The style of your easy-writing will vary to some extent depending on whether you are writing a factual or an imagine piece, but two rules must apply no matter what the subject is :
- What you want to say must first be clear in your mind or it will never be clear on paper.
- The language you use must be as simple and direct the subject allows.
Rule 1 actually only describes the position you should already have reached if you have thought and planned well. It does not mean that you must have every sentence complete in your mind before you start to write it down, but that you must have the thought clear. Rule 2 is the one I am concerned with in this section. We can consider four aspects of language that will help you to achieve the aim of Rule 2 : vocabulary, sentence structure, spellings and punctuation.
The advice to keep language simple doesn’t mean that you should never venture beyond a limited basic vocabulary. On the contrary, a varied vocabulary makes for interesting writing. What it does mean is that you should always try to chose the word that does the job best and most directly. Don’t use long words just for the sake of showing that you know them, and in particular don’t use them unless you really do know what they mean that’s the way ‘howlers’ are born.
Your vocabulary should be appropriate to what you are writing about:
Evocative adjectives below in passage of imaginative description, but they do not belong in a scientific account. Read the two passages that follow and I think you will see what I mean.
- Round the wild, tussocky lawn at the back of the house was a thorn hedge, under which daffodils were craning forward from among their sheaves of grey-green blades. The cheeks of the flowers were greenish with cold. But some had burst, and their gold ruffled and glowed. Miriam went on her knees before one cluster, took a wild-looking daffodil between her hands, turned up its face of gold to her…..
- Daffodil (Narcissus pseudo-narcissus) … Levees blunt, slightly keeled, sub-glaucous. Large, very shortly stalked solitary flower, drooping slightly, in axil or pointed spathe. Perianth segments pointed, pale yellow; centre coronet funnel-shaped equaling them in length, slightly notched.
Each of these is excellent for its own purpose but they are hardly interchangeable! Don’t use slang in essays except in story where characters who might be expected to use it are talking Slang expressions are often very vivid and direct but they tend not to stay in fashion long enough to be incorporated fully into the written language, so do stick to words that are generally understood and accepted.
Sentence Structure :
Aim at keeping this fairly simple without being boring. In other words, try to vary your sentences in both length and construction, but do not allow them to become too long or too complicated or you will be in danger of losing your grip on the grammar. This is particularly important if you are trying to give a lot of factual information. The reader can’t take in the information if he has first to unravel every sentence grammatically before he can begin to understand the subject you are writing about.
Here is part of a student’s essay on the subject, “The Old House”. The sentences are all of the statement type, but they are effectively varied in length and structure.
I rose early that morning to meet the sun streaming thought the window and the dawn chorus still screaming at me. It was going to be another hot day. I knew that Mother was in another country bedroom fast asleep among the quilted covers, washing-basins and crude wooden wardrobes. I went to the cool bathroom, where everything that came out of the taps was brown because the farmhouse water came from the stream higher up the thick valley. The bathroom was not a good place to be. Spiders, woodlice and ants crawled along the cracked walls and dusty window-frame.
I was soon out of the house and making my way to the garden along the story path. Mrs. Bee was working in the garden behind the wall and I could hear her spade attacking the dry earth and see her bright red scarf, that had fallen around her beck. She saw me but didn’t say anything so I ran to the bank and under the electric wire. I stopped and turned to look at the farm. No, it hadn’t changed, not for two hundred years. It was just a typical farmhouse, made of stone with ivy growing up it, one mile from the nearest road, and only reached usually by Mother’s brown For that came bumping along the stony track.
The main advantage of having agreed correct spelling is that it des ensure an instant understanding of written words. To realize this you only have to think about the many different regional pronunciations around the country. If a Comishman or a ‘Geordie’ were both to write down the same sentence, each spelling the words just as he pronounced them, you might have difficulty in recognizing them as the same one. In exams the importance of spellings varies with the subject. In an English or any other language exam bad spelling will certainly lose your marks. In other subjects examiners may well tend to be more Lenient as long as the word is understandable, being more concerned with the quality of the content than with the accuracy of the spelling. However there are some areas where it really is important to spell correctly.
- The names of authors whose books you are studying and the names of the characters appearing in them. It will not improve an examiner’s temper to be told about ‘Julius Caesar’ or ‘John Betchieman’ when he knows the candidate has probably been reading those names for the last year.
- Words that are very commonly used in a subject, such as ‘protein’ ‘cellular’, ‘pollination’, ‘nutritional’ or ‘photosynthesis’, in Biology for example.
- Words which actually appear on the exam paper. These are the most irritation of all wrong spellings and produce extreme ill-will in examiners.
If you know yourself to be weak on spelling there are a number of books from which you can learn at least some rules that might help you. But there is nothing like practice. It may sound old-fashioned, but writing out three times the correct spelling of every word you get wrong in each piece of written work can help to fix it in your mind.
How would you punctuate the following sentence?
The judge said the accused was a drunken scoundrel.
Here are three possible ways of punctuating the sentences.
- The judge said, ‘The accused was a drunken scoundrel’. (This would be the reported speech of the judge.)
- The judge said, ‘The accused was a drunken scoundrel’.
- ‘The judge’, said the accused, ‘was a drunken scoundrel’.
Well, I expect you quickly found that two different ways of punctuating it produce two entirely opposite meanings. If you haven’t managed to work that out for yourself turn punctuation at the end and have a look. That was an unfair example in a way because, in context, the meaning would probably be quite clear. But it does illustrate the point I want to emphasize – punctuation plays a very important part in conveying meaning. Punctuation marks are to the reader as road-signs are to the driver. Take them away and you have chaos.
Year after year examiners in their reports complain of poor, sometimes virtually non-existent punctuation. One reason why people have difficulty with it is that, quite unlike spelling, punctuation allows room for some differences of opinion. Two writer can use punctuation in very different ways and both may be equally, acceptable. Many rules that you are expected to keep you will find broken quite frequently in printed and published books. You may graduate to this freedom in time, but at this stage if you start breaking the rules it will be thought that you don’t know them, so I would advise as much correctness as you can achieve in essays.
Full-stops, commas and semicolons :
At their simplest these are all signs that tell the reader to pause in his reading. In order of their strength they are : comma (the weakest), semicolon, full-stop. More mistakes are made with these than with anything else.
The full-stop is used to show that you have come to the end of a group of words that is complete and makes full sense. That is what a sentence is. It does not matter how long or short your group of words may be, sentences come in all sizes and shorter onces can be joined together in many ways to make longer onces; but if your group of words does not make complete sense it is not a sentence and you must not use a full-stop.
Look at the examples below and decide which have the full stop placed correctly and which are incorrect.
- Although I like swimming I am not very good at it.
- Come here:
- Macbeth’s ambition, which is hinted at first just after he has met the witches for the first time, and we can see it growing when their prophecies start to come true.
- In the case of a village, analysis of its position should include reference to land of various types its activity will be concerned usually with farming rather than with trading or manufacturing in a town.
- I am not very good at swimming. Although I like it.
- The family liked the house instantly and Mr. Barton bought it without making any further inquiries, but they soon found it had some shortcomings and the most serious was a ghost.
- He fed the dog, washed up the plates, turned on the television and settled himself in an armchair.
- The sun was very strong, he was soon uncomfortably warm.
(a), (b), (d), (f) and (g) are all perfectly good sentences. (b) is very short but makes good sense without any additions being needed. (f) contains a number of sentences that have been joined together by ‘and’ and ‘but’. It’s not exactly an elegant sentence but there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it. (g) contains four sentences all with the same subject — he’– which describe a sequence of actions, so they have been separated just as you might separate objects on a list, with commas and a final ‘and’. (d) has two sentences made into one larger one by being separated by a semicolon (see below).
Example (e) is wrong. The first part of it is a sentence on its own but the second is not; the group of words beginning with ‘Although’ does not make full sense on its own. Words like ‘although’, even ‘though’, ‘because’, ‘so that’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ (as long as there are not introducing a question), ‘if’ ‘provided that’, ‘unless’ are words to link different parts of sentence together. A group of words that begins with a word of this kind always expects something else to have gone before or to come after. (h) is two separate sentences and comma alone will not do to separate them. The simplest correction would be to use ‘and’. ()c) is simply and unfinished mess. As it stands there is no punctuation that could possibly turn it into an acceptable sentence. ‘Macbeth’s ambition’ is the subject of a verb that never arrives. In order to cure this mess you would have to remove ‘which’.