The word school is even more ambiguous in American English than college. School can mean:
  1. elementary school, the first 5 or 6 years of formal education
  2. middle school or junior high school, years (6 or 7) to (8 or 9).
  3. high school, years (9 or 10) to 12.
  4. law school (which students attend after attending 12 years of school and earning a bachelor's degree in 4 years of full-time college)
  5. medical school (which students attend after attending 12 years of school and earning a bachelor's degree in 4 years of full-time college)
  6. a generic term for any educational institution (e.g., "He is not here now, he is at school.")

words relating to websites

The word website properly refers to a collection of documents, including the homepage, not any single document.

The word homepage properly refers to the document that one sees when one types the URL without any file name (e.g., Typical file names for homepages include:
A homepage typically contains links to documents at that website, as well as a brief description of the website.

three different words: to, two, too

There are three words in Englisch that sound the same when spoken, but have different spellings and meanings. In the following explanations, I give some comparisons with the German language.
  1. "to", which has several different functions:
    1. preposition, e.g., to Berlin, to Susan, from four to six (auf deutsch: nach Berlin, zu/an Susan, vier bis sechs)
    2. part of the infinitive form of a verb (z.B., bleiben = to stay)
    3. expression of the dative case, e.g., You give the book to me. (auf deutsch: Geben Sie mir das Buch.)
    4. in reading numbers aloud: "ten to the third [power]" = 103;   "two to the eighth" = 28

  2. "two",   the same as the digit 2

  3. "too" is an adverb, which can mean either:
    1. "more than enough",   e.g., too much food,   too big,   too fast,   (auf deutsch: zuviel)
    2. "also"   e.g., I agree too.   Me too.
    3. "moreover" (when adding a second point) e.g., My automobile is reliable and inexpensive too.
    4. or adds emphasis (e.g. not feeling too good,   not too pleased,   when disagreeing with someone: I will too!)

this document is at
Original version October 1999;   last revised 15 Oct 2008

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