Notes on Style

Table of Contents

Apostrophe S

is used in possesive nouns : Charles's friend Except in nouns ending in s : the laws of Moses pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours have no apostrophe

series of three or more terms with a single conjunction

use a comma after each term except the last. : red, white, and blue gold, silver, or copper

Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.

Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.

Two-part sentences of which the second member is introduced by "and, for, or, nor, but, or while" require a comma before the conjunction.

"and" : the comma should be omitted if the relation between the two statements is close or immediate.

e.g. He has had several years' experience and is thoroughly competent.

Do not join independent clauses (not joined by a conjunction) with a comma.

the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon. - Mary Shelley's works are entertaining; they are full of engaging ideas.

It is equally correct to write each of these as two sentences - Mary Shelley's works are entertaining, for they are full of engaging ideas.

If the second clause is preceded by an adverb, such as accordingly, besides, then, therefore, or thus, and not by a conjunction, the semicolon is still required.

Do not break sentences in two.

do not use periods for commas.

Use a colon after an independent clause

to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.

A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause.

e.g. Your dedicated whittler requires: a knife, a piece of wood, and a back porch.

Use a dash to set off an abrupt break

or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.

A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses.

e.g. His first thought on getting out of bed — if he had any thought at all — was to get back in again.

Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.

  • Violence — the kind you see on television — is not honestly violent — there lies its harm.
  • Violence, the kind you see on television, is not honestly violent. There lies its harm.

The number of the subject determines the number of the verb.

  • One of the ablest scientists who has attacked this problem (wrong)
  • One of the ablest scientists who have attacked this problem

Use a singular verb form after each, either, everyone, everybody, neither, nobody, someone.

With none, use the singular verb when the word means "no one" or "not one."

  • The walrus and the carpenter were walking close at hand.

Use the proper case of pronoun

The personal pronouns, as well as the pronoun who, change form as they function as subject or object.

A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the subject.

  • Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children.
  • He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.
  • Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap. (which one)

Choose a suitable design and hold to it.

Make the paragraph the unit of composition.

Use the active voice.

Put statements in positive form.

Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion. Statements qualified with unnecessary auxiliaries or conditionals sound irresolute

  • Plath (may be ranked among those) modem poets who died young.
  • Plath (was one of those) modern poets who died young.

If your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority. Save the auxiliaries would, should, could, may, might, and can for situations involving real uncertainty.

Use definite, specific, concrete language.

  • A period of unfavorable weather set in.
  • It rained every day for a week.

Omit needless words.

A common way to fall into wordiness is to present a single complex idea, step by step, in a series of sentences that might to advantage be combined into one.

Avoid a succession of loose sentences.

An unskilled writer will sometimes construct a whole paragraph of sentences of this kind, using as connectives and, but, and, less frequently, who, which, when, where, and while, these last in nonrestrictive senses.

Recast enough of them to remove the monotony, replacing them with simple sentences, sentences of two clauses joined by a semicolon, periodic sentences of two clauses, or sentences (loose or periodic) of three clauses — whichever best represent the real relations of the thought.

Express coordinate ideas in similar form.

This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.

  • Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method, while now the laboratory method is employed.
  • Formerly, science was taught by the textbook method; now it is taught by the laboratory method.

An article or a preposition applying to all the members of a series

must either be used only before the first term or else be repeated before each term.

  • the French, the Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese
  • the French, the Italians, the Spanish, and the Portuguese

Correlative expressions

(both, and; not, but; not only, but also; either, or; first, second, third; and the like) should be followed by the same grammatical construction.

  • It was both a long ceremony and very tedious.
  • The ceremony was both long and tedious.
  • A time not for words but action.
  • A time not for words but for action.
  • Either you must grant his request or incur his ill will.
  • You must either grant his request or incur his ill will.

Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed. bring together the words and groups of words that are related in thought and keep apart those that are not so related.

  • He noticed a large stain in the rug that was right in the center.
  • He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug
  • A dog, if you fail to discipline him, becomes a household pest.
  • Unless disciplined, a dog becomes a household pest.

The relative pronoun should come, in most instances, immediately after its antecedent. - There was a stir in the audience that suggested disapproval. - A stir that suggested disapproval swept the audience. - He wrote three articles about his adventures in Spain, which were published in Harper's Magazine. - He published three articles in Harper's Magazine about his adventures in Spain. - This is a portrait of Benjamin Harrison, who became President in 1889. He was the grandson of William Henry Harrison. - This is a portrait of Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, who became President in 1889.

If the antecedent consists of a group of words, the relative comes at the end. Modifiers should come, if possible, next to the words they modify.

  • All the members were not present.
  • Not all the members were present.
  • She only found two mistakes.
  • She found only two mistakes.

In summaries, keep to one tense

Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

  • Humanity has hardly advanced in fortitude since that time, though it has advanced in many other ways.
  • Since that time, humanity has advanced in many ways, but it has hardly advanced in fortitude.

The other prominent position in the sentence is the beginning. Any element in the sentence other than the subject becomes emphatic when placed first. - Deceit or treachery she could never forgive.

To receive special emphasis, the subject of a sentence must take the position of the predicate.

  • Through the middle of the valley flowed a winding stream.

The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.


If you use a colloquialism or a slang word or phrase, simply use it; do not draw attention to it by enclosing it in quotation marks.


Do not attempt to emphasize simple statements by using a mark of exclamation.


If a manuscript is to be submitted for publication, leave plenty of space at the top of page 1.


When two or more words are combined to form a compound adjective, a hyphen is usually required.

  • leisure-class pursuits
  • round-the-island race

better be written as one word: water-fowl, waterfowl


A sentence containing an expression in parentheses is punctuated outside the last mark of parenthesis exactly as if the parenthetical expression were absent. The expression within the marks is punctuated as if it stood by itself, except that the final stop is omitted unless it is a question mark or an exclamation point.

  • I went to her house yesterday (my third attempt to see her), but she had left town.


Formal quotations cited as documentary evidence are introduced by a colon and enclosed in quotation marks.

  • Mark Twain says, "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."
  • "I can't attend," she said.

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