Writing for the Web

Keywords and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

You hear a lot about keywords and search engine optimisation (SEO), but how much of it is just gobbledygook?

If Google and the other search engines told the world how they decide on which link appears at what position in their search results, everyone would follow the same approach and every site would have to be at number one.

So when someone tells you they have the ‘secret miracle formula’ for getting on Google’s front page, they are being less than truthful with you. They have no possible way of knowing how it’s done.

It’s my impression that the mighty Google is developing ever more sophisticated ways of measuring real quality of information on websites. So if a surfer uses ‘how to write good English’ or even ‘write good English’ as a search term, they will find this website – www.Queensenglish.co.uk – on the first page. Not always at the top but certainly on the first page.

Now, I don’t know anything at all about Google’s magic formula, but I recognise well-written, good quality content when I see it. And I like to believe that’s why this site has such a high ranking.

The importance of a good headline

When writing for the web, you can easily waste a lot of money. Although Google is good at assessing quality and readability, I believe it hasn’t yet developed a method of assessing persuasiveness.

Of course I may be wrong …

But, in any piece of writing, the first task is to get people to start reading, and that’s the job of the headline.

Whether it leads you on to a sub-headline, or straight into the body of the text, its success will be judged by whether or not the reader continues reading. There’s no point in spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars on well-written text if no-one ever reads it.

It’s often said that the headline carries more than 90% of the power on a web page.

So, if the headline is weak or non-existent there is a 90% chance that no-one will read your valuable text.

Don’t take the risk!

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The basics of style

English is more than one language.

Apart from U.K. (Queen’s) English, there’s obviously U.S. English. But where did it all start?

Because the UK has been invaded countless times over the centuries, its language is an amalgam of many tongues.

The Roman occupation some 2,000 years ago lasted 400 years, so much of our vocabulary and word structure is derived from Latin roots. Where English words sound similar to Spanish, Italian and French, that is where the Latin root is evident. These are part of the group known as Romance languages.

Old English was where things started, though it contained vast amounts of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary brought across by German settlers up to and including the 5th century (400 – 499 AD).

Vikings invaded in the 8th and 9th centuries (700 – 899 AD) and left much evidence of Norse languages.

Then in the 11th century the French invasion brought Norman French vocabulary as well as sentence structure and spelling conventions.

No wonder English contains so many different words!

English is the leading language of international communication and an official language of the European Union as well as current and former members of the Commonwealth.

Because of the international influence of the United States from the mid-20th century, any business in the world that is serious about exporting needs to embrace English as a central feature of its trading style.

Verbs and their tenses

Remember Latin? Verbs of the first, second, third and fourth conjugations? All very structured; all very logical.

Well English isn’t like that. You just have verbs … period. Doing words like I ‘eat‘ or I ‘drive‘ a car and so on.

Now clearly you can drive a car yesterday, today or tomorrow. You may still be driving it, or you may not.

Here are some verb tenses. Every tense had its own different word ending in Latin so you could tell immediately whether you invaded England yesterday, are in the process of invading today, or are planning to invade tomorrow.

I have used the Latin name for each tense – which was generally agreed upon – rather than an English name which may not be the only possibility.

Some people talk about simple forms others about continuous. The easiest rule to learn about English is that there are no real rules.

Present tense: I invade; I am invading (it’s something I’m doing now)

Future tense: I shall invade; I will invade (it’s something I shall or will do in the future)

Imperfect tense: I invaded (it’s something I did in the past – an activity I undertook)

Perfect tense: I have invaded (it’s something I have done – something I have achieved – and have finished doing)

Pluperfect tense: I had invaded (suggesting it was a long time ago, something which had already happened e.g. when I invaded England, I had already invaded France)

Future Perfect tense: Before tomorrow night, I shall have invaded England

Conditional tense: If you invaded England, you would be surprised how few English people you met. (The conditional tense usually follows the word ‘if’).

Is that enough for now?

Verbs, subjects and objects

Every sentence must have a verb. If there is no verb then it is not a grammatically correct sentence.

I mentioned in an earlier post (Nouns and verbs) that verbs are ‘doing’ words. There are two types of ‘doing’ and thus two types of verb. Let me illustrate with examples.

If I say I am swimming, then the verb is intransitive. I (the doer) am called the subject, the person who is doing the swimming, but there is no object. I’m not swimming someone or something, I’m simply swimming.

If I were to say I am driving a car, however, there is clearly an object (the car) so the verb is transitive. I (the doer) am driving a car (the object).

Things get tricky, though, because some verbs can be either transitive or intransitive depending on how they are used. Take eating, for example. I am eating is a good sentence: it tells you what I’m doing. In this context the verb is being used intransitively. But what if I said I am eating an apple? There is a subject (me) and an object (the apple) – the thing which I’m eating. In this case the verb is therefore transitive.

This idea of a subject and an object is fundamental to understanding how verbs work. Whoever is doing the doing, so to speak, is the subject and whoever is having it done to them is the object.

In each of the following examples the word ‘I’ is the subject, the action word is the verb and the recipient of the action is the object. Each example follows the same format: subject – verb – object.

I drive the car. I hit the ball. I ring the bell. I eat the meal. I write the article.

A further complication is the ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ form of the verb. Where we say ‘I ring the bell’, I (the subject) am ringing the bell (the object). This is using the verb in its active form. Another way to express this would be ‘the bell (object) is rung by me’ (subject) and in this instance the verb is being used in its passive sense.

Where the verb is intransitive, it does not have an object.

Examples are: I run. I walk. I eat. I sleep. I read. I swim.

In the next post I’ll start to look at verbs and their tenses. In this area English is much simpler than many other languages.

Pedantry and Prepositions

In our rush to write perfect English, we should perhaps pause for a moment and consider the importance of style. Whilst some words and phrases are quite clearly wrong, there are occasions when style can legitimately overrule supposedly correct sentence structure. Just because a sentence disobeys one or more rules, it is not necessarily badly written.

One example is the rule that you must never end a sentence with a preposition. So, ‘here’s a good example to start with.’

Technically that’s wrong: it should really be ‘here’s a good example with which to start.’

But ‘here’s a good example to start with’ sounds much cleaner and better balanced – and somehow flows more freely. There are no ambiguities, the meaning is clear and it sounds like the way we would speak.

Writing and speaking are different forms of the same thing – communication. It is a common mistake to write in a more formal way than we would speak – but why do we sometimes try? Perhaps it’s a vain attempt to impress; perhaps, if we are older citizens, it’s just the way we were taught.

A famous joke involving Winston Churchill tells how a magazine editor once changed a sentence of his so that it did not end in a preposition. Being proud of his writing style, Churchill became angry and scribbled over the document ‘This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.’

That may or may not be correct English – at least the sentence does not end with a preposition – but it’s just plain ugly. In the end … style must always come first.

When you first start to learn fencing or karate, you are taught precise moves. This is how you move forwards; this is how you move backwards; and so on. It is only when you have mastered the exact mechanics that you can begin to develop your individual style – the subtle differences that will make you a champion.

Avoid These Common Mistakes

Could of; Could have; Could’ve

How many times have you seen someone write ‘I could of done better’, ‘I should of taken greater care’, ‘I might of been late’.

All are very common – but all are very wrong!

They should read ‘I could have done better’, ‘I should have taken greater care’, ‘I might have been late’.

The mistake originates from writing down exactly what you hear.

In normal speech we would say ‘I could’ve done better’ (short for ‘could have’), ‘I should’ve taken greater care’ (short for ‘should have’) and ‘I might’ve been late‘ (short for ‘might have’).

In each case, the ‘ve’ sounds like ‘of’ when spoken, but it should be ‘have’, not ‘of’, when written down.

Its; it’s

We are so used to inserting an apostrophe to denote possession, that we sometimes write it’s when we should say its.

The cat’s tail may be long and fluffy but its purr is smooth and mellow.

You write it’s only when a letter has been omitted, as in it is or it has.

It’s a nice day; it’s been fun spending it with you.

When something belongs to it, you should always write its without an apostrophe.

There; their; they’re

There is nothing in the cupboard – their cupboard is empty so they’re in danger of starving. There you have it!

In the case of they’re, the apostrophe indicates that a letter has been omitted. They’re is short for they are.

Your; you’re

I am your friend; you’re my friend.

As with they’re, the apostrophe replaces an omitted letter. You’re is short for you are.

Conjunctions and Interjections

Conjunctions and Interjections

There are eight ‘Parts of Speech’. We’ve had a quick look at nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs,pronouns and prepositions. Finally we come to conjunctions and interjections. Neither of them are particularly difficult to understand, but they play important roles when you are trying to learn how to write good English.

CONJUNCTIONS are joining words, meaning literally ‘joining together’. Typically they will join two or more ideas, things, actions, and so on. Examples are “and, but, or”. As with all parts of speech, conjunctions are a part of the English language which can become extremely complicated – if you let them.

Our aim is always to promote clear writing. To make that possible you do need to understand the basic rules of grammar, but you do not need to become a Professor.

INTERJECTIONS convey feeling or emotion. They are quite easily recognisable as they are often followed by an exclamation mark, such as “Ouch!”, “Hello!”, “Hey!”

You should now have a basic understanding of English grammar. Maybe one day I’ll go into greater depth for those who are interested, but for now it’s enough to grasp the principles and, most importantly, put them into practice.

Next will follow some brief posts about punctuation. As with parts of speech, punctuation marks are essential building blocks of good written English. But they are simply tools, things you use to write good English.

Keep your tools sharp and they will serve you well!

Pronouns and Prepositions

Pronouns and Prepositions

We come now to pronouns and prepositions – important parts of speech when you’re learning how to write good English.

PRONOUNS, as the name suggests, are used instead of nouns – they are pro-nouns. They help us simplify sentences by avoiding repetition.

It would be clumsy to write “John sat down at John’s desk. John got out John’s pen, and John started to write.”

How much simpler and neater to use the pronouns “he” and “his” to produce something like “John sat down at his desk. He got out his pen and started to write.”

Examples of pronouns are: “he, she, it, you, me, I, they, them” though there are many more. They can perform a number of functions, but in every case they replace a noun in order to simplify what is being said.

PREPOSITIONS describe something or someone’s position in space or time. “Under” the table; “beside” the tree; “above” the water line; “inside” the house; “after” breakfast.

This part of speech can become quite complicated if you delve into grammatical text books, but as long as you remember the point about position in space or time, you won’t go far wrong.

The purpose of these blog posts is to help you write good English, not to become a Professor.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs

We saw in the last blog post – Parts of Speech (1) – that parts of speech are the names we use to describe the role played by the different types of words in a language; the job that each word performs in a sentence.

After looking at Nouns and Verbs, we now come to ADJECTIVES and ADVERBS.

ADJECTIVES describe nouns.

For example, we can take a noun like ‘car’. How can we describe this car? It might be red, fast, comfortable, sporty, large, or new. These are all adjectives which we are using to describe the car. It’s a red car, a fast car, a comfortable car, a sporty car, a large car, or a new car.

So adjectives are words that describe: they tell you more about a noun. A car isn’t just a car; it’s a red car, a fast car, and so on.

ADVERBS can describe HOW you perform an action when attached to a VERB.

Take a verb like ‘walk’. How you walk is explained by an adverb, such as quickly, slowly, confidently, and so on. In more cases than not, an adverb is formed by adding ‘ly’ to an adjective. So, a confident person might walk confidently, a quiet person might speak quietly, and a noisy car might drive along noisily.

ADVERBS can also qualify, or add information to an ADJECTIVE.

A car can be surprisingly fast, extremely large, remarkably comfortable. There are adverbs that don’t end in ‘ly’, however, especially very, too, and so. The same car could be very fast, too large or so comfortable.

As with nouns and verbs, there is a lot more to be said about adjectives and adverbs. But for this initial introduction we’ll stick to the basics. The aim is to provide you with the building blocks, so you can construct a simple English sentence by understanding the roles performed by the different types of word (known as Parts of Speech).

Parts of Speech – Nouns and Verbs

Nouns and Verbs

Parts of speech are the names that describe the role or purpose of the different types of words in a language; the job that each word performs in a sentence.

First are NOUNS, which are names of things.

PROPER NOUNS normally begin with a capital letter (sometimes known as ‘upper case’) and are things like place names, people’s names, company names, addresses, and so on. Examples are: London, Paris, England, France, John, Frank, Jaguar, Toyota, Acacia Avenue, and so on.

COMMON NOUNS are simply things. Dog, cat, computer, shoe, telephone, chair, car and house are all examples: do you get the idea?

“John is a man who lives in London, drives a Jaguar car and has a daughter called Kate.”

Next we should look at VERBS. These are ‘doing’ words. Examples are write, eat, walk, run, drive, speak. In every case the word describes an action – something that is being done.

Just as there are two types of noun (proper nouns and common nouns), there are two types of verb – known as transitive and intransitive.

A transitive verb is where the doer is doing something to a person or an object. Hit the ball; drive a car; manage a business; cut your hair, and so on.

An intransitive verb is where something is being done, but not to another person or thing. Examples are walk, talk, think, live.

Some verbs have both transitive and intransitive uses. You can either eat (intransitive; something I’m doing) or eat an apple (transitive; I’m doing something to an apple).

That’s a start.

Nouns and verbs are the two most important parts of speech. Strictly speaking, every sentence must have a verb.

In the next post we will look at adjectives and adverbs.