This is an occasional blog where I give tips on everyday writing in English. You will find a list of current tips in the sidebar (right).
Also here: my reference sheets on writing numbers, capital letters, hyphens and bullet points.
What is the difference between 'affect' and 'effect'?
Answer: although both words can be used as verbs and nouns, usually affect is used as a verb and effect as a noun:
The film affected everybody. (= affect, verb)
The film had a powerful effect on everybody. (= effect, noun)
'Affect' indicates feelings or change; 'effect' indicates results or consequences.
Only 'effect' can be followed by the preposition 'on'. 'Affected' is often followed by the preposition 'by':
I was profoundly affected by what I saw.
'Effective' is a very common adjective for describing how something has 'affected' you:
The film had a very effective ending.
'Effect' is also used as a verb, though it is not common. It means 'to cause' or 'to bring about':
The new management effected some important changes in the first three months.
'Affect' can be used as a noun, but is not commonly used in everyday speech. It refers to the area of psychology concerned with feelings.
Keep your modifying phrases close to the nouns they modify.
Something is not quite right with this sentence:
Nobody is allowed to dump anything here except city employees.
Can you see the problem? Who can dump? Or who can dump what (or whom)?
The phrase 'except city employees' is a modifying phrase. It modifies 'nobody' - not 'anything' presumably! - so it should remain close to that word, the subject of the sentence:
Nobody, except city employees, is allowed to dump anything here.
Only city employees are allowed to dump anything here.
Here the modifying phrase is attached to its noun, and not dangling.
By manipulating the lower back, the pain was greatly eased.
This sounds like the pain itself was doing the manipulating. A correct version would be:
By manipulating the lower back, the therapist greatly eased the pain.
Here 'the therapist' is the subject of the sentence. He/she both manipulates the back and eases the pain. The 'By..' phrase is a modifying phrase.
And one final example for you to work out:
The nurse handed the baby to the father in pink pyjamas.
Who is wearing the pink pyjamas?
For more see this page. The example at the top of this post comes from this site. A non-dangling version would be:
Cut out the impersonal 'it' if you know the subject of the sentence.
One way to get greater clarity in your writing is to identify the subject of each sentence, the person or thing doing the action. The pronoun 'it' is a little word to watch out for and, in many cases, remove in favour of a known subject.
The impersonal pronoun 'it' can be useful when referring to a topic like the weather:
It's raining again!
Or when used in a general statement:
It is common practice to use 'it' in a sentence like this one.
But too many impersonal 'its' in your writing can make your writing sound......well, impersonal.
Very often 'it' can be removed in favour of a known subject, either a more specific pronoun or a noun. This usually means that the key verb or verbs in the sentence - the action words- become clearer.
Here are some examples of sentences from memos with and without 'it':
It is necessary that the committee presents a full proposal before the end of April.
The committee must present a full proposal before the end of April.
It will be beneficial for the Organisation to expand and renew its Internet facilities as more and more communication is web-based.
The Organisation will benefit from expanded and renewed Internet facilities as more and more communication is web-based.
And some more examples:
In the report it suggests that moderate exercise is better than no exercise at all.
The report suggests that moderate exercise is better than no exercise at all.
The group wanted to meet in January, but it didn't happen until May.
The group wanted to meet in January, but the conference didn't take place until May.
Tip: whenever possible, identify a concrete subject, the doer of the action. The key verbs should become clearer as a result.
Sometimes two sentences are better than one.
It is easy for sentences to run on:
The organisation has declared its intention to expand its internet facilities, however it has few qualified web designers at present.
Staff have signalled a strong interest in further training in this area, for example the seminar held last year proved very popular.
Can you see the problem here? 'However' and 'for example' are used to link the two parts of the statements to make one sentence. However, the two parts need to be separated. Instead of commas, full stops are required:
The organisation has declared its intention to expand its internet facilities. However, it has few qualified web designers at present.
Staff have signalled a strong interest in further training in this area. For example, the seminar held last year proved very popular.
'However' and 'for example' are usually used to start new sentences, even though they link to the sentence before. If you use them in the middle of a sentence, make sure they come after 'and' or 'but'. This writing problem is often referred to as 'comma splice'. The comma is used where a full stop is needed.
Other similar conjunctions to watch out for are:
therefore, then, nevertheless, accordingly, as a result, moreover, even so, rather, indeed
These words frequently start sentences and are usually followed by a comma, as in the two examples above.
Other linking words - called co-ordinating adverbs - are more commonly used in mid-sentence. Examples include:
even though, although, whereas, while, so
So the first sentence above could be rewritten:
The organisation has declared its intention to expand its internet facilities, even though it has few qualified web designers at present.
See the post on signpost words for more examples.
Note: in the two examples above semi-colons - ; - would work just as well before 'however' and 'for example'.
Some sentences can get rather overloaded!
When writing a first draft it is easy to overload your sentences with too much information.
When editing you have a chance to stand back from what you have written to see if it really communicates what you wish to say. Often you need to unpack some things from a sentence to make it work.
Here are two things to look out for when editing overloaded sentences:
1. Where is the Subject?
The subject of a sentence is the main person or thing performing the main action. It is not necessarily the same as the topic of the sentence. When writing, it is quite easy to lose your sentence subject in the topic:
Following our recent phone conversation of 6 February in which we discussed the possibility of cooperation between our two agencies in restoring an NGO presence in the city of Balan following the end of the civil war there and agreed to look further into ways and means, I am writing to you to propose that we meet in the coming weeks to discuss further the idea of cooperation between our two agencies.
Phew! This is an overloaded sentence. 'I' here is the subject and 'am writing' is the main verb (and purpose) of the sentence. But before getting to the subject the writer has used a long sub-clause (actually more than one!) to introduce the background topic or 'archive' of the letter. As an opening sentence in a letter this is not effective.
Notice how the second half of the sentence runs into problems. The writer is forced to repeat the word 'cooperation'. This is confusing for the reader because the sub-clause has done all the work of the sentence, leaving the main clause with little to do.
How could this be improved?
The writer could try using a shorter introduction clause:
Following our recent phone conversation about possible cooperation in Balan, I am writing.....
Here the subject is closer to the start of the sentence and the 'archive' is kept to a minimum.
Another approach would be to remove the introductory phrase altogether and put the topic or 'archive' into a second sentence:
I am writing to propose that we meet in the coming weeks to discuss possible cooperation between our two agencies in restoring an NGO presence in the city of Balan. As you will recall, we recently discussed this matter in a phone conversation on 6 February and agreed to look further into the ways and means of cooperation.
Here the first sentence has a clearer S V O pattern:
SUBJECT ('I') + MAIN VERBS ('..am writing to propose') and OBJECT ('...the possibility of cooperation..').
These are the key elements of the sentence. The sentence makes both subject and topic clear. The second sentence is the 'archive' as it mentions the phone call. Although the word 'cooperation' is used again in this second sentence, a new concept ('ways and means') is introduced, preparing the reader for the next part of the letter.
2. Chunk Down
The problem of long sentences is often solved simply by chunking down: turn one long sentence into two or more shorter ones. Consider this example:
Working together could have considerable benefits for both our organisations because it would mean that we could share premises and operational costs and communicate better with the government authorities in Balanan, and moreover we could make more effective representations to world governments and the United Nations, who as you know recently identified Balanan as a country in need of long-term reconstruction aid and encouraged NGOs to work together in the post-war recovery period.
This sentence begins well. Its subject ('Working together') and its main verbal unit ('will have considerable benefits for..') are both clear. It runs into problems because it tries to fit too many items into the rest of the sentence. Look at all those linking words
because + and + and + and + moreover + and + who + and
all trying to hold the sentence together.
How could this be solved? Try breaking the long sentence down into smaller ones:
Working together could have considerable benefits for both our organisations. We could, for example, share premises and operational costs. We could also secure better communication with the Balanan government. Moreover, we could make more effective representations to world governments and the United Nations. The latter recently identified Balanan as a country in need of long-term reconstruction aid and encouraged NGOs to work together in the post-war recovery period.
This revised version makes four sentences out of the original one. There is now no sense of the text being overloaded with information. The sentences follow on from each other. Note how 'we' in the second sentence relates back to 'our organisations' in the first; and 'the latter' in the fifth sentence relates back to 'the United Nations' in the fourth.
Also, the repetition of 'we could' helps to hold the paragraph together:
We could.......We could also....Moreover, we could....Moreover....
Note the work done by the linking word 'Moreover' here. It works better as a sentence opener, followed by a comma, than in the middle of a sentence after 'and'. As well as adding another point to the writer's argument it signals a slight change of direction in the paragraph.
Other 'signpost' words which can be used to begin sentences and signal changes of direction are:
However,.......Furthermore,......In contrast,........First of all,..........Consequently,.........
* Try to get your sentence subject close to the start of the sentence
* Make sure the main verbs of the sentence are clear
* Chunk down if your sentence is becoming too long or complicated
* Limit the number of linking words (and, but, moreover) that you use in one sentence
* Try using some signpost words at the start of sentences
* Don't be afraid of the short sentence. It can work wonders!
When writing, give your reader some direction.
You might think that short sentences are more effective because they are easier to read. But in practice lots of short sentences can be just as difficult to follow as lots of long ones.
The best approach is to combine long and short sentences. And give your reader some signposts.
Compare these two opening paragraphs of memos:
The SACT met recently. It is planning to propose training courses on web design. The courses will be offered to all staff. The company has recently decided to enhance its internet and intranet facilities. The courses will include learning html and web design applications. They will not include programming. The committee is planning to make a budget submission. The submission will be at the end of the year. Your feedback is needed. Your feedback will help the committee in making a successful submission. Feedback is welcome any time before 15 November.
Following a recent meeting, the SACT is planning to propose training courses on web design in response to the company's recent decision to enhance its internet and intranet facilities. These courses will be offered to all staff. They will include learning html and web design applications but will not include programming. The committee is planning to make a budget submission at the end of the year and needs your feedback on the proposed training in order to make the submission as successful as possible. Your feedback is welcome any time before 15 November.
The first paragraph has eleven sentences. All of them are short and have only one clause. But is it easy to read? Is it reader-friendly?
The second paragraph has five sentences of different lengths and using different types of clauses. It has the same information, but instead of reading like a list the items are combined.
The words in green link together pieces of information. They also help to link each sentence to the one just before it. These words direct the reader through the text. They are signpost words.
The second paragraph is more effective than the first because it combines long, medium and short sentences. Sentence one has three pieces of information. Sentence two, by contrast, has only one. It is this variety in length that makes the writing more effective.
Look again at the sentences in paragraph two. It has this pattern:
The two short sentences give important information to the reader, but they only work in combination with the two longer sentences (giving three pieces of information each) and the medium-sized sentence (two pieces of information).
The phrase 'the proposed training' is added to link and repeat the key words of the memo - proposal and training.
* Combine long, medium and short sentences in a single paragraph.
* Try putting short sentences at the beginning, in the middle or at the end.
* Make sure the short sentences communicate important information.
* Focus on the 'signpost' words that link sentences together.
* Deadlines and key dates are effective at the end of the first paragraph of a memo.
It is helpful to know some of the basic sentence patterns in English. See this site for an outline of the main types of sentences in English.
A hyphen is a small mark (-) used to join words together.
Hyphens are used widely in English to attach two (or more) words, or parts of words, in order to make a compound word.
Here are some examples:
two-thirds, ex-husband, anti-aircraft, vice-president, third-world debt, 25-year-old footballer, value-added tax, the ill-equipped regiment, book-keeping, re-entry, shake-up, build-up, trouble-maker, brother-in-law, prisoner-of-war, ice-cream, turning-point, working-party.
However, there are many two-word combinations where no hyphens are used:
birth rate, child care, vice versa, Land Rover, air force, ballot box, car maker
And there are many words which are composed of two words but are written as one:
peacekeeper, ceasefire, cashflow, headache, handout, businessman, underpaid, workforce, wartime, stockmarket, overrule, offshore, forever, anyone.
How do you know if you need a hyphen? Short answer: use a dictionary. Sometimes British and US dictionaries will differ. Also, the Economist website (see link under 'Styleguides' on my Writing Resources site) has an excellent section on hyphens with lots of examples.
Long answer: try to learn and practise these rules for using hyphens:
1. In fractions:
two-thirds, four-fifths, one-sixth
2. In words using the prefixes ex-, anti-, non-:
ex-president, anti-aircraft, non-payment
But not in most words using sub-, under- , inter- and over-:
submarine, underrate, international, overpaid
unless the words are longer and the hyphen helps to make it more readable (eg 'inter-governmental).
3. In some job titles:
vice-president, under-secretary, assistant-director, deputy-head, field-marshal
but not in some political titles:
district attorney, Secretary General of the United Nations, permanent secretary
4. In phrases where there could be confusion or ambiguity:
a little-used car (not a little used car)
high-school girl (not high schoolgirl)
third-world war (not third world war)
little-known musician (not little known musician)
5. In making adjectives from two words:
right-wing groups, public-sector wages, 25-year-old footballer, value-added tax, first-hand account, hands-on approach, strong-minded leader
Also note: face-to-face meeting, ground-to-air missile.
6. In modified adjectives before a noun:
the well-dressed woman had a soft-spoken voice
the ill-equipped regiment was short of supplies
the much-discussed proposal was finally accepted
the long-awaited match ended in penalties
but not when the adjective comes after the verb:
the woman was well dressed and spoke softly
the regiment was ill equipped and short of supplies
the proposal was much discussed and was finally accepted
the match was long awaited and ended in penalties
Also, not in phrases using adverbs, especially -ly ones:
some people are very expensively educated
the report was carefully written and fully costed
the barn owl is fast disappearing
7. In words where an identical letter separates the two joined parts:
book-keeping, coat-tails, pre-emptive, re-entry
but there are some exceptions:
overrule, underrate, withhold
8. In making nouns from verb + preposition:
there was a long build-up to the match
the whole set-up needs to be changed
the company is going through a shake-up
let's have a get-together some time
but note that some of these nouns are now so established in English that hyphens are no longer needed:
setback, handout, inbox, takeaway
9. In points of the compass:
north-east(ern), south-west(ern), mid-west(ern)
Note: capitals are only used for the recognised name of a region, eg South-East Asia
10. In a large number of well-known compound words:
asylum-seeker, catch-phrase, fund-raiser, infra-red, know-how, news-stand, rain-check, starting-point, turning-point, task-force, brother-in-law, prisoner-of-war, time-bomb, working-party, second-in-command.
On hyphens, see this BBC story.
When should you use a capital letter in written English?
Here are some basic rules to help you. Remember that the use of capital letters is often specific to an organisation. The United Nations Correspondence Manual gives advice on capital letters specific to this Organisation.
1. The first word in a sentence.
2. The pronoun 'I'.
3. Name titles like Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, Professor, Sir, His Holiness (+ name).
4. Names of people: William Shakespeare, Booker T. Junior, Madonna.
5. Ranks and titles when used in conjunction with a name: President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, Colonel Qadafi but not when used on their own: the president; Dick Cheney, the vice-president of the USA; Qadafi is one of the best known colonels in Africa.
Note: jobs and offices are usually written without capitals if not used as part of the name: the foreign secretary, the chairman of British Airways, the prime minister.
Relations are only capitalised if they are used as part of the name: Uncle John; John was my favourite uncle.
Positions are capitalised when used as part of the name only: Professor Smythe is a history professor.
6. Full names of organisations, ministries, departments, treaties: the United Nations, the Metropolitan Police, the New York Stock Exchange, the Treaty of Rome, the European Union.
7. Large or central committees: the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, the Staff Committee on Education and Training but not special groups or sub-committees: the second sub-committee of the Economic and Social Affairs Working Group (unless it has its own specific title).
8. Named geographical places: The Hague, the Sahara Desert, Australasia, the Tower of Pisa but not state, federal, national, government unless part of a title.
9. Well-known regions: Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South East Asia but not south Amsterdam, western Peru.
10. Celestial bodies: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, the Earth but not the sun, the moon, stars or earth (if not referred to as a planet).
11. Newspapers and Journals: Newsweek, The Economist, The London Review of Books.
12. The main words in book and article titles: 'Seven Ways to Improve your Love Life' (article), Improving your Life Today (book).
13. Days, months, holidays: Monday, September, Easter but not seasons: spring, winter, autumn/fall.
14. Historical Events: the Crusades, World War Two, the French Revolution, the Depression.
15. Nationalities and languages: Finnish, German, Tagalog.
16. Departments when given as titles: the Department for Forensic Investigation.
17. Religious and political terms from names: Christian, Buddhist, Marxist. Also religious groups: Sikhs, Catholics, Protestants.
18. Named courses: Effective Written Communication, Comparative Religion 101 but not subjects: a course on effective writing; a student of comparative religion.
19. Rivers: the Limpopo, the Rhine, the River Thames, the Mississippi River.
20. Lakes: Lake Ontario, Lake Victoria.
21. Mountains and ranges: Mount Everest, the Alps, the Himalayas but the Appalachian mountains.
22. Brands and trade names: Gap, BP, Dell, Longman, Zinfandel and objects named after trade names: Walkman, Hoover, Valium; and products named after places: a good Bordeaux wine, a nice Edam cheese.
23. Political parties: the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Labour Party.
24. Objects which have become historically significant or religious objects: the Berlin Wall, the FA Cup, the Koran, the Bar (UK legal).
25. Articles and chapters: Article 19 in the Treaty of Rome.
Some words and phrases which usually do not need a capital letter: civil war, common market, new year's day, opposition, white paper, the pope, the queen, the right/the left (wing), cabinet, administration, aborigines, french fries, 19th amendment, third world, the web.
And some that are usually written with a capital: the Crown, Internet, World Wide Web, Eurosceptic/Europhile.
When should you use bullet points? And how? Bullet points offer an easy way of presenting information in a list, but are they always a good idea? Are they always reader-friendly?
Six Tips on Bullet Points
1. Don't have too many items in a bullet list.
Three is good, four OK, five manageable (if you're lucky), more than five - think again!
2. Don't use bullet points too many times in one document.
Bullets are ideal for summarising, previewing or presenting the key points. They are used to catch the reader's eye and make information more visually accessible. If you use them too often, they lose their effect. See handout for alternatives to bullet points.
3. Make sure bullet points are grammatically consistent.
All bullet items should follow on grammatically from the head sentence.
4. Make sure the items are of similar length.
All bullet items should be roughly of the same length. Avoid sub-clauses or digressions like 'however' or additional items in brackets.
5. Choose carefully between 'blank' and 'numbered' (sequential) bullets.
If bullets are 'blank', the order in which items are presented is not important. If you use roman numerals (i, ii, iii) or letters (a,b,c) the reader may see the order of items as important.
6. Always ask: are bullets the most effective way of getting my message across?
Sometimes bullets may appear to be the best way of presenting information (for example, you have a list of points to make) but in practice they are not effective. One item in your list may turn out to be more important than all the others. Or some items may need additional explanation.
Bullets are not good for telling stories, and they are not good for describing the relation between causes and consequences. They are good, however, for giving readers a preview or overview, and for summarising recommendations.
Here is an example of bullet points put to effective use in a report:
Regarding the establishment of a base in the country, the mission feasibility report recommends a three-part strategy:
i. Initial sharing of premises with existing UNTAR mission;
ii. Immediate representations to the government of B_________ to request a permanent site;
iii. Acquisition of our own premises before end 2005.
Note: in United Nations practice, each item in the list has a capital letter and items are separated by semi-colons.
Often when writing memos, letters and reports you need to refer to numbers. How do you do this? Should you use figures ('8'), words ('eight'), or a mixture of both?
The answer: it depends on the number, the context and the type of communication you are writing. The UN Correspondence Manual (pp. 38-39) gives detailed rules regarding numbers in everyday correspondence. In most technical and statistical communication, figures are used. Figures are also used for presenting a large amount of data in a report. In memos, letters and legal documents, a mixture of figures and words is used.
Here are the main rules you need to know for everyday writing of numbers:
1. Numbers under 10 should be written as words:
The report contains six sections.
The delegation visited four areas where rebel incursions had been reported in the previous two weeks.
2. All numbers should be written in words at the beginning of sentences:
Four hundred and fifty women were selected.
Sixty miles separates the two warring factions.
3. Fractions and ages should be written as words in non-technical, non-statistical texts:
Only two-thirds of the delegates voted.
This applies to everyone over the age of eighteen.
4. Numbers between 10 and 999,999 are normally written as figures:
The number of staff now stands at 1,417.
Although 69 people applied for the grant, only five were successful.
5. Percentages and ratios are always written as figures:
The budget increase for 2006 is projected to be 3 per cent.
The ratio of yields per hectare was 10:1.
Note: 'per cent' is used, not '%', except in statistical texts.
6. Results of elections and matches are written as figures:
The resolution was adopted by 15 votes to none, with 65 astentions.
The staff team lost the match 6-3.
7. Dates and times are written as figures:
On Thursday, 26 May 2005 at 10.30 am.
Note: dates in United Nations correspondence are always written in this form. Forms such as 26/05/05 are not used. Time is indicated as above (not 10:30). Twenty-four hour clock may be used (2100, not 21.00).
8. Numbers with fractions should be written as figures:
Costs were reduced by 10.75 per cent and profits almost doubled, increasing 1.75 times over the previous year.
9. Dimensions, weights and measures should be written as figures:
The container is 10.5" long, 6" wide and 3.2" deep. It weighs 1.2 kg.
10. Reference numbers are written as figures:
I am referring to chapter V, page 13, paragraph 2, in document A/54/1.
Note: for items 3-9, words are used if the number appears at the beginning of a sentence:
Two-thirds of the delegates voted.
11. Sums of money are written as figures:
The Committee was promised a relief sum of $20,000.
12. When indicating a number range, figures are used with either 'to' or a dash, and the unit given after the second item:
Salary increases across the region ranged from 3 to 4 per cent.
The shells landed 2 - 3 km from the village.
The increase in the number of children in the 8 - 15-year-old age group is marked.
He served in seven field offices from 1997 to 1999 (not 1997-99).
13. When giving high value number ranges, the unit is repeated to avoid any confusion:
The fund increased from $2 million to $4 million during the period.
14. When numbers are combined sometimes it is necessary to use words for one item to avoid confusion:
I ordered twenty 15-cent stamps.
I received 120 fifteen-cent stamps.
The raft was made of 12 ten-foot poles.
The class consisted of 30 seven-year-old children.
Note the hyphens used in these examples.
15. Figures are used if they are part of the name of a product type:
B-2 bomber, Airbus A340, Lockheed P-3 Orion, 7-11 stores. 5.5-inch calibre, 25-pounder.