Better Writing Guide

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Better Writing Study Guide
©2004 Michael Krigline, M.A. (revised November 2004)

I see the following mistakes OVER AND OVER on student papers. Many students can dramatically improve their English level by just learning the things on these few pages! The sooner you learn to avoid these common problems, the sooner you can concentrate on “higher” language concerns!

(Note: Some of the links to and from this page no longer work, but it still has lots of valuable information. Use a "find" command [ctrl+f] to search for what you need. This resource was extensively revised and edited before being put into my 2008 textbook: Successful Writing for the Real World. There, you'll also find exercises, corrections, charts, and much more information. Of course, English grammar has plenty of "exceptions", so if your English teacher tells you something different, listen to him/her!)   (Teachers: click to see our Website Standards and Use Policy)




A connective joins phrases, clauses and sentences. The most common connectives are various conjunctions. The question is: Which connective will keep the reader moving forward, while communicating the right impression?

■ Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet and so) are often misused when forming compound sentences. A compound sentence has a subject and verb both before and after the conjunction, but the sentence still needs a single focus. When you find that using “and” creates a compound sentence, ask yourself: “What is the MAIN idea of this sentence?” If you have to use the word “and” in your answer, then rewrite it as two sentences!

■ Another hint is that your sentences should be able to be read aloud in one breath. If you create a complex compound sentence by combining two medium-length sentences, that can become hard to do! Try to rewrite it, or at least put a comma before the conjunction to help the reader.


±    My father was strict at home, and students said he was tough and stern in the classroom. (Main idea: “He was demanding”—so it’s a good compound sentence.)

±    My uncle was a pilot, and my brother was fun to be around. (Main idea: you can’t say it without “and” so it should be rewritten!)

±    Sue tells me stories about herself and her sister Sally also likes to talk about her. (This is OK—idea: I hear a lot about Sue—but if the clauses get much longer, the reader can run out of breath or get lost!) BETTER: Sue tells me stories about herself, and her sister Sally also likes to talk about her.

Traditional teachers say “Don’t start a written sentence with And,” but many English publications now ignore this rule. Normally, you should try to rewrite “And” sentences with “…also…” (this sounds much better). However, if you MUST start with “And” be sure the sentence does one of two things: (1) adds special emphasis (e.g., He said to get out. And he meant it!), or (2) introduces a new aspect of the discussion (e.g., Dogs are dangerous. They can bite people or spread disease. And dogs are expensive. In Wahala there is a $300 tax if you own a dog.)

Sentences starting with “Because” are also usually wrong (though “Because of” is acceptable). In addition, try not to start sentences with “But” very often (use it as a clause after whatever you are contrasting, and start contrastive sentences with “However, …”). RIGHT: There were many dogs but they were quiet. NOT: There were many dogs. But they were quiet.  RIGHT: They eat a lot because they like eating. or Because of their eating habits, they eat a lot. NOT: They eat a lot. Because they like eating. or Because of they like eating, they eat a lot.

Avoid “So” when starting sentences, unless you are informally describing a consequence (“So” is followed by a comma and thus a pause). When you write, don’t use “so + adj” when you mean “very + adj.” e.g., I am SO sorry (this is fine when you are speaking to a friend!). It is OK to use “so + adj. + THAT” if you offer an explanation (e.g., “…so tall that he must bend to enter the room”). Don’t write: “So I love her”  Write: “She is a wonderful mother so I love her.” (OR)  “…mother. Because of this, I will love her forever.” At the end of an informal paragraph you can write: “…we had waited for hours. So, they all went away angry.”

Examples using but, because and so:

±    There were many dogs but they were quiet.

±    NOT: There were many dogs. But they were quiet. 

±    They eat a lot because they like eating. or Because of their eating habits, they eat a lot.

±    AVOID: Because of they like eating, they eat a lot. (Put the subject first unless you are stressing the reason.)

±    NOT: They eat a lot. Because they like eating.

±    Don’t write: “So I love her”  Write: “She is so very wonderful so I love her.” (OR)  “She is a great mother. Because of this, I will love her forever.”

±    (informal, at the end of a paragraph): “…we had waited for hours. So, they all went away angry.”

±    His girlfriend is VERY pretty. NOT: She is SO pretty.

±    My girlfriend is so pretty that the flowers feel inferior!

■ Use IN ADDITION or FURTHERMORE to indicate that you are adding a new point. BESIDES means more of the same, or indicates that what is about to be said ties logically into what has already been said. In addition and besides are NOT interchangeable, even though they sometimes can be used in the same way! Besides and what’s more are interchangeable, though what’s more is particularly informal (I advise students to avoid it when writing). (Also note that "beside" does not have an "s" when it is used as a preposition meaning “next to”; e.g., beside the bed.)

Examples of Besides/In addition:

±    He likes to study. Besides/In addition, he does well on tests when he studies hard.

±    He likes to study. In addition, he likes to play football.

±    NOT: He likes to study. Besides, he likes to play football.

“Finally” ≠ “at last” ≠ “in conclusion.” In conclusion concludes, finally gives the final step or point, at last means “after a long time or delay.” (“At last” usually ends a sentence, the others begin.) These terms are NOT interchangeable! Similarly, “in short” is more informal than “in conclusion” or “finally,” and “in a word” is extremely informal; you might find them in a casual review or product description aimed at young people, but not in academic or journalistic writing.

Examples of In conclusion/Finally/at last/In short:

±    In conclusion, students will find use of connectives easier if they remember the subtle differences between terms that sound the same.

±    NOT: Finally, students will find use of connectives…

±    Finally, after completing all the other steps, you close the casing with the special screw provided.

±    NOT: In conclusion, after completing all the other steps…

±    NOT: At last, after completing all the other steps…

±    After three months of delays, the project was completed at last! (or …delays, at last the project was completed! In either case, you are emphasizes the long delay involved.)

±    After three months of delays, the project was finally completed.  (NOT: …the project was completed finally!)

±    In short, this is their best rock CD in years! (Depending on the context, this sentence might be too informal to start with in conclusion.)


ARTICLES: THE/ A/ AN (NOTE: Articles give English learners A LOT of trouble, even after YEARS of study. Hopefully these complicated but general guidelines will help, even though there are exceptions!)

■ Articles give your readers information about nouns. Three questions will help you to know which article to use, if any: (1) What kind of noun is it: proper, collective, or regular? (2) Does the noun refer to something specific or general? (3) Is the noun countable (singular or plural) or uncountable?  “The” tells me that a noun is specific in some way, but it is not a singular proper noun. “A/an” tells me you are thinking of one thing, but not one specific thing. The absence of an article tells me it is a plural, uncountable or proper noun (but not a collective). FOR A SIMPLIFIED CHART, CLICK HERE!

Terminology: “The” is the only definite article in English; it comes before a specific noun (or something acting as a noun)—something the reader knows about. “A” and “an” are indefinite articles; they refer to things in a less specific way, but still tell readers that there is only one.

(1) What kind of noun is it: collective, proper or something else?

■ 1.1. Collective nouns (in their singular form) need an article or possessive pronoun. Collective nouns represent a group of related people or things that is thought of as a single unit (e.g., a family is, the leadership is, the United States is, the rich are—these are respectively common, generic, proper and adjectival collective nouns). COMMON collective nouns can be used with definite or indefinite articles, and they can also be used as countable nouns (a family is, the family is, my family is, three families are). All other collective nouns require “the.”

■ 1.2. Proper singular and plural nouns DO NOT need an article when used in the general sense. This includes proper nouns that take a singular verb tense (including the following—which you may not have thought of as being “singular”): languages, continents, one-day holidays*, universities and their initials, less expensive public places (vs. expensive ones considered as collective nouns), lakes, harbors, magazines, and a few collective nouns (or their abbreviations) that have become proper names through extensive use (these are mostly governing bodies that issue news announcements, and the initials of media companies). (*The use of articles and verb tenses will change, depending on whether you consider holidays as one-day proper nouns or as multiple-day festivals.)

±    Plural proper names. Nikes, Cokes, Senators Bill and Sam Lee, the Alps

±    Singular proper names. Mount Tai, Central Park, Michael, Lin Tao, China, Shanghai, Germany, German (e.g., she speaks German and Chinese—see below for “people groups”), Asia, Christmas, National Day, Beijing University, NPU, UCLA, McDonalds, Days Inn, West Lake, Boston Harbor, Newsweek (Magazine), Congress, Parliament, City Council, CNN, NBC, NASA, UNESCO

■ 1.3. People groups that end in “s” DO NOT need a definite article.

±    People groups (that end in “s”): Africans, Americans, Asians, Australians, Brazilians, Chinese-Americans, Filipinos, Germans, Indians, Kazaks, Koreans, Mexicans, Russians, Swedes (or the Swedish), Republicans, Communists, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, etc.

±    People groups (that don’t end in “s”, and therefore need “the”): the Chinese, the British, the French, the Japanese, the Spanish, the Vietnamese, the Hui (Minority), etc.

(2) Does the noun refer to something specific? 

■ 2.1. Use “a” or “an” if the noun is singular but NOT specific. “An” comes before nouns that start with a vowel sound; “a” is for all other nouns. Remember that almost all proper nouns or proper collective nouns can be used to mean “one of many”—see the example below—but such usage is relatively rare. If used correctly, you can substitute “one/any + noun + of many” for an indefinite article (“a” or “an”).

±    A student can learn to give a speech (any one of many unspecified students or speeches).

±    An ant is strong for its size. (i.e., any one unspecified ant of many)

±    I remember a Christmas years ago, when, according to a Times article, a Santa at a nearby mall bit a child! (i.e., on one of many Christmases, one of many articles in the Times said one of many “Santas” at one of many malls bit an unspecified child!)

±    A father or a mother (either unspecified parent) can meet a child after school (any child of the many there).

■ 2.2. Use “the” if you are specifying ALL members of a set. Such sentences use a singular verb form (“the+ noun+ is”) to indicate the entire species, social entity, institutions, and so forth.

±    A father or a mother can be the head of the family. (i.e., Any individual/unspecified father or mother can be the one and only entity serving as “head” of the general institution—or collective—called “family.”)

±    Considering its size, the ant is a strong animal. (i.e., The ant species is one of many strong kinds of animals.)

±    The rich should care for the poor, and the strong should protect the weak. (i.e., the social entities of all rich, poor, strong and weak people, considered collectively)

■ 2.3. Use “the” if you are talking about something specific that your reader knows about. Readers may understand what you are talking about because of the context, contrast, culture or setting, but the point is that readers DO KNOW which specific thing you are talking about! If used correctly, you can often substitute “the only + noun” for a definite articles (“the”).

±    2.3a. Context  (you already mentioned something, or the reader/listener can see it)

w     My glass is red. The glass is new. (The only glass I previously mentioned is new.)

w     The glass on the table is red. (i.e., the only glass on the only table--reader knows there is only one glass and one table, because you have told them elsewhere, or because they can see a picture)

±    2.3b. Contrast (you are speaking of one specific thing in contrast to something similar or “one of many” in the general sense—including a contrast indicated by the emphatic phrase “the ___ of + noun,” which is commonly used to describe something abstract in a poetic or emotional way)

w     Bill is the president of our English Club, not just a leader. (i.e., he is the only president—not just “one of many” leaders).

w     The water in my glass is dirty. (i.e., the only water in my glass, in contrast to water somewhere or everywhere else—notice that “water” is uncountable, but when you are being specific, it still need “the.”)

w     People often suffer the pain of war along the path to peace. (i.e., pain and path in contrast to other uncountable pain and other countable paths)

±    2.3c. Culture or setting (everyone in the reader’s culture or setting knows what this specific thing is, or shares it in some way—such as seasons, decades, or the local Metro system or football team)  

w     If the team wins today, there is hope for the season, and that will make the university proud.  (i.e., the only team and university that readers in this setting are expecting you to write about, and the only sports season underway)

w     The moon is full and the night is young. (i.e., the only moon and night shared by this culture at this moment, as opposed to other moons around other planets and other nights of the year)

(3) Is the noun countable (singular or plural) or uncountable?

Singular countable nouns and collective nouns need an article. Whether you use a definite or indefinite article depends on specificity (see above). Uncountable nouns and plural countable nouns DO NOT need an article (when used in a general sense). However, specificity rules are stronger, so uncountable and plural nouns DO use “the” when used in a specific sense. (Also be careful because many nouns can be both countable and uncountable!)

±    The Conductors are not happy without an orchestra and an audience. (conductors is unspecified and plural; orchestra and audience are unspecified collectives)

±    The Pilots feel lost without the luggage and a crew. (The luggage contains their uniforms!) (pilots is unspecified and plural; luggage is uncountable; crew is an unspecified collective; luggage in the second sentence is previously mentioned, i.e., specific)

±    The Glasses break easily when they fall from the tables. (The reader doesn’t know how many glasses or tables, and an English reader won’t know if you mean 眼镜 or 玻璃杯.)

±    The Water is precious and so is the time. The Glass and the plastic are cheap, but the oil can be expensive. (uncountable nouns)

±    The Tea is a popular drink in China, which is famous for the green teas it produces. The tea from Hangzhou is popular worldwide. (Here “tea” is first uncountable, then countable, then contrasted with tea made elsewhere!)

(4) Special cases and reminders

■ 4.1. You can omit articles when talking about home, school, work, church or campus, even though these are specific places that your reader knows about. (NOTE: The British add hospital to this list.) These five nouns are often used in collocation with certain prepositions, so the best thing to do is just memorize them as exceptions to the “normal” article rules. Special collocation notes: To emphasize that you mean one (specific or “one of many”) campus, school or church, you can write things like “on the campus” or “at a school.” However, native speakers say “at the office” not “at the work.” “The + work” refers to an action or activity. Similarly, “a/the + home” does not refer to the place you live, it refers to an institution for orphans, senior citizens, or some other special group.

±    He goes to the home after being at/in the school all day.

±    He returned to his dorm after studying on the campus.

±    She will be at the work until 5 P.M., and then she will stop by the campus to see a friend.

±    Dad teaches at a school and Mom works on the same campus. (Here, your reader does not know which school, but learns that both parents work at a single school.)

±    Jim works at a home and says the work is rewarding. (i.e., the activities related to his job at an institution/home for orphans, handicapped people, etc.)

■ 4.2. DO NOT use articles with BY + a form of transportation or communication. (With on or in, follow rule 3 above. See appendix E for collocation information.)

±    He came to the home by the bus, not by the car.

±    He came to the campus in/on a bus, not in a car.

±    He found out by the phone that she would soon be at the home.

±    Her acceptance letter to the Harvard came by the fax.

■ 4.3. DO NOT use articles with the NAMES OF SPORTS or ACADEMIC SUBJECTS.

±    He Qing plays the ping-pong on the ping-pong team. (Sometimes Ping-pong is used as a proper noun for the table tennis; the + adj. + team is correct—see 2.3 b & c.)

±    Jin Lei is taking the English, the math, and the engineering. His major is the Engineering. He is an engineering major. (i.e., “one of many” students with this major; notice the capitalization for school subjects, the proper names of classes, and academic majors.)

■ 4.4. Possessive pronouns and the number one can take the place of an article (e.g., his paper, one paper).

■ 4.5. Don’t forget articles in front of your adjectives (including company names); e.g., The Legend Corporation is a leading company.



Avoid putting a prepositional phrase at the start of a sentence unless it is a time phrase. “On the left is a bed” is not as standard as “A bed is on the left,” but these are fine: “After the game, we went out” and “We went out after the game.” It is OK to use a prepositional phrase before the verb if it modifies the subject or is crucial to understanding the sentence. e.g., The photo on the left was taken in Shanghai. (Also see the note above about "beside.")

Avoid stacking prepositional phrases next to each other. NOT: …opened BY the authorities ON campus ON May 10 FOR students… (Find a way to re-write such things.)

Instead of using a prepositional phrase, use nouns as adjectives and use possessives when you can. e.g., “China’s flag” is better than “the flag of China.” Instead of “my friends at NWPU” and “examination of postgraduate studies,” write “my NWPU friends” and “postgraduate examination.” (“They met my friends of NWPU” is wrong. “They met my friends at NPU” is correct, but means something different from “They met my friends from NPU”; if you use these constructions be sure you know the difference!)

■ For the sake of the reader, avoid putting prepositional phrases between a verb and the adverb that modifies it (esp. if you are using more than one prep phrase). “He walked slowly down the street” is better than “He walked down the street slowly,” for the same reason that you do NOT want to write:  “He walked to the south with his best friend along Hickory Street slowly.” However, a noun should come between a verb and the adverb that modifies it! Write: “He walked the bike slowly,” not “He walked slowly the bike.”

■ Here is how Americans use prepositions related to school and the Internet:

   NOT: I study in NWPU. I am a student on / of NWPU. I graduated from the English Department.

   I study/ This happened/ Students did this/ I am a student…

                                           …ON campus/ AT NWPU/ AT the university/ IN the English Department

   Seniors will graduate/ I graduated…     …FROM NWPU/ FROM the university

   Do this/ Find this/ This is located…       …ON our website/ AT our website/ AT

   Go /Come…                                          …TO our website/ TO INTO our website



CAPITALIZATION is not optional! All proper nouns are capitalized: e.g., Chinese, New Year’s Eve, Spring Festival and Zhang Lin. Sentences and questions always begin with a capital letter, too. A.M. and P.M. are capitalized. Many writers think “the Internet” should also be capitalized. For “province”: Li-li was from Jiang-su Province, not the province of Hu-nan. (Jiangsu and Hunan are also OK, but I think the hyphen helps those who do not understand Chinese.)

■ In TITLES, capitalize the first and last words, important words, and prepositions bigger than four letters. Titles of books, works of art, operas, movies, TV shows and magazines are underlined or typed in italics, while songs, articles and poems are set in “quotes.” Course titles are simply capitalized. e.g., Our Western Movies class watched Ben Hur, which won 11 Oscars® in 1959. Sue’s favorite song is “Country Roads.”

A PARAGRAPH is made up of at least two sentences that are logically connected. (Exception: in newspaper writing, a paragraph is often a single sentence.) Separate your paragraphs with a space between them or by INDENTING (starting the first sentence 1.3 cm or 0.5 inches from the left margin).




AGREEMENT. Don’t mix present and past tense verbs in a sentence or question (although these can be mixed with –ing verbs or infinitives). Nouns must agree with the verbs in a sentence (be careful if you use “and”!). Your pronouns must also agree with the subject (and each other) unless it is clear why they don’t. e.g., After they lost, Al and Bill sat thinking and watching. NOT: After he loses, Al and Bill sat thinking and watched. He was a handsome man and loving dad, and he spoke Thai. (NOT: He was a handsome man, loving dad, and spoke Thai. –WAS must agree with man, dad and spoke—but it doesn’t!) I sat at the table and looked at a book. (OR)  I sat at the table to look at a book. (NOT: I sit and looked at the book.) Tom sat at the table by his bed. (NOT: Tom sat at the table by her bedunless the reader knows who Tom is with!) Tom sat at the table by our window. (only OK if reader knows the window is yours or “yours and Tom’s”)

■ Since “our” is plural, the noun after it should usually be plural unless it is shared by the people “our” refers to. e.g., Not “our life” but “our lives;” “our home” means that the essay is about you and the others who live there—otherwise use “our homes.” Note: many contemporary writers ignore this rule.

■ A Pronoun refers to what was just before it (whether before a comma, colon, semi-colon or period). e.g., I had a party. It was fun. There was a table; it had a cake. It was not big. THIS MEANS that the party was fun, the table had a cake, and the cake was not big; but your reader may wonder if you meant that the party or the table was not big, so avoid too many pronouns!



LATER means “after the time clearly stated,” not simply “in the future.” Fred graduates this June and I will graduate two years later (i.e., two year after Fred). My friend is in college now. I will go two years later (i.e., I will go two years from now).  Two years later I will go to graduate school. This sentence can NOT start an essay since the present perspective is not stated. Instead, write “I will go… two years from now” or “I will go… in two years.”

WISH and HOPE. In general, we WISH (+ past tense verb—often COULD) for things that we really do NOT expect to get/do. e.g., I WISH I could go to Beijing University (but that is not likely). I WISH you were smarter (this is an insult, implying that the listener is stupid). I WISH I had more money (but I don’t). We wish others (without a verb) something good. e.g., I WISH hope you the good luck(s). Lucky money is given by parents to WISH their children a good New Year and good health all the year long. We HOPE (+ present tense verb—often CAN) for good things that may come true. e.g., I HOPE I can pass the entrance examination (and I am studying hard so I can do my best). She HOPES her son can come home for Spring Festival (and he says he will try). Parents HOPE their children remain healthy all year. I HOPE you have good luck at your new job.

Using WILL can make the reader think you are ONLY talking about the future. Use the present tense for annual, continuous or automatic things in the present AND future. e.g., This website will offer you free greeting cards. (This can mean they DO NOT offer these NOW.) This website offers you free greeting cards (i.e., cards are offered now AND in the future). We will receive a red envelope every New Year’s Eve.

CAN/ COULD. Can & Could are sometimes interchangeable as modals (to indicate a degree of certainty). (e.g., We COULD go to the beach—maybe; We MIGHT go to the beach—probably; We CAN go to the beach—certainly possible). But COULD also serves as the PAST tense of CAN. Last year they COULD make a profit selling shoes, but this year they CAN not because the market is flooded. I COULD play the trumpet in high school (but then I quit playing when I got to college).  (Also see WISH/HOPE above!)


LEARN/ STUDY/ KNOW are often confused and misused. Each has a different (and difficult to explain!) focus. Maybe this will help. (Chinese uses for these terms can differ from the English usage, so be careful!)

“To learn” is to acquire knowledge or information (the stress is on getting information, not on the effort needed to do so). Note that we don’t “learn” knowledge; we gain or acquire it. e.g., I watch TV to study learn some useful things. (Just by casually watching I can pick up information.) I can know learn about the world on the Internet. (I gain information, but do not “know” the world in a complete sense—see below.) By reading I can know learn about people’s thoughts. (I cannot read minds, so I do not “know” people’s thoughts, but by gaining information I can guess well.) This booklet helped me learn what to do in an emergency. (implies that the booklet taught you something useful)

■ In general, “learned” (past tense) implies completeness or mastery, and “learning” refers to gaining a large degree of understanding (mastery through considerable time and effort). e.g., I learned basic Math in elementary school. (This implies that you mastered it.) I am learning English this afternoon semester. (You can’t acquire much English in ONE afternoon, so “studying” would be better for such a specific time; but you CAN acquire a lot of English knowledge in a semester.) I am learning how to drive a car. (You cannot do this in one day!) I am learning how to write in English. (This stresses the process of gaining competence.)

■ To “study” means to put effort into becoming better at using something or to gain a deeper understanding of a subject. e.g., I learned studied English in High School. (This implies that you worked on your English ability; you can’t use “learned” unless you are now fluent.) I study the piano. (This implies that you are working to learn how to play the piano.) I am learning studying English this afternoon. He learns studies football every weekend. (He is not just playing or getting information about it!)  Do not say: “I learned English during the break.” (Say you “studied English” because you put in effort but you are still not completely FLUENT in the English language!) ALSO NOTE that STUDIES (as a noun in an academic sense) is usually plural (“He works at his STUDIES”).

“To know” something implies an intimate or complete knowledge, or implies certainty. e.g., I would know my father’s yell from a block away! We have known each other for years! By reading all his books I came to know how the author felt about violence. You think you understand but I know I understand! This booklet helped me know what to do in an emergency. (This implies that you deeply understand the information.)

■ If you include a time phrase (to show that considerable time went in), you can sometimes bend these “rules.” e.g. (both options are ok), I studied/learned English for two years in America. I have been learning/studying English for three years. (Frankly, “studied” is still preferred in the first sentence, and “studying English” sounds better than “learning English.”)

Similarly, TOLD and TAUGHT are often confused. Your Dad told you to avoid strangers (implies a spoken instruction or advice). Your Dad taught you to be honest and to study hard (implies habits or characteristics he encouraged, probably by example as much as words). In the previous two sentences, told/taught can be exchanged, but the implication changes. However, in the following you can NOT interchange the words (unless Dad helped you to memorize stories and explained the meanings to you). He taught you honesty (a characteristic). He told you stories (something he said).



■ “For example/for instance” is a conjunctive adverbial (which makes its position rather flexible). When it is used to introduce an explanation (i.e., an independent clause), it can even begin a sentence (in which case a comma follows it). When “for example/for instance” introduces a list (i.e., an explanatory dependent clause) it cannot begin a sentence (and a colon or long dash must separate the dependent clause from the main clause).

■ “Such as” is really a complex preposition, and it can only be used to introduce a list (a comma does not automatically precede it—it depends on its placement as a preposition in the sentence—and no punctuation comes between “such as” and the nouns); “such as” cannot start a sentence.

■ Since “for example” and “such as” introduce incomplete lists, using “and so on” or “etc.” at the end of the sentence is redundant.       (Note that “etc.” needs only one period at the end of a sentence.)

IMPORTANT: Notice how the punctuation is different in the following examples.

±    We liked ice cream a lot. For example, when we left school we always bought some.

±    We liked ice cream a lot; for example, when we left school we always bought some.

±    We liked ice cream a lot. When we left school, for example, we always bought some.

±    We liked ice cream a lot. When we left school we always bought some, for example.

(Generally, the weakest way to use conjunctive adverbials is at the end of a sentence.)

±    It contains many ingredients: for example, wheat, oats and oil.

±    It contains many ingredients—wheat, oats and oil, for example.

±    It contains many ingredients, such as wheat, oats and oil. Ingredients such as wheat…are essential.

±    It contains many ingredients: wheat, oats, oil, etc.          

±    Wheat, oats, oil, etc., are all main ingredients.

±     It contains many important ingredients, such as: wheat, oats, oil and so on.


MANY/ MUCH/ ANY/ A LOT OF:  MANY can be used with countable nouns in positive and negative statements or questions. ANY can be used: (1) with countable and non-countable nouns in negative statements, and (2) with countable and non-countable nouns in positive or negative questions. MUCH can be used:


(1) with non-countable nouns in negative sentences, (2) with non-countable nouns in positive or negative questions, (3) as “too much” or “much of the” with a non-countable noun (also positive or negative), (4) “as much as” or in front of a comparative for emphasis, (5) with certain words (often an infinitive verb or a non-countable emotion, era, etc.) in certain formal positive sentences. (Note: unless you have seen MUCH used with a certain word, don’t assume it is acceptable! If in doubt, use “a lot/a lot of”!) NOTICE that you can substitute “A LOT OF” for MUCH, ANY, or MANY in most sentences (EXCEPT for “many” in positive statements and questions, or “much” in #3 and rarely #5). However, some teachers say “a lot” is too informal for academic writing. Often, the best solution is to rewrite the sentence without being so vague! Instead of “Articles give students much/a lot of trouble,” write: “Students often have trouble using articles.”


Examples of much/many/a lot: (every word in the parentheses is acceptable; if a choice is not in the parentheses, don’t use it!)

±    Are there (a lot of, many) people in your hometown?

±    There was not (a lot of, any, much ) electricity when my Grandpa went to school.

±    Koreans do not eat (many, any, a lot of) hamburgers.

±    There are (many, a lot of ) students here.

±    Those small kids play (much, a lot of ) of the time. 

±    There are (a lot of, many ) old cars in Detroit.

±    Aren’t there (any, many ) cookies left?

±    Classical music is (much, a lot ) better than rock-n-roll.

±    There is (much, a lot ) to present before I finish.

±    Is there (any, much ) food? 

±    They will have (a lot of ) power after the election.

±    Isn’t there (any, much ) water left?

±    There is too (much ) poverty in the world.

±    There is (a lot of ) cool air in this room.

±    Qin family members were officials during (much ) of the Qing Dynasty.

±    They run as (much ) as 40 kilometers per day.

±    Sue is (much, a lot ) more intelligent than Bill.

±    There will not be (much, any, a lot of ) music in our room this term.

±    I would not have (much, a lot ) to worry about if I were rich.

±    There will be (much, a lot of ) discussion after they watch this movie.

±    Are there (many, any, a lot of ) tall buildings in Xi’an?



NUMBERS above ten can be written as numbers (23; 2,343), but numbers under 11 (except time—4 A.M.) should be spelled out (two, ten). ALWAYS use a spelled-out number to start a sentence. e.g., Nineteen people (14 are female) will arrive in two vans at 3 P.M. (Yes, A.M. and P.M. are capitalized.)

ITALICS (words written like this: gaijiao) should be used for foreign words or pinyin Romanization unless the word is a formal noun (e.g., Sichuan, Meili Xu, Ms. Xu, Hebao eggs, Shaanxi Province)

AVOID OVERGENERALIZATIONS: “Americans love basketball and Chinese people love ping pong.” Not really—modify Americans and Chinese with “some,” “most,” etc., to make this true.

AVOID “FLUFF” in your writing: i.e., words and phrases that really do not tell the reader ANYTHING! Instead of “What is more, I think my mother is a very special person in my life;” or “I would like to say something about my mother;” write: “My mother is beautiful, intelligent and compassionate” (then tell the reader about her beauty, intelligence and compassion in the essay!). “Fluff” to avoid includes: In my opinion, I would like to write/say something about, …to me, …in (all) my life/lifetime, …as far as I am concerned…, …I think, What’s more. (NOTE: “In my opinion/ I think” are OK if you are expressing several opinions, but avoid these in essays that simply express your own point of view!)

ADDRESSES: For America:         766 N Maple Rd              British:   No. 766 North Maple Road

(note comma use; neither uses “#”)  Canton, OH 44777, USA              Earlsdon, Coventry CV7 1GT, U.K.




CREATING QUESTIONS. (Note: I use "aux" as an abbreviation for "auxiliary verbs"; the most common are do, have, can, is, and will.)

To transform sentences into questions, first, decide which part of the sentence (subject/verb/object) you are asking a question about. Unless you are asking about the subject, put an auxiliary verb (aux) before your original subject to make the statement a question. If a question has an aux, the aux (not the main verb) always shows the question’s verb tense .

To inquire about the object, change the object into a question word, add an aux (if there was not one already), and then change the grammatical order  from  original subject/[aux]/verb/object    to   wh?/aux/original subject/verb.   “She can play the piano.” becomes “What can she play?”

To inquire about the verb in a sentence, replace the verb with what and a form of do, add an aux, and change the grammatical order from subject/[aux]/verb/object  to  what/aux/original subject/do/[object].

        “She plays the piano.”        becomes           “What does she do (on the piano)?”

        “Teachers teach.”               becomes           “What do teachers do?”

To inquire about the subject, simply replace the subject with a question word. Auxiliary verbs are optional (for emphasis). Don’t change the original grammatical order (subject/[aux]/verb/object).

        “He lives there.”                  becomes           “Who lives there?”

        “They will arrive at noon.”    becomes           “Who will arrive at noon?”

■ “Yes/no” questions start with an aux. e.g., Did you like the holiday? (X: Do you liked…) (Such questions get “yes/no” answers, so they don’t start conversations!)

To make questions more polite, we can add phrases like “can you tell/show me,” “do you know” or “will you explain” to the front. If you are asking “polite questions” about a whole sentence, add if between the added phrase and the original sentence. Otherwise, a question word comes after the phrase. After if or the question word, notice that the grammatical order is the same as in a statement (which also means an aux is not added).

In “polite questions,” sometimes an infinitive can replace I/we+verb  or  I/we+aux+verb. You can not do this with regular questions. For example: “You can find this in a book.”    becomes    “Can you tell me where I can find this?”    or     “Can you tell me where to find this?


LIKE/ AS/ SINCE. LIKE compares things without saying how. AS…AS tells us how they compare. e.g., She looks LIKE a model. She looks as pretty as a model. Your hands are like ice! This rock is as cold as ice.

■ “AS FOR ME” can tell us your (singular or plural) opinion or condition, though we do not usually use “AS” to give others’ opinions or conditions, unless they come immediately after “as for me.” e.g., As for me and my family, we enjoy cartoons. As for young people, they like action movies. (BETTER: However, many young people like action movies.)

■ LIKE and AS can introduce a clause, but the meaning is different. LIKE means “in the same way as” (you need a comma after the phrase). AS means “acting in this role” (no comma needed). e.g.,          As a businesswoman she was successful. (She was successful in the role of businesswoman.) LIKE a lawyer, Molly was always on time. (Lawyers are always on time, and Molly was like a lawyer in this way.)

■ Avoid using “as” when you mean “since” or “because.” e.g., As I am a student, I have to study. BETTER: Since I am a student, I have to study. As a student I have to study. I have to study because I am a student.

■ LIKE/ AS can also be used to introduce idioms (see below).



■ A few special verbs (like, love, hate, despise, etc.) often tell how we feel. These verbs come before a noun when they talk about a thing, and a gerund (-ing word) or an infinitive when they talk about an activity. e.g., He hates reading/to read. She likes lemons. They despise bananas. We love English. Some hobbies or activities can use all three forms: She likes debating/to debate/debates. He loves skating/to skate/skates.

■ Similarly, expressing emotions can be tricky, so watch how you match verbs and prepositions. e.g., People don’t “HAVE unhappiness WITH others” nor do they “FEEL unhappiness.” They “ARE unhappy WITH others,” or they “FEEL happy (happiness?) when they are AROUND others,” or “HAVE problems WITH others.” Their lives can be “FILLED with unhappiness,” or they may have “KNOWN a lot of unhappiness in their youth.”



CHINA/ CHINESE (place vs. people): CHINA is a noun (a place); CHINESE is an adjective and so it must be followed by a noun (Chinese food, Chinese clothes, Chinese music, Chinese people…). The only exception is “the Chinese” which is short for “the Chinese people” (you only need “the Chinese”—“people” is optional—if you mean “the Chinese people”). THIS DOES NOT WORK WITH EVERY COUNTRY! For example: we say “Koreans” not “the Korean” to mean “the Korean people.” e.g. (pardon my overgeneralizations!), 1) Americans are overweight. NOT: The Americans are fat.  2) The Chinese are thin. NOT: Chinese are thin. 3) The Japanese are rich. NOT: Japanese are rich. 4) Africans are dark. NOT: The Africans are dark.

If you use a COMPARATIVE, be sure your reader knows what you are comparing. NOT: “The boss says he is a better worker.” Instead: “The boss says he is a better worker than the others on his shift.” Also try to keep the things being compared close together, instead of separating them with other clauses.

VERB/ADVERB PLACEMENT: Americans generally put verbs before adverbs (and adverbs before adjectives). Technically, “He ran slowly” is better than “He slowly ran.” Similarly, “He is surely bright” is more standard than “He surely is bright,” just as “He is very tall” is correct and “He very is tall” is wrong.

IDIOMS or sayings are useful as direct quotations, but since many are hard to translate I say to avoid them! Nonetheless, here is how to use them: (Notes: ‘for’ could become ‘but’ and ‘the Chinese’ could be ‘we Chinese’ if the context calls for it; capitalize the idiom if it is a complete sentence, in which case it should come after a colon.) Examples: Like the Russians say: “Trust but verify.” My father often said, “live it up.” That company believed the proverb that says: “If you want lemonade grow lemons.” The Chinese like to say: “If it catches mice it is a good cat.” They say that if it catches mice, it’s a good cat.  …for as the French say: “Like father like son.”



Welcome (by itself) is an invitation to enter or visit someplace you are not currently in, so “Welcome to China” makes no sense to someone living in the country, and “Welcome to my hometown” can only be used when a guest FIRST steps foot in that place. “You are always welcome in China” and “I welcome you to visit my hometown” is probably what you mean. The Chinese 欢迎 can mean “welcome,” “thanks for coming,” “come again,” and other things, and appears in MUCH simpler sentences than you can create in English.

■ You don’t catch a chance. Instead, you take hold of an opportunity, chance, or every minute.

Benefit (benifit) and impact. In general, it is safer for non-native speakers to use benefit [countable] and impact [non-countable] as nouns rather than verbs. Both are used in idiomatic ways that non-native speakers might not know. For example, expressions like “the impact of,” “made a big impact,” “many benefits,” “the benefit of the doubt” and “[some group of people +] benefit from [+ noun]” are common, but native speakers rarely say “I benefit,” “that benefits me” or “you will benefit a lot from.” Likewise, whenever I hear someone say they were “impacted” by something, it makes me think of an impacted tooth. Examples: This company offers good benefits. Students have benefitted from this course in many ways. NOT: I benefit a lot from it.  This course benefits me a lot.  They made an impact on people. The impact of immigrants has been widespread. NOT: They impacted people.

Vocation means job; vacation means holiday. e.g., Her vocation was to help people arrange vacations.

Quiet means a lack of noise, while quite means “rather a lot.” e.g., He is not quiet; he is quite loud!

Commonly misspelled words: write favorite or favourite (UK) not favorate; written not writen.

Air conditioning (A/C) refers to machines that make rooms/buildings cooler; the Chinese word (空调) can refer to machines that heat AND/OR cool. Heaters make rooms warmer. You can also use “air condition” as a verb. e.g., This heat pump heats the room in winter and air conditions in the summer.

■ The Chinese word mén () has several translations, depending on the context. A gate is something that opens in an outdoor wall, fence, or hedge. Gate is frequently used in Chinese names (e.g., 天安门, the Gate of Heavenly Peace). Gateway is often used figuratively to mean entrance (as in “the gateway to better trade”). A door physically opens/closes to allow someone in or out of a building. A building’s doorway is an entrance near a door. (Native speakers often say “meet me at the door at 5 PM” when they mean “doorway.”) An entrance is an opening that allows access (with or without a door, inside or outside).

Interested/ interesting: “Tom is interested (in something)” means that Tom wants to know more; “Tom is interesting” means that the speaker likes to hear Tom speak or perform. No one says “I am interesting” (since that sounds like a proud statement).

Abbreviations for formal names use all CAPS and are normally spelled out the first time they are used, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses. Many writers omit the periods in common abbreviations. Yao Ming stars in America’s National Basketball Association (NBA). The NBA is popular in the USA and China. (RE "the NBA" see the section on articles!)

Contractions are common in speech, but only use contractions in informal writing (though it is generally OK to use the negative contraction [n’t] and the contraction for “it is.”) Many students misuse contractions because they don't know (for example) when “it’d” means “it would” or “it had.” Never use a contraction if the sentence becomes one word (e.g., “I would.” NEVER: “I’d.”). Never write colloquial expressions like "wanna" or "gonna" for "want to" or "going to."

Abbreviations for months can be written two ways. (1) traditional, with a period: Jan., Feb., March, April, May, June, July, Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., Dec. (2) computer, all are three letters with no period: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec. DO NOT call the second LUNAR month “February” (i.e., of a Chinese, Jewish, or other calendar); call it the “second lunar month.”

UNUSUAL WORDS: food, studies, entertainment, trouble, hair, authorities, etc.: When you learn a word, notice if it is countable, non-countable, and/or has other uses. For example, “food” is usually a non-countable plural noun (“They had a lot of food at the party”), but if you are talking about different types of food, “food” can be a countable noun (“They had 12 different foods at the party”). Studies (as a noun in an academic sense) is plural (“He works at his STUDIES”). Entertainment can be a non-countable noun or an adjective (“The entertainment committee provides a lot of entertainment”). Trouble is usually non-countable, as is hair (“His HAIR is gray,” not “hairs are”). “The authorities” (i.e., leaders) is normally plural. e.g., The authorities decided that adding weekend entertainment was too much trouble.


PUNCTUATION MARKS always come at the END of a line of type (not at the beginning of the next line), and (in America!) they generally come inside the closing quotation mark. e.g., He said, “That will be all.”  “That will be all,” he said.  Jack called every woman “lady.” (British: Jack called every woman “lady”. Sue’s favorite song is “Country Roads”. see “titles”)

Exclamation and question marks ONLY go inside the closing quotation mark if they are part of the quote. e.g., His sister screamed, “Turn that off!”  Judy asked, “Why didn’t you call?”  How many times do you have to say “not me”!  Did she ask for his “blankie”? (Do not overuse quotes to set off colloquial words.)

Colons (which usually introduce a list or explanation) and semi-colons (which can separate clauses in a compound sentence or clauses that contain commas) come outside the closing quotation mark. e.g., My aunt snapped, “You should be more careful”; then she left the room. You have two choices: green or blue.

Commas should not be used to replace the word AND. NOT: She got food, he got water. INSTEAD: She got food; he got water. She got food and he got water. (This could also be written as two sentences.)

■ A long dash is supposed to make the reader pause (don’t overuse this tool). It is ONLY TWO hyphens (not one, three, or four…). To set off explanations, long dashes come in pairs. His hobby--chess--took a lot of time.  OR  He spent a lot of time with his hobby--chess.

Hyphens can be used at the end of a line to break a word (if you run out of space), but they MUST break the word in specific places (NEVER break off a single letter and avoid breaking off two-letter endings; the other rules are even too complicated for word processing software, so it is better to NEVER break a word!)

One space follows any punctuation mark except the long dash, internal abbreviations or time indicators (e.g., He left the U.S.A. at 3:23 P.M., with three friends: Bill, Sue and Tim. NOT: the U. S. A. at 3: 23 p. m. ,with…) New paragraphs should be indented (i.e., start the first sentence about 1.3 cm or 0.5 inches from the left margin), especially if you double space your writing (which I require on all student homework).


*Section 1 is chapter five, section 2 is chapter 10, and section 3 is mostly chapter 20 in my book.


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