Good Style

How to Write Like Bertrand Russell | Shorten That Sentence! | Annoying Archaism | Adverbially Yours | Grammar Checkers — Are They Worth the Trouble? | Style for Instruction Writing | Prepositions and Noun Phrases | Acronyms | Novel Writing

How to Write Like Bertrand Russell

Question: I usually write grammatically, but I dislike my prose. I wish it could sound like prose by, say, Bertrand Russell. Please tell me what I can do to change my writing. Thank you.

Answer: You could arrange to be born into an aristocratic family, attend the very best schools, and continue to refine your elegant mind and powers of expression: Then you should have no problem writing just like BR.

Otherwise, read good writers. Imitate their style so that you better understand what they do. Study classical rhetoric. Consult our printed and online guides.

"There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere."
— BR, 1967

Go to Top of Page

Shorten That Sentence!

Question: Is the following sentence punctuated correctly?

"The goal of our conferences is to provide you with pertinent, useful information that will help you perform your job responsibilities more effectively and efficiently, thus enabling you to add value to your organization."

Answer: Yes, but at 34 words and 187 characters, it's a little long. Try this:

"Our conferences give you information to help you work smarter and faster, adding value to your organization."
(17 words, 92 characters)

An excellent book for copyeditors is Edit Yourself by Bruce Ross-Larson.

Go to Top of Page

Annoying Archaism

Question:"Enclosed please find . . .."
We are having a discussion about the above-referenced phrase. I say it is a redundant and archaic phrase and someone else says it isn't. Please let me know what is correct. Thank you

Answer: "Enclosed please find" annoys many readers — which alone is an excellent reason to avoid the expression. It is archaic and perhaps redundant, but it is not incorrect. Nonetheless, try other ways of letting your readers know they should look at the rest of the package:

  • "Thank you for requesting the enclosed information on our high performance veeblefetzers."
  • "Here is the documentation you asked about at our meeting yesterday."
  • "I attach a draft report for your review."

Go to Top of Page

Adverbially Yours

Question: Can you begin a sentence with an adverbial conjunction. (I don't see why not, but a few faculty members at my college say no.)

Answer: However opposed your faculty may be to the idea, adverbial conjunctions can lead sentences — especially when they are used as adverbs.

Furthermore, even when they are used as conjunctions, conjunctive adverbs may appropriately and correctly introduce sentences. But use conjunctions of any sort sparingly as introductions.

Go to Top of Page

Grammar Checkers — Are They Worth the Trouble?

Question: This sentence was grammar-checked with Word 6.0:

"Empowerment means that a worker must understand the total picture of what an organization is about and make decisions that will be correct for the company, for the customer, and for the employee."

The program suggested the following: "...and makes decisions..." Could you please explain. Thank you.

Answer: Grammar checkers are not reliable: They yield false negatives and false positives. Language is more complex than any computer can fathom, and until artificial intelligence truly arrives, the best grammar checking program will continue to live between our ears.

Your grammar checker probably found "a worker" or "an organization" and decided that the verb "make" was not in agreement. The grammar checker erred in its analysis and thus in its suggestion. The modal "must" carries over to the second main verb, "make decisions," so the verb number needs no change.

However, the sentence you quote could use some tightening:

"Empowerment means workers thoroughly understand their organization and can make decisions that will be correct for the company, the customer, and the employees."

One final note: I use grammar checkers — despite their problems — on critical documents. Some help is better than none!

Go to Top of Page

Style for Instruction Writing

Question:I was recently informed that the following sentence construction was grammatically incorrect. Could you please tell me why?

"Press ENTER and the following screen displays."

Answer: The only grammatical error I see in this sentence is the lack of a comma to separate the independent clauses:

"Press ENTER, and the following screen displays."

For instructions, however, limit yourself to one action per sentence. Avoid the passive by speaking to your reader.

"Better: Press ENTER. You will then see this screen."

My advice here concerns clarity — rather than "correctness" as such.

Go to Top of Page

Prepositions and Noun Phrases

Question: Which is the correct preposition to use?

"The proposal would limit consumer options, in contravention of the Commission's recent order."

"The proposal would limit consumer options, in contravention to the Commission's recent order."

Answer:"Of" sounds better, but avoid using noun phrases when a perfectly good verb (or participle) exists:

"The proposal would limit consumer options and contravene the Commission's recent order"; or

"The proposal would limit consumer options, contravening the Commission's recent order."

Go to Top of Page


Question: I just read your article on acronyms — thank you! My question regards an acronym: UAP for "unlicensed assistive personnel" (referring to nurses' aides, and the like).

In an article I am currently editing, there are references to these people as UAPs, and many references to one of these people as "the UAP." I've done some Web searches and have found references to both, as well as "UAP" as a plural noun.

What would you do in this case? It seems appropriate by your sticky-note parameters to use the acronym, but which one, and how? I appreciate any response you might have.

Answer: People seem to have forgotten what UAP really stands for, or they wouldn't add "s" to it (it is already plural) or treat it as a singular count noun.

Consider using "unlicensed assistant" and "unlicensed assistants" with the occasional parenthetical explanation "(often called UAPs)" for those readers who would not otherwise know what you are talking about. That way you can acknowledge common usage without perpetuating confusing language.

Go to Top of Page

Novel Writing

Question: I am nearing the end of my first novel. So far, I've broken it into three books, and I'd like to know how to divide these into chapters. Is it necessary to have many short chapters? Thank you.

Answer: The arrangement of your books or chapters is entirely up to you. What supports your narrative or theme best? Consider how your plot and subplots develop.

Think about how you want the readers to feel. So many variables could affect these features, there's really no one "right" answer.

You might want to search for a creative writing site and for an online review group. If you are in a good-sized town or a city, you could probably join a writing group for support and advice.

Go to Top of Page


Professional Training CompanyHome | Catalog | Events | Books| Good Grammar, Good Style™ | Contact

©1996-, Factotum Ink, Limited