How to Write Goodly
The style guide for the Fitzwilliam
Do not say that your grandmother used to read to you as a boy, unless your grandmother really was a boy, in which case you’ve thrown away a better opening.
Why bother conforming to precise rules of grammar and style when your meaning is already understood? Why have a style guide?
It’s true that conventions of spelling and grammar are arbitrary. However, we should still expect the utmost precision in academic writing. When your writing is imprecise, the meaning of each sentence is less clear. When I’m reading something written by a beginner or novice writer, there’s only so much value I can get from it, because I can’t even tell whether the use of specific words and phrases is deliberate.
The rules of grammar are made to be occasionally broken. And many “rules” you learn in school are not rules at all; the singular ‘they’ has been used by respected writers for centuries. Any style guide will tell you that splitting infinitives is fine. Saying ‘less’ items is sometimes more correct than saying ‘fewer’: “I want you home in an hour and not a minute less”. Ending a sentence with a preposition is fine, as in “What are you talking about?”
The purpose of style is not to make writing abstruse and difficult, but the opposite. Never use a complex word when a simpler one will do. If you are using a phrase only because you think it is a more sophisticated version of a simpler phrase, then there’s a good chance you haven’t fully understood it.
The Fitzwilliam will have utmost (not upmost!) standards in style. The following is our best guidance on how to write clear and compelling prose. English is a difficult language. It can be understood through thorough thought, though.
I: Be diligent with grammar
The following are some of the most often forgotten rules of grammar:
Don’t mix up object pronouns (like him and her) with subject pronouns (like he and she). Him and her are used when the person is the object of the sentence, and he and she are used when the person is the subject of the sentence. In “He went to the shop”, ‘he’ is the subject, and in “I went to visit him”, ‘him’ is the object. The most common mistake here is to mix up an object and a subject pronoun because the order of the sentence is flipped, and we expect subjects to come first and objects to come last. Write “The culprit was he” because that is a restructured version of “He was the culprit”. The ‘he’ is still the subject of the sentence even though it appears at the end.
When in doubt, don’t use whom. But if you want to use it, ‘whom’ replaces object pronouns. A letter can be addressed “to whom it may concern” because it would be grammatical to say that it’s addressed to him. Who replaces subject pronouns. The same goes for ‘whoever’ and ‘whomever’. You write “I’ll kiss whomever I like, mother” because it would be grammatical to write “I’ll kiss him”.
Never use the terms ‘based off’ or ‘based off of’. The correct term is ‘based on’. Think about the logical structure here: if a film is based on a book, the film builds on the story of the book.
Generally, summaries of fiction are given in the present tense, with antecedent actions in the perfect tense. Sometimes the past tense is more natural, in which case the past perfect tense is used to describe antecedent actions. “Frodo is a hobbit who takes a magical ring to Mordor. He almost goes mad because the ring has been cursed by Sauron.” Or, when it feels more natural: “Frodo was a hobbit who took a magical ring to Mordor. He almost went mad because the ring had been cursed by Sauron.”
A rule of thumb is that ‘which’ is used for nonrestrictive clauses and ‘that’ is used for restrictive clauses. “The book that I have on loan from the library is riveting.” “The film, which I streamed online, stars Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Use ‘different from’ not ‘different than’. This maintains the link with ‘differ from’. Serious readers love words, and they appreciate it when you maintain nice etymologies and homologues.
Use “In regard to” not “In regards to”. Easy to mix up with “as regards”, which is correct.
“Hopefully I will get a lot of work done tonight” is nonsense. What would it mean? That you will get work done tonight in a hopeful and cheery manner? Instead, try “I am hopeful that I will get a lot of work done tonight”.
‘Kind of’ should usually be reserved for its strict meaning of “in the same category”. Instead of “I feel kind of sick today”, say “I feel rather sick today”.
‘Shall’ is traditionally preferred to ‘will’ in the first but not the second and third person. However, this is uncommon now and has strong associations with poshness. ‘Ought’ is still in common usage and is preferred to should in strictly moral contexts. “The fundamental question Aristotle was concerned with was: How ought we to act?”
An affect is a cause (and a verb) and an effect is a consequence (and a noun). Affects create effects. ‘Effect’ is also a verb that means to execute on changes: “Thanks Karen for the suggestions, I have effected those changes”. And affect has a second meaning: to display or pretend to feel something. “I affected a British accent while living in the UK to avoid discrimination.”
II: Let’s eat grandma!
The following are some of the most often forgotten rules of punctuation:
Commas and punctuation go inside quotes and inverted commas in America but outside them in Britain. ‘Like this’, and ‘like this.’
Footnotes come after punctuation. And citations come before.
If ‘however’ is used to separate clauses, then it needs to be preceded with a semicolon: “I planned to get work done before the concert; however, I didn’t have time.”
Commas come before conjunctions that introduce dependent clauses. Two independent clauses are joined with a semicolon, not a comma. “Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice, she was a great writer” should be replaced with “Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice; she was a great writer”.
Titles of books and albums (roughly, longer works) are italicised and titles of songs and articles are put in quotes. Words borrowed from other languages (including Latin) are italicised if they are uncommon in English; phrases like prima facie and mise en place are common enough to not require italics.
The colon is used for amplifications: “I hate rock music: hate it I tell you!” In the case of a list, the colon comes after a noun. “For your cake, you will need sugar, flour, and milk” is preferred to “For your cake, you will need: sugar, flour, and milk”. To put the sentence into a form involving a colon you would write “For your cake, you will need three ingredients: sugar, flour, and milk”.
A comma after the second-to-last element in a list – the Oxford comma – should be used to avoid confusion. “To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God” is preferred to “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God” to clarify that one’s parents are not Ayn Rand and God!
Hyphens and dashes are not the same. A hyphen is used in certain compound words, like ‘long-term’. Hyphens connecting more than three words are unpleasant to read. An em dash is the longest dash and does not leave any space between it and the words—like this. An en dash is intermediate in size between the hyphen and em dash. It can be used in place of an em dash if there are spaces on each side – like this – and is used to express ranges in numbers and dates: “Bill Clinton was president during the years 1993–2001”. Using an en dash instead of an em dash is fine, particularly because the en dash is easier to format in Word processors.
III: Do not hedge your bets
Consider the following example of stodgy prose:
In this essay, I will try to justify my belief that it is likely that artificial intelligence will be important for the future of the economy.
This hurts to read because it hedges its bets. Instead of justifying the belief, the author will try to justify it. Instead of simply believing something, the author believes it likely. Instead of being specific about how artificial intelligence will be important, they just say it will be important. Words relating to beliefs and mental states are particularly vulnerable to hedging. Of course, you shouldn’t be completely certain of anything, but typically the notion of belief subsumes probability, such that you don’t have to keep saying you ‘believe it likely’.
Question: Why would anyone write like this? Answer: Most people write non-fiction not to be maximally informative to the reader but to pre-empt objections of philosophical naivete. If you write something concrete, your statements are open to objection, and to being demonstrated as wrong. Another common hedge is to say that you would say something: “I would say there are many problems with Sam Enright’s style guide”. If you would say something, you ought to come out and say it.
The style of writing in which you know something, and you are trying to explain to your readers what you see or understand, is called classic style. There are other valid styles, like stream-of-consciousness, useful for fiction. But for the purposes of writing articles and essays, the classic style is by far the most relevant.
IV: Use passive voice sparingly
Passive voice is when a sentence is more interested in the object that experiences an action than the person who performs it. “It was discovered that DNA is arranged in a double helix by Crick and Watson at Cambridge” is passive and “At Cambridge, Crick and Watson discovered that DNA is arranged in a double helix” is active.
Passive voice is excessively maligned; it has its uses. In particular, use passive voice when necessary to create continuity between sentences.
Passive voice: “The structure of DNA was elusive for many years. It was discovered that DNA is arranged in a double helix by Crick and Watson at Cambridge.”
Active voice: “The structure of DNA was elusive for many years. At Cambridge, Crick and Watson discovered that DNA is arranged in a double helix.”
The passive voice reads better here because the active voice temporarily diverts our attention from the structure of DNA to Crick and Watson and Cambridge and then back to the structure of DNA again.
V: Omit needless words
Never use many words when a few will do. My hypothesis for why people are too wordy is that they talk too quickly, and need filler to cover up the silence. The Irish are legendary fast talkers, and have all manner of phrases that mean nothing, like “You know yourself” and “Sure look it”. When they write, they replicate these patterns of speech. The other species of wordiness is the pseudointellectual who has nothing of substance to say. The following passage from the feminist philosopher Judith Butler won an award for the world’s worst writing:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Let me translate:
Before, people thought that money controlled social interactions. Now, people think that people sometimes do stuff more than once. This made people think about time. It also meant that we no longer believe in a theory from a guy called Louis that says that you should sometimes think about how things are structured. Now we believe that there are things that may happen but do not happen. This has made us think about power.
Here are some word-cutting techniques:
Replace “The question as to whether” with ‘whether’.
Never use ‘utilise’. Use ‘use’ instead. Use -ise words sparingly, if at all.
Replace “Regarded as being” with ‘regarded’. Write “George Orwell is regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century” and not “George Orwell is regarded as being one of the most important writers of the 20th century”.
‘But’ is superfluous after verbs like help and doubt. “I couldn’t help but overhear” should be “I couldn’t help overhear.”
The word ‘factor’ is overused. “Declining profits is one of the factors that contributed to the end of slavery” should be replaced with “Declining profits contributed to the end of slavery”. So too with ‘case’. “It is the case that the Allies would have lost World War Two without America” should be “The Allies would have lost World War Two without America”.
The phrase “in terms of” is almost always unnecessary. Replace “The flat was unattractive in terms of location” with “The flat’s location was unattractive.”
Don’t dress up words by adding -ly to them. Doing so is like “putting a hat on a horse”, according to Strunk and White’s legendary style guide. There is no need for such abominations as ‘overly’ and ‘thusly’. Avoid ‘secondly’ and ‘thirdly’. ‘Firstly’ is an ugly word; therefore, for consistency, you should stick to ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’.
Finally, beware of excessive word-cutting. There are many reasons you might want to use many words when a few will do. In fiction, extraneous detail can be pleasant to read. Extra words can give sentences a nicer rhythm. Sentences that are all the same length induce drowsiness. You should mix it up, and this sometimes requires adding words that would otherwise be superfluous.
VI: Use parallel constructions
Parallel constructions are structural repetitions within or between sentences. One of my favourite examples comes from Quint, who hunts the shark in Jaws: “$10,000. For that you get the head, you get the tail, you get the whole damn thing”. The Beatitudes contain a particularly good example of parallel construction:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
It would be obviously absurd if one of these passages ended ‘because they will be comforted’ or ‘as they will inherit the earth’. But beginner writers often vary word choice in just this way, forfeiting the parallel structure of the sentences.
I assume they do this because they think they should mix up the word choice to keep things fresh. But in my experience, this is not good advice. If you read a lot and intend precise meanings, then a wide vocabulary will follow. There is no need to complicate words in excess of this.
VII: Recommended Reading
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style. The best book I’ve read about writing, and one of the most modern guides to style. Particularly useful for those who want to write about science.
William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. The book is outdated but still worth reading (I read the fourth edition). I didn’t realise how fiery Strunk and White are: they describe the verb ‘prioritise’ as an “abomination” and say that people who use ‘like’ as a conjunction are “slumming”. 1979 was a different time. On page 56, William Strunk appears to forget the existence of plurals: “The word people is best not used with words of number, in place of persons. If of “six people” five went away, how many people would be left? Answer: one people.”
Scott Alexander, Nonfiction Writing Advice.
The Economist, Style Guide. The style guide used by one of Britain’s best periodicals.
Michael Huemer, Writing Guide. This is a guide to writing philosophy papers but it has relevance to nonfiction in general.
Appendix: Commonly misused words and phrases
Malaprops are mistaken uses of words, for example saying ‘bemused’ (bewildered, confused) when you mean ‘amused’. Here are some of the common examples I’ve noticed:
Presently: Means ‘now’ in America but ‘soon’ in Britain.
Cliché: A noun not an adjective; it is ungrammatical to say “that is so cliché”. The adjectival form is clichéd.
Critique: A detailed analysis of something, e.g. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. It does not mean ‘criticism’ and does not necessarily have any negative connotations.
Disinterested: Means “not having any particular vested interest” and not ‘uninterested’. You would want a judge to be disinterested but not uninterested!
Flaunt: Means to ‘show off’, not to be confused with ‘flout’, which means to callously ignore.
Flounder: This means to flop around ineffectually. Not to be confused with ‘founder’, which means to sink to the bottom. If you are using this to basically mean ‘fail’, either is applicable.
Fortuitous: This means ‘unplanned’ or ‘coincidental’; it does not mean fortunate.
Simplistic: Already means ‘too simple’. The phrase ‘overly simplistic’ makes no sense.
Hone: Means ‘to sharpen’. The thing that missiles (and pigeons) do is homing (from ‘return home’).
Hung: You should not say a prisoner was hung, rather that he was hanged.
Irregardless: Not a word; it is the bastard child of ‘irrespective’ and ‘regardless’.
Ironic: Irony has a few different meanings. Humorously, Alanis Morrissette’s song ‘Ironic’ doesn’t contain a single example of irony. It is not ironic if you get in a traffic jam when you’re already late. It is ironic if you get in a traffic jam when on the way to an awards ceremony celebrating your work easing congestion in your city.
Luxuriant: Means plentiful, e.g. luxuriant hair. It is unrelated to ‘luxurious’!
Meretricious: Means ‘offensively insincere’. Meritorious means ‘displaying great merit’.
Nonplussed: Means “confused and unsure how to react”. Americans sometimes use the word incorrectly to mean ‘unbothered’.
Proscribe: To forbid, the opposite of prescribe. A doctor prescribes you medication but proscribes you from taking too much.
Shrunk: This is a past participle. The film title technically should have been Honey, I’ve Shrunk the Kids or Honey, I Shrank the Kids. Shrank is the past tense.
Tortuous: Means twisting; it has nothing to do with torture. The word you’re looking for is torturous. They are etymologically related, coming from the use of twisting as a torture method.
Unexceptionable: Means “not worthy of objection”, not ‘unexceptional’. An unexceptionable applicant would be exceptional indeed.
Verbal: Best used in its technical sense relating to language: “Neuroscientists have identified the verbal processing areas of the brain”. ‘Oral’ is the preferred word meaning “spoken aloud”, e.g. oral contracts.
Comprise: Easy to mix up with ‘constitute’. A farm comprises many animals, but the animals don’t constitute the farm. All of the elements together constitute the farm.
Farther: A distance word, while further is a time or quantity word. You conduct further studies, and twenty miles is farther than I can run.
Inflammable: Means ‘flammable’. The in- has been dropped for safety reasons, lest someone think that something inflammable is non-flammable. Probably for the best.
Transpire: Doesn’t mean “to come to pass”, it means “to become known”: “It transpired that Nixon had ordered wiretaps.”
Alternate: Typically implies one of two options. Alternative implies more than two.
Expect: Does not mean precisely the same thing as ‘anticipate’. Anticipate can be ambiguous, as it frequently implies that some preemptive action has been taken (“The Iraqis have anticipated our every move”). Expect only refers to mental states.
Student body: An American abomination.
Beg the question: This means to make a circular argument, and is a technical term in philosophy. It does not mean ‘raise the question’.
Try and see: Even in respected publications I have seen the phrase “I will try and see what I can do” instead of “try to see”. It doesn’t make sense; are you saying you’re going to try and also that you’re going to succeed?
Pedants on the internet will tell of other examples of supposedly misused words, but these incorrect usages are orders of magnitude more common than the “correct” meaning. Decimate has not meant “to remove one-tenth of” for a long time and we should accept its new meaning. But all my examples here are ones in which attentive readers and writers still use the correct meaning.