Style involves diction--the words you choose--and syntax--the sentence structure you use.  One major reason students have trouble with style is that they think that in university they need to adopt a "high" style, one that involves using multi-syllabic words and convoluted sentence structure.  In fact, what instructors want to see is clear and correct writing.  That is why we often advise students to simplify their style (without descending into grade-school English) and avoid words that they don't know.  All too often, students will look up words in a thesaurus and choose the best-sounding one even if they don't know what it means.  Also, students pad their essay with redundancies.  Don't say anything more than once, and don't include unnecessary information.  You're given a limited amount of space, so use it wisely.

Strong and Weak Style
Sentence Logic


Use only those words that you're familiar with, or spend time to look up a word you're thinking of using to ensure it actually means what you think it means.  Don't assume that you know!  Even familiar words may be commonly misused.


Jargon means using fancy terms to express often fairly basic ideas, especially when there are already perfectly fine simple words one can use.  Here are some commonly used overly fancy words (and non-words) along with suggestions for simpler and clearer substitutes.

Instead of
at the present time/at this point in time
impact (noun)
impact on (supposed verb--"impact" is NOT a verb)
motivating factor
orientate (no such word)
overexaggerate (no such word)
prior to
utilize use
in (unless you're contrasting something inside with something outside)

Return to top


There are two main reasons for wordiness in an essay: the student has used too many words to express something, or has said the same thing more than once, although perhaps in different ways--in other words, has been guilty of redundancy.  Try to pare down your writing so that you don't waste time (yours or your reader's).
Here is an example of the sort of wordy writing we see all the time:

Within the novel Frankenstein, the author, Mary Shelley, portrays the character of Victor as obsessive.

"Within" here is unnecessary; "In" is all you need.  You don't need to tell us that Frankenstein is a novel, Mary Shelley is its author, or Victor is a character in it:

 In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley portrays Victor as obsessive.

Avoid phrases like:

the fact that
in my opinion (especially when it's followed by "I think"!)
it would seem that/it seems that
the use of

We frequently see pointless and even illogical use of "use of":

 The use of ice imagery conveys a sense of desolation.

It is not the "use of" such imagery but the imagery itself that creates the effect:

 The ice imagery conveys a sense of desolation.

Here's a sentence that actually appeared in a student's essay:

Shelley's use of powerful words such as [followed by a list of words] are used to create pity for the Creature.


Redundancies occur in a variety of ways.  Here are some phrases, for example, that are redundant but popular:

clearly evident (if something is evident, it's clear)
the reason why is because (a triple: say "reason," "why," OR "because" but not any two or all three)

Beware of repeating something you've already said.  For example, students sometimes want to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition:

 This is the situation she finds herself in.

So, students will use a construction like "to which" or "in which":

This is the situation in which she finds herself.

The problem is that when they get to the end of the sentence it sounds wrong to them, so they put the final preposition in anyway:
this is the situation in which she finds herself in.

It's better to end with a preposition than to use it twice.

Avoid using unnecessary pronouns:

In Huxley's novel, it deals with...
In the novel by Mary Shelley, she says...

Just say:

Huxley's novel deals with...
In her novel, Mary Shelley says...

Here's a classic example of redundancy; note how often the student says exactly the same thing:

Frankenstein went headfirst into his experiment blindly with very little thought as to the consequences, possible outcome, and results of his actions.

Return to top

Strong and Weak Style:

Many factors influence how strong your style is.  Note that the previous sentence does not say, "There are many factors that influence how strong your style is."  By avoiding "There is" and "There are" constructions wherever you can, you can make your style stronger.  Use verbs other than "to be"; find strong ones:

weak: he is a believer in the power of Nature
strong: he believes in the power of Nature

Avoid the passive voice.  The passive voice also involves the verb "to be" and uses the past participle.  Revise your sentence to make the verb active:

passive: he is pursued by the Creature
active: the Creature pursues him
passive: the decision is taken by him
active: he takes the decision
active and strong: he decides

The simple rule is: if something is done "by" someone, change the sentence to have that someone do the action unless there's a good reason to keep the sentence or clause passive.  For example, keep the same subject in a sentence even if one of the verbs is passive:

He entered the room and was struck by its beauty.

Return to top

Sentence Logic:

Sentence logic is different from logic in thought; it has to do with how parts of a sentence line up.

Faulty Comparison:

In this problem, the writer compares very different things:

     He is not at all like her personality.

You can compare "he" to "she" or "his personality" to "her personality," but not a person to someone else's personality.

     Driving down a country road is more relaxing than a highway.

You can't compare the act of driving to a highway. The sentence should be:

     Driving down a country road is more relaxing than driving down a highway.

Sentence Alignment:

Another problem is syntax in which subjects and verbs don't quite line up properly. Here are some examples:

     The setting of the novel takes place in Herland, a fictional country.

It isn't the setting that takes place in Herland; the novel takes place there. Herland is the setting. The proper way to say it is either

     The setting of the novel is Herland, a fictional country.


     The novel takes place in Herland, a fictional country.

Consider the following:

     The use of ice imagery creates a sense of desolation.

It is not the use of the ice imagery but the imagery itself that creates that sense:

     The ice imagery creates a sense of desolation.

Parallel Problem:

Here, the sentence sets up a parallel with a governing word or phrase that doesn't apply to all the items listed:

     He is intelligent, articulate, and works hard

The governing phrase is "He is":

     He is                    intelligent
        and                   works hard

Don't mix up parts of speech, like adjectives and verbs; it's best to choose one (in this case adjectives) and stick to it:

     He is intelligent, articulate, and hard-working.

Sometimes, the sentence starts with a parallel but then drops it partway through:

     He was afraid of lions, tigers, and he did not even like housecats.

The solution is to separate out the non-parallel item:

     He was afraid of lions and tigers, and he did not even like housecats.

Misplaced Modifier:

One thing to watch out for is the modifier--adjective, adverb, or word or clause acting as one--that is in the wrong place in the sentence and that seems to modify (or describe) the wrong thing:

     For sale: an antique desk suitable for ladies with thick legs and huge drawers.
     The Marlboro Man would be shown sitting on a horse smoking a cigarette.

Put "only" in the sentence where it won't be ambiguous:

     He only travels to Europe.

This could mean A. he doesn't live in Europe but only travels there; or B. the only place he travels is Europe. Much clearer is:

     He travels only to Europe.

A "squinting modifier" is even more ambiguous as it lies between two things it could be modifying:

     The weather has been so bad this winter we decided to live in Florida for three months.

Does this mean A or B?

     A. The weather has been so bad this winter that we decided to live in Florida for three months; OR
     B. The weather has been so bad that this winter we decided to live in Florida for three months.

What does "occasionally" refer to in this sentence?

     My advisor told me occasionally to work fewer hours during the school year.

In most cases, it's unclear what the modifier is describing, but with a dangling modifier, the modifier refers to the wrong thing entirely:

     Although fictional, H. G. Wells creates a striking vision for readers in his text.

Here, the writer is saying that Wells, not his book, is fictional.