The Write Place for Professional Communications

For information on developing an administrative policy, see
Section 103-11: Guidelines for Writing and Publishing Administrative Policies and Procedures

Writing clear, straightforward, and grammatically correct English can be challenging. English words can be used as verbs or nouns, and sentences can be structured in a variety of ways. This flexibility can sometimes result in communications that are vague and confusing.

For non-native speakers of English, the use of articles and prepositions can be particularly difficult. And for all writers, whether they are in administrative or technical positions, the large number of synonyms and homonyms can be an obstacle to creating communications that achieve a desired result. This site provides examples of common grammatical errors and suggests possibilities for their correction.


Active Voice

Voice refers to the relationship between subject and verb. The subject tells us what the sentence is about and the verb indicates the action or state of being.

In the active voice, the subject performs the action indicated by the verb. Having the verb follow the subject is the preferred construction for sentences because it adds energy to the writing and establishes responsibility. In passive voice, the subject receives the action identified by the verb. This may be an appropriate style for some types of scientific or policy writing.

Passive: A decision was reached by The Regents.
Active: The Regents reached a decision.
Passive: Computer chips are made of silicon.
Active: Manufacturers make computer chips of silicon.
Passive: It was determined that the side effects of the drug were significant.
Active: We determined that the side effects of the drug were significant.
Passive: Songs from the 1960's were sung by the San Francisco musicians.
Active: The San Francisco musicians sang songs from the 1960's.
Passive: Over the past year, more than three million jobs have been eliminated.
Active: Over the past year, management has eliminated more than three million jobs.

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Adjectives

An adjective is a word that modifies a noun. It describes or tells us something about the noun, like what kind or how many. Sometimes an adjective is placed next to the noun it modifies, either directly before the noun (an ancient sword, the second notebook) or directly after (an image distorted, their dreams destroyed). Other times an adjective is separated from the noun it modifies, as in "the game was exciting." In these cases, a linking verb (such as is, was, or seemed) connects the noun and its modifier.

When two or more adjectives (modifiers) appear before a noun, they should follow a certain order. Here is the usual order of adjectives in a series:

1st:
2nd:
3rd:
4th:
5th:
6th:
7th:
8th:
Article or other noun signal word (a, an, the, most)
Judgment (wonderful, unfair, useful, ugly)
Size (large, tiny, little)
Shape (round, long, bell-shaped)
Age (old, teenaged, modern)
Color (green, yellow, black)
Nationality (Vietnamese, Iranian, Russian)
Material (stone, wood, cotton)

 

Ex. 1: I just bought a yellow new Mini Cooper.
» I just bought a new yellow Mini Cooper.
Ex. 2: Is that your favorite cotton Mexican shirt?
» Is that your favorite Mexican cotton shirt?
Ex. 3: They liked the rectangular large painting over the fireplace.
» They liked the large rectangular painting over the fireplace.

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Articles

Words that often precede nouns are called articles and include a, an, and the.

Indefinite articles, a and an, are used in front of nonspecific, singular nouns beginning with consonant sounds (a movie, a cat). Use an before nouns beginning with vowel sounds (an octopus, an advertisement).

The definite article the is used in front of specific singular and plural nouns (the movie, the cats, the furniture, the future).

Many noncount nouns (things that typically are not counted in English and not made plural, like homework or happiness) require no article at all.

Missing article: There was beautiful sunrise this morning.
» There was a beautiful sunrise this morning.
Missing article: In the vase was arrangement of orchids and lilies.
» In the vase was an arrangement of orchids and lilies.
No article required: The martial artists bowed to each other to show the respect.
» The martial artists bowed to each other to show respect.
Contextual influence: Yesterday I bought a jacket for $75, but today the jacket was on sale for $50.

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Contractions

Informal communications sometimes contain contractions, where apostrophes are used to indicate omitted letters in certain words (cannot:can't, is not:isn't, has not:hasn't). Some contractions sound the same as several frequently used pronouns (you're:your, they're:their). But pronouns never use apostrophes to indicate possesion. For example, the possesive pronoun its is often confused with it's, the contraction for it is.

Ex. 1: They didn't tell me that your going to wear that purple dress.
» They didn't tell me that you're going to wear that purple dress.
Ex. 2: Their going over to Jack's house to see if any of there DVD's were left there.
» They're going over to Jack's house to see if any of their DVD's were left there.
Ex. 3: The new Honda was a much lighter color than it's owner had expected.
» The new Honda was a much lighter color than its owner had expected.

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Homonyms

Homonyms (homophones) are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Since they are not detected by spell checkers, they are one of the most common causes of misspellings. Some common homonyms include:

advice, advise
affect, effect
all ready, already
all together, altogether
brake, break
choose, chose
cite, sight, site
conscience, conscious
dominant, dominate
elicit, illicit
envelop, envelope
forth, fourth
loose, lose
presence, presents
principal, principle
rein, reign
right, rite, write
stationary, stationery
threw, through, thorough
who's, whose
your, you're

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Modifiers

Modifiers are words, phrases, or clauses that are used to give us more specific information about something. When a modifier is misplaced, the statement can be confusing. Modifiers should be placed as close as possible to the words they modify.

Ex. 1: Max does not need the approval of anyone, unlike Joe.
» Unlike Joe, Max does not need the approval of anyone
Ex. 2: Businesses publish the URLs for their websites frequently in advertisements.
» Businesses frequently publish the URLs for their websites in advertisements.
Ex. 3: The yucca plant only grows well in full sunlight.
» The yucca plant grows well only in full sunlight.
Ex. 4: Most people who responded to the ad quickly decided not to look at the car.
» Most people who quickly responded to the ad decided not to look at the car.
» Most people who responded to the ad decided quickly not to look at the car.
Ex. 5: Several customers decided after reading the newspaper, to boycott the store.
» After reading the newspaper, several customers decided to boycott the store.
Ex. 6: The magician shuffled quickly the cards.
» The magician quickly shuffled the cards.

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Nouns: Plurals

Nouns identify persons, places, or things. Making English nouns plural can be confusing. Some nouns refer to things that can be counted and made into plurals (a hundred dollars, six miles, three children). Other nouns refer to things that cannot easily be counted (excitement, wisdom, traveling, electricity); these "noncount" nouns usually have no plurals but can be quantified with expressions like a lot of, much, some, many.

Count: The red box contained many photo of my family.
» The red box contained many photos of my family.
Noncount: We have ordered new equipments for the computer lab.
» We have ordered new equipment for the computer lab.
Noncount: Brett needed to do a homework before leaving in the morning.
» Brett needed to do homework before leaving in the morning.

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Parallelism

Parallel sentence structure exists when two or more sentence elements of equal importance are similarly expressed. Parallel sentence elements are often used for listing ideas or making comparisons. Both the structure of the elements and the form of the words benefit a sentence's clarity and symmetry.

Ex. 1: We are interested in hearing your ideas on motivating employees, how to introduce change, and quality control techniques.
» We are interested in hearing your ideas on motivating employees, introducing change, and controlling quality.
Ex. 2: Please sign the proposal, date it, and it must be sent to me.
» Please sign the proposal, date it, and send it to me.
Ex. 3: Staff openings will occur this year resulting from growth, experienced workers transferring, and others who will retire.
» Staff openings will occur this year resulting from growth, transfers, and retirements.

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Prepositions

Prepositions are used before nouns to give additional information in a sentence. Many expressions in English contain prepositions such as in, on, of, for or by. They define relationships rather than refer to objects or meanings. They may show where something is located or when something happened.

Ex. 1: Joaquin is acquainted to the president.
» Joaquin is acquainted with the president.
Ex. 2: On March, we will go to the mountains.
» In March, we will go to the mountains.
Ex. 3: Tomorrow Selina will travel to Irvine in the train.
» Tomorrow Selina will travel to Irvine on the train.

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Pronoun References

A pronoun can substitute for a noun. He, she, and it are personal pronouns. That, which, who, whose, whoever, and whichever are relative pronouns and introduce dependent clauses. Writers sometimes mistakenly use a pronoun that could refer to more than one noun. Even if it is implied, the reader may need to clearly indicate the person, place, or thing being referenced.

Ex. 1: Notetaking is very helpful in doing research, especially if they are well organized.
» Notetaking is very helpful in doing research, especially if notes are well organized.
Ex. 2: Neither Lea nor Jana knew what she should do.
» Neither Lea nor Jana knew what Lea should do.
» Neither Lea nor Jana knew what their friend should do.
Ex. 3: The police car chased the black sedan around the corner and then it turned on Academy Way.
» The police car chased the black sedan around the corner and then the sedan turned on Academy Way.

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Run-On Sentences

Run-on sentences result when two clauses that could stand on their own are joined by a comma. There are four possible ways to correct this depending on the intended meaning:

  • Use a period to create two complete sentences
  • Separate the clauses with a semi-colon
  • Add a comma and a coordinating conjunction between the clauses (and, or, but, nor, or yet)
  • Add a comma and a subordinating conjunction or relative pronoun to subordinate one of the clauses
    • Subordinating conjunctions: while, although, because, if
    • Relative pronouns: which, that, who
Ex. 1: Speak softly, someone is recording our conversation.
» Speak softly. Someone is recording our conversation.
» Speak softly; someone is recording our conversation.
» Speak softly, because someone is recording our conversation.
Ex. 2: Sergio played well in the first game, at the second he performed poorly.
» Sergio played well in the first game. At the second he performed poorly.
» Sergio played well in the first game; at the second he performed poorly.
» Sergio played well in the first game, but at the second he performed poorly.
» Although Sergio played well in the first game, at the second he performed poorly.
Ex. 3: A flamingo once flew past our house I only got a brief glimpse of it.
» A flamingo once flew past our house. I only got a brief glimpse of it.
» A flamingo once flew past our house; I only got a brief glimpse of it.
» A flamingo once flew past our house, but I only got a brief glimpse of it.
» I only got a brief glimpse of a flamingo that once flew past our house.

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Sentence Fragments

All sentences must have a subject and a verb. Sentence fragments are incomplete because they are missing a subject or a verb, or both. Sometimes phrases or clauses are incorrectly treated as a sentence. To avoid fragments, beware of using these words to start sentences: because, that, who, what, when, where, why, how, but, like, if, such.

Ex. 1: Because it was too difficult to hear the guitar player.
» I left the room because it was too difficult to hear the guitar player.
Ex. 2: The engine, running at 350 rpms and catching on the clutch.
» The engine is running at 350 rpms and catching on the clutch.
» The engine, running at 350 rpms and catching on the clutch, eventually sputtered and died.
Ex. 3: After a discussion, the group agreed. That root beer jelly beans were the sweetest.
» After a discussion, the group agreed that root beer jelly beans were the sweetest.

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Synonyms

Synonyms are words that mean essentially the same thing: dreary/gloomy, fury/rage, and injure/damage. But because they each have unique connotations, they cannot always be substituted for each other. For example, injure is used in reference to humans and animals while damage would refer to an object. We wouldn't say: "I injured my computer." When in doubt, use a dictionary for the precise definition of a word.

Ex. 1: Angelina observed the diffusion of cell phones in the classroom.
» Angelina observed the proliferation of cell phones in the classroom.
Ex. 2: The students conveyed their applications just in time to meet the deadline.
» The students submitted their applications just in time to meet the deadline.
Ex. 3: Brad made a list of fifteen intentions on New Year's Day.
» Brad made a list of fifteen resolutions on New Year's Day.

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Verb Tense

A verb indicates the action or state of being. The tense of a verb creates a time frame that should be consistent with the meaning of the sentence. In English, the order that events occurred in time affects the selection of the correct verb tense: what happened first, what happened before that, what is happening now, and what will happen. The present perfect and past perfect tenses are not usually used in conversation, but they are appropriate for formal written discourse.

Ex. 1: Yesterday, I cash the refund check and buy a laptop.
» Yesterday, I cashed the refund check and bought a laptop.
Ex. 2: The Arteaga brothers wait here for two hours.
» The Arteaga brothers waited here for two hours.
» The Arteaga brothers have waited here for two hours.
Ex. 3: Tomorrow Peter the Anteater going to visit the Arts Plaza.
» Tomorrow Peter the Anteater is going to visit the Arts Plaza.
» Tomorrow Peter the Anteater will visit the Arts Plaza.

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Word Choice

Use shorter words for more impact: Eliminate wordy phrases:
utilize
effectuate
terminate
expedite
accentuate
alleviate
communicate
delineate
elucidate
initiate
intensify
augment
invalidate
investigate
prioritize
procrastinate
use
do
end
rush
stress
ease
talk
draw
tell
start
boost
help
void
look into
sort
delay
  a percentage of
a large percentage of
ahead of schedule
as a matter of fact
at the present time
at this point in time
draw your attention to
due to the fact that
filled to capacity
in short supply
in spite of the fact that
in the event that
in the final analysis
the absence of
until such time as
will have to
some
most
early
in fact
presently
now
show you
because
full
scarce
although, even though
if
finally, ultimately
no
until
must

 

Avoid redundancy and restating concrete words abstractly:
necessary requisite
mutual cooperation
refer back to
take action
main essentials
past history
uniformly consistent
thunderstorm activity
hospital facility
time period
money resources
upright position
goals and objectives
choose or select
requisite
cooperation
refer to
act
essentials
history
consistent
thunderstorm
hospital
time
money
upright
[use just one word]
[use just one word]

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Eliminate unnecessary words:

In a very real sense, trickle-down economics (TDE) exhibits a tendency to trickle up, benefiting only the rich.

» Trickle-down economics (TDE) tends to trickle up, benefiting only the rich.

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