Writing is more than just grammatical accuracy. There are plenty of nuances in any language that, if not followed properly, could be the difference between producing a professional piece of work and producing one that looks like it was written by a young child.
Mastering English grammar takes time and dedication for any individual, whether you’re a native speaker or not. However, even when English grammar no longer poses a conscious challenge, writing in professional English can still be a daunting task. Which words are we supposed to use? Which phrases sound more academic? Which writing styles should we adopt? After all, the way we should be writing is certainly not the same as the way we are actually speaking.
For anyone who may be struggling with this difficult task, here are seven guidelines (separated into two parts) for how to make written English look and sound more professional (none of which are related to English grammar).
1) Numbers under 100 should be written as words
Let’s start off with a guideline that native speakers continue to disagree about: which numbers should be written as words (e.g. “thirty” instead of “30”), and which ones can remain as Indo-Arabic numerals? American English uses two primary guides for this rule.
The first is the Associated Press Stylebook, which recommends that numbers from zero through nine should always be in word form, while numbers from ten upward should be written as numerals until one million is reached (e.g. 10; 100; 1000; 999,999). From one million upward, numbers rounded to the nearest million are written as a combination of numerals and words (e.g. 2 million; 47 billion; 6.5 trillion), while exact numbers that are not rounded will remain as numerals (e.g. 68,490,721).
The second is the Chicago Manual of Style, which recommends that all numbers under 100 should be written as words. From 100 upward, whole numbers used in combination with hundred, thousand, etc. should continue to be written as words (e.g. two hundred, five thousand, nine million), while numerals would be used for all the numbers in between (e.g. 601; 70,326).
Why do I recommend following the Chicago Manual of Style? Because the person who is reading our written work may adhere to it as well, and if this person deems writing numerals for numbers under 100 to be unprofessional then, in their eyes, we may have made an inadvertent writing mistake. On the other hand, someone adhering to the Associated Press Stylebook would not consider seeing “41” written as “forty-one” to be unprofessional. In this situation, it is better to be safe than sorry.
If you would like to learn more about rules for writing English numbers, read more here.
2) Avoid using the generic / impersonal “you”
One of the definitions for “you” on Dictionary.com is “one; anyone; people in general”. This is commonly referred to as the “generic you” or “impersonal you”, in which the word “you” is not used as its second-person definition. Here are a few sample sentences:
- Eating more fruits and vegetables makes you healthier.
- The rapid progress of technology is not something you can stop.
- The birth of the first child is when you feel as though your life has changed.
While there is nothing wrong with using the generic you in casually spoken speech, it looks highly unprofessional when written in an academic document (other than when directly quoting another source). Native English speakers are taught from an early age to avoid using the generic you in writing, and that the written form of “you” should be limited only to the second-person (singular or plural). Thus, the more professional way to write the three sentences above would be:
- Eating more fruits and vegetables makes people healthier.
- The rapid progress of technology is not something that can be stopped.
- The birth of the first child is when a person feels as though his/her life has changed.
Some academics also suggest directly substituting the generic “you” with the more formal sounding “one”, although there are other scholars who consider this to be lazy and/or outdated. The latter argue that such a quick-and-easy switch should not be performed unless no other alternatives are possible.
3) Try not to start sentences with conjunctions
Is it wrong to start sentences with conjunctions such as “and”, “but”, and “or”? Absolutely not. In this article, Merriam-Webster (regarded as the supreme dictionary for American English) points out that “we have been breaking this rule all the way from the 9th century Old English Chronicle through the current day”. English has never had a rule declaring that sentences cannot start with conjunctions.
Despite the nonexistence of this rule though, sentences that begin with conjunctions can still seem a bit off-putting. More often than not, the conjunction at the beginning of a sentence is not needed anyway, and if it is needed, we typically see that the sentence starting with the conjunction does not need to be its own sentence. Below are a couple of examples.
- It was a dark and stormy night. And as if that was not enough, the young boy was all alone.
- We could have reached the city by now. But when we took that shortcut, we became lost.
Both of these examples can be altered in one of two ways to make the sentences flow better when read. The first way is to simply remove the conjunction and keep them as separate sentences, as below:
- It was a dark and stormy night. As if that was not enough, the young boy was all alone.
- We could have reached the city by now. When we took that shortcut, we became lost.
The second way is to leave the conjunction in and merge the sentences into one using a comma:
- It was a dark and stormy night, and as if that wasn’t enough, the young boy was all alone.
- We could have reached the city by now, but when we took that shortcut, we became lost.
There is in fact a third way too, but I will cover that in later in part two. Writing sentences that begin with conjunctions could give someone the impression that the author was never properly educated on the “real” purpose of the conjunction, which is to connect between words, phrases, and clauses. Since we are here to make our writing look and sound more professional, starting sentences with conjunctions does not help.
4) Use a greater variety of transition words between clauses
While we are on the subject of conjunctions, let us explore how to transition between clauses. Conjunctions are certainly useful in this regard, since they serve as an easy connector to bridge two or more clauses together. However, repeatedly using them can make a written piece look terrible (and stale). Let’s look at the following two sentences:
- It was my birthday and we opened presents and we ate cake.
- On my birthday, after we opened presents, we ate cake.
Neither of these two sentences violates any grammar rules, but which sentence sounds better? It should be rather obvious that the second sentence appears far more professionally crafted. The first sentence looks like it was simply thrown together without any consideration for style, whereas the second gives us a more specific order for the events that occurred. Here is another example:
- They wanted to go play but their house was dirty but they did not want to clean it.
- Although they wanted to go play, their house was dirty; still, they did not want to clean it.
Yikes! The first sentence is jumping all over the place in a way that makes it ridiculous to follow. Meanwhile, the second sentence clearly expresses everything the first is trying to, but it accomplishes its purpose in a way that comes across as crisp and clean.
This is the difference between limiting transition words to repetitive conjunctions and including a greater variety of transition words and/or phrases. Sentences become horribly ugly when they are merely a series of clauses “strung together” by conjunctions alone. Give sentences more style by using different methods when linking one clause to the next.
There is so much to explain about professional English writing that I could not limit this list to only one part. To continue reading, please check out Part Two of this article now.
Hero image by Christin Hume on Unsplash