w r i t i n g g u i d e l i n e s

Dr Graham N Drake

Dept of English

SUNY Geneseo

Revised 1/99

apostrophe An apostrophe shows possession. Example:

The elephant's dinner. If more than one thing or person possesses something, the apostrophe comes after the plural sign. Example: The elephants' dinner. (A dinner belonging to two or more elephants.) In rare cases, plural forms don't end in "s." Example: The children's dinner. If a person's name ends in "s," indicate possession with just an apostrophe. Example:
Anthony Edwards' dinner.

Note: use apostrophes with nouns or names. Example:

The queen's army.

Citizens' duties.

Elizabeth's advisers.

Do not use the apostrophe with simple plurals: Example: The organization's that I want to belong to are all on Chandler Street or Lark Avenue. (incorrect)

The organizations that I want to belong to are all on Chandler Street or Lark Avenue. (correct)

Do not use apostrophes with personal pronouns that happen to end in "s"--its, hers, his, ours, yours, theirs.

assertion vs argument When you make a statement, you assert something. When you back up that statement, you argue. Always prefer argument to assertion in a non-fiction essay.

audience Whenever you write, try to think of yourself communicating with an audience. How much does your audience know? How much do you have to explain to them? Are they hostile to what you have to say?

cannot This compound of "can" and "not" is always one word, not two.

Case Pronouns go into the "objective case" after prepositions (me, you him, her, us, them). Examples:

The queen invited me for tea.

The queen invited mom and me for tea. (Not: The queen invited mom and I for tea.)

Say a little prayer for me. (Not: Say a little prayer for I.)

clauses and phrases A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb.

An independent clause can also stand by itself as a complete sentence. Example:

Their daughter majored in marketing. A dependent clause cannot stand by itself as a complete sentence because it begins with a subordinating conjunction (such as "after," "although," "because," "before," "even if," "even though," "if," "since," "though," "when," "while," etc.). Example: Even though their daughter majored in marketing. As long as a sentence contains at least one independent clause, it is a complete sentence.

phrases are groups of words that do not contain both a subject and a verb. Examples:

The dog who bit the mailman. (Subject: "dog"; no verb goes with this subject.)

After leaving Saskatoon.

Majoring in marketing.

By definition, phrases are not complete sentences.

conciseness Try to state things with as few words as possible. Don't get windy; I know the difference between b.s. and true substance. Try as well to use simpler words whenever possible: use big words like "meretricious" or "troglodyte" SPARINGLY. Prefer above all a simple, clear, direct style.

confused words Examples:

To affect means "to influence or modify something that already exists." (verb)

To effect means "to make something happen, to bring into being." (verb)

An effect is the result of some action. (noun)

An altar is a table-like structure for making religious sacrifices or offerings. (noun)

To alter means "to change or modify." (verb)

Definite is the correct spelling rather than definate.

To elicit means "to bring forth, draw out"--for example, to elicit a response. (verb)

Illicit means "bad, illegitimate, not permitted," often with a sexual connotation. (adjective)

Emanent means "flowing out of."

Eminent means "prominent" or "best."

Immanent means "inherent."

Imminent means "about to happen."

Lead is the present tense of "to lead." The past tense is led (not lead).

Existence is the correct spelling, not existance.

A principal is the head of your school and is its principal employee.

Let's hope your principal follows good rules and principles.

Prophecy (pronounced "profa-SEE") is a noun. It is a forecast or prediction of the future.

Prophesy (pronounced "profa-SIGH") is a verb. It means to make a prediction about the future.

Prophesize is an incorrect form of prophesy.

A woman is one female. The word women refers to more than one female.

essay format There are actually many approaches to organizing, writing, and revising an essay. Nothing is written in stone, but use the follow guidelines as a model if you need one.

Begin your essay with an introductory paragraph that presents the problem you'll be talking about. In this beginning paragraph, you move from the broad general area of your discussion (say, political problems in ancient Rome) to a specific sentence that is the focus of your paper (say, the rise of Julius Caesar's power). This statement is called your thesis.

From that point you move on to the body of the paper. You should discuss your points in a logical order. For example, if your thesis statement says you'll be talking about Brutus, Cassius, and Julius Caesar, than discuss them in that order (not Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Cassius). You should also choose the most logical order of points; if your points include women in ancient Greece, women in ancient Rome, and women in modern Japan, it would not make sense to discuss Greeks, then Japanese, then Romans. Further, each paragraph should stand for one major point in your essay, but often you will need more than one paragraph to cover all the sub-points of one major point.

When you arrive at your conclusion, you're now moving from the specific back to the general. You are able to restate (in different words; don't parrot the introductory paragraph) the thesis or even speculate beyond its implications, talk about what you've learned in the course of discussing the thesis, end with a quotation, etc. Your conclusion should not just end the paper abruptly but give a sense of closure and completeness.

few or less Use few for things you can count. Use less for things you can't. Examples:

Few Americans speak a foreign language these days.

Fewer Americans have visited Vancouver this year than last year.

Philadelphia gets less snow than Saskatchewan does.

footnotes and bibliography For simple papers with only one or two texts cited, there is no need to use complicated footnotes--I'd rather you devote the time to thinking. In such cases, whenever you quote or paraphrase part of a text, indicate the text in an abbreviated fashion, followed by the page number (generally speaking, use the author's name, e.g., Thucydides, 28). A bibliography is optional for a short paper with only one source. For a paper with more than one source, please include a brief bibliography page. Use the following model, and notice the indentation:
  Havelock, Eric. A Preface to Plato. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: Belknap, Harvard University Press, 1963.   Plato. The Symposium. Trans. Walter Hamilton. London; New York: Penguin, 1951. For complex research papers, consult the MLA Handbook for footnote and bibliography conventions.

gender  Try to use gender-neutral terms to ensure inclusion of males and females alike. Prefer "humanity" or "people" to words such as "man," "men," or "mankind." Also, prefer the plural to the singular; for example, instead of saying, "Each voter has an obligation to examine his own position on the issue," try, "All voters have an obligation to examine their own positions on the issue."

if-then statements  If you write an "if-then" statement in past tense, use the pluperfect tense in the "if clause" and the conditional "then-clause." Example:

If I had gone to Florida last week, I would have missed the Indigo Girls. (Not: If I would have gone to Florida last week, I would have missed the Indigo Girls.) it's/its Distinguish these two forms. it's means "it is"; its means "belonging to it."

linking verbs These verbs, such as "to be," "to appear," "to seem," or "to taste" connect a subject to its complement. Linking verbs lack the force of active verbs and often end up sounding wordy. Example:

He is a teacher at McClung Elementary


He teaches at McClung Elementary.

not a novel In general, a novel is a lengthy work of fiction that features a well-plotted narrative with several major and minor characters. Realistically speaking, there are no novels in Western Humanities I. Texts that are not novels, therefore, include Thucydides' Peloponnesian War, Plato's Republic, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, and Christine de Pizan's Book of the City of Ladies. Virgil's Aeneid and Dante's Divine Comedy are forms of epic poetry. Also not novels are More's Utopia, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and Tocqueville's Democracy in America.

organization Be the boss of your own essay; keep it from jumping around haphazardly from one unrelated thought to another. Think before you write, and if it helps, make an outline. Keep paragraphs organized as well.

orwell's rules Here is some advice from George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language":

1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

paragraphs Paragraphs are the building blocks of your essay, so they need to be well constructed. They should have a definite topic sentence that states the theme of the paragraph, followed by enough supporting sentences to prove or develop the thesis statement. Usually this topic sentence is the first or second sentence of the paragraph, but sometimes it's the last. Paragraphs should have unity (be about one thing) coherence (have good organization) and development (completely discuss the topic sentence). Especially in short papers, avoid long paragraphs; keep each paragraph to less than two-thirds of a page.

passive voice A passive voice construction uses a form of the verb "to be" plus the past participle. Example:

The poison was drunk by Socrates. Notice that the real actor of the sentence, Socrates, sinks into a despairing little prepositional phrase, while the poison, once an object, now upstages Socrates as the technical sub of the sentence. Such a construction is weak and wordy.

Avoid passive voice whenever you can.

pluperfect When you are discussing what happened in 1492, you use the past tense. But what if you then want to talk about what happened before 1492 in the same paper? Use the pluperfect tense. This is formed with the past tense of "have" plus a past participle. Example:

Ferdinand and Isabella sent Christopher Columbus to search for an alternative route to the Far East. Before this time, the king and queen had conquered parts of Spain from the last Arab monarchs there and had consolidated power. pronoun reference Make sure your reader knows what you're talking about when you say "he" or "she" or "this." Observe the following passage with its correction: Basil knew that Harriet was coming with George, but he didn't know that he was supposed to take him to lunch. Neither did Basil. Now, George was a funny fellow and could easily have hurt feelings---though why he should feel any pain with all the money he was making--well, this made him upset.


Basil knew that Harriet was coming with George, but George didn't know that Basil was supposed to take him to lunch. Neither did Basil. Now, George was a funny fellow and could easily have hurt feelings-- though why he should feel any pain with all the money he was making--well, George's oddities upset Basil very much.

quotations Indent and separate quotations or more than three lines, as in the following example: When you're quoting something more than three lines long, indent the quote one tab space over. Single-space the quotation itself. Also, separate the quotation from the rest of the paragraph with a skipped space. See also footnotes and bibliography.

relevance Everything you say in your paper, and every piece of evidence you bring up, should need to be there. In a paper criticizing Plato's treatment of women, there is no need to give an elaborate summary of The Republic or a history of Greek politics. Only summarize what is absolutely necessary for a proper understanding of your argument.

Gauging relevance depends on your audience, too. Do your readers need a complete synopsis of More's Utopia? Not in a humanities class where everyone and the instructor his read the work.

Relevance goes for introductions, too. Rather than several vague sentences rambling on about how "many people have appreciated great works of art for centuries," try to zero in on the point. For example, if you're describing how Leonardo da Vinci uses anatomical study to recreate realistic art, try starting your introduction with Leonardo himself, or realist art, or even Thomas Eakins' anatomical studies Remember, a short (4-5 page) paper doesn't have time for small talk.

revising Writing is a process that you can approach in a variety of ways. It's often helpful to think for a while about your topic; take a walk and go over your topic in your mind, write an imaginary letter to a friend about the subject, brainstorm, or construct a formal outline. If you feel like writing the conclusion first, try that; in writing, unlike speaking, it's OK to go backwards.

Don't struggle with the construction of every sentence; don't worry at first about style, grammar, or spelling. Just get your draft down first.  It's a lot easier to work with a real piece of writing to be tinkered with and smoothed out than to polish up a practically empty page.

When you're done with your draft, put it aside for at least a few hours--better yet, a day or two. Then go back and revise. Figure out if you've included enough relevant content in your argument, and whether your argument is effectively persuasive; find some more apt quotations; see if you've used an effective form of organization; look at paragraph construction and transitions; examine your grammar and punctuation; and then read the entire essay out loud to see if the style sounds right and the paper "flows" on the whole. Go back and revise as many times as you need to.

sentences Too many short sentences sound choppy. They do. They don't sound right. They can grate on you. They can irritate you. They can get your goat. On the other hand, when you consider the situation (if it is in your power to, and who am I, indeed, who is anyone to divine the levels of a given soul's innate capacities, perhaps it can be said that even one long sentence (and, when it is multiplied over and over, adding a parenthetical expression here, an interjection here, a semi-colon here and there and everywhere--why, isn't that a Paul McCartney song that Emmylou Harris covered?-- well, you lose your train of thought), the cause irritation to its readers; can appear, to a reader of sound judgment, too languid and desultory: for what is the reader except the sole reason for the transmission of any of our thoughts, words, ideas, hopes, dreams, and visions?

So try to vary your sentence length whenever you can.

Subject-verb agreement If your subject is singular, make your verb singular; if your subject is plural, make your verb plural. Examples:

Iris buys peanuts for the elephants.

Iris and Doug buy peanuts for the elephants.

NOTE: The son of Iris buys peanuts for the elephants. See also there is/there are.

subjunctive We only use subjunctives in a few cases in English--usually in statements of probability, desire, uncertainty or hypothesis. Usually, the term of the subjunctive is the same as the infinitive (the "to" form) with some special forms for the verb "to be." Examples: If I were you, I would visit Indonesia next summer. (Not: If I was you.)

He prefers that she go to Indonesia right this minute! (Not: that she goes.)

Whether I be friend or foe, please let me pass. (Not: Whether I am friend or foe.)

tense Convention has it that you talk about historical works in pat tense. Use present tense to relate events in a literary narrative or a philosophical work. (The Bible is hard to classify; generally speaking, use present tense in that case.) Whatever you do, keep verb tense consistent; don't arbitrarily switch from one tense to another.

there is/there are This is a strange verb form called an expletive, which simply indicates that something exists.  If that something is singular, use there is; if plural, use there are. Examples:

There is no place like Kansas.

There are only five raspberries left in the bowl.

titles Capitalize all words in titles except articles (a, an, the) and prepositions. Normally, the titles of the Bible and the Koran are not capitalized.

transitions As you move from one sentence to another or from one paragraph to another, make transitions--"on the other hand," "furthermore," and "also" are some, though you can repeat words or ideas from a previous sentence. Observe these two sentences:

The church also spread its missionary effort to England. Up till 597, England had remained a pagan nation. The word "England" provides the transition from the general statement about missionary effort to specific spiritual conditions in England.

who, whom, which, that These are known as "relative pronouns." They usually begin clauses that modify a noun or noun phrase; these relative clauses act like adjectives but come after the noun.

Use who and whom for persons. Examples:

She is the professor who always brings Pop Tarts to class.

Napoleon is the historical figure whom I care least about.

Notice that who is the subject of the verb in the clause; whom is the object of the verb.

Use which or that for things or concepts:

The survey, which cost $400, 000, will not shed new light on teenage difficulties.

Billy Budd is one opera that William appeared in.