Writing Papers for History- Tips on Proper Style

You must follow the following guidelines for all papers for this class.  Your failure to do so will result in a lower grade, so please read this page carefully.


Common Grammar and Style Mistakes

And now a few common grammatica and stylistic problems that oftern appear in student writing; as you proofread your paper make sure to avoid the following common grammatical or stylistic errors:

1. Use the past tense when writing about the past.  This is a history course, which means you are writing about the past and must use the appropriate verb tense.  In some of your English or writing classes you might have been told to use the "literary present" tense when writing about a book or story in order to give your writing more immediacy.  For a HISTORICAL ANALYSIS of a piece of writing, however, you should always use verbs in the past tense.

2. Do not use contractions in formal writing (didn't, couldn't, etc.). Contractions are fine for informal speaking or writing, but an essay or paper for a college class is formal writing.

3. Do not use slang or profanity in formal writing. Again,
an essay or paper for a college class is formal writing.

4. Do not confuse there/their/they're or your/you're. Those words all mean different things and cannot be used interchangeably.

5. Do not use first person pronouns in scholarly writing (I, me, etc.). The focus of your paper should be on the document or topic in question, rather than on your own reaction to it.

6. Do not use second person pronouns in scholarly writing (you, your, etc.) either.  In informal spoken English, "you" is sometimes used as a general third person pronoun (for example, "You don't want to let down your guard around a zombie.")  In formal written English, however, you should use an actual noun or third person pronoun (for example, "One should not let down one's guard around a zombie").

7. Use apostrophes correctly to designate possession. Do not use an apostrophe to designate a plural (for example, the plural of Nazi is "Nazis" not "Nazi's").

8. Pronouns and antecedents should always agree. "They" is a plural pronoun, and should not be used as a singular pronoun-- instead use he or she, as appropriate (recently, some have proposed the use of "they" as a gender neutral singular pronoun. Such usage, however, is not yet widely accepted, and is not really appropriate in the first place for scholarly discussions of the past when people were identified solely as either males or females).

9. Subjects and verbs in your paper should always agree. 

10. Avoid indefinite pronoun reference. Your writing should always make absolutely clear to what your pronouns refer. For example, "This is a bad idea" makes use of indefinite pronoun reference-- the reader cannot tell to what "this" refers. Instead your sentence might read "This unclear use of pronouns is a bad idea," which is far easier for the reader to understand.

11. Avoid excessive use of the passive voice, which can make your writing weak and unclear. For example, "This zombie was killed by her" makes use of passive voice. "She killed the zombie" is far stronger and more clear.

12. Do not use the verb "feel" when you really mean "think" or "believe." A person feels emotions. Ideas or opinions are thought or believed.

13. Avoid awkwardly phrased sentences. Sometimes there is not necessarily something grammatically wrong with a sentence, yet it still can be an unclear, convoluted mess. One way to avoid awkward sentence structure is to proofread your paper by reading it out loud.  Sometimes a sentence which seems fine on the page is revealed to be a problem when spoken aloud.

14. Always refer to an author or historical figure by his or her last name. Using first names is only appropriate with people you know, and even then, only in an informal setting.

15. Use complete sentences, rather than sentence fragments.

16. Format your footnotes correctly. See the links on the course syllabus under the heading "citations" for more information on footnote formatting.

17. Include a separate bibliography page listing all of your sources. You always should provide formal citations for all of your sources of information.

18. You should include a thesis statement which sets out your main arguments as clearly and specifically as possible.