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Ken Ward's Writing Pages
Writing: Plain English

Page Contents
  1. What is Plain English?
    1. Who can benefit from learning Plain English?
    2. The Reader
  2. The Rules of Plain English
    1. Do not "if" and "but": be simple and direct
      1. Example 1
    2. Word Choice
      1. Use Familiar Words
        1. Examples
          1. Example 1
          2. Example 2
          3. Example 3
          4. Example 4
          5. Example 5
        2. Familiar Word Equivalents
        3. List of Confusing Words
      2. Use Shorter Words
        1. How to Write Shorter Words
        2. List of Shorter Word Equivalents
    3. Shorter Sentences
      1. How to split Long Sentences
        1. Sentences containing and, but, etc
        2. Sentences containing although, while, etc
        3. Sentences containing which or that.
      2. Examples: Shortening Long Sentences
        1. Example 1
        2. Example 2
        3. Example 3
    4. Cut Unnecessary Words
      1. Replace a phrase with a word, or words, meaning the same thing
      2. Delete Words having Little or No Meaning
      3. Adjectives and Adverbs
    5. Make Your Subjects Doers
      1. Refer to the Reader as You
      2. Make Your Subjects Doers
    6. Make Your Verbs Express The Action
      1. Beware of the Verb to be
      2. Light Verbs
      3. Verbal Nominalizations
        1. Example 1
        2. Example 2
        3. Example 3
      4. Examples
        1. Verbal Nominalizations based on the verb to be
        2. Verbal Nominalizations based on weak verbs
    7. Prefer the Active to the Passive
      1. Identifying the Past Participle.
      2. Making the Passive Active
    8. Prefer the Positive to the Negative
      1. Positive Statements are Easier to Understand than Negative Ones
      2. Two Meanings of Not
      3. Negative Words with Definite Meanings
      4. Negative Expressions are Often Vague
      5. How to make Negatives into Positives
      6. Avoid Using Two (or more) Negatives in the Same Sentence.
        1. Negate the Negative to Make a Positive.
          1. Example 1
          2. Example 2
          3. Example 3
      7. Complex Negative Expressions
        1. Example 1
        2. Example 2
    9. Prefer Regular English Words to Jargon
    10. Prefer English Words and Expressions to Foreign Ones
    11. Use Lists and Headings

What is Plain English?

Plain English refers to writing (or speaking) that is clearly understandable by almost anyone. When we speak about the techniques of writing Plain English, we are referring to some of the techniques known to make writing clear and effective. These techniques are found in such studies as style, composition and rhetoric. The selected techniques for Plain English are those which:
  1. Are easily taught to writers and
  2. Can greatly improve the writer's ability to write in a way that their intended readers can understand.
The techniques include:
Plain English documents intended for the general reader have an average
The average sentence length of published documents is about 15-25 words. This is an average, and the actual lengths of sentences varies. In Plain English, sentences are usually shorter than 30 words. Such long sentences are the exception.

Who can benefit from learning Plain English?

Plain English is intended for all writers whoever their readers are. Writers wishing to communicate with the general reader need to produce material which largely consists of simple words and is written in relatively short sentences. Writers wishing to communicate with professionals have to use complex vocabulary and sometimes complex sentences to fit the needs of the subject. However, readers have long complained that the difficulty with professional journals is not so much the subject matter - technical vocabulary -  as the way it is presented - the grammar, style and the use of unfamiliar or long non-technical words. 

The Reader

Whether writing is clear and effective, or not, depends on the intended reader. For example, a report for post-graduate quantum physicists is judged as clear and effective, if it is clear and effective in communicating its message to post-graduate quantum physicists. However, if such a report were intended for the general reader, it would probably be described as dense and obscure. Similarly, a message about a recent scientific discovery would be written in different words and using different sentence forms when written for a professional journal than it would be written for a newspaper. And a notice on a wall is clear and effective when it is written in a way that a passer-by can take in its meaning at a glance.

In general, a message is clear and effective when it is written using words that are familiar to the intended reader and uses sentences of a reasonable length, meaning that the intended reader is willing and able to understand them. When expressing complicated ideas, the words may be long and the sentences long too, but they should not be longer than the subject matter demands. Sentences covering two pages, are too long for any purpose. And too many short sentences produce a choppy effect, and may make the ideas harder to understand.

When writing for particular readers, you need to note whether they will take the trouble to understand what you have written - using study techniques and reference books, in which case they will probably be your students or professional colleagues - or whether they will read your message once only and either understand it or misunderstand it. In which case, they will take in some other message and wrongly attribute it to you. When you can expect your readers - or, to be frank, require or compel them - to study what you have written, you can use words they will not at first understand and you can use challenging sentence structures, but when you cannot expect your readers to do more than read what you have written in one go, you need to use simpler writing .

The Rules of Plain English

Do not "if" and "but", unnecessarily: be simple and direct

The tendency of the writer to try to cover every case should be resisted. In order to write Plain English, you should be simple and direct, giving enough information for your reader, and no more.
Consider this:
... Cells are 'cut' free and transported away to a second site. Here cell adhesion is increased and the cell is 'pasted' into its new location. The cell divides and with better adhesion stays put and a secondary cancer develops. (This is a simple description but the principle is correct). 
From: The British Society for Cell Biology, http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kis/schools/life_sciences/biomed/bscb/softcell/ecm.html
In writing clearly about complex subjects for the general reader, the writer needs to be simple and direct. This means giving sufficient information, but not too much. The writer of the above excellent example, adds a rider, This is a simple description, but the principle is correct. The author also puts the words 'cut' and 'pasted' in quotes to indicate, to more knowledgeable readers, that these words are used to simplify. [However, it is not always necessary to use quotes and add riders.] Different words would have been used had the writer been writing for a more technical audience. The above mentioned article is effective writing on technical matters for the general reader because it uses simple words (rather than the exact technical words) and shorter sentences. It is also simple and direct.

Example 1

When we seek to include many conditions and possibilities and exceptions in our writing, we start to if and but, making our writing more difficult to understand. Sometimes, we do not need to mention everything, and it is better to be simple and direct (even if this means we need to trust readers to use their common sense).
Almost always, any statement we make has exceptions. For instance, our advice might be:
Write short sentences!
Now, we do not mean you should make every sentence about 15 words all the time. So we might revise (and start iffing and but-ing):
Write short sentences most of the time.
Now this isn't exactly what we mean, either. We have to write longer sentences for a technical audience  than we do for the general reader. So, for the sake of clarity and accuracy, we might try saying:
Write short sentences most of the time when writing for the general reader.
But this sentence may make some readers ask the question, "What about when writing technical material for specialist readers? Does this rule apply?" So perhaps we had better write:
Write short sentences most of the time when writing for the general reader. When writing for more specialist readers, keep you sentences as short as your ideas demand.
This may not be too bad (especially if we stop thinking of and adding other cases and exceptions), but the writing has become much more complex. The expression, "as short as your ideas demand" is a bit vague. Joseph Williams tells use we can sometimes write about complex ideas using simple sentences, but often, we can't. Often complex ideas demand complex sentences. However, we want the general rule keep sentences as short as possible to apply to all modern writing. We do not want to let technical writers off the hook: they need to avoid too long sentences, and keep their sentences (relatively) short. Also they need to avoid writing their sentences too short. So we try again:
Write short sentences most of the time when writing for the general reader. When writing for more specialist readers, keep you sentences as short as your ideas demand. Do not make your sentences longer than they need to be - or shorter!
We might realize that the advice given applies to text, and what has been said of specialist material applies just as much to general material.
We can go on and on.
...
We may decide to write simply and directly:
Write short sentences!
And trust the reader uses his common sense. We can slip in further points of clarification earlier or later in the text.

The point is a writer must bite her lip, and resist the urge to be more precise and detailed than her readers demand.


Word Choice

As writers, we should choose the most suitable word for our readers. Some suggestions can be given on how to do this, but the suggestions are not rules. In the end, the writer is the judge. On this page, we suggest choosing short, familiar words.
According to Ernest Gowers, quoting Fowler, we should prefer the:
  1. Familiar word
  2. Concrete word
  3. Single word
  4. Short word
  5. Saxon word
These are in order of importance, so being familiar is most important, and being Saxon, the least important.
For instance, in place of caliginous, we might prefer foggy, because it meets the first four conditions, and it is, at least, not Latin. On this page, I consider only familiar and short words.


Use Familiar Words

You communicate more effectively when you use words that are familiar to your readers. Familiar words are often short words, but not always: for instance, impossible is a long word, but it is also a familiar one. Use familiar words does not mean you should use only words found in the local newspaper, but says you should use only words found in the material your readers commonly read. In some cases, this means you use words which are unknown to the general reader, but familiar to your particular readers. For instance, you might use apiary when writing for bee-keepers, but prefer bee-hive when writing for general readers.

When readers do not understand a word, they may guess its meaning. They may realise they are doing this or they may be unaware they have guessed - often they relate the unknown word to a similar known word. If the word is similar to a word they know, they will assume the unknown word means about the same as the word they do know. For instance, they may think an exhaustive study was one that was tiring, because exhaustive is similar to the familiar word exhausting. In this case, the reader's understanding may be similar to the writer's intended meaning - if the study was exhausting, then the investigators must have worked hard on the study to get so tired, so they probably left no stone unturned (they were exhaustive). The writer and the reader have struck lucky, even though the reader has misunderstood the word.

However, the writer might not be so lucky. For instance, the word compliment is more familiar than the word complement. If we read "She rose quickly in the company because she complements him in his work", some readers might think that she is very flattering to him - compliments him - and might view the sentence negatively: thinking he is vain and corruptible, promoting her above more able colleagues because she makes him feel bigheaded and puffed-up like a frog, and she is a bootlicker and a creep because she seeks power through her feminine wiles and not through her intelligence and ability; they may think this instead of correctly thinking her strengths in business make up for his weaknesses, so together they make a powerful team. Even though further statements might correct this misunderstanding, the harm has been done, and - at the least - the reader is confused, and - in the worst case - the reader develops strong negative feelings. These negative feelings might be hard to dispel, clouding further understanding. While making no error in grammar or diction the writer has failed to get through to the readers and has led them to feel the opposite of what he intended. The morale is this: if readers do not know the meaning of a word, they will guess it, perhaps wrongly, and if you need to avoid the dangers of misunderstanding, you will choose your words carefully.

The work remains a nonpareil: direct, correct and delightful. - New Yorker

The delightful word nonpareil is not a familiar word to some readers. It means a person or thing with no equal. For general readers, we prefer unequalled or peerless.

Examples

Example 1
We train our students to analyse technical reports with some sophistication. s3
The reader might wonder whether this means that students are taught to analyse in a sophisticated manner, or to analyse sophisticated technical reports.
If we go for a simpler word than sophisticated, we might prefer to write either:
We train our students to correctly analyse technical reports. s1
Here we replace sophisticated with correctly.
Or
We train our students to analyse complex technical reports.s1
Here we prefer complex to sophisticated.
Our choice depending on our intended meaning. In either case, we prefer the more familiar word.
Example 2

Perspicuity in prose writing is enhanced through the felicitous choice of lexical units.s3

As felicitous means appropriate, and perspicuity means clarity, we might prefer:
The right choice of words improves clarity.s1
Example 3
For realists, the world is a set of definite facts, which obtain independently of humans. s2.gif
Obtain has the meaning of exist or be. In this use, the word is not a familiar word although it is a short word.
For realists, the world is a set of definite facts, which are independent of humans.s1
Example 4

Opinion leaders often play major roles in spurring the adoption of innovations
Although the word spurring is short and concrete - it makes us think of horse riding, which seems out of place here - and although it is a familiar word, it seems a bit strong. Also spurring the adoption (of innovations) seems a little odd. So the longer, Latin word, encouraging, seems more suitable. The noun and verb in the nominalization, adoption, can be extracted and a doer people supplied to give us encouraging people to adopt. Finally, we might write the phrase with familiar words new ideas and practices for innovations. This gives us:
Opinion leaders often play major roles in encouraging people to adopt new ideas and practices.
Example 5
The following example comes from a list:
Expediting design and development
Expedite is somewhat vague, meaning
Guessing the meaning intended is speed up, we have:
Speeding up design and development
Speeding up is a shorter and more familiar expression. It is also clearer than the original.

Familiar Word Equivalents

The list shows that sometimes a less familiar or longer word can be replaced with a shorter more familiar one. I am not suggesting that the more familiar or shorter word is better or more appropriate in every (or any) context. Nor am I suggesting that the given familiar word is the better of other familiar words in a given context. Also, the example word may be used in other senses than those indicated by the familiar word or words given. Careful writers should consult a good dictionary, or two, and a good book of synonyms (sometimes called a thesaurus). s_surprised.gif
[The above is an example of giving vent to iffing and butting!]
Example Familiar Word
abbreviate shorten
abduct kidnap
aberration oddity, oversight, straying
abject hopeless, worthless
abridge shorten
abrogate stop, do away with
abscond run off
abundant more than enough
accentuate stress
accommodating helpful
accost waylay
acumen cleverness
affable friendly
affluent rich
aggrandize increase
aggregate (n) group, mass, sum
aggregate (v) group
alacrity quickly and willingly
algid cold
alleviate to ease, lessen
altercation argument
amalgamation union, blob
ambivalent having mixed feelings
ameliorate to ease, to improve
amiable friendly
amorphous shapeless
anomaly freak, oddity, rarity
apparitional ghostly
arbitrator judge
assuage ease
audacious forward, rash
augment add
austere stern, grim, plain
baleful harmful
belligerent War-like
benevolent kind
berate tell off
bereft without
blandish coax, entice
bloated swollen
boisterous loud
brumal wintry
brusque blunt, gruff
burgeon bloom, grow
cacophony noise
cajole urge, coax
caliginous misty, dark
callous unfeeling
calumny slander, back-biting
camaraderie fellowship
capricious changeable
cavort frolic
circumspect wary
credulity gullibility
cursory hasty careless
daunting scary, off putting
dearth a lack
defunct dead, gone away
deleterious harmful
desolate barren, heartbroken
despondent downcast
destitute in poverty
differentiate contrast, tell apart
dilapidated run down
diligent Hard-working, painstaking
diminish reduce
diminutive miniature
discreet careful
discrete individual
disparage criticize
dissonance clash
divergent different, moving apart
diverse varied
divisive causing opposition, troublemaking
enervate weaken, tire
ethereal Airy-fairy, heavenly
euphoric overjoyed
exacerbate worsen
excursion trip
exemplary excellent, good
exigent necessary, urgent
exorbitant excessive
fabricate invent
facile easy
fallacious mistaken
fatuous silly
fecund fertile
formidable mighty, fearful
fortuitous lucky
hapless unlucky
hiatus break
hiemal wintry
hierarchy ruling body, pecking order
impecunious destitute
incisive direct
inextricable entangled
ingenious original
inimical hostile
iniquity wickedness
innocuous harmless
invective tongue-lashing
inveterate die-hard
irascible bad-tempered, touchy
inspissated thick
juxtapose place together
lachrymose tearful
loquacious talkative
malleable easily shaped
mandatory necessary, required
mendacious dishonest
munificent generous, open handed
mutability changeable
nefarious evil
noisome foul
obdurate unyielding
obfuscate obscure
obsequious creep, grovelling
ostracize banish
paragon model
pedagogue schoolteacher
pellucid clear
peregrinate wander
pertinacious dogged
petulance sulky, bad-tempered
portentous sinister, amazing
prestidigitation sleight of hand
presumptuous oversure, cheeky
propensity tendency
propriety decency
protean changing
pulchritude beauty
punctilious precise, fussy
putrid rotten
quotidian daily
ratiocinate think
recalcitrant defiant
recapitulate repeat
redoubtable mighty, fearful
repudiate reject
restitution repayment
scurrilous foul, vulgar
seminal original
serendipity luck
strenuous demanding, energetic
supplant oust, unseat
surfeit glut
surreptitious secret, sly
surrogate stand in, stopgap, deputy
sycophant flatterer
taciturn reserved, aloof
tenuous weak
toothsome tasty
torpid lazy
torrid hot
tortuous winding
truculent violent
umbrage offence
usurp oust
variegate diversify
veracious honest
vicarious second-hand, acting, indirect
vicissitudes twists and turns

List of Confusing Words

Familiar words make writing clearer. Some words are more likely to cause confusion and misunderstanding, than other words. The list below contains examples of words that might be confusing. Depending on the readers, therefore, you might choose to avoid confusing words, preferring a less confusing word or phrase. The list illustrates that some words can be confusing, and the writer should be aware of these possible confusions. The point is that an unfamiliar word might be confused with a similar familiar word. 
Confusing Words
Confusing  Familiar Comment
allusion hint Some readers might confuse an allusion with a mental problem or with a false perception.
complement supplement, round off This word might be confused with compliment.
continuous      without stopping; non stop A siren wails continuously, without stopping, but a ticking sound occurs continually, or again and again. 
continual     frequent, again and again
credible       believable, likely If a story is credible, then we believe it. A person's behaviour is creditable when it is worthy and good.
creditable praiseworthy, good
discreet diplomatic, wary In physics, we might speak of discrete particles. If we tell a secret to someone, we expect them to be discreet.
discrete     separate, individual
defuse defuse The word defuse is OK, but diffuse might be confused with defuse by some readers.
diffuse     spread throughout, scatter; wordy
exceptionable nasty An exceptionable person is bad in some way; perhaps, hostile. An exceptional person is not bad in any way; they are simply different.
exceptional out of the ordinary
exhaustive complete Some readers believe that exhaustive means tiring, because they confuse it with the more familiar exhausting.
grisly horrible, gory It is just that a grisly story might lead some readers to expect bears at some stage.
grizzle grumble
grizzly grizzly bear
hoard a store of something To avoid misunderstandings with these words, a synonym might be preferred.
horde mob
militate (against) to affect Some British authorities believe that the use of militate as a substitute for mitigate is an American idiom: most American authorities believe the confusion of these words is an error in both languages. 
mitigate to lessen (severity)
ordinance law There is a difference between law and cannons!
ordnance guns, cannons, etc
paedophile child abuser While these words have quite different meaning, the reading-challenged tend to confuse them, with serious results.
paediatrician children's doctor
pedagogue teacher, educator
perquisite perk, tip or gratuity Some years ago, a business student asked me what "management perquisites" were. I was unsure, but we guessed they were "perks".
prerequisite requirement
prescribe prescribe The two words have almost opposite meanings. Prescribe is well-known; proscribe is used less frequently.
proscribe forbid
shear cut the wool from sheep, very thin The pairs of words are homophones, words that sound the same, but are spelt differently, and have a different meaning. Confusion can occur in speech, and in writing when we are unsure of the spelling of these words.
sheer swerve
stationary not moving
stationery writing materials, etc
storey floor
story an account of events
titillate to excite Confusing these words can have amusing results - for bystanders. For general readers, titivate might be better replaced with smarten up.
titivate to smarten up
tortuous twisting and turning A tortuous journey might also be pleasant, although a torturous journey is not.
torturous agonizing
turbid clouding, opaque (liquid) Turbid writing is vague and unclear. Turgid writing is wordy and perhaps written more to impress than to communicate. Writing may be turgid but not turbid, and vice versa.
turgid pompous, wordy
unsociable not enjoying the company of others If you work late, you work unsocial hours, but it doesn't mean you are unsociable - you might dislike working these hours and prefer to socialize.
unsocial interfering with social life
venal corruptible, bribeable As the more familiar word is venereal, this might taint the meaning of the other two, when the reader does not understand the words.
venial a non damming sin
venereal related to sex

Use Shorter Words

Shorter words are easier to read than longer ones. This is because it takes less time to move the eye over (and to sub vocalize) shorter words. Therefore, when the reader is expected to read text without much effort, the writer should prefer the shorter word to the longer one. Text containing many long words is dense and reading such text is much harder than reading text that mainly contains shorter words. On the other hand, text that contains many short words can be monotonous. When the writer needs to communicate a message quickly to readers (such as a notice), the writer should use very short words. Even though writers of technical articles use longer words, they would make their writing less dense by balancing their use of longer words with shorter ones.

How to Write Shorter Words

The writer can:

List of Shorter Word Equivalents

In Plain English, long words are words with 3 or more syllables. Shorter words are easier to read than longer ones. Where appropriate, you might prefer the shorter word to the longer one. Because a phrase containing shorter words is more readable than a longer word - even though the phrase itself is longer - you might prefer the phrase to the longer word.
Shorter Word Equivalents
Long Word Shorter Words
accordingly so
additional more, extra
adequate enough
alleviate lessen, reduce, ease
available at hand, handy, in stock
concerning about
consequently so
contribute lead to, give to, add to
endeavour try
entitlement right
establish set up
exponential rapidly increasing
incidence rate, amount
necessitate call for
nevertheless even so, however
nonetheless even so, however
obtain get
purport claim
reduction cut

Shorter Sentences

When dense writing contains sentences which we consider too long, the easiest way to make sentences clearer and more effective is to shorten them. Also, we might do this when trying to understand the writing of others, for instance, when studying a textbook. When all else fails, we might convert long sentences into very short sentences to clarify our thoughts, recombining them later in the light of our new understanding.

We can shorten sentences:

How to split Long Sentences

Sentences containing and, but, etc

Young students are taught to write longer sentences by joining shorter ones with words such as and, but and or. We can shorten long sentences through the opposite process.
Sentences containing and, but, or or can often be shortened by ending the sentence before these words, and beginning a new one after capitalising, for instance:
Jack went up the hill and Jill went up the hill. r_arrow.gif Jack went up the hill. And Jill went up the hill.

Sentences containing although, while, etc

Sentences containing subordinating conjunctions such as while or although can be split by dropping the subordinating conjunction, turning the comma into a full stop and adding expressions like but, however and then to the other sentence. For instance:
Although he did not like it, he ate the meal anyway. r_arrow.gif He did not like the meal. But he ate it anyway.
While mature students should not be encouraged to write like 12 year olds, they should know how to write simple sentences when necessary r_arrow.gif Mature students should not be encouraged to write like 12 year-olds. However, they should know how to write simple sentences when necessary. 


He would not eat his food, because he did not like it. r_arrow.gif He would not eat his food. (For )He did not like it.
They could not give the patient water to drink, because she did not have a swallow reflex. r_arrow.gif They could not give the patient water to drink. The reason for this was because she did not have a swallow reflex.


Before he went home, he visited his aunt. r_arrow.gif He went home. Before that, he visited his aunt.
r_arrow.gif He visited his aunt. Then he went home.
She carefully tested the mixture before she injected it into the patient. r_arrow.gifShe carefully tested the mixture. Then (After that) she injected it into the patient.

Sentences containing which or that.

Long sentences can sometimes be split where they contains words like which, that, who, what, etc.
Effective writing is concise, which means it does not contain unnecessary words; cohesive, which means that one sentence flows from the previous one; and coherent, which means the sentences keep to the topic.

Effective writing is concise. It does not contain unnecessary words. It is also cohesive. That is, one sentence flows from the previous one. And it is coherent. The sentences keep to the topic.


Examples: Shortening Long Sentences

Example 1

While there are exceptions, a re-draught containing shorter words and shorter sentences is much more readable and easy to understand than the original, especially for lay readers. (27 words) x

A re-draught containing shorter words and shorter sentences is much more readable than the original. It is also easier to understand, especially for lay readers. Of course, there are exceptions. tick

Example 2

Such redundant expressions and their attendant “To be” verb, can often be eliminated to good effect, simply by omitting the expression, finding the real subject of the sentence, and using a real verb to make it a "doer".x

Such redundant expressions and their attendant "To be" verb, can often be eliminated to good effect. First, omit the expression. Then, find the real subject of the sentence, and finally, use a real verb to make it a "doer". tick

Alternatively, we can use a list:
Such redundant expressions and their attendant "To be" verb, can often be eliminated to good effect:

Example 3

What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a frame of mind that they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics. (44 words) x

To resolve conflict, you need to bring those people who believe violence is the answer to their political ambitions to believe they can achieve them better through politics. (29 words) tick
Or
What you need to do in conflict resolution is to bring the people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence into a different frame of mind. A frame of mind in which they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics. tick

Or
What you need to do in conflict resolution is to affect a certain group of people. That is, those people who believe that the answer to their political ambitions will be achieved through violence. They need to be brought into a frame of mind that they accept that their political ambitions will be delivered by politics. tick

Cut Unnecessary Words

The more words we need to read to understand a sentence, the harder it is to grasp its meaning. This is especially true when the extra words supply no extra meaning.
You can reduce redundancy (long-windedness) in your writing by:
  1. Replace a phrase with a word meaning the same thing
  2. Delete words that have little or no meaning, and words that are implied by other words in the sentence
  3. Change negative to positives.
The following example has many unnecessary words and round-about expressions:
In the eventuality that a threat of danger occurs during the period of time the operator is on duty, the operator should press the alarm button with the purpose of alerting other people with the intention of causing them to exit away from the building. (43 words) s3.gif
This gives us
If a threat occurs when the operator is on duty, the operator should press the alarm button to alert other people to cause them to exit the building. s2.gif
However, we might replace everything after alarm button by and exit the building. The notice is directed to the operator. Notices to others might say, "If you hear the alarm, exit the building fast." This gives us:
If a threat occurs when the operator is on duty, the operator should press the alarm button and leave the building. (21 words) s1.gif
Even better, by being simple and direct:
If a threat occurs, press the alarm button and exit the building! (8 words). laughing.gif

Replace a phrase with a word, or words, meaning the same thing

The following table gives examples of wordy ways of saying what we could have said just as clearly in fewer words.
Wordy Expressions
Wordy Better
as a consequence of because, for
commensurate with consistent with
despite the fact that although, despite
for the purpose of to
if this is not the case if not
if this is the case if so
in accordance with following
in conjunction with with
in order to to
in the eventuality of if
in the light of according to
in view of the fact that because
on the assumption that if
on the subject of about, concerning
prior to before
to the degree that
relating to about
under any other circumstances than unless, except
with reference to about, concerning

Delete Words having Little or No Meaning

Some wordy expressions can simply be deleted. 
Wordy Expressions
Wordy Expression Example Improved
etc She took such items as water, food, clothing, etc. She took such items as water, food and clothing.s1 (such items as implies we are mentioning some items, so etc is redundant).
the amount of The amount of disagreement between the two groups is excessive. The two groups disagree excessively.
the case of In the case of Jack, we are undecided. s3 We are undecided about Jack s1
the characteristics of They are studying the characteristics of the problem.s3 They are studying the problem. s1
the definition of The definition of mind is that which is non-physical. Mind is that which is non-physical.
the issue of Dealing with the issue of corruption of proving problematical.s3 Dealing with corruption is proving problematical. s1
the level of The level of pollution in the county is very high.s3 Pollution is the county is very high.s1
the nature of The nature of the misuse of our products makes us concerned.s3 The misuse of our products makes us concerned.s1
the occurrence of The occurrence of high levels of radiation in the food results from carelessness at the plant.s3 High levels of radiation in the food results from carelessness at the plant.s1
Carelessness in the plant results in radioactive food. s1
the system of The system of doctrine is heresy. s3
Students may notice in the course of discussion that the judicial branch appears the least affected by the system of checks and balances.s3
The doctrine is heresy. s1
Students may notice in the course of discussion that the judicial branch appears the least affected by checks and balances.s1
the use of New regulations governing the use of child car seats came into force on 18 September 2006. s3 New regulations governing child car seats came into force on 18 September 2006.s1

Adjectives and Adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs can often be omitted without affecting the sentence. When the provide little information, they can be deleted without affecting the meaning.
He ran fast down the hill.
Usually we run fast, rather than slowly, so fast can be omitted.

Make Your Subjects Doers

Refer to the Reader as You

Writing becomes easier when you refer to the reader as you. When you do this, you are less likely to use nominalizations, passives and round-about expressions. Your writing will be more coherent, because you use you as the subject of your sentences. Similarly, refer to yourself the writer, or your organisation, as I or we. This technique of using pronouns can be a very simple and effective way of making your writing clearer and more cohesive.

Make Your Subjects Doers

Grammar teachers often teach children that the subject of a sentence is "the doer of the action". This is true for effective sentences, but not for ineffective ones. When the subject of a sentence isn't "the doer", we should change the sentence so the subject is "the doer". A simple way to do this is to use "you" and "we" as the "doers" in the sentence.
Customer satisfaction depends on employee courtesy. s2.gif

Noting that satisfaction is a nominalization, we can identify the real verb as satisfy. We can ask, "Who satisfies whom?" A possible answer is, "We satisfy our customers with our service." We do it by "being courteous to them." This gives us:
We satisfy our customers better if we are courteous to them. s1.gif

In the next example:
The implication of the report was that the accident was caused by staff negligence. s2.gif
The subject, The implication of the report, is not a real doer. The real doers are the writers of the report. That is, they, or the authors. What the authors did was imply the staff caused the accident because they were negligent. So:
The authors of the report implied the staff caused the accident because they were negligent. s1.gif
I used the authors instead of they to avoid confusion with the they in they were negligent. We could have written:
The report implied the staff cause the accident because they were negligent. s1.gif
While the report isn't a person who can imply things, it is generally understood to mean the author of the report implied it, or we inferred it from the report. It is however quite clear.

Make Your Verbs Express The Action

Writing is clearer when the verb is clear and expresses the action (or state) of the subject. These are sometimes called strong verbs. For instance:
Jack performed the action of running up the hill. s3.gif
The verb is performed. It is vague. Jack might have:
Also, performed tells us only vaguely what Jack did. Only when we get to the word running do we know what he actually did. What he did was run. But the verb is concealed in the word, running. If we make the verb express clearly the action, we write:
Jack ran up the hill. s1.gif

When a verb is turned into a noun, its verb qualities are hidden, making the new word more difficult to read and more vague.

Beware of the Verb to be

The verb to be is frequently found with errors in Plain English. There is nothing wrong with the correct use of the verb, but it is wise to check that it is the real verb in a sentence. See nominalizations and passives.

Light Verbs

Light verbs include: do, give, have, make, perform and take. The can often appear in expression of the form:
(Light Verb) (Determiner) (Noun)
For instance:
I am going to have a sleep.
Clearly, this is wordy, and we can write:
I am going to sleep.

Using Light Verb Without Light Verb
They performed a test of it. They tested it.
I had a sleep. I slept.
She had an extraordinary experience She experienced something extraordinary.
She took the opportunity to escape She escaped.
We shall take the risk of travelling by sea We risked travelling by sea.
They did a thing that surprised us They surprised us.
He did an essay which was brilliant. He wrote a brilliant essay.
He made an attempt to correct the problem. He attempted to correct the problem.
He gave a speech to the group. He spoke to the group.
It gave a hoot. It hooted.
It gave us a shock. It shocked us.
It gave a lurch. It lurched.



Verbal Nominalizations

By changing a word or group of words into a noun, you make a nominalization. A nominalization is a word or group of words which is changed into a noun, sometimes by adding a suffix. Nominalizations are often derived from verbs, but they can be derived from other parts of speech, such as adjectives. In nominalizations, weak verbs take the place of the real verb, clouding the meaning of the sentence.

Verbal nominalizations are nouns derived from verbs. You can nominalize the verb imply by turning it into the noun implication. If you turn The new report implied that he was corrupt, which angered him into a nominalization, The  implication angered him, you lose the subject, the new report, and the object, that he was corrupt. When you do this, you hide the subject and the object of the verb, making your writing denser and vaguer. Your readers no longer know what the implication was, nor who made it. You can make your writing clearer by limiting the number of nominalizations of verbs.

Example 1

Consider:
The importation of timber from endangered forests is a crime. s1.gif

The word importation is called a nominalization because it is a noun which comes from a verb: the verb is import. Sentences are often clearer when they are rewritten using an active verb, instead of the nominalization. They are even better when you give the verb a concrete subject. For instance, ask who, or what, is importing this wood, and the answer gives us a concrete person.  For instance:
Companies that import timber from endangered forests without a licence commit a crime. s1.gif

  1. Identify the nominalization. In this case, it is importation.
  2. Find the verb. Here it is import.
  3. Now verbs have subjects, the doer of the verb's action. We can identify the subject by asking, "Who or what is importing?" Sometimes, we need to guess the answer. In the above example, we guess companies. That is "companies import something".
  4. Find the object by asking, "Who or what is being imported?" In this case it is timber that is being imported. 
  5. Re-write the sentence using simple sentences. This can be done in note form, and does not have to be correct English. Here we have 
"Companies import timber. The timber is from endangered forests. They do it without a licence. They commit a crime." s3
  1. We can give thought to how the sentences are related. The second one describes the timber in the first sentence, "timber from endangered forests", and the third sentence tells us about the condition of importing (if). And the last says what the consequences are, that is, "they commit a crime".
  2. Combine these simple sentences into ones of reasonable length. For instance, 
"Companies who import timber from endangered forests without a licence commit a crime." s1

At point 5, where we have the simple sentences, we have the option of putting them in a different order. We might chose:
It is a crime for companies to import timber from endangered forests without a licence. s1
Which is even more readable, because it gets to the point straight away.

Example 2

The formalization of the process has alienated the members.s3

  1. The nominalization is formalization
  2. The verbs is formalize
  3. We do not know who did the formalizing, but guess we (the company) did. "We formalized something".
  4. "the process" is what is formalized. "We formalized the process." We now have a real verb!
  5. Using simple sentences, we have "We formalized the process. Something has alienated the members." 
  6. The sentences are related by cause and effect, implying because
  7. We can combine the sentences to get: 
Because we formalized the process, we have alienated our members. a

Example 3

Consider this sentence:
Avoidance of writing excessively long sentences in the absence of readership considerations, excepting an infrequent occurrence, is recommended. x

Avoidance, absence, considerations and occurrence are nominalizations from the verbs avoid, absent (done without), consider, and occur. The subject of avoid is presumably, you the writer. And what is avoided is excessively long sentences. So, we can write "Avoidance of writing excessively long sentences" as "you should avoid writing excessively long sentences".

The subject of the next verb, absent or not done, is "readership considerations", which is also a nominalization based on the verb consider.  So we need to deal with this first.

The subject of consider is, again, you the writer. And what you are considering is your reader. So putting together the analysis of the last two nominalizations, we get "without considering your readers". So far, we have,
"You should not write excessively long sentences without considering your readers."

The next nominalization, the word occurrence, means "something happening at a certain time", or "when something happens". This something is "the writing of excessively long sentences". If we ask, "Who is writing?", we find the subject is you, so we have: "when you write excessively long sentences". And because this is infrequent, we have "excepting when you write excessively long sentences infrequently."

Since we have already referred to long sentences, we can write, "excepting when you write such sentences infrequently."

Putting all this together:
You should avoid writing excessively long sentences without considering your readers, excepting when you write such sentences infrequently. x

We can tidy up this sentence. We can drop excessively, because this is implied by "long sentences", and also drop the first use of writing, because this is implied. We can also write unless for "excepting when". So we get:
You should avoid long sentences without considering your readers, unless you write such sentences infrequently. s1

While the sentence is clearer, because it no longer has nominalizations and we have created real subjects (you), it is, however, extremely negative. See the further work we need to do in the example below.

Examples

Verbal Nominalizations based on the verb to be

This is dependent on status. x
This depends on status. tick

An abstract idea is produced by the exclusion of details. x
By excluding details, you produce an abstract idea. tick

Success is the result of hard work.x
Success results from hard work.tick

There is significant opposition among the voters.x
The voters oppose it strongly. tick

There was a high incidence of recurrence. x
It recurred frequently. tick

Verbal Nominalizations based on weak verbs

We can drop the weak verb (shown in italics) in the following sentences and rescue the true verb from its nominalization (shown in bold).
Scientists performed a test of the substance.x
Scientists tested the substance.tick

We are concerned about the incidence of vandalism in the area.x
We are concerned about vandalism in the area. tick

We are instigating inquiries into the matter.x
We are inquiring into the matter. tick

They made a selection of the important books.x
They selected the important books. tick

Prefer the Active to the Passive

In an easy English sentence, the subject of the sentence is the person or thing that performs the action. We call this type of sentence active, or in the active voice. We say the opposite type of sentence is passive, or in the passive voice. In a passive sentence, the subject is not the doer. If the doer is mentioned at all, then it is often buried in a phrase beginning with by. We use active sentences rather than passives because passives are more wordy and vague than actives. According to the Plain English rules, no more than half our sentences should be in the passive voice, and, in general writing, we should use far fewer.

Consider the following table, which gives examples of active and passive sentences.
Active Passive
The dog bit the man. The man was bitten by the dog.
The scientists disputed the inferences. The inferences were disputed by the scientists.
He is stroking the dog. The dog is being stroked by him.
I will eat the crisps. The crisps will be eaten by me.
He has been to France. France is where he has been.
The boss fired Henry. Henry got fired.
He had had a good time. A good time had been had by him.
In the table above, the subjects of the passive sentences are not the doers. We make the active passive by turning the active sentence around, so the by clause hides the doer (We often omit the doer in passive sentences). In the above table, almost all the passive sentences contain forms of the verb to be: was, were, being, be and been. One form of the passive uses got. In all cases, the sentences contain words like bitten, disputed, stroked, eaten, been, fired. These are called past participles.

Identifying the Past Participle.

Most English past participles end in -ed, but some small words such as eat, be, have, etc, have different endings. If in doubt, identify the past participle in the following manner:
  1. Compose a sentence using They are plus the verb part ending in -ing (called the present participle). For instance, for run, compose the sentence: They are running (a race).
  2. Now write the corresponding sentence for They have plus the verb part: They have run (a race). 
  3. Run is the past participle. An expression using a form of the verb to be plus run is passive. For instance: It was run in record time, is passive, because it contains the verb to be and a past participle.

Making the Passive Active

We want to make our shops better for everyone so our customers can have a good experience, and profits will be made in more of our outlets. s2.gif
In profits will be made in more of our outlets, we note the presence of the verb to be and the word made, which is a past participle. The clause is therefore passive. We can make it active by finding the real doer in the sentence, we (the company) and making it the subject of the verb: we will make profits in more of our outlets.
The new sentence is:
We want to make our shops better for everyone so our customers can have a good experience, and we will make profits in more of our outlets. s1.gif

The following is passive:
This type of sentence is called active, or the sentence is said to be in the active voice. s2.gif

This type of sentence is active, or in the active voice.  s1.gif

Prefer the Positive to the Negative

This guideline does not mean we should always use positive words. It does, however, mean that we should think carefully before using negative words.

Note: Sometimes you have to guess what a writer means when they have used some negative sentences.

The following sentence is hard to understand at first reading because it has two negative ideas:
... said he would table an amendment opposing other controversial proposals in the Bill, including plans to scrap the requirement for a legal father to be named by women seeking fertility treatment. Telegraph s2
'He would oppose the scrapping'..., which means, he supports keeping the requirement.
... said he would table an amendment opposing other controversial proposals in the Bill. However, he supports the requirement for a legal father to be named by women seeking fertility treatment, and opposes others who plan to scrap it. s1.gif

Positive Statements are Easier to Understand than Negative Ones

You can understand positive statements more easily than negative ones because they tell you what to do or think, instead of telling you what not to do or think. They leave what to do a mystery, and makes the sentence vague. Negated expressions are words with a negative prefix. For instance, unclear, unhappy and inadvisable. Or they are clauses with a negative word, such as no or not. Even words in positive form can express a negative idea. For instance, hardly means not often, so its meaning is negative. Positive expressions and ideas are much easier to read because you need to make fewer steps to understand. To read a negated expression, you must take two steps.
  1. First you need to understand the positive.
  2. Then, mentally, you must negate it to produce the negative.
Having to take an extra mental step, you are more likely to misunderstand. Even if this causes you only a moments hesitation, the flow of reading is broken.

Two Meanings of Not

The negative of some words means the opposite. For instance:
This isn't correct. r_arrow.gif This is wrong.
But the negative of most words can mean anything except the stated exception:
She was not happy.
She could be anything except happy. She could be angry, sad, content, numb, etc. Only the writer or the context can tell us what he really meant.

Negative Words with Definite Meanings

Words like never and nothing appear to be negative, but they have a definite meaning and are not vague. For instance:
We never go there. s1.gif
This clearly means we go there zero times.

The police said there was nothing there.
She said "I have nothing to wear."
In the first sentence above, the police found nothing of interest to them, although there were no doubt normal things there (it wasn't a vacuum!) In the second sentence, she probably has many things to wear, but nothing she wants to wear. While nothing literally means zero things, its meaning is often clear enough in other uses, as above.

Negative prefixes sometimes mean "the opposite of", when they have a definite meaning. For instance, unhappy means the opposite of happy, and the positive form is sad. The word unhappy has a definite meaning. However, non-logical does not clearly mean illogical. It might refer to another kind of logic. The point is that negatives can be vague and confusing, which makes them candidates for revision.




Negative Expressions are Often Vague

Negative expressions are often vague. For instance:
No win, no fee.
This advertisement by lawyers seems to mean if you lose the case, you won't have to pay anything. Readers might also think that if they win the case, they will get a big award. But sometimes the legal fees are more than the award, and the clients ends up having to pay a huge legal bill. No doubt this is mentioned somewhere in the small print. Perhaps it should say "No win, no fee. Win, big bill."


How to make Negatives into Positives

The following examples contain the word not, which can sometimes be eliminated. For instance, we can eliminate not from not possible, by writing the opposite of possible, impossible.
Expression using Not Better Expression using Not Better
not possible impossible not finished ongoing
not happy sad not the same different
not stop continue not include omit
not notice overlook not agree refuse
Negative words, such as impossible, are often clearer than not plus a positive word, such as not possible.

Avoid Using Two (or more) Negatives in the Same Sentence.

Where there are two negatives in a sentence you should be wary. For instance, if there is a word such as not and a word in negative form, such as impossible, in the same sentence, you should consider revising. In doing so, you need to remember that in English and mathematics, two negatives usually make a positive, and this positive should be used. For example:
She was not an infrequent visitor. s3.gif
This is vague. We should write:
She never visited. s1.gif
Or
She frequently visited.s1.gif
Only the writer knows what she intended. And any frequency of visiting, except infrequent might logically fit the meaning - sometimes, occasionally, almost always.

Occasionally, non-Standard English double negatives make a negative (as they often do in some other languages):
I ain't never coming again! (slang)
This means I will never come again. And that is what we should write. In Standard English, two negatives always make a positive. Yet the meaning is perfectly clear. Also:
I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't rain. s1.gif
In spite of the double negative, it means the speaker thinks it is going to rain. The expression should probably be considered idiomatic.

 

Negate the Negative to Make a Positive.

In the table below, we often do not know the meaning of the negative because it is vague, and have to guess. As writers, we do, of course, know what we mean and so we can sometimes eliminate not from the sentence. We can sometimes do this when there is a word like not in the sentence. The table below gives examples:
Negate the Negative to make a Positive
Expression using Not Better Expression using Not Better
not impossible possible not artless skilled (artful)
not unhappy happy not undecided decided
not unlikely likely not disagree agree
not overlook notice not unknown known
Example 1
It is not easy to understand unclear writing.
The words not... unclear mean clear, so we have:
It is easy to understand clear writing.
Example 2
In this example, the idea of not is present, but not is absent in the original.
The degree of  misunderstanding in your writing is increased by your use of non-simple words. x

We can write this as, introducing some nots:
The degree of not understanding in your writing is increased by your use of not simple words. s_surprised.gif

Removing the nots we get:
The degree of understanding in your writing is increased by your use of simple words. s2.gif
And by re-writing:
Readers understand your writing better when you use simple words.tick

Example 3
This example comes from nominalizations. The sentence has been cleaned up, but it is still hard to understand because of the negative expressions.
You should avoid long sentences without considering your readers, unless you write such sentences infrequently. s2

Putting this together, we have:
Consider your readers and write shorter sentences. However, you can write the occasional long sentence. tick

Complex Negative Expressions

The following sentences baffle almost all readers. This kind of sentence is more likely to occur in more professional writing. They are the kind of sentences that readers of professional articles would object to because the difficulty in reading the articles is due to the language used rather than to the intrinsic difficulty of the subject.

Example 1

The following sentence seems very difficult, at least to me:
Lawyer: Is it not true that you omitted to avoid contact with the prisoner? Answer Yes or No!
Perhaps it is better to face the prison bars, the wrack, and the noose, rather than to figure out such sentences! However, for the sake of our readers, we try to make it clearer.
Is it not true r_arrow.gif is it false (not true=false)
that you omitted to avoid contact with the prisoner r_arrow.gif that you contacted the prisoner (omitted to avoid contact=contacted)
So, Is it true that you didn't contact the prisoner? r_arrow.gif Did you avoid contacting the prisoner? (not contact=avoid)
This is probably easy (or at least easier) to answer with a Yes or a No, but, we can simplify the obviously negative word, avoid:
Did you avoid contacting the prisoner?r_arrow.gif Did you keep away from the prisoner? (avoid=keep away from, approximately)
So if you had nothing to do with the prisoner, you would answer Yes. This is the opposite of what we might feel should be our response (and this is what the lawyer intended: to confuse us to give the wrong answer).

Example 2

But for those cases which have not been considered, we have no doubt that without this remedy failed solutions do occur. x
without this remedy failed solutions do occur r_arrow.gif with this remedy solutions are successful
we have no doubt thatr_arrow.gif (just omit)
But for those cases which have not been considered r_arrow.gif In all the cases we have considered (positive)
In all the cases we have considered, this remedy has proved successful. (re-write)





Prefer Regular English Words to Jargon

Jargon is a special vocabulary used within a group to improve communication. Plumbers, doctors, lawyers, and others, use special words which help them in their activities. The words might be unfamiliar to outsiders, or familiar words with a different meaning. When a jargon word fills a gap in the language, it becomes a part of the language.

When jargon is used outside the group, they indicate:
In addition, some writers will use jargon to try to impress their readers. This use of jargon is often vague and confusing.

Sample Jargon Expressions
Expression Meaning Example Comment
feedback comments Please send feedback.
The word feedback comes from electronics where positive feedback results in overload, and negative feedback controls and stabilizes the system.

In the example, it means comments.
input comments, contribute The group is invited to give their input.
In the example, the word input means comments.
adequate enough We have adequate supplies.
In these examples, a big jargon word is used instead of a shorter familiar word.
entitlement right It is your entitlement to work safely.
funded paid for The project is funded by the government.
geared suited to, aimed at The plan is geared to students. In the example, geared to is unclear, it could have either of the two different meanings:
  • The plan is aimed at students.
  • The plan is suitable for students.
interface interact, work with, meet We need to interface with security. interface is a pompous way of saying work with, or meet.
networking building relationships with groups of people, building contacts I found a job through networking.
networking, from computing, is an impressive way of referring to contacts.
meltdown
  • melting of control rods in a nuclear reactor, with serious consequences;
  • collapse, coming to an end;
  • extremely angry;
  • serious failure of mental abilities;
In urban areas, family life is in meltdown. Because its main use is very dramatic, it is used to dramatize many other situations and states. However it is usually vague. To avoid vagueness, the writer needs to clarify its meaning in the context. 
operational working
The system is now operational.
Again, a big jargon word for a simpler, clearer Anglo-Saxon one.
on the back of because of, after Temperatures are rising on the back of increased CO2 emissions. The expression is vague, so we do not know if the one causes the other; both have a common cause; or they are just correlated.
significant big, probably caused by something other than chance.
The new drug is significantly better than the previous one.
In the examples, both these words with a familiar meaning are used in their scientific sense, misleading the reader. If one drug is significantly better, we would expect it to cure a lot more people, but used in its scientific sense, significantly better could mean only a small number might benefit. And, in the smoking example, it seems obvious that smoking is addictive. Drug companies have sometimes described drugs as non-addictive even when such drugs are habit forming, or cause a compulsive need.
addictive causes physical withdrawal symptoms, habit forming, causes a compulsive need.
Smoking is not addictive.
terrorism, money-laundering, etc. Sensational words, out of context, are used to persuade people to accept or to justify behaviour by governments and organizations, behaviour which is not motivated by effective policing, but an obsession with control. 

Prefer English Words and Expressions to Foreign Ones

You should avoid foreign words and expressions, except when you are sure your reader will understand what they mean. Some expressions, such as sic and ad hoc are extremely useful - acceptable alternatives are difficult to find.

The following alternatives are suggestions.
Foreign Expression Meaning Example Comment
ad hoc for this purpose or occasion only, and without considering wider implications;
improvised
We were able to find only an ad hoc solution to the problem. ad hoc seems to fill a gap in English when it means something like special. For general readers, an English expression should be used. For instance:
We managed the problem, but we could not find a general solution.
We handled each problem on its merits, but failed to find a general solution.
bona fide genuine We are seeking bona fide applicants. Use genuine.
carte blanche a free hand He's been given carte blanche in this investigation. Use a free hand, or full authority.
c (circa) about I went there circa 1985
Use about.
eg (exempli gratia) for example He likes to eat vegetables, eg peas and carrots. A list of examples beginning with eg, does not end in etc! [eg is written e.g. in the USA]
en bloc all together or at the same time The crowd surged en bloc out the cinema. Use in a mass.
et al and others After speaking to Bill, et al, he knew what he should do. Use and others. With people, etc is incorrect, because it means and other things.
etc and so on, and the rest He filled his backpack with food, water, clothes, etc. Do not use etc after expressions like for example or including, because these expressions imply only a sample of the items are mentioned, so adding etc is redundant. Also, do not say Mr Jones, etc, came to see us, because etc refers to things, not people.
ie that is The committee, ie the Ethics Committee, is set to meet later today. Used when specifying one thing or giving one example. Written i.e. in the USA.
inter alia among other things We want to find out, inter alia, why the flours had died. Use among other things.
modus operandi way of working His modus operandi was to work all night and sleep all day. His method was to work all night and sleep all day.
per for each The UN distributed two pounds of flour per refugee. The UN distributed two pounds of flour to each refugee.
per capita per person Incomes rose 20% per capita during the period. Incomes rose 20% per person during the period.
Incomes rose 20% for the average person during the period.
per se intrinsically, as such To err is to be human per se. To err is what it means to be human.
pp (per pro) done with the permission and authority of another pp Roger Snout, Managing Director Its use is normal business practice when signing a letter on behalf of another. However, the receiver of the letter might think the writer can't be bothered to sign their name and thinks the receiver is unimportant. Writers should sign their own letters.
proxy substitute

QED proved as required As everyone is mortal and Betty is a person, she will die, QED. Even in mathematics, QED is considered to be arrogant and should be avoided.
In print, the black square, ■, is preferred. Often it can be omitted.
sic as written by the original author (usually an error in spelling or grammar) ... he will be confronted by computer [sic] display that will advise him in plain english [sic] ... sic is a very useful word, but it might not be understood by the general reader.
... he will be confronted by computer [???] display that will advise him in plain english [???] ...
Perhaps the writer should use sic, and define it. There aren't any good alternatives.
sine die indefinitely People receive this pension sine die. Use indefinitely.
vis a vis face to face; regarding; opposite We wish to compare the health of the English vis a vis what they eat. Use the appropriate English expression. vis a vis is often vague.
viz namely, used to give a specific description or explanation of something previously mentioned in general
Use namely, or omit it.

These are mentioned for reference. They are widely used in reference books.
Words and Expressions Used in Text
Foreign Expression Meaning
cf (confer) compare
ibid same source
loc cit cited above
op cit work quoted
qv (quod vide) see elsewhere in this text
vide see elsewhere in the text.
vs (vide supra) see above, mentioned previously

Use Lists and Headings

The following help readers understand:




Ken Ward's Writing Pages