Tag Archives: good writing


I received an interesting question from an English teacher in Iran who wanted to know the differences, if any, between “must” and “have to/has to.” This is an interesting question because the expressions are nearly identical. To answer, I had to think not only about their strict definitions but also about how they are used.

The terms “must” and “have to/has to” are modal auxiliaries that communicate (1) an obligation to perform some action or (2) that some state of being or action is highly likely. They are nearly interchangeable.


These expressions have differing connotations when used to communicate an obligation. Unlike “have to/has to,” “must” communicates a sense of moral obligation such that the action is the morally correct action. They also have slightly different connotations when used to express states of being or the likelihood of an action. Unlike “must,” “has to/have to” can describe the absence of any other choices.

Finally, “must” may express an opinion as a moral judgment, as in, “In my opinion, this action I am telling to you perform is the right action. If you do something else than what I am telling you, you are doing something bad.” Thus, similar to “should,” “must” can take an opinion and change it into a moral judgment. This is true because morals are value judgments, which are subjective.


In some contexts, “must” is similar to “should” in that “must” communicates a sense of moral obligation to perform some action or moral correctness of a choice. In other contexts, “must” communicates that a certain state of being is so likely that any other possibility is inconceivable.

“She must pay her bills on time or she will go to jail.” – moral obligation to perform some action

“She must pay her bills on time because she never gets late payment notices.” –highly probable state of being

“You must protect your children.” –moral obligation, the right choice

“You must be tired by now.” –highly probable state of being

“I must stop at the corner.” –the only correct state of being or action


In most contexts, “has to/have to” communicates a requirement to perform some action, similar to “must” but without the sense of moral correctness. In other contexts, “has to/have to” communicates that a certain state of being is so likely that any other possibility is inconceivable.

“She has to pay her bills on time.” –obligation to perform some action.

She has to pay her bills on time because she never gets late payment statements.” Highly probable state of being

“You have to protect your children.” An obligation or requirement

“You have to be tired by now.” –highly probable state of being

“I have to stop at the corner.” –the only possible state of being, with no other options


However, as mentioned, in casual speech these words are often interchanged. A particularly astute person can draw on the connotative differences to argue against a statement that he “must” or “has to” perform some action. A person may use one connotation of the expression, and another person can argue using a differing connotation. This will create conflict. If it doesn’t create conflict, it will, at least, create confusion.

For example, if my wife says, “You have to take out the trash,” I could respond, “I could watch TV instead.” Here, she is using the connotation that expresses an obligation, but I respond as if she meant that no other options are possible. I reply that her statement is wrong because I do have other choices.

On the other hand, if my wife says, “You must take out the trash,” I could respond, “No, I probably won’t.” Again, she is expressing an obligation using words that can communicate an opinion about the morally correct choice. I reply as if she meant that taking out the trash is the most likely, or highly probable, action, which, in my opinion, it isn’t.

In practice, neither response will be well received. My response is pretty much guaranteed to create conflict.

The best communicator will seek to understand what the other person intends to communicate with “have to/has to” and “must,” and then will respond to that intended meaning, regardless of the words used.

1 Comment

Filed under Writing

From Bad to Good-Technical and Academic Writing

concise.blogpromo2Academic and technical writing are far different than literary writing, such as novels and poetry. The primary purpose of academic and technical writing is to provide information about a defined topic to a specific audience. Whether you write graduate papers, professional journal articles, dissertations, white papers, manuals, websites, reviews, or similar documents, you are writing academic or technical documents.

Academic and technical writing can be bad writing. They can be complicated, tedious, and confusing. They can be terribly boring. Unfortunately, bad academic and technical writing is common (which makes bad writers nearly indistinguishable from their crowd of peers).

Why do people write badly? Possibly, they think the writing is supposed to be dull and confusing, or perhaps they think it sounds more professional. Maybe they have read a lot of poor writing, so when they review their writing, it sounds “right.”

On the other hand, academic and technical writing can be good writing. They can be clear and straightforward, logical, persuasive, and useful. They can be wonderfully interesting. Unfortunately, good writing is uncommon (which makes good writers stand out from their peers).  Continue reading


Filed under Writing

Correct Use of “Rather Than”

Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“Rather than . . . the truth to them, Peter takes pleasure in deceiving the family and receiving credit.”

a) breaking
b)to break



This is a great question, and it is one I don’t often see. On the other hand, it reflects a concept that confuses many people: parallelism.

Correct use of “rather than” 

“Rather than” indicates a parallel structure in which two things are compared. To be grammatically correct, the two things being compared need to be equal, meaning they have the same grammatical structure or form.

Here are two simple examples to demonstrate the parallel structure created by “rather than.”

Example 1: “He enjoys driving rather than walking.” In this example, “driving” is being compared to “walking,” both of which are gerunds.

Example 2: “I would rather drive than walk.” Here, “drive” and “walk” are being compared. With the “rather than” expression divided, it is simple to see how “rather than” indicates a comparison.

Here is a slightly more advanced example that gets closer to your question. “Rather than repair the car, I prefer to buy a new one.” This sample compares “repair” to “to buy.” When using “rather than” to compare something with an infinitive, and when the “rather than” expression is in an introductory descriptive phrase, use the base infinitive without the “to.”

Now that we see how “rather than” creates a parallel structure, let’s look at your question.  Continue reading


Filed under Writing

Be More Active with Your Writing

Active and Passive Voice: When you are active, you do something. When you are passive, things happen to you. This is the same concept as the active and passive voice in sentences.

In the active voice, the subject performs the action described by the main verb. In the passive voice, the action described by the main verb is done to the subject.

Example D.1a, active voice: “The service team collected the parts.”
(subject: service team; main verb: collected)
Example D.1b, passive voice: “The parts were collected by the service team.”
(subject: parts; main verb: collected)

In example D.1a, the subject did the action, so the sentence is active. In example D.1b, the action was done to the subject, so the sentence is passive.

To determine whether your sentence is active or passive, first find the subject and main verb. Then ask, “Is the subject doing the verb?” If the answer is Yes, the sentence is active. If the answer is No, the sentence is passive.

If we describe this concept as a formula, we get this:

S >> V = active (the subject does the action)
V >> S = passive (the action is done to the subject)

Grammatically, the active voice looks like this:

Subject – Verb – Object (i.e., Who did what to whom?).

On the other hand, the passive voice uses the object as the subject of the verb, resulting in

Subject&Object – Verb (i.e., To whom was it done?). Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

4 Strategies for Objective Writing

Good technical or academic writing is objective, yet many writers inadvertently insert their own opinions about, and responses to, the content. In this way, they damage their credibility and reduce the value of what they write.

Feelings, emotions, opinions, and beliefs are called, collectively, individual perspective. An individual perspective indicates the perspective of one person: the writer. In all forms of technical writing, your individual perspective is inappropriate.

Think about your reader. Your reader is seeking believable, credible information. Your opinions, etc. are not believable, credible information. They only apply to you; they do not apply to your reader.

The most obvious cases are sentence that contain such phrases as I feel that, I believe, and in my opinion. If you can express the idea as a fact, do so. If you cannot express the idea without those phrases, remove the sentence entirely.

Writers also interject their individual perspectives by using particular words and by making judgments, as explained below. Continue reading


Filed under Writing

“Was” vs. “Were”

I have a question. Please answer my question. Which choice is correct? A or B? and why?
A) If I were you, I would help the poor.
B) If I was you, I would help the poor.
Well, as you know both a) and b) are conditional unreal clauses . My friend says that educated people will never ever use option B) and that option B) is used just by illiterate people.  He says that in conditional unreal clauses, one should use only the were form of be no matter what the subject.
Do you agree with my friend? As an educated person, do you use WAS in your speeches and writings when it comes to the “if clauses” of conditional unreal clauses?



Your friend is both right and wrong.

Your friend is right that option A (“were”) is the correct usage. When using conditional clauses (such as beginning with “if”) and when the condition is unreal or imaginary, the correct verb form is “were.”

For example, “If I were a painter, I would paint my own house.” The conditional unreal clause is “If I were a painter.” It establishes a condition for painting my own house, and it is unreal because I am not a painter.

Your friend is wrong that educated people never use option B (“was”). They do, although the incorrect usage is more common in speech than in writing.

When people speak casually, they tend to use speech habits and not analyze their word usage carefully. Indeed, the value of habits is that we can act without conscious decision-making, but it can lead to problems, as well. I probably use “was” in speech sometimes, although I am far more likely to use “were.” In my case, the correct usage is a trained, consciously developed habit. Now, “were” sounds more natural to me than “was.”

The reason many people use the wrong form, particularly in speech, is that people tend to use language the way they commonly hear the language, particularly how they heard the language used in their early years. The result is that the “wrong” usage sounds correct and natural and they don’t realize that they make mistakes.

We see the same problems with usage of “data” and “staff,” for example.

Free E-book to Improve Your Writing Skills

Writing strategies and instruction from
Precise Edit’s writing guides

  • 1 critical article from
    Precise Edit Training Manual
  • 8 days of instruction from
    300 Days of Better Writing
  • 5 top strategies from
    Bang! Writing with Impact
  • 2 essential word choices from
    Which Word Do I Use?
  • 1 major comma use from Zen Comma
  • 1 powerful chapter about main verbs from Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing

Get the free e-book (PDF) OR
Purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing

The 3 Cs of Effective Paragraphs

Every well-written paragraph needs three parts: context, content, and conclusion. These three parts are known collectively as the 3 Cs. When you use the 3 Cs, you present information logically, you help the reader understand your message, and you demonstrate the relevance of your idea.

Context. The first sentence (or two) of a paragraph establishes the context. The context has two purposes:

1.   Reveal the single idea that will be discussed, and

2.   Demonstrate how the idea relates to the previously discussed idea.

To establish context, first determine the single idea you will discuss next. The first sentence (or two) presents that idea. Second, think about the logical connections between the idea and the previous idea. The first sentence (or two) provides the transition from one idea to the next by demonstrating those connections. Example B1 illustrates how context is established.

Example B.1:

[final sentence of a paragraph about nurses’ responsibilities] When nurses fully understand these duties, they can interact as a team to improve patient well-being.
[first sentence, i.e., context, of the next paragraph] A patient may have many needs that a single nurse, or other healthcare provider, cannot address alone.

In example B.1, the first sentence of paragraph two establishes the context for the paragraph that follows. First, it reveals the main idea: patients have multiple needs. Second, it shows the relevance of the main idea to the previous idea. It does this by echoing words or concepts found in the final sentence of the previous paragraph. Here, the first sentence of paragraph two contains the words patient, needs, and single nurse. These words relate to patient, well-being, and team (of nurses) in the final sentence of paragraph one. As a result, the reader will know what to expect from the paragraph, will be able to make sense of the information to follow, and will understand its relevance within the logical flow of ideas. Continue reading


Filed under Writing