User:Tony1/How to improve your writing
Self-help writing tutorials:
- Exercises in weeding out fluff from article text
- Advanced editing exercises
- Spot the ambiguity
- Build your linking skills
- Using hyphens and dashes
- Copy-editing essentials, part of the Military History Academy
This tutorial is for both native and non-native speakers of English. Writing and editing English at a professional standard presents some challenges that are blind to an editor's native language, and some that are unique to particular native languages. And some issues we cover for writing English are true for other languages. External links that may help you to improve your writing and editing are at the end of the article.
Though most criteria for good writing in English are widely accepted, advocates may differ on particular technical and stylistic matters. Please take this into account: some of our advice and suggested solutions may be debatable. Feedback on how to improve the article is welcome at the talkpage.
Attaining "strategic distance"
Becoming close to a text is unavoidable if you work intensively on it; ironically, this closeness can reduce your ability to critically review the text. Editing a text as a stranger to it has distinct advantages—mainly the ability to approach it with fresh eyes, uninhibited by the intricacies of creating it in the first place.
You can achieve strategic distance from your own text by using techniques that allow you to see it afresh; that is, more like the way your readers will see it. These techniques involve the editing process, the passage of time, and the visual appearance of the text. If you're using the edit-box on a wiki, the Show preview button at the bottom displays your work as it will appear to readers. The difference between edit and preview modes can distance you from the writing or editing process, highlighting errors and areas that can be improved. More generally, here are five suggestions for achieving strategic distance:
- Change the visual appearance. Print out your text and mark up the hard copy (highlight the places that need improvement, by circling, underlining, and handwriting improved wording in the margins). Reading hard copy is very different from reading on-screen: not only can you see printed text more clearly, but you can see more of it at once (synoptically) and grasp the product in your hands. It's quite a different environment. Some writers use a four-stage cycle of printing out a draft, marking it up, keying in the changes and editing the new version on-screen—a cycle they repeat until no further changes are needed.
- Take time out. Leave your text for a few days or more, and return to it with your head unclouded by the thoughts brought up during editing; the longer the break, the more strategic distance you'll achieve.
- Change your normal sequence. Edit the paragraphs or even the sentences in reverse order. Scrutineers of parliamentary/congressional legislation have been known to read even the words backwards to force their minds to work differently.
- Read the text aloud. Reading your text aloud can help you to identify where commas should be inserted or removed and to check that the clauses run smoothly and grammatically.
- Alternate your work-flow. Conscientious people are accustomed to continuously working on a single task, but working on more than one section, or more than one article at a time will help you to keep your mind clear while writing and editing articles—especially large articles.
To further increase the benefit, choose sections or articles that present you with different challenges; for example, one text that is relatively easy, requiring more low-level, clerical activities, and another that requires higher-level conceptual precision.
Some of these methods improve our productivity because, ironically, they break the normal mechanisms that our brains use to swap scrutiny for speed while reading and writing. Two such mechanisms are:
- chunking—the way our brains save effort by processing small pieces of information (such as letters) as larger chunks (such as whole words); and
- automaticity—knowing how to do something so well that you don't have to think about it as you do it; this is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice. Remember how hard you had to concentrate on micro-managing the simultaneous subtasks of driving a car when you were a learner driver? Fortunately, automaticity soon sets in, so we can drive well even as we conduct a conversation.
These mechanisms enable you to raed tihs txet wtihuot mcuh torulbe at all, by cmboinng waht you see on the pgae wtih the fmailair, prcdeitalbe prtteans taht you sotre in your lnog-term meromy. (The preceding typos are an example.) It's little wonder that we let typos slip by, and the same applies to our tendency to gloss over higher-level problems in text. Ironically, suppressing the very mechanisms we use to increase our capacity for processing language can help us to probe text for problems and to optimise our writing and editing skills. This is the essence of strategic distance.
Like any proficiency, skilled writing and editing comes from years of effort. Most people significantly improve their writing skills until the "near enough is good enough" frame takes over. So we relax the effort that has already brought us to a plateau of basic, everyday literacy. This is a pity, because writing excellent prose is within the grasp of most educated people, and has considerable life advantages. Sustained effort and fine-tuning seems more important to acquiring expertise than underlying talent. In particular, by consciously spotting and weeding out common redundancies, you'll start to become adept at turning the soggy into the crisp.
Being a Wikipedian involves close engagement with prose, whether through writing, editing, or critiqueing. The "ten-year rule" suggests that acquiring full expertise in these tasks is not a quick process. But don't be discouraged: your efforts will also reap palpable rewards in the short term.
Wikipedia as a training resource
Wikipedia is a rich and little-used resource for self-training, because it provides a huge reservoir of text at all stages of transformation (sometimes circuitous) from the raw and verbose into the stylish and easy to read. A good way of focusing your efforts on improving your prose is to compare two versions of an article you know has been significantly improved. Here's how to do this:
- Click the "Page history" link.
- Locate the pre-improved version. Click that link.
- Read this old version of the article, carefully. Think of all the changes it needs. Better, click "Printable version" and go through a printout with a red pen.
- Return to the "Page history" and use the "compare" function to compare that version with the current version. Compare your edits with those that were actually made.
- Remember that you may be able to make the current version of that article even better; please do so if that's the case.
The rest of this article deals with specific problems.
Redundant wording is common in Wikipedia's articles: removing redundancy will not damage the meaning, and in most cases will strengthen it. Crisp, elegant writing demands the elimination of redundancy.
It takes concentrated practice to identify redundancy, but after a while you'll learn to test every word subconsciously against its context. Ask yourself: "Will the text lose meaning if I remove this?" and "Is there already a word in this sentence that provides the meaning?" Take this sentence:
While the journal had relatively low circulation numbers for its day, it still influenced popular opinion and was feared by the conservative administration.
Did alarm bells ring as you read it? Here, the redundancies are struck through:
While the journal had
relativelylow circulation numbers for its day, it stillinfluenced popular opinion and was feared by the conservative administration.
"Low" is already relative to some norm, which here is explicitly clarified as being "for its day"; thus, "relatively" adds no useful meaning. "Still" has the sense of "all the same" or "nevertheless"; coming after "while" (= "although"), it is totally redundant.
As you strengthen your ability to tighten prose, you'll find many types of redundancy. Here are six:
- Additive terms—"also", "in addition", "moreover" and "furthermore". Every sentence is additional to its predecessors, but most of us, including otherwise good writers, have got into the habit of sprinkling these terms through our writing, because they give us a vague feeling of adding to the cohesion of the text (the strength with which it all hangs together). However, only occasionally are these additive words required for textual cohesion; the flow is usually stronger without them.
- Temporal terms—"over the years", "currently", "now", "from time to time", "to this day". Although these are more likely to be required than the additive terms, they usually add nothing to the sense, or are too vague to be useful. "They planned their
futureresponse". (Try the converse: "They planned their past response".) Often, the tense of the verb is sufficient to convey the temporal sense; e.g., "Mumbai is currentlyIndia's leading financial centre". Here, the present tense of "is" says it all. Similarly, in "After The Kroonland's fitting out was completed, the ship sailed on its maiden voyage", the first word conveys the temporal fact, so "was completed" can be removed.
- Vague terms of size, number and proportion—"some", "a variety of", "a number of", "several", "a few", "many", "any", "all". These items are often too vague to add useful meaning, or their meaning is already conveyed in the rest of the text; e.g., "
Allseawater is salty", "The highway expands to four lanes as it passes somebuilt-up areas of strip development", and "The scheme does not remove anygovernment-funded programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid". Sometimes whether these terms are redundant depends on the larger context.
- Words for which the meaning is already conveyed in another word. For example, "
Bornthe youngest child of a Mexican immigrant couple, she was singing on television while still a junior high school student." Here, "Born" is assumed in the word "child"; therefore the sentence works better without the first word. "Each weapon has its ownadvantages and disadvantages." Here, "its own" repeats the meaning of "each", and thus clutters the sentence. The first three words in the next example can be removed, because they're already covered by the word "when": " In those instanceswhen requests for assistance fall outside Tahirih's scope, staff members attempt to locate other consultants." Another temporal item—an elaborate one—obstructs the middle of this sentence: "Iridion was released in North America on 29 May 2001, and subsequentlyin Europe on 21 September 2001." Similarly, tweaking the grammar allows us to dispense with two words in "The Centre has worked to protect women who comefrom abroad." Women from abroad have clearly "come" from there, unless there might be confusion with the Centre's operation from abroad to protect women in a country.
- Words for which the meaning is easily recoverable from the context or from general knowledge. For example, "The cigar smoker burns the dried leaves of the tobacco plant but does not inhale the
resultingsmoke". We already know that smoke results from the burning of dried tobacco leaves.
- Words that should be removed in favour of ellipsis. For example, "Although not the first scheme of its kind, it was the largest when
it wasintroduced to South Africa, and itremains one of the largest in the world." Its ... it was ... it was ... it. "It" and "was" are annoying repetitions and are easily understood through the process of ellipsis; both words hover over the subsequent clauses and are simply slotted into the gaps by the reader. Ironically, not stating a word is one of the key methods of textual cohesion, because it makes the reader assume this continuing presence of a previously stated item.
You may wish to undertake the series of graded exercises we have prepared to sharpen your ability to identify redundancy. These exercises use sentences taken from FACs.
When you explain something in writing rather than orally, many aspects of language are removed, such as your intonation, pitch, speed, rhythm and bodily gestures. In writing, you need to make up for the absence of those speech signals, so that your readers will be just as engaged with your message as when they listen to you: optimising the flow of your writing is an important way of doing this. Flow comprises a number of aspects, from the smallest punctuation mark to the cohesion of the text on a large scale. Flow can make your writing smooth, clear and easy to read; a lack of flow can make it bumpy and disjointed.
Ironically, flow is achieved by manipulating the breaks in the continuity of the text, controlling the structure of your language—the mortar between the bricks large and small. While some aspects of the flow of a particular text will be the subject of widespread agreement by language experts, flow can often be achieved in more than one way; thus, there's a strong element of personal style in this aspect of writing. Inevitably, the advice that we offer here on flow will be less definitive than our advice for other characteristics of good writing.
Apart from writing your Wikipedia article in sections, paragraphing is the largest scale on which you'll need to structure your text. A paragraph break allows your readers to tie up the idea that they've just read about—to "download" it more deeply into their memory—and to start afresh on a new idea or a new aspect of the same idea. Aim for paragraphs of roughly equal size, although some variation in size is often appropriate.
Over-long paragraphs make it harder for your readers to stay interested; a mass of grey text will force them to work hard to keep an ever-increasing amount of information active in their working memory as they wade through. Where it's starting to be too much of a mental juggling act for the readers, try to identify a sentence around the middle of the paragraph that appears to be a departure—to step out into new territory, so to speak: make it the first sentence in a new paragraph.
Similarly, short, "stubby" paragraphs tend to break up the prose, interrupting the flow: give your readers the chance to link a number of sentences into a cohesive whole; that will usually be the easiest way for them to absorb your message. Stubby paragraphs are all too common in Wikipedia articles, and reviewers in the FAC room are apt to object to them. Apart from the psychological effect on the readers, one-sentence paragraphs can result in a fragmented visual appearance. A stubby paragraph should typically be either expanded into full ideas or merged smoothly with another paragraph (most often the previous one). Very occasionally, a single-sentence paragraph might be appropriate to emphasise or summarise an idea.
You may wish to try your hand at our exercise in manipulating paragraph length.
Chopping up snakes
Your readers will also want to "tie up" the information on a more frequent, smaller scale: the sentence. Sentences that are too long are too demanding on readers' working memory: give them opportunities to download what you've just told them in convenient chunks. Here's an example:
- The need for a stronger central government with a unified currency and the ability to conduct the affairs of state, such as foreign policy (and that could bind all of the states under negotiated treaties and agreements rather than be undermined by a single state's refusal to agree to an international treaty) led to the stronger federal government that was negotiated at the Convention.
It is too long and complex; while there are too many ideas to be expressed in one masterful sentence, this sentence has at least three problems:
- The comma before "such as" looks like the first of a pair surrounding an example; readers scan what follows in vain for the second comma and its announcement of the end of the example.
- The parenthetical remark is so long that when it finishes readers have forgotten where they were when it started.
- It's not obvious what's modified by the relative clause between the parentheses.
The sentence bends disconcertingly, and readers trying to follow it lose their bearings. It's what some people call a "snake", and it needs to be chopped up into manageable portions.
How do we fix this sentence? The first step is to isolate the ideas. There are usually a number of places where we may erect boundaries between these ideas; here's one attempt.
- The need for a stronger central government with a unified currency and the ability to conduct the affairs of state, such as foreign policy (and that could bind all of the states under negotiated treaties and agreements (rather than be undermined by a single state's refusal to agree to an international treaty) led to the stronger federal government that was negotiated at the Convention.
Each of these ideas could stand alone as a sentence. (Since the middle two ideas are particularly close, we could separate them by a semicolon rather than a full-stop.) Let's try doing this. In our chopped-up snake, the four ideas are coloured as above. We've added extra bits in black—either through simple deduction to fill in the context (e.g., "the delegates identified") or to make the sentences cohere (e.g., connectors such as "In particular" and "This" that link back to previous clauses).
- The delegates identified the need for a stronger central government with a unified currency and the ability to conduct the affairs of state. In particular, they saw federal control of foreign policy as a way of binding all of the states under negotiated treaties and agreements; until then, foreign policy had frequently been undermined by a single state's refusal to agree to an international treaty. This led to the negotiation of a stronger federal government at the Convention.
We started with one sentence of 64 words. We've transformed this into three sentences that are slightly longer in total: 77 words. The reader has places to pause and consider the ideas, and the text is much easier to read even if it's a little longer.
We've prepared exercises along the same lines, in case you want to practise chopping up long sentences.
Smoothly integrating ideas into a sentence
Just as snakes require too much working memory to read, stubby sentences limit readers to far less than the full capacity of their working memory; they usually interrupt the flow of the text, resulting in a stop-start effect. Sentences of comfortable length are typically constructed from more than the simplest idea. These ideas need to be integrated smoothly and logically into the sentence. One of the commonest problems in FACs is sentences in which the ideas are poorly connected.
To integrate ideas into a sentence, we need to ask ourselves whether their relationship is additive, contrastive or causal. Causal relationships are usually obvious, so we'll deal with these first.
There are two types of causal links: forward and backward.
In a forward link, the first statement causes or leads to the second. Typical forward connectors are therefore and thus. They're largely interchangeable, although thus is more at home in technical contexts. Here are examples:
- Wikipedia needs to raise the standards of its prose; therefore, we should create infrastructure that encourages contributors to improve their writing skills.
- Researchers have identified the three genes responsible for this disease, thus paving the way for the development of gene therapy.
Other forward links are accordingly and for this/these reason(s). Being longer, they're usually better avoided.
In a backward link, the first statement is caused by or led to by the second. The standard backward connector is because. Two others—since and as—are often used instead of because, but they need extra care. Since can refer to time down to the present, and as can mean "at the same time as". Take the following sentence:
- Dr Gupta was unaware of the underlying complexities, as she moved with her extended family to Mumbai in 1999.
It's unclear whether she was unaware because she moved to Mumbai, or whether she was unaware during the move. It's safer to use because as your causal connector unless the context disambiguates.
The typical placement of the comma is in the direction of causality: after for forward causality; before for backward causality. Although punctuation is usual here in more formal registers such as that used in an encyclopedia, this can vary. For example, the following sentence is short and punchy, and thus needs no comma:
- The President lost the election because he's a fool.
But lengthen the sentence and a comma may make it easier to read:
- The President won the election, because many African-Americans were not permitted to vote and the Supreme Court endorsed the injustice.
A comma is usually unnecessary if the causal link is in the middle of a clause. For example:
- Thus, the surveys failed to reveal the problem.
could be changed into:
- The surveys thus failed to reveal the problem.
Sometimes the causality is obvious; you may be able to dispense with an explicit connector altogether, using a semicolon instead:
- This FAC suffers from faulty prose throughout;
therefore,the nominator should first have called in good copy-editors.
If you don't need a word, don't use it!
Typical contrastive links are:
- but (avoid at the start of a sentence in formal registers)
- although (usually better than though in formal registers)
- nevertheless/nonetheless, (less common)
- in/by contrast, (very pointed)
The typical additive link is:
Usually avoid the following additive links:
- while (ambiguous)
- as well/as well as, (usually too strong—an amplified version of "and")
- not only ... but also (usually too strong—an amplified version of "and"; if you must use it, drop the "also" if possible)
- moreover, (tired and usually redundant)
- furthermore, (tired and usually redundant)
- additionally, (ungainly and usually redundant)
- in addition, (tired and usually redundant)
Academics and technical writers seem to love the last four items in this list; they should know better.
Two poorly used additives on WP
While is a particular problem on Wikipedia. For example:
- "Planning" expenditure is allocated to development schemes outlined in the federal government's plans, while "central" expenditure is allocated to the state governments.
Does the writer want to emphasise that both spending categories occur at the same time? Surely not—here, while is a poor substitute for and; it's better just to use a semicolon:
- "Planning" expenditure is allocated to development schemes outlined in the federal government's plans; expenditure is allocated to the state governments.
Consider that few readers are likely to suppose that the former schemes will be outlined in the federal government's cemeteries, canals or chimneys: there's no need to state the obvious. English grammar allows much duplication to be cut, as well. The result:
- "Planning" expenditure is allocated to development schemes outlined by the federal government, "central" expenditure to the state governments.
With as an additive link is another common problem on WP; it's usually awkward. For example:
- There are 10 chapters in the protocol with the third chapter ("International money laundering") discussing the financing of terrorism.
Far too much ing (and unnecessary repetition). Rewrite as:
- There are 10 chapters in the protocol; the third ("International money laundering") discusses the financing of terrorism.
Here's another example:
- Coronation Street is known for its light humour and comic characters, in the vein of the traditions of northern variety shows, with many of the show's actors having previously worked in repertory theatre, notably the Oldham Rep.
Uncomfortable to read? It should appear so to you: the sentence is rather too long, and the "with" clause is, strictly speaking, ungrammatical (an apostrophe is required in actors', which is itself a little clumsy nowadays). Let's get rid of the troublesome "with" connector and give our poor readers a rest in the middle, using a semicolon:
- Coronation Street is known for its light humour and comic characters, in the vein of the traditions of northern variety shows; many of the show's actors had worked in repertory theatre, notably the Oldham Rep.
Had you noticed the redundant "previously", which is covered by the past tense? And yes, a semicolon is better than a period, since the two halves are so closely linked.
Confusion between additive and contrastive links
This is surprisingly common in FACs. Take the following sentence, which connects two ideas with the commonest contrastive link, but.
- She was raised in London and Manchester, but went on to live in Hong Kong.
The second idea doesn't contradict the first; it just provides additional information. While Hong Kong may be a very different location from London and Manchester, it's perfectly possible to live in Hong Kong having been raised in the UK. But is wrong here, because it introduces a statement that contradicts the previous statement or that is surprising or unexpected coming after the previous statement. Here, replacing the contrastive link with the most common additive link—and—will fix the problem:
- She was raised in London and Manchester, and went on to live in Hong Kong.
Additive relationships: how close are the ideas?
When you're adding ideas together—rather than contrasting them or showing that one leads to the other—the way you integrate them will depend on how close and long they are. There are three basic ways of linking them.
- A link with and—very close ideas; when combined, the resulting sentence should not be too long.
- A link with a semicolon—reasonably close ideas; length is not as important.
- A link with a full-stop—less close ideas, neither of which should be stubby.
The use of these methods is partly a matter of personal style, although there are cases where most readers would prefer one method over the others. Here's an example of two relatively short ideas:
- (1) Most emu species have a grey-brown plumage of shaggy appearance. On close inspection, the shafts and tips of the feathers are black.
Both ideas concern the visual appearance of the birds, specifically that of their feathers. By integrating them into a single sentence, we're making this closeness obvious to the readers, and avoiding the stop–start effect of two short, successive sentences:
- (2) Most emu species have a grey-brown plumage of shaggy appearance; on close inspection, the shafts and tips of the feathers are black.
In (2), the semicolon keeps the readers' minds focused on the same issue: the feathers. In (1), The full-stop suggested that the next sentence would take a different direction, but in (1), it didn't. The next example shows a good use of the full-stop—the second sentence addresses a different issue, food:
- (3) Most emu species have a grey-brown plumage of shaggy appearance. They eat a variety of native and introduced plant species, depending on seasonal availability.
The sentences are still close enough to juxtapose, but the common theme is much broader than feathers or food: it's "most emu species" ("they"). The full-stop warns readers to prepare for something different, although they'll still expect it to flow smoothly from what they've just read.
This next example is satisfactory:
- In 1996 and 2000, he was the nominee of the Green Party; Winona LaDuke was his vice-presidential running mate.
However, the ideas are so closely connected that we might consider joining them with a comma plus and:
- In 1996 and 2000, he was the nominee of the Green Party, and Winona LaDuke was his vice-presidential running mate.
You may wish to try our exercises in correcting sentences with poorly integrated ideas.
Improving your listing technique
Much encyclopedic and academic text comprises lists. The items in a list range from the very long, such as paragraphs and sections, to the very short, such as the words in a sentence (e.g., "They treat dogs, cats and parrots"). Here, we'll focus on lists of shorter items, where the list has a discernible rhythm and contains standardised signals—punctuation and new lines—to help the reader through. Controlling the strength of the boundaries between the items is critical when constructing a list. This is achieved by manipulating the punctuation and line-formatting to achieve an optimal balance between allowing your readers to easily comprehend the list and providing them with a smooth, uninterrupted flow of words.
Lists are binary: they typically have (i) a lead, which introduces (ii) the items. (Occasionally, the order is reversed so that the listed items come first; e.g., "Limes, sugar and water are the only ingredients".)
Here are the basic questions that you'll need to answer when you construct a list.
- Will it comprise a single sentence (Types 1–5 below) or multiple sentences (Types 6 and 7)?
- Will it be a "running" list within the paragraph (Types 1–3 and 6), or a "lined" list, in which each item occupies a new, bulletted or numbered line (Types 4, 5 and 7)?
- What kind of boundaries will you use between the items? (In other words, what combination of commas, semicolons, colons, full-stops, numbers and bullets will you use?)
First, we show you some examples of the basic types of list, followed by brief advice on formatting. Then we deal, category by category, with the commonest problems in listing.
We've prepared models and examples of the main types of list—single-sentence and multisentence lists, and within these categories, running and lined lists. This is not an exhaustive list, and the guidelines here arise at least partly from personal choice. For each type, we've used "LEAD" to stand for all of the words in the lead; this will run directly into a three-item list, in which the items are represented by A, B and C. Hit [Show] in the upper box to reveal the example and comments on it. Please widen your window if the display is distorted.
A running list is smoothly integrated into its paragraph, and will not be obvious at a glance. Occasionally, contributors to FACs are asked to change lined lists into running lists to provide greater flow and neater visual appearance. Running lists are almost ubiquitous, and we've all become skilled at reading them fluently—even when they're complex. Strictly speaking, the first two sentences in this paragraph are running lists, in which the lead–item boundaries fall after "list" and "provide", respectively. Let's revisit these two sentences, marking the lead–item boundary with / and colouring the items.
- A running list / is smoothly integrated into its paragraph, and will not be obvious at a glance. Occasionally, contributors to FACs are asked to change lined lists into running lists to provide / greater flow and neater visual appearance.
Here are some of the common types of running list.
TYPE 1 (nothing + commas)
LEAD A, B, and C.
Macro-economics concerns the three policy goals of economic
growth, price stability, and full employment.
- This is a simple list: a short sentence with short items.
- Minimal punctuation and the lack of new lines allow the weakest possible
boundaries between the items.
- We recommend always inserting a "serial" comma before
TYPE 2 (colon + semicolons)
LEAD: A; B; and C.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals: economic
growth; price stability; and full employment.
- This is the "marked" version of the previous example: the lead is followed by
a colon (a "drum roll") that firmly announces the list; the item boundaries
are semicolons, which are stronger boundaries, but commas are acceptable
where there are no commas within the items.
- The grammar has been changed so that the lead could function as a stand-
- The "Oxford" punctuation is always used.
- This version is unusual for such a short, simple list—it might be regarded
as having a "choppy" effect. Use it if you want to emphasise the list, or
where the individual items are:
- longer; or
- more complex—particularly if at least one item has internal commas
(where semicolons will avoid confusion).
TYPE 3 (the addition of numbers to Models 1 or 2)
LEAD (1) A, (2) B, and (3) C.
LEAD: (1) A; (2) B; and (3) C.
Macro-economics concerns the three policy goals of (1) economic
growth, (2) price stability, and (3) full employment.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals: (1) economic
growth; (2) price stability; and (3) full employment.
- This example is even more "marked" because the numbered boundaries are
visually more intrusive.
- Numbers are useful if:
- the list is complicated;
- you want to distinctly separate the items for easier comprehension;
- you'll later need to refer back to the items by number;
- you want to emphasise the number of items in the list; or
- the sequence of the items is at issue.
- You can use other types of numbering (see "Alternative systems of numbering lists" below).
Placing each item on a separate line provides even stronger boundaries, making the items visually distinct. This allows readers to digest the list easily, mentally "ticking off" each item line by line, and facilitates the re-reading and comparison of items. Lined lists allow readers to easily identify and focus on only the items that they need, which can be important in an organisation in which the same document is read by staff with very different roles and responsibilities. The white space that lined lists create can break up masses of grey paragraphs, which is more inviting to readers in many contexts. For all of these reasons, lined lists are much liked in corporate, government and administrative documents; although lined lists are less prevalent in academic (and encyclopedic) text, their use has been increasing.
Lined lists come at a cost: their very strong boundaries work against the flow of the text. This is why reviewers in the FAC room tend to object unless this formatting is used judiciously, especially at the top of an article where flow is of the essence to engage the readers. There are exceptions to this, but try to keep lined lists few in number and short, or your article will be seen as "listy".
TYPE 4 (colon plus semicolons, lined)
- B; and
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals:
- economic growth;
- price stability; and
- full employment.
- This list is still formatted as a single sentence, so each item starts with
a lower-case letter (unless it would normally be upper case).
- Commas instead of semicolons are acceptable, unless there are commas
within the items. Some people prefer to leave each item hanging
without final punctuation.
- Some people feel that a lined list is so visually obvious that the "and" is unnecessary
as a signal that the last item follows. However, a formally treated whole
sentence (with the "and" signal) may flow better.
TYPE 5 (colon plus semicolons, lined and numbered)
(2) B; and
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals:
(1) economic growth;
(2) price stability; and
(3) full employment.
- As above, some people prefer a comma, or no punctuation and no "and", instead of the semicolons.
These are appropriate when the items are long and complex, and/or contain more than one sentence or clause. FA Criteria 2 and 3 used to be cast as single sentences, and were changed to a multi-sentence format, because the items (now Criteria 1 and 2) were thought to be easier to read as stand-alone sentences. Multi-sentence lists can be running or lined; in this subsection, we treat both types.
TYPE 6 (running and numbered)
LEAD. First, A. Second, B. Third, C.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation
of many economists and policy-makers for decades. The first is economic
growth, a key platform for moving people out of poverty. The second is price stability,
or low levels of inflation; this is widely regarded as a prerequisite for a healthy
economy. The third is full employment, which has the potential to
reduce social problems.
- Here, the items are large enough to make each a stand-alone sentence.
Item (2) comprises two segments separated by a semicolon (which could
even be changed to a full-stop); this is another reason to use a multi-sentence list.
- The lead contains a strong forward-link: "three policy goals". This is necessary
because the full-stops don't push the reader forwards as do colons,
semicolons and commas.
- You could make each item a nominal group rather than a full grammatical
sentence as follows, although it is typical to use a lined list for this. The lead
still finishes with a full-stop.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation
of many economists and policy-makers for decades. (1) Economic growth, a key platform for
moving people out of poverty. (2) Price stability, in other words, low levels of inflation; this is
widely regarded as a prerequisite for a healthy economy. (3) Full employment,
which has the potential to reduce social problems.
TYPE 7 (lined and bulletted or numbered)
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of
many economists and policy-makers for decades.
- Economic growth, a key platform for moving people out of poverty.
- Price stability, or low levels of inflation; this is widely regarded as a prerequisite
for a healthy economy.
- Full employment, which has the potential to reduce social problems.
- Numbering is possible instead of bullets, but only if there's a reason for
doing this; here's an example.
Macro-economics concerns three policy goals that have been the pre-occupation of
many economists and policy-makers for decades.
- (1) Economic growth, a key platform for moving people out of poverty.
- (2) Price stability, or low levels of inflation; this is widely regarded as a prerequisite
for a healthy economy.
- (3) Full employment, which has the potential to reduce social problems.
Alternative systems of numbering lists
- Arabic numerals: (1) (2) (3)
- Roman numerals, lower case: (i) (ii) (iii)
- Roman letters, lower case: (a) (b) (c)—use if there are numerals within the items that may clash with the numbering system.
- Roman letters, upper case: (A) (B) (C)—less common.
- Any of the above, enclosed in square brackets—possible, but uncommon.
- Any of the above without parentheses or square brackets, followed by significantly indented text.
- English words plus comma: first(ly), second(ly), third(ly),—possible. There are variations on the spelt-out numbering system, among them:
- First,... Second,... Third,...;
- Firstly,... Secondly,... Thirdly,...
- Firstly,... Second,... Third,....
- Closing parenthesis alone: 1) 2) 3)—this is not as neat as two parentheses, and slightly harder to read.
- Number/letter plus dot and space: 1. 2. 3.—this can cause tension with sentence boundaries.
- Bolding, italicising, and other highlighting of numbers/letters—this can look messy.
- Substantial indents for lined lists; we recommend no indent or only a small indent for the bullets or numbers—visually, lined lists are already very distinct.
Subset terms frame the items of your list as part of a larger set of items. These terms need to be used with care. Common subset terms are:
- includes and including
- , such as (preferred to like in formal writing)
- , particularly and , in particular
- , especially
- , for example, or e.g.,
- among which are and among them ...
- most importantly,
- ..., etc. (avoid in encyclopedic text—it means "and the rest", and suggests that you can't be bothered to tell us)
Many writers get into a habit of automatically using a subset term to introduce lists—especially the term "includes". This signals to the reader that the list is incomplete—that there are other items aside from those in the list. If the list is complete (which is usually the case), use terms such as comprises or consists of instead. Here's an example.
- Natural numbers include positive integers and non-negative integers.
No, that indicates that natural numbers can be other things as well; they can't. This is correct:
- Natural numbers comprise positive and non-negative integers.
or you could indicate the relationship of the items to the set and to each other more precisely:
- Natural numbers are either positive or non-negative integers.
If your list is incomplete, take care not to double up on subset terms. Here, there's one subset term before and one after the items:
- The most important biographies are on Graham Greene, Patrick White and Ernest Hemingway, among others.
"The most important" indicates that you're drawing on a larger set; telling us twice will weaken the text. This is better:
- The most important biographies are on Graham Greene, Patrick White and Ernest Hemingway.
Vagueness in the lead
Rather than using a vague term, such as several or various, specify the number of items in the lead. For example, instead of:
- The company's land-mines are produced in a variety of colours—grey, dark-green, light-green and tan—for optimal camouflage.
- The company's land-mines are produced in four colours—grey, dark-green, light-green and tan—for optimal camouflage.
In any case, it's usually unnecessary to tell us how many items we're about to read.
Check the formatting where running lists are long and/or complex, especially where you've removed or pasted in items. Remember the basic formulas, which hold no matter how long or complex the items:
- A and B.
- A, B and C.
- A, B, C and D.
- The 1973 oil crisis had significantly increased the cost of living, domestic industry was weakening from a lack of cost-competitiveness.
This is wrong (A, B); the writer has removed the C item without checking the residual formatting. Here's the original sentence.
- The 1973 oil crisis had significantly increased the cost of living, domestic industry was weakening from a lack of cost-competitiveness, and government revenues were waning.
These can turn a hedgehog sentence into something more manageable. Full repetitions such as this:
- Their new technology produced all of the required sounds, including two-voice, three-voice and eventually four-voice music samples.
can be reduced to:
- Their new technology produced all of the required sounds, including two-, three- and eventually four-voice music samples.
Relocate clause-initial repetitions to the lead
Where every item of a single-sentence list starts the same way, relocate the repeated text up to the lead. For example:
To help strengthen the US democratic process:
- you can lobby for the tighter regulation of political donations;
- you can lobby for the creation of a uniform national voting process for Congressional representatives and the President; and
- you can vote for representatives who pledge their support for the establishment of a national, independent body to determine the boundaries of congressional districts.
would be easier to read as:
To help strengthen the US democratic process, you can:
- lobby for the tighter regulation of political donations;
- lobby for the creation of a uniform, national voting process for Congressional representatives and the President; and
- vote for representatives who pledge their support for the establishment of a national, independent body to determine the boundaries of congressional districts.
"And" and "or"
There's a tendency among some writers to use "or" between the second-last and last items in a list, where they mean "and". A, B or C means EITHER A OR B OR C. "And" is the default for lists in English: A, B and C. Using "and" doesn't necessarily mean that all items in a list apply all of the time; it can still mean that only one item applies on any one occasion. For example:
- Alternative terms for herbal tea that avoid the misleading word "tea" are tisane or herbal infusion.
- Alternative terms for herbal tea that avoid the misleading word "tea" are tisane and herbal infusion.
English may be idiosyncratic in this respect, because we've noticed that many non-native speakers, particularly those who come from East Asian languages, over-prefer "or" in lists.
Check that the semantic and conceptual boundaries between the items are distinct and logical. The most common category problem arises when one item is a subset of another. Here's an example:
- He was responsible for the contents and comic strip in Megatokyo.
At first glance, the reader is justified in asking: "Isn't the comic strip part of the contents?" It may be that the writer is trying to distinguish between the graphics and the linguistic text in the bubbles; it's hard to know.
- Manhattan has many famous landmarks, tourist attractions, museums and universities.
Museums are tourist attractions, so already the boundaries are unclear. The writer resolved the problem here by replacing "tourist attractions" with a more focused item.
Another problem arises when the categories are too different, usually conceptually:
- The Mayans widely believed that tobacco has magical powers, and used it in divinations and talismans.
Divination is the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means. A talisman is an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck. It would have been better to treat these two uses in separate clauses or even sentences.
Consistent grammar and formatting
Keep the grammar and formatting consistent. The following list mixes two common grammatical constructions.
- Preparing a FAC involves (i) copy-editing the text many times, (ii) the checking of all points of view to ensure that they are neutral, (iii) justifying the copyright of the images, and (iv) the organisation of the material into logical sections.
Two of the four items start with a nominalisation (the checking of and the organisation of) and two start with straight "-ing" verbs (copy-editing and justifying). Either way is fine, but you need to choose one and stick to it throughout the list. Here, we've chosen to nominalise the verb at the start of each item, which gives it a more formal, steady-state feel, rather than the active, dynamic, "doing" sense conveyed by the straight "-ing" verbs:
- Preparing a FAC involves (i) the copy-editing of the text many times, (ii) the checking of all points of view to ensure that they are neutral, (iii) the justification of the copyright of the images, and (iv) the organisation of the material into logical sections.
Now your readers don't have to rejig their mental idea of the grammar to read each new item: much easier.
Here's an example of an elaborate list from a FAC—a list of lists, in fact—that is littered with parentheses and quote marks and is illogically formatted and inconsistent. During the FAC process, this example was significantly improved; see how many areas for improvement you can identify, then hit Show to see the hints.
Hit [Show] in the top box to view hints. Hit [Show] in the bottom box to view the improved version.
The vector consists of several components:
- The object to which the term refers (the object individuated by the chemical formula H2O, for example)
- A set of typical descriptions of the term (referred to as the "stereotype") such as "transparent", "colourless", "hydrating", etc.
- The semantic indicators that place the object into a general category (e.g., "natural kind", "liquid", etc.) and
- The syntactic indicators (including "concrete noun", "mass noun").
- Let's specify the number of items (four), rather than the vague several.
- There appears to be no reason to number the items.
- It appears to be a single-sentence list, but is not formatted as such; while it's elaborate enough for a multi-sentence format, let's format it properly as a single-sentence list.
- Let's remove the parentheses, which make it complex and difficult to read; as well, there's tension between their use for a different purpose in the second item (providing an equivalent term) compared with their role in marking off examples of each item.
- The language needs to be consistent (for example, such as, etc and including—we've chosen to replace these with the single term e.g., because it's short and this list is already long and complex).
- the object to which the term refers, e.g., the object individuated by the chemical formula H2O;
- a set of typical descriptions of the term, referred to as "the stereotype", e.g., "transparent", "colourless" and "hydrating";
- the semantic indicators that place the object into a general category, e.g., "natural kind" and "liquid"; and
- the syntactic indicators, e.g., "concrete noun" and "mass noun".
- This is slightly shorter for the same information, and is much easier to read because each item is consistent in language and formatting.
Wikipedia needs to appeal to a wide range of native and non-native speakers, many of whom are time-poor. Writing plain English is a good way to achieve this. Many writers want to write text with an air of authority, and use longer-than-necessary and/or old-fashioned forms in the hope of appearing more formal. In most cases, you'll get your point across more effectively by avoiding the following words and phrases (suggested replacements appear after the arrows):
- whilst —> while
- amongst —> among
- upon —> on
- within —> in (unless you really need to stress "insideness")
- in order to and in order for —> just to and for (very occasionally, the "in order" is required to avoid ambiguity, and of course the negative requires all words: "in order not to", and "so as not to" )
- hitherto —> until now
- thereupon —> then
- notwithstanding (yuck) —> despite or another construction
- utilise —> use (scientists should get this ugly duckling out of their system)
- prior to —> before
- the majority of —> most (unless "more than 50%" is intended)
- multiple —> many (unless you mean "having or involving several parts, elements or members", especially when it's not always the case, e.g., multiple occupancy, multiple birth; but not "cited in multiple articles")
- due to the fact that —> because
THE REMAINDER OF THIS ARTICLE IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION.
- ^ Souter T (2001) Eye movement and memory in the sight reading of keyboard music (doctoral dissertation, University of Sydney)—contains a review of the literature on the mechanisms of reading linguistic text and music notation
- ^ Miller GA (1956) The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review 63:81–97
- ^ LaBerge D and Samuels SJ (1974) Toward a theory of automatic information processing in reading. Cognitive Psychology 6:293–323
- ^ Ross PE (2006) The expert mind, Scientific American 295(2):46–53
- ^ Chase WG and Simon HA (1973) Perception in chess, Cognitive Psychology 4:5–18
All of these links are free.
For all Wikipedians
- Eliminating Wordiness. Advice from the Undergraduate Writing Center, University of Texas.
- Ask Oxford. A free online dictionary resource, with a search box for looking up the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, information on better writing (including tips on spelling, grammar and plain English), a huge database of FAQs on the language, and a section on global English.
- The Owl at Purdue. Treatment of many writing issues; part of Purdue University's wide-ranging site for writers.
- Better Editor. A rich resource of style and grammar guides, dictionaries, free software downloads and other tools for serious editors.
- The American Heritage Book of English Usage. We disagree with the approach on much of this site, based as it is on traditional grammar; however, we've included the address because of its search box, which enables you to access online information on your chosen topic in several popular texts; for example, you can compare what the self-appointed authorities say about the so-called split infinitive.
- The Guardian style guide. A good read, set out as short entries in alphabetical order. Some eccentricities, though!
- The Internet Grammar of English. An online course in English grammar, written primarily for university undergraduates but more widely applicable; it assumes no prior knowledge of grammar.
- World Wide Words. Writer and lexicographer Michael Quinion writes about international English from a British viewpoint—indexed articles, Q&A, reviews, topical words, turns of phrase, weird words, funnies.
- OneLook dictionary search. Enter a word (AmEng spelling) to search for dictionary websites that include that word.
- Acronym Finder. Find out what any acronym, abbreviation, or initialism stands for.
- Merriam-Webster Online. Free online dictionaries, word games, thesaurus, and more
- The International System of Units (SI)
- Russ Rowlett's online Dictionary of Units of Measurement
- After Deadline Notes from the New York Times newsroom on grammar, usage and style—a weekly column
For second-language Wikipedians
We don't agree with everything on these sites, but they provide valuable interactive tutorials for non-native speakers who want to improve their English. Beware a mild commercial push in a few places.
- The English Page: VERY USEFUL multiple-choice exercises. Free online English lessons and ESL/EFL resources. Thanks to The Duke of Waltham for pointing me to it.
- The Owl at Purdue. Hit "English as a second language (ESL)", where grammatical/writing issues are treated one by one. This is part of Purdue University's wide-ranging site for writers.
- Guide to grammar and writing. A huge site, full of helpful advice and interactive quizzes. For example, check out this interactive quiz on the use of "the", "a" and [article blank] before nouns—a basic aspect of English grammar that is a major problem for many non-native speakers.
- HyperGrammar. Under construction by the Writing Centre at the University of Ottawa; the site contains errors and is incomplete, but some sections may be useful.
- Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. An online dictionary for people learning English.
- Your dictionary. A bit of a jungle, but perhaps worth exploring.
- Oxford advanced learner's dictionary, with good coverage of the distinctions between British and American English, and audio samples of pronunciation in each of these two major varieties of English. (Suggested by User:The Duke of Waltham)