English writing

Writing Rules

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By Colin Ramsden, April 2006.

xyzThere are rules for spelling and writing English which have been around as long as English writing has been taught. For example, 'i' before 'e', except after 'c', as in 'believe' and 'receive'.

A quick Google search of the web for "writing" and "English" and "rules" (ungrouped), produced over 80 million hits. A few too many to browse them all and glean out the good bits. A subsequent search using "writing English rules" (grouped), produced a more practical 17 hits.

Topping the result list was the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). They list 14 writing tips:

  1. Create simple rather than complicated sentences. Simple sentences are easier to read.
  2. Use the active voice when possible, rather than the passive voice.
  3. Avoid the use of run-on sentences.
  4. Vary the length of sentences.
  5. Avoid exaggeration in your writing.
  6. Use well-known words rather than exotic or unusual words.
  7. Similarly, use short words rather than long words.
  8. Nouns and verbs are more important than adjectives and adverbs. Carefully selected nouns and verbs add clarity and color.
  9. Avoid the use of clichés.
  10. Capitalize only proper nouns.
  11. Minimize the use of exclamation and quotation marks.
  12. Do not abbreviate.
  13. Make verbs agree with their subjects.
  14. Do not begin sentences with conjunctions. Similarly, do not end them with prepositions.

That's a good start. Unfortunately, the remainder in the hit list all failed to provide an actual writing tips list like the one above.

I did, however, find a link to 'The Elements of Style' in which are proposed eight elementary rules of usage and a further ten elementary principles of composition:

Elementary Rules of Usage

  1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's
  2. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last
  3. Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas
  4. Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause
  5. Do not join independent clauses by a comma
  6. Do not break sentences in two
  7. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject
  8. Divide words at line-ends, in accordance with their formation and pronunciation

Elementary Principles of Composition

  1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic
  2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence; end it in conformity with the beginning
  3. Use the active voice
  4. Put statements in positive form
  5. Omit needless words
  6. Avoid a succession of loose sentences
  7. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  8. Keep related words together
  9. In summaries, keep to one tense
  10. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end

For technical writers, the book 'The Elements of Technical Writing' provides 50 rules for technical writing:


  1. Write out all numbers below 10.
  2. When two or more numbers are presented in the same section of writing, write them as numerals.
  3. Write large numbers in the form most familiar to your audience and easiest to understand.
  4. Place a hyphen between a number and unit of measure when they modify a noun.
  5. Use the singular when fractions and decimals of one or less are used as adjectives.
  6. Write decimals and fractions as numerals, not words.
  7. Treat decimal representations consistently, especially when presenting them in columns, rows, or groups.
  8. Do not inflate the degree of accuracy by writing decimals with too many digits.
  9. If a number is an approximation, write it out.
  10. Spell out one of two numbersusually the shorterthat appear consecutively in a phrase.
  11. Do not begin a sentence with numerals.

Units of Measure

  1. Keep all units of measure consistent.
  2. Use the correct units for the system of measurement you have chosen.
  3. Write basic units of measure in word form, derived units of measure as symbols.
  4. Indicate multiplication of units with a raised dot, division with a slash.
  5. Write secondary units in parentheses after the primary units.


  1. Use too few rather than too many equations.
  2. Center and number equations on a separate line in your document unless they are short and simple.
  3. Keep all equal signs, division lines, fraction lines, multiplication signs, plus signs, and minus signs on the same level.
  4. Punctuate words used to introduce equations just as you would words forming part of any sentence.


  1. Use too few rather than too many symbols.
  2. Define the symbols you use.
  3. Avoid duplication of symbols.
  4. Fit symbols grammatically into the structure of your sentence.


  1. Hyphenate two words compounded to form an adjective modifier.
  2. Hyphenate two adjacent nouns if they are both necessary to express a single idea.
  3. In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each except the last.
  4. Omit the period at the end of a parenthetical expression within a sentence; retain it if the entire parenthetical expression stands alone as a sentence.


  1. Avoid dangling participles.
  2. Avoid run-on sentences.
  3. Avoid sentence fragments.


  1. Spell out abbreviations at their first appearance, and use too few rather than too many.
  2. Omit internal and terminal punctuation in abbreviations.
  3. The abbreviation for a specific word or phrase takes the same case as the word of phrase.
  4. Avoid using signs in writing except when expressing information in tables.


  1. Capitalize trade names.
  2. Do not capitalize words to emphasize their importance.
  3. Capitalize the full names of government agencies, companies, departments, divisions, and organizations.
  4. Capitalize all proper nouns unless usage has made them so familiar that they are no longer associated with the original name.

Principles of Technical Communication

  1. Use the active voice.
  2. Use plain rather than elegant or complex language.
  3. Delete words, sentences, and phrases that do not add to your meaning.
  4. Use specific and concrete terms rather than vague generalities.
  5. Use terms your reader can picture.
  6. Use the past tense to describe your experimental work and results.
  7. In most other writing, use the present tense.
  8. Make the technical depth of your writing compatible with the background of your reader.
  9. Break up your writing into short sections.
  10. Keep ideas and sentence structure parallel.
  11. Opt for an informal rather than a formal style.

With technical writing, like with all forms of writing, you need to know the rules, so that you know when you've broken them. The good technical writer also knows when to break them, and when not to.


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If you're ready for a little fun, here are some selected writing rules which wittingly violate the very rule they're attempting to stipulate:

  1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. And don't start a sentence with a conjunction.
  4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  5. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They're old hat)
  6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
  7. Be more or less specific.
  8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
  9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
  10. No sentence fragments.
  11. Contractions aren't necessary and shouldn't be used.
  12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it's highly superfluous.
  14. One should NEVER generalize.
  15. Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
  16. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  17. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
  18. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  19. The passive voice is to be ignored.
  20. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
  21. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
  22. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
  23. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.
  24. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
  25. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times:
    Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
  26. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
  27. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  28. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  29. Who needs rhetorical questions?
  30. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  31. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

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For some rules on writing crime fiction stories, see Mystery Ink.

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www.bartleby.com/141/ (This link was left inactive because of nasty pop-ups on that site disguised as IE errors requesting permission to install error correcting software!)
Strunk, W & White, EB, The Elements of Style, 4th Ed., Longman, New York, 2000.
Blake, G & Bly, RW, The Elements of Technical Writing, Longman, New York, 1993.

See Also

Jump across to separate topic Plain English Writing | Jump across to separate topic Technical Writing Jump across to separate topic Effective Communication | Jump across to separate topic Effective Managers |
xyz Lotech Solutions' Tips, Tricks, and Procedures

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