Personal style is a question of taste – or lack of it. It is difficult to teach as what makes written work stylish is more a matter subjective opinion than objective fact. Look at and appreciate good examples as you find them and note how good style is always built on the solid foundation of faultless English grammar and a willingness to break the rules when circumstances dictate.
We are not here to teach grammar but, for now, here are some non-negotiable rules that must be adhered to at all times:
- Sentences start with a capital and end with a full point (or punctuation mark that includes the point: exclamations and interrogations).
- Proper nouns (people, places, titles, etc.) start with an initial capital.
- All sentences must contain a finite verb. “To be or not to be” is not a sentence but “To be or not to be, that is the question” is.
- Complex sentences should be kept under control by the careful use of commas.
- Paragraphs should develop a point. Once the point has been made you can move on to the next paragraph.
- Conjunctions such as “however” and “therefore” are good ways of linking paragraphs. “However” introduces an alternative and “therefore” a conclusion.
- Watch out for repetitive words or phrases that creep in and start to multiply and take over. I was once taught by someone who managed to use the word “basically” more than one hundred times in a forty-five minute lesson. Although his pupils listened to basically every word he said we basically did not pay much attention to the lesson.
- You do not have to write stylish prose to be a good Bible student although if you are capable of writing well please do not stop. Your task is to communicate clearly and concisely. The acronym KISS is apposite: Keep It Simple, Stupid! If your reader is admiring your flawless prose but not following your theological flow then the point of the exercise has been missed.
- Reading aloud is allowed. This can be a good way of picking up on any awkward or ambiguous phrases. Always remember: if your essay does not make sense to you it will not make sense to anyone.
- Be consistent. If you abbreviate the title of one book you must abbreviate all of them. If “1st Sam.” becomes “First Samuel” the sense remains unchanged but it shows a certain lack of concentration.
- Any of the following should help you:
Bryson, Bill, Mother Tongue (London: Penguin, 1990).
A light-hearted but nevertheless perceptive introduction to the English language.
Cullup, Michael, Brush Up Your Grammar (Tadworth: Right Way, 1999).
Very clearly written with many useful examples and revision quizzes.
Jarvie, Gordon, Grammar Guide (London: Bloomsbury, 1993).
More comprehensive than Cullup but still easy to use with some amusing illustrations.
Manser, Martin H., Good Word Guide (London: Bloomsbury, 1988).
Covers spelling, pronunciation, punctuation, grammar, jargon, and buzz words.
Truss, Lynne, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (London: Profile, 2003)
The pedant’s (or should that be pedants’?) guide to punctuation.
Abbreviations can save time and space – but if misused can cause confusion.
Consider this example:
“PC P. C. Smith lost his PC at the meeting of the PC.”
Which being translated is:
“Police Constable Percival Cuthbert Smith lost his personal computer at the meeting of the Parish Council.”
Note that the full version takes up so much more space we may need to go onto a second line.
Some abbreviations are universally recognised within their home context. For example (or “e.g.” if you prefer), all British children know that the BBC is a television channel but not all of them know that it stands for “British Broadcasting Corporation”. Note that BBC is written without points (so BBC not B. B. C.). There are others but, as a rule, if you have any doubts as to whether your reader will understand the abbreviation then do not do it. Many standard reference books contain a list of abbreviations so take a look in, for example, the IBD, ISBE, or OED (or Illustrated Bible Dictionary, International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, or Oxford English Dictionary).
Some of us do not like abbreviating books of the Bible. Turning James into Jam seems disrespectful. By the way, we never shorten the names of Biblical characters. Joshua the man is never, ever Josh and neither is James ever Jim (or Jam).
Top tip: use parentheses for clarity. For example:
“Both the A. A. and A. A. are opposed to drink-driving” becomes
“Both the A. A. (Automobile Association) and A. A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) are opposed to drink-driving.”
The same rule applies to drinking and driving and using abbreviations: if you have any doubt, do not do it.
Always be consistent. We have mentioned the use of abbreviations and how you title books of the Bible (i.e., “First”, “1st”, “1st”, “1”, or “I”). There is no right way here, but whichever system you use you must use it all the time. Likewise, do not switch from end notes to foot notes (or vice versa) part way through an essay. Everything you do should be to make life as easy as possible for your reader. Another example of consistency is the use of the editorial we. At the start of this point I could have written “I have mentioned the use of abbreviations” because I am the one doing the writing but instead I chose to use the editorial plural as we are writing this as part of a team and do not want to reveal too much of our personalities. Do not worry if you get any of this wrong. We will never penalise a student for inconsistent use of abbreviations. We will point it out to you but will not deduct marks.