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A Few Grammatical Rules to Remember

Here are some grammar rules for anybody writers of formal documents to remember. These rules focus on areas where the rules of standard written English differ from more informal registers. In general, formal writing, and technical writing in particular, requires more explicitness and less inference from context.

  • Modern English has three cases in its personal pronouns: subject (I, we, …), object/non-subject (me, us, …) and possessive (mine, our, …). Some difficulties that arise:
    • Informal English allows the object pronouns as the subject (‘Us Wolves will win the championship!’), which has been proscribed by grammarians for generations. Many people are uncertain about the rules, so they will hypercorrect and use the subject pronoun instead of the object pronoun (‘He picked John and I for the job’). Neither are acceptable in formal writing.
    • The words who and whom differ in case, with who being a subject pronoun and whom being an object pronoun. The distinction has weakened over time, and many English speakers do not use whom in speaking, often leading to more hypercorrection. In formal writing, either follow the distinction or not use whom at all.
  • English has two relative pronouns (pronouns that introduce dependent clauses), which and that. Use that for restrictive (or required) clauses and which for non-restrictive (or optional) clauses. This distinction is often ignored in speech and informal writing, but they can aide in understanding and translation of formal writing.
  • Remember the number of the indefinite pronouns:
    • Singular: each, either and neither.
    • Plural: few, both, several and many.
    • Dependent on the number of dependent phrase: all, any, most and some.
  • Avoid unnecessary shifts in tense, they can confuse readers.
  • Ensure that there is no ambiguity in the noun a pronoun is referring to (the pronoun’s referent). Often in speech and informal writing, context can resolve those ambiguities. They are less acceptable in technical writing, as they increase the time to read and understand a document and creates the possibility of errors.

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