In English, good style means saying what you want concisely and efficiently, avoiding unnecessary repetitions – implied as well as by using similar words in proximity – and using language that is not biased or contains slang. The following rules and lists should give you a sense of what to look out for. See also the “Words to Avoid” and “Often Misused” sections of this website.
1. Choice of words
It is considered bad style to:
b. Use rare, sophisticated or boastful words or expressions too often. The rule is: if a reasonably educated reader stumbles over a sentence a few times before making sense of it, it probably needs to be revised. Keep your language simple and clear.
c. Use foreign words. Write in English. If you are not sure about word usage, consult Fowler’s Modern English Usage, or use Google Books to search for the word in that particular usage (if a word appears in the context you are looking for in many books, especially recent ones, you probably got it right).
2. Length of sentences
English prefers short sentences. When your sentence appears to be longer than two lines, make sure you have a very good reason to do so. If not, divide it into two or more sentences. The only exception is when quoting directly from a source, and when using semi-colons (;).
3. Passive voice
English prefers sentences in the active rather than passive voice. Limit your passive usage to minimum.
Do not switch between tenses in the same sentence or while expressing a certain idea, unless you have a very good reason to do so. Here the meaning is not to switch between past, present, and future. Since there are more than three tenses in English, the rule is not to switch from one tense that conveys actions in the past, to another that discusses actions in the present. Thus usage of Past Perfect and Past Simple in the same sentence/idea is allowed, but you will need a very good reason to use Past Simple and Present Continuous together.
Some writers prefer to use “we” or “I”, while others prefer to say “one” or “a person.” It does not matter which one is used, and it is actually better to alternate between them to avoid redundancy. However, you should use a gender-neutral language by preferring “one” or “he or she” over just “he,” unless you are referring to a male specifically.
6. More Pronouns
Make sure it is clear who you are talking about when replacing a proper name for a pronoun. If there is even the slightest unclarity who he, she,they, or it refer to, you cannot use a pronoun (or you need to resolve the clarity issue).
When quoting directly from a book/article, some writers like to preface the quotation by giving details on the person they are quoting: “Bernard Lewis, in his book The Arabs in History says that…” or: “As professor Lewis argues”, or: “to quote Cleveland”, or even: “Crone writes that…” I tend to limit such expressions to minimum. Since the name of the work is specified in the relevant footnote/endnote, there is usually no reason to mention it again in the main text. The exception to this rule is when one is developing a thesis that quarrels with previous scholars. It is then useful to mention who you are referring to.
8. Avoid hesitant, noncommittal, or colorless language that conveys doubt.
Limit the use of can, could, may, might, should and would to situations where real uncertainty is called for.
9. Use definite and concrete rather than general language.
For example: instead of “a period of,” say how much time has actually passed; instead of “she showed satisfaction/dissatisfaction,” say what exactly did she do.
10. Write in a positive language
Use the word “not” when denying something or as an antithesis only, and not when it can be substituted by a positive antonym. For example: instead of “she does not usually drive fast” say: “she usually drives slowly.”
Not makes a stronger sentence when it appears in opposition to a positive structure, as in: “It was not his beliefs, but his economic status, that prompted him to leave his home.”
11. Who is/which is/that is are often unnecessary.
Omit them whenever the meaning can be clearly preserved. Example:
Her sister, who is a lousy driver, crashed into a tree becomes Her sister, a lousy driver, crashed into a tree;
Walmart, which is the largest employer in the US, sells furniture becomesWalmart, the largest employer in the US, sells furniture.
12. Write full sentences, not fragments.
Look out for sentences that should have a subordinate clause, and remember that a complete sentence has to have at least one verb, and a properly phrased one should have at least one noun.
13. Omit needless words
See the list below for how to avoid redundancy, and then check out the lists on “Words to Avoid” and “Often Misused”.
Redundancy means not only repeating the same word in proximity or its overuse; it also refers to stating the same idea in similar terms, or using any words or expressions that can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.
1. Adjectives (in italics) below duplicate part of the nouns they modify, since the noun is already by definition what the adjective describes. Omitting the adjective usually resolves the redundancy.
advance planning, warning
complete master, monopoly, ruin
end product, result
fellow playmates, colleagues
final completion, settlement, outcome
general rule, public
more superior, preferable
new beginning, creation, innovation,
total annihilation, extinction
young infant, teenager
2. Nouns can be redundant too:
period of time
3. And so can prepositions:
ascend, hoist, lift, zoom up
attach, assemble, collaborate, cooperate, fuse, join, merge, unite together
recall, recoil, return, revert, remand back
sink, swoop down
appear to be
appointed to the post of
as never before in the past
as to whether
atop of, inside of
at some time to come
commute to and from
continue to remain
dates back from
every now and then
face up to
frown, smile on his face
last of all
made out of
may, might possibly
mutual advantage of both
never at any time
on the occasion when
over and done with
throughout the length and breadth
and so as a result
any and all
each and every
one and the same
pair of twins
today’s modern woman
when and if
Redundant expressions (and a better replacement):
ahead of schedule (early)
a large proportion of, percentage of (many)
am in possession of (have)
a percentage of (some)
are present in greater abundance (are more abundant)
at an early date (soon)
best of health (well, healthy)
by the name of (named)
call your attention to the fact that (remind/notify you)
caused injuries to (injured)
committed acts of a horrible character (committed horrible acts)
destroyed by fire (burned)
draw the attention of … to (show, point out)
during the time that (while)
each one (each or one)
from the commercial standpoint (commercially)
gathered together (met)
give rise to (cause)
had occasion to be (was)
he/she is a man/woman who (he/she)
her story is a strange one (omit one)
in advance of (before)
in a hasty manner (hastily)
in spite of the fact that (though, although)
in the neighborhood, vicinity of (near, nearly, about)
in this day and age (today)
made an approach to (approached)
made a statement saying (stated, said)
owing/due to the fact that (since, because)
placed under arrest (arrested)
put in an appearance (appear)
render assistance to (help)
retain position as (remain)
suburban area (suburbs)
succumbed to injuries (died)
take action on the issue (act)
take into consideration (consider)
the fact that he has left (his departure)
the fact that I ate the cake (my eating of the cake)
the house in question (this house)
the question as to whether (whether)
the reason for this is (it happened/occurred because)
the reason why is that (because)
this is a subject that (this subject)
used for… purposes (omit purposes)
was of the opinion that (believed, thought, said)
was witness to (saw)
Source: Marjorie Skillin and Robert Gay, Words into Type (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974), 407-9.
Of or related to:
For many things one wants to describe English has an adjective that eliminates the need to say “in terms of”, come up with awkward constructions, or form adverbs by attaching “-ly” where it doesn’t really belong. Such adjectives denote “of or related to.” Here are some common and not-so-common examples:
Affective – emotions
Alimentary – food
Aquiline – eagles
Aurous – gold
Balneal/balneary – baths or bathing
Bovine – cows
Caloric – heat
Caprine – goats
Cardiac – heart
Cephalic – head
Cerebral – brain
Chromatic – color
Chronological – time
Cibarious – food
Commercial – commerce, trade
Cosmological – space, the universe
Deontic – duty or obligations as ethical concepts
Dorsal – upper side or back of organism/animal/plant
Dynamic – forces producing motion, action, activity, event
Encephalic – brain
Equine – horses
Feline – cats
Gustatory – tasting or the sense of taste
Kinaesthetic – ability to feel movements of body parts
Moral – principles of right and wrong behavior
Murine – mice or rodents in general
Olfactory – the sense of smell
Ovine – sheep
Passerine – birds
Pecuniary – money
Piscine – fish
Pneumatic – air, gas
Porcine – pigs
Pulmonary – lungs
Sartorial – clothes, tailoring, or quality of dress
Simian – monkeys
Sonic – sound, sound waves
Taurine – bulls
Temporal – 1. time 2. worldly, as opposed to spiritual, affairs
Ursine – bears
Vulpine – foxes