Writing E-Tips
August 2005   
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"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."

-- Ludwig Wittgenstein

Avoiding Ambiguous Wording, Part III

Avoiding Nonstandard English

     Standard English is the language used according to its rules. It's the language of businesses, media, and educational institutions. Sometimes nonstandard English is acceptable, even appropriate, such as in casual conversations and fiction writing. For formal writing and speech, however, avoid the following pitfalls.


Slang is language that has meaning only within a particular group. Because of its specific nature, slang changes constantly, and can be confusing to the uninitiated.

Slang: During this morning's meeting, Al got very ticked off.
Standard English: During this morning's meeting, Al got very angry.


Colloquialisms are the most informal use of the language. They are usually found in casual conversations.

Colloquialisms: My supervisor is really into hockey and hits the ice on weekends.
Standard English: My supervisor enjoys hockey and plays on weekends.


Colloquialisms include idioms. These colorful phrases are often confusing to someone unfamiliar with the language. Read the following paragraph and try to imagine what it might mean to someone who knows English only as a second language.

Thanks for the heads up. It appears that Len has some kind of chip on his shoulder or an axe to grind. It further appears his supervisor has his head in the sand, so I appreciate your ability to keep your nose to the grindstone during this trying time. I will try to sift out the chaff over the weekend and come to a plausible solution.

To someone who looks at the language literally, the idiomatic phrases create a very confusing picture. Avoid using idioms, especially when dealing with a multicultural audience.


Avoid using the phrases "off of" or "from off."

Incorrect: We got the books from off those shelves.
Correct: We got the books from those shelves.

The phrase "up on" can sometimes cause redundancy, as it does in the following example.

Incorrect: Put this file up on top of the cabinet.
Correct: Put this file on top of the cabinet.


Avoid making this substitution.

Incorrect: Please try and find all the statistics on that project.
Correct: Please try to find all the statistics on that project.


You know that old phrase "two negatives make a positive"? Technically, it's true, but it can confuse the reader.

Double Negative: She was speaking so softly I didn't hardly hear a word she said. (The double negative makes it sound like you did hear what she said.)
Correct: She was speaking so softly I didn't hear a word she said.
OR     She was speaking so softly I hardly heard a word she said.

Be especially careful if your negatives are separated by other words or phrases.

Incorrect: I don't believe none of those solutions are adequate.
(It sounds like you do believe one or more of the solutions are adequate.)
Correct: I don't believe any of those solutions are adequate.
OR      I believe none of those solutions are adequate.


  • Do not put statements in the negative form.
  • And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
  • If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great
    deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
  • Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
  • Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
  • If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
  • Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  • Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.

---William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"

The preceding tips are from
Write for Business:
A Compact Guide to Writing
and Communicating

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The Power of Punctuation, Part I"

Write for Business: A Compact Guide to Writing and Communicating
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