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General Writing Advice

The following advice is the result of many years’ worth of reading and especially writing. Today, when most people are busy working for a living, the writer needs to be mindful of the readers’ time. If you want to say something, say it well but don’t wax poetic; do not hedge round and round until you come up with the golden cough. If you write it plain and clear, you will develop faithful followers.

This list was written for a cadet who asked for writing advice. It was an impromptu summary of what this writer works. After reading it, it became obvious that it should be offered to everyone. As always, comments are welcome.

1. The noun is the soul of the sentence. Keep it clean.

This sounds simple, but it isn’t. Think about it. A sentence is composed of a subject, a verb, and an old-fashioned predicate (that can be a direct object, indirect object, dependent clause, independent clause, or a free-form statement with or without interjections or extended compounded qualifiers).

Be honest. How did you like the “free-form statement” part? The objects and clauses were bad enough, weren’t they? Let’s go back to them later.

The subject must be a noun or an expression in a noun role. For example, “To err is human, to pardon, divine.” These are two independent clauses, each its own sentence. In “To err is human” the subject is “to err” meaning “erring” or the action of being in error, that in turn is a noun. Although “to err” might look like a verb (and in fact it is), in this case it is used in a “noun role” and, therefore, suitable to become the subject of a sentence. And “to pardon, divine” has a tacit “is” (that ought to be where the comma is) so it translates as “to pardon is divine.”

“So much complication for a seven-word sentence,” you might say. But it explains what needs to be said.

Now let’s take “The most important thing in the world” and call it “THIS.” Using this substitute, we can say “THIS is life.” The expanded form of THIS is the statement in quotes and, since it is in a noun role, it can be the subject of the sentence. We could also have said, “The most important things in the world” and call the sentence fragment “THESE” so that the following sentence “THESE are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” would work nicely.

It is common to see poor writers get derailed and say “One of the most important things in the world” and by the time they get to the end of their compound noun statement they latch on to “things” and think of the new subject as THESE. Not so. The operative part in the current example is “One of” and this is a singular, so it is still THIS, because the real subject is “one” and the rest is an adjectival statement that compounds the simple noun, for a compound statement in a noun role.

And you thought that finding a subject was easy. Think again.

2. If an adjective doesn’t do anything useful, throw it out. The same with an adverb.

This is a difficult task, because adjectives are qualifiers, and when we think of a qualifier, and use it, it becomes a happy embroidery and personal expression. In other words, most people use adjectives to inject themselves into the writing. Let’s see how this works through an example.

“The ugly child, intent on cruel experimentation, lit a match.” Here we have “ugly” and “cruel” painting the picture of an evil creature, when in fact the child might have been just careless or ignorant of the consequences. So here we see how adjectives “color” the picture, and not always with a good hue.

Let’s do a quick grammar review

  1. Adjectives modify nouns, and
  2. Adverbs modify verbs and any part of speech other than nouns.

If you’re writing fiction, and you want to depict the development of an evil person, you can describe your character as early as you wish, and have a child age 4 be a born arsonist. In fiction, anything goes. But then there are facts. Psychologists and psychiatrists are still at odds about the origin and development of human traits. They are about equally divided between those who think traits are inherited and inborn, and those who insist that we’re all the same at birth, only some develop in less than optimal ways. This is called the “nature versus nurture” controversy. In the middle ground, there are some who propose that both have an influence, without much proof one way or the other.

As CAP writers, we need to be careful when we use adjectives or adverbs, as they can end up meaning something we did not intend to say.

Sometimes, a competent author will let it all come out just the way it wants to. Then, after it has had time to cool, go over it and get rid of the chaff. Only then can the author start playing devil’s advocate and see which parts could be misinterpreted or clarified. The best results are accomplished only after time has allowed the author to separate himself from what he has written, where it is week, a month, or more.

The end result needs to be clear, uncluttered, and present Civil Air Patrol in its most favorable guise. That’s our mandate.

3. Keep your verbs in sync.

What does this mean? If you’re writing in the past, and you want to tell about something that happened previously to the past about which you are writing, you need to use the past perfect tense. This can get quite convoluted when you want to inject a statement about the future spoken at the time of the past in which you’re writing, since you’re writing about it all in you present — that in turn is future to the past you’re writing about.

The above sounds like a page out of “Knots,” by R.D. Laing http://www.oikos.org/knotsen1.htm * – This is a very good read, not so much for how it is written as for its thought-provoking perspectives on the mind and human interaction.

For general advice on verb conjugation, grammar, and other subjects, http://grammar.reverso.net/ * is a free online resource.

If you are not familiar with verb conjugations beyond the indicative present, past and future, please make an effort to know your verb conjugations better. Without this knowledge, your writing will not prosper.

4. The preposition “if” requires the Subjunctive Mood.

“If I was” is wrong. How do you make it right?

In English, the subjunctive mood comes in flavors: Subjunctive I and Subjunctive II.

The Subjunctive I is used to report indirect speech, such as what someone else said (and, by extension, also thought or believed).

The Subjunctive II expresses hypothetical (“what if”) or counterfactual (“untrue” or “not factual”) statements, such as “what if,” “I wish,” “I would,” “I could” and so on.

Verb conjugations are divided into “moods” and these are:

  1. The “indicative mood” to state facts.
  2. The “subjunctive mood” as explained above, and
  3. The “imperative mood” to issue orders or commands.

The indicative and imperative moods reign here http://conjugator.reverso.net/conjugation-english.html * where you’ll find no mention of the subjunctive at all. Let’s see how this works.

Oddly enough, although it’s hard to find a straight explanation in an English grammar, the University of Michigan’s German Grammar page came to the rescue. The subjunctive is alive and well in German (as it is in Spanish, Italian, French and other civilized languages), but it is faltering in English. In order to teach German grammar, UM professors had to teach English grammar to their American students. Please visit: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/german/hmr/grammatik/verb_summaries/indicative_vs_subjunctive.html *

An additional search on the Internet yielded the following links —

  1. Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive_mood * and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_verbs *
  2. EnglishPage – http://www.englishpage.com/minitutorials/subjunctive.html *
  3. EnglishClub – http://www.englishclub.com/grammar/verbs-subjunctive.htm

To be successful, a writer must have a thorough and effective working knowledge of all verb moods and tenses. Remember that verbs are defined as “action words,” and CAP is in the business of action. Therefore, CAP PAOs need to be able to write about those actions.

NOTE: By the comments posted online (“the subjunctive is rarely used in the English language” read one) it seems that the subjunctive might soon be declared obsolete. Such was the fate of the cedille (and the reason façade became facade), tilde (that turned cañaveral into canaveral), and other so-called “unnecessary foreign markings.” But to abolish an entire verbal mood? How could anyone find it unnecessary?

Although the English language saw a process of great enrichment that reached its peak in the early 17th century, leaving us the works of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it appears that the tide has long turned. The march is on to shed many English cultural advances, as its users trade them for grunts and tweets (a modern English speakers’ loss).

5. Remember that when you qualify something, you restrict its meaning.

If one says “the table,” that would describe any object that serves to support something for a useful purpose. But “the blue table” leaves out every table that is not blue. “The blue coffee table” discards all tables that are neither blue nor low to the floor. “The glass-top blue coffee table” makes an even greater restriction. And so on.

The more adjectives you tack onto a noun, and the more adverbs that modify the verbs or adjectives, the more precise and descriptive the noun will become. Carried far enough, this might work against you, and diminish your statement’s relevance until it is no longer pertinent.

Recently, this writer read an article about the plight of a male military spouse on a military installation, where (for him) all non-military spouses were women married to service men, rather than men married to service women. The latter are a rarity, and find themselves isolated in a category composed, essentially, of only women.

6. A singular subject requires singular articles and personal pronouns.

Classical Greek and Latin assigned a gender to every noun (masculine, feminine or neuter), and had articles and pronouns to match. English grammar is descended from Latin, first directly, second through the Old German spoken by the Angles and Saxons who invaded Britain in the 4th century, and finally from the Normans who took over in 1066. Because of this, for a long time, English usage accepted the Latin solution to the use of gender-specific articles and pronouns.

In Latin, the masculine article was considered to include also the feminine, so it was normal to say, “The student liked his lessons,” and thereby mean that the lessons were liked by both male and female students. However, along came the proponents of equal rights, and their insistence on gender specificity in all things. In their effort to adhere to the fallout caused in 1972 by the Equal Rights Amendment, school textbooks began to be written with one paragraph in the masculine and the next one in the feminine. The sciences were taught by explaining the progress of an experiment conducted by a scientist who alternated between being a he and a she. This was truly silly, and created much gender confusion among our young.

A later development has been the tacit re-definition of the plural article and pronoun as acceptable non-gender specific singular articles or pronouns. This is wrong, and goes against the fabric of the English language. Let’s see how this can work in a passage, admittedly written as an example of how it can lead to confusion.

“At recess, the students decided to start wearing hats to class, choosing from a pile of red, blue and yellow hats. At random, they distributed them around. One of the students didn’t like their hat, and asked for a different one.”

In the second sentence above, “One” is the subject, modified by “of the students” and the rules of English would require “one” to be expressed as either “he” or “she” – yet, in the same sentence, we read “their” and by now most people would recognize that “their” is meant as a synonym for “his or her.”

Please don’t fall for this trap. When unable to avoid the impersonal singular subject, then give that singular subject a name, such as “Jane” or “John” instead of “one of the students.” This way, you’d be able to say either “his” or “her” with authority.

As an alternative. pluralize the subject of the sentence by wording it “some of the students” (where the subject is “some” and not “subjects”) and then “their” would work just fine.

7. Never separate the subject from the verb with a comma.

In its simplest form, a sentence is composed of a noun, a verb, and a clause. “John is tall” is a sentence, even though it is only 3 words long.

It is wrong to separate the subject from the verb with a comma and write “John, is tall.” Just take it on faith. It is.

It isn’t that the subject cannot be followed by a comma. It’s different when you write “John, a senior in high school, is tall” because, in this example, “a senior in high school” is an adjectival expression that modifies or explains John, and it is stated between commas. When you do that, it’s the same as if you had enclosed the clause in parentheses and written “John (a senior in high school) is tall.” However, these are not quite synonymous, as they differ by a shade of meaning. Parentheses are best used for explanations or clarifications, while commas work best as “additional information.”

It would also be wrong to write “John a senior in high school, is tall” as the sentence would then make no sense because of that stray comma (although it would be understood if spoken. However, it would be permissible to write “John a senior in high school is tall” as the sentence is short enough to allow it, and the sense comes through with the correct meaning.

When in doubt, mind your commas and parentheses, though the best solution is to write simple sentences to begin with.

8. Be aware of the predicate nominative.

This trap has caught many grammar-starved writers, especially those who think that writing is just setting down the words one hears or speaks. The problem is that most people speak poorly, and what might be acceptable (or at least tolerated) in speech can become a great flaw in writing.

The “predicate nominative” is explained here http://www.grammaruntied.com/blog/?p=729 *

To summarize, when using the verb to be, the predicate (the clause(s) following the verb) must be expressed in the nominative (meaning that any clause is treated the as if it were part of the subject). Here are examples of the personal pronoun treated as a predicate nominative first, and an expected direct object the second time,

The victor is he who racks up the most points. (predicate nominative)

The victor had his prize given in front of the crowd. (accusative for a direct object)

Let’s look at a more complicated case, using both (legitimately)

I am he whom you seek.

Parsing this short sentence yields a minimal sentence followed by a tiny independent clause. The sentence is “I am he” (not him, because he is a predicate nominative case since it follows the verb to be), and the independent clause is “whom you seek” (whom because a different verb is used here, and it is not a predicate nominative; to test it, it could be stated as, “you seek him“).

Now you get to pick the right sentence of the two given at the end of this dialogue:

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

[Pick one] “It’s me – or – “It is I

Which one did you pick? Be honest. Most people would pick the first choice, as that is what most people always answer. But you must feel, in your heart, that the second one is the correct one, even if no one you know speaks that way. And you’d be right: the second one is the grammatically correct answer.

So there goes the theory that writing is very easy because all that’s required is setting down the words one speaks. “Authentic” doesn’t always mean “correct.”

9. Don’t mix your metaphors.

Please visit this link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphor * and read it through. Metaphors are useful, and help people learn, understand, or both. The problem is that metaphors have been coined through the centuries, and they won’t always do what you wish them to do. In fact, if you have a poor understanding of the metaphor you would like to use, you might end up proving the opposite of what you intended to. And occasionally you might state an inadvertent irony.

Inexperienced writer are best adviced as follows: “Avoid metaphors.” Some people might think that mixing metaphors is humorous, and some are. Please visit http://therussler.tripod.com/dtps/mixed_metaphors.html * or examples.

The problem with humor is that it might not travel well. Should this happen when you write something and publish it, you won’t be there to explain what you meant.

Medieval and early Renaissance maps and navigation charts depicted what few facts their cartographers had about the known world. For the unknown parts, particularly the oceans, they wrote “Here be dragons.”

Think of metaphors as your grammatical dragons.

10. Beware of trite expressions.

The English language – in common with any other language – has many expressions that simply clutter up the page. Here are some of them, with better ways of saying the same thing:

Trite Expression Alternative
A great deal of Much
A minimum of At least
Achieve the maximum Excel
Afford an opportunity Let, allow, permit
After the conclusion of After, afterwards
As at present advised As advised
At a much greater rate More, faster, quicker,
quickly
At break-neck speed Quickly
At the drop of a hat At once
At this juncture Now
Attention is invited to See, note
Based on the fact that Because
Be of assistance to Help, aid, assist
Downward adjustment Lower, decrease
Due to the fact that Because
During the period when When
Effect an improvement Improve
Every effort will be made Will try
For the reason that Because, since
Give consideration to Consider
Going for broke Thoughtlessly
Has the capability of Can
I would like to propose a
toast
A
toast
Importantly Important
In a manner similar to Like, in the same way
In addition to Also
In close proximity Near, close
In the heat of the moment Impulsively
In the immediate future Soon
In the majority of Often, as a rule
In this day and age Now, today
In view of the above So, since, therefore
It goes without saying (If it does, don’t write it,
and move on)
It is important to note Note
Make an adjustment Adjust, resolve
Most of the time Often
Of great importance Important
Of large dimension Large, big
On the grounds that Because
Over the signature of Signed by
Provides guidance for Guides
Reach a decision Decide
Sufficiently in advance Early enough
Take necessary action Act
The reason
why
Why
Through the use of By, with
To effectively direct To direct
Will make use of Will use
Within the purview of Under
Without losing any time At once

Cutting down bloated wording will increase understanding, spare your readers’ time, and earn you followers.

11. If you can pick from two words, use the shorter one.

For instance, don’t “utilize” when you can “use.” Both are derived from the same Latin word (usus), except that “utilize” means to “use” something for a purpose or process though not necessarily depleting it. If you want to drive your vehicle, you put gas in it. Then, what do you do? Use the gas or utilize it?

Other examples might be:

“Comprehensive.” when you could use “complete,” “global,” or “inclusive.”

“Totality,” when you could use “full,” “whole,” or “total.”

“Tendentious,” when “bias” or “one-sided” will do it quicker, shorter, better, and clearer.

12. Don’t pad your sentences

Item 10 cautions you against using trite expressions. However, it might be possible for you to pad sentences without using trite expressions at all. It all depends on how imaginative you can be.

For best results, use the Rule of Parsimony: “Say it clearly, in the fewest words, and move on.”

If a sentence you’re writing is turning into a very long string of words, and it’s filling line after line, seriously consider breaking it up into two or more shorter sentences. Often, just a general statement about what you want to say and then putting below it a series of bullet comments with your laundry list of items will make it easier for your readers to get your meaning quickly and clearly.

If you are stuck into writing a long sentence, be sure to follow it with a short one. Doing so will make it easier on your readers’ eyes and mind.

13. Prefer a Germanic-origin word to a Latin-origin one.

This can be a tough one, especially for those whose only language is English. Usually, the Latin root word will be longer than the German one. Here are some examples, listing the Latin-origin one first; Notice the difference in word length as well as sound.

Ability – Skill

Aggressiveness – Drive, thrust

Aviate – Fly

Contribute – Give

Grieving – Sorry, rueful, woeful

Manipulate – Handle

Preference – Option

Stipulate – Call for, insist on

Learn to use the free tools available to everyone on the Internet.

This link http://www.merriam-webster.com * will give you a Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical terms, Encyclopedia, and Spanish-English dictionary all in one. Best yet, you can switch from one to another keeping the same word selected for a greater understanding of the word in question.

The Thesaurus can help you find synonyms, especially for long words that you suspect might not be well understood by your readers. If you don’t understand them yourself, then make sure you know what they mean before you use them.

Words are not particular. They can be your friends or your enemies. It all depends on how well you know them and how skillfully you use them.

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Last updated: 09/14/15

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