There are many little problems that can degrade even the best writing, making it less effective and causing the writer to seem less articulate. This writing symposium tackles a few of these miscellaneous problems often present in today's writing. Some of the problems addressed here will seem picky, and others will seem obscure, but avoiding them will immediately improve one’s writing.
One of the most common errors that people make is to be inconsistent in their verb use. It is important, yet simple, to get this rule right: within any one sentence, verb types must match. Verb consistency is really a form of parallel structure, so it is easy to check for parallel verbs when checking for other parallel structure. Here are some particularly important ones to keep an eye on:
Tense: All verbs should be the same tense (e.g., all present, all past, all future).
Voice: All verbs should have the same voice (i.e., all active or all passive).
Will/can/shall: These three verbs should always be used together (that is, never mix will/can/shall with would/could/should).
Would/could/should: These three verbs should always be used together (that is, never mix would/could/should with will/can/shall).
“Which” vs. “That”
Writers often confuse when they should use “which” and when they should use “that.” One factor that makes this problem more difficult to get right is that British writing does not have this rule, but American writing does. Because many of us read work written by the British or authors from the British Commonwealth, it is easy to become confused about the right and wrong ways to use these words.
Wrong: The classrooms which were painted over the summer are bright and cheerful.
Wrong: The classrooms, that were painted over the summer, are bright and cheerful.
Right: The classrooms that were painted over the summer are bright and cheerful.
Right: The classrooms, which were painted over the summer, are bright and cheerful.
“That” starts a restrictive clause and must always be used without commas. “Which” starts a non-restrictive clause and must always be set off with commas. Ignoring the formal grammar, simply remember that “which” must always have a comma before it.
Not only... but also...
The words “not only” must always be paired with “but also.” When using this construction, be sure to use parallel structure. In addition, repetition (that is, transition of thought) is an effective way to maintain parallelism and coherence in the sentence. Here are some examples:
Hurricanes will become not only more common, but also more intense.
I worry not only about driving too much, but also about leaving lights on.
I worry about not only driving too much, but also leaving lights on.
Not only temperatures will increase, but also sea levels will rise.
“Since” vs. “Because”
The word “since” has a time element and means “from some time in the past until the present.” Therefore, it is not a synonym for because.
Wrong: Since the Mid-Atlantic Region is vulnerable to health impacts from climate change, it is necessary for the region to adapt its health care system to handle this threat.
Right: Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have raised the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere from 275 ppm to nearly 400 ppm.
When introducing an acronym, write out the words the acronym stands for and then present the acronym in parentheses. From that point, only use the acronym and never use the full words again.
Because the Mid-Atlantic Region (MAR) is vulnerable to health impacts from climate change, it is necessary for the region to adapt its health care system to handle this threat.
Misused and overused words and structures
Here is a potpourri of misused and overused words and structures to avoid:
Contractions: The rule is simple: do not ever use contractions in formal writing.
“Feel” Do not use “feel” in scientific writing. Scientists do not care how one feels about any particular fact or issue. Instead, use “think” or “believe.” Exceptions occur when the science writing involves a psychologist working with human feelings or a physiologist working with tactile sensations.
Wrong: Scientists feel that sea level rise will cause the greatest impacts.
Right: Scientists think that sea level rise will cause the greatest impacts.
“Deal with” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with “deal with,” but it is flabby, imprecise, and overused. A good rule of thumb is to use it no more than once in any written piece. A better rule of thumb is to use one of many more dynamic and more precise verbs. Here are some among the dozens of alternatives:
- Manage, handle, address, control, direct, discuss, oversee, review, treat, get a handle on, cope with, see to, take care of, sort out, take in hand, contend with, attend to
“Due to” Similar to “deal with,” “due to” is okay to use once in a while, but it tends to be clumsy and often leads to wordiness. Despite these drawbacks, it is not unusual to see “due to” several times in a single student paragraph. Here are some of the many other options to use instead of “due to”:
- Because, whereas, being, for, considering, thanks to, as a result of, by virtue of, by reason of, on the grounds that, in as much as, for the reason that, in view of, now that, owing to
Note that many of these options are also wordy, but at least they present alternatives to the overused phrase “due to.”
“In order to” This greatly overused construction often appears multiple times in student paragraphs, yet it is wordy and the “in order” part of the construction is usually superfluous. The virtue of this construction is that it can lend rhythm to a sentence and, rarely, it can make a sentence clearer by removing ambiguity. Most of the time, however, removing “in order” and simply leaving “to” makes no difference to the meaning of the sentence and makes it less wordy. A good rule of thumb is to use “in order to” no more than once per essay –– not once per paragraph.
Wordy: Adaptation is necessary in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Less wordy: Adaptation is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.