DEPARTMENT OF ACCOUNTING
AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS
UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY
The Graduate Studies
LANGUAGE, GRAMMAR AND QUALITY WRITING
The quality of your English expression
Many students find that their quality of English expression lets them down. This section seeks to
give some guidance.
At the outset, however, remember at least these few common-sense principles:
Keep it simple: Formal writing is not fancy or ornate writing. Say what you have to say with
great clarity and simple sentence structure and the reader will bless you. You do not need fancy
words or style to impress anyone. Stoutly resist the temptation to believe that if you make it hard
to read the reader will think it impressive.
Read it out loud to yourself. If it is too convoluted or stilted to read without embarrassment then
Keep it logical: Plan an outline structure. Plan it so that even when the outline alone is viewed
the reader sees a clear and compelling logical coherence and progression.
Work from the top down: Then flesh out the outline structure with finer detail. If you get a
mental block move over to another section.
Do not write a section without having a single clear Basic-English thought in mind as the
underlying goal of the passage.
Do not use careless, colloquial sentence structure or vocabulary. This is not permissible. Your
language is your tool-box — keep your tools sharp and select the right one for the task. Find the
right word. Do not excuse your laid-back style or word-choice on the grounds that "The reader
or examiner will know what I mean", first because it is your task to say what you mean and
secondly because readers have an incredible capacity to read alternative meanings into your
Learn by reading good examples: good literature and good research papers. Sentence structure is
Revise, revise, revise. Put a paper away and read it two days later. Present the paper in a staff
seminar — you will be astonished how thick the listeners can be. But remember "If the reader
didn't understand the author wasn't clear."
Spelling and grammar matter: master them. Have the paper proof-read by a skilled reader.
Seek help: There are many good books on style, especially for research paper. There are also
experts in the university who offer non-credit courses in English writing. Your supervisors will
alert you to them.
An introduction to grammar1
Grammar describes how a language works. A knowledge of grammar will help you choose and
arrange words to convey the meaning you intend.
Many people believe grammar is a set of fixed, inflexible rules. This attitude frightens some people
away from the subject and encourages pedantry and snobbery in others. Grammar changes as
language changes, but at any time there are generally accepted conventions which should be
A significant portion of the notes which follow on grammar has been adapted from notes issued by the NZ Law
Society's 'Professionals' course.
respected. The goal is not ‘correct’ speech or ‘speech in the style of the best people’ but clear
Ignore the rules of grammar and you will both fail to communicate clearly and lose the respect of
Classification of words
Words are classified according to their role in a sentence.
Nouns: Nouns are naming words; they name things, people, places, activities and processes.
Money, love, incoherence, a limit, humanity, apartheid…
Proper nouns: These label individuals. They are distinguished with a capital letter.
Mauritius, Morris West, Mae West, Devonport…
Pronouns: Pronouns represent or refer to nouns. The replaced noun is called the antecedent of the
Jane lost her cat. It had had kittens. It worried her sick.
Every English listener knows that:
“her” is Jane (twice)
The first “it” is the cat.
The second “it” is the entire situation described in the first sentence.
I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they (subject pronouns)
me, you, him/her/it, us, you, them (object pronouns)
my, your, his/her/its, our, your, their
myself, yourself, etc
Used where the object and subject are the same person
this, that, these, those
who, whom, which, that, whose
Relate nouns to other words
who, whom, which
Used to ask questions
anyone, something, everyone, nothing, another, each, every
Each other, one another
Points to note about pronouns
Personal pronouns and the relative pronouns who and whom change their form
according to whether they function as a subject (doing the action) or an object
(receiving the action):
Who gave it? To whom did you give it?
A relative pronoun should come immediately after the noun to which it refers:
I paid it to the creditor, who was grateful, and
I paid it to the creditor who was most needy
A subtle distinction: Note that the first of these examples makes a comment (comma)
about the creditor. The second identifies which creditor was chosen.
Possessive pronouns such as hers and its do not have apostrophes.
Pronouns should agree with the subject:
A singular subject is replaced by a singular pronoun. Each resident must
clean his or her own room.
A plural subject is replaced by a plural pronoun. All residents must clean
their own rooms.
Verbs: Verbs show actions or states. They are sometimes described as "doing" words.
A sentence needs a main verb. No verb—no sentence.
Present participle is a verb form ending in -ing and it is used to show continuous action eg
He was singing — sleeping, hoping, praying
Past participle is a verb form that shows completed action. The regular form is made by
adding -ed to the verb — hoped, prayed. However, there are many irregular past
participles eg slept, done, given, written.
Participles are used with auxiliary verbs to show mood, tense and voice. The auxiliary verbs
include be, have, will, shall, may and various forms of these words.
Tense tells us the time of the action. The simple tenses are present, past and future. Perfect tenses
refer to completed action and are formed by using the past participle and auxiliary verb
have. Continuous tenses show continuing action and are formed by using the present
participle and the auxiliary verb be.
These tenses are illustrated in the examples below:
I have lived
I am living
I had lived
I was living
I will/shall live
I will/shall have lived
I will/shall be living
The will forms indicate simple futurity. The shall forms indicate strong intention. Will you
come? Indeed I shall come!
Voice: English has two voices: active and passive.
Active: When the subject carries out the action the verb is active. In Helen broke the
window, Helen is the subject and is carrying out the action.
When the subject receives the action the verb is said to be passive.
Passive: For example, in the sentence The window was broken by Helen, the subject is the
window and it is receiving the action or having something done to it. Note that the
sentence will still make sense if the words by Helen are omitted.
The passive voice is formed by using the auxiliary verb be, the past participle of the
main verb and the word "by" (the "be — by" test). The window was broken by
As a matter of good style try to avoid the overuse of the passive voice. Certainly do
not use to try to give a spurious air of remote authority to what you say.
Say We decided . . . rather than A decision was made to . . .
Say Jones argues that . . . rather than It has been argued by Jones that . . .
Mood describes the different verb forms for statements, questions, commands and expressions of
hope, desire or possibility. English uses a great variety of word order and auxiliary particles
to mark the various moods. 2
Declarative (making a statement)
I am the king. Fog is confusing.
Interrogative (asking a question)
Am I the king? Who will be king?
Imperative mood (commanding)
Be a man! Peter, be silent!
Subjunctive mood (here we are dreaming of a counter-factual situation, that is, one which is
not rue but is being supposed to be true.)
If I were king then . . .
Were I the king.
Had I but known. (Archaic)
These subjunctive sentence forms are clear but are starting to fade from the language.
Instead all the weight of conveying the same idea is coming to fall on “if”: If I was king
then . . . Similar changes have definitely befallen the …
Optative mood (expressing a wish)
May rain fall lest we perish.
An infinitive is a verb with to in front of it. E.g. To hit. To exist. To love is to live.
A spilt infinitive occurs where words are inserted between to and the verb, for example,
to suddenly hit or
to duly and punctually pay; or
to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Opinion seems to be divided on the importance of the recent rule (less than two centuries
old) against split infinitives. In spoken English it often seems both natural and clear. In
formal writing it is best to err on the side of caution and avoid split infinitives unless the
need is great. It irritates too many little people.
Points to note about verbs
Participles can have other functions. The present participle can act as a noun, for example
Singing is enjoyable. (When used this way, it is called a gerund.)
Both present and past participles can also act as adjectives, for example: the rising run, the
When using any verb form which requires auxiliary verbs try to keep the auxiliary verb and
main verb as close together as possible. She has spoken abruptly rather than She has
Every sentence must contain a complete verb. Remember that participles cannot act as
complete verbs by themselves. It is ungrammatical to write Being fully in agreement as
Few people today even know these terms let alone how to use them. A loss to everyone! But since the need is still
there the language evolves more roundabout ways of saying the same thing.
though it were a complete sentence. However, Being fully in agreement we passed the
motion, is a complete sentence whose main verb is passed. The words Being fully in
agreement serve (as an adverbial phrase) to describe the manner in which we passed.
The subject and verb in a sentence must agree both in person and in number.
A singular subject needs a singular verb: She is late. She likes Tom.
A compound subject needs a plural verb: Tom and Bill are late. Graham and I are older
than Pam. Note that Graham and me are older than Pam is incorrect because you could
not say Me are older than Pam. (Not without getting some very peculiar looks)
A plural subject needs a plural verb: They are late. Fruit-flies like bananas.
A first person subject needs a first person verb: I am late. We are late.
A third person subject needs a third person verb: She is late. They are late.
Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether the subject is singular or plural, especially when
the subject is a pronoun.
The following are singular: another, each, every, neither, one, and compound pronouns
made with any, every, some and no.
The following are plural: many, few, both, others, several.
Adjectives: Adjectives describe things. They provide additional information about nouns. At
school you may have been encouraged to use adjectives principally to add colour to
your writing and you may now think that adjectives do not have a place in formal
writing and drafting. However, adjectives can be useful, particularly to make a
reference more precise. For example the adjective previous, in the sentence . . .
He had two children from a previous marriage.
Most adjectives should be placed immediately before the noun they qualify.
Adverbs: Adverbs tell us when, where or how something happens. They can modify a verb, or
an adjective or another adverb.
He ran fast.
He is rather lazy.
That is much better.
Fast modifies the verb ran
Rather modifies the adjective lazy
Much modifies the adverb better
This was a very very slowly changing scene slowly modifies changing and very (twice)
modifies slowly. The first very intensifies
the second very.
There are several types of adverbs:
Most words ending in -ly
here, there, everywhere
now, then, always, soon, later
little, less, much, too, nearly, almost
therefore, why, consequently
one, twice, three times
Careful writers often use adverbs to be precise about when, where, or how something will
happen. A badly placed adverb can create ambiguity or convey an unintended meaning. As a
general rule, adverbs, like adjectives, should be placed immediately before the word or
phrase they modify.
Prepositions: Prepositions show the relationship of one thing to another. A fire may be in, near,
behind, under, by or next to a house.
Other examples of prepositions are at, by, onto, inside, among, on account of, by virtue of.
Conjunctions: Conjunctions join words or groups of words. There are two main types; coordinating and subordinate.
Co-ordinating conjunctions include and, but, or, for, so, neither . . . nor, either . . . or, not
only . . . but also.
Co-ordinating conjunctions are used to join words in clauses of the same kind or equal
Subordinate conjunctions are used to introduce subordinate parts of a sentence. There are
many subordinating conjunctions including until, so that, although, unless, since, because,
when before, as long as.
English lacks clear markers to tell the reader which components are being joined by coordinating conjunctions. And can be used to join . . .
adjectives and adverbs
He brought both bat and ball.
She bought and wore that bizarre hat.
He secretly but unsurprisingly brought a red and white ball.
Mabel brought a bat and Tom brought a ball to no-one's
Notice the ambiguity in the last example — does to no-one's surprise apply to Tom's action
alone or to both persons' actions? How can we remove the ambiguity? For no clear reason
the following re-ordering is much less ambiguous: To no-one's surprise Mabel brought a bat
and Tom brought a ball.
It is considered odd and improper to begin a sentence with And. Do it only with caution and
great need. A lovely example is the first word of the novel Lord Valentine's Castle by
And then, after walking all day through a golden haze of humid warmth that gathered
about him like fine wet fleece, Valentine came to a great ridge of outcropping white
stone overlooking the city of Pudruid. It was the provincial capital, sprawling and
splendid, the biggest city he had come upon since — since? — the biggest on a long
while of wandering, at any rate.
A novel beginning with And? Later the reader realises that Valentine was already in the
middle of an adventure, but central to the novel is the fact that his memories had been
Subject, verb, object.
The simplest sentences consists of a subject and a finite verb, for example, The dog barked.
The subject is the person or thing carrying out the action, in this case, the dog. The verb
barked describes the action.3
Oh very well—even simpler are imperative sentences: Go! Tom, stop! Help!
A sentence may also contain an object, that is a person or thing affected by the action; The
child broke the window. Here, the window is the object.
In English the usual word order (for the declarative mood) is subject, verb, object. Try to
maintain this order and try to keep them together if possible. Qualifying information can be
shifted to the beginning or the end of the sentence.
Sentences are made up of phrases and clauses.
A phrase is a group of words which does not make sense by itself and which does not
contain a finite verb. There are several types of phrase.
A noun phrase behaves like a noun. In the sentence Studying law is demanding, the phrase
studying law acts as a noun.
An adjectival phrase acts as an adjective, for example, in Wellington, on the first day of the
An adverbial phrase acts as an adverb.
Points to note about phrases:
Phrases usually modify or give added meaning to other words in a sentence. It is most
important to keep modifying words as close as possible to the words that they modify.
Humour is the common result of placing a phrase in the wrong place: We have a piano for
sale owned by a lady with carved legs
A clause contains a subject and a finite verb and often other words as well.
A main clause can stand on its own as a simple sentence. John has caught rabies.
A dependent clause cannot stand alone as a sentence. The cat sat on the mat while it waited
for its dinner. In this sentence the cat sat on the mat is the main clause and the remaining
words are a dependent clause.
Clauses can also be classified as noun clauses, adjective clauses and adverbial clauses and
function as nouns, adjectives and adverbs respectively.
A relative clause begins with a relative pronoun and modifies the noun preceding it.
There are two types of relative clauses: restrictive and non-restrictive.
A restrictive relative clause provides essential information or identification and should not
be separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.
I have lost the book that I borrowed.
The words that I borrowed identifies which book is meant.
A non-restrictive relative clause adds non essential information and should be separated
from the rest of the sentence by commas.
The Smith file, which I opened yesterday, is with my secretary.
Here the words between the commas are not necessary to identify the file and are separated
from the rest of the sentence by commas. Remember, "Clauses which make comments are
marked off by commas."
A simple sentence consists of one main clause:
I was running late.
A compound sentence consists of two or more main clauses joined by a co-ordinating
I was running late so I took a taxi.
I was running late but I waited for a taxi.
I was running late and I had ladders in all my panty-hose.
A complex sentence consists of a main clause and one or more dependent clauses:
I took a taxi because I was running late.
A compound/complex sentence contains two or more main clauses and two or more
I was running late so I took a taxi which got there just in time.
Points to note about sentences.
A sentence should be limited to one main thought.
Although you are advised to keep your sentences short, this does not mean you are
limited to simple sentences. You can link ideas and improve the flow of your writing
by using a variety of sentence structure. Varying the length of sentences can be very
effective. When in doubt make your sentences shorter.
Use a conjunction, not a comma, to join two main clauses. Use the conjunction which
captures the relationship between the ideas: I was running late although I took a taxi
If you start a sentence with a dependent clause, or phrase you will need to separate it
from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Although I took a taxi, I was running late.
Paragraphs are just larger units of thought. Vary their length. Mark a move to a new idea
with a new paragraph.
A note on quote marks
Graduates ask for guidance on the use of quotation marks in theses and papers. The best answers
come from style books like Strunk's, Elements of Style. However, here is a brief guide:
Speech quotes (also known as double quotes) " . . . " or “ . . . ”.
These are always used as the first preference for quoted speech. For example:
A noted authority recently said "These are always used as the first preference for quoted
By extension, they are also used as a first preference to mark a quoted passage.
(a) "If the transistors are connected together in an improper order then expect smoke from
the rear of the computer. Evil things will happen to your files."
(b) Alternatively, one may use indentation from both sides as a device to display the
quoted status. The example below shows that alternate choice.
If the transistors are connected together in an improper order then smoke can be
expected from the rear of the computer and evil things will happen to your files.
If one is following method (2a) and the quoted passage itself contains speech then embed the
inner speech within single quotes. "A noted authority recently said 'Let there be quotes' not
'Let there be goats'."
Simple quotes ' . . . '.
Strictly used, these are only used to make a distinction which a philosopher calls a use-mention
distinction. Here are two examples:
A lion is a mammal. The lion is found all over Africa.
[This is the use of the word].
'lion' is a four-letter word. 'lion' comes after 'liana'.
[This is the mention of the word].
Speech quotes are seldom misused.
But single quotes are often mis-used. One common improper use is to single out a term for
emphasis. If we re-write the last leonine example like thus . . .
'lion' is a four-letter word. 'lion' comes after 'liana'.
[This is the 'mention' of the word].
. . . then we see how putting quotes around 'mention' obscures the use-mention distinction.
A grey area — the use of single quotes for drawing attention to first usage.
When an author is introducing key-terms for the first time4 in the course of running text he or she
often wishes to alert the reader to their special status. One may read a passage like:
It is our contention that 'transubstantiation' is not the operative process. Instead a mixture of
'teleology' and 'miscegenation' interact to produce 'heptarchy'. We shall proceed to
This is acceptable. Here we can see that these words are being both used and mentioned
As an alternative one might seek a different high-lighting device and either under-line or italicise
words in question. The passage becomes:
It is our contention that transubstantiation is not the operative process. Instead a mixture of
teleology and miscegenation interact to produce heptarchy. We shall proceed to demonstrate
Improper use as horror quotes
Horror quotes are best illustrated with examples. Consider these two:
An good example of a redundant or tautological expression. “for the first time” is unnecessary—how else could you
introduce a term except for the first time?
"A lion is a mammal. The lion is 'found' all over Africa. "
"The essence of the feminist 'deconstructivist' thesis is that 'language' is 'used' within a mainly
male environment to 'control' women's 'bodies'."
Printers and editors call these usages instances of horror quotes. The reader senses that author is
seeking to extend the meaning of each such term beyond its conventional understanding. But she
has great trouble inferring just what extension is intended. The lion is not found but is 'found'.
What was really meant: chased?, — bred?, — met by chance? Men don't control women's 'bodies'
but their: lives?, — decisions?, — families?
Faced with 'bodies' in horror quotes the reader concludes correctly that the author was either wordpoor or was too lazy or too confused to expand it into a clearer phrase.
There may be rare occasions on which horror quotes can be the most effective way of
communicating but they are usually intrusive to the reader.
Advice: If you are tempted to use horror quotes then first ask yourself three questions:
(a) Am I placing quotes around this term because I am not clear what I mean?
(b) Would the reader be any clearer than I seem to be?
(c) Is there a clear and rigorous phrase which I can substitute?
The mis-use of apostrophes causes anguish to the educated. Since you are trying to join their ranks
why not get apostrophes correct from the outset?
Use an apostrophe to denote possession:
John's book. (In English this was once John his book.)
The boy's collar. (One boy.)
The boys' bat. (Several boys own one bat.)
Then we have some words with odd plurals and some word ending in s which need special
A woman's dreams. Women's dreams.
Jesus' crucifixion. The church's foundation. The churches' foundations.
Use an apostrophe to denote omission:
I won't come. You can't go. You shan't pass.
Its and it's: Now we are prepared to meet this horrible pair.
Its without an apostrophe is a possessive pronoun like our his her (see above.) For
example, Its meaning is plain for all to see. This means The meaning of it…
It's with an apostrophe is an abbreviation for it is. For example: It's time we moved on.
Poor spelling is both irritating and a cause of misunderstandings. Constant, wide and attentive
reading is the answer. Computer spelling checkers cannot distinguish between homophones, such as
there and their and they're.
There are a number of homophones to be especially wary of. One such pair is . . .
principal, which means important or major, as in
The principal cause of death is cessation of the heartbeat, or
Big Al was the school principal,
principle, which means a rule, a guideline or a law, as in
The principles of ethics should guide everything that we do.
Fun with 'However'
However is the most mis-used word in student essays. Its meaning is often changed from the
writer's intentions by mis-punctuation.
The sentence He failed to hit the target however he tried. Means that he failed no matter what
technique he used — no matter how.
The sentence He failed to hit the target. However, he tried. means that he failed but nevertheless
he deserves credit for attempting. Note the comma after however.
Consider the sentence William, however, was crowned king in due course. Note the commas
surrounding however. Compare it to William was not to be crowned however hard he pleaded. Note
the lack of commas.