How to write good English

Time to burn the style guide? Sometimes breaking the rules can improve your writing.

How to write good English — Tips from an editor

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

Most editors and many writers follow standard style guides* to help them always get it right. However, I think these much-loved style guides are out of touch with current English use. (Such as the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), the Associated Press (AP) or Oxford style guides, etc.)

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. Fair enough.

But if you’re writing for the web, or for business, or you want your text to be appealing to a modern reader, you have more leeway. Indeed, you may need to ignore the rulebooks.

English is a rich, complex and beautiful language — and it’s 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 your writing 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 simple style guide to help you write good English.

I’ve already discussed some grammar rules that you can break in my article 10 new rules of business writing. Check it out for tips on:

  • 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.

Top 10 tips to write good English

1. Be consistent

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. Get the spelling right

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. Choose the right word

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. Watch out for homophones

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. I paid for that book and felt ripped off.

5. Watch your tone

How formal or informal should your language and tone of voice be? Ignore the standard rules (e.g., ‘all business writing should use formal language’) and think about the 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 written quite formally, even if the tone of voice is light.

Check out my article on formal writing.

6. Don't be bullied by your teacher

Get that voice out of your head and forget the old rules you learnt in school, such as when to use ‘who’ or ‘whom’.  Most of them are rubbish. Find an up-to-date writing guide (like this one!).

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

7. 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. Use hyphens and dashes correctly

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

9. Punctuate lists like normal sentences

Even many experienced writers fall at this post — hell, even Microsoft WORD gets it wrong: 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?

Style guides don’t help because there’s no consensus: depending on which style guide you use you’ll see contradictory advice.

And yet it’s easy!

I use one of the simplest rules out there. It’s easy to remember and apply every time: use normal sentence punctuation.

In other words, if it’s all 1 sentence, don’t capitalise or punctuate items. If it’s a list of sentences, punctuate normally. 

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. The line breaks and bullet points serve as punctuation at the end of each item, so you don’t need to add commas or semicolons.

By contrast, if the list consists of items that could not be written as 1 run-on sentence, then capitalise 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. Use digits for 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.

This one also gets its own article: It’s a digital world: Use digits for numbers.

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