For You

Stephen Lau


What Is Good Writing?

Good writing means trying to avoid the overuse of clichés (overused catch phrases and figures of speech)

e.g. busy NOT busy as a bee

e.g. confront the truth NOT face the music

e.g. everyone NOT each and every one

e.g. finally NOT last but not the least

e.g. firstly NOT first and foremost

e.g. gentle NOT gentle as a lamb

e.g. infrequent or seldom NOT few and far between

e.g. obviously NOT it goes without saying

e.g. seldom NOT once in a blue moon

Avoid weakling modifiers. Most of the following weakling modifiers can be removed without changing the meaning of a sentence:

e.g. actually

e.g. both

e.g. certainly

e.g. comparatively

e.g. definitely

e.g. herself, himself, itself, themselves

e.g. needless to say

e.g. particularly

e.g. per se

e.g. really

e.g. relatively

e.g. very

To use these weakling modifiers occasionally is permissible, but to use them frequently makes your writing ineffective.

Figures of speech add life and vividness to writing. Figures of speech compare one thing abstract with another thing, which is usually literal or concrete.


Metaphors are implied comparisons.

e.g. After listening to the speech of the senator, I was a volcano within although I was still calm without.

e.g. He is a hog at mealtime.


Similes are direct comparisons to bring out the imagination of the readers.

e.g. After listening to the speech of the senator, I was like a volcano about to erupt although I was still calm on the outside.

e.g. He eats like a hog.

Similes always use words as or like.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

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Idioms are words and phrases in a language that have come into existence for a variety of reasons, some obvious enough, some inexplicable, but most of them appropriately and delightfully characteristic of the race that created them.

American idioms are no exception; they reflect American culture at every social level. They are used in everyday life, in speaking and in writing, in movies and on television, and by people from all walks of life. Some of them may be unfamiliar even to some Americans, especially ESL (English as a Second Language) learners.

In this book, there are approximately nine-hundred American idioms selected for ESL learners to provide them with a better understanding of American English.

Learn American idioms so that you may know what they mean when they are used by Americans, and use them in their right context in your speaking and writing in your daily contacts with Americans. Each American idiom comes with a simple explanation followed by one or more examples, showing you how to use it.

Make an effort to learn ten American idioms a day, and then review what you have learned over the weekend. Then proceed to learning another ten, and so on and so forth. You may not remember all the American idioms that you have learned, but, rest assured, they will come back to you when you hear them in your social contacts with Americans. Learning American idioms is as important as learning the vocabulary, the sentence structure, and the grammar usage of American English. If you plan to stay in the United States, learning American idioms is a must.
Learning a language takes time and effort, especially if it is not your first language. Even if it is your mother tongue, you still need time and effort to master it because almost every language has its own slang and colloquial expressions, and the English language is no exception.

Language is forever changing. What is currently acceptable or popular may be replaced by something else in years to come, and the use of slang is a strong testament to that.

Slang is just an alternative way of saying something. It is sometimes hard to identify what is slang and what is not. Slang and colloquial expressions are often acceptable in informal writing because they are used in communication in movies, newspapers, radio, television, and other mass media The more you learn, the more you will know when to use or not to use them in your formal writing. No matter what, knowing these common everyday expressions is a plus for all ESL learners.

Words are neither effective nor ineffective; they just impart different meanings to the sentences in which they are used. It is the writer's effective use of words and phrases that makes sentences effective or ineffective.

The English language is made up of nearly a million words and phrases. A writer, especially one whose English is not his or her first language, may face two major problems in writing: not knowing "enough" words; and not knowing how to choose the "right" words. Writing is made up of words.

Effective writing requires having a good stock of vocabulary, as well as selecting the most suitable words and phrases to express the intended ideas. There are many English words and phrases that are frequently confused and misused by ESL learners. This book provides hundreds of those words and phrases with examples to show how they should be used correctly.

Prepositions are words that indicate the relationships between various elements within a sentence. In formal English, prepositions are almost always followed by objects.

e.g. The policeman shot (verb) the man (object) with (preposition identifying the man being shot) a knife.

e.g. I put (verb) the pen (direct object) on (preposition indicating the position of the pen) the table (indirect object).

e.g. I put (verb) the pen (direct object) under (preposition indicating the position of the pen) the table (indirect object).

Prepositional phrases always consist of the object and the preposition. Prepositional phrases can act as adjectives or adverbs. When they are used as adjectives, they modify nouns and pronouns in the same way single-word adjectives do. When prepositional phrases are used as adverbs, they also act in the same way single-word adverbs and adverb clauses do, modifying adjectives, verbs, and other adverbs.

Prepositional words and phrases are difficult, especially for ESL learners, because different prepositions may impart different meanings to the prepositional words and phrases. Even the same preposition may have different meanings to the same verb.

Break in
: enter without permission; interrupt; train; get used to something new.

e.g. A burglar attempted to break in last night but without success.

e.g. Don’t break in while someone is talking; it’s rude!

e.g. The manager has to break the new employees in so that they may know what to do.
e.g. You should break your new car in before you drive on the highway.

This book has hundreds of prepositional words and phrases with explanations and examples, just like the ones illustrated above, for you reference. Improve your English with your mastery of prepositional words and phrases.
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Which of the following sentences are incorrect?

(1) The Bible tells us to follow Jesus’ teachings.
(2) Follow William Bates’s methods of good vision.
(3) You must do this for your own conscience’s sake.
(4) The Old Testament explains in detail Moses’ Ten Commandments.
(5) A wise dog scratches it’s own fleas.
(6) Hurry up! It’s getting late.
(7) She is Charles’s girlfriend.


You must do this for your own conscience’s sake.
A wise dog scratches it’s own fleas.


Always form the possessive of singular nouns and abbreviations by adding an apostrophe and an s. This rule applies even if the noun or abbreviation ends in s.
The exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names, such as Jesus and Moses, and such forms as for conscience’ sake, and for righteousness’ sake.

It’s” means “it is”, while “its” is a possessive.

Which of the following sentences are incorrect?

(1) Coming home from school yesterday, I met my cousin who came to see me.
(2) My cousin is older than I. An undergraduate of Harvard University who is studying medicine.
(3) The man was screaming for help. No response.
(4) I had worked at the computer for more than ten hours, I felt completely exhausted.


My cousin is older than I. An undergraduate of Harvard University who is studying medicine.


“An undergraduate of Harvard University who is studying medicine” is a subordinate clause, which has to be attached to a complete sentence.

My cousin, who is older than I, is an undergraduate studying medicine at Harvard University. (improved)

My cousin is older than I. He is an undergraduate studying medicine at Harvard University. (improved)


I had worked at the computer for more than ten hours, I felt completely exhausted.


Never join two independent sentences with a comma. Instead, use a period (full-stop). You may use a colon for explanation, a semi-colon to replace a conjunction, a coordinate conjunction (e.g. and, but, or, nor, for, so yet), or simply use a full-stop to have two independent sentences.

e.g. I felt completely exhausted: I had worked at the computer for more than ten hours. (improved: the colon explaining why I was exhausted)
e.g. I felt completely exhausted: I had worked at the computer for more than ten hours. (improved: the semi-colon replacing the subordinate conjunction “because” or “for”)
e.g. I felt completely exhausted because I had worked at the computer for more than ten hours.(improved)
e.g. I had worked at the computer for more than ten hours, and I felt completely exhausted. (improved)
e.g. I had worked at the computer for more than ten hours. I felt completely exhausted. (improved)

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The English language is made up of WORDS, which are nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, and articles. The combination of these words forms SENTENCES.

To learn and master English, you must learn its grammar, which consists of rules for you to follow when using and combining the words, especially when you write.


There are 3 types: 1.1.simple sentence; 1.2.compound sentence; 1.3.complex sentence.

A sentence is made up words: a subject; and a verb. It may or may not have an object.

A subject or an object can be nouns or pronouns.

Nouns are names of animals (e.g. bird, cat, snake), emotions (e.g. anger, joy, sadness), ideas (e.g. belief, theory, understanding), people (e.g. man, policeman, soldier), things (e.g. bottle, chair, knife), and so on.

Pronouns are words that represent or stand for nouns: I, you, we, they, she, it, and they.

e.g. I = teacher

e.g. You = student

e.g. They = soldiers

Verb indicate being or an action:

e.g. He is a policeman.

e.g. They are children.

e.g. A bird sings.

e.g. A knife cuts.

A verb may also come in different forms or tenses.

A transitive verb has an object (which is a noun or pronoun); an intransitive verb does not have an object. Some verbs are only transitive verbs, and some are both transitive and intransitive. A good dictionary tells you whether a verb is either or both.

e.g. He laughs all the time. (only transitive)

e.g. He laughs at you all the time. (you is the object of the preposition at, and not the object of laughs; so "laugh" is considered an intransitive verb.)

e.g. She sings a song. (transitive)

e.g. She sings. (intransitive)

A sentence must have a subject and a verb, although the subject may be implied or understood:

e.g. (You) Take your money.

e.g. (Nobody is allowed to smoke here) No smoking here!

The subject must agree with the verb:

e.g. I am; he is; it is; she is; they are; we are; you are.

Add "s" to a noun to make it plural or indicate more than one:

e.g. "a boy"; "many boys"; "two boys"

But there are many exceptions to the rule:

e.g. "kiss" becomes "kisses"; "tax" becomes "taxes"

e.g. "half" becomes "halves"; "man" becomes "men"; "child" becomes "children"

In English, description words, such as this and that, pair up with singular nouns, while these and those, with plural nouns.

e.g. this apple; that student; these children; those flowers

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

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Colon and semi-colon are often used in writing. What are their differences?

Colon is used mainly for the following reasons:

(1) To introduce a quotation or a dialogue, e.g. The President said: "Racial discrimination should not be tolerated."  Of course, a comma can also be used. The only difference is that a colon is stronger than a comma in introducing what follows.

(2) To emphasize what is to follow, e.g. He wanted only one thing: money.

(3) To explain something, e.g. The manager works very hard: he never leaves his office before 8 p.m.

Semi-colon is used for the following reasons:

(1) To replace the use of coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor,so, yet), e.g. He worked very hard; he passed his test with flying colors. (He worked hard, so he passed his test with flying colors.)

(2) To separate long sentences, e.g. When he finished his work, he went to the mall, where he spent hours shopping; he was very tired but he did not want to go home because he had an argument with his wife that morning.

(3) To introduce sentences for balance, e.g. In the morning, she does some stretch exercises; in the afternoon, she goes to the gym; in the evening, she goes to a yoga class.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

The Use of ITALICS

In English, sometimes words and phrases are slanted to the right--the use of italics. Effective writing requires the use of italics appropriately. The following  shows how to use italics effectively:

(1) Use italics for titles.

e.g. The film The Interview has caused much controversy.
e.g. Have you read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace?

(2) Use italics for foreign words. The English language has acquired many foreign words, such as chef from France, and spaghetti from Italy, that have become part of the English language and they do not require to be put in italics.  However, many foreign words still require to be out in italics.

e.g. Gato is a Spanish word for cat.
e.g. Balance is expressed in the concept of yin and yang.

(3) Use italics for names of aircraft, ships, and trains.

e.g. Titanic  hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage.

(4) Use italics for emphasis, but avoid its overuse:

e.g. It is easy to find out how you can avoid credit card debt, but it is difficult to actually do it.

(5) Use italics for words, phrases, letters, and numbers used as words.

e.g. The alphabet b and d are easily confused by young children.
e.g. Do you know the difference between allude and delude?
e.g. Many people consider 13 an unlucky number.

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Copyright© by Stephen Lau

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Spill the beans: give information unintentionally.

e.g. "I told them that you will be on vacation next week." "It's supposed to be a secret. Well, you just spilled the beans.

Spitting image: exact image.

e.g. He has a spitting image of his brother: they are twins.

Bat along: move along smoothly.

e.g. This is not rush hour, and cars do bat along.

Bone-head: a simple-minded person
e.g. Don't be a bone-head! Do some thinking!

Blue pencil: censor.
e.g. The committee will blue pencil whatever you are going to say.

Hold one's horse: wait a minute; not immediately.

e.g. Dinner is ready, but hold your horse; wait for the host to come down!

In good nick: in good condition.

e.g. If I were you, I would buy this car; it's in good nick.

Boil over: become angry.

e.g.  Get away from him: he's boiling over with rage.

Put one's thinking cap on: seriously consider.

e.g. Well, I'll have to put my thinking cap on this before I can give you an answer.

Rake it in: earn money quickly.

e.g. If you invest in this, you can really rake it in.

Bone up on: study hard.

e.g. If you wish to pass your test, you'd better bone up on it.

Bowl over: overwhelm.

e.g. I was bowled over by all the information received at the seminar.

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In the hole: in debt

e.g. You are always in the hole because you spend too much.

Let bygones be bygones
: forget all past wrongdoings

e.g. After all these years, she will not let bygones be bygones: she still holds me responsible for the tragic car accident.

Late in the day: kind of late

e.g. Don’t you think it’s late in the day to change your tactics?

Just as well: good that an unexpected problem has come up

e.g. It was just as well the customer didn’t show up; we didn’t have anything ready for him.

Put in a good word for someone: say something in support of

e.g. I hope you will put in a good word for me when you see the manager.

After a fashion: somehow or somewhat
e.g. I play the piano after a fashion-well, not a concert pianist.

Drop the ball: make a mistake; fail in some way

e.g. I just can’t rely on you to do anything. You always drop the ball.

Keep someone posted: keep in touch; keep someone up to date

e.g. When you go to college, I expect you to keep us posted every now and then.

Live out of a suitcase: travel a lot

e.g. I am just tired of living out of a suitcase for so many years.

Play second fiddle: assume a less important position

e.g. I hate to play second fiddle to you, who get all the credit.

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Blow in
: visit unexpectedly

e.g. What a surprise! What blows you in ?

Blow over: end without causing harm

e.g. The Mayor expected the riot would blow over in a day or two.

Blow up: become very angry

e.g. As soon as he heard the bad news, he blew up and screamed at every one.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

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Light: (as a verb) come across; happen to find.
e.g. I lighted upon a very interesting book in the library.

(as a verb) brighten up; make something less heavy.
e.g. Can you lighten the dark corridor?
e.g. Your financial support lightened my burden.


: having to do with brain cells or nervous system.
e.g. My brother is a neural scientist.

Neutral: not helping or taking any side.
e.g. He remained neutral in this controversial issue.


: the exact opposite
e.g. You think I did not help him. On the contrary, I did everything I could to help him.

: comparison.
e.g. Contrast may make you see things very differently


: foretell.
e.g. These minor quakes might portend a big earthquake in the near future.

: a sign or warning; a marvelous thing in the future.
e.g. A bright future is your portent.


: donation; an act of helping and supporting.
e.g. Thank you for your contribution to the project.

: sincere sorrow for sin.
e.g. The convicted criminal showed contrition when he apologized to the family of the victim.

Stephen Lau

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Essentials of Effective Writing

Effective writing begins with a desire not only to write but also to write well. Desire galvanizes your efforts to improve your writing skill no matter what.

There is no formula for success in writing. The key to success is “practice, practice, practice.” After all, writing is a skill; like any other skill, you must practice it before you can master it. You learn from your mistakes, and practicing writing improves your writing. If you write everyday, you will become a more competent and proficient writer. If you learn the mechanics and techniques of writing, your writing will become more effective. It is just a matter of time. And it is just that simple.

Writing is a learning experience for all. Anybody who wants to write learns how to write. One learns how to write by writing-just as one learns how to walk by walking. Everybody can write, as long as the heart is willing to learn and master the skill of writing.

However, to be a good writer, you must possess certain innate qualities:

An interest in words-the subtle shades of meaning between words; the power of words; the sound and rhythm of words

A knowledge of and passion for the subject-writing what you love and loving what you write

A creative mind-the creativity to visualize with vivid imagination, and to see things from different perspectives; the ability to see the relationship of the whole to its various parts

Personal discipline-time set aside to write, to re-write, to edit, and to re-edit

Willingness to learn and to improve-mastering basic writing skill through repeated practice and editing

Remember this: failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

Stephen Lau
Copyright© by Stephen Lau

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