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Grammar: Style

Tips to help students improve their grammar skills

Why Style Matters

Your writing style should not get in the way of the reader's understanding of your writing.  In fact, the reader should hardly notice your style because she is so caught up in your ideas, which transition flawlessly from point to point.

Knowing a few basic rules will help improve your writing style.

Another important way to improve your style is to read.  Read the kinds of works you want to produce and pay attention to the way the author presents his ideas.

Weak Words

Every word matters in your writing.  Don't use a weak word when you can use a strong one.  Here are a few examples:

Things--what things?  Describe what you mean.

Be--Sometimes you can't avoid forms of "to be," but when you can, choose a stronger word.

Stuff--This word is not only undescriptive, but informal.  It has no place in an academic paper.

It--Be careful that you make it clear what your pronouns refer to.  Don't use pronouns that don't refer to a specific thing.  Example: It is important to write strong, clear sentences.  Better: Writing strong, clear sentences is important.

Good--This is a very vague word.  Instead, say how an object or person is good.  Is he brave?  Is she confident?  Is the program useful?  All of these words give much more information than "good" gives.

Precise Language

Always choose the specific word over the vague word.  It is better to say that a German shepherd, a yellow lab, a Chihuahua, or a brown mutt bit you than to say a dog bit you.  Were you sitting under an elm, a weeping willow, an oak, an apple tree or a pine tree when you saw the girl walk by?  Specific words like these give your readers a more precise picture of what you are describing.

That vs. Who

Use "who" in reference to a person; use "that" in reference to anything else.

Example: I know a man who can juggle five burning torches.  There is one torch that shines brighter than all the others.

While this isn't actually a grammar rule, most styles prefer this usage of "that" and "who."

Definition

The elements that characterize one's writing. 

Unnecessary Words

In speaking, we frequently insert words that don't have a lot of meaning.  We can do this unconsiously, because it gives us time to think of the next thing we're going to say.  However, in writing, it is better to be concise.  Here are some words that you should weed out of your essays in favor of a clearer, more to-the-point style of writing.  These words seem like they intensify the meaning of the sentence, but they actually weaken it, because they are so overused and no longer have much meaning.

Delete these words to strengthen the sentence

Just--  Drug abuse is a problem in high schools because teens just want to have a good time and think drugs will give that to them.  Better: Drug abuse is a problem in high schools because teens want to have a good time and think drugs will give that to them.

Really-- George Herbert's poem "Prayer (1)" really powerfully portrays several aspects of prayer.  Better: George Herbert's poem "Prayer (1)" powerfully portrays several aspects of prayer.

Very-- It is very important to tip your waiters.  Better: It is important to tip your waiters.

Totally-- He was totally oblivious.  Better:  He was oblivious.

Obviously-- If it is obvious, save the reader some time and don't say it!  Obviously, Shakespeare's skill in different genres does not mean he was not the author of the works that are generally attributed to him.  Better:  Shakespeare's skill in different genres does not mean he was not the author of the works that are generally attributed to him.

Of course--  If it is obvious, save the reader some time and don't say it!

Edit wordy constructions like these

Hold a meeting--meet

Make a demand--demand

 

 

Parallel Sentence Structure

Variation is good in writing, but there needs to be unity within a sentence.  If you begin a sentence using one type of structure, you need to continue that structure throughout every part of the sentence.

Not Parallel:  Jesus teaches that we need to be humble, selfless, and want to give our money to the poor.

Parallel:  Jesus teaches that we need to be humble, selfless, and charitable.

Not Parallel:  If I am chosen for the position, I will bring my eagerness to learn, be on time, and have enthusiasm.

Parallel:  If I am chosen for the position, I will bring my eagerness to learn, my punctuality, and my enthusiasm.

 

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Redundancy

In writing, it is important to be clear.  However, it is also important for you to be concise.  Therefore, avoid unnecessarily repeating information.  Here are some commonly used redundancies:

12:00 noon/midnight--noon and midnight always occur at 12:00.

ATM machine--the M of ATM stands for machine.  Leave off machine, it's already included in the acronym.

Added bonus--a bonus implies something added

Advance warning--a warning after the fact would hardly be a warning.

And etc.--etc is an abreviation for the Latin et cetera, which means and so forth.  Thus, the "and" here is redundant.

Complete opposite--how would something be only a partial opposite?  Gray is the partial opposite of white?

Completely surrounded--surrounded means enclosed on all sides, if you are not completely surrounded, you are not surrounded.

Consensus of opinion--a consensus means an agreement of opinion

Estimated at approximately--most people don't estimate exact numbers.

Feelings they feel--you can feel things other than feeling (textures, for example) but this still sounds redundant.

Free gift--a gift is not a gift if you have to pay for it.

Forward progress--as opposed to backward progress?

HIV virus--the V stands for virus

Honest truth--truth by definition is honest.  Use one word or the other--there is no need to use both.

New breakthrough--if it isn't new, it's not really a breakthrough

Past history--history, as we know it, occured in the past.

PIN number--the N of PIN stands for number.  Leave off number, it's already included in the acronym.

Reason why--why refers to reason, thus you should say the reason that.

Revert back--revert means to go back.

Round in shape--round is a shape, the reader knows this, you don't need to inform him or her.

Same exact--these are synonyms.

SAT test--T stands for test

Unexpected surprise--if you expected it, it wouldn't be a surprise, now, would it?