Notes on Writing
Richard N. Langlois
This is a list of semi-random notes on writing. It is intended
primarily as a check-list of common mistakes rather than as any
sort of comprehensive guide to writing. There are a number of
general books available that intend the latter.
On Writing Well
by William Zinsser is particularly good,
but there are lots of
others, including the ubiquitous
Elements of Style
and White. D. N. McCloskey has produced a little book, called
The Writing of Economics (Macmillan, 1987),
geared specifically for our profession. I strongly recommend it.
The serious dilettante should also consult the
pronouncements of such writing gurus as William Safire, Edwin
Newman, and John Simon.
Good writing requires the mastery of two aspects of technique.
One is grammar in the broad sense -- the basic rules of language.
This would include syntax, punctuation, and usage. But good
writing also requires style -- the art of applying the rules of
language. One can easily imagine a piece of writing that violates
no rules of grammar but nonetheless displays a terrible writing
style. (The converse is harder to imagine.)
The term "style" is often taken loosely to comprehend not only
style in the narrow sense but also the larger issues of structure
and form. These latter represent the "macro" aspects of writing
-- the overall organization of a text and the logic with which
the pieces are integrated into a coherent whole. By contrast,
style in the narrow sense has to do with the "micro" aspects of
writing. It deals, if you will, not with overall organization
(structure) or with the way sections and paragraphs fit together
(form) but with the ways words are tied together to build
sentences and paragraphs. I will be concerned here with this
narrower conception of style.
The passive voice.
Writing in a clear and lively
style is ultimately a skill; it is a feat of what the philosopher
Michael Polanyi called tacit knowledge. For that reason, one
can't learn to be a good writer by following some list of
explicit rules. As in any skill, one learns writing only by
practice and by imitating accomplished writers.
But explicit rules can sometimes be useful in a negative way;
they can often tell us what
to do. In my view, perhaps
the most important rule in this category has to do with the
passive voice. The rule is a simple one:
don't use it.
Obviously, this is a rule that an accomplished writer can
(sometimes) violate; otherwise, there would be no need for the
passive voice at all. But it is also quite easy to do without
the passive voice in virtually all circumstances. It is almost
always weak, diffuse, pseudo-scholarly, and bureaucratic. And
avoiding it is perhaps the single best way to improve your style.
Lifeless, bureaucratic turns of phrase are not limited to
expressions using the passive voice (expressions like "it should
be noted that..."). One ubiquitous offender in
scholarly (especially student) writing is the verb to state, as
in "Adam Smith stated that..." The rule here is the same:
don't use it.
Almost any synonym -- "suggested," "wrote,"
"argued," "opined," or just plain "said" -- is better. (The only
time I use the verb to state is when I'm trying to set a
The first person.
Many people use the passive voice out of a fear of using the
first person singular. The fear is unjustified. If you
can't phrase something in a way that is both lively and
impersonal, then go ahead and say "I." Similarly, you should use
"we" if you have a co-author or if you are speaking for a
In mathematical writing, one often finds what I call "the
engineering 'we.'" "First we divide by x and then we integrate
over the real numbers," etc. This can be construed as referring
to the author and the reader, who are jointly performing the
mathematical operations. But many writers treat it more like the
physician's "bedside 'we'" ("How are 'we' feeling today"?); and
others use it as a rhetorical crutch and thought-substitute. In
either case, too much of the mathematician's "we" leads to
English is in part a Germanic language. But one area in which
English does not follow German is the use of extended adjectival
constructions before the noun. This is sometimes called
"telegram style," and it is a practice particularly prevalent in
writing about economics.
To a limited extent, stacking adjectives before the noun is
unavoidable -- and even adds a little punch to one's style. But
it's one thing to talk of "firm-size variables" or "sales-growth
projections" and quite another thing to describe "prior period
sales changes" or "the total net long-term portfolio capital
flow." It may take slightly more space to say "sales changes in
the prior period" or "the total net flow of long-term portfolio
capital"; but it definitely scores lower on the
By the way, attention to hyphenation is important when stacking
modifiers. When two or more nouns are used as adjectives
modifying a third, absence of hyphens indicates that all the
adjectives modify the same noun. For example, a foreign exchange
student is an exchange student from overseas; but a
foreign-exchange student is someone who studies foreign exchange.
News reporters have the job of conveying a lot of information in
a small amount of space. Thus, they often cram together several
unconnected pieces of information in the same sentence. "An
unemployed electrician from Florida who likes tapioca pudding for
dessert, Hawkins, 36, admitted at his trial, which entered its
257th day yesterday, that he strangled his estranged wife in
Hawaii, which was the 50th state to join the Union...." You're
not a newspaper reporter. Stick to one thought per sentence.
It is a mistake to think that elegant writing means avoiding all
contractions (saying "cannot" instead of "can't," for instance). In
modern American style there is no such rule. The best advice is
to mix contractions and non-contracted forms, and to avoid a
pedantic sound on the one hand and an excessively breezy sound on
Read your writing out loud.
The best test of your writing style is to read what you've
written -- out loud if necessary. Be sure to read it
pausing where your punctuation really demands and
adding inflection the way the text actually requires. Is the
text choppy and hard to read? Is it monotonous -- with all the
sentences equal in length? Cadence is important. Try for a
mix in which short, clean sentences punctuate long, elegant
From the artistic realm of style we move suddenly to the
technicalities of punctuation. Here there is greater scope for
explicit rules, even if their correct application ultimately
requires its own kind of art.
And other punctuation marks.
Do commas, periods, etc., go inside or outside of quotation
marks? In so-called American Preferred Style, the answer is
straightforward. Commas and periods
quotation marks. Always. Without exception. Colons and
semicolons always go
quotation marks. And question
marks and exclamation points vary according to whether they are
logically part of the quoted material. This rule may seem
illogical (it evidently developed as a way of saving space in
typesetting); but it remains the preferred rule.
Internal and external.
In American style, primary quotations take double quotes.
Internal quotations (quoted material within a quotation) take
single quotes. Further nested levels simply alternate double
and single quotes.
As a general rule, quotations longer than eight lines
should be set off from the main text -- indented and single
put quotation marks around such indented
text. Remember that setting the quoted material off from the
main text does not make it
separate from the main
text; that is, punctuate and capitalize the quotation (and use
ellipsis) just as if the quote were part of the main text. Avoid
prefacing quotes with expressions like "Adam Smith wrote: ..."
Try to integrate the block quote into the text. Introduce it with
a complete sentence like "Adam Smith argued this way." Or use
the following trick. "The statesman," wrote Smith,
who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they
ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a
most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which
could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council
or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in
the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy
himself fit to exercise it. (Smith, 1776 [1976, p. 456].)
Note also that the text following the block quotation should not
be indented unless it is logically a new paragraph.
An equation is syntactically a sentence or part of a sentence,
and requires the same punctuation as a verbal expression: commas,
semicolons, and periods.
Hyphenating after adverbs.
Never hyphenate between an adverb ending in "ly" and the
adjective (or participle) it modifies. For example, it's the
"theoretically predicted value" not the "theoretically-predicted
value." Don't ask me why this is so.
hyphenate in other cases. But notice that the
hyphenation occurs only when the compound modifies the noun
directly -- not when it is used as a predicate adjective. Thus,
"the semicolon is a much-misused and oft-neglected punctuation
mark"; but "the semicolon is much misused and often neglected."
As I was saying, the semicolon is a much-misused and
oft-neglected punctuation mark. It is used to separate two
clauses that are complete (that have their own subjects and
verbs) but that do not require the force of separate sentences.
When to use a semicolon is thus a matter of style. Also,
semicolons should be used to separate items in a list when those
items are relatively complex or when commas would be
Some people would argue that a colon should be used only after a
complete clause. I wouldn't go that far; but it is true that the
colon ought not to be relegated to introducing lists or
equations. The effect of the colon is to concentrate the force of
what went before into what follows. As such, it can be used
legitimately in a wide variety of creative ways.
The question mark.
Remember that the question mark is a full-fledged punctuation
mark, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto.
That means that you never need to follow a question mark with a
comma or a period. It's "What time is it? he asked,"
"What time is it?, he asked."
By syntax I mean primarily sentence logic. The two most frequent
problems here are misplaced clauses and faulty agreement. But
the message is a more general one: make sure your sentences mean
what you think they mean.
A perennial problem in writing is the misplaced or floating
clause, especially the introductory clause. Consider this
sentence. "As an economist, costs and benefits are important
concerns to me." It seems to make sense, but it is in fact
illogical. The clause "as an economist" is obviously intended to refer to the
speaker, whereas by its placement it actually modifies "costs and
benefits." Costs and benefits are not an economist.
Make sure that the word immediately after an
introductory clause is always the word you want the clause to modify.
The most frequent agreement problem I encounter is in the agreement
in number of verbs with pronouns like each, any,
none, or every. All of these are
and thus take
singular verbs. (Examples: Each of the billions and billions of
stars is a sun like our own. None of them is made of green cheese.)
The common mistake is to make the verb agree with a nearby object
of the preposition rather than with the subject.
Placement of "only."
"I only have eyes for you," says the song. What this literally
means is that I have eyes -- and no other bodily parts -- for
you. Presumably, the singer really intends something like "I
have eyes only for you." While it has become conventional in
spoken English to let "only" sit near the verb even if it
modifies some other part of the sentence, it is
acceptable in written English. Put the word near what it really
We now move down to the most microscopic level of writing: the
individual words themselves. Usage has to do with the meanings
of words and the rules for when they should -- and shouldn't --
be used. What follows is a non-comprehensive compendium.
Always use the relative pronoun "that" to introduce
clauses and "which" to introduce
clauses. What does that mean? A
restrictive clause is one that restricts a noun to a particular
instance or class. For example: "The book that was on the table
is mine." Contrast this with the non-restrictive variant: "The
book, which was on the table, is mine." (This latter type of
clause is also called a descriptive clause.) Notice that the
non-restrictive clause is set off by commas. This rule is of
recent vintage (as far as I can tell), and it is still routinely
disregarded, even by some accomplished writers. But those in the
know now regard it as gospel.
The expression "due to" should be used only to attribute a state
of affairs, not to indicate causality. For instance, "this
equation is due to Einstein" is OK; but "the volcano erupted due
to underground lava pressure" is wrong. In 90 per cent of the
cases in which people use "due to," they should have used
"because of." Incidentally, I know of absolutely no instance in
which the horrendous expression "due to the fact that" should be
used. Get rid of it.
Although English permits many adverbs to be used in dangling,
free-floating form, current opinion has singled out "hopefully"
as a major no-no. Never use this expression to mean "I hope" or
"it is to be hoped." You can use it only as an ordinary adverb
modifying a specific verb. "Hopefully this megatron space-prober
will work on the first try, said Tom" is out; but "I know this
megatron space-prober will work on the first try, Tom said
hopefully" is OK. In the first case "hopefully" just floats
around the sentence trying to convey guarded optimism; in the
second case it modifies the verb "said." Other free-floaters
like "unfortunately" and "happily" have passed safely into
Fortuitously means simply
mean "fortunately" or "luckily." It does not even mean
"by lucky chance." Same goes for the adjective form, of course.
If you want to convey the idea that something is happening
use currently. ("The theater is currently showing three
Marx Brothers flicks.") Or, better yet, just say "now." I object
to the use of presently as a synonym for "currently" or "now" --
although I'm probably on the losing side of this one. Presently
in a little while.
("Dinner will be served
presently.") "Momentarily" means
for a moment
in a moment.
When the captain says that the aircraft "will be in the
air momentarily," you'd better hope that his usage is bad.
must refer (perhaps metaphorically) to
a process that is continuous in essentially the mathematical
sense -- there are no gaps or holes. ("His routine was a
continuous progression of one-liners.") If you want to refer to
repeated events that are discrete or intermittent, use
("He remonstrated continually [not continuously] on
the virtues of sacerdotal celibacy.") Again, same goes for the adjective.
To comprise means to include. If you can't substitute "include"
for "comprise" in your sentence, you're misusing the word. More
formally, "comprise" can be used only in reference to a proper
subset of a specified set. That is, "New England
Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island"; but "New England is
(or made up) of six states." The whole comprises
the parts, not the other way around. And the ubiquitous
expression "comprised of" is always wrong.
different from/differently than.
The adjective form is always followed by "from," the adverb form
by "than." Thus: "I came up with an answer different from
his. That's because I approached the problem
differently than he did."
Don't forget that "between" should be used only when the
connection involves precisely two things; "among" should be used
for three or more. "The choice among the twelve contestants
resolved itself into a choice between the two leading candidates."
Less than/fewer than.
As in the case of continuously versus continually, the
desideratum here is continuity versus discreteness. Use "less
than" when the comparison involves a continuously measurable
quantity ("less than three inches long") or when the number
involved is large ("less than a billion stars"); use "fewer than"
when the numbers involved are small and discrete ("fewer than ten
people per lifeboat"). The sign over the express-checkout lane
in the supermarket is wrong.
You can convince someone
something, but you can't convince
that person to do it.
Ensure and enquire.
I've never seen anything written about this, but my own rule is
when I have in mind the loose or
metaphoric meaning ("He stayed behind to ensure that everyone was
safe") and to use
only when I mean the technical
activity of providing insurance ("This procedure effectively
insured the farmers against crop losses"). Similarly, I use
"enquire" for the general activity of asking, and reserve
"inquire" for the kind of penetrating research that scientists and
There are some adjectives and participles (pregnant and dead come
to mind) that can't be qualified (that can't be modified with an
adverb). You can't be partially dead (in a non-metaphoric sense)
or kind of pregnant.
is another example: it means "one of a
kind," and to say "rather unique" is illogical and considered
unacceptable in written English. There are other such
adjectives, so be on the lookout.
Nouns as verbs.
It is a long-established process in English to transform nouns
into verbs (a pitcher pitches, a cook cooks, etc.). Such
transformations can add immediacy to the language; but carried too
far, they can rob the language of elegance and give it a boring
bureaucratic tone. A gentleman establishes priorities; a
bureaucrat prioritizes. The rule should be to transform the noun
to a verb if the transformation is a fresh metaphor, but to avoid
such noun-verbs when they sound like bureaucratic buzzwords.
Received opinion would draw the line, for example, at such words
host. One writes (not
authors) a book; criticizes (not critiques) an essay; and plays
host at (not hosts) a party. It could be worse: people are now
talking of "gifting" one another at Christmas.
He, he or she, s/he.
There is a rule from time immemorial in English that the pronoun
"he" can be used in some circumstances as a generic or
androgynous pronoun -- one that refers to both men and women.
It has become abundantly clear in the last few years that this rule has passed into history.
Whatever you may think of political correctness, it is now considered Neanderthal
among the intelligentsia not to say "he or she" and, more generally,
to arrange one's prose for greater androgyny.
Use expressions like "one" or "the economic agent." Under
no circumstance, however, will I -- or should any human being of either sex
-- use the formula "s/he." It's something I would expect to see
in regulations promulgated by the Ministry of Sex Equality.
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