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Grammar And Style Guide - I

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A language is shared by a large community: English, for instance, is the first language of most people in the UK, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and much of South Africa, India, and so on. Thing is, the English spoken in Louisiana is pretty far from the English spoken in Cape Town. A dialect is a subset of a language shared by a smaller community, often (but not always) regional: Cockney, for instance, is a dialect of English. A dialect is distinguished from a language by a set of departures from the "norm," but these departures are necessarily shared by some community. (I'll let the linguists wrangle over exactly which communities constitute dialects.)

An idiolect, on the other hand, is the form of a language spoken by a single person, marked by a set of departures from the "norm" that aren't shared with others, at least not as a package. A person's idiolect constitutes a kind of linguistic fingerprint, since it's by definition unique to an individual. Police forensics folks often look for idiolect markers in, say, ransom letters. It was a series of distinctive verbal tics, for example, that allowed authorities to spot the Unabomber from his "manifesto." [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]

I.e. versus e.g.
See E.g. versus i.e.
Impact should remain a noun; a proposal can have an impact, but cannot impact anything without degenerating into jargon. The only thing that can be impacted is a wisdom tooth.
In grammar, an imperative is an order: instead of "You will go" — the indicative — the imperative says: "Go." Instead of "You will get the book" — the indicative — the imperative says "Get the book."

Though the word imperative is common in business writing, it's big and ugly and intimidating. Go with must or should. Instead of the jargony "It is imperative that the forms be completed on time," try "Be sure to complete the forms on time."

Imply versus Infer.
A speaker implies something by hinting at it; a listener infers something from what he or she hears. Don't use them interchangeably.
A tip: your thesis statement in an English paper should never contain the word important, which usually means something like "I think this is relevant, but I haven't a clue how." Some examples of bad thesis statements: "The idea of money is important in Defoe's novels," "The role of honor in the epic poems of ancient Greece is very important," or "Race and gender are very important aspects of Toni Morrison's novels" — they're all very close to meaningless. And don't think a synonym like significant will save you. Say something precise.
Indefinite Articles.
See Articles.
See Subjunctives and Shall versus Will.
A yucky word. Usually unnecessary; use person or someone. Use individual only when you mean to distinguish an individual from a group or corporation.
See Split Infinitive.
Sentences beginning "It is interesting that" or "It is significant that" are usually as far from interesting as can be. Don't just state that something is interesting: show it.
In Terms of.
Often useless padding.
Just as you might have to omit something from quoted material with ellipses, you sometimes have to add to a quotation to clarify it. A sentence with only a pronoun like he or she, without the context of the surrounding sentences, might baffle a reader. Or a word or phrase may need explanation — say, a passage in a foreign language.

In these cases, it's traditional to add material in [square brackets]. (Newspapers often use parentheses instead of square brackets, but they're a minority.) Provide an explanation if the author uses something your audience isn't likely to understand — "The first words of Joyce's 'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan' are Introibo ad altare dei ['I will go to the altar of God']." You might need to supply a detail not in the original quotation, especially if your reader is likely to be confused: "As Fairbanks notes, 'The death of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia [Mississippi] marked a turning point.'" You might also provide a first name: "It was [George] Eliot's most successful work." Always the question is whether the clarification will help your audience.

If you're changing a single word or a short phrase, especially a pronoun, and the word isn't especially interesting in its own right, it's okay to omit the original and replace it with the bracketed interpolation: you can change "In that year, after much deliberation, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation" to "In [1862], after much deliberation, [Lincoln] issued the Emancipation Proclamation." If you're hesitant to monkey with words in the original that may be important — and it's wise to be circumspect — just add the bracketed interpolation after the thing you're explaining: "The sixteenth president [Lincoln] abolished slavery."

You can also use brackets around part of a word to indicate necessary changes in its form. So, for instance, you might write, "In his brilliant Guide to Grammar and Style, Lynch provides sage advice on 'us[ing] brackets around part of a word.'"

Some house styles call for brackets to indicate changes of upper- and lowercase letters at the beginning of a quotation: "[L]ike this." I don't like it — it clutters a page — but I don't get to make the call, except in things I edit.

Limit square brackets to quotations of others' words. If you need to clarify something in your own prose, use parentheses (as I do here).

See also Ellipses and Sic. [Entry added 3 November 2000; revised 1 June 2004.]

Intransitive Verbs.
See Transitive versus Intransitive Verbs.
Not a word used in respectable company: somewhere between irrespective and regardless. Use one of these instead.
Use italics for book titles, for foreign words, and for emphasis. Be careful, though, not to rely too much on italics for emphasis; they make your writing look amateurish. Let the words do most of the work.

Note that italics and underscores are the same thing — typewriters used underscore when italics weren't available — so use one or the other, but not both, in a paper. Publishers working from hard-copy typescripts usually prefer underscores; they're easier for typesetters to catch. (This is a question of house style.)

See Titles and Fonts. [Revised 1 June 2004.]

It Can Be Argued.
Aw, c'mon: anything can be argued. Don't pad your writing with useless stuff like this, especially when it's graceless, imprecise, and in the passive voice. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]
It's versus Its.
There's no shortcut; all you can do is memorize the rule. It's with an apostrophe means it is (or, a little less often and a little less formally, it has); its without an apostrophe means belonging to it. An analogue might provide a mnemonic: think of "he's" ("he is" gets an apostrophe) and "his" ("belonging to him" doesn't).

What about its', with the apostrophe after the s? — Never, never, never. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not in this language, you don't. Its, "belonging to it"; it's, it is. That's all. [Revised 8 June 2001.]