Tips for Better Prose

2007 by David S. Goldstein, Ph.D.

University of Washington, Bothell

 

This is a partial list of common errors I find in student writing and suggestions for avoiding them. If you have questions, contact me <https://catalysttools.washington.edu/umail/form/?i=124&o=davidgs> or the friendly consultants at the UWB Writing Center <http://www.bothell.washington.edu/WritingCenter/>.

Note: I am quite aware that "standard English" is only standard because people who have the power to set the standard have declared it to be so. Other English dialects are just as valid and logical. However, using non-standard English, especially in formal writing, will not get you very far. Learn to play the game. You can write and speak however you like outside institutions of power like the university. Moreover, using the conventions that are expected by your readers will help them understand your ideas, which is, of course, the main purpose of writing for an audience.


1. Avoid sentence fragments, such as:

Throughout this article, TuSmith gives plenty of examples of other authors and scholars. Some of whom she agrees with and mostly those she does not.

Note that the second sentence lacks a verb to go with the subject of the sentence, which is the word "some." The writer could have used a comma instead of a period, so that the second sentence instead would have become a dependent clause of the first sentence.

2. Avoid run-on sentences, including comma splices, such as:

Ethnic groups often feel a close tie to their heritage, however, ethnic writers do not exist in a vacuum.

To fix this sentence, the writer could have used a semicolon or else split the sentence into two sentences:

Ethnic groups often feel a close tie to their heritage; however, ethnic writers do not exist in a vacuum.
or

Ethnic groups often feel a close tie to their heritage. Ethnic writers, however, do not exist in a vacuum.

For a fuller explanation, see this document from the UWB Writing Center: <http://www.uwb.edu/writingcenter/RunonCommaSplice.doc>.

3. Small punctuation marks (commas and periods) always go inside of quotation marks, like this:

In the article, "Ethnicity and Community," Bonnie TuSmith calls for careful reading of ethnic literature.

TuSmith criticizes the treatment of ethnic writers as "others."

Big punctuation marks (exclamation points and question marks) go inside of quotation marks when they are part of the quoted material, and go outside of quotation marks when they are not part of the quoted material (i.e., when they are part of your sentence):

In his article, Jones asks, "Why are ethnic writers so often overlooked?"

Jones declines to state why he thinks ethnic writers are "often overlooked"!

4. When writing dates like decades or centuries, do not use an apostrophe to make a plural. This is incorrect:

the 1980's

This is correct:

the 1980s

5. Make sure your noun and verb agree in number. This is incorrect:

Some ethnic whites, but no one of color, was included. ["Ethnic whites" is plural, but the verb "was" is singular, so they disagree.]

This is correct:

Some ethnic whites, but no persons of color, were included.

6. Make sure your pronoun and its referent agree in number. This is incorrect:

Every student must be aware of their prejudices. ["Student" is singular but "their" is plural.]

This is correct:

All students must be aware of their prejudices. [Note that making the referent, "students," into a plural also avoids the awkward "he/she" problem.]

For a fuller explanation, see this document from the UWB Writing Center: <http://www.uwb.edu/writingcenter/NounPronoun.doc >.

7. Titles of long works (e.g., films, books, journals, magazines, and record albums) should be underlined or italicized. Titles of short works (e.g., articles, poems, short stories, chapter titles, and songs) should be put in quotation marks. For example:

The film, The Graduate, features the song, "Mrs. Robinson," by Simon and Garfunkel.

8. In formal writing, avoid contractions. This:

The author does not provide a good definition.

is better than this:

The author doesn't provide a good definition.

Contractions are not grammatically incorrect, but formal writing conventions usually include avoidance of contractions. This is an issue of style, not correctness.

9. Avoid passive voice, such as in this sentence:

Several sources were provided to support the main argument. [Note that the reader cannot tell who is performing an action, only that an action is occurring.]

This is better:

The author provides several sources to support the main argument.

Passive voiceis not grammatically incorrect, but active voice usually makes your writing clearer and livelier. This is an issue of style, not correctness.

For a fuller explanation, see this document from the UWB Writing Center: <http://www.uwb.edu/writingcenter/ActivePassive.doc >.

10. "Quote" is a verb, not a noun. Instead of saying,

The author includes a quote from another scholar.

you should say

The author includes a quotation from another scholar.

or--even better--

The author quotes another scholar.

11. Convention in most humanities disciplines (such as film studies and literary studies) dictates the use of present tense when discussing an author's work. For example, although it is grammatically correct to say, "Toni Morrison incorporated numerous references to flying in her novel," it is more conventional to put it in present tense: "Toni Morrison incorporates numerous references to flying in her novel." This convention holds even if the author is dead. (Luckily, Morrison is still alive and well and writing brilliant literature.)

The same is true for discussions of literary plots: "The mob chases the hero" is better than "The mob chased the hero."

12. If you are asked to format your paper in MLA style, double-space everything. That means one blank line between each line of writing, including between your title and the first line of your paper, and within and between entries in your Works Cited list. That is one of the few simple rules in MLA style, yet it is commonly disregarded. Consult the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 5th ed. If I have not specified a style for a paper you are writing for me, you do not need to follow MLA style exactly, but I always want papers completely double-spaced throughout. The easiest way to make sure your paper is completely double-spaced is to highlight the entire text (command-A in Microsoft Word), choose "Paragraph" from the pull-down Format menu, and select "Double" under "Line spacing." Then make sure that you have not inserted any extra returns.

13. Do not strand quotations, and do not quote too much. See "Using Direct Quotation" <http://faculty.washington.edu/davidgs/Quotation.html> by Becky Reed Rosenberg.

14. Use a hyphen within words, as in "non-entity," but use a dash to separate two phrases, as in "The cat--one of nature's most curious creatures--hunts mice." (Please note that, as in this example, you can create a dash by typing two hyphens together if your word processing program does not automatically create dashes or you do not know the command.)

15. When referring to individuals, provide the full name on first reference, and then only the last name on subsequent references. Drop all titles, such as "Ph.D." or "Ms."

Using titles with names is not grammatically incorrect, but formal writing conventions in the humanities, as codified in MLA style, usually include avoidance of titles with names.

16. Avoid second person ("you") statements, unless you really mean the reader. For example, instead of saying,

When you turn on the television set, you expect to see commercials.

you should say something like,

When viewers turn on the television set, they expect to see commercials.

Second-person statements are not grammatically incorrect, but formal writing conventions usually include the careful and logical use of pronouns. This is a matter of style, not correctness.

17. In most cases, statements are much stronger than questions. You usually are better off avoiding a rhetorical question, because you cannot be sure the reader will answer the way you intended. You maintain control over the reader's thinking if you make statements instead. For example:

Advertisers think Americans are unsophisticated.

is stronger than

Do advertisers think Americans are that unsophisticated?

Questions are not grammatically incorrect, but formal writing conventions usually include avoidance of questions unless there is a specific and rhetorically tactical use for them. This is a matter of style, not correctness.

18. I prefer that you do not state what you are going to do in a paper. Just do it. For example, I recommend changing

In this paper, I will use evidence from business research to show that graduates of UW-Bothell get better jobs than graduates of Wassamatta U.

to:

Graduates of UW-Bothell get better jobs than graduates of Wassamatta U.

This rule includes avoiding the phrase, "In conclusion ..."

Explicit statements of purpose are not grammatically incorrect, but formal writing conventions in the humanities usually include avoidance of such statements unless there is a specific and rhetorically tactical use for them. This is a matter of style, not correctness.

19. If you are citing an electronic source that does not contain its own page numbers (e.g., a World Wide Web site, or a full-text article retrieved through an academic database), omit page numbers from your in-text citations.

For example, let us say that you used Expanded Academic Index to retrieve an article by Maria Rivera, which originally appeared on pages 55 to 72 in Journal of Social Psychology (made up for this example). You might want to cite a particular idea she presents, but since you do not have the article as it originally appeared in print, you do not know which page contains the idea you want to cite. Just because the idea appears on the second page of what you printed does not mean you should indicate that the idea is on page 2. That is only an accident of your own browser and printer. Think of it this way: a reader will be confused if you say the idea appeared on page 2 of the article, and then you say, on the Works Cited page, that the article runs from page 55 to 72.

Instead, omit the page number from your in-text citation. Then, on the Works Cited page, give all of the original publication information (author, article title, journal name, volume, date, page numbers), but also indicate where you got the article and the date you retrieved it. For example:

Rivera, Maria. "The Psychology of Interpersonal Humor." Journal of Social Psychology 34 (May 1998): 55-72. Expanded Academic Index. U of Washington Libraries. 25 June 2003.

In this example, the writer provides all of the original article publication information, as well as the name of the database, where he or she accessed it, and the date he or she accessed it.

Here is an example of how to cite a page on the World Wide Web:

Spencer, Mary. A Brief History of Soap Operas. 25 June 2003 <http://www.rollanet.org/~mary/soapshistory.html>.

In this example, the writer provides the author and title of the web page (if available), its complete URL inside of angle brackets, and the date he or she visited the site.

Depending upon individual sources, you might need to vary these entries. These are only two examples. See the latest edition of the  MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers for more information about citing electronic sources.

20. I prefer that you do not use title pages. Instead, use a simple heading in the upper-left corner of your first page which includes your name, the date, the course number, and my name. Put each of these items on its own line, like this:

Susan Husky

May 1, 2007

BIS 361

Prof. David S. Goldstein

Headings should be double-spaced, just like everything else in the paper. (See item #12.)

This heading format is specified by MLA style and is conventional for papers written in the humanities.

21. I prefer that you do not right-justify your text. It tends to distort spacing within each line of text.

22. I prefer titles that are meaningful. Use, rather than something generic like, "Essay 1," a title that gives a hint of your main argument. Avoid questions or full sentences in titles. Also, since your entire paper should be double-spaced, you should have exactly one blank line between the last line of your heading and the title, and one blank line between the title and the beginning of your paper's body. (See item #12.) These are examples of good titles:

Chivalry in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep

The "Final Frontier": Multiculturalism in Star Trek

The Classroom as Contact Zone

Racial Profiling: A Legacy of Discrimination

Note that titles are in plain text (no underlining, italics, or bold, except that titles of books or films should be underlined in the title of a paper, and quoted material should be in quotation marks, as in the second example above) and that all major words (and minor words that follow a colon) are capitalized. Although this format is specifically associated with MLA style (other instructors might like different styles), I always like titles to follow this format, even when I do not specify MLA style.

23. I prefer that you indent each paragraph five spaces, but the indentation itself is more important than the number of spaces. (MLA style includes a five-space indentation as standard.)

24. The proper pronoun to use in reference to people is "who," not "that." For example, write, "Students who study get better grades," rather than, "Students that study get better grades."

25. Use double quotation marks except for quotations within quotations, like this:

Anita Martini notes that "women in the 1930s rarely were 'breadwinners' but often contributed to household income" (128).

26. Avoid sexist language, such as the use of "man" instead of "humans" or "people." For example, instead of writing

Man has always told stories.
or
Stories have always been important to mankind.

you can write the more gender-neutral

Humans have always told stories.
 
or
Stories have always been important to humankind.

27. Use parallel construction.  For a detailed explanation, download and read this explanation (an Adobe Acrobat [.pdf] file) from CompWeb, an online composition site provided by publisher W. W. Norton.

28. Use semicolons appropriately.  For a detailed explanation, download and read this explanation from the UWB Writing Center: http://www.uwb.edu/writingcenter/Semicolon.doc .

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Last updated September 2, 2007.

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