I will start my PhD this year, and I am reading notes about graduate life. I will work on Social Networks; this field requires extraordinary scientific writing skills, and good visualization skills. I started with honing my scientific writing skills. In this post, I will explain the first chapter of a very famous book on writing skills: Elements of Style.

Form the possessive singular of nous with ‘s

This is an interesting rule because I have always had trouble guessing if a name ending with s gets an apostrophe s. It seems that it is not necessary, and we can write Charles’s friend, Burn’s poems. But still I do not know what happens if the noun is plural, like humans. I think we should write humans’, as in humans’ wisdom.

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.

My native language Turkish has this rule, so it has never been a problem for me. You should write “red, white and blue” or “death, love and life”. It is not mentioned here, but notice the power of the “three rule”. It is said that any sequence of three leaves an impression on the reader and listener. Politicians use this a lot to impress the crowds, and one of Turkish prime ministers was using this in all of her speeches.

Enclose parenthetic expression between commas

“The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.” Note that if you remove the word between the two commas, the sentence is still correct: The best way to see a country is to travel on foot. I always use too many commas in sentences, so that is a rule that I should remember well.

In this rule, I learned something else in grammar. It seems that there are two types of clauses: non-restrictive and restrictive. You can take out non-restrictive clauses, but the sentence is still correct. Check this one: The audience, which had at first been indifferent, became more and more interested. Which type of clause do you think it is? If you take out the clause “which had at first been indifferent”, the sentence still reads “The audience became more and more interested”, so the clause is  non-restrictive.

On the other hand,  in “The candidate who best meets these requirements will obtain the place”, the clause “who best meets these requirements” is restrictive, because you cannot take it out without changing the sentence. Also note the use of obtain here. It is not mentioned, but there are two similar verbs to express getting something: obtain and attain. Obtain means taking something, but attain means putting some effort for taking something. To show the difference, you can say that you obtained a place in the table, but you should not say you obtained your Master’s degree.  You tried hard, and attained your Master’s degree in Computer Science!

Place a comma before” and” or ”but” introducing an independent clause.

“The situation is perilous, but there is still one chance of escape.” That rule really surprised me; the author almost forbids using and or but in sentences. He says those two conjunctives are the least specific conjunctions, and they imply a connection between two parts of the sentence but do not explicitly tells what the relation is. Actually I use too many ands; so this is an important rule to remember for me. The author also gives this better form for the sentence: “Although the situation is perilous. There is still one chance of escape.”

There is also a tradeoff here. If we use too many uniformly compact sentences, the reader might get bored. We cannot simply start every sentence with although, or owing to.  Sometimes we should use sentences with “and” or “but” to ease the flow of sentences. Despite the advice, I like sentences that are simple and connected by and or but.  There is a very famous novel by a Turkish author, Yasar Kemal, and the first sentence reads, “Those beautiful people, rode their beautiful horses and galloped away”. I find it fascinating, especially in Turkish. In this sentence, the power of and is breathtaking. I guess we are allowed to have our objections to rules in the book; this is my objection. 

Do not join independent clauses by a comma

Sometimes we need to write two or more sentences together to keep the flow of speech. Instead of trying to come up with new conjunctions,   use a semicolon between those sentences.  “Stevenson’s romances are entertaining; they are full of exciting adventures” If a conjunction is inserted use comma: “Stevenson’s romances are entertaining, for they are full of exciting adventures”. If the second clause is preceded by an adverb such as accordingly, besides, so, then therefore, the semicolon is still required. “I had never been in the place before; so I had difficulty in finding my way about.” An exception to the rule: If clauses are short, a comma is permissible. “Land is rich, people are happy.”

Do not break sentences in two

In other words, do not use periods for commas.” I met them on a Cunard liner several days ago. Coming home from Liverpool to New York.” This sentence is wrong, because the period should be replaced with a comma. That was easy but check this one: “He was an interesting talker. A man who had traveled all over the world, and lived in half a dozen countries.” Actually this sentence describes me. Not six yet, but five countries and counting. Returning to the sentence, the first period should be replaced with a comma. Again in this sentence, I note my objection. I think it sounds very cool as two sentences. One sentence makes it long, and does not give the reader the time to imagine the man. It immediately gives the reason; he lived in six countries, what do you expect? One thing from here, and one from there, you should be an idiot not to be interesting. I prefer the two sentence form. 

A participle phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Walking slowly down the road, he saw a woman accompanied by two children. Here, it is the man who is walking slowly down the road. If you want to mention woman walking down the road, you should recast the sentence: “He saw a woman, accompanied by two children, walking slowly down the road.” Actually, this rule is difficult to catch. “A soldier of proved valor, they entrusted him with the defence of the city.” Is this sentence grammatically wrong? It is wrong; the author corrects it this way: “A soldier of proved valor, he was entrusted with the defence of the city.” It is really difficult to catch the error. Check this one: “Young and inexperienced, the task seemed easy to me.” This is also wrong. It should be: “Young and inexperienced, I thought the task easy.” I do not know what you think, but those sentences did not sound wrong to me at first.

Divide the word according to its formation.

This rule deals with dividing syllables of a word to fit it in a line. Elements of style was published in 1918. With the current state of internet publishing and technical writing, it is no longer necessary for us to learn these rules. I remember being very interested in cutting words in syllables; my English teacher had told me that it is not easy, nor required. Text applications do it for us. Thank Knuth for Latex. He saved our lives.