The Style Sheet

For lack of anything substantive to post right now, please enjoy my style sheet for undergraduate papers. Comments or suggestions are welcome.


These rules do not apply to all forms of writing, but they do apply to formal, academic prose. Thus, you are to follow them when submitting assignments for this class. Violations will bring your grade down!

• Number your pages.

• Always have a proper title. “Western Civ. Paper” or “Book Review” are not proper titles.

• A novel is defined as “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” Do not refer to any historical book as a “novel.”

• Please italicize the titles of books, and place the titles of articles in “quotation marks.”

• Please accurately designate when past events occurred. Do not use vague phrases like “at that time” or “in those days.”

• Be aware of the distinction between it’s and its, and all other homophones such as:

thrown and throne
to, two and too
whose and who’s
populace and populous
four, for and fore
allowed and aloud
principle and principal
fourth and forth
know and no
since and sense
their, there, and they’re
cited and sited
pray and prey
rein, rain, and reign
your and you’re

• Avoid “process” statements, such as “after reading this document” or “I have chosen to write about A and B” or “at first this wasn’t clear to me.” Just as athletes dress in the dressing room or chefs cook in a kitchen, so also you should hide the essay-writing process from your reader. Just get down to it.

• Make sure that pronouns agree with the nouns they refer to. Instead of: “When a student does not come to class, they are in trouble” write “When a student does not come to class, he is in trouble” (both singular, if sexist) or “When students do not come to class, they are in trouble” (both plural).

• It must also be clear which noun a pronoun is referring to. “The Serbs disdained the Croats, because they were more sophisticated.” Who was more sophisticated?

• If you have a subordinate clause referring to a person, make sure that the relative pronoun is who, not that or which. “Many people that voted were confused” ought to be “Many people who voted were confused.” Always use “who” to refer to people (and “that” to refer to things).

• “Where” refers to a place, and “when” to a time. Do not write things like “the century where this event occurred.”

• Do not neglect the proper formation of past participle. For example, write “he was supposed to do it,” not “he was suppose to do it.”

• Verbs in the active voice tend to be better than verbs in the passive voice. “The dog ate its breakfast” is usually better than “the breakfast was eaten by the dog.” The passive voice can be useful, such as when you do not know who was doing the eating (“The breakfast was eaten.”). Too many passives, however, make for weak prose. Name the actors and their motivation.

• One recounts literature in the present tense (ex. “No one can be certain if Hamlet is really insane”) but recounts history in the past tense (ex. “Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death around A.D. 30.”). Always use the past tense when writing about historical events. Certainly, you should not shift tenses when recounting the past (“Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, and then washes his hands of the matter”).

• Make sure that you write in complete sentences.

• Only use commas where appropriate. In particular, avoid placing a comma after the main verb in a sentence, e.g. “He wanted, to establish an absolute monarchy.” Omit the comma. Also, do not join independent clauses together only with a comma (a comma splice) or with nothing at all (a run-on sentence).

• Please use the examples below as models for the formation of possessives. Do not form plurals with apostrophe-s.

Singular noun: The dog’s breakfast (apostrophe-s)
Singular noun ending in “s”: Prince Charles’s bald patch (s-apostrophe-s)
Plural noun not ending in “s”: The women’s salaries (apostrophe-s)
Plural noun ending in “s”: The deans’ luncheon (s-apostrophe)
Special case: Jesus’ parables, Moses’ laws (s-apostrophe)

• Avoid colloquialisms, such as “Henry VIII was a righteous dude” or “the Black Death was a major bummer.” They are out of place in formal writing and imply that the reader does not need to take you seriously.

• The first time you mention some person or some thing you should explain who or what it is. Always give a person’s name and job description in full the first time you mention him or her – “U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt,” for example. Later, you can give his last name only. Similarly, write “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” before you start using “NATO.”

• Practice proper parallelism. Write sentences like “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” or “The Bible contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers.” Do you see how these work? In the first sentence, the four objects of the verb “to offer” are all single-word, concrete nouns. In the second sentence, four nouns, each modified by an adjectival phrase, act as the object of the verb “contains.” That is, all the list items are grammatically parallel to each other. Do not write lists that do not exhibit such parallelism, for example: “The candidate promised quality, frugal, clean administration, and honest.” (A possible revision: “The candidate promised quality, frugality, cleanliness, and honesty.”)

• Each paragraph should function as its own mini-essay. A paragraph should start with a topic sentence and stick to that particular topic, with the sentences flowing logically from one to the other. If narrating events, the events should be narrated in the order they occurred – certainly, information should not be introduced without explanation.

• Think carefully about the words you use. If you are unsure of the meaning of a word, look it up in a dictionary. Use a thesaurus to find words that are similar in meaning. Come back to your paper more than a day after writing it and read it through. Does it make sense? Can you say it better?

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