For Writers of English as a Second Language

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Write simply

KISS: "Keep It Super-Simple."
Be brief. Do not say "In brief" or "briefly" or "In view of the limitations imposed on me by publishing this study in a journal, I cannot do justice to the entire history of the human race that led to the momentous occasion of me telling you what I think."
Do not stuff too many details into one sentence. Exposition is the art of providing your readers with all of the information they need in order to understand the point you want to make. "Virtue is the mean between extremes." You must not supply too much or too little information.
Do not write a preface to your sentences.
"It is interesting to note ..."
"It is important to take into consideration ..."
"It is worthwhile to explore ..."
"Before we go on to the next paragraph, we need to write about a different topic that will prove useful later on ..."
"One must notice ..."
The fact that a sentence appears in your essay means that you think it is interesting, important, worthwhile, or helpful. That is why it is in your essay!
In his On Invention 1,22,32, Cicero described the elements of a propositio as follow:
The form of partition which contains a methodical statement of topics to be discussed ought to have the following qualities:
  • brevity,
  • completeness,
  • conciseness.
Brevity is secured when no word is used unless necessary. It is useful in this place because the attention of the auditor should be attracted by the facts and topics of the case, and not by extraneous embellishments of style.
Completeness is the quality by which we embrace in the partition all forms of argument which apply to the case, and about which we ought to speak, taking care that no useful argument be omitted or be introduced late as an addition to the plan of the speech, for this is faulty and unseemly in the highest degree.
Conciseness in the partition is secured if only genera of things are given and they are not confused and mixed with their species.

... but use elegant variation

The art of exposition

In order to analyze either a story or an argument, we must correctly represent the elements of our source so that our reader can grasp the point that we are trying to make.

There must not be too much or too little exposition of the work that we are analyzing.

It is not possible to give a formal definition of what "too much" or "too little" means in the sentence above.

This is a matter for prudential judgment.

This is something that we learn by doing.

As a general rule, the order of exposition makes a difference, both in accurately representing the sequence of events in a story or in tracing the elements of an argument. The way in which we introduce the material within our own commentary is also very important. We must provide our readers with all of the information they need in order to see what we mean. Exposition and analysis may alternate, but we must not rely on a fact that we have not yet introduced into evidence as we comment on the text.

Use the past tense, please

Many guides and storytellers use the "historical present," even though the events they are talking about are in the remote past. Using the present tense makes us feel as though we are part of the story.

A Franciscan gets a haircut, and then asks how much he owes. The barber says he never charges clergy. The Franciscan thanks the barber and goes home. The next morning the barber finds a big basket of fresh bread from the Franciscans' kitchens.
An Augustinian gets his hair cut by the same barber. The barber also tells him than he never charges clergy. So, the next day the barber receives a nice bottle of wine from the Augustinians' wine cellar.
A Jesuit gets his haircut, and the barber again says that he never charges clergy. The next day, when the barber gets to work, there are twelve other Jesuits already waiting for him.

For writers of English as a second language, the present tense is much easier to manage than the various past tenses.

Juxtaposition works

"To juxtapose" means to set things side-by-side.

You do not have to explain that the next thing to appear after the introduction of a general idea is an example. State the generality, then set the example beside it. Trust your readers to see that the second sentence illustrates the first.

In the same way, you do not need to say "finally" as you reach the end of a paragraph, a section, a chapter, or a book. Your readers can see with their own ideas that they are coming to the end of what you have written.

Don't talk about doing it.

Just do it.

"and ... and ... and also"

Eliminate extraneous conjunctions or interjections at the beginning of sentences.

The fact that you have written another sentence in a paragraph implies that you want it to be taken into consideration by your reader.

"Furthermore, ..."
"Consequently, ..."
"Thus, ..."
"In short, ..."
"Finally, ..."
"Lastly, ..."
"Also, ..."
"In fact, ..."
"Clearly, ..."
"It is obvious that, ..."

Use turn signals sparingly

- namely,
- i.e.,
- that is,
- for example,
- e.g.,
- Next, ...
- Finally, ...
- In conclusion, ...

You are writing for a sophisticated audience. They can tell that the next sentence is the next part of your argument. They will identify subordinate clauses or apposition as clarifications, examples, or qualifications of the substantive that is modified by them. As they approach the end of a section, chapter, article, or book, they will know that you are at the end of your argument and that you are coming to a conclusion. You do not have to tell them that this is the last sentence in a paragraph or a section or a chapter or an article or a book. They know that!

"Just do it"

Write what you think needs to be written. Don't tell me that it is necessary to do so.

Write something funny that will make me laugh. Don't tell me that it is funny.

Avoid ventriloquism

Take responsibility for your judgments.

Every sentence you write passes sentence on some person, place, or thing.

You are the judge.

You express your judgments in everything you write.

Do not attribute your judgments to your essay, your research, your methodology, or any other substitute for yourself.

You do not have to sign every sentence with an assertion of your authorship. Every unsigned sentence is just as much yours as those which have a first person singular subject or another sign of ownership such as these:

"I argue ... "
"I believe ... "
"I presume ... "
"I conclude ... "
"For me, ... "
"In my view, ... "
"I conjecture ... "
"My thesis is ... "

Do not dangle participles

It is a rule in English grammar that the logical subject of a participial phrase must be correlated with the participle.

- "Reading my old letters, I saw how I wrote them when I needed money."
"Reading" is the participle. "I" am the one who read them.
- "Reading my old letters, feelings of guilt came into my consciousness."
"Reading" in this case is a dangling participle because "feelings" is not the logical subject who is doing or has done the reading. There is no part of the sentence modified by "reading."

Please do not misuse "hopefully"

Hopefully is an adverb which describes the manner in which an action is undertaken or a word spoken.

"I may be able teach people to make this distinction," the author of this paragraph wrote hopefully. "There is no reason why intelligent people of good will cannot see that in other cases, 'hopefully' really means 'I hope' or 'we hope.' I am guardedly optimistic that I can persuade people to be more direct and more authentic in expressing their hopes and dreams."

Comma conundrums

The Law of Lists

Thou shalt make every entry in a list correspond to the same paradigm.

That, which, who

Interesting conclusions


The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain
“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Huckleberry Finn
In this passage, Huck has to decide between returning Jim to his original slave owner or else helping Jim escape from slavery. He has written a letter to Miss Watson, telling her where she can find her slave.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: "All right, then, I'll go to hell" – and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.”

Writing is an art, not a science. A passage that is formally correct in every aspect, obeying all of the rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and spelling, may still be dreck.

The classroom is "a behavior modification lab, where ... one practices child-centered strategies that optimize the personological variables of interactive relationships, thus producing awareness enhancement."[1]

I cannot tell you how to choose the right words to express what you want to say. I can tell you what sounds off to me.


  1. "Babel Builders," a review of The Graves of Academe by Richard Mitchell (Akadine Press), Time Magazine, December 7, 1981, p. 104.


- Education First English Grammar Guide.