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What will make you a better English writer?


BELOW THIS TEXT YOU WILL FIND MY BLOG, THE LATEST POST FIRST. YOU CAN ALSO CHOOSE FROM THE LIST ON THE RIGHT OR TYPE A WORD IN THE SEARCH BOX AT THE TOP OF THIS PAGE.

This website is meant to be a resource especially for non-native writers in English to help them improve their writing skills.

Your English may be good, but perhaps you have not asked yourself which English you use, you have never reflected on the difference between compare to and compare with or realised that you wrote amount where you should have written number.

Perhaps you are a doctoral student planning your thesis. Or you are a professor writing a book or a research paper for an international journal. Maybe you have written a manual and feel that the language is not exactly what you would like it to be. Or you just want to have your CV or a cover letter checked for errors.

What I can do for you

In this blog you will get useful tips on writing in English. Through my long experience as a copyeditor I have learnt the typical errors that writers make and what linguistic problems they often meet.

I will also tell you about resources that will enhance your writing. Whether books, apps or websites, they will help you write much better.

So, if you want to read my blog, scroll down and you will see my blog entries starting with my latest text. You can also choose a topic from the list in the sidebar on the right or search for a specific word.

And when you feel that your text needs copyediting, send it to me

On my other pages here you can learn about how I work and read comments from some of my many satisfied clients. And if you decide to let me copyedit your text, you should read my advice for writers.

The CEO of a Swedish multinational firm was once asked what language the company used. The answer was, “Bad English”.

Most users of English are non-native speakers and, not surprisingly, the language used is often, as the Swedish manager put it, bad English.

What’s the problem?

Communicating in a second language often involves ambiguity and misunderstanding and can eventually lead to serious problems. An example can be found in the sentence you just read: The English word eventually means in the end, finally, sooner or later, while the Swedish word eventuellt means possibly, potentially.

Not connected…

Can you connect with your readers? Bad English may prevent you from being published. And if you manage to be published in spite of language deficiencies, your readers will doubt your professionality. Poor language will make them lose interest in what you are trying to say; they may even mistrust your message or simply not understand it. 

The difference between good and bad English is crucial. My role as copyeditor is to make sure that bad English is transformed into good English. I do so in close collaboration with you, the writer. Together we will make you a better English writer. We are on the same page!

You are welcome to visit this site again and again. Or, better still, why not sign up for my newsletter? Then you will know when there is something new to read on this page, something that will make you a better English writer.

My posts will, I hope, be your stepping stones to better writing.

Stepping stones in Pompeii, Italy

Note: When there is an asterisk (*) in front of a word or a phrase in my posts here, it means that the word or phrase is wrong or not accepted language. You can find examples here, here and here.

Less or fewer?

Which is correct, less cars or fewer cars?

Perhaps you find it difficult to sort out words such as little, much, few, a few, many, less, more, a lot of and plenty of.

MANY AND MUCH

Many is always used with the plural form of countable nouns (you can read about countables and uncountables here).

She has written many articles about ancient Rome.

We have many students from Asia.

Much is always used with uncountable nouns.

The production process requires much energy.

Don’t drink too much beer!

Both many and much take the comparative form more.

There were more students last year.

I wish I had more time.

A lot of, lots of and plenty of can all be combined with both countables and uncountables.

There are lots of nice places to visit along the coast.

Take it easy – you have plenty of time.

FEW AND LITTLE

Few means ’not many, almost none’. Use few with countable nouns.

He had few interests and was quite bored.

There are few artists who have had such success.

A few means ’two or three, a handful of’. Use a few with countables.

We saw a few birds by the river.

A few members of the staff had already arrived.

The difference between few and a few applies also to little and a little. Both little and a little suggest ’not much’, but there is a difference in meaning.

I have little money sounds rather negative; you would like to have more.

I have a little money implies that you actually can buy something, although nothing expensive.

I have little money but much time.

Since he had little experience, he did not get the job.

A little rain will be good for our garden.

I would be grateful for a little extra time

Just a couple of cars on the Autobahn in Austria with some farm buildings on a hill in the background
Fewer cars and less traffic on the way back home

FEWER AND LESS

Fewer is the comparative form of few. It is used with countables.

The fewer mistakes you make in your report, the better it is.

The company has fewer employees than I expected.

Some writers use the word less where they should have fewer instead. The correct choice is to use less with an uncountable.

I like my new job, even if it gives me less money.

Perhaps you should drink less beer.

Less is used before than in expressions of time and measurements.

They had lived there for less than two years.

My job is less than three kilometres from our house.

There is also the form lesser, meaning ’not as great in size or importance as something else’.

Do you consider this a lesser crime?

We need to choose the lesser of two evils.

MORE

More is the comparative of both many and much.

I wish I had more money.

This year there are more students from Africa.

How to start and end a letter or an email

In formal correspondence it is important to start – and end – a letter with the right tone.

How you can begin a letter or an email

If you know the name of the recipient, use the title and the surname after the word Dear.

Dear Ms O’Connor,

Dear Mr Harding,

Dear Dr Johnson,

Dear Professor Green,

Using the abbreviated form Prof may seem less respectful, and the full form is recommended.

As mentioned here, there is usually a period (a full stop) after abbreviated titles in American English. In American English the salutation is usually followed by a colon instead of a comma.

If a person’s name does not reveal whether it is a man or a woman and you are not sure, write the full name:

Dear Kim Nelson,

Dear Taylor Smith,

Don’t know the name?

If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to, try to find it out. Check the website of the journal, university, department, organisation, company, etc., under ”Staff”, ”About us” or ”Contact Us”. You might also find out a person’s name on LinkedIn. Another option would be to call the office and ask for the name.

If you cannot find the name but know the person’s function, you can write, for example,

Dear Editor,

Dear Librarian,

Dear Recruiting Manager,

Dear Chief Technology Officer,

Dear Communications Director,

Dear President of Sales,

Dear Social Media Specialist,

Dear Research Assistant,

Dear Supervisor,

If you know neither the name nor the function of the person you are writing to, write

Dear Sir/Madam, and if you know the recipient is a man (woman), write Dear Sir, (Dear Madam,). If there are more than one recipient, you can write Dear Sirs,.

Some writers use the phrase

To whom it may concern, (in American English To Whom It May Concern),

but that may seem too impersonal.

Battered letterbox by the roadside in the US desert
Perhaps less suitable for formal letters

Ending a letter or an email

To end a formal letter to a person whose name you know, write

Yours sincerely, (mainly British usage)

Sincerely yours, (mainly American usage)

If you do not know the name of the recipient, write

Yours faithfully, (British English)

Yours truly, (American English)

Slightly less formal endings would be

With best regards,

With kindest regards,

And more informal:

Regards,

Kind regards,

Best regards,

These last examples would be suitable in an email, since emails are seen as less formal than letters.

Mr and Mrs – and what about Mx and Esq?

We have looked at gender-neutral language in a previous blog post.

To address people we can use the honorific titles Mr, Miss and Mrs.

A man and a woman are walking on a beach by the sea.
Mr and Mrs Gibson on the beach

The female forms Mrs and Miss indicate whether a woman is married or not, which Mr does not. Mrs shows that a woman is married; many widows and divorced women retain the title even though they no longer have a spouse.

In the 1950s many women did not want to be known by their marital status and used the title Ms to replace Mrs and Miss. This usage became more widely spread in the 1970s and Ms is now the common form. However, the abbreviation Ms is older than you may think – it was used in an American newspaper as early as 1901. 

Use the neutral Ms when you write to a woman unless you notice that she herself uses the title Mrs. If in doubt, ask her what she prefers.

The gender-neutral title Mx can be used to refer to a person who wants to be identified as neither male nor female. The title has become adopted by institutions in the UK such as the Royal Mail, agencies dealing with passports and driving licences as well as several banks.  Mx is pronounced mix, sometimes em-ex.

Mr, Mrs and Mx are always used before a name, while Miss can stand alone.

Good morning, Mrs Johnson!

Thank you, Miss.

Without a following name, Mr and Mrs are replaced by sir and madam (or ma’am), respectively.

Can I help you, ma’am?

Very kind of you, sir!

Mr has a plural form, Messrs, which is put before the names of two or more men, especially in the name of a company.

Send your request to Messrs Watson & Sons.

Young boys are sometimes addressed as Master.

As you see (and surely know), these titles are always capitalised. In American English there is usually a full stop after the abbreviations.

You may have come across the abbreviation Esq. The word Esquire used to be a title given to men of higher rank in society. In the 20th century it came to be used as a general title for any man, usually added after a man’s name, especially in correspondence (on envelopes and in letters) and official documents: William Brown, Esq. This is the same as Mr William Brown. If Esq. is used, you do not write Mr before the name.

When a British man is invited to Buckingham Palace, Esq. is added to his name on the envelope; for men of other nationalities, Mr is used instead.

In the United States, Esquire refers to a lawyer, irrespective of gender. It is used as an abbreviation after a person’s full name.

I suggest you contact my lawyer, Susan Hall, Esq.

When addressing correspondence to a United States diplomat, Esquire may be used, written in full.

Read about how you use honorific titles to start a letter or an email here.

What if the chairman is a woman?

Job titles such as chairman, salesman, policeman and fireman  imply that it is a man that is performing the job. And stewardess  and barmaid would suggest women. But both men and women work in the police force or stand behind the bar.

Policewoman seen from behind
Clearly not a policeman

Gender-neutral language aims at avoiding reference to a male or a female when the job is not gender-specified. Thus we use neutral forms: chair or chairperson, sales representative or salesperson, police officer, firefighter, flight attendant and bartender.

Some job titles that were seen as typically male or female are now used with reference to both genders, such as nurse, judge, doctor and model. You should avoid specifying, for instance, male nurse or female judge.

In some cases, the male form has taken over: actor instead of actress, usher instead of usherette.

Interestingly, man meant person in Old English (Anglo-Saxon). And female has nothing to do with male; it comes from the Latin femella, the diminutive form of femina, meaning woman.

When the gender of the person referred to is unknown or irrelevant, you can use the pronoun they to refer to that person. Read more about the use of they here.

To sum up, when you write in English, avoid using gender-specific job titles when there is a neutral alternative.

Can they be one person?

When we write about a person, it is sometimes not clear whether we refer to a man or a woman. Words such as somebody or person are neutral and can refer to either gender. That causes a problem for instance when we need to use a pronoun in the singular and still want to be gender-neutral.

One way is to write he or she and his or her or he/she and his/her

Somebody left his or her umbrella on the train.

The preferences a person has about what he/she does should be taken into account.

However, writing he or she, etc., looks a bit clumsy. Using they even if we talk about one person is nowadays generally accepted also by most style guides.

Somebody left their umbrella on the train.

Why would anybody want to end their life?

Each child played with their own toys.

Every teacher used their own method.

An umbrella hanging on a hedge.
Somebody left their umbrella here

In fact, they has been used in the singular (in writing) since the 14th century.

We can use the singular form themself if we refer to one person (and themselves is also correct).

Everybody must look after themself (or themselves).

It’s all about letting someone be themself. (Cambridge Dictionary)

To language purists the singular form themself may seem unnatural. However, it was used in English as early as the 1300s and there are examples from Emily Dickinson and F. Scott Fitzgerald well over a hundred years ago. Even if themself is still seen by a majority as nonstandard, the word is gaining popularity. And it is practical. After all, we write yourself and yourselves.

They is nowadays sometimes used to refer to a person whose gender is nonbinary, that is, who wants to be identified as neither male nor female. This use may still sound strange to many people.

Kim, our new coworker, wants to be referred to as they.

Sam drinks their coffee without sugar.

They was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year 2019.

Traditionallly, he used to refer to a person whose gender was unknown, but that use has come to be seen as sexist. Now some writers seem to want to counteract male dominance by using only the female forms she and her even when the reference may be to a neutral word such as person.

How can a person make sure that her views are taken into consideration?

To sum up, use they (and them, their) when the gender of the person referred to is unknown or irrelevant.

Avoid writing combined forms such as s/he or (s)he.

You can read about the use of gender-neutral titles here.

How to write a dash on a computer keyboard

In a previous post we looked at the difference between a hyphen and a dash and we saw that there are two dashes. Here you will learn how to write a dash on a computer keyboard.

Learn how to write a dash on a computer

In some applications, such as Microsoft Word, Scrivener and Google Docs, you can type two hyphens and a space and you will get an em dash.

Mac OS:

En dash: option+hyphen

Em dash: shift+option+hyphen

Windows:

On a keyboard with a numeric keypad:

En dash: alt+0150

Em dash: alt+0151

In Microsoft Word you can go to Insert>Symbol and choose Special characters and you will find the en dash and the em dash.

There is another way in Word: [word][space][hyphen][hyphen][space][word] results in an en dash. To get an em dash, do the same without spaces.

In Word you can also create an autocorrect option. Go to Tools, click on Autocorrect and add the following shortcuts: Replace .en with – and Replace .em with —

Now when you want to write an em dash, you write .em followed by a space.

A hyphen is not the same as a dash

A hyphen and a dash are two different things—and there are two dashes. Confusing? Let’s try and sort it out.

This is a hyphen :
This is an en dash:
This is an em dash:

NOTICE: For some reason, WordPress does not show the correct length of the dashes. In the editor, the difference between the en dash and the em dash is clearly visible, but when I update and then look at the page (the one you are looking at now), that difference is not there. Sorry! You just have to take my word for it—the em dash is longer than the en dash.

HYPHEN

To begin with, in your native language (other than English) you can perhaps insert a hyphen when a word has to be split up at the end of a line. This is very unusual in English texts. And nowadays it is unusual in any text written on a computer, since the line breaks are inserted automatically. Even when a text is right-justified (the text is aligned with the right margin), the word processor adjusts the line length by changing the spaces between words. So we need not worry about this use of the hyphen.

A much more common use of the hyphen is in compounds, inside words or word combinations. Re-establish is a word made up of the prefix re and the verb establish. It means establish again.

We use a hyphen in compounds such as self-esteem, fifty-six, far-reaching, blue-green, sister-in-law and state-of-the-art. However, there are many compounds in English that are written without a hyphen—financial manager, production plan, information technology, etc. And many compounds are written in one word—airport, football, input, headache, etc. You can read more about compounds here.

Door with incomplete text showing opening hours.
Not much correct here…

THE EN DASH

An en dash has its name from the fact that it is as wide as the letter N. Consequently, the longer dash is called em dash.

The en dash (–) is used to indicate a range of, for example, dates, years or pages in a book:

You can find his most famous speech on pages 149–153.
Barack Obama was President of the USA 2009–2017.
The conference was held 31 August–2 September.

The en dash can also indicate a relation or connection:

His research focuses on human–robot collaboration.
They usually took the Paris–Brussels train.
They had a close mother–daughter relationship.

Notice that you cannot use a dash if you write between or from. It is wrong to write *between 2009–2017 or *from 149–153. (For the use of the asterisk here see the note at the end of this page.)

Obama’s presidency was between 2009 and 2017.
The speech is printed on the pages from 149 to 153

Street sign with most of the text hidden and wrong use of a dash
Looks like an em dash here, which is wrong

THE EM DASH

The em dash (—) is longer than a hyphen or an en dash. The em dash indicates a break or an insert in a sentence. It can be used in pairs like brackets or alone to separate the end of a sentence from the main part.

Most of their garden products—lawn mowers, grass trimmers, hedge trimmers and leaf blowers—were on sale in October.
His fame had spread far and wide—he had shown that he was a very talented footballer—and he could now sign a new and better contract.
I had better put on winter tyres right awa—there’ll be snow any day now.

There are no spaces before and after a hyphen, an en dash or an em dash.

However, some British style guides recommend to use an en dash with spaces before and after it instead of an em dash. If you write for a journal, make sure to consult its guide for authors.

In my next blog entry I will show you where to find dashes on a computer keyboard.

An old furniture salesman or an old-furniture salesman?

As you could see here, most English compounds are not hyphenated. However, a hyphen is used when a compound is a modifier. A modifier changes or adds to  the meaning of the word that follows. In the phrase That’s a big house, the word big is a modifier; it adds something to the concept house.

When the compound is a modifier, especially when it modifies a noun, we use a hyphen:
This is a well-written article.

But there is no hyphen in the following sentence:
I think the article is well written.

Here are some more examples:

They are five-year-old children. (Notice that there is no plural -s).
The children are five years old.

He is a part-time mechanic.
He works part time.

This is a long-term project.
We must plan for the long term.

The hyphen often helps to clarify what the writer wants to say.

He is selling his little-used bike means that the bike has not been used much.
He is selling his little used bike would mean that the bike is little (small) and has been used.

This is obviously a little-used bike

Do you understand the difference between a single family home and a single-family home?
And between a small business owner and a small-business owner?
Or an old furniture salesman and an old-furniture salesman?

We can leave out the hyphen if there is no risk for confusion:

I found a used car dealer.

An adverb ending in -ly is not followed by a hyphen:

A smartly dressed woman

Compounds in English

When two or more words are combined to form a new concept with a new meaning, we talk about a compound.

A compound can be a combination of a noun and a noun (school nurse), an adjective and a noun (full noon), an adverb and a verb (far-reaching), a verb and an adverb (check-up), a preposition and a noun (underworld), a preposition and a verb (overestimate), an adjective and another adjective (blue-green) – and a few more combinations.

In English there are three ways to write compound words: as separate words (open compounds), as one word (closed compounds) or as words combined with a hyphen (hyphenated compounds). This can sometimes be rather confusing. We write head office as separate words, we write head-teacher with a hyphen and we write headmaster as one word. Likewise we have table knife but tablespoon.

This may seem frustrating, and if you are in doubt, you had better check a dictionary or a style sheet. (Actually, you can also write stylesheet. Some compounds can take any of the three forms. You can write life style, life-style or lifestyle.)

OPEN COMPOUNDS

Unlike some other languages – German, Swedish or Finnish, for example – English often does not combine the separate words into one word. A breakfast table is in German Frühstückstisch; a hotel room is in Swedish hotellrum; a taxi driver is in Finnish taksinkuljettaja.

Here are some examples of open compounds in English:

apple piehalf sister
coffee muginformation technology
computer networklight year
couch potatoliving room
database designmaster bedroom
decision makerorange juice
dinner tablepost office
English teacherswimming pool
evening dresstruck driver
football stadiumvideo game
full moonwashing machine
Two adults hiking in the Julian Alps in Slovenia on their way to the highest peak, Triglav.
An open compound: Mountain climbers

CLOSED COMPOUNDS

The following are examples of compounds written in one word:

afternoonmakeup
airportnewspaper
blackboardnotebook
bodyguardonline
bookstorepaycheck
cupcakepolicewoman
cowboyskateboard
doorbellsubstandard
downtowntakeaway
footballtextbook
grandmotherunderworld
handoutwallpaper
headachewatermelon
inputworksheet

Compounds with words from Latin or Greek are written as one word:

photography

agriculture

HYPHENATED COMPOUNDS

Many compounds – especially those formed by two nouns – used to be hyphenated, but now most of them are written either as one word or two separate words. Here are some compounds that are still hyphenated (and you will notice that they are generally not of the noun+noun type):

broad-mindedrunner-up
check-insecretary-general
dry-cleaningself-esteem
far-reachingsix-pack
go-betweenwell-being
passer-byX-ray

Compounds with three or more words are usually written with hyphens:

around-the-clockmerry-go-round
do-it-yourselfmother-of-pearl
editor-in-chiefright-of-way
father-in-lawjack-of-all-trades
happy-go-luckystate-of-the-art

Compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated:
My dad is forty-two.

Fractions also take a hyphen:
We had already driven two-thirds of the way.
Less than one-fifth of the operators are women.

But with a instead of one there is no hyphen: Less than a fifth of the operators are women.

Some compounds have changed from being hyphenated to a single word. We used to write on-line and world-wide, but nowadays online and worldwide are more common. This also applies to words such as cooperate and proactive.

To avoid confusion, a hyphen is used when the prefix ends and the base word begins with the same vowel:

anti-intellectual

COMPUNDS AS MODIFIERS

When compounds are used as modifiers, they are written with a hyphen. A modifier works as an adjective or adverb to add information about the word directly following it.

A six-year-old boy.
But: The boy was six years old.

We rely on just-in-time delivery.
But: I arrived just in time. The clock struck three when I opened the door.

You can read about compounds as modifiers here.

Do you cooperate or collaborate?

Most writers either use these two words indiscriminately or simply choose cooperation without even reflecting on the alternative collaboration.

The main difference between the two words is that collaboration involves people working together towards a shared goal, while cooperation implies somebody working to support somebody else’s goal.

Two small boys are putting stones into a box.
Collaborating towards a common goal

As a copyeditor, I work with the author of a text. The author wants me to make sure the manuscript is in fluent English without any linguistic or factual errors. (You can read here about how I work.) The author may ask for comments on a certain passage and I may want clarification of what the author intends. I can suggest an alternative formulation. Our shared objective is an article that deals with an interesting topic, has perfect language and format and is of such a quality altogether that it can be accepted for publication. That is collaboration. Collaboration is teamwork requiring mutual respect, trust and adaptability.

In my job as a copyeditor I may come across a word that is totally unknown to me. I can then call an expert to ask about that word. For example, I once called the coast guard to ask what word they used in a certain context. Thanks to their cooperation I could achieve my goal – to use that word correctly.

Should you have a hyphen or not? The answer is here.

Perhaps some writers hesitate to use the word collaboration since it has a less agreeable connotation. A collaborator is someone who helps an enemy that has occupied their country in a war.

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