Peculiarities of prose style

The active voice. Express parallel ideas in parallel grammatical form. The emphatic words at the end of the sentence. Express statements in positive form. The logical relationships between ideas. Introducing indented quotations, vertical lists.

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1. Write in the Active Voice

2. Avoid Nominalizations

3. Express Parallel Ideas in Parallel Grammatical Form

4. Place the Emphatic Words at the End of the Sentence

5. Express Statements in Positive Form

6. Vary Sentence Patterns

7. Choose Your Words Carefully

8. Avoid Overusing Word Modifiers

9. Clarify the Logical Relationships between Your Ideas

10. Prune Deadwood

11. Avoid Redundancy

12. Use Metaphor to Illustrate


1. Commas

2. Semicolons

3. Colons

4. Dashes

5. Parentheses

6. Ellipsis Dots

7. Hyphens

8. Apostrophes

9. Italics

10. Titles

11. Numbers

12. Quotation Marks

13. Punctuating Quotations

14. Introducing Indented Quotations, Vertical Lists, and Formulas

15. Punctuating Vertical Lists

16. Question Marks

17. Exclamation Points

18. Multiple Punctuation




This pamphlet is designed to introduce you to, or remind you of, the basic principles of prose style and mechanics. The Prose Style Section describes twelve basic principles of good prose style and illustrates most of these principles with examples. Since most writers and editors agree about the importance of these twelve basic principles, I have drawn from a wide variety of sources. However, I would especially recommend two texts: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White and Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity & Grace by Joseph Williams.

All twelve principles described in the style section above are based on one overriding principle--that the essence of good writing is rewriting. You may attend to some of these principles spontaneously when you compose your first draft, but stylistic considerations become more deliberate concerns when you work on second, third, and fourth drafts. Remember that good writing is hard work, and as Samuel Johnson said, "What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure."

The Basic Punctuation and Mechanics Section of the pamphlet presents rules that govern the approximately fifty most common problems with punctuation and mechanics. Most of these rules are illustrated with examples, and many are cross-referenced with other rules with which they are frequently confused. This section is based primarily on The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition, generally considered the definitive reference on questions of punctuation and mechanics.


Treatises devoted to the study of style can be found as early as Demetrius's On Style. But most pre-twentieth-century discussions appear as secondary components of rhetorical and grammatical analyses or in general studies of literature and literary language. The appearance of stylistics as a semiautonomous discipline is a modern phenomenon, an ongoing development in linguistic description that is closely tied to the similar rise of literary criticism and linguistics as academic subjects and departments. Modern stylistics, in general, draws much of its analytical power from the analytical methods and descriptive intentions of linguistics, while modern literary stylistics, in particular, draws upon that area and adds to it the interpretive goals of modern literary criticism. In both cases, the use of linguistic methodology has allowed stylistics to move beyond earlier normative and prescriptive descriptions of "correct" styles to a fuller analysis of language itself and the purposes to which language regularly is put Linda Jorgensen. Real-World Newsletters (1999).

Whatever the limits of previous approaches to style, or the difficulties that have arisen from the practical application of linguistic methods to stylistic analysis, the desire to begin with a set of well-defined terms and procedures lies at the core of the initial formation of stylistics as a discipline. While all versions of literary stylistics have dedicated themselves to the study and interpretation of literary texts, it was the growing importance of European historical linguistics during the mid-nineteenth century that produced the most easily recognized component of early modern stylistics: a deeply rooted concern with formal linguistic description of literary language. The methodological benefits that stylistics gained by uniting literary interpretation and linguistic analysis were matched by institutional gains as well Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World's Most Authoritative Newspaper, (2002). Historical and general linguistics were well-established academic disciplines at the turn of the twentieth century, and stylistics could expect to benefit from that status. The use of linguistic procedures thus offered stylistics both an affinity with an established discipline and the possibility of founding the description and interpretation of style upon the bedrock of science. .

While its air of scientific analysis made linguistics attractive, linguistic science was not itself a monolithic entity. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, linguistic study oscillated between a desire to define language through efficient analytical methods (often requiring a-contextual descriptions) and another, competing desire to define language as a social and cultural phenomenon. The work of the neogrammarians, key figures in the formation of linguistics as a modern scientific discipline, displays the tension well. Although the neogrammarians began their work with the intention of reintroducing behavior into linguistic description, the attractiveness of scientific method dictated the slow elimination of the user as a complex part of the description. The result for some linguists, notably the philologians, was a sacrificing of the real heart of linguistics to a sterile formalism; for many, however, the shift was the logical result of a move into the modern scientific age. It was in terms of these separate views of the proper role of linguistic description that the predominant approaches to modern stylistics developed, and because of the strong Continental influence of Romance Philology on historical linguistics, modern stylistics usually is seen as having begun there.

The roots of modern stylistics can be uncovered in the work of Charles Bally (1865-1947) and Leo Spitzer (1887-1960). Bally's Prйcis de stylistique (1905) stresses the description and analysis of a language's generally available stylistic properties. Literary texts, in Bally's formulation, are particular examples of language use, and the analysis of their style is not a central part of the general stylistics he emphasizes. Nevertheless, Bally's work, and its later realization in the work of Jules Marouzeau (Prйcis de stylistique franзaise, 1946) and Marcel Cressot (Le Style et ses techniques, 1947), strongly influenced the formation of literary stylistics. Such analytical work offered literary critics a relatively precise methodology for describing the components and features of a text. In place of an open-ended and evaluative interpretive process, linguistics both underwrote the need for a more precise analytical attitude toward language study and provided specific categories for characterizing sound, rhythm, and eventually syntax, as well as points of comparison and contrast between registers, forms, and functions within genres and literary periods.

In contrast to the stylistique of Bally and his proponents, Leo Spitzer insisted upon following the more philologically based tradition of textual (and often literary-textual) analysis. Such work, while using the analytical techniques of modern linguistics, strives to unite the analytical description with a critical interpretation that relates the style to a larger conceptual or situational frame. Style is seen as an expression of a particular psychological, social, or historical sensibility or moment rather than as a general property of a particular language. In undertaking these wider interpretations, critics such as Spitzer did not, however, assume that they were defining their stylistics as separate from, or even as a subset of, linguistic analysis. In both his etymological studies and his more specifically literary-critical interpretations Stilstudien, 1928, and Romanische Stil- und Literaturstudien, 1931, Spitzer insisted that he was promulgating a general program of linguistic study, offering his stylistics in opposition to what he saw as the more reductionist analyses of general, scientific linguistics. Spitzer himself emphasized the split until the end of his career, regularly referring to his work as Stilforschung (literary, cultural interpretation of style--philology in his eyes) to set it apart from that of Stilistik, or Bally's stylistique (e.g., "Les Йtudes de style et les diffйrents pays" 23-39). At the same time, he assumed--as did fellow critics of style such as Ernst Robert Curtius, Karl Vossler, and Helmut Hatzfeld--that he was not reducing the scientific aspect of linguistics but only offsetting a false, positivistic tone that was becoming increasingly predominant in the field. The tension in linguistics between general linguistic description and less formal sociocultural interpretation thus was mirrored in this early separation in stylistics between linguistic stylistic description and literary stylistic interpretation. It is a separation, and a tension, that remains at the heart of modern stylistics

This tension, Spitzer's and Bally's position as Continental rather than Anglo-American linguists, and the popularity of Practical Criticism and New Criticism in England and the United States all lay behind the relative lack of an organized, Anglo-American literary stylistics during the first half of the twentieth century. Literary stylistic analyses were occurring in England and in the United States at this time, but they often did not contain the formal linguistic orientation that characterizes the modern discipline of stylistics. Instead, they drew support and procedures from the basic but less analytically structured orientation of New Criticism and practical criticism. And while the influence of Romance language study grew during the mid-twentieth century (due in no small part to the presence in England and in the United States of many expatriated scholars), the established strength of other, more empirical linguistic methodologies reduced possible exchanges between linguistics and literary criticism.

The eventual appearance of modern stylistics in Anglo-American work repeated the earlier Continental process, appearing most clearly when united with an interest in linguistic analysis at mid-century and with the related interest in literary Structuralism somewhat later. By the late 1950s, the general critical ambience provided by the rise and fall of New Criticism and practical criticism, in combination with a growing interest in comparative literary studies and a new awareness of the increasing importance of linguistic science, provided the needed impetus for a strong appearance of literary stylistics outside the European continent. The processes behind the formation of American stylistics are exemplified by work done by Michael Riffaterre on Romance languages. Riffaterre's published dissertation, Le Style des Plйiades de Gobineau (1957), is a self-described attempt to blend Spitzer's work with that of contemporary structural linguistics, while the later, even more formal stylistic methodology set forth in "Criteria for Style Analysis" (1959) and "Stylistic Context" (1960) shifts away from interpretive description and toward the general linguistic analysis that was beginning to dominate academic study Le Style des Plйiades de Gobineau (1957), "Criteria for Style Analysis" (1959) "Stylistic Context" (1960). .

Such work in stylistics reflected a larger trend occurring within literary criticism as a whole during this period. Riffaterre's particular interest in a systematic, formal description of literary style mirrored a growing awareness among literary critics in general of the possibilities provided to literary study by trends and theories available from formal linguistic study. The discovery of linguistic work Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson by Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and structural linguistic theory in general all formed part of the rapid flowering of critical work closely related to, if not directly based upon, particular methods of linguistic analysis. It was not a link between literary stylistics and structural linguistic analysis that marked the real establishment of stylistics as a discipline within the United States, however. It was the transformational-generative grammar of Noam Chomsky Noam Chomsky Syntactic Structures, 1957 that signaled the arrival of stylistics as a discipline with independent, self-defined goals, if not yet a real autonomy from either linguistic or literary-critical approaches to language analysis. The rapidly established importance of Chomsky's linguistics within his own discipline provided a strong argument for the importance of transformational-generative grammar within literary stylistics as well. But beneath that academic, institutional cause lay particular features of the theory that explain further the explosion of stylistic work using transformational-generative grammar. The grammar's focus on syntax, its distinction between deep and surface structures, and the resulting dynamism in its descriptive procedures all contributed to a methodology that allowed for a much wider discussion of the possible forms (and by implication styles) available to the user of language. At the same time, the declared mentalism of Chomsky's grammar was seen by many as providing literary stylistics with a means of uniting a still lingering Romantic sense of creativity with the formal linguistic description needed to provide the analysis with a now-requisite air of scientific study. Many critics found not only an implied linkage between language and mind within Chomsky's grammar but an actual justification for tying intention to structure. Whichever aspect of Chomsky's grammar provided the impetus for a particular study, the general influence was huge, and the numerous studies that appeared during the years 1965-75 testify to the boost that Chomsky's thinking on language gave to the era, one of the most hectic and dramatic in the formation and growth of stylistics.


1. Write in the Active Voice

Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, always choose the active, rather than the passive, voice. With the active voice, the agent (the person or thing carrying out the action expressed by the verb) is the subject:

John opened the door.

There are two types of passive voice constructions. In one, the agent is identified, but the person or thing toward which the action is directed (rather than the agent) is the subject of the sentence:

The door was opened by John.

In the second type of passive voice construction, the agent is not identified at all:

The door was opened.

(Note: The verb "to be" [am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been] often flags the passive voice.)

In addition to being less natural, less direct, and less vigorous, sentences that fail to identify an agent can raise ethical questions, since they fail to attribute responsibility for the action they express. The passive voice can, however, be an effective means of doing at least three things:

a. Focusing attention on the thing acted upon:

The bus was destroyed by a freight train.

b. Describing action when the agent is unknown or unimportant:

The building was demolished over fifteen years ago.

c. Placing the agent at the end of a clause where he, she, or it can more easily be modified by a long modifier:

The house was built by John Hanson, who went on, years later, to become president of the Continental Congress.

Many science and technical writers once considered passive voice more objective than active voice and, hence, more appropriate to their writing. As the quotations below suggest, however, the traditional preference for passive voice in scientific and technical writing is changing:

We cannot object to this use of the passive construction in itself. We can object to its abuse--to use almost to the exclusion of all other constructions. When the passive is used as a rule, not as an exception to obtain a particular effect, writing soon begins to seem forced and uncomfortable.

-- John Kirkman, Good Style: Writing for Science and Technology

The active is the natural voice, the one in which people usually speak or write, and its use is less likely to lead to wordiness or ambiguity. The passive of modesty, a device of writers who shun the first-person singular, should be avoided. I discovered is shorter and less likely to be ambiguous than it was discovered. The use of I or we. . .avoids dangling participles, common in sentences written in the third-person passive.

-- Council of Biology Editors, CBE Style Manual, 5th ed.

[Passive voice] implies that events take place without any one doing anything. Moves files, desks, and ideas without any assistance from a human being. Makes readers wonder whether they should be doing something or just sitting there waiting for the system to perform. It turns actions into states of being. It's somewhat mystical, but tends to put readers to sleep. . . .

To get more active, say who does what. Assign responsibility to the system or to the program or, if necessary, to the reader. If you have to tell readers to do something, don't pussyfoot around--tell them. (Are you slipping into the passive because you don't dare to order readers around?)

-- Jonathan Price, How to Write a Computer Manual

2. Avoid Nominalizations

Unless you have a good reason to do otherwise, avoid nominalizations. A nominalization is a noun derived from and communicating the same meaning as a verb or adjective. It is usually more direct, vigorous and natural to express action in verbs and qualities in adjectives.

no: Our expectation was that we would be rewarded for our efforts.

yes: We expected to be rewarded for our efforts.

no: There was a stuffiness about the room.

yes: The room was stuffy.

Nominalizations frequently crop up in noun strings. A noun string, a series of nouns that modify one another, is often concise but ambiguous. If the noun string is short, it can usually be tamed with a few judicious hyphens:

no: The test area probes were delivered last week.

yes: The test-area probes were delivered last week.

Longer noun strings, however, are often confusing, and it is generally best to unstring them by converting nominalizations back to verbs or by adding a few strategic articles and prepositions:

no: Missile guidance center office equipment maintenance is performed weekly.

yes: The office equipment in the missile guidance center is maintained weekly.

Like passive voice, nominalizations can serve some useful purposes:

a. Nominalizations can facilitate smooth transitions between sentences by serving as subjects that refer back to ideas in previous sentences:

Susan refused to accept the five-stroke handicap. Ultimately, this refusal cost her the match.

b. Nominalizations can be effective when you choose to desensitize a statement by converting the more vigorous and direct verb form into the less vigorous and direct noun form. Thus,

He is scheduled to be executed on Monday.


His execution is scheduled for Monday.

c. Since nouns often name material things, they have a certain status in our culture, where the concrete often seems more real (hence, more credible) than the abstract. Therefore, although nominalizations often result in pompous and convoluted prose, they occasionally can be used to make the abstract seem more concrete and, perhaps, more convincing. Thus,

The colonists would not tolerate being taxed.


The colonists would not tolerate taxation.

Joseph Williams neatly sums up these first two principles (write in the active voice and avoid nominalizations): "Try to state who's doing what in the subject of your sentence, and try to state what that who is doing in your verb. . . . Get that straight, and the rest of the sentence begins to fall into place" (Style, 1st ed., p. 8)

3. Express Parallel Ideas in Parallel Grammatical Form

Parallelism is the principle that units of equal function should be expressed in equal form. Repetition of the same structure allows the reader to recognize parallel ideas more readily:

no: This could be a problem for both the winners and for those who lose.

yes: This could be a problem for both the winners and the losers.

no: Output from VM appears in the output display area. The input area is where commands typed by the user are displayed.

yes: Output from VM appears in the output display area. Commands typed by the user appear in the input display area.

Note that any two (or more) units of discourse--words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, chapters--can be made parallel with one another. Note also that, although it is a powerful rhetorical device, parallelism is only one of many factors writers must consider as they compose. Hence, parallelism is occasionally overridden by other, more pressing considerations, such as clarity and variety.

4. Place the Emphatic Words at the End of the Sentence

Joseph Williams offers two complementary principles of order and emphasis (Style, 1st ed.):

1. Whenever possible, express at the beginning of a sentence ideas already stated, referred to, implied, safely assumed, familiar--whatever might be called old, repeated, relatively predictable, less important, readily accessible information.

2. Express at the end of a sentence the least predictable, least accessible, the newest, the most significant and striking information.

no: Peter Laslett writes about how family structure has changed in his article, "The World We Have Lost."

yes: In his article, "The World We Have Lost," Peter Laslett writes about how family structure has changed.

In the first version, the emphasis is on the title of the article; in the second version, the emphasis is on the substance of the article. Note that according to the two principles above, what justly needs emphasis in a sentence generally depends upon what has already been said or what is already known; that is, upon the given information. When the given information is placed at the beginning of a sentence, it is understated and serves as a transition or introduction to the new information in the sentence, which is thereby emphasized.

What Haviland and Clark call the "Given-New Strategy" not only creates proper emphasis within a sentence, it also creates cohesion between sentences since the new information of one sentence often becomes the given (or old) information of the next. Schematically, the movement of given to new information in a series of sentences might look like this:


Look, for example, at the following pair of sentences:

Lines that contain printer-control characters will not look right-justified on your screen. They will be right-justified, however, when you print them.

In the first sentence, the given information is lines (A), and the new information is right-justified (B). In the second sentence, the given information is right-justified (B), and the new information is when you print them (C).

Although the end of the sentence is generally the most emphatic position, as Strunk and White point out in The Elements of Style, "The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence other than the subject becomes emphatic when placed first: Deceit or treachery he could not forgive."

A little bit of this inverted style, however, goes a long way-use it sparingly.

5. Express Statements in Positive Form

The positive form of a statement is generally more concise and straightforward than the negative:

no: Don't write in the negative.

yes: Write in the affirmative.

no: Disengagement of the gears is not possible without locking mechanism release.

yes: To disengage the gears, you must first release the locking mechanism.

As Joseph Williams points out, "To understand the negative, we have to translate it into an affirmative, because the negative only implies what we should do by telling us what we shouldn't do. The affirmative states it directly" (Style, 1st ed.).

Williams goes on to point out that we needn't translate every negative into an affirmative, for (as this sentence illustrates) we sometimes have a special reason to emphasize not, no, or never. The negative is especially effective when used as a means of denial, contradiction, or antithesis:

Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.

6. Vary Sentence Patterns

A series of sentences that follow the same general pattern (e.g., a series of three or four simple sentences or a series of three or four compound sentences) can be tedious. Avoid monotony by varying sentence patterns.

One of the best ways to avoid a tedious series of simple sentences is to use subordination (or embedding) to combine the information presented in these sentences into a single, complex sentence. For example,

FLIST is a utility program used to assist in file management. FLIST displays a scrollable, full-screen list of selected files. The user may execute any CMS command from this list.


FLIST, a utility program used to manage files, displays a scrollable, full-screen list of selected files from which the user may execute any CMS command.

Another way to avoid a series of simple sentences is to use coordination (the tying together of language elements that have equal rank, such as independent clauses) to combine several of these sentences into a single, compound sentence. For example,

You can initialize CADAM from any System E terminal. You can invoke CADAM only from the 3178 terminals.


You can initialize CADAM from any System E terminal, but you can invoke CADAM only from the 3178 terminals.

Compound and complex sentences can themselves, however, become tedious. And sometimes, they're just plain awkward or confusing. Don't overload your sentences or your readers. If you find a sentence is becoming too long and confusing, or if you've used three or four complex sentences in a row, reverse the process described above and break your sentence up into several shorter sentences.

Note that although sentence variety is illustrated here only in terms of sentence type, this same principle applies to other sentence features, such as sentence openings and sentence length.

One of the best ways to discover problems with sentence variety is to read your writing aloud. Human language is primarily oral/aural and only secondarily graphic/visual; hence, most of us have a better ear for language than we have an eye for it. In fact, reading your writing aloud can help you discover problems not only with sentence variety but also with order and emphasis, parallelism, coherence, redundancy, syntax, rhythm, and grammar.

7. Choose Your Words Carefully

Linguists estimate that the English language includes over one million words, thus providing English speakers with the largest lexicon in the world. From this vast lexicon, writers may choose the precise words to meet their needs. The list below describes some of the factors you might consider in choosing, from among a number of synonyms or near synonyms, the word or phrase most appropriate to your purpose. Notice that the distinctions between these factors are not always sharp; some might properly be considered subsets of others. For example, tone, formality, and intensity might be considered subsets of connotation.

a. Connotation: While the literal or explicit meaning of a word or phrase is its denotation, the suggestive or associative implication of a word or phrase is its connotation. Words often have similar denotations but quite different connotations (due to etymology, common usage, suggestion created by similar-sounding words, etc.); hence, you might choose or avoid a word because of its connotation. For example, although one denotation of rugged is "strongly built or constituted," the connotation is generally masculine; hence, you might choose to describe an athletic woman as athletic rather than rugged. Likewise, although one denotation of pretty is "having conventionally accepted elements of beauty," the connotation is generally feminine; thus, most men would probably prefer being referred to as handsome.

b. Tone: While the denotation of a word expresses something about the person or thing you are discussing, the tone of a word expresses something about your attitude toward the person or thing you are discussing. For example, the following two sentences have similar denotations, but very different tones:

The senator showed himself to be incompetent.

The senator showed himself to be a fool.

c. Level of Formality: Some dictionaries indicate whether a word is formal, informal, vulgar, or obscene; most often, however, your own sensitivity to the language should be sufficient to guide you in making the appropriate choice for a given context. In writing a report about the symptoms of radiation sickness, for example, you would probably want to talk about "nausea and vomiting" rather than "nausea and puking."

Be aware, however, that achieving an appropriate level of formality is as much a question of choosing less formal as it is of choosing more formal words. As Strunk and White point out, "Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready, and able." And Joseph Williams adds, "When we pick the ordinary word over the one that sounds more impressive, we rarely lose anything important, and we gain the simplicity and directness that most effective writing demands" (Style, 1st ed.).

You might, for example, replace initiate with begin, cognizant with aware, and enumerate with count. Williams offers the following example and translation of inflated prose:

Pursuant to the recent memorandum issued August 9, 1979, because of petroleum exigencies, it is incumbent upon us all to endeavor to make maximal utilization of telephonic communication in lieu of personal visitation.

As the memo of August 9 said, because of the gas shortage, try to use the telephone as much as you can instead of making personal visits.

Remember, as Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." The more sophisticated your audience, the more likely they are to be put off, rather than impressed, by inflated prose.

d. Intensity: Intensity is the degree of emotional content of a word--from objective to subjective, mild to strong, euphemistic to inflammatory. It is common, for example, for wildlife managers to talk about harvesting deer rather than killing them. Choosing a less intense word or phrase can avoid unnecessarily offending or inciting your readers; however, it can also be a means of avoiding responsibility or masking the unsavory nature of the situation. As George Orwell says in "Politics and the English Language": "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. . .. Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness."

Achieving the appropriate level of intensity is as often a question of choosing the more intense as it is of choosing the less intense word. Ultimately, you must rely upon your own sensitivity to the language, to your topic, and to your audience to guide you in making the appropriate choices for a given context.

e. Level of Abstraction: According to Strunk and White,

If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on anyone point, it is on this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers. . .are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter. Their words call up pictures.

For example, if we move down in the hierarchy of abstraction from thing to plant to tree to birch to gray birch, we can see that each step offers the reader a clearer picture of what's being discussed.

The general and the abstract do have their place. There are times, for example, when we want to talk about "humankind" or "life on Earth," but it's often wise to support the general with the specific, the abstract with the concrete: "Carl Sagan's research suggests that a nuclear winter would destroy all life on Earth--every tree, every flower, every child."

f. Sound: All other things being equal, you may want to choose one word rather than another simply because you like its sound. Although what you're writing may never be read aloud, most readers do "hear" what they read via an inner voice. Hence, the "sound" of your writing can add to or detract from its flow and, thus, influence the reader's impression of what you've written.

g. Rhythm: Although rhythm is quantifiable, most writers rely on their ear for language to judge this aspect of their sentences. Like sound, rhythm in prose is often an "all-other-things-being-equal" consideration. That is, you wouldn't want to choose the wrong word simply to improve the rhythm of your sentence. However, rhythm can contribute to the flow of your writing, and a sudden break in rhythm can create emphasis. Hence, you may choose one synonym over another simply because it has more or fewer syllables and, thus, contributes to the rhythm of your sentence. Even an occasional bit of deadwood may be justified if it contributes to the rhythm of your sentence.

Finally, note that rhythm is especially important in parallel structures and is often a factor in sentence-to-sentence flow; that is, you must read a sequence of sentences in context to judge their rhythm.

h. Repetition: Using the same word to refer to the same thing or idea is desirable when it contributes to transition and coherence. For example, substituting commands for translators in the second pair of sentences below provides a smoother transition:

This section describes the commands used for translating programs written in the four languages mentioned above. These translators create object-code files with a filetype of TEXT from programs written by the user.

This section describes the commands used for translating programs written in the four languages mentioned above. These commands create object-code files with a filetype of TEXT from programs written by the user.

Sometimes, however, repeating the same word can become awkward, tedious, or confusing. Alternating between a pronoun and its antecedent is one obvious way of avoiding the tedious repetition of the same word to refer to the same thing. You can usually help to avoid confusing your readers by not using the same word (or variations of the same word) to mean two different things in one sentence or in two closely related sentences:

no: Output from VM is displayed in the output display area.

yes: Output from VM appears in the output display area.

8. Avoid Overusing Word Modifiers

Avoid overusing adjectives and adverbs. These modifiers have their place, but in the most vigorous prose, action is expressed in verbs, and the agents of that action are expressed in nouns. This principle applies to both ornate, pompous modifiers and to such commonplace intensifiers as really, pretty, and very.

One of the best ways to avoid overusing modifiers is to select specific, self-modified nouns and verbs--ones that don't require adjectives and adverbs to supplement their meaning. For example, you might replace long black car with limousine or ran very quickly with sped or bolted.

9. Clarify the Logical Relationship Between Your Ideas

In order to make your writing coherent and the transitions between your ideas smooth, you must clearly express or imply the logical relationships between your ideas. If you fail to do so, one idea is simply juxtaposed with another, and readers are left to make the logical connections for themselves. In this situation, experienced readers will suspect that you have not clarified the logical relationships between your ideas because you don't know what those relationships are--or worse, because there aren't any.

There are a variety of ways to express or imply logical relationships; some of the smoothest and most subtle use the very structure of the sentence. For example, you can use the principle of order and emphasis (see #4) to indicate that one part of the sentence is more important than another; you can use subordination (see #6) to indicate that one idea is less important than (or subordinate to) another; and you can use parallelism to indicate that two or more ideas are of equal importance.

You can also use punctuation to indicate the logical relationships between ideas. For example, you can use a colon to indicate that what follows is a further explanation of what's just been said; you can use commas to indicate whether or not a clause restricts the meaning of the sentence; and you can use dashes to indicate that the enclosed material is important to the discussion and should be emphasized.

Of the various means of establishing the logical relationships between ideas, the most blatant is the use of transitional devices, such as therefore, thus, however, and hence. These devices are more prevalent in analytical writing--where logical relationships are more important--than they are in narration or description. There is a point, however, at which such devices begin to be abused. Properly used, transitional devices signal logical relationships--they do not create them. In fact, there is no transitional device in the English language that can wrench two ideas into a logical relationship that simply doesn't exist. The table below (taken from the Harbrace College Handbook) lists eight logical relationships and some of the transitional devices that may be used to indicate each of them:

1. Addition: moreover, further, furthermore, besides, and, and then, likewise, also, nor, too, again, in addition, equally important, next, first, second, third, in the first place, in the second place, finally, last

2. Comparison: similarly, likewise, in like manner

3. Contrast: but, yet, and yet, however, still, nevertheless, on the other hand, on the contrary, even so, notwithstanding, for all that, in contrast to this, at the same time, although this may be true, otherwise

4. Place: here, beyond, nearby, opposite to, adjacent to, on the opposite side

5. Purpose: to this end, for this purpose, with this object

6. Result: hence, therefore, accordingly, consequently, thus, thereupon, as a result, then

7. Summary, repetition, exemplification, intensification: to sum up, in brief, on the whole, in sum, in short, as I have said, in other words, that is, to be sure, as has been noted, for example, for instance, in fact, indeed, to tell the truth, in any event

8. Time: meanwhile, at length, soon, after a few days, in the meantime, afterward, later, now, in the past.

10. Prune Deadwood

Deadwood is material that adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence, words that serve only as filler. When you edit your writing, eliminate any words or phrases that can be removed without damaging the meaning of the sentence or paragraph:

no: I spent my first six weeks on the job in a state of shock, but today I have a completely different perspective on the company in general, as compared to when I first started.

yes: I spent my first six weeks on the job in a state of shock, but today I have a completely different perspective on the company.

Occasional exceptions to this principle may be justified for the sake of emphasis or rhythm.

11. Avoid Redundancy

Redundancy, the unnecessary repetition of information, is a subset of deadwood, but one that is important enough to deserve separate mention:

no: Brackets are used in a command format description to indicate that the enclosed parameter is optional and, therefore, may be supplied or not at the user's discretion.

yes: Brackets are used in a command format description to indicate that the enclosed parameter is optional.

Occasional exceptions to this principle may be justified for the sake of emphasis or coherence.

12. Use Metaphor to Illustrate

Metaphor may be broadly defined as an imaginative comparison, expressed or implied, between two generally unlike things, for the purpose of illustration. By this definition, similes (expressed comparisons) are a subset of metaphor. In prose (as opposed to poetry), metaphors are most often used to illustrate, and thus make clear, abstract ideas: "When two atoms approach each other at great speeds they go through one another, while at moderate speeds they bound off each other like two billiard balls" (Sir William Bragg).

Whenever you use figurative language, be careful to avoid cliches--trite, overworn words or phrases that have lost their power to enliven your writing. If you can't think of a fresh, imaginative way to express an idea, it's better to express it in literal terms than to resort to a cliche. Hence,

Solving the problem was as easy as pie.


Solving the problem was easy.

Note that even solitary nouns, verbs, and modifiers can be cliched. For example,

He's such a clown.

I've got to fly.

The competition was stiff.

Often such cliches are what George Orwell calls "dying metaphors"--words and phrases that were once used figuratively, but that now border on the literal. That is, we've used these terms so often that we now scarcely consider their figurative implications.

As with tone, rhythm, and many of the other stylistic considerations discussed here, you must ultimately rely upon your own sensitivity to the language to guide you in determining when a word or phrase is cliched.

Finally, according to Collett Dilworth and Robert Reising, the golden rule of writing is "to write to be read fluently by another human being . . . the most moral reason for observing any specific writing convention is that it will shape and facilitate a reader's understanding, not simply that it will be used 'correctly'." So as George Orwell says in "Politics and the English Language": "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."


1. Commas

1.1 (a) Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, yet, so) that joins two independent clauses (compare 2.1). (An independent or main clause is a clause that can stand by itself as a separate sentence.):

The children escaped the fire without harm, but their mother was not so lucky.

(b) If the clauses are short and closely related, a comma is not required:

Frank typed and Matt watched.

(c) If the coordinate clauses are long or themselves contain commas, you can often avoid confusion by separating them with semicolons:

Paul went to his car, got a gun, and returned to the lake; but Bill, unfortunately, refused to be intimidated.

1.2 Use a comma to separate an introductory element (clause, phrase, conjunctive adverb, or mild interjection) from the rest of the sentence:

If you refuse to leave, I'll call the police. (clause)

To prepare for her exam, Lynn reread all of her notes. (phrase)

Nevertheless, much work still remains to be done. (conjunctive adverb)

Well, I was surprised to achieve these results. (interjection)

1.3 (a) Use commas to set off parenthetical elements or interrupters (including transitional adverbs):

The report, which was well documented, was discussed with considerable emotion. (nonrestrictive clause)

They were, however, still able to meet their deadline.(transitional adverb)

An important distinction must be made here between restrictive and nonrestrictive modifiers. Restrictive modifiers are essential to the meaning of the sentence in that they restrict that meaning to a particular case. Hence, restrictive modifiers are not parenthetical and cannot be removed without seriously damaging the meaning. Since they are necessary to the meaning, restrictive modifiers are not set off by commas:

All soldiers who are overweight will be forced to resign.

Nonrestrictive modifiers are parenthetical. That is, they digress, amplify, or explain, but are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. These modifiers simply provide additional information for the reader--information which, although it may be interesting, does not restrict the meaning of the sentence and can be removed without changing the sentence's essential meaning:

Sgt. Price, who is overweight, will be forced to resign.

(b) Use commas to set off parenthetical elements that retain a close logical relationship to the rest of the sentence. Use dashes or parentheses to set off parenthetical elements whose logical relationship to the rest of the sentence is more remote (compare 4.2 and 5.1).

1.4 Use commas to join items in a series. Except in journalism, this includes a comma before the conjunction that links the last item to the rest of the series:

Before making a decision, he studied the proposition, interviewed many of the people concerned, and tried to determine if there were any historical precedents.

1.5 Although not called for by any of the above principles, commas are sometimes required to avoid the confusion of mistaken junction:

She recognized the man who entered the room, and gasped.

2. Semicolons

2.1 Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses that are closely related in meaning and are not joined by a coordinating conjunction (compare 1.1):

A filemode digit of 3 identifies a temporary file; temporary files are deleted automatically after being read.

2.2 Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses when the second one begins with or includes a conjunctive adverb (nevertheless, therefore, however, otherwise, as a result, etc.) (compare 1.3):

If CMS is waiting, the entry will be processed immediately; otherwise, it will be queued until requested.

2.3 To avoid confusion, use semicolons to separate items in a series when one or more of the items includes commas (see also 1.1c):

This manual also summarizes the Graduate School's mechanical requirements for theses; discusses the special requirements of students who are submitting computer programs as theses; reviews basic principles of punctuation, mechanics, and style; and refers student s to standard references on punctuation, mechanics, style, and usage.

3. Colons

3.1 Use a colon to introduce a list, an example, an amplification, or an explanation directly related to something just mentioned (compare 4.1) and 4.4):

The user may work from one of three modes when typing data into the file area: edit mode, input mode, or power typing. He eventually found that there was only one way to get the quality he expected from the people who worked for him: treat them with respect.

3.2 Use a colon to introduce a formal statement or quotation (usually of more than one line):

Writers who care about the quality of their work would do well to heed Samuel Johnson's advice: What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

4. Dashes

If your word-processor doesn't have an em-dash (a dash that is the width of a capital M) in its special character set, use two hyphens (--) to make a dash. Whichever one you use, except in journalism, you should leave no space between or on either side of the dash itself. Dashes are more widely accepted today than they were in the past; however, many writers and editors still consider them to be somewhat less formal marks of punctuation--use them sparingly.

4.1 Use a dash to introduce a summarizing word, phrase, or clause, such as an appositive (a noun set beside another noun and identifying or explaining it) (compare 3.1):

The strikers included plumbers, electricians, carpenters, truck drivers--all kinds of workers.

4.2 Use dashes to mark off a parenthetical element that represents an abrupt break in thought. Dashes give more emphasis to the enclosed element than do either commas or parentheses (compare 5.1):

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