Prof. Scott’s tips for formal writing
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
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.
Avoid the second person (“you”) in formal
writing. (This list isn’t formal :-)
Be cautious about the first person (“I” and
“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.
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
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
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.
Avoid the passive voice. Write “Congress passed
a law” instead of “A law was passed by
In general, prefer infinitives over gerunds (“ing”
nouns), expecially when the gerund would be introduced by
Instead of “Many people use TOR for surfing
privately,” write “Many people use TOR to surf
Similar advice applies to “-ion” words: instead of
“Some people use PGP for encryption of messages,”
write “Some people use PGP to encrypt messages.”
Learn the distinction between descriptive and restrictive
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.
Cars, which run on gas, are a major source of carbon
The latter sentence doesn’t apply to electric cars.
Cars that run on gas are a major source of carbon
A good rule of thumb for native speakers of English: if
“which” and “that” both sound ok to you, use
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 “
for”. (If it began with
for.” it would be syntactically
Superscript footnote marks and numbers go outside any
Bracketed footnote numbers go inside end-of-sentence
1 like this
 and this.
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.
Avoid ending a clause or sentence with a preposition.
“Smartphones are easy to work with,”
“People find it easy to work with smartphones,”
“Smartphones are easy to use.”
Give a citation for every direct quotation, and for every fact that
isn't common knowledge.
Use the appropriate adjectives for countable and non-countable
(continuous) things: less milk, but fewer cookies.
Make sure that the elements of any comma-separated list have
parallel grammatical structure.