Prof. Scott’s tips for formal writing
(in no particular order)

  1. English desperately needs good gender-neutral singular pronouns, but it doesn’t (yet) have them.  “They,” “them,” and “their” seem to be the leading candidates, but formal writing always lags behind spoken convention.  We are currently in a gray zone, with some language authorities embracing a singular “they” and others still searching for alternatives.  I will accept consistent use of a singular “they,” but only when I’m convinced that you’re doing it on purpose for gender inclusiveness.  Note that when writing about a specific individual, it is both common courtesy and a sign of respect to use whatever pronouns that individual prefers.  Whatever you do, be deliberate and consistent: don’t mix up your usage by accident. 

  2. Whatever your take on rule 1, avoid using masculine terms when referring to unknown individuals or to people in general.  In the singular case (if you aren’t using “they”) you can often rephrase to use “one,” or to avoid the pronoun entirely.  In a pinch, you can use “he / she” and “him / her,” but this has the downside of buying into a traditional gender binary. 

  3. Avoid the second person (“you”) in formal writing.  (This list isn’t formal :-)  Be cautious about the first person (“I” and “me”; “we” and “us”).  “I” is ok when you need to express a personal opinon.  (References to “the author” often come across as awkward or stilted.)  “We” is fine in essays with multiple authors.  In pedagogical material (e.g., textbooks), “we” may also be used in the sense of “the author and the reader together.”  Please don’t refer to yourself in the plural. 

  4. Make sure that the referents of pronouns (the things to which the pronouns refer) are always crystal clear.  In particular, be wary of “naked” uses of the pronoun “this”:  is the reader likely to ask “this what?”  Consider: 
    The Rose Bowl Game takes place on New Year’s Day.  This is an American tradition. 
    What exactly is the tradition here?  The Rose Bowl Game?  New Year’s Day?  The timing of the Rose Bowl Game?  To be safe, write “This game…,” “This holiday…,” or “This timing….”

  5. The word “Internet” has historically been capitalized, but standard-setting publications (e.g., the New York Times) have recently switched to lower case.  Whatever you pick be sure your usage is consistent. 

  6. Avoid the passive voice.  Write “Congress passed a law” instead of “A law was passed by Congress.” 

  7. In general, prefer infinitives over gerunds (“ing” nouns), expecially when the gerund would be introduced by “for.”  Instead of “Many people use TOR for surfing privately,”  write “Many people use TOR to surf privately.”  Similar advice applies to “-ion” words: instead of “Some people use PGP for encryption of messages,”  write “Some people use PGP to encrypt messages.”

  8. Learn the distinction between descriptive and restrictive clauses.  Descriptive clauses are generally set off with commas, and introduced with “which.”  They provide additional but not essential information.  Restrictive clauses are generally run into the rest of the sentence, and introduced with “that.”  They narrow the scope of what you’re talking about.  Compare: 
    Cars, which run on gas, are a major source of carbon emissions [descriptive].
    Cars that run on gas are a major source of carbon emissions [restrictive]. 
    The latter sentence doesn’t apply to electric cars. 
    A good rule of thumb for native speakers of English:  if “which” and “that” both sound ok to you, use “that.” 

  9. While it doesn’t really make good sense, it’s customary to move commas and periods inside closing quote marks, except when to do so would corrupt the meaning of the quoted material.  So:  Restrictive clauses often start with “that.”  But:  A Java loop begins with “while” or “for”.  (If it began with “for.” it would be syntactically incorrect.) 

  10. Superscript footnote marks and numbers go outside any end-of-sentence punctuation.1  Bracketed footnote numbers go inside end-of-sentence punctuation [2]. 
    1 like this
    [2] and this. 

  11. Make sure you understand the distinction between “its” and “it’s.”  The former is a possessive pronoun (like “his” and “hers”); the latter is a contraction (short for “it is”).  Don’t be fooled: “it’s” is not “it” with a possessive apostrophe-s on the end. 

  12. Avoid ending a clause or sentence with a preposition.  Instead of “Smartphones are easy to work with,” write “People find it easy to work with smartphones,” or “Smartphones are easy to use.” 

  13. Give a citation for every direct quotation, and for every fact that isn't common knowledge.

  14. Use the appropriate adjectives for countable and non-countable (continuous) things: less milk, but fewer cookies.

  15. Make sure that the elements of any comma-separated list have parallel grammatical structure.