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ABC Language

Words used to analyse language

Language and literacy

Just as numeracy is the ability to use numbers, literacy is the ability to use letters.

A literate person is a lettered person.
An illiterate person is a person without letters.

Illiterate can mean unable to read and write, or it can mean uneducated
Literate can mean able to read and write, or it can mean educated

The association of education with reading and writing is as old as civilisation. Gordon Childe, in What Happened in History says that writing was the origin of civilisation. History is that part of human past which was recorded in writing.

Literacy can mean the ability to read and write, or the possession of other skills. You can say, for example, that someone is computer literate.

Here is one attempt to list types of literacy:

  • Linguistic literacy - being able to understand, speak, write and read a language, correctly following its rules of grammar, sentence construction etc.

  • Academic literacy - more advanced language skills needed for academic study, such as being able to extract meaning from the context of what is said.

  • Subject literacy - the ability to write and speak using the words and forms of expression that particular academic subjects use.

  • Cultural literacy - being able to relate what one knows to the wider context of science, art and current affairs, and to learn from that wider context.
( 1994 Report section 3.6)

Abbreviations, Acronyms, Gobbledegook and Pins:

Various systems are used to make language shorter (abbreviation). Some of these systems result in the production of
code. If the purpose of the abbreviation system is understood, and the code used sensibly, great benefits can be obtained. Often, however, the various systems of abbreviation turn efficient languages of communication into gobbledegook (unintelligible jargon).

An acronym is an abbreviation made from a string of initial letters that can be pronounced as one word.

SHE is an acronym that can make communication easier if people know what it means. However, the quantity of abbreviations and numbers used in some people's speech and writing makes them difficult to understand. I call these abbreviations and numbers: pins. I think this is an original neologism. As an acronym pins could stand for pain in the neck, but as an analogy or metaphor it means something that holds something else in place (a pin).

There are two types of pin (both senses) in common use that you need to know about: letter pins and letter-number pins.

A letter pin is a group of letters like ILRS that is used to refer to something (in this case, part of Middlesex University) which people cannot be bothered to say in full. There are hundreds of these.

A letter-number pin is used to classify things. At Middlesex University it is used to classify
modules. There are thousands of them and they are explained in the Middlesex University Catalogue.

Pinhead is used to describe someone who talks in pins.

The following site on the world wide web lets you type in an abbreviation and then looks up what it could stand for: http://vizier.u- strasbg.fr/starbits.html

Case: Upper case is CAPITAL LETTERS, lower case is small letters.


A code is a system of words, letters, numbers or symbols, used to represent others for brevity, manipulation or secrecy.

Codes for forms and causes of insanity introduced in 1907 enabled the production of national statistics in England and Wales. The code for heredity as the cause was A. Pregnancy as the cause was E.1. Masturbation as the cause was G.4., and so on.

Coding is converting the first system into the code system. A chart or table setting out how the items from the first system are mapped onto the symbols used by the code can be called a Coding Frame or a Coding Key.

decoding is converting back from code to the full version. Alternative words are decipher, interpret, translate and analyse.


Stress laid on words to indicate some special significance is called emphasis.

In handwriting it can be done by underlining, CAPITALS, or signs like `inverted commas` and exclamation marks!!!!!.
A wordprocessor allows you to use italics, bold, small caps, large print and many other methods.

In my opinion, the golden rule when tempted to emphasise is: don't. If you follow the golden rule there will be occasions when you feel it is important to break it, and your emphasis will have more effect.

Sometimes people emphasise everything they say. For example, they write everything in capitals. In an
email this is called "shouting", and is considered rude.

On computers, words without any attributes like emphasis are called plain text


People use the word grammar to include different things. If a tutor's note says "check your grammar and spelling", grammar may mean everything on the following list or just some of them.

Grammar always includes syntax and morphology.

Syntax means arrangement. The syntax of a language is the way its words are put together to form sentences. Understanding the sentence is the key to clear written language.

Morphology means the study of shape or form. In grammar, it refers to the way the words themselves are constructed, for example adding prefixes and suffixes.

Syntax and morphology gives names to the various parts of speech and their relations. This gives us a vocabulary to discuss how language works.

Examples of good and bad grammar

Other things people sometimes include in "grammar" are
punctuation, vocabulary, style and usage

Punctuation covers how to use the marks in writing (such as commas, full stops and question marks) that we call punctuation or punctuation marks. Punctuation is used to make sure your writing is clear.

The main punctuation marks are:

Full stop   a dot at the end of sentences .
Comma   a short break in sentences ,
Semicolon   a longer break in sentences ;
Colon   a leading on to something else mark :
Example: Jack, Faridah and Tania were not good at making lists; yet they made this one: Jack, Faridah, Tania.
Parentheses   bits ( bracketed off )
Dash   a disruption - like that
Question mark   at the end of a question ?
Exclamation mark   much over used !

Similar marks are:

Quotation marks   " You can quote me "

Apostrophe   For ownership:
Joan's cat, for example.
Also for misin ' bits

The style of your writing is the general way you present your
ideas. For example: "This essay is written in a straightforward style, but communicates sophisticated ideas". Or "This essay presents basic ideas in a way that is very difficult to understand"

Advice on the style of academic writing

Vocabulary is a word used in different ways. Your vocabulary is all the words you know. The vocabulary of a language is all the words in it. The vocabulary of a subject is all the words used when discussing it.

Advice on vocabulary

Usage is about the way words are used in practice. Whilst syntax is about rules, usage is about conventions. An example of usage would be a discussion about whether the word acronym should only be used for strings of initial letters pronounceable as words (like SHE), or could also be used for strings of initial letters that are not pronounced as words (like ILRS).

Apostrophe Devil

This little devil: ' is called an apostrophe. He bedevils our writing in many ways. I will try to stop him catching me. Have a look at where the apostrophe comes in the following passages, and let me know if I get it wrong:

No apostrophe for plural:

Many devils does not have an apostrophe between the l and the s because there are many of them and they are not in possession of something. The s is used to show that the devils are plural. It is not a "possessive" s - which does have an apostrophe, as in the following example.

Apostrophe for ownership:

When many devils' mothers come to get them they have got something: their mothers. So there is an apostrophe after devils (devils' mothers).

The Devil himself may not have a mother, but he does have intentions. So if one speaks of the Devil's intentions one uses an apostrophe between the l and the s to show that the Devil owns the intentions.

Apostrophe and names:

Some people's names end in s.

Hobbes does not have an apostrophe between the e and the s because the s is part of his name. If Hobbes has an irritating habit one writes about Hobbes' irritating habit.

Locke, on the other hand, does not have an s at the end of his name. So, if Locke has an irritating habit one writes about Locke's irritating habit.

Apostrophe and missin' bits:

When we speak we say things like "I haven't got any irritating habits".

The apostrophe in haven't is used to show that the word was spoken without the o in have not.

Haven't, don't, won't, isn't and similar words are all used to represent the way people may speak. Unless you are reporting speech, you should write "have not", "do not", "will not", "is not" etc.


A grammar-checker is a computer program that can be run on wordprocessed documents to point out common errors of grammar, including syntax, usage and style.

Grammatik is a particularly good one that you will find in Wordperfect for Windows. Other recent wordprocessors also contain grammar-checkers. If yours does not, or you want to use Grammatik, you can import your documents in Wordperfect for Windows.

Amongst other things, Grammatik can pick out sentences that it thinks are too long, phrases that could be shorter but still express the same meaning, and expressions that it thinks are too complex, pompous or overstated (it suggests replacements to simplify them). It is, therefore, as much about the style of your essay as the strict grammar. As styles differ, the program lets you choose the style you want to check for.

Neologism: a new word or expression, or a familiar one being used with new meaning.


To make our writing clear, we compose it of sentences and arrange it in paragraphs. Composing, organising and revising your sentences and paragraphs is one of the main ways to bring order and logic into essays and other projects.

Paragraphs are set apart by a blank line. So, this sentence and the previous one are a paragraph.

Paragraphs are units of thought. They vary in length, but each deals with an issue that hangs together. If dealing with one issue in a single paragraph results in a very long paragraph, the paragraph can be broken up into smaller units of thought, to make reading easier. If your thoughts result in lots of short, bitty, paragraphs, you can group them into larger ones, as long as they still hang together.

Paragraphs help the reader to digest what you are saying. They present your ideas in manageable sized pieces. Constructing your essay in paragraphs also helps you to organise and reorganise it.

If you look back at the preceding paragraphs, you may be able to discern units of thought in my paragraphs. The first suggests the function of paragraphs. The second illustrates what a paragraph looks like. The third discusses what a paragraph is, and how its length is related to what it does. The fourth says why paragraphs are useful to you and your readers. Finally, this paragraph reflects back on the previous ones, using them as an example.

Paragraphs in essay writing

People who plan their essays find using paragraphs flows naturally from their planning. For example, if the essay title is Compare two authors' theories of evolution, the initial plan might be

  • Introduction
  • Explain what is meant by evolution
  • Outline first author's view
  • Outline second author's view
  • Show common features
  • Show different features
  • Summarise

In this case it would be natural to draft a paragraph on each point of the plan. As the essay developed some of the points might need more than one paragraph.

Paragraphs are set apart by a blank line

If you remove the paragraphing from a well constructed essay - It becomes almost incomprehensible.

When paper was short, writers and printers used to indent paragraphs and miss out the blank line to save space. This is a very bad idea today. The missing blank line can mean the reader does not recognise your paragraphs. If your work is transmitted electronically, the indentation may just be lost.

Parts of speech:

The language you learn as a child is spoken without thinking about it. When you need to think about it, in order to improve it, it is useful to have names for the different parts of your speech.

Grammarians divide words according to the work they do in a sentence. For example,

In the sentence:

table and Wendy are nouns or naming words,

I and you are pronouns that stand in the place of nouns,

thought and were are verbs or doing words,

red is an adjective that adds something to the noun `table`,

sincerely is an adverb that adds something to the verb `thought`,

and is a conjunction that joins word groups together,

under and with are prepositions that tell you something about positions, and

Oh! is an interjection that is just thrown into the sentence and can be just as easily thrown out, without altering the grammatical form of the sentence.

These technical terms (noun etc) are called "parts of speech". On different occasions, the same word can perform different functions, and so be a different part of speech. In "I thought about your thought", the first thought is a verb and the second a noun.

Parts example adjectives:
An adjective is something added to a
noun or a pronoun.

It further describes the word it is added to.

Adjectives ought to add something to your English, not detract from it.

Fowler (page 10) gives this example of a useful adjective:

    a black coat.
Black tells the reader something about the coat.

But adjectives are misused if they are added to nouns to intensify them and make your sentences more ponderous.

Fowler gives this example of misuse:
    Effective means of stopping the spread of infection are under active consideration and there is no cause for undue alarm.
You can see that these adjectives are unnecessary by altering them to their opposites. The sentence becomes silly:
    Ineffective means of stopping the spread of infection are under passive consideration and there is no cause for due alarm.
So what did the original set of adjectives add to the sentence?

The sentence is better without adjectives:
    Means of stopping the spread of infection are under consideration and there is no cause for alarm.

Parts example adverbs:
An adverb is something added to a
verb, but it can also be added to an adjective or another adverb.

An adverb further describes (modifies, qualifies) the word it is added to. For example, in

very describes overused.

often describes or modifies improve.

Can you see that
very does not add much to the word (overused) that it modifies, whereas often " is important in its sentence?

Can you see why often is not needed in the following sentence?

You can get your own back on tutors by improving their comments on your essays. For example

    "This is a very stupid essay"
is not only offensive, but uses an unnecessary adverb and unnecessary

Parts example conjunctions:

A conjunction joins, or shows the relationship between, words, phrases or clauses. [and] It can make two sentences into one, as "and" could have done above.

Other examples of conjunctions are:

  • poor but honest
  • for better or for worse
  • He played well, although he was injured.

    Some people think you can join things together with any old conjunction, but the different conjunctions have different meanings.

    The relation between the two things joined is shown by the conjunction you use. See if you can improve this sentence by altering two of the conjunctions:
      "Locke said you should always reason logically, and I do not think he was realistic and I agree with Hume that it is not always possible."

    The following words are almost always conjunctions:

    but, and, or, nor, if, although,

    Some words are sometimes conjunctions and sometimes
    adverbs and/or prepositions. For example:

    because. therefore, so, however, since, until.

    Other words sometimes act as conjunctions, but are usually called something else. For example:

    when, where.

    ( Fowler 1968 p.104)

    Sometimes conjunctions go at the beginning of sentences to be joined. e.g. "We will sit down if you are tired" could be written "If you are tired, we will sit down".

    Parts example nouns:

    A noun is a word that names something.

    Words that name people, places, things, creatures, emotions, qualitys, measurements, or ideas are all nouns, but they are not all the same kind of noun.

    People and places are named by proper nouns. These begin with capitals, like Ponders End and Wendy Truelove.

    Proper, in this sense, means `own`. So the names Ponders End and Wendy Truelove are owned by that place and that person. They are not common to a whole class of places or people.

    Place and person are also nouns, but as they name a whole class of things, they are called common nouns. They are only capitalised at the start of a sentence or in a title.

    Parts example prepositions:
    The technical definition of a preposition is difficult, but most prepositions are easy to recognise as they show the position of one thing to another. For example

  • Put it on the table
  • We will go by air
  • He is up the pole
  • The town is over the hills
  • between you and me

    Here is the technical definition of preposition from The Concise Oxford Dictionary (4th Edition):
      "Word serving to mark relation between the noun or pronoun it governs, and normally precedes, and another word."

    External link: Where is the mouse?

    Parts example pronouns:
    A pronoun takes the place of a noun.

      "Jane came, Jane ate and then Jane left"
      "Jane came, she ate and then she left"
    when the pronoun she is used to avoid repeating
    the noun Jane.

    Other pronouns include:

    her, hers, he, him, his, I, me, mine, it, its, they, them, their, you, yours, anyone, who, whom, whose and which.

    Possessive pronouns
      "It is Jane's"
    can become
      "It is hers"
    if we already know who Jane is.

    This kind of pronoun is called possessive because it says who (or what) possesses something.

    How can a thing possess something? In the following phrase "it" owns its own inability:
      its inability to own
    Notice that its as a pronoun does not have an apostrophe even though a noun would (The ball's shiny surface).

    This allows us to distinguish "its rubbish", meaning the rubbish belonging to it, from "it's rubbish", meaning "it is rubbish".

    Can you explain why
      "I listened to the lecture and it's rubbish"
    is worse than
      "I listened to the lecture and its rubbish"?

    Parts example verbs:

    A verb expresses an action or a state of being. For example:

    He ran expresses an action

    He is silent. and
    He is a Quaker.

    express states of being

    Verbs have several tenses which show when the action takes place.

    The simplest tenses are past, present and future:

    He ran in the past tense

    He runs in the present tense

    He will run in the future tense.

    Plain English:

    Plain English is the use of the language in such a way that as many people as possible will understand what is said. For example, the writer aiming at plain English will write chain of ideas rather than concatenation of ideas

    weave a circle round him... Do you want to be this donkey bewitched by the fairy of obscurity? Maybe everyone will think you are wise - Even if they do not understand you. Or perhaps they will just think you are a donkey?

    Click here for advice on writing English clearly and simply. When you understand what you are writing, you will begin to enjoy writing. When your readers understand what you are writing, they will begin to enjoy reading.

    Academic English

    The English language used for writing for academic purposes should not be a special form of English. It is the native language used to convey academic ideas. Certain structures have proved particularly successful for this. These include, for example, essays with an introduction and a body, referencing and bibliographies. There is no one academic style, although there are informal styles that are not used. A guide to good English style should be a guide to a good academic style.

    Some people believe that academic style should differ from good English. There are people, for example, who tell you not to write "I recommend this book", but "The present writer would recommend this book".

    Colloquial English is not used in formal writing. Colloquial English belongs to familiar or common speech. "I 'ad a look at ur book and didn't like what I saw", may be a useful thing to say to your tutor, but it should not be written as the introduction to your essay.

    Poetry and Prose

    Prose is the straightforward way of speaking or writing. This is prose. Poetry is a patterned form of language. Pattern is given, for example, by the rhythm or beat of the poetry. Another pattern can be given by the placing of rhyming words.

    The difference between prose and poetry is not always clear. In The Pickwick Papers (1836-1837), for example, Charles Dickens makes Sam Weller's father complain about poetry in a rhythmic prose. In 1843 Dickens patterned the prose of a short novel to make it A Christmas Carol in Prose.

    The patterning of language makes it easier to remember and so rhythmic verse has played an important part in sharing and transmitting culture. The measurement (metre) of poetic phrase links language to mathematics. (See Chaucer)

    The way poetry plays with words, can draw out different meanings than prose. Poetry can be used to express meanings that prose would find illogical. New meanings can emerge from the contradictions of the old and David Kessel argues for a poetry that arises from the pain of living and rises above it.


    A prefix is small group of letters (often from Latin or Greek) put at the beginning of a word to change its meaning. Groups of letters attached to the end of the word to change its function or meaning are called suffixes.

    A sentence has at least a subject and a verb, like "The cat sat." (below)
    So not all small groups of words are sentences. A small group of words with some degree of unity that is not a sentence is called a phrase. "The bald cat" is a phrase. "The bald cat wore a hat." is a sentence.


    Almost all writing is composed of sentences arranged in paragraphs.

    We normally speak and write in sentences. When sentences are incomplete, we wonder what the speaker or writer means, or we misunderstand him or her.

    For example, if someone says:

      "I am going to get"
    we know the sentence is incomplete, and we cannot make sense of what has been said.

    If someone says:
      "I am going to get a cup of tea."
    it makes sense and is a complete sentence.

    If someone just said:
      "I am going."
    it would also be a complete sentence, and would make sense, although not the same sense.

    If what we write is to be understood, we must write in sentences. Use the following points to test if what you write is in sentences.

  • A written sentence always starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop (.), a question mark (?) or an exclamation mark (!).

  • To be a sentence, it also has to make sense and expresses a complete thought. You can find out if it does this by breaking it down into its parts. In the standard sentence, something (called the subject) does something (verb). As a general rule, a sentence must have both a subject and a verb to be complete.
      "The cat sat"
    is a sentence. It has a subject (the cat) and a verb (sat).

    A group of words without a subject and a verb is usually not a sentence.
      "The cat"
    is not a sentence, because it has no verb. On its own, it does not make sense or express a complete thought.

    In a sentence like

      "The cat sat"
    the subject (cat) just does something (sits).

    If a subject just does something, rather than doing something to something, the verb is intransitive. Intransitive means it does not move on to something else.

    In other sentences, like
      "The cat ate food"
    the subject does something to something else (called the object).

    In such sentences the verb is called transitive, because it moves on to an object (food in this case).

    Examples of good and bad sentences

    Spell-checkers, spellers:

    A spell-checker is a computer program that checks the correct spelling of words in a document. They are usually found in wordprocessors and many mailers also have them. Spell-checkers highlight mis-spelt words. They also highlight mis-keyed words like hte for the. Some spell-checkers just highlight words they think may be wrong, and allow you to alter them. Others also offer you a list of possible corrections you can choose from. You usually run a spell-checker over text when you have written it. Some recent wordprocessors can suggest corrections to text as you are typing. The checker will only recognise words that are in its dictionary. Other words will be highlighted. This means that specialist terms, unusual nouns, people's names and foreign words will be highlighted, even if you have spelt them correctly. It will also highlight abbreviations, acronyms, postcodes and module numbers. On the other hand, words that you mis-spell will not be highlighted if they are in the spell-checker's dictionary. For example, if you write there when you should have written their the spell checker will not warn you. A grammar-checker might. Most spell checkers will warn you when you have typed the the same word twice. (Like the the in that sentence). They will also ask you if you mean to have caPitals in pEculiar pLaces.


    A syllable is a part of a word which contains a single vowel sound, and is pronounced as a unit. For example, book has one and reading has two.

    Synonym = similar name

    Antonym = opposite name

    Words which mean the same are called synonyms. Words which mean the opposite of one another are called antonyms. Few, if any, words always mean exactly the same as one another. A fuller definition would be, words which can sometimes replace each other in a sentence without affecting its meaning.

    Noticing synonyms can help avoid confusion about the multitude of words an author uses. In the following extract, the authors say (almost) the same thing twice:

      "empiricism - a doctrine which proclaims that all knowledge ultimately originates in experience. Empiricists argue that the final arbiter of any dispute in science must be observation".
    "Experience" and "observation" are used as synonyms. You can ask yourself whether "science" and "knowledge" are also used as synonyms? Or is there a subtle difference about what the authors are saying in each sentence?

    Lists of synonyms can be found in a dictionary of synonyms or in a
    Thesaurus. Wordprocessors often have an electronic thesaurus. This means that you press certain keys beside a word that you have written and a list of similar words appears.

    Webster's New World Dictionary contains useful lists of synonyms, with notes on how their use differs. Click here to see Webster's list for idea.

    Technical words. Specialist Language

    All subjects have technical terms which are more precise than the language of everyday speech. (See concepts). These add a wide range of specialist words to the general vocabulary that we use in all situations. These technical terms are either specific to the subject, or are more general terms used in a special way.

    A popular name for specialist languages is jargon. Calling something jargon, however, usually means you think the specialist language is being used to show off or confuse. (See gobbledegook) Technical terms should be used to aid communication, not obscure it.

    Advice on the use of technical words in your writing
    A grammar-checker, (like Grammatik)
    will help you identify jargon in your writing

    However, whether words are technical and enlightening, jargon, or gobbledegook is not just something to do with the words. It is also to do with the way they are used and the motive for using them.

    For example, module numbers are essential for classifying the modules in a University. In a University Catalogue they help students and staff find their way around the great variety of courses that a modular scheme offers. But if people use the numbers without names in meetings it can become jargon or gobbledegook for many at the meeting.

    In February 2000 the press reported a survey of 1,000 business staff by a recruitment agency that found one in five staff feel forced to use jargon at meetings because other people do. Many have no idea what the words they use mean. Two out of five (40%) of people at meetings were distracted and irritated by the jargon. (Survey by Office Angels recruitment agency)

    A book that lists words with similar meanings together (see
    synonym) or a computer aid that will give you a list of such words.

    Study Link
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    Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
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    © Andrew Roberts 3.1999

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  • Acronym
    Parts of speech
    Plain English
    Technical words

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