Keep proper pronunciation in mind. For most words that can be pronounced more than one way (such as "either"), all the different pronunciations are correct. For a few, such as "mischievous", one pronunciation is preferred.
Expose yourself to writing to pick up structures, tones, and ideas. Not everything in print is perfect, but the vast majority of printed works, such as books and magazines, have been thoroughly edited. Look at what makes good writing good. As you read more, mistakes and problems will start to "look" or "sound" wrong to you. Correctness will start to feel natural. If you want to write with a particular style or in a particular genre, read things that are related to that. You will tend to adopt styles and ideas from what you read.
Listen to talk radio, podcasts, and audio books. Audio books, especially, are an opportunity to hear writing. You will learn how to pronounce new words and also hear the complex sentence structures inflected.
Read aloud, with intonation. You can read to your children or even your pets. Reading passages aloud is one way to interpret their structures, and it will make you more conscious of their details. It will improve your speech, especially if you are hesitant when you speak or say "uh" and "um". If you practice reading aloud, you will be less likely to stammer or pause when you speak. You will find yourself saying words carefully instead of slurring them together.
Build your vocabulary. Reading will expose you to a far wider range of words than conversation or spoken media, such as radio or television. Collect words that you do not know. Also browse the dictionary, play word games (such as Hangman, Fictionary, and Free Rice), and subscribe to a word of the day.
Play with the language to explore it. Start a pun war. Dust off your Scrabble game. Invent your own word. Try your hand at a garden path sentence, write your own aprosdoketon, or enter the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad prose or one of its imitators.
Practice writing. Write for a journal, blog, or wiki. Wikis, especially, need writers and frequently come with a whole community of editors who will help you. Whatever and wherever you write, practice daily, if possible. In email and text messages, use complete sentences. That counts as writing, too.
Consider your audience and purpose. Just as you wear different clothing for different weather, you should write or speak differently depending upon your audience. Is this communication factual or fanciful? Are you telling a story, arguing a point, or explaining a procedure?
Proofread your writing and have it proofread by someone else. As you proofread, you can see what kinds of mistakes you make often. Read your composition aloud. You may find a grammatical error when something that you read does not sound right.
Do not be afraid to make mistakes. That fear may keep you from writing well. Language takes extraordinary amounts of practice to master, and mistakes are part of the learning process.
Try learning another language. It will make you more conscious of the structures and grammar in your own. Many of the Latin-based and Germanic languages have words and structures similar to those in English, and exploring these similarities and differences will strengthen both languages.
Nonstandard and Questionable Usage
- A lot, alot – “Alot” is not a word; use “a lot” in informal writing. Substitute "many", “much”, "several", "numerous", "a large number", and "a large amount” in formal writing.
Ain't – "Ain’t" is always wrong, whether it is used to mean "to be" or "to have". The use of “ain’t I?” is nonstandard. “Amn’t I?” is also nonstandard English; “aren’t I?” is standard English.Despite the use of “ain’t I?” and “amn’t I?” in some dialects, “the correct standard singular form is the plural form aren’t: I’m right, aren’t I?”
- Alright, all right – "Alright" is nonstandard; use “all right”. Like "okay", "all right" is an informal word; substitute "fine" or "acceptable" in formal writing.
- Anyways – The proper word is "anyway".
- Gonna, wanna – These are contractions of "going to" and "want to". They are unacceptable in all writing except in dialogue. If the speaker truly did say, "I’m gonna go to the supermarket", write it down that way.
Hopefully – “Hopefully” is a formal, impersonal word. There is no perfect alternative with the same meaning. As it is one word, “hopefully” is more concise than any of the alternatives. “Hopefully” was initially criticized because it was expected to modify the verb. In the sentence “The candidate will hopefully be nominated by the party”, “hopefully” does not mean “in a hopeful manner” but instead makes an impersonal, hopeful prediction. It is a sentence adverb, which can modify an entire sentence, and sentence adverbs are common in formal writing. “Hopefully” is used even in legal writing. In fact, “hopefully” might have once been a rogue word that was considered even “pretentious”.
Impact – The use of “impact” to mean “have an impact on” has sometimes been criticized, especially by those who say that it was a noun transformed into a verb. “Impact” was actually a verb first.The word is most commonly used in formal writing.Employing “impact” also forces the writer to be more precise.
- The paper will have a negative impact. (This may well be an empty sentence.)
- The paper will negatively impact the historian’s reputation. (This sentence structure, with a transitive verb, forces the writer to say who will be impacted.)
- Irregardless – This form is nonstandard. The prefix “ir-” and the suffix “-less” make it redundant. Standard English uses “regardless” or “irrespective”.
- Of– It is incorrect and redundant to use “of” with prepositions such as “off”, “outside”, and “inside” and with the pronoun “all”. Note that “of” is proper when “off” is, in fact, an adverb (e.g. “the breaking off of rock”).
- "Get off of me."
- "Get off me."
- "What is inside of the bag?"
- "What is inside the bag?"
- "All of the students knew the answer."
- "All the students knew the answer."
- Out loud – “Out loud” is nonstandard; use the more concise “aloud”.
- Until, till, ‘til – "'Til" is a nonstandard form. "Until" is preferred to "till" in formal writing.
Use to– The proper form of this phrase should be "used to". Be sure to pronounce the "d" in "used".
- "As a child, I use to go to nursery school."
- "As a child, I used to go to nursery school."
Do not hesitate to split an infinitive when it is warranted. The split infinitive is used in the most formal of writing. Split infinitives are also not in the active voice, although active infinitives can show action in very formal writing that avoids the active voice. Because many of our grammar rules are based on Latin, the split infinitive has sometimes been criticized, as the infinitive is one word in Latin and is treated like a single unit. In fact, split infinitives are grammatically correct, considering that they are unavoidable in some phrases and sentences, such as “to more than double.” It is not possible to write “more than to double” or “to double more than.” In the sentence “Her plan is to not use the active voice,” “not” is in the right place; in the sentence “Her plan is not to use the active voice” “not” is actually in the wrong place, giving the sentence a different meaning. “The split infinitive, as several commentators remark, seems never to have been common in the speech of the less educated,” says Merriam-Webster. “Its use is pretty much confined to users of standard English and to literary contexts.”
- Do not be afraid to use a "split verb phrase." Robert Lowth himself said that this was grammatically correct. Some writers who do not split infinitives refuse to split verb phrases as well, but there is no such rule. If there were such a rule, we should all be saying, "I saw her not" instead of "I did not see her." We also should say, "You are going?" instead of "Are you going?" but "You are going?" is a nonstandard question. Split verb phrases have the advantages (in terms of emphasis) of split infinitives when an adverb comes between the two parts of the verb phrase.
Try to avoid ending a clause with a preposition. You might have heard about ending a sentence with a preposition, but a preposition can also be separated from its object in some types of clauses. The word “preposition” literally means “a putting before.” Prepositions should generally be placed before the objects that they take. Prepositions are also weak words to have at the end of a sentence or clause, the most emphatic position. Robert Lowth, along with John Dryden, is best known for introducing this rule to keep prepositions and their objects together. In A Short Introduction to English Grammar, Lowth stated that it is preferable in formal English to place prepositions in front of relative pronouns.
He also said that prepositions must follow some verbs (such as “to fall on”) to give them their meaning. These verbs may require the preposition to be at the end of the clause and were used by Robert Lowth in his book and by John Dryden. One characteristic structure of formal English, the passive voice, can be formed only with the preposition at the end of a clause. Like Latin, English can utilize intransitive verbs in the passive voice. It was impossible to end a sentence with a preposition in Latin, but the language often employed a single verb (such as "trānslūcere") for what English would express with a verb and preposition acting as a single unit ("to shine through").
“Whom did you send the letter to?”
“To whom did you send the letter?”
“This is the woman whom I was acquainted with.”
“This is the woman with whom I was acquainted.”
“That is how the project was referred to.” (formal, passivized intransitive verbs)
Use "who" and "whom" properly. “Who” is the subject pronoun; “whom” is the object pronoun. For example, “Whom did Sally see?” uses “whom,” the object pronoun. When you are unsure about which to use, rework the sentence and substitute either "he" or "him." Rewrite “Whom did Sally see?” as “Sally saw whom?” and then "Sally saw him." Because "him" sounds correct, "whom" is employed in the sentence. If you feel uncomfortable with "whom" in speech, William Safire suggests recasting the sentence to remove the pronoun. When George Bush used "Who do you trust?" as a slogan, Safire suggested "Which candidate do you trust?"
Choose personal pronouns properly. Use subject pronouns (“I,” “she,” “he,” “we,” “they”) after forms of “to be” and object pronouns (“me,” her,” “him,” “us,” “them”) after transitive verbs and prepositions.
Utilize prepositions idiomatically. For example, you agree with a person, but agree to an action.
Construct parallel, balanced sentences.
- Remember that good writing calls for good grammar, good spelling, logical organization, clarity, attention to the audience, and a good selection of content. A good writer does not overlook any of those things. Be sure to allot plenty of time to check for grammar and spelling errors and poor organization.
- Accept that the language evolves. It gains new words. "Finalize" is one, and there is no perfect substitute for it. It uses existing words in new ways. For example, "contact" was once just a noun referring to touch but is now also used as a concise verb meaning "to communicate with." Languages also lose words. For instance, English used to make a distinction between formal and informal second-person pronouns: "ye" as the formal pronoun and "thou" as the informal pronoun. These pronouns also had subjective and objective forms: "thou" and "thee" and "ye" and "you." English speakers found that they did not need all of these different pronouns. "You" could be used in formal and informal registers and as a subjective and objective pronoun.
- Make corrections after you are finished writing. If you do not know how to spell a word, keep writing! Do not stop to correct errors if you might lose your train of thought.
- The ability to spell is not necessarily an indicator of the ability to write, although the two skills are closely related. If you worry that you are not a good speller, use a dictionary or spell-checker before you make a final copy of your work.
- Attention to written English will improve your spoken English as well.