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The most important rules when writing in English? Consistency and clarity

Organization or organisation?

Tom, Joe and Larry—or is that Tom, Joe, and Larry?

"Data are" or "data is"?

Aluminum or Aluminium?

Mindset, mind set, or mind-set?

As a student churning out papers, I’d waste a stupid amount of time trying to find a definitive answer to these questions—only to discover that, 99% of the time, the answer is… it depends.

In terms of geographic spread, English is the most widely spoken language on the planet, and that means one thing: an overwhelming amount of variety. Moreover, some of that variety has nothing to do with geography, such as the fact that we’re constantly adding/inventing new words, and the many raging debates regarding the correct use of punctuation.

The problem (if, indeed, you consider it a problem) is that English existed for hundreds of years before anyone started to think about standardizing it. And despite continued pleas for us to just pick one definitive version of the language, it looks like we’re stuck with all of them for the foreseeable future.

For the record, I love this messy aspect of English: it allows for a level of personalization and customization that many languages don’t. But I can certainly sympathize with clients who are fed up with finicky choices and just want to present flawless papers, resumes, or product descriptions.

That's why I tell my clients not to worry about deciding what is “correct” when there are multiple options. Instead, just aim for consistency and clarity.

Opting for consistency means that even if you do find out you’ve used the “wrong” form (e.g., you’ve used “data is” but you’re submitting a paper to a journal that I know prefers “data are”), it’s a very simple fix. If you’ve used both, however, then it’s less simple, and much more time consuming to adjust.

At the same time, clarity should always be your primary objective. Don’t listen to the pedantic types who claim to know the hard-and-fast rules for every situation; the truth is, there are very few without exceptions, and it’s best to treat most situations on a case-to-case basis.

And while we’re on the subject of clarity, unless it’s explicitly forbidden, I will always use the Oxford comma (also called the serial comma). I like anything I’m writing or editing to be as clear as possible!


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