Good writing is:
Pure means that the writing is in just correct English, without anything else added.
Pure writing doesn’t include:
- foreign language words
- unnecessary technical words
- old, unused words
Clear means writing that uses normal, simple words, and does everything possible to avoid confusion. Words are not used that might be misunderstood to mean something else. Clear writing also does not show off, or use complicated terms that no one understands.
Precise means writing that intends to have the reader completely understand what is being communicated with as few words as possible.
Precise writing has the goal of getting something understood immediately understood by the reader. It is writing that doesn’t use long, boring sentences. It doesn’t overuse words. However, it is not too short to be baffling.
The best writers
The best writers have something they want to say, and they want the reader to actually get it.
It is not a sign of intelligence to use big words and long sentences. Sometimes, it’s a sign of being a jerk.
There is a word to describe someone who shows off, is dull and highly academic: Pedant.
That’s probably the most complicated word in this post. I only mention it so that you know how to call someone who writes like they have mothballs stuck in their mind, who writes to show off and who is incredibly wordy to the point of being totally uninteresting.
Just because someone uses big words does not mean they are smart.
Don’t worry about looking dumb by writing simply. Great writers write simply.
I have a large vocabulary – larger than most people. But I go out of my way to choose simpler words in my writing.
Paula LaRocque, a teacher who wrote a well-known (and excellent) book on writing, used to have her students write as much as they could in 10 minutes. Just… go!
Because of the time pressure, she found that the writers all used simple words. But what surprised her even more was that the writing was excellent!
It was only when the students tried to “write well” that their writing became boring and dense.
Also, realize people are not as educated as they once were. It’s important to understand that no matter how smart you are, the majority of the population is actually very poorly educated. And I include some college-educated people in this statement as well. I remember being in a college writing course where I was surprised at the lack of education of fellow students.
If you’re involved in any form of teaching, you will agree: what was acceptable in the past as an elementary school education is now taught in college. If you don’t believe me, search online for a test from the early 20th century. The level of education of even poor country kids was better than what “smart” city kids get these days.
You will lose any reader if you try to get fancy.
Don’t write to seem smart. Write to get your point across. Generally, a good rule is to keep your words at the vocabulary level of a 15-year-old and you’ll be safe.
Write to be understood. Write with simple words.
Get your words right
There is a bizarre idea in education that one “figures out the meaning of a word by its context.” There are many smart teachers who give this terrible advice.
This thinking leads to major errors.
Look at the following sentence:
He was so noisome. We hated him being around us.
What do you think the word “noisome” means? Looking at the context and thinking about it a bit, you might think that “noisome” means “noisy.”
So then you decide to sound cool, and you write something like this:
The neighbors were upset because I was noisome.
You just got trapped by the “figure the word out by its context.” You just wrote that you smell terrible. Noisome means smelly!
These kinds of mistakes happen quite often.
Do a lot with a little
A good writer packs a punch, writing with as few words as possible, to get the most information to the reader in the shortest sentence possible.
Look at the difference in these two sentences:
She was so incredibly stunning, so beautiful and wonderful to look at that all men were crazy about her and would constantly bother her. When she would go out, men were constantly asking for her number and she would just ignore them.
Here is the same idea, but shorter, with more punch:
Her beauty drove men crazy. When she went out, men would ask for her number, only to be ignored.
Look at this boring sentence:
Bill went scuba diving in Aruba last January, but he wasn’t able to see all the sights that he wanted to, so instead he went back in March to dive more to see what he had missed, and was able to complete all of his diving satisfactorily.
Grammatically, it’s fine. But what a completely boring sentence! I can’t teach this because it’s common sense. When you write something, look to how you can remove anything that’s not necessary. It’s a discipline that is learned.
Here’s the same sentence, re-written:
Bill went scuba diving in Aruba last January but missed some areas, so he went back in March and completed all of his dives.
Start with the main idea first
Generally, write your sentences starting with the main idea. Then add more information to your first sentence.
France in the summer is a beautiful place to visit. The countryside is beautiful, with rolling hills, pleasant fields, lazy rivers and carefree living. Best of all, you’ll enjoy incredible food and wine, as you journey through a country that values quality of life over anything else.
There is another style of writing, where you end with the main idea:
A beautiful countryside, with rolling hills, pleasant fields, lazy rivers and carefree living; where one enjoys incredible food and wine while journeying through a country that values quality of life over anything else. France in the summer is a beautiful place to visit.
Do you see the difference? The first example is simply easier to follow. The second style is fine, but better used in creative or informal writing. In normal everyday writing, it’s hard to follow
A tip to give your writing laser focus
Ask yourself this question when starting out a writing assignment.
- What is the piece of writing about?
- What is this piece of writing really about?
- This book is about how to become a better writer.
- This book is about how to avoid common mistakes in everyday writing so you can be successful .
The first question is weak and general. The second question gets down to specifics. It’s a useful tool that you can try yourself.
Subheads – the boldface introductions to paragraphs like you see in this book – are used because they work. In a fast-paced world, readers skim rapidly through most writing, scanning the subheads. Make them informative on their own, so the reader can quickly pick up what’s being discussed just from the subhead.
Writing longer pieces
Thinking logically is key in all writing.
It starts with a sentence, itself a complete thought. Sentences are put into paragraphs, which are themselves bigger thoughts. Then a longer piece of writing, such as an essay, is one really big thought.
A common practice for longer pieces is to state the overall idea that you’re going to discuss in the first paragraph, and then expand on it as you go further down. It’s tidy and neat. Logical. You don’t ramble on and on, putting in “oh, and there’s this other thing I meant to say” halfway through the document. It shows a scattered, disorganized mind.
A similar and often-used writing style is called the “inverted pyramid.” This style is where you get all the key pieces of information in the first paragraph, and then the less important points further down. This is the style used by reporters and is useful in writing things like newspaper articles.
Vary your sentence length.
Don’t let all of your sentences be the same length. A good sentence length is 15-20 words long. However, you should use both longer sentences and shorter sentences to create a rhythm in your writing.
This part sounds complicated, but it’s common sense.
Research show that children do better learning music at a young age. For example a 15% increase in IQ.
Look at that last sentence. It’s a fragment – something just sitting there, not joined to anything. It’s confusing.
Instead, just restructure your sentence to make it clearer:
Research shows that children do better in life when they learn music at a young age. For example, one study showed a 15% increase in IQ for children who studied music at a young age versus those who studied no music at all.
One error I see quite a lot is weird sentences that just kind of babble, just using a comma:
She is really nice, she is always doing good things for the poor.
He wrote the book, he found himself wildly successful.
What’s happening is that there are two “mini-sentences” making up the sentence (these “mini-sentences” are called independent clauses).
When you’re joining parts of a sentence like this, use words such as: and, but, for, yet, nor, so, after, although, before, unless, as, because, even though, if, since, until, when, while, however, moreover, on the other hand, nevertheless, instead, also, therefore, consequently, otherwise, and as a result.
She is really nice, and as a result, is always doing good things for the poor.
He wrote the book, and consequently, found himself wildly successful.
You can also use a semi-colon (;), which is really a way to join two sentences; it’s very useful.
Verbs have “voice,” a fancy word that means that the verb shows whether the subject is giving or receiving action.
Active voice verbs show giving action, passive voice verbs show receiving action.
Tom hit the ball
She kicked the wall
The car damaged the bike.
The ball was hit.
The wall was kicked.
The bike was damaged.
You don’t even need to know grammar to understand passive versus active voice. You can “feel” it in the writing. Get the idea of something doing something, and you’ve understood active voice.
You can easily change a sentence to active voice:
The book was written by Mary Jones.
Mary Jones wrote the book.
Active words make the writing come alive. It’s a secret to powerful writing. Marketers use it to sell. And you can use it to make your writing livelier and clearer.
Now, some people love to use passive voice to disguise something that’s their fault:
“The bridge was blown up,” said the general.
No one is taking responsibility for the bridge being blown up – especially that general. (You can, of course, use this trick yourself!)
Don’t overuse prepositions. In fact, try to keep them to a minimum. You can sometimes remove them completely.
Look at the following sentence:
The car was driving at an incredibly fast pace.
Well, just get rid of the preposition and tighten up the sentence:
The car was driving incredibly fast.
Use bullet points
Bullet points are a valuable tool to create effective, clear writing.
Look at this paragraph:
It’s simple to have satisfied customers. You only need to create a great product, deliver great service, communicate regularly, and ask customers for advice on how to improve.
It’s not a very easy sentence to read. So, you could use bullet points to make it clearer.
It’s simple to have satisfied customers. You only need to:
- create a great product,
- deliver great service,
- communicate regularly and
- ask for advice on how to improve.
Here are some pointers to keep in mind when writing bullet points:
- Keep them simple and uncluttered. Don’t use sub-bullet points and sub-categories.
- Keep them each roughly the same length as the rest, so that they are neat and orderly.
- Start them each with the same part of speech. Don’t, for example, start one with a verb and then use a noun to start the next one.
Also, good bullet points don’t each need to be a complete sentence, but they should be consistent with each other. In other words, make each bullet point a complete sentence, or make each one an incomplete sentence – but at least make them all the same way.
There is a matter of style when it comes to bullet points, so not everything has to be perfect. Just look at the bullet points to see if they are neat, uncluttered and logical.
Give it a night. And read it aloud.
If you’re not under a deadline, a good idea is put aside what you’ve written, and read it with fresh eyes the next day. Another tip is one that many professional business writers do: they read the text aloud to themselves. It’s often amazing how a mistake will pop-out when text is read aloud, which is never caught when reading silently.
How to write
Years ago, when I was first starting in my career, I had a writing assignment from my boss. I was embarrassed to ask “what do I write?” His answer? Just start and write what you would normally say to someone.
It’s good advice. Just start. Write as if you’re talking to the person being written to, and the words will start to flow. Then, go back and polish things up to make it all look good.
The key is start writing. By writing, you develop your style. And write a lot.
Joseph Devlin, who wrote a masterpiece in 1910 on writing, has some wonderful words on the subject of writing. Take them to heart (I’ve edited them a bit for modern language):
“The best way to learn to write is to sit down and write, just as the best way how to learn to ride a bicycle is to ride it. Write first about common things, subjects that are familiar to you.
Never hunt for subjects, there are thousands around you. Describe what you saw yesterday— a fire, a horse, a dog-fight on the street. Imitate the best writers in their style, but not in their exact words. Know what you write about, write about what you know.
To know you must study. The world is an open book…nature is one great book, the pages of which are open to anyone.
Don’t think that a college education is necessary to succeed as a writer. Far from it. Some of college men are dead-heads, useless to the world and to themselves. A man may know so much of everything that he knows little of anything.
If you are poor, that is not a bad thing but an advantage. Poverty is an incentive, not a drawback. Better to be born with a good, working brain in your head than with a silver spoon in your mouth.
Employers are constantly on the lookout for good talkers, those who are able to attract the public and convince others by the force of their language.
It is possible for everyone to become a correct speaker if he persists and take a little care.
Listen to the best speakers and note carefully the words which impress you most.”
There’s a bit of an art to writing well. It comes from reading a lot and from practicing a lot. You’ll develop your style over time, but remember to keep the basics in there.
Practice good writing and it will help you in life. It will help you in telling stories and facts, and to think more logically.
 Thanks to Ann Gynn at the Content Marketing Institute for this great tip.
A sentence is a single complete thought.
I hate fish.
The single complete thought is “I hate fish.”
Now, we’ll make it a bigger sentence:
I hate fish because I break out in a rash.
Still a single thought. Still a sentence. You’re just explaining it a bit more.
You don’t do this:
I hate fish because I break out in a rash and all sorts of terrible things happen because I really hate eating fish and did I tell you about the time I ate a fish and it really turned out badly?
That’s called a run-on sentence and it is terrible. Write your thoughts one at a time, each in their own sentence.
A sentence usually has at least two things: something spoken about and something said about it.
John is being spoken about and ran is what is being said about John.
However, there is such a thing as a one-word sentence, usually used in fiction or casual writing:
Do you like cats? Yes!
He hit the ball. Hard.
Home. That’s how Kansas felt to her.
Let’s talk about paragraphs
A paragraph is a bigger thought than a sentence but is all one thought.
“I hate fish because I break out in a rash when I eat it. One time, I was in Hawaii and ate a fish, and I had to run to the pharmacy to get medication. Let me tell you: I hate fish!”
This is a complete thought on the subject of “disliking fish.” It’s a bigger thought that just “I hate fish.” But it’s all the same idea, and that’s a paragraph. It’s all the same big thought.
Let me show you how it wouldn’t be done:
“I hate fish because I break out in a rash when I eat it. One time I was in Hawaii, and ate a fish, and I had to run to the pharmacy to get medication. Let me tell you: I hate fish! One day I was wearing pants and didn’t like the color. So I decided it had something to do with my dislike of fish. I started only buying pants that were not anywhere near the color of a fish, but then I came to realize, fish come in every color imaginable. So now I don’t wear pants!”
Look at what happened: the reader is completely confused, with two different big thoughts joined together. First, it’s about hating fish, and then, there’s this whole separate idea about pants.
If I had just split the ideas out into two paragraphs, it would have made sense.
I recommend keeping your paragraphs short. Long paragraphs are boring and difficult to follow. Ideally, keep your sentences short as well.
Put a space between your paragraphs
This seems like something very simple, but in emails, I often see paragraphs written without any spaces between them. Just press the big Enter key on your keyboard to make one, nice, fat space between the paragraphs.
Clauses (stay with me here)
You can skip this part, but you might find it helpful.
Simple sentences are good, but sometimes they can be a bit boring. So, we might want to make them more interesting by adding more.
To do this, we join groups of words that are each “mini-sentences,” into one sentence to make a more complex, richer thought.
Each of these groups of words is called a clause. Clause comes from a Latin word meaning “a brief statement.”
Clauses are a source of considerable confusion for people, and that’s not their fault. It’s been made very confusing.
I’m going to try and make it very simple: There are two main types of clauses – those which express their own complete thought, and those which rely on another clause.
Clauses that express their own complete thought are called independent clauses. Clauses which rely on another clause are called dependent clauses.
Let’s start with a simple sentence:
I love cats.
That is a complete thought, but you want to say a bit more. So you add “because they are so cuddly.”
I love cats because they are so cuddly.
“Because they are so cuddly” depends on the other clause. It can’t stand on its own. It’s a dependent clause.
Let’s go back to a simple sentence:
I love bicycles.
In this case, you want to add that you dislike motorcycles. So you add “I dislike motorcycles”:
I love bicycles, but I dislike motorcycles.
These are two independent thoughts, each independent clauses. They can stand on their own. To make the writing understandable, they are joined by a conjunction, a word that joins clauses (the word but).
That’s it. End of lesson. If you want to study more about clauses, get a good grammar book. But I do not want to kill you with this information. I want you to live.
The following is very basic information. But even though it may be taught in school, it’s not well understood by many. So here is a quick look at the basic parts of grammar.
You can skip it if you know your grammar well. You can also skip it if you just don’t care to read it.
Words are like Lego blocks of the language
Words are incredibly cool. The English language is like a giant Lego® set, where you get to choose what parts you want to use to create the effect you want.
Let’s imagine we are back in time, when cavemen were trying to communicate. For example, they wanted to tell each other about someone (Caveman John), what he did (hit), and to what or whom his action was directed (lion).
The caveman hit the lion.
That is a complete, grammatically perfect sentence.
But it’s boring, so the cavemen added a bit more. They added a word to show where the lion was hit (on), and added more about where the action was directed (head).
The caveman hit the lion on the head.
And now that is a perfect sentence, with more added to it.
What if the caveman said this, instead?
On lion caveman head hit on.
It wouldn’t make much sense, would it?
Who said grammar should be confusing? It’s not. You use grammar right now, without even thinking about it.
Words can sound alike but have different meanings. This can make the language confusing. For example, “they’re” sounds like “there.” These confusions are a source of a lot of mistakes.
Words can also be used together to mean something completely different than what you would expect. For example, “give it a shot” means to “try.” These are called idioms and are a source of vast confusion for people, especially foreigners.
How words are used is called the parts of speech. A word can change from one part of speech to another just by the way it’s used in the sentence. For example, in “you run to the store” and “he had a good run,” “run” is being used in two different ways, even though it’s the same word.
So, now let’s look at the parts of speech.
Words are used to name things. These are called nouns
“Noun” comes from a Latin word meaning “name.” Nouns name people, places or things.
fish, house, man, New York.
If you’re naming something specific, you capitalize it.
Tom, Paris, Germany
If it’s not specific, you do not capitalize it:
man, city, country
(Incorrectly capitalizing nouns is a common and very ugly error.)
Nouns can name one thing (singular) or name many things (plural).
boy (singular), boys (plural)
Words can take the place of nouns. These are pronouns
Pronoun comes a Latin word meaning “in place of a noun.”
Pronouns take the place of a noun (words like I, he, him, her, they, or that).
You know all the pronouns. You use them all the time. It’s the word taking the place of a noun in a sentence.
If you didn’t have pronouns, writing would look awkward:
Alex likes cars that Alex can drive fast.
Alex likes cars that he can drive fast.
Different pronouns are used in different situations. Not understanding the pronoun and its different uses is the cause of most major grammar errors. I’ll get into that a bit later.
Words can show action or existence. These are verbs
Verb comes from a Latin word meaning “to speak.” Verbs show action.
swim, love, run
Verbs can also show how something or someone is existing. These are called be verbs because they are all different forms of the word be (be, is, were, am, are, was).
“Hey, how are you?”
“I am okay.”
“Oh good, I was worried that you were not okay.”
Verbs can be used to show that something is happening in the past or present. This is called tense, from a Latin word meaning “time.”
He runs (present).
He ran (past).
To show the future, you add another verb that shows something will happen in the future. Joining two words together creates a compound, which means two or more things combined. So we call it a compound verb:
He will run (future).
I am going to be a rock star (future).
The way a verb changes when it is used in different ways is called conjugation.
Words can give more information. These are adjectives and adverbs
In grammar, “modify” means to give more information about something. Adjectives and adverbs are modifiers – words such as “beautiful,” “ugly,” “fast” or “faster,” used to give more information about another word.
An adjective modifies a noun. An adverb modifies a verb or another adjective, and often ends with “ly.”
Beautiful woman (adjective).
Really beautiful woman (adverb).
She runs fast (adverb).
Adjective comes from a Latin word meaning “added to a noun”; adverb comes from a Latin word meaning “added to a verb.”
Prepositions show relationships
Prepositions are often misunderstood, but they are very simple.
Prepositions show relationship between other words in the sentence. By “relationship” is meant how other words in the sentence are connected to each other.
Is the cup under the table, over the table, or beside the table?
Do you see the idea of relationship there? The cup is related (connected) to the table by being under it, over it, or beside it.
Preposition means “positioned before” because often (but not always), they are placed before the word to which they are showing the relationship.
Words like on, over, under, beside, above, and with are all prepositions.
(Yes, it really is that simple.)
Conjunction comes from a Latin word meaning “joining together.”
Conjunctions join words or groups of words.
If we didn’t have conjunctions, writing would look very awkward.
Bill Tom went to the mall.
Tom went to the mall bought an Xbox.
Heather liked the boat not the car.
Here are the same sentences, with conjunctions:
Bill and Tom went to the mall.
Tom went to the mall and bought an Xbox.
Heather liked the boat, but not the car.
There are different types of conjunctions, such as: and, also, either, or, neither, though, yet, but, however, for, that, because, since, therefore, then, if, and unless.
The word article sounds like something incredibly complicated. But articles are really easy.
Articles are used to communicate whether you’re referring to a specific thing or a general thing.
If it’s a specific thing, it’s called a definite article. If it’s not specific, it’s an indefinite article.
A boy (indefinite article).
An astronaut (indefinite article).
The boy (definite article).
There are only three articles in the entire language: a, an, or the.
An is generally used before words starting with a, e, i, o and u. A is used before words starting with every other letter.
The final part of speech is the interjection, which comes from a Latin word meaning “placed between.” It’s a word (or words) placed in your writing to show emotion. An exclamation mark often follows an interjection, but not always.
Ouch! That hurt!
Whoa! Where did you get that hat?
Oh no. I forgot my homework.
So, the parts of speech are:
And that’s all you have to know for now about the parts of speech.
In grammar, there is the idea of “possession” (ownership), and it’s often misunderstood and leads to major mistakes.
Possession can be actual possession, or the idea of possession.
Bob owns – possesses – the car.
The house’s lights were bright.
The house has lights, but it’s more like the idea of possession.
Some more examples:
His bicycle. Her car. Their house.
There are two ways to show possession: using a pronoun that shows possession (such as his, her, their, your, its); or by using an apostrophe (‘). I will explain apostrophes later in this book.
Not understanding possession is the cause of many embarrassing writing mistakes.
Right now, I just want you to get the idea of possession. Later, I’ll discuss in more detail how to avoid these mistakes.
The subject: who or what is “verbing”
The subject is who or what is doing the action in a sentence. This is a very, very simple concept.
Keep it simple.
Bill went to the mall.
Bill is the subject. Went is the verb.
Since verbs can also show state of existence (the be verbs), you can also have a subject look like this:
Bill is happy.
Bill is the subject. The verb? is.
He had a great time.
She had a better time.
They had a fantastic time.
He, she and they are all subjects in these sentences.
Not understanding what a subject is also causes people to make mistakes. More on that later.
What is doing the action and what is getting the action
This section might be a bit difficult for some. If you can’t get it, don’t worry, as I will give you simple rules later to avoid mistakes. However, it’s worth understanding, so try to follow along with me.
When a noun or pronoun does the action, it’s called the subject. When it’s receiving action, it’s called the object.
Bill hit Tom.
Tom is receiving the action of being hit by Bill. Tom is the object (poor Tom).
Now, certain pronouns are used when receiving action (her, him, it, me, them, us, and you). These are called object pronouns.
Certain pronouns are used when doing action (he, I, it, she, they, we, and you). These are called subject pronouns.
Not understanding this fact will cause you to make silly mistakes. However, you don’t have to learn complicated grammar rules to figure this out. It’s common sense.
Look at this sentence:
Bill hit he.
That looks totally wrong, doesn’t it? You’re using the wrong pronoun. Instead, it should be:
Bill hit him.
John loves I.
“I” is used for subjects, like “I love John.” It is never used as an object.
To make the sentence correct, you would use an object pronoun:
John loves me.
Bill loved her.
Bill hated them.
Not understanding where the action is directed explains why people make this common mistake:
She and him went to the mall.
The wrong pronoun, him, is being used. She and this guy, together, are actually the subject, simply joined by a conjunction.
Him is only used for showing who is receiving an action.
It should be:
She and he went to the mall.
If you understand the idea of the “object” in grammar, you will avoid many mistakes.
But again, if you don’t care or can’t understand this concept, I have some tricks later on that will help you.
This is a basic overview of grammar and will give you a foundation on which to build more knowledge in your own time.
English is, in my opinion, a great language. And understanding where it came from can be helpful. So enjoy this brief and simple history lesson. It’s not vital, so you can skip it. But you might find it useful (and even interesting).
How it all started
Many thousands of years ago, there were tribes of people in a large area east of Turkey. These tribes all spoke a very similar language.
These tribes moved to or invaded places to the east and to the west. To the east, they went into Persia (modern-day Iran) and India, and their language became the basis of the Iranian and Indian languages.
In the west, their language became the basis of almost all of the European languages we speak today. Because it went to Europe and as far east as India, this original language is called “Indo-European” (there’s a map at the end of this book if you’re curious to know more).
You can still see Indo-European in many basic words, such “mother, “father,” “brother.” These words are similar in all major European, Indian and Iranian languages because they share the same roots.
Pretty interesting, eh?
Now, we move up in time and come to English.
English is a German language
Many people don’t realize that English is actually related to German. It’s a Germanic language.
Two thousand years ago, the Romans conquered the island of Britain and took over. They prospered as Romans for about 400 years until the Roman Empire started collapsing.
The fall of the Roman Empire was not a pretty time. Soon, the people of Britain found themselves surrounded by a lot of Germans who had moved into the island (often peacefully, sometimes not so peacefully). These Germans came from northern Germany, and were mostly members of tribes, called the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.
Over time, these German tribes established seven kingdoms in the area known today as England, which is the southern part of the island of Britain (the northern part being Scotland, and the major western parts being Wales and Cornwall).
The language of the German tribes became Old English, and you wouldn’t understand it if it was heard today. It’s an old form of German.
Now, prior to invading England, these German tribes had picked up Latin words from Romans over hundreds of years of interaction with the Roman Empire. So it may surprise you to learn that many of the Latin words in English are not necessarily from when the Romans conquered England. They were often part of the German language of the tribes that came to England.
These seven German kingdoms lived relatively peacefully, until getting into all sorts of nasty fights with invading Vikings from Denmark, who conquered and started putting Danish words into our language; and then several hundred years later another unfortunate thing happened when a region of France invaded England.
So now the poor Englanders were ruled by French-speaking people, and French became the language of the upper classes in England.
Finally, England threw the bums out after all sorts of nasty conflicts, but now the language had words from French, Danish, and, because England was a Christian country, from the Latin used in church (called Ecclesiastical Latin, which means “church Latin”). And, because England was a trading nation, we continued to pick up words from other cultures, even Arabic (such as “orange” and “scarlet,” both of which come from Arabic).
Then things got even more interesting when England started conquering other countries and words were brought in from wherever the English happened to go.
So it’s a pretty rich language! Interestingly, there are many words in English that have almost the same meaning but have a different “feel,” depending on their source. Words from German feel more “earthy” and “real.” Words from Latin feel more sophisticated. For example, “go” is from German, while “depart” is from Latin. Both mean almost the same thing, but they feel different.
The grammar police
Now, about 400 years ago, the grammar police got involved. They wanted to make rules for this language because it was so non-standard. However, they did something that confused things quite a bit: Because they knew Latin (the language that all well-educated people knew), they put Latin rules of grammar into the language.
In Roman times, the common people spoke Vulgar Latin (vulgar here means “common,” not “nasty”) and the well-educated spoke Classical Latin.
Classical comes from a word meaning “the highest rank,” and Classical Latin was very complicated and definitely the “highest rank” of Latin. The belief at the time was that learning it taught rich young Roman boys how to think. It was really hard.
The normal people didn’t care, as they just went on their happy way and spoke Vulgar Latin. You could, however, immediately tell who was a member of the upper class when they spoke: their speech was a grammatically perfect form of Latin that was very different from Vulgar Latin.
Well, the grammar police forced rules from this complex Classical Latin into English. There is a major problem with this idea. Latin is Latin – a dead language. It’s not English, which is a constantly changing language with a different structure.
Forcing Latin rules into English has made grammar incredibly confusing. English is not Latin: it’s a mixed-up Germanic language – like a mutt dog – that has bits and pieces of many different cultures in it.
Why you still need to understand some grammar
English grammar may sometimes be silly and poorly understood by most. But at least having an understanding of the basics is important. Remember what I said earlier about playing a sport and breaking the rules: you will irritate others. Grammar establishes the basic rules of good speaking and writing, and just like anything with rules, you need to follow them.
However, hopefully I’ve made you feel a little better about having some difficulty with grammar. It’s really not your fault.
Steve Jobs, the leader of Apple Computer, created moans and groans from English teachers across the world when he came up with the marketing slogan “think different.”
To some, it’s a grammatical catastrophe.
However, most people don’t even know why the grammar might be wrong (and it may not be wrong, if you believe Steve Jobs’ explanation, which I cover much later in this book).
Jobs was no fool – he was fairly well educated and knew his grammar. He was just trying to get your attention (and it worked).
The point is not whether or not he did a bad thing. The point is that you should know yourself when the grammar is bad, and if you’re going to make mistakes, at least do them knowing you’re making a mistake.
The problem: People hate grammar
You say “grammar” to someone and they want to run for the hills, because grammar is generally taught so poorly. It’s full of complicated rules that often don’t make much sense. (In the United States, it’s not even “grammar” anymore – it’s often part of a hodgepodge subject called “Language Arts.” I still don’t understand what that term means.)
But what is grammar? The word itself comes from the Greek graphein, meaning “to draw or write.” It’s the rules of writing and speaking.
Grammar should not be intended to make you feel stupid, or to allow someone else to feel smarter than you.
You must write well to do well in this world, whether you’re selling, waiting tables or mowing lawns. If you’re selling, you’d better have a good grasp of the language; if you’re waiting tables, you need to write so that the cook understands the food order; if you’re mowing lawns, you need to be able to send an understandable invoice to your customers so you get paid.
Imagine this: You’re playing a sport and you keep breaking the rules. People will get upset with you. The same goes for the rules of grammar. People who know the rules will get upset, even just a little bit.
But do you need to know grammar?
You need to know a bit of grammar, but there’s a lot of information you don’t need to get started writing well. If you have the basics, you’ll be okay. A lot of good writing is common sense.
I’m not going to pound you to pieces with grammar. I’m going to lead you gently through correcting the biggest mistakes I see regularly and explain why these are very bad mistakes. I’m also going to help you with a bit of “re-education,” to help clean up a lot of junk you may have learned along the way.
Then, as you go along in your life and career, you can look up questions you have online or in books to clarify a point. There’s a lot that I haven’t covered in this book. But that’s not the point of my effort here. My point is to get you working in the right direction, and then leave the rest up to your own ability.
If you have forgotten your basic grammar (and many have), there’s a section in this book that will refresh you.
You acquired this book because you want to be better in some way, and I respect that. So I’m not going to beat you up. I’m going to help you.