How to write good English

Tips from an editor on writing well in the 21st century

Sometimes breaking the rules can improve your writing.

As an editor, of course I’m expected to know how to write good English. I’m expected to never make mistakes. But what is a mistake and what isn’t?

Most editors (and writers) follow standard style guides* to help them ensure they always get it right.

* Such as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), the Associated Press (AP) or Oxford style guides, etc.

However, I think these much-loved style guides are out of touch with current English use.

If you’re editing a book for a mainstream publisher, you’ll probably have to stick to the rules as set down in one of those guides. But if you’re writing for the web, or for business, or you want your text to be appealing to a modern reader, you may need to ignore the rulebooks.

English is a rich, complex and beautiful language — and it is constantly evolving. Its spelling, punctuation and grammar are not always easy to get right. You can choose a style guide – although they often contradict each other – but no official body determines what’s categorically right or wrong (such as the Académie Française does for French, for example).

If you decide to ignore the style guides, how can you tell if what you’ve written is correct or not? And when should you care?

What’s right, what’s wrong, and when does it matter?

The purpose of writing is to communicate. Communication works best when people respect spelling, punctuation and grammar conventions.

The idea is that if we follow these conventions or rules, using the right words in a standard way to convey a particular meaning, we communicate better.

But correct writing is not only about conveying meaning. You could make countless mistakes and still convey what you mean. Writing also provides implicit information such as social cues about the writer. To [over]simplify, if we make spelling, grammar or punctuation mistakes, readers might assume that we are ignorant, stupid, rebellious…  

Language mistakes can make our readers doubt our credibility or competence.

A few small mistakes are unlikely to damage your reputation. You might get a free pass if the reader knows English is not your first language. But you can’t always assume that readers will forgive your mistakes. Depending on context, mistakes might have relatively serious consequences.

So here’s my guide to the mistakes you can make, the ones you should try hard to avoid, and the ones that are OK sometimes.

I’ve already discussed some grammar rules that you can break in my article 10 new rules of business writing, so I won’t repeat that here. Check it out for tips about:

  • starting sentences with And or But (yes, you can)
  • writing paragraphs of just 1 sentence (fine)
  • using contractions (it’s fine too)
  • ending a sentence with a preposition (no problem)
  • splitting infinitives (ditto).

Curious about the use of the digit in ‘just 1 sentence’? Check out:

It’s a digital world: Use digits for numbers.


English mistakes to avoid, rules to follow and rules you can break

1. AVOID – Inconsistency

Be consistent, even when the rules aren’t.

Whatever style guide you use (or don’t use), be consistent. Many rules of English are a stylistic choice rather than a hard and fast rule — just be consistent. Remember, style guides are just guides, not laws.

2. AVOID – Spelling mistakes

English spelling is not difficult to get right: use a dictionary. That’s what they’re for. Google (or any other search engine) is your friend. Now that we all have smartphones glued to us, you have a dictionary at hand all the time. Isn’t that great?!! If you’re offline, use a book.

3. AVOID – False friends

Hesitating about similar words? Speciality vs specialty? Alternative vs alternate? Eventually vs finally? A simple Google search will reveal that you’re not the first person to wonder about it and you’ll get plenty of good advice. Just type in the 2 words you’re comparing like this: ‘word1 vs word2’. If in doubt, try Google Books Ngram Viewer to compare frequency of usage.

Or see my lists, here and here.

4. AVOID – The wrong homophone

Gorilla, guerilla. If you’re using a word that sounds like another word (homophones) make sure you’re using the right one. I mean really make sure: check it.

Or use the lists I just mentioned, here and here.

Recently I read a book full of mistakes such as bear-faced lie and a sweet of rooms (not to mention the typos). I paid for that book and felt short-changed.

5. BREAK OR FOLLOW – Formal vs informal language

Follow or break rules about so-called formal language depending on context. Who are you writing for and in what channel or circumstances? In a WhatsApp message, you can play fast and loose with language and punctuation. Not so much in a business email…

… But don’t assume that one channel is necessarily informal and another formal. Think of your reader and use your common sense. For example, this excellent article (sorry, the link is not available in all regions) highlights research indicating that, because readers have become more accustomed to incorrect or incomplete punctuation on social media, when we use correct punctuation – in social media or other channels – it can be misinterpreted as hostility or aggression!! The research refers to younger readers, but a quick poll of my middle-aged friends confirms it (now that’s some solid research!). On the other hand, an article in LinkedIn or a Tweet about your newly appointed CEO should be well written and correct, even if the tone of voice is light.

Check out my article on formal writing.

6. BREAK – Rule about ‘who/whom’

I’m not even going to bother to explain when it is ‘correct’ to use whom instead of who. It’s pretentious, snobbish, antiquated and [insert any other synonym for elitist and old-fashioned that you can think of] to use whom. Ever. Just use who and dump all your old whoms on a scrap heap or donate them to a retired English teacher.

7. BREAK – Rules about exclamation marks

Use! Exclamation!! Marks!!! Traditional style guides say that the use of punctuation to indicate tone of voice should be very restrained. We’ve all learned, for example, that you shouldn’t use more than 1 exclamation mark (per page / per email…), and you should never use them in formal communication. It’s said that using exclamation marks (or multiple question marks, etc.) makes you appear juvenile, insincere or unprofessional.

Not so true anymore. Many linguists now say that we have become so used to (immune to?) exclamation marks through their frequent use in digital media, that OMITTING them makes the tone of voice harsh or rude. In business emails, for example, a fairly generous scattering of exclamation marks can make the tone more friendly. There’s a world of difference in tone between “I’ll need your report by tomorrow. Thank you!!” and “I’ll need your report by tomorrow. Thank you.”

Obviously, the example Use! Exclamation!! Marks!!! is a joke. Common sense, people!

8. FOLLOW or BREAK – Rules about hyphens and dashes

This topic now has its own page. See: How to use hyphens and dashes

9. FOLLOW – 1 simple rule for punctuating lists

The question is: should you start items in a list with a capital letter or not? And should each item end with a comma (or semicolon) or not?

This is one that many people struggle with because there is no consensus: depending on which style guide you use you’ll see contradictory advice.

I have my own rule. It’s simple to remember and apply every time: if it’s all 1 sentence, don’t capitalize or punctuate items. Otherwise, use normal sentence punctuation.

Let’s start with an easy one; a simple sentence that can be turned into a list to make it easier to read. Jack looked in the refrigerator and saw eggs, butter, fruit and leftover lasagna.

This can simply become: Jack looked in the fridge and saw:

  • eggs
  • butter
  • fruit
  • leftover lasagna.

Here’s a more complicated one — Jack thought about what he might eat for breakfast: a cheese omelet with buttered toast, to use up the old eggs; yogurt and a fruit salad; or last night’s leftover lasagna. This could become:

Jack thought about what he might eat for breakfast:

  • a cheese omelet with buttered toast, to use up the old eggs
  • yogurt and fruit salad, or
  • last night’s leftover lasagna.

The easy rule of thumb is, if you introduce a list with a colon, consider the items as part of the same sentence. So don’t use a capital letter. Don’t use punctuation at the end of each item, just a period at the end of the last item. Punctuation is not needed at the end of each item because the items are already separated by the bullet points.

By contrast, if the list consists of items that could not be written as 1 run-on sentence, then capitalize each item normally. For example — Jack considered his options for breakfast.

  • He could make a cheese omelet with buttered toast.
  • He might finish with a fruit salad.
  • Or he might eat the leftover lasagna

10. BREAK – Rules about spelling out numbers

This is my own personal crusade. I know all the rules about when to spell out numbers in text and when to write them as digits. I even know all the contradictions within the rules. There are countless rules and variations. I’d tell you all about them, but I think they’re dumb.

I think we should all use digits for numbers, ALWAYS, when used in a numerical sense.

In other words, always use digits except for the word ‘one’ used in its non-numerical sense, i.e. where you’re using it like the indefinite article ‘a’ rather than to specifically count things (Here’s one I made earlier; If there’s one thing I like about rainbows, it’s…) I have a whole article about it: It’s a digital world: Use digits for numbers.

Other numbers used non-numerically or non-specifically should also be written out (There were thousands of people at the beach today).


See also:

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