Do you sometimes worry that your writing doesn’t sound formal or sophisticated enough? This is a worry many students have when they are new to writing papers or correspondence in English. Fortunately, this is a challenge that you can overcome easily through practice and learning a few helpful tips about written and spoken language. After reading this article, you are going to be aware of 5 English rules for writing that will make you sound more accurate, appropriate and interesting.
In this post, we are going to make you a more confident writer by focusing on the following topics:
1. Contractions vs long forms
2. Standard vs conversational vocabulary
3. The active vs passive tense
5. Structure – word order and paragraph structure
You may be asking yourself if the difference between spoken and written English really matters. If people understand me when I speak, can’t I just transfer what I say into writing?
Well, the truth is that there actually are quite a few important differences between written texts and spoken discourse, and learners should definitely make an effort to learn these differences to avoid sounding inappropriate whether communicating in writing or conversation. This doesn’t mean there is no overlap between written and spoken English. If you are going for a more friendly and informal feel to your writing, then it is fine to choose a style that sounds more spoken and casual. However, if you are not aware of the subtle ways that writing differs from speaking, you risk sounding either too stuffy and distant in your speaking or too casual and informal in your formal writing.
When it comes to learning English, it is vital to learn BOTH written and spoken English. This is the only way to ensure that you will be able to communicate accurately and appropriately. Although there are varying degrees of formality in both spoken and written English (from street slang to very formal letters), I would like to outline five key differences between the language of writing and speaking that you should always keep in mind when you plan to write in English.
1. Long forms, short forms (contractions) and reductions
When we speak, we use contractions to shorten certain word combinations in our sentences. A contraction is a word that has been formed by combining two words and replacing the missing letters with an apostrophe; for example, ‘I am’ becomes ‘I’m’, ‘do not’ becomes ‘don’t’, ‘cannot’ becomes ‘can’t’, etc. The use of contractions helps our speech flow and allows us to converse with greater speed. When writing, especially in academic texts or business correspondence, we should only use the long forms. Once you have completed a written text, make sure that no contractions have found their way into your writing. This should be part of your checklist when you go over your writing a final time. When you proof read your final work, search for all apostrophes and see if they could be written out in their longer forms.
Remember, it is fine to use an apostrophe as long as it belongs to a possessive noun, like “my mother’s house” or “the country’s currency”.
Here is a list of some common negative long forms and their contracted equivalents:
What are the rules for reductions in writing?
Reductions should also be strictly reserved for casual speech – or informal texts such as text messages to friends – and avoided in formal or official writing. Reductions are similar to contractions in that they are words that have been combined and shortened, but, unlike contractions, reductions are purely a spoken feature of English and not considered part of correct grammar. Here is a visual of some long forms and their equivalent reductions. Remember, we generally use the reduced forms in speech and not writing.
When you replace all contractions and reductions with long forms in your writing, your text will automatically sound more professional, businesslike and formal. This is particularly important if you want to make a respectful impression or have not met the reader personally. If you are writing an email to a close colleague or friend, then contractions are fine – as long as casual communication is appropriate. If you are not sure about the level of formality, I would recommend erring on the side of too formal and sticking with the long forms!
2. Written vocabulary vs spoken vocabulary
I want you to really think about whether the words you choose are more appropriate for writing or speaking. One difference in vocabulary is that written English prefers the standard or Latin verbs whereas spoken English more often takes the less formal phrasal verbs. Let me demonstrate this difference with a couple examples.
Which of the below sentences sound more spoken, A or B?
A. I’ll call you back when I find out about the schedule.
B. I will return your call as soon as I receive information about the schedule.
What about the next one?
The company decided to carry on with the project despite cutting back on staff.
The company decided to continue the project despite the reduction of staff.
I would like to point out that all of the above sentences are grammatically correct, it is just beneficial to your style to know the difference between more spoken and more written forms. That way, you have more variety in your language and can choose the style of writing you wish to use. If you could tell that sentences ‘A’ of the above examples sound less formal, then you already have a feeling for differences in vocabulary when it comes to spoken and written English. English contains more words than any other language, with new words being added to English every single day, thus it is vital to build your vocabulary so that you have a number of ways to express meaning and nuance according to the situation and the relationship you have with the reader.
Another writing tip I would like to share with you is to choose words that are as specific as possible. One way you can do this is by expanding your collocations with an online collocation dictionary. Collocations are words that we use together, like “draw a conclusion” or “chair a meeting”. You can look up any part of speech in the collocation dictionary – verb, noun, adjective or adverb – and find a list of words to use with it.
Learn the formal and informal collocations
Some words have both a formal and informal collocation, and you should be aware of both. For example, you might tell a friend that you were late because you had ‘had’ a meeting, whereas you would write to your supervisor and explain you were late because you had ‘attended’ a meeting. In this illustration, both ‘have’ and ‘attend’ are collocations for the noun ‘meeting’, but one is more spoken, or informal, and the other is more written, or formal.
Check out the collocation dictionary here
Check out the thesaurus (synonym dictionary) here
3. Reserve passive forms for technical or scientific writing.
If you want your reader to stay interested, it is best to keep the passive tense to a minimum. However, there are certain situations that call for the use of the passive tense. Below are five examples of passive sentences and corresponding explanations of why the use of the passive tense is justified:
A wallet was stolen from my office. (To avoid blaming a person)
Students will be honored for their exceptional work. (To emphasize the object, not the actor)
A statue was erected to commemorate the soldiers. (When the actor is unknown or irrelevant)
The sodium hydroxide was dissolved in water. (In scientific papers and reports)
Rules are made to be broken. (To explain general truths)
While proofreading your writing, always ask yourself if the passive tense is necessary. The tendency in writing is to opt for the active tense whenever possible as it makes your writing sound more clear and interesting.
4. Punctuation is IMPORTANT in writing!
I know that punctuation is not the most interesting and exciting subject to study, but I really recommend investing a few minutes to review the basics of English punctuation. It may seem like an immense task, but the rules to basic punctuation are not that complicated. English sentences are at their best when they are short, and it is perfectly fine for each sentence to contain just one idea. For that reason, it is not necessary to write long sentences with several commas. If you have more than one comma in a sentence, ask yourself if you can divide the sentence into two or more separate sentences.
Don’t be afraid of English punctuation rules
Don’t worry, you don’t necessarily have to sit down and memorize all the rules from scratch. Exposure plays a big role in picking up the punctuation. If you spend enough time reading and writing, you will start to notice that English has quite straightforward punctuation rules. Try keeping your sentences short so you can avoid using a lot of punctuation in each sentence. If you feel like short sentences make your writing sound choppy and disconnected, try inserting a few linking words to make your text flow better. We will be discussing these in the next section of this post.
Take a minute to read the rules for using the comma in English writing:
5. Your writing needs sentence and paragraph structure!
Unlike in many other languages, English word order is not flexible. The easiest sentence to read contains a subject followed by a verb and an object. English does not have grammatical markers to indicate whether the noun is a subject or an object; therefore, it is important to follow the English word order rules:
Subject – Verb – Object
Example: This blog post is going to teach you the rules of written English.
Subject= This blog post
Verb= is going to teach
Object = You
Complement = the rules of written English.
Multiple adverbial phrases follow the order: How – Where – When
Example: Your writing skills will improve by 80 % in English class next year.
How = by 80%
Where: in English class
When: next year
If the sentence contains a list of adjectives, the word order takes the following order:
Quantity, opinion, size, age, color, shape, origin, material and purpose
Example: Five amazing little old brown square Japanese wooden tea cups.
Now that we’ve talked about English sentence structure, let’s finish off by discussing the overall structure of your writing. In spoken discourse, we don’t usually follow a strict sentence or paragraph structure. In fact, we often change the topic in mid-sentence and don’t necessarily speak in complete sentences. Obviously, spelling and punctuation are not important aspects of spoken conversation.
That’s not the case with writing. I highly recommend always planning your writing, whether an email or longer essay, by brainstorming ideas and then making an outline. Your plan should include an introduction, the main paragraphs and a conclusion.
Once you have the skeleton of your paper, you can start building on these points. Your paragraphs should start with a topic sentence to introduce your readers to the topic of the paragraph. Then you can fill in each paragraph with the points to back up the topic sentence. Try to keep your sentences short, but link them coherently using transition words. Here are some examples of transitional words and phrases you can use to make your sentences flow nicely:
A final note
By keeping the above tips in mind, your writing will sound more appropriate and professional. You can use this post as a checklist when you give your writing a final check. Ask yourself if you could shorten any of the sentences to make them sound clearer or easier to follow. Could you change the passive to the active voice to make the sentence structure more straight-forward? If a word sounds too general or informal, try using the collocation dictionary or thesaurus to find a more specific once. But, most of all, go easy on yourself. Acquiring a foreign language is process and even native speakers use dictionaries and other tools to choose the right phrases and adjust the writing style to fit the occasion.
I hope these tips and tools will help you on your journey to becoming an amazing writer!