Professor William Cook
Department of History

SOME PROBLEMS COMMONLY ENCOUNTERED

IN WRITING PAPERS AND EXAMS

Jump to the following sections:
Grammar Punctuation Words and Usages Spelling Typing the Manuscript General
 

It is inevitable that people make mistakes of various sorts in the writing of examinations and term papers.  This document is designed to help eliminate some errors that appear with regularity at Geneseo.  You should read it over carefully and make some mental notes concerning those parts that address problems you have encountered and mistakes you commonly make.  Obviously, you will still make some of those mistakes on examinations because of the pressure of time and the lack of opportunity to proofread your essays before turning them in.  Still, to be aware of certain problems is a step on making changes so that they become "automatic" after a while.  While writing term papers, you should use this document extensively.  I suggest that you read it over before starting a rough draft. Then you should read through your paper before printing out or typing the final version with this document close at hand and make all appropriate changes.  Leaving a little time between the completion of a draft and the final preparation of the paper makes the search for and correction of mistakes much easier and produces a better finished product.  Failure to pay attention to the items in this document will seriously jeopardize your grades on papers.  You will inevitably make some mistakes, but they should not be those you have been specifically warned against.  Most of the issues discussed below are rather mechanical in nature, and I am not asking you to change your writing style or immediately become stunningly brilliant.

GRAMMAR

Be careful that your pronouns refer to something or someone and that they are in the right number.  Here is a common sort of mistake.
 

Rome is a city; they have a republic.

Rome is singular; thus the plural pronoun "they" does not refer to anything.  What is needed here is something like one of the following:
 

Rome is a city; it has a republic.
or
Rome is a city; its citizens have a republic.
or
The Romans have a republic.

Master the possessive. Here are some correct examples:
 

the boy's ball=the ball of the boy
the boys' ball=the ball of the boys
the men's game=the game of the men (mens' does not exist)

You can never split a word to make it possessive.  For example, there is so such thing as "Athen's constitution" because the city is called Athens.  You can use either Athens' (my preference) or Athens's.

The possessive pronoun of the third person singular is "its." You cannot use "it's" as a possessive; "it's" can only mean "it is."  There is no such word as "its'."
 

PUNCTUATION

Punctuating compound sentences correctly is important. A compound sentence is one containing two independent clauses, i.e., two clauses that are complete sentences by themselves.  Here is an example:
 

Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and then he defeated Pompey.

Grammatically, "Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon" is a complete sentence as is "Then he defeated Pompey."  Compound sentences almost always require punctuation between independent clauses.  Here are the basic rules.  If the independent clauses are connected by the coordinating conjunctions "and," "but," "for," "or," or "nor," and there is no punctuation within either clause, then the correct punctuation is a comma before the coordinating conjunction.  A good example is the compound sentence about Julius Caesar above.  If either of the two conditions listed above--coordinating conjunction present and no internal punctuation--is not met, the required punctuation is a semi-colon.  Consider the following:
 

Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon; then he defeated Pompey.
(no coordinating conjunction)
or
Julius Caesar, his army, and his equipment crossed the Rubicon; and then Caesar quickly defeated Pompey.
(internal punctuation)
or
Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon; thus, he entered Roman territory.
(no coordinating conjunction and internal punctuation)

When you are punctuating a series, it is useful to place a comma after each item.  Thus, I prefer "lions, tigers, and bears" to "lions, tigers and bears."  However, the latter is not incorrect.  If any item in a series has internal punctuation, use semi-colons to separate the items in the series. Thus,

Indiana; Iowa; Oklahoma, although only the panhandle; and Colorado are nice places to visit.
 

WORDS AND USAGES

There are several pairs of words that appear to be identical in meaning but are not.  Make sure you use the following words properly:
 

to reason and to rationalize
economic and economical
simple and simplistic
material and materialistic
There are other pairs of words that are sometimes confused because they sound and/or look so much alike.  Be careful of these:
 
affect and effect
compliment and complement
imply and infer
principle and principal
capital and capitol
lose and loose
throne and thrown (!)

Use the verb "to orient"; "orientate" is bad form.

The word "quote" is a verb; the noun is "quotation."  Do not write about a quote but rather about a quotation.

The past tense of the verb "to lead" is "led"; it is pronounced like the heavy metal but is spelled without an "a."

Often the verb "to try" is followed by another verb.  In that construction, the verb following "to try" should be in the form of an infinitive.  Thus, you want to use, for example, "to try to do something" rather than "to try and do something."

The abbreviation for et cetera is etc., not ect.

Know the difference between the Latin abbreviations e.g. and i.e.  The former means "for example," while the latter means "that is."

When you use a relative pronoun referring to people, use "who" or "whom" rather than "that."  For example, you should write about "the citizens who vote" rather than "the citizens that vote."

Be sure to capitalize all proper names and generally words that derive from them.  Just about everyone knows to capitalize Rome, but some forget to capitalize Roman.  An exception is that the adjective "biblical" is not capitalized although Bible is.

Book titles are underlined or italicized.  When you cite many of the old books I teach, it is not necessary to start with "The."  For example,
 

Augustine wrote his Confessions in the 390s.

Do not include the author's name in the title even when the edition you use seems to make his/her name part of the title.  Thus, do not cite Plato's Republic but rather Plato's Republic. The only book whose title is not underlined is the Bible, which is, you will note, capitalized.

The abbreviations BC, AD, AM, and PM are capitalized but do not need periods after any of the letters.
 

SPELLING

Some words in English are spelled differently in Britain than in America; and we often encounter these differences in books that come from England, e.g.,  all Penguin Classics.  For example, our word "labor" is spelled "labour" in England, and the American "honor" is "honour" on the other aide of the Atlantic.  When writing papers, use the American spelling unless you are quoting.

Here is a list of 44 words that students at Geneseo often misspell.  I have indicated some of the most common misspellings in parentheses:
 

all right (2 words, not alright)
a lot (7 words, not alot)
among (not amoung and better form than amongst)
anoint (not annoint)
argument (not arguement)
background (not backround)
benefited (not benefitted)
cannot (1 word, not can not)
chaos (not caos or kaos)
chosen (not choosen as the past participle of to choose)
coincidence (not coincidents)
commitment (not committment)
definitely (not definately or definitly)
description (not discription)
develop (not develope)
divine (not devine)
emperor (not emperior or emporer)
explanation (not explaination)
ideology (not idealogy)
irritate (not iritate)
Israel (not Isreal)
Jerusalem (not Jeruselum)
mandatory (not manditory)
naive or na•ve (not naif)
no one (2 words, not noone)
occurred and occurring (not occured and occuring)
occurrence (not occurrance)
persevere (not perservere)
precede and preceded (not preceed and preceeded)
privilege (not priviledge)
proceed and proceeding (not procede and proceding)
prophesy and prophesied (VERBS) (not prophecy and prophesized)
prophet and prophecy (NOUNS)
publicly (not publically)
referring (not refering)
regard (not reguard)
relevance (not relevence)
sacrifice (not sacrafice)
sacrilege and sacrilegious (not sacrelege and sacrelegious)
separate (not seperate)
shepherd (not shepard)
testament (not testement)
through (not thru)
writings (not writtings)

 

TYPING THE MANUSCRIPT

All papers must be typed, double-spaced, with one-inch margins on all four sides.  You should use ten characters per inch if you have a choice of pitches.  A page should contain no more than 28 lines.  If you use a word processor, and I urge you to do so, find out how to set the margins before printing your final draft.  It will not do to tell me that the printer refused to keep the proper margins.  The printer does what you tell it to do.

Be sure that you have a good typewriter or printer ribbon/cartridge.  If not, change ribbons before preparing the final draft of your paper.  I do not want papers that require decoding glasses due to bad print quality.

I prefer that you not justify the right margin.

All pages should be numbered.  If you number the pages at the bottom, begin with page 1, the number centered.  If you number pages in the upper right corner, begin numbering with page 2.  The title page does not count as a page.  You may choose to place your name as well as the page number in the upper right corner.

Do not repeat the paper's title on page 1.

Every paper should have a title and a title page, and the title should not be "Term Paper" or "Paper #1."  The title should be in the center of the title page.  It should not be underlined or have quotation marks around it; however, if your paper includes a book title, for example in a book review, the book title should be underlined.  You should put your name, the course number and/or title, and the date in the lower right portion of the title page.

I do not like plastic binders.  If you hand in a research paper with endnotes, I prefer it to have a paper clip in the upper left corner.  For an analytical paper, I prefer a staple in the upper left corner.

When you divide a word between lines, you may not split a syllable to do so.  For example, you may divide the word republic only at two places: re-public or repub-lic.  If you do not know where syllable breaks occur in the word you are typing, look it up in the dictionary.  You cannot divide a word so that there is only one letter of it on a line, even if that letter is a syllable.  For example, in the word adapt, the syllable break is after the first "a."  However, the word cannot be divided because the first "a" would be alone on a line.

If you are quoting a few words or a phrase or a short sentence, you should not set the text off from the paragraph of which it is a part. The quoted words must be placed in quotation marks in the context of that paragraph.  If you are quoting a passage of more than two or three lines, you should set it off from your text by indenting the left margin five spaces and preferably the right margin by the same amount.  You should triple space before and after the quotation, and the entire quotation should be double-spaced.  When you are quoting this way, you do not use quotation marks.  Do not single-space quotations!  When you are quoting a few words, use the following form (you do not have to preface the quotation with a form of the verb "to say," however):
 

In the Republic,Plato says: " . . .
or
In the Republic,Plato says that, " . . .

When you incorporate a quotation into a sentence, remember that all the words, both within and without the quotation marks, must make a grammatical sentence and must be punctuated correctly.  The following is not good form:
 

In the Republic,Plato writes "the cave contains all of us."

Instead, use something like the following:
 

In the Republic,Plato writes that, "the cave contains all of us."

When typing, you must make the distinction between a hyphen and a dash.  The former is a single "-."  For example, you use a hyphen (obviously) in hyphenated words such as two-fisted or non-allied.  A dash is typed with two hyphens (--). For example,
 

Socrates was a true philosopher--that is, he loved wisdom.

The abbreviation for "page" in a note or citation is "p." and not "pg."  A citation to more than one page is "pp."

GENERAL

Do not use the verb "feel" or the noun "feeling" to mean "think" or "believe" or "thought" or "belief."  Use the verb "feel" or the noun "feeling" only to describe emotions or to refer to the sense of touch.  Do not write, for example, about what Plato feels about democracy but rather what he thinks or believes about it.

Avoid using the second person (you, your, yours) in expository prose unless, of course, you are quoting a text.

Generally, it is good to avoid the use of contractions (don't, isn't, etc.) in formal prose, including term papers.

Paragraphs contain several related sentences.  There is no rule about the proper length for a paragraph.  However, if you write more than three full paragraphs per typed page or have paragraphs that exceed a page in length, you probably need to work on better paragraphing.

You should write out the numbers of centuries in term papers, although you do not need to do so on exams.  Thus, write about the "fifteenth century" rather than about the "15th century."  When you are using a century as an adjective, place a hyphen between the number (spelled out) and the word "century."  For example, you could write about a twelfth-century manuscript or about a manuscript of the twelfth century.

If there is any doubt about whether a date you use is BC or AD, indicate which it is.  There are some people who prefer to make our dating system more secular.  Thus, they prefer to call those years AD by the term Common Era or CE.  Those dates usually referred to as BC are known as BCE.  You may use either dating system.

Remember that the number of the century of a particular date is one greater than the first or first and second digits of a date. This is true for dates BC (BCE) as well as dates AD (CE).  Thus, 457 BC is in the fifth century BC, and 457 AD is in the fifth century AD.  The thirteenth century BC consists of the years 1299-1200 BC, and the thirteenth century AD consists of the years 1200-1299 AD.

There is no year zero.  According to our calendar, the day after December 31, 1 BC is January 1, 1 AD.

In book reviews and analytical papers about a particular text or texts, it is not necessary to make footnotes.  However, you do need to give citations in the text of your paper when you quote, refer to a specific passage, or take specific ideas.  When you do so, you should use the following forms:
 

Thucydides argues that his book will be useful to future generations (p.48).  (Note that the period that ends the sentence comes after the citation.)
or
Thucydides suggests that history, "will at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future" (p.48).  (The period that ends the sentence is the very last thing; the citation in this case comes between the quotation mark and the period.)

If it were not clear from the context that you were referring to Thucydides, for example if this was a paper comparing several historians and the name Thucydides did not appear in the sentence, your citation would have had to include Thucydides' name: (Thucydides, p.48).  If you were using multiple works by the same author in your paper and you were also examining works by more than one author, you would have to give a citation like this: (Sophocles, Antigone, p.37).

If you end a quotation with an ellipsis, use it correctly.  Use three dots (no spaces between them) to indicate some words omitted.  If the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence, use four dots, i.e., the ellipsis plus a period.  If there is no citation at the end of the sentence, the four dots are together:
 

Jesus says in Luke 9:23 that everyone must, "take up his cross...."

If there is a citation at the end of the sentence, do the following:
 

Jesus says that everyone must, "take up his cross..." (Luke 9:32). (ellipsis, quotation mark, citation, period)

In general, you should try to write in the active voice rather than the passive voice.  Consider the following two sentences:
 

Dante wrote the Inferno.
The Inferno was written by Dante.

The first is in the active voice while the second (... was ... by...) is in the passive voice and not as interesting a sentence.

It is difficult to sustain the verb tense we call the historical present, i.e., writing about past events in the present tense.  The historical present is sometimes more vivid than using the past tense, but it often breaks down into confusing inconsistencies.  I am not saying that you should not use this tense, but you should be aware of how difficult it is to use consistently. For example,
 

When Pericles speaks to the Athenian Assembly, he convinces the majority that they should go to war against Sparta.  He predicts, however, that they will lose the war unless they act prudently.

The above statement is a little livelier than the following:
 

When Pericles spoke to the Athenian Assembly, he convinced the majority that they should go to war against Sparta.  He predicted, however, that they would lose the war unless they acted prudently.

However, when trying to write in the historical present, students sometimes create something like this:
 

When Pericles speaks to the Athenian Assembly, he convinced the majority that they should go to war against Sparta.  He predicts, however, that they would lose the war unless they acted prudently.

You should make a serious effort to avoid language that is gender exclusive. Here is an example of what I mean:

 
Renaissance man was aware of his debt to classical antiquity.

There are two gender problems with this sentence.  First, there were obviously women as well as men in the Renaissance, and this is not a statement only about males in the Renaissance.  Second, the pronoun "his." suggests that only Renaissance males were indebted to classical antiquity.  Here are two alternative ways of making a statement about the Renaissance's debt to classical antiquity without using gender-exclusive language:
 

People in the Renaissance were aware of their debt to classical antiquity.
or
Men and women in the Renaissance were aware of their debt to classical antiquity.

There may be times when you want to use the inclusive "his/her" as a possessive pronoun although in general using plural subject and the pronoun "their" reads better.

Do not use the word "man" to mean people.  For mankind, you can easily substitute the inclusive "humanity."  Of course, you cannot alter quotations, and you will often be aware of the different views of gender and language that existed in the societies we will study.  In the Bible and much Christian literature, the pronoun used to refer to God is "He."  You may wish, when offering your own analysis, to avoid using a male pronoun to refer to God.

Try to be sensitive to the fact that we often use words that have as their origins some sort of ethnic, racial, or gender slur.  When writing about Native Americans, for example, you would not call them "redskins."  However, we often forget that Asians and Asian-Americans generally find offensive the term "oriental" just as Polish people rightly resent being called Polacks or Germans resent being referred to as Huns.  Always try to be alert to words that may cause offense and try to erase them from your word options in class as well as in written work.

Unless there is some special reason, do not quote the dictionary.  Sometimes if students are asked to write about a subject such as the nature of justice in Book I of Plato's Republic, they will begin their papers with Webster's definition of justice.  This is a trite, unoriginal, and rarely successful strategy.  You can do better than this!