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A Guide to the Writing of Scholarly English
We (royal or not, as the case may be) are fully and frankly indebted to one Robert Clark (Reader in English) who compiled a comprehensive English Style Guide for composing literary criticism/review articles and essays. Some two decades ago, Clark wrote that the guide’s content may be used, “freely in educational contexts.” For that, we thank him (and all those who may have worked alongside him) deeply. Before going a step further, I would like, dear reader, to say that these books are the ones whose pages I turned and whose passages I perused:
|The Norton Anthology of English Literature
8th Edition, Volume 1 — From “The Middle Ages” to the “Restoration and the 18th c.”
|The Norton Anthology of English Literature
8th Edition, Volume 2 — From “The Romantic Period” to “The 20th c. and After.”
English Style Guide
00. — Introduction
0.1 — Why do we have conventions?
0.2 — Scholarly writing as a genre
0.3 — Grammar and Glamour
0.4 — Professionalism
0.5 — Issues for English Lit. Majors
01. — Chapter 1: Punctuation
1.1 — Basic Essentials
1.2 — Commas
1.3 — Colons and Semicolons
1.4 — Dashes
1.5 — Apostrophes
1.6 — Hyphens
02. — Chapter 2. Logic
2.1 — Causal Conjunctions and Logic
2.2 — Dangling Causes
2.3 — The Indefinite ‘This’ and Logic
2.4 — Like and As
2.5 — Loose Relations
03. — Chapter 3. Problems with verbs
3.1 — Split Infinitives
3.2 — Prepositional or Phrasal Verbs
3.3 — Agreement of Tense
3.4 — Agreement of Number
Chapter 4. Vocabulary *
4.1 Concision and Plain Style *
4.2 The Personal *
4.3 Redundancy *
4.4 Echoes *
4.5 Strange Bedfellows *
4.6 Mixed Metaphors erc.*
4.7 Catachresis *
4.8 Not the best word *
4.90 Common Lexical Errors *
4.930 Common Confusions and Abuses *
4.932 Semantic Abuse *
4.94 Sexism *
4.95 ‘Interestingly’ *
Chapter 5. Improving a Style *
5.1 Paragraphing *
5.2 Improving Co-ordination *
5.3 Avoiding Using Excessive Relative Pronouns *
5.40 Improving Flow *
5.41 Keep the Structure Clear *
5.42 Parsing Your Thoughts; Using Logical Expressions*
5.43 Avoid Recapitulation *
Appendix A: Additional Resources
This page is primarily intended to provide necessary basic information for students of English Literature at tertiary level. Conventions differ over time and place (although with globalisation they are now as likley to converge as they are to diverge), and between one publisher or institution’s in-house style-guide rules and those of another be the spacial distance confined to the same central London post code. This guide differs from most others in that it cites many examples of bad practice and sets out to explain why they are wrong and how they can be corrected. Instances of such malpractice do change a little every year but they do, oddly, have their fashions.
No one who takes language seriously can want to impose a procrustean idea of ‘right language’. Language grows and changes, but it does have to make sense. Thus this list is simply a reasoned check-list of good practice. Ideas about good style differ with age and clime but refer to this article written by Joseph Addison in The Spectator (1712 [№ 476]) and ask yourself, is the perspective voiced still of contemporary relevance today? (I’d say so!) Fixing simple errors, such as the now common failure to know when to use a comma and when to use a full stop, is relatively simple alas, improving a style is an altogether much harder endevour.
Why do we have conventions?
One can think of language by analogy with other human processes: when driving a car, if the visible traffic signs and invisible conventions of the highway code are well understood by everyone, vehicles can execute complex manoeuvres at high speed with minimal risk of accidents. If one person fails to spot one sign or fails to observe one invisible rule, a crash can result. Similarly in dance, elegance and emotional impact depend on each performer doing just what he or she is supposed to do at exactly the right time and place. Where language is concerned, bruises or bodily death is only rarely the consequence of failure, but there are documented instances of how language misunderstood in a courtroom has led the innocent to the scaffold. More generally, the life and death of sense, and the chance of grace, are companions in every utterance. If the writer makes skilful use of the agreed conventions, complex sense can flow rapidly and smoothly between people; if not, then chaos can result. As Robert Lowell once remarked, a comma can be intelligent, or stupid.
Scholarly writing as a genre
Scholarly writing must make exact sense (even when being deliberately ambiguous); it is highly articulate, a matter of joints. One thought hinges on another, and a good hinge lets you hang a door, kick a ball or hammer a nail. Articulate sentences help us make the world. No literary critic, historian or philosopher would question this for a moment. It follows that it is the task of all teachers and students to accept the challenge of being as articulate as they possibly can and that even the apparently modest comma has a crucial role to play in this process.
Grammar and Glamour
An amusement: the origin of the word ‘glamour’ is a Scottish variant on the word ‘grammar’, grammar having been associated in days of yore with the power to cast magic spells, just the sort of thing that learned persons were expected to be able to do. It follows that grammar is literally glamorous!
The recent spread of word-processing has radically altered the production of writing in all social contexts. Students, scholars and businessmen used to write in manuscript; their typing was done by secretaries. Now everyone uses keyboards and even businessmen type their own reports on laptops and send them direct to the boardroom. It follows that students now have to be much more exacting in their own use of English and their understanding of such matters as layout and proper punctuation. Good writing was always essential but it is now canonised and commodified as a ‘transferable skill’.
Particular Problems for English and History Majors
Scholars and students who read works written in other times learn that conventons [sic] of spelling and punctuation change across time; those used in The Spectator essay attached above would invite correction if used to day. By the same token, if students do not understand their own conventions, they will not be able to explore the nature of historical differences. They will not be properly equipped for reading the past. It follows that a secure understanding of such issues is required.
Chapter 1. Punctuation
Punctuation marks cut the flow of words into meaningful groups and prevent confusion. There is no punctuation in speech: we use pauses to indicate grammatical units and intonation and facial expression to give emphasis. We use punctuation when writing because we lack these phonetic and visual means of indicating how our the flow of sound is to be parsed; indeed punctuation was invented 2500 years ago when Greek dramatists thought it best to guide actors where to pause, where to stop, when to exclaim, and so on. The words “comma” and “colon” date back to this time.
Punctuation is today used quite tightly to mark out grammatical segments. Full stops or periods, for example, mark the end of sentences; commas mark complete clauses or phrases within sentences. These are the basic markers. Natural language functions just like software application code in which conventional markers tell a processor that a particular operation is beginning or ending. If a marker is in the wrong place, the software application will crash. The same applies to natural language punctuation. Good punctuation enables sophisticated processing; bad punctuation causes crashes and the reader is left scrabbling for sense. Here is a simple example from an essay on Jane Eyre:
At Lowood Jane encounters the positive mother, Miss Temple. After Miss Temple leaves Jane takes herself to Thornfield.
The reader stumbles after the second Jane, thinking first that the sentence means after Miss Temple leaves Jane then realising that the word Jane opens what is in fact the main clause of the sentence. After Miss Temple leaves is in fact a phrase establishing an implied condition on the main verb leaves. If the sentence is clearly punctuated the reader gets the sense the first time around:
After Miss Temple leaves, Jane takes herself to
And here’s another witty example. Compare:
The panda eats shoots and leaves.
The panda eats, shoots and leaves.
The first sentence might be from a zoology book; the second is a
linguist’s invention, but it might be from the script from an
animated film. The fact that the two sentences mean very
different things indicates that punctuation is not just there as
a guide to how a phrase should sound; it is also semantic — it
1.1 Basic Essentials
Strictly when you have a new main subject and a new main verb,
you have an independent clause which should stand as a new
sentence or be joined to another clause by a conjunction or a
relative pronoun, or they should be joined by a period or a
semi-colon (or occasionally a colon — for which see para 1.3
For example, the following are correct:
Marjorie went out. Her car was parked outside.
Peter screamed and shouted but John didn’t care.
It began to rain so the team decided to take tea.
Do not use commas to form this kind of conjunction. Here is an
example of a common error:
Marjorie went out, her car was parked outside
By many teachers this is called a ‘run-on’ or a
‘comma-splice’ because there are two sentences
run together: the comma should be a period because a new
grammatical subject is introduced by the car. This error
is very common. You could say
Marjorie went out; her car was parked outside
The semi-colon warns the reader to expect an independent clause.
Better perhaps to write
Marjorie went out to her car which was parked outside.
When you say Marjorie went out to her car, you turn the
car from a subject of the verb was to an
indirect object of the phrasal verb out to. Marjorie’s
car was parked outside now becomes part of a ‘relative clause’
introduced by the ‘relative pronoun’ which. The objects
and actions in the world do not change, but their grammatical
relations in language do change.
Writing strings of clauses that are not properly coordinated by
punctuation or grammar is a common fault in students’ essays.
Here are some examples:
Othello desires Desdemona for her companionship, one could
understand the speech as professing his impotence.
Heathcliff’s dismissal of Isabella extends to his own child,
Linton is Heathcliff’s only blood relation.
The character of Heathcliff is a constant presence throughout
the novel, his influence persists through Catherine in his
In these cases the comma should be a full stop or semi-colon. The
sentences are comprehensible but not as articulate as they could
be. In the following sentence, there are actually three sentences
thrown together, the subject of the first being voices,
the subject of the second being we, the subject of the
third being there (a kind of placeholder for a subject).
The voices within the novel give the reader a sense of
underlying sadness, we never feel a sense of euphoria, even in
the happiest moments there is the undertone of melancholy.
Some novels of this century include paratactic strings of this
kind, such as John went out of the house, he saw a car parked
across the road, he picked the lock and drove away. Using
commas where there ought to be periods gives a sense of moving
fast from event to event or thought to thought – almost like
speaking – but the only logic of such a string is that of
sequence: one thing after another. Formal academic prose, on the
other hand, needs analytic subtlety, the ability to communicate
complex logical relations and therefore more hypotaxis (more
frequent use of subordination and relative clauses). It must
therefore have more exact control over its co-ordination.
The above examples are at least still comprehensible because the
conceptual subject remains roughly the same whilst the
grammatical subjects change. However this way of writing tends to
lead to more serious faults where sense fails entirely. For
With new advances in medicine, invalidism cornered the social
market, coupled with the boom of the leisure industry, the cult
of invalidism prevailed throughout the nobility of late
There’s a lot going on here but the pattern of cause and effect
is all a muddle and it is not clear whether the muddle starts in
the syntax or in the history. Certainly there should be a period
after the market, and if there was one the problem of
the first sentence might become more evident to writer and
reader: how can invalidism corner a market? And is invalidism a
response to the advances in medicine, or are the advances in
medicine a response to invalidism. Or is it a complex dialectic
that needs to be stated as such? Sloppy punctuation accompanies
Commas and Parentheses
Commas are used to mark out the grammatical structure of a
sentence, essentially indicating where phrases or clauses end so
that readers can read more confidently and quickly. If you are
unsure of the grammar of sentences, then one guide to the use of
commas may be breathing: should you pause at this point to help
the reader get the sense? If yes, then put a comma. However be
careful that this rule of thumb does not lead to mistakes of
sense and note that television drama (notably
Neighbours) uses very odd pauses and may be entirely
responsible for the generalisation of fault 1.22 listed below.
Here’s an example of where commas should be used to make the
There is also a feeling that even when they want to people
cannot link language to their sentiments.
This reads better with commas indicating the parenthetical
clause: There is also a feeling that, even when they want to,
people cannot link language to their sentiments.
In this parenthetical form, the commas mark out a qualification
or a condition. In this case it is an intensifier.
It is quite common for students (and others!) to put a comma at
the beginning or end of a parenthetical clause or phrase, but not
at the end (or at the end but not at the beginning). For example:
There is also a feeling that, even when they want to people
cannot link language to their sentiments.
The first comma opens an anticipation of a closing comma to
signal the end of the parenthesis. When the parenthesis does not
come, a small alarm bell rings in the mind of a sophisticated
reader and distracts attention from the sense of what is being
argued. It may also alter the sense. For example:
Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude married King Hamlet’s
Even knowing the story, this takes a moment to fathom. It read
much better as:
Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, married King Hamlet’s brother.
Commas Separating Subjects from Verbs
A comma should not separate a subject from its verb unless a
parenthetical clause intervenes. The following are egregiously
Freud in this case, pays heed to Greek poets rather than any
Lacan’s theory, takes note of ‘the complicity between the
laws of language and the laws of kinship’.
This kind of error may derive either from modern speech patterns,
or from confusion with the correct punctuation of sentences which
open with an adverb or adverbial phrase which qualifies the main
Hurriedly, she put the gun in her purse.
During the opening scenes, Othello strikes us as secure in
his martial authority and control of language.
In its desire to exert control over the readers’ responses,
the book resembles the political reflexes of the
By giving preference to the popular and persuasive over
learned discourse, Granville is here reflecting the Royal
Society’s debt to the previous century’s Ramist reforms.
You can always test whether you have understood the syntax
correctly by putting the clause at the end of the sentence and
seeing if it still sounds all right. Viz:
Granville is here reflecting the Royal Society’s debt to the
previous century’s Ramist reforms by giving preference to the
popular and persuasive over learned discourse.
Clauses are entire or relatively entire grammatical units that
can be moved around in a sentence (like chairs in a room) without
falling to pieces. The sense may shift a bit but there is no
evident sense of breakage or lack when they are put in another
Note that this rule of not splitting subjects from verbs can be
broken when you want to put an intervening parenthesis, provided
that, as in the following, the parenthesis is closed before the
Central to this argument is the contention that Tristram
Shandy, and more specifically the character of Dr Slop, embodies
Sterne’s reaction to the advance of technology in Britain.
The novel illustrates how truth, in the form the region’s
aboriginal history, is oppressed and erased from memory in Latin
Commas and Relative Clauses
The question of whether or not to put a comma before
which or that seems hard to fathom to some
students, and not without reason. To begin with the elementary,
there are a number of relative pronouns which we use to introduce
relative clauses: who, whom, whose, which, that, when, where,
Which came in the door is not a sentence because it
lacks a subject, except where it is a question-form meaning
Which one came in the door? When it is not
interrogative, which came in the door is a relative
clause describing or modifying whatever which refers to
and it would be wrong to write Marjorie went out in her car.
Which she had just bought. One might, however, in certain
circumstances, write Marjorie went out in her car, which she
had just bought, and found it had been splashed with red
paint. There are rules governing when it is possible or
necessary to put commas before relative pronouns in this type of
sentence, and these rules depend on knowing when the clause is
‘restrictive’ or ‘non-restrictive’.
Restrictive or Defining Relative Clauses
Restrictive relative clauses, which are also called ‘defining
relative clauses’, restrict or limit the number of possible
referents of its antecedent. That is the most frequent
relative pronoun used for introducing restrictive relative
clauses, although in certain circumstances which or
other members of the wh- group (which, who, whom,
whose, when, while) may be used. Here are some examples of
restrictive relative clauses:
She wrote many novels which use gothic elements.
She wrote a best-seller that grossed over two million
Novels which use gothic elements are rarely found before
Men who wear yellow ties nearly always have big feet.
Unlike non-restrictive clauses (see below), a restrictive or
defining relative clause cannot be separated from the main clause
by commas or other forms of punctuation unless the comma
introduces a parenthesis.
1.232 Non-restrictive or Amplifying
Non-restrictive clauses do not restrict the possible referents of
the antecedents; rather, they amplify the sense of the
antecedents. For this reason they are also called ‘amplifying’
clauses. They function very much like parentheses and have
similar punctuation requirements. For example:
He put Kant’s Critique, which he had just begun to
read, on the table in front of her.
He put down Kant’s Critique, which he had only just begun to
Sentences which include non-restrictive relative clauses contain
two independent statements, one of which can be dropped without
harm to the main clause. In spoken English the non-restrictive
relative clause is separated from the main clause by a change in
intonation. In writing the non-restrictive relative clause is
always preceded by a comma and closed off by a further comma or a
full stop or period. Non-restrictive relative clauses are
introduced by wh- form pronouns, nver by that.
The following sentence appears wrong. Why?
It is this destruction, which symbolises the triumph of
Answer: the comma and the use of which imply that what
follows is a non-restrictive clause, whereas in fact the clause
is restrictive. What the writer actually means is It is this
destruction that symbolises the triumph of patriarchy. (Cf.
She wrote a best-seller that grossed over two million
As a rule of thumb, therefore, in most cases you should resist
the inclination to put a comma before which or
that unless you want to mark a non-restrictive
parenthetical clause or phrase before resuming the main line of
the sentence. For example:
The audience, which had paid a fortune to get in, was not at
If the clause is restrictive rather than amplifying, this kind of
parenthesis cannot be used. In the next example, the relative
clause is inaugurated by when but the problem is the
Lear’s natural authority as father is undermined by Goneril
and Regan, when they force his complete abdication, demonstrating
their filial ingratitude’.
Evidently the relation of when they force his complete
abdication is restrictive so the comma before it is merely
The use of commas to indicate restriction or non-restriction can
have completely change the sense of a sentece, and even have vast
legal and historical implications. For example, in the following
the presence or absence of commas radically changes the meaning
by making the clause either restrictive or non-restrictive:
Members of the audience, who were middle class, were taken
out and shot.
Members of the audience who were middle class were taken out
Sentential Relative Clauses
In this special kind of non-restrictive relative clause, the
sentential relative clause amplifies the sense of an entire verb
phrase or a full sentence. For example:
She wrote a best-seller, which we had long suspected she
He tells Jane that he will never let her leave, which prompts
Jane to confess her love for him.
In these cases the nature of the clause is almost disjunctive and
the comma helps to signal that what will follow is set off
against the main clause. You can test for this kind of clause by
asking if the clause would stand on its own as a sentence, if the
relative pronoun were replaced by this.
Sequences of Relative Clauses
For stylistic and grammatical reasons it is generally as well to
avoid having too many relative clauses in one sentence. Very
sophisticated writers, of course, by definition offer lucidity in
complex structures, but it is best to realise that this is an art
form in itself. What must not be done is to put two relative
clauses together in the same clause or phrase, as in the
As Edgar’s death is approaching, having been comforted by the
loss of his daughter, which may well have been a displacement
which aided the process for him, he confesses to Nelly that he
has ‘prayed often for the approach of what is coming, and now I
begin to shrink and fear it.’
This sentence violates the general guideline that you should not
have more than one relative clause introduced by which
or that in a sentence, unless you mark off the clauses
with commas. This sentence is in fact so bad it could not be
saved by inserting a comma after displacement.
The following sentence is similarly dire. Whilst it does at least
keep the two relative clauses at a distance, it is still
logically very hard to fathom.
Cathy’s memories of the past and nature are curbed, allowing
a repression of her love-object until the liberation, which
causes the melancholia, and consequently the Death Instinct,
which ultimately kills her.
Such sentences remind me of a Charlie Chaplin cartoon in which he
carries a pile of plates across a restaurant, begins to stumble,
drops one plate, and trying to catch that plate stumbles some
more, and so rushes across the screen trying to catch the plates
and falling further from the vertical at each futile attempt to
save the situation. They are so much fun, here’s another:
Freud talks of the case of Judge Schreber, who wrote a book
about his psychotic illness where he describes how he felt that
God, who supposedly resembles Schreber’s father who was a famous
physician, chose to emasculate him in order for him to reproduce
as a woman and create a new race of men. Schreber’s case is
remarkably similar to that of Victor Frankenstein who wants to
make a woman without the participation of woman.
Chaplin’s pathos derives from the gulf between his good-hearted
intentions and the outcome. The same pathos is evident in the
above where intelligence and real learning fail in their goal,
and in this writing there is no deus ex machina to bring
about a happy ending.
Colons and Semicolons
In simple terms, colons are used to signal that what follows is
an explanation or an example of what has gone before. The
movement is usually from a general remark to a specific example.
The matter coming after a colon may involve an expansion, a list
or an extended quotation. There should always be a relation of
grammatical equality between what comes before and what comes
after the colon, a rule which demands that each be able to stand
as sentences in their own right. For example, Many leading
politicians have been notorious womanisers: David Lloyd George
and Jack Kennedy were two of a kind.
Semicolons can be seen as similar to full stops but slightly
weaker. It is misleading to see them as a variant on the colon
(despite the name). Semicolons are used to separate independent
clauses in strings, thus:
This novel is as much about literature as it is about the
history of Latin America; published in 1967, the novel is
characteristically postmodern in its awareness of its own
Or, as another example:
Oedipa Maas, as the classic private-eye, needs to know; she
must struggle to bridge the gap between appearance and reality;
she must question the reliability of every source.
Semicolons should not be used to separate a phrase from a clause
[a clause has a subject, finite verb and predicate; a phrase
lacks one or more of these parts and cannot stand as an
independent unit of sense]:
One unifying factor is the teasing relation between text and
reader, perhaps augmenting the conventional role played by
suspense; embroiling the reader in the mystery.
Here the semicolon should be a comma.
Conversely, commas should not be used to join two clauses. Here
the appropriate punctuation is a semicolon.
Austen’s novels are romances; they all lead to marriage and
One test for this use of the semicolon is that it can be
exchanged for a period without violence. (See 3 above). If a
conjunction is used (for example one could insert ‘since’ in the
above) then the semicolon should not be used; a comma is
Dashes can be used to set off parenthetical remarks where the
integration of the material inside the host sentence is very
unclear. They might be seen as rather like oral ‘asides’. They
are effective for introducing vivacity into a discourse but if
they are used extensively they lead to a loss of precision
because their grammatical relation to the host sentence is
Typographically dashes should be typed either as a long dash
(called an ‘em-dash’ because it is as long as a letter ‘m’, hence
distinguished from an ‘en-dash’ which is as long as an ‘n’), or
as two hyphens (en-dashes) with no space between. Conventions
differ about whether or not there should be a space before and
after the dash: in American English there tends to be none; in
English English there often is. For example:
An initial reading of Wuthering Heights through Freud’s
concept of the structure of the psyche – his Id, Ego and
Super-ego – may be to align the Id with Heathcliff, the Ego with
Cathy and the Super-ego with Edgar.
The Use of the Apostrophe S for Possessives
In the 1970s or thereabouts many UK school teachers gave up
teaching the use of the apostrophe s to indicate possession, but
it is now back into the English Language GCSE syllabus because it
actually matters if you wish to make your sense clear. The
English language has a particular need of this sign since it is
our primary method of indicating what in a language with cases
(Latin, German) is called the genitive.
In the singular: the reader’s responses (meaning the
response of a single reader).
In the plural: the readers’ responses (meaning the
responses of various readers)
Where the final consonant of a singular word is already an s
opinions differ about how to indicate the possessive. You can
Dickens’s novels or Dickens’ novels (the novels
of Dickens). Generally the first form is better, but observe that
one would write the parent’s orders (the orders of the
parent) but avoid writing the parents’s orders (the
orders of the parents) because one would not pronounce it like
this. In this case, then, the parents’ orders is to be
Note: the family’s home, society’s values [not
families, societies which are plurals]
The apostrophe of omission: It’s and Who’s (as
opposed to Its and Whose)
The apostrophe of possession is often confused with an apostrophe
marking the omission of a letter, particularly when one says or
writes it’s in place of it is. Because we say
Susie’s car there’s a naturally tendency to think that
the apostrophe in it’s is an apostrophe marking
possession. Actually, no: this apostrophe marks the omission of
the i in is — it’s means it
If you want a possessive pronoun that indicates someting is a
property of something else then you use its without the
apostropher (on a par with hers, theirs, yours). For
example, he polished the table until you could see your face
in its shine.
Here’s an example of the use of both kinds of apostrophe in one
Its quality, it’s clear, is above reproach.
In the same vein, do not confuse who’s and
whose. The former is a contraction of who is,
the latter is a possessive pronoun.
Example Who’s coming to the pub? and Whose car shall
we go in. These usages are rarely mistaken in English,
whereas the “its and it’s conundrum” bedevils
everyone at some stage or other.
Many combinations of adjectives, adverbs and nouns into combined
forms (well-made, well-wishing, free-floating, the
nineteenth-century novel) require joining with hyphens.
English is very rich in such combinations and the use of hyphens
usually optional, but sometimes more or less required by
predominant practice. Many of these requirements are given in
dictionaries so if in doubt it is well worth checking. Sense can
also be a good guide: hyphenation is a way of indicating to the
reader that the first term in the sequence is there to modify
what comes after it, rather than meaning to stand on its own
feet. For example, we would write some time during the
nineteenth century, but we should write public health in
The following rules are worth learning:
- Always use a hyphen to link a number to a noun in a compound
adjective placed before a noun. For example, second-year
students, early-nineteenth-century novels. But note there is
no hyphen in such forms as novels of the nineteenth
century. In this case century is functioning as a
noun, not as part of a compound modifying string.
- Similarly, use hyphens to join the following adverbs or
adjectives placed before the noun they determine; well-read,
all-powerful, all-consuming, better-known, ill-constructed,
under-paid, lower-class. Note that almost all compounds
beginning in well- and all- should be
hyphenated. Note that when coming after the noun (‘postpositive’)
the hyphens are dropped: He was a very well-read man.
But He was renowned for being very well read.
- Use hyphens in other compound adjectives where the lack of
the hyphen will lead to a problem of sense. For example, the
English-language textbooks (i.e. textbooks on the English
language, as opposed to English language textbooks,
textbooks on language that are published in English).
There is a common and erroneous tendency to drop hyphens in
compounds formed with self, as in
self-development, self-understanding. For
example, if one says The novel depicts the neurosis of
invalidism in a self obsessive world the reader will at
first think you are saying depicts the neurosis of invalidism
in a self and only then realise that there is something more
to come. The novel depicts the neurosis of invalidism in a
self-obsessive world reads more effectively. As a rule,
always hyphenate self in compound forms.
Note the following where hyphens are usual:
Role-model, word-play, son-in-law.
Hyphens and Prefixes
Never use a prefix followed by space, as in post war,
post modern, anti feminist. Either close up or
Generally you should not hyphenate a prefix. Use postwar
not post-war, postmodern not post-modern,
anticlimax not anti-climax. However sometimes
you may want to hyphenate a suffix in order to make the sense of
separation clear. For example, post-Victorian,
post-Freudian, pre-Renaissance, pre-Augustan,
anti-feminist, post-Modernists, anti-American,
anti-Communists, anti-abortion, anti-apartheid.
Hyphens and Suffixes
Using like as a suffix, hyphenate. For example in
Punctuating Quotations:See 6.43
Chapter 2. Logic
Causal Conjunctions and Logic
Avoid ‘gestural causality’, by which I mean avoid using ‘thus’ or
‘because’ or ‘therefore’ to suggest a causal relation where none
has been otherwise established.
A focus on freedom — how one is free and how that freedom is
defined against society — is a main issue in
Rosmersholm. Here there is even more of a sense
that you cannot be free this side of death, thus the tragic
double suicide ending. Sexuality is not the tense undercurrent
that it is in A Doll’s House.
The writer is failing to explain how you can be free after death
and why the double suicide occurs. There are such links to be
made, but instead of being made they are being gestured towards.
Here is another example: Malcolm Bradbury and James
MacFarlane suggest that modernism is a literature of crisis, that
the modernist novel tries ‘to handle a sense of the nihilistic
disorder behind the ordered surface of life and reality’. Thus
the focus on things such as death and sexuality starts to become
so integral to the plot.
And another where thus is vainly trying to establish a
causality inside what is in fact a dull tautology: The laws
of polite society govern whether she is to constitute part of the
‘everybody’ and thus transgression of the polite society would
place her outside of acceptability.
And another where whereby is covering a lack of
knowledge rather than helping us to learn: In ‘The Second
Treatise on Government’ Locke represents a fantasy world of
nature whereby all men are equal and given a fair chance to
In many cases of gestural (or specious) causality the point would
be accepted if the writer used no conjunctions at all. What is
being asserted is an association, a condition of concomitance,
and this can best be communicated by a simple period or by ‘and’.
It is rarely forceful to conclude a sentence with a causal
This desire arises from the mother lavishing too much
tenderness on the boy, and can result in his inability to bond
with other females when he grows into an adult, because of the
guilt of unfaithfulness.
Cf.: This desire arises from the mother lavishing too much
tenderness on the boy and can result in a guilty sense that he is
being unfaithful when as an adult he tries to bond with other
Indefinite ‘This’ and Logic
A common sign that logic is becoming weak is when one wants to
begin a sentence with ‘This’. This is not an invariant sign of
poor logic (see this sentence as an example), but I do counsel
caution every time this impulse is felt. Be sure that ‘This’
refers to a clear and unambiguous subject of the previous
sentence or group of sentences. If ‘this’ gestures vaguely
towards a host of complex ideas, be sure that it can legitimately
hold them together, otherwise the logic wobbles and falls over.
Beware equally of the use of ‘this” to end a sentence, viz.:
Whilst some apologists for Burroughs have cited the satire of
Jonathan Swift as the main literary inspiration for his work, he
is in fact closer to de Sade, both writers sharing the same
desire for human freedom from the forces and power structures
that imprison them, and both using much the same methods to
To which the immediate response is to say ‘This what?’
Here’s another very fine example, taken from an essay on
Waiting for Godot:
Throughout the play, the two main characters try to remember
their past in order to obtain a justification for their
existence. This does not satisfy them so they continue to ask
what is their purpose and function: ‘Estragon: ” What do we do
now, now that we are happy?”
What is meant by this ‘this’ that does not satisfy them? The
trying? The remembering? The failing to remember? The writer is
skating across the surface, content with vagueness, not searching
out precisely what is happening in the play.
Here’s an example of the same problem, but this time using ‘It’:
Ibsen presents a view of the struggle faced by women in a
male-dominated society. It is not altogether satisfying, after
all neither of his women survive, but it does highlight the
importance of the social issue.
Evidently the loose use of ‘it’ in the second sentence is not the
only problem this writing offers.
Like and As
Like and as are used to establish relations of
identity or similitude between objects, concepts or events.
As means ‘in the manner of,’ or ‘in exactly the manner
of’, whereas like implies some kind of identity, whether
close or loose. Therefore whilst at times the sense of both words
is almost identical, because as implies identity rather
than mere likeness there are times when like is just too
loose. Here are some examples where like should be
replaced by as:
Is it more or less voyeuristic to claim, like Andy Warhol
once did, that . . .
In To the Lighthouse, like in Cubism, emphasis is
placed on the representation of successive perceptions in
Campion uses spaces conventionally when making a point about
women’s forced subordination, like when Ada is literally
barricaded into her own home.
Like the piano was Aida’s fetish, she was his fetish.
This may be because like is stronger than as so when like is
used the reader will question just what the similarity is and
wonder if what the writer says is valid. When the writer says as
then the reader accepts a loose parallel and moves on without any
Like is clearly being over-used and abused in
contemporary discourse, especially in radio discussions where you
will sometimes hear like, and even the richly redundant
expression kinder like, pasted into nearly every
thought. Evidently this misuse indicates an attempt to see
pattern or establish associations but these are intuitions or
impressions loosely understood. It is an intellectual’s role to
find the deeper sense, and it does not take many likes
in a string to weaken beyond reason the logic of an argument.
Beware using a relative pronoun such that the articulation of the
two thoughts around it is imprecise. For example
The business man is therefore able to cross previously closed
social boundaries as a result of money which had the effect of
loosening the social structure and eventually leading to more
This sentence comprises two, articulated around which.
What comes after which qualifies money but
because which is being used in a non-restrictive manner
(see 1.232 above) one has the sense of two thoughts being tied
together with a leather thong after the fashion of a flail. Flail
is what the sense does. No knee or elbow joint in this
Chapter 3. Problems with verbs
In this famous example, To boldly go where no man has gone
before, the infinitive ‘to go’ is split by ‘boldly’.
Similarly in to better understand, to quickly run. Split
infinitives are relatively common, sometimes amusing, sometimes
inoffensive, sometimes silly. Always better to avoid them.
(Always to better avoid them, if you see what I mean.)
For example, compare
It is tempting to initially conclude
It is tempting initially to conclude
It is initially tempting to conclude
The third version is the best since it makes clear that it is the
temptation that is initial. The first version is the worst since
it brings initially and conclude so close it
verges on nonsense: how can one conclude (i.e. reach an end)
initially (i.e. to begin with)? The second version is almost as
good as the third version.
Here are some other split infinitives which may repay study:
She has enough strength to only do what she feels is
Cf. She has enough strength only to do what she feels is
The device is used to both demonstrate and retain
Cf. The device is used both to demonstrate and retain
Prepositional or Phrasal Verbs
The English language makes abundant use of prepositional or
phrasal verbs (to go up, to go down, to go
around)—indeed there are said to be more than 3000
prepositional verbs in regular use in English—but these seem to
confuse more and more writers when the preposition is remote from
the verb itself. Here is an example of the preposition going
This essay aims to familiarise the reader of the social
environment of the time.
The writer evidently means that this essay aims to
familiarise the reader with the social
environment of the time. What is written implies that the
reader being written about lived in a time before the time of
writing, whereas logically one deduces that the reader is a
contemporary of the author. In fact, the author would have been
better advised to write the writer aims to make the reader
familiar with the social environment of the time, keeping
the verb and the preposition close together and so averting any
potential ambiguity. There are no simple cures for problems of
this kind. It is necessary re-read and to pay acute attention to
how the preposition relates to the verb and to other words in its
Agreement of Tense
Take care to avoid changes of tense inside a sentence, thus:
Crusoe was stranded on a desert island and is forced to
repent for his previous sins. This error usually arises from
thinking in the continuous present and then inadvertently
dropping into the past. Whilst one could put the whole in the
past tense, this sentence reads better as Crusoe is stranded
on a desert island and is forced to repent for his previous
sins. Consider similarly: Fraud was a crime worthy of
death while theft is seen as something than can be condoned by
circumstances. The shift to the present in the second verb
creates doubt as to whether theft was seen in this way
or is still seen in this way.
Agreement of Number
Similarly, take care to ensure agreement in number (singular or
plural) between the subject of a verb and the verb itself.
For example, The smell of lemons causes her to sneeze.
(Not The smell of lemons cause her to sneeze.)
Problems usually arise when the subject and the verb are some
distance apart, as in the following example: The
situation Roxana finds herself in as regards the threats
of imprisonment or worse at the hands of the jewel collector
are brought about by one of her previous husbands.
Arguably this writer would not have made the error if he had not
produced such an ungainly structure in the first place.
Problems may also arise when using collective nouns and complex
subjects, as for example:
A herd of cows is quite dangerous. [Not are quite
Chapter 4. Lexicon (Vocabulary)
The Greek word ‘logos’ meant word and reason (implicitly
therefore ‘order’). The Greek Old Testament began In the
beginning was the word and the word was with God, and
thereby signified that law and the word were simultaneously
incarnate. The Latin word ‘lex’ meant law, and ‘lexicon’ meant a
dictionary. Again the word was law. And more recently Jacques
Lacan has provided a synoptic critique of this structure in his
punning realisation the le nom du père (the name of the
father) is also le non du père (the No! of the father).
Radical thought admits, even as it critiques, that to speak badly
is to risk that to speak or write is to risk both the
promulgation and the subversion of the law.
Concision and Plain Style
Generally, good style is lean: the fewer words, the more force,
provided the words are exact to their task. Similarly good style
uses the simplest words for its task. The thought may be very
complex, the structure may be highly articulated, but if you look
at the building bocks (words, phrases), they are almost
invariably the most fitted to their purpose.
The following might ‘sound good’ to some, they do not
disclose their hearts in shared confidences but does it tell
us more than they do not share confidences?
The following sounds like a government service euphemism:
Those women who recognise their need for a masculine presence
within their existence
Bad writing usually results from the writer thinking they need to
sound like someone in authority and, as a general rule, it is
wrong to try to sound like something one is not. Complex thought
comes out of complex thinking, not out of complex style. Look
closely at the sentences of most distinguished writers and you
will invariably find that the words chosen and the syntax used
are fundamentally simple. What makes for complexity is the way
the words fit together.
Speaking in one’s own voice — the Personal
It is unwise to use the first person when writing scholarly
essays because foregrounding personal belief often leads to
simple assertion (‘I believe’, ‘I find’, ‘I like’) where
what is needed is an intellectual demonstration of why the reader
should be persuaded to agree with your contentions. [Cf. the
discussion and examples in 4.94 below.] Evidently to intrude the
‘I’ occasionally can be honest and helpful, as when one might
say, for example, ‘Speaking personally I find this very hard
to credit.‘ However striking the right balance here needs to
be recognised as a fine art.
Deadening professional jargon is the Scylla of bad style;
colloquialism is the Charybdis: a salty everdayness will be
welcomed if it is acute to its task, but colloquialism is usually
slack and imprecise. For example
Work becomes the most valuable part of Crusoe’s life on the
island, as that is the only thing that gets him anywhere.
This sentence is not wrong, it just passes up the opportunity to
say something interesting about what work means to Robinson, or
about what he actually achieves.
Or consider these pleasures:
When Gulliver starts to bad-mouth British society . . .
They lived off of what they needed . . .
The horses get Swift’s moral case across . . .
Ibsen is into the truth and the freedom of humankind.
Redundancy is the obvious failure to be concise. In 1.1 above we
quoted the phrase invalidism cornered the social market.
Why did the writer say ‘social’? Was it doing any work? Can one
have an asocial market?
Here are some simple examples where the addition of a needless
adjective weakens communication rather than improving it
. . . a mental frame of mind
. . . from a social class point of view
Here are some common spoken locutions which are needlessly fat
and which should be shortened if used in written professional
|The question as to whether||Whether|
|He is a man who||He|
|This is a subject which||This subject|
|In a very fluent way||Fluently|
|Hamlet’s nature is to be indecisive||Hamlet is indecisive|
Internal echoes occur when a word is used more than once within a
few sentences. As with the repetition of musical phrases and
musical notes, such repetition needs handling with great care if
the repetition is not going to sound flat, dull, weak,
uninventive. Here’s an instance of repetition seeming to indicate
the writer has a very small range of concepts to call upon:
Brecht believed that the working class were oppressed and
strongly believed that they could be given strength through
organised political action.
External echoes occur when words are used in such a way at to
bring to mind particular ways of speaking (registers) in other
discourses. Consider the following, already mentioned in 1.1.
above: With new advances in medicine, invalidism cornered the
social market, coupled with the boom of the leisure industry, the
cult of invalidism prevailed throughout the nobility of late
eighteenth-century society. When this phrase was written the
term social market was often being used in the media as
part of an ideological counter-attack on the supposed triumph of
‘market values’. Cornered the market is also a phrase
often used in stock-market vernacular. The writer seems to have
taken his phrases from recent newspaper or radio bulletins and
tried to use them to describe a complex historical process
occurring in late-eighteenth-century England. Can invalidism
corner anything? This transfer of sense from other discourses
into the discourse of criticisms is more confusing than helpful.
Good writers take care to know how words are being used in
current discourses, and how they once were used. They align their
own uses for or against other dominant uses. Accidental
alignments therefore indicate a failure of intellectual control
over your own means of making sense.
Maria and Julia do generally have an extent of intimacy.
Can intimacy be spatial? Can one extend it? We tend to think
of intimacy as intensive, not extensive. You can extend
acquaintance, but surely you deepen intimacy? Effective writing
thinks harder about what words means and the kinds of association
the meanings wish to set in place.
Mixed Metaphors and Inapt Metaphors
In the following the metaphor ‘area’ is mixed with the metaphor
We find these two areas of concern spinning rapidly around
How does one imagine an area spinning? And does this effort of
imagining help one better to understand the condition being
described? Generally mixed metaphors add a distracting confusion
to the semantics of a sentence. Here are some other examples:
. . . a focal point upon which the seeker can attach a
necessary importance . . .
. . . to sink back on a wave of sympathetic emotion . .
In the following sentence we encounter a problem of
metaphorisation which is also a problem of the logic of
Laertes’ delayed reaction is in line with mourning.
What kind of relation is the writer wishing to establish between
Laertes and mourning? The point is interesting and potentially
valid, Freud having established that those who are mourning are
inclined to delay. However, using the expression ‘in line’
conjures echoes of ‘standing in line’ and ‘being in line for’ and
the very linearity of the term does not strike me as particularly
helpful to establishing the relationship. It certainly does not
deepen the recognition.
Catachresis (The incorrect use of words)
The underlined words in the following examples are not being
properly used but all the examples come from third year honours
students for degrees in English Literature. The sentences or
clauses as they stand are meaningless and it is worth reflecting
that if a foreign learner were to select these words in a
Cambridge Proficiency Examination they would be considered
The Dashwoods are privy to unnecessary cruelty at the
hands of their half-brother and his wife
The prevalence of the new bride over the single
This device pre-empts that both men learn what is
Austen therefore provides an implicit social impact
upon the individual character
Critics who assert that the works are mere fairy tales are
juxtaposed by those who claim they are social
Catachresis is like a fungal blight: not always fatal, always a
blemish, always a reduction to health and beauty, it is cured by
regular consultation of a dictionary and paying acute attention
to what people mean when they write and speak.
the best word
Catachresis is a manifest lexical mistake, but there are many
softer versions of this fault where the writer has chosen a word
which works, but which does not give the best possible sense. For
example, a student writes If speech is a means of gaining
social recognition, then by refusing to utter meaningful oratory
this character refuses to be socially integrated. The
expression meaningful oratory is far too grandiose for
the desired sense. The character is not refusing to orate, only
to engage in normal conversation. The over-done is always a
distraction and mistake.
Split Words, Combining Words
a) Do not split the following
|Never the less||Nevertheless|
b) note, that, just to be awkward, whilst (British) English
prefers anyway, anything, anyone, anybody it does not
accept anytime. This should be any time.
Similarly, whilst we have contracted nevertheless,
opinions divide about none the less or
nonetheless. Take your pick on this one.
c) Take care with into and in to, onto
and on to. Where the in or on are part
of a phrasal verb, they are not fused with to. For
example, he fell onto the roof; the soldier fell in
to line; the car ran into a bus; the student gave the essay in to
Shall and Will
When someone writes This essay shall consider Pope’s use of
the mock-heroic it sounds odd. In fact this of
shall used to be correct English and the use of
shall to form futures in spoken English is still common:
I shall go to the beach tomorrow. However there is a
change going on in the usage of shall. Shall
generally implies compulsion, obligation or determination,
especially when used in the second or third person (for example:
the tenant shall ensure that rent is paid on time, I shall
climb Everest before I am forty!) so nowadays will
is normally used to form the future in all three persons. It is
therefore probably best to reserve shall for usages
where you wish to imply compulsion, obligation or determination.
Common Confusions and Abuses
One could take the temperature of a culture by noticing what
words are frequently used and abused at any moment. These days
the following errors tend to scream out:
There is no such word as independant. A
dependant is someone, usually a relative, who needs
financial support. Someone who clings on to your shirt tail
is very dependent.
|Loose used for lose||
To loose is to ‘let go’. To lose is to go
|Lead used for led||
Led is the correct past form, even though it sounds like
a dull metal.
|Sprung for sprang||
sprung is the past participle, to be used in such forms
as he had sprung. Sprang is the past tense, to be used in
such forms as she sprang to his help
|Bourgeoisie for bourgeois||
Bourgeoisie is the name of the social class, bourgeois is
the correct adjective
|Affect and effect||
To affect someone is to influence them emotionally,
usually negatively, hence to disturb; or it means to put on a
show. To effect is to bring about or accomplish. The
effect is the consequence of an action; the
affect is its emotional reception.
Means promotion in rank or status by someone. E.g. He
sought advancement in the court. It should not be used
other forms of improvement or progress.
Now used variously to mean ‘thank you’, or ‘good’, with no
sense of either a literal polish or a figurative intellectual
|Dependant and dependent||See Independent in 4.831 above.|
As in ‘it is due to the fact’ : generally careful
users of English avoid using due to as a preposition
(i.e. before the noun to which it refers) in the written
form. Because of is nearly always preferred. Some
users believe that due to should be restricted to
its monetary meaning.
As above, a word presiding over the death of the truly
marvellous as advertising makes each new banal material
conquest into a index of the divine. See Roland Barthes’
brilliant essay on ‘The New Citroen’ in his
Mythologies as a prophylactic.
Often incorrectly confused with imply. To
infer should only be used in the sense of to
deduce. You cannot logically infer something to
|It’s ironic that||
Thrown about when no irony is intended or possible, usually
to mean just odd, curious, funny, strange.
The proper meaning is to acquire in
advance of or, to the exclusion of, others; to appropriate;
as in the military use, pre-emptive strike.
|Societal for social||
Societal is a relatively new term emphasising of society,
whereas the older term social goes back to the sense of
companion, comrade, friend and implies a community, an
inter-related group. To distinguish the societal from the
social therefore implies that you can have a group that is
not a community; it is a term that fits with a market
economics view of society. Personally I think we should not
go along with this general slippage.
Now being used in newspapers to whip up emotion about any
|Utilise for use||
utilise means to make practical or worthwhile use of.
Through its relations with utility and utilitarian it
stresses the tool-like aspect of use. Much used (utilised) by
military technologists and distribution managers because it
sounds male and scientific. Utilised is definitely not to be
used in place of use for fear that all words will be made
It should go without saying these days that no sentence should
imply that man is a sign that can stand for all men and
women. This trope, common to writing before the mid 1970s, relied
on the assumption (which used to be general law) that the male
identity covered the female and was superior to it. Such
sentences as the following, written by a female student aged 20
in 1999, should no longer be written: In our contemporary
society where the individual is cut off from his religious roots,
man feels lost and his inexplicable actions appear absurd and
useless. This sentence should have read: In our
contemporary society where individuals are cut off from their
religious roots, people feel lost and their inexplicable actions
appear absurd and useless. Use the plural and
people instead of the singular man.
The problem with ‘interestingly‘, or ‘it is
interesting to note that’, is that this you have to be very
sure that what you say immediately after it does in fact justify
this rhetorical flourish. If you use the word and say no more,
then it reads like an empty claim. It is therefore best used with
great caution, if at all. My favourite example of the misuse of
this word is the following: ‘Interestingly Moll’s role as a
woman fascinates me.‘ To which one might respond, ‘Good
Chapter 5. Improving a Style
Pagraphing can be seen as a larger kind of segmenting than the
sentence, and as smaller than the essay, chapter or section.
Paragraphing has much to do with how much material the human
brain can process before it needs to digest and store what has
been said. It can therefore be thought of by analogy with eating,
and with computer processing. In all such processes, only so much
can be taken in before the batch has to be dealt with and put
into storage. Paragraphs that are too short feel bitty and
insubstantial; paragraphs that are long are hard to digest. The
happy size of a paragraph is related to its content. Dense work,
like shortbread, needs to be taken in small bites; lighter work,
like soufflés, can be taken on big spoons.
To find guidance on the appropriate length, examine examples of
effective writing. As a simple guide, five to fifteen lines is
normal, and no paragraph should be longer than a page.
The first sentence of each paragraph should announce the topic
which succeeding sentences will expand upon. When the paragraph
is not the first in a section, the first sentence should also
establish a relationship with the preceding paragraph, perhaps
helping to draw what was said in the preceding paragraph together
as it establishes the ground for what is about to be discussed.
This process will be helped if the last sentence of the preceding
paragraph has worked to bring the matters discussed in that
The following paragraph from an essay on T. S. Eliot’s poem
The Waste Land brings together a number of valuable
perceptions, but tends simple to associate them in a loose
The ‘Burial of the Dead’ claims London to be an ‘unreal city’
and includes the often quoted lines ‘ a crowd flowed over London
Bridge/ I never knew that death had undone so many’. This is a
reference to the modern urbanisation and the artist’s sense of
alienation within it. There is a possible touch of personal
pessimism here. Eliot was one of the rush hour ‘masses’ when he
worked for Lloyds of London; a period when he felt his artistic
creativity stifled. The Waste Land expresses a fear of the
masses; they are ‘so many’ and they keep flowing. Their sheer
number is threatening and their movement, whilst continual, is
not progressive. They are the living dead and they allude to the
soldiers of the First World War marching to their death. The tone
is pessimistic and relays a sense of hopelessness as ‘each man
fixed his eyes before his feet’, unable to look far ahead. They
are the sacrifice of war not the salvation for a decaying
By making small stylistic adjustments throughout, the same
‘matter’ can be made to read better and make much more powerful
The ‘Burial of the Dead’ represents London as an
‘unreal city’ and includes the often quoted lines ‘a crowd flowed
over London Bridge/ I never knew that death had undone so many’,
which capture in one graphic image the idea of modern
urbanisation and the artist’s sense of alienation within it,
an alienation which has a personal ring because Eliot was
one of the rush hour ‘masses’ when he worked for Lloyds of
London. The Waste Land expresses a fear of the masses, of their
sheer number and of their movement which is continual
but not progressive. The masses are the living dead and
there is something in their manner — ‘each man fixed his eyes
before his feet’, unable to face the future – which alludes to
the soldiers of the First World War, marching to their death.
They are the sacrificial victims of modernisation and of war, not
the salvation for a decaying civilisation.
Avoiding Using Excessive Relative Pronouns
In the following example, The grief which they undergo at his
death is magnified by their loss of income . . . , it is
permitted to remove the relative pronoun, thus: The grief
they undergo at his death is magnified by their loss of
income. (Grammatically the clause remains a relative clause
but it has a zero relative pronoun.) Whilst in simple sentences
this economy produces a small gain, in more complex sentences the
improved digestion of the sense is more noticeable: for example,
The consequences for his daughters lives reads better
than The consequences which this has on his daughters
Keep the Structure Clear
The following is needlessly jumbled:
It could be argued that Edmund is symptomatic of the Oedipal
desires, as cited by Freud, in his quest to avenge his father’s
adultery . . .
This could be revised thus:
It could be argued that Edmund’s quest to avenge his father’s
adultery is symptomatic of the Oedipus complex as described by
Generally it is best to keep the main parts of the main clause as
close together as possible. For example, keep subjects and verbs
close together. Compare
The legal status of women in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries was little better than that of slaves.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the legal status
of women was little better than that of slaves.
Parsing Your Thoughts; Using Logical
To parse is to assign constituent structure to a sentence or the
words in a sentence. In the following there are two
thoughts compressed together: The book is a commodity in that
to buy the book is to purchase the illusive Moll Flanders
herself. There are two problems here. Firstly, the writer
should say illusory not illusive (a confusion
with elusive); secondly the writer’s use of in
that has the effect of joining two similar but different
thoughts: a) all printed books are commodities, b) the ‘Moll
Flanders’ offered in the book is also a commodity, a virtual
object which the consumer buys the book to get. These thoughts
need parsing out, not forcing together, since the book would
still be a commodity even if it were an atlas selling useful
information about the world. Saying in that tends allows
the writer to avoid the larger implications of this thoughts.
Whilst brevity is the soul of wit, it is also essential to have
enough sentences, properly articulated, to bring out the full
complexity of one’s understanding.
Here’s an example of a similar error: The themes expressed in
‘Othello’ allow sexual anxieties to develop. The
themes do not allow anything to develop; the
themes might involve the development of sexual anxieties; or
sexual anxiety might be said to be one of the themes.
One sentence must clearly relate to another in order that
mutually they can make sense. Indeed it is worth thinking about
language in terms of gestalt psychology: the sum of the
whole is always more than the sum of its parts. (If you prefer a
less scholarly model, then consider a house: the house is a lot
more than a pile of timber, sand, cement and bricks.) Paratactic
sentences (‘one damn thing after another’) are simple ways of
building gestalt effects; hypotactic sentences (using
co-ordination and subordination) are evolved ways of building
effects. Recapitulating a former sentence inside of a later
sentence is a fairly poor way of building such effects:
Ada seems to attach sexual desire to the piano. The first time we see Ada play the piano it is in the middle of the night. She is interrupted by a disapproving woman and Ada stops playing abruptly. It is as if she was doing something very private, for example performing a sexual act. The piano is constantly seen as an object of desire. Baines employs a piano tuner to tune it before Ada visits to give him a lesson. The piano tuner admires the piano tuner as beautiful and unusual, like Ada. He sniffs it in an intimate fashion as if he can smell perfume on it. All these factors promote the piano as a sexual object. The way Baines and Ada touch it also shows its sexual presence. For example, Baines walks around it naked and wipes dust off it with his underwear. Ada’s tiny fingers constantly caress the strong substantial keys of the piano. When Ada plays the piano her body language implies the reaches an almost physical ecstasy from rhythmically playing the keys.
There are thirteen sentences here, ten of which mention the piano and eight of which mention Ada. The ideas are interesting, but the style is tiring, probably because the writer lacks confidence about syntactic structure. It could have been done like this:
Ada seems to attach sexual desire to the piano. The first time we see her play it is in the middle of the night when she is interrupted by a disapproving woman and stops playing abruptly, as if she was doing something very private, for exampleperforming a sexual act. The piano is constantly seen as an object of desire. The piano tuner sniffs it intimately, as if it were a woman. Baines walks around it naked and wipes dust off it with his underwear. Ada’s tiny fingers caress the keys sensuously as she plays and she seems almost to reach physical ecstasy.
Six sentences, six mentions of the piano and three mentions of Ada.
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“If you love somebody, let them go, if they don’t return, they were never yours.”
|The Essential Rumi
“Lovers do not finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.”
|Ways of Escape:
a journey of sorts
A short excerpt from the book: “I was dead, deader than dead because, I was still alive.”
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