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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.

Brief and short

What’s the difference between brief and short?

Both brief and short are adjectives that are the opposite of long when we talk about time.

The lecturer gave a brief summary of previous research.
There was a brief moment of silence.

We had a short discussion.
It happened a short time ago.

Short can also be the opposite of tall as well as the opposite of long when we talk about distance.

The boy was short and chubby.
The bus stop is just a short distance from our house.

A small boy is taking a short walk with his grandfather.
A short walk with grandpa

Brief is sometimes used as a verb meaning inform and as a noun meaning short information, summary.

The press secretary briefed us about the decision.
Our boss gave us a first brief of the negotiations.

Brief can also mean instructions about duties, responsibilities, etc.

Part of the architect’s brief was to design a building that would comply with local environmental regulations.

A briefing is a meeting in which detailed information or instructions are given.

Debriefing has two meanings: A detailed report given by an agent or a soldier after a mission has been carried out or a meeting held after a traumatic event (such as a natural disaster, a hijacking, etc.) to let victims deal with their trauma.

Briefs is another word for underwear, while shorts are trousers (usually for sport or relaxing) that reach only to the thighs or the knees. Shorts can also refer to underwear for men.

Before this text gets too long, I had better remind myself to be brief or to keep it short.

My next blog post will take a look at briefly and shortly, two words with very different meanings.

Take or bring

These two words usually indicate direction in relation to the speaker or the listener.

Take implies moving something from where the speaker or listener is.
Bring implies moving something to where the speaker or listener is.

Can you take my dress to the dry cleaner’s?
You can bring it back when you come next week.
Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?
Don’t take your car to work today. There’s an awful traffic jam in the centre.
Bring the salt, please!
Wait a second! I’ll bring you your towel.

In the last sentence we look at the situation from the listener’s point of view. In other words, we have changed the perspective as in the following examples:

I took your briefcase home with me by mistake.
Thanks for your kind invitation. I’ll be happy to come. Shall I bring some wine?

A woman is standing in front of a lot of wine bottles in a liquor store
Shall I bring some wine?

To sum up, think of movement to or from a position. You can compare with come and go. You come here and you go there. Bring it here and take it there.

That said, you may find that either take or bring is used when the direction is unclear or unimportant. It can also depend on whether you put the emphasis on here or there, if you think about where you are now or already imagine yourself at another location.

When you say ”Should I take some flowers to Mary’s party?”, you are still at home. When you say, ”Shall I bring some wine?”, you are already imagining yourself at the party.

With respect to and in respect of

The two phrases with respect to and in respect of both mean regarding, concerning. While both are used in British English, in respect of is seldom used in American English.

With respect to your enquiry we can deliver the items by Friday.
The two novels are very different in respect of the development of their respective characters.

Both these expressions are used in formal writing. When we speak, we have other ways of expressing regarding, as you can see here.

To a non-native English writer, the use of prepositions in English is often confusing. In the phrases we are looking at here, we cannot change the prepositions and say, for example *in respect to (for the use of the asterix see the comment at the end of this text).

To have respect for someone is to show consideration or respect towards a person or admire someone for their qualities, ideas, actions, etc.

She has great respect for her grandfather’s long experience.
I have no respect for people who keep interrupting others.

Could you care less?

To indicate that you are not at all concerned about something you can say I couldn’t care less.

I couldn’t care less if my old car broke down. I’ve been planning to buy a new one for some time now.

If his girlfriend left him, he couldn’t care less. He has found out that she is not his type.

So the phrase I couldn’t care less means that you don’t care at all.

Therefore it seems strange to hear I could care less, which has grown in use, particularly in American English.

He was so tired that he could care less if the roof fell down on him.

To me this indicates that he actually has some concern left, so the statement is actually illogical; it implies that he still cares, that he still has worries. As a copyeditor I recommend that you stick to the original version with couldn’t.

A crashed car is being lifted on to a tow truck. The image illustrates the phrase I couldn't care less.
I couldn’t care less if I had to scrap my old car.

Overuse of the -ing form

As we have seen in another blog post, the -ing form, the present continuous, indicates that something is going on just for the moment.

I’m writing an email on the balcony (momentarily).
He writes articles for monthly magazines (a regular activity).

He is living in France (temporarily).
I live in Sweden (Sweden is my home country).

To say that someone is only temporarily in a place, the verb stay is often used.

He is staying at a small hotel in Lyon.

Man on a balcony is writing on a laptop
I’m writing an email on the balcony

Non-native speakers of English whose mother tongue only has the present simple sometimes tend to overuse the present continuous when they speak English, since they believe that to be the common form. Even if they intend to convey a permanent state, they may say or write sentences such as the following (for the use of the asterisk read at the end of this text):

*I’m travelling to work by bus every morning all year round. (Since this is what happens regularly you should say I travel to work by bus every morning.)

*He is designing cars. (This is his permanent job, hence the correct sentence would be He designs cars.)

*They are playing golf every weekend. (This is a habit, so it should be They play golf every weekend.) 

*That book is costing nine dollars. (That is a fixed price, so the correct version is That book costs nine dollars.)

*They are making washing machines. (Unless this is a temporary production and they normally make refrigerators, we must write They make washing machines.)

You should think twice before using the -ing form in English!

They are making cars. Really?

What’s the difference between He plays football and He is playing golf?

The person we are talking about is obviously a professional footballer, but right now he is active on a golf course.

In English there are two ways of expressing an action in the present tense: the present simple and the present continuous.

Present simple

We use the present simple when we talk about

– a permanent (or nearly permanent) situation:

My uncle lives in Spain.
He works as a tourist guide.

– what we do regularly, habits:

Her brother collects rare books.
I drink black coffee in the morning.

– what is always true:

Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius.
A Tesla coil produces high-voltage electric pulses.

– what happens in a book or a film:

The two friends plan a robbery.
At the end she marries a millionaire.

Present continuous

We use the present continuous when we talk about

– things that are happening just now:

The water is boiling, so you’d better find the teabags.
Look, it’s raining!

– a temporary situation:

My uncle is staying at a small hotel during his visit to Paris.
He is practising his French.

– temporary or annoying habits:

I’m spending too much time on Facebook these days.
Mum is always complaining about the mess in my room.

– what we see in a photo:

Here we are waiting for the limousine.
The children are waving to grandma from the balcony.

To sum up:

Use the -ing form when you write about what is going on temporarily and the simple form when you write about what happens regularly.

The same applies to the past:

Past simple

My uncle worked in a bookshop.
I ran to school every morning.

Past continuous

They were running to catch the train.
What were you doing at seven o’clock last night? I tried to call you.

A few people are running in an underground station i London. The image illustrates the present continuous They were running to catch the train.
They were running to catch the train.

Often past simple and past continuous are used in the same sentence to say that something happened in the middle of something else going on:

I was having breakfast when the doorbell rang.
When Susan came home, her husband was cooking dinner.

In the last example, her husband had started cooking before Susan came home. If he started cooking after she arrived, we would say 

When Susan came home, her husband cooked dinner.

So, to say They are making cars would suggest that the activity is only temporary. Production in a car factory is a long-term activity, and therefore we must write They make cars.

Non-native writers of English may tend to overuse the -ing form. Read more here.

Can you write ‘I were’ instead of ‘I was’?

Yes, you can and in some cases you should.

Was and were are past forms of the verb be, an irregular verb that is extremely common.

We use was in the first person singular (I) and the third person singular (he, she, it):

I was tired and sat down in my favorite armchair.
She was in the kitchen when there was a knock on the door.
It was the first Tuesday in April.

The other persons take the form were:

Were you happy with the result?
We were together.
They were down by the river.

Was and were are also auxiliary verbs, that is, they are followed by another verb:

I was having a nap when you called.
Was he really doing that?
I thought you were going to help her.

It is possible to use were also with I, he, she and it. We do so in situations that are not real. It can be a hypothetical situation (usually with the word if):

Even if he were my boss, I wouldn’t do it.
If I were you, I would definitely accept the offer.
If this were true, you could stay there for a whole month.

It can be wishful thinking:

I wish I were in Rome again.
How I wish that she were here!

Tourists outside the Colosseum in Rome, Italy
I wish I were in Rome again…

This form of the verb is called the subjunctive mood. The were form with you, we and they is also subjunctive in hypothetical or counterfactual statements, even if it does not differ from the indicative form used in ordinary sentences:

If they were younger, I would offer them a job (subjunctive).
They were already there when I arrived (indicative).

You should avoid writing *I wish that she was here. (For the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text.)

That’s OK!

In a previous blog entry we looked at acronyms and initialisms. Probably the most common initialism is OK. Meaning acceptable, everything is in order, go ahead, I approve, etc., it is used in many languages.

Just as internet-savvy young people nowadays use fancy abbreviations such as 2Y2 (to you too), CU L8ER (see you later) and TNX (thanks), people in the 1830s also made up funny abbreviations, often based on intended misspellings. They could, for example, write KY for know yuse, meaning no use. All right was abbreviated OW (oll wright). OK was such a misspelling, supposed to mean oll korrect. It became popular when it first appeared in print in the Boston Morning Post in 1839.

In 1840, President Martin van Buren campaigned for reelection, and his supporters chose O.K. as the motto for the campaign. Van Buren’s nickname was Old Kinderhook, and supporters formed O.K. Clubs around the country. In the end, van Buren was not okayed by the voters; his opponent William Henry Harrison won the election.

OK became increasingly popular and is used all over the world in various versions such as okeh, okie, okej, okey, ookoo, owkej, hokay and others.

You can write OK in different ways, with and without full stops and in uppercase or lowercase letters. If you write for a journal, you should consult its style guide. OK is also written okay, and in student slang it became okey-dokey or okie-dokie.

Space people at NASA added a letter; AOK means All OK.

The initialism has its own sign: to signal OK, you form a circle with your thumb and first finger with the other fingers pointing upwards.

A hand showing the OK sign with thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other fingers pointing upwards.
That’s OK!

You should, however, be cautious about using this OK sign in certain countries, where it might be vulgar or offensive. In Brazil, for example, it is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger (up yours!). The sign has also become linked to white supremacist groups in the USA.

There have been alternative suggestions about the origin of OK. One theory says that the abbreviation is from the Choctaw language (the Choctaws are a Native American people in the southeastern United States). An example of folk etymology is the belief that OK comes from the Scottish och aye, meaning oh yes. Another explanation points out that the letters OK were stamped on biscuits given to soldiers in the American Civil War. The biscuits came from Orrin Kendall’s bakery. But the most probable explanation is the one from the Boston Morning Post.

What is a backronym?

In an earlier blog post we looked at acronyms.

While an acronym is formed from a phrase, a backronym (or bacronym) is a word that is supposed to come from a phrase, but that phrase has been constructed (often humorously) to fit an existing word.

A well-known example of a backronym is posh, meaning stylish, elegant, upper-class. There is a popular belief that posh came from ’port out, starboard home’. It was thought that rich people would book two cabins on their voyage to India and back home, one on the port side of the ship and the other on the starboard. In that way they made sure that they could travel more comfortably, away from the heat of the sun. However, posh was quite simply a slang word in the late 1800s for an overdressed dandy. Another meaning of posh was a small coin, money. 

Starboard side of the deck of a passenger ship.
Port or starboard?

Another backronym is golf, which is – erroneously – said to come from gentlemen only, ladies forbidden. The word golf is considered to come from Middle Dutch cold, meaning stick or club.

A few more backronyms:

CopConstable on patrol
FordFix or repair daily
IBMIt's Better Manually
NavyNever again volunteer yourself
TipTo ensure promptness

A CAPTCHA is a distorted code you copy on a website to access a page. This is to prevent automated attacks on a website. The acronym is said to mean Completely automated public Turing test to tell computers and humans apart. However, I am not sure that the word is a true acronym. It was probably made in analogy with gotcha, ’I have got you’, meaning that you have caught somebody doing something wrong. A gotcha also means a sudden unexpected problem. The interesting thing is that there now is another way to prevent hackers from accessing a web page – and it is called GOTCHA, said to mean Generating panOptic Turing Tests to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. If you don’t know Alan Turing or the Turing Test, read here or here.

The Morse signal SOS is said to mean Save our Ship or Save our Souls. In fact, the alarm signal is …- – -… (three short, three long, three short without any pause), while the letters SOS in Morse code are three short, pause, three long, pause, three short.

Another distress signal is Mayday, mainly used by airplane or ship crews. It is used in voice communication via radio. In a life-threatening emergency the word is repeated three times. The word is said to have been created by Frederick Rockford, a radio officer at Croydon Airport in London in 1923. Mayday supposedly comes from the French m’aidez meaning ‘help me’ or venez m’aider meaning ‘come and help me’. So Mayday is not a backronym.

Neither is May Day, which is something completely different. It refers to the first of May (or the first Monday in May) being a festival in many countries to celebrate the arrival of spring.

Acronyms and initialisms

Acronyms are a type of abbreviation. They are formed by the first letter of each word in a phrase and usually, but not always, written in capital letters. An acronym is pronounced as a word:

ASAPAs soon as possible
HIRCHuman–industrial robot collaboration
NASDAQNational Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
PINPersonal identification number
POTUSPresident of the United States
SARSSevere acute respiratory syndrome
SWOTStrengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats
UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
WADAWorld Anti-Doping Agency

Some words created as acronyms have become so common that people do not know they are acronyms. Some examples:

laserlight amplification by stimulated emission of radiation
radarradio detection and ranging
scubaself-contained underwater breathing apparatus
sonarsound navigation and ranging
taserThomas A Swift's Electric Rifle

There are other abbreviations formed by the first letter of each word, but they are pronounced as individual letters. These abbreviations are called initialisms. Some examples:

B2BBusiness-to-business
BMXBicycle motocross
CEOChief executive officer
CIACentral Intelligence Agency
DIYDo-it-yourself
FAQFrequently asked questions
FBIFederal Bureau of Investigation
IPOInitial public offering
NHLNational Hockey League
RFIDRadio frequency identification
WWWWorld Wide Web
An RFID tag.
Detail of an RFID tag used on a garment

The most common initialism is probably OK. It is such a popular abbreviation that it deserves its own blog post.

Communicating on the internet has created many abbreviations:

2F4UToo fast for you
AFKAway from keyboard
BBSBe back soon
LOLLaughing out loud
KISSKeep it simple, stupid
ROFLRolling on the floor laughing
YOLOYou only live once

How the first letter in an abbreviation is pronounced determines whether the indefinite article should be written a or an. Compare the following:

A UNESCO spokespersonAn unknown person
An FBI agentA federal agent
An HR managerA human resources manager

In my next blog post you can read about backronyms.

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