ESL Teaching Materials

Academic Writing 2

Academic Writing 1
Academic Writing 2
Writing for Research Purposes
Course Outlines
Course Outline 1
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Test 1
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Basic Rules of Writing
Writing a Personal Statement
Reference Desk
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This page answers some questions that university students ask about writing

Quotation Marks

Use quotation marks [ “ ” ] to set off material that represents quoted or spoken language. Quotation marks also set off the titles of things that do not normally stand by themselves: short stories, poems, and articles. Usually, a quotation is set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma; however, the typography of quoted material can become quite complicated. Here is one simple rule to remember:

In the United States, periods and commas go inside quotation marks regardless of logic.

In the United Kingdom, Canada, and islands under the influence of British education, punctuation around quotation marks is more apt to follow logic. In American style, then, you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "Design." But in England you would write: My favorite poem is Robert Frost's "Design". The placement of marks other than periods and commas follows the logic that quotation marks should accompany (be right next to) the text being quoted or set apart as a title. Thus, you would write (on either side of the Atlantic):

·         What do you think of Robert Frost's "Design"? and

·         I love "Design"; however, my favorite poem was written by Emily Dickinson.

Further, punctuation around quoted speech or phrases depends on how it fits into the rest of your text. If a quoted word or phrase fits into the flow of your sentence without a break or pause, then a comma may not be necessary:

·         The phrase "lovely, dark and deep" begins to suggest ominous overtones.

Following a form of to say, however, you'll almost always need a comma:

·         My father always said, "Be careful what you wish for."

If the quoted speech follows an independent clause yet could be part of the same sentence, use a colon to set off the quoted language:

·         My mother's favorite quote was from Shakespeare: "This above all, to thine own self be true."

When an attribution of speech comes in the middle of quoted language, set it apart as you would any parenthetical element:

·         "I don't care," she said, "what you think about it."

Be careful, though, to begin a new sentence after the attribution if sense calls for it:

·         "I don't care," she said. "What do you think?"

Convention normally insists that a new paragraph begins with each change of speaker:

"I don't care what you think anymore," she said, jauntily tossing back her hair and looking askance at Edward.
"What do you mean?" he replied.
"What do you mean, 'What do I mean?'"
Alberta sniffed. She was becoming impatient and wished that she were elsewhere.
"You know darn well what I mean!" Edward huffed.
"Have it your way,"
Alberta added, "if that's how you feel."

In proofreading and editing your writing, remember that quotation marks always travel in pairs! Well, almost always. When quoted dialogue carries from one paragraph to another (and to another and another), the closing quotation mark does not appear until the quoted language finally ends (although there is a beginning quotation mark at the start of each new quoted paragraph to remind the reader that this is quoted language). Also, in parenthetical documentation, the period comes after the parenthetical citation which comes after the quotation mark" (Darling 553).

In reporting "silent speech"—noting that language is "said," but internally and not spoken out loud—writers are on their own. Writers can put quotation marks around it or not:

·         Oh, what a beautiful morning, Curly said to himself.

·         "Oh, what a beautiful morning!" Curly said to himself.

Some writers will set such unspoken language in italics or indent it in order to set it off from other "regular" language. That's probably not a good idea if there is a lot of it because the indents can be confusing and italics can become tiresome to read after a while. The decision will probably depend on the amount of silent speech within the text. Probably the best way to handle silent speech is to find an author whom you like who does a lot of this—Graham Swift in his novel Last Orders, for instance—and copy that author's style. Consistency, of course, is very important.

Be careful not to use quotation marks in an attempt to emphasize a word (the kind of thing you see in grocery store windows—Big "Sale" Today!). Underline or italicize that word instead. (The quotation marks will suggest to some people that you are using that word in a special or peculiar way and that you really mean something else—or that your sale is entirely bogus.)

The American Medical Association Manual of Style (9th ed, 1998) calls misused quotation marks like this Apologetic Quotation Marks and says:

Quotation marks used around words to give special effect or to indicate irony are usually unnecessary. When irony or special effect is intended, skillful preparation can take the place of using these quotes. Resort to apologetic quotation marks or quotation marks used to express irony only after such attempts have failed, keeping in mind that the best writing does not rely on apologetic quotation marks. (p 220)

We do not enclose indirect quotations in quotation marks. An indirect quotation reports what someone says but not in the exact, original language. Indirect quotations are not heard in the same way that quoted language is heard.

·         The President said that NAFTA would eventually be a boon to small businesses in both countries.

·         Professor Villa told her students the textbooks were not yet in the bookstore.

Double Punctuation with Quotations

Occasionally — very occasionally, we hope — we come across a sentence that seems to demand one kind of punctuation mark within quotation marks and another kind of punctuation mark outside the quotation marks. A kind of pecking order of punctuation marks takes over: other marks are stronger than a period and an exclamation mark is usually stronger than a question mark. If a statement ends in a quoted question, allow the question mark within the quotation marks suffice to end the sentence.

·         Malcolm X had the courage to ask the younger generation of American blacks, "What did we do, who preceded you?"

On the other hand, if a question ends with a quoted statement that is not a question, the question mark will go outside the closing quotation mark.

·         Who said, "Fame means when your computer modem is broken, the repair guy comes out to your house a little faster"?

If a question ends with a quotation containing an exclamation mark, the exclamation mark will supersede the question and suffice to end the sentence.

·         Wasn't it Malcolm X who declared, "Why, that's the most hypocritical government since the world began!"

A single question mark will suffice to end a quoted question within a question:

·         "Didn't he ask, 'What did we do, who preceded you?'" queried Johnson.

Single Quotation Marks

In the United States, we use single quotation marks [ ‘ ’ ] to enclose quoted material (or the titles of poems, stories, articles) within other quoted material:

·         "'Design' is my favorite poem," he said.

·         "Did she ask, 'What's going on?'"

·         Ralph Ellison recalls the Golden Age of Jazz this way: "It was itself a texture of fragments, repetitive, nervous, not fully formed; its melodic lines underground, secret and taunting; its riffs jeering—'Salt peanuts! Salt peanuts!'"

British practice, again, is quite different. In fact, single-quote marks and double-quote marks are apt to be reversed in usage. Instructors in the U.S. should probably take this into account when reading papers submitted by students who have gone to school in other parts of the globe.

In newspapers, single quotation marks are used in headlines where double quotation marks would otherwise appear.

·         Congress Cries 'Shame!'

Key concepts may be set apart with single-quote marks. When such concepts are set off in this way, periods and commas go outside the single-quote marks:

Sartre's treatment of 'being', as opposed to his treatment of 'non-being', has been thoroughly described in Kaufm



Rules for Comma Usage

1. Use a comma to separate the elements in a series (three or more things), including the last two. "He hit the ball, dropped the bat, and ran to first base." You may have learned that the comma before the "and" is unnecessary, which is fine if you're in control of things. However, there are situations in which, if you don't use this comma (especially when the list is complex or lengthy), these last two items in the list will try to glom together (like macaroni and cheese). Using a comma between all the items in a series, including the last two, avoids this problem. This last comma—the one between the word "and" and the preceding word—is often called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. In newspaper writing, incidentally, you will seldom find a serial comma, but that is not necessarily a sign that it should be omitted in academic prose.

2. Use a comma + a little conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses, as in "He hit the ball well, but he ran toward third base."

Contending that the coordinating conjunction is adequate separation, some writers will leave out the comma in a sentence with short, balanced independent clauses (such as we see in the example just given). If there is ever any doubt, however, use the comma, as it is always correct in this situation.

One of the most frequent errors in comma usage is the placement of a comma after a coordinating conjunction. We cannot say that the comma will always come before the conjunction and never after, but it would be a rare event, indeed, that we need to follow a coordinating conjunction with a comma. When speaking, we do sometimes pause after the little conjunction, but there is seldom a good reason to put a comma there.

3. Use a comma to set off introductory elements, as in "Running toward third base, he suddenly realized how stupid he looked."

It is permissible to omit the comma after a brief introductory element if the omission does not result in confusion or hesitancy in reading. If there is ever any doubt, use the comma, as it is always correct.

4. Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements, as in "The Founders Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River, is falling down." By "parenthetical element," we mean a part of a sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of that sentence. The parenthetical element is sometimes called "added information." This is the most difficult rule in punctuation because it is sometimes unclear what is "added" or "parenthetical" and what is essential to the meaning of a sentence.

Appositives are almost always treated as parenthetical elements.

·         Calhoun's ambition, to become a goalie in professional soccer, is within his reach.

·         Eleanor, his wife of thirty years, suddenly decided to open her own business.

Sometimes the appositive and the word it identifies are so closely related that the comma can be omitted, as in "His wife Eleanor suddenly decided to open her own business." We could argue that the name "Eleanor" is not essential to the meaning of the sentence (assuming he has only one wife), and that would suggest that we can put commas both before and after the name (and that would, indeed, be correct). But "his wife" and "Eleanor" are so close that we can regard the entire phrase as one unit and leave out the commas. With the phrase turned around, however, we have a more definite parenthetical element and the commas are necessary: "Eleanor, his wife, suddenly decided to open her own business." Consider, also, the difference between "College President Ira Rubenzahl voted to rescind the withdrawal policy" (in which we need the name "Ira Rubenzahl" or the sentence doesn't make sense) and "Ira Rubenzahl, the college president, voted to rescind the withdrawal policy" (in which the sentence makes sense without his title, the appositive, and we treat the appositive as a parenthetical element, with a pair of commas).

As pointed out above (Rule #3), an adverbial clause that begins a sentence is set off with a comma:

·         Although Queasybreath had spent several years in Antarctica, he still bundled up warmly in the brisk autumns of Ohio.

·         Because Tashonda had learned to study by herself, she was able to pass the entrance exam.

When an adverbial clause comes later on in the sentence, however, the writer must determine if the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence or not. A "because clause" can be particularly troublesome in this regard. In most sentences, a "because clause" is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and it will not be set off with a comma:

·         The Okies had to leave their farms in the midwest because the drought conditions had ruined their farms.

Sometimes, though, the "because clause" must be set off with a comma to avoid misreading:

·         I knew that President Nixon would resign that morning, because my sister-in-law worked in the White House and she called me with the news.

Without that comma, the sentence says that Nixon's resignation was the fault of my sister-in-law. Nixon did not resign because my sister-in-law worked in the White House, so we set off that clause to make the meaning clearly parenthetical.

When a parenthetical element — an interjection, adverbial modifier, or even an adverbial clause — follows a coordinating conjunction used to connect two independent clauses, we do not put a comma in front of the parenthetical element.

·         The Red Sox were leading the league at the end of May, but of course, they always do well in the spring. [no comma after "but"]

·         The Yankees didn't do so well in the early going, but frankly, everyone expects them to win the season. [no comma after "but"]

·         The Tigers spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, and even though they picked up several promising rookies, they expect to be there again next year. [no comma after "and"]

When both a city's name and that city's state or country's name are mentioned together, the state or country's name is treated as a parenthetical element.

·         We visited Hartford, Connecticut, last summer.

·         Paris, France, is sometimes called "The City of Lights."

When the state becomes a possessive form, this rule is no longer followed:

·         Hartford, Connecticut's investment in the insurance industry is well known.

Also, when the state or country's name becomes part of a compound structure, the second comma is dropped:

·         Heublein, a Hartford, Connecticut-based company, is moving to another state.

5. Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives. You could think of this as "That tall, distinguished, good looking fellow" rule (as opposed to "the little old lady"). If you can put an and or a but between the adjectives, a comma will probably belong there. For instance, you could say, "He is a tall and distinguished fellow" or "I live in a very old and run-down house." So you would write, "He is a tall, distinguished man" and "I live in a very old, run-down house." But you would probably not say, "She is a little and old lady," or "I live in a little and purple house," so commas would not appear between little and old or between little and purple.

6. Use a comma to set off quoted elements. Because we don't use quoted material all the time, even when writing, this is probably the most difficult rule to remember in comma usage. It is a good idea to find a page from an article that uses several quotations, photocopy that page, and keep it in front of you as a model when you're writing. Generally, use a comma to separate quoted material from the rest of the sentence that explains or introduces the quotation:

·         Summing up this argument, Peter Coveney writes, "The purpose and strength of the romantic image of the child had been above all to establish a relation between childhood and adult consciousness."

If an attribution of a quoted element comes in the middle of the quotation, two commas will be required. But be careful not to create a comma splice in so doing.

·         "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many things."

·         "I should like to buy an egg, please," she said timidly. "How do you sell them?"

Be careful not to use commas to set off quoted elements introduced by the word that or quoted elements that are embedded in a larger structure:

·         Peter Coveney writes that "[t]he purpose and strength of . . ."

·         We often say "Sorry" when we don't really mean it.

And, instead of a comma, use a colon to set off explanatory or introductory language from a quoted element that is either very formal or long (especially if it's longer than one sentence):

·         Peter Coveney had this to say about the nineteenth-century's use of children
in fiction
: "The purpose and strength of . . . . "

7. Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast.

·         Some say the world will end in ice, not fire.

·         It was her money, not her charm or personality, that first attracted him.

·         The puppies were cute, but very messy.

(Some writers will leave out the comma that sets off a contrasting phrase beginning with but.)

8. Use a comma to avoid confusion. This is often a matter of consistently applying rule #3.

·         For most the year is already finished.

·         For most, the year is already finished.

·         Outside the lawn was cluttered with hundreds of broken branches.

·         Outside, the lawn was cluttered with hundreds of broken branches.

I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.

— Oscar Wilde

9. Typographical Reasons: Between a city and a state [Hartford, Connecticut], a date and the year [June 15, 1997], a name and a title when the title comes after the name [Bob Downey, Professor of English], in long numbers [5,456,783 and $14,682], etc. Although you will often see a comma between a name and suffix — Bob Downey, Jr., Richard Harrison, III — this comma is no longer regarded as necessary by most copy editors, and some individuals — such as Martin Luther King Jr. — never used a comma there at all.

Note that we use a comma or a set of commas to make the year parenthetical when the date of the month is included:

·         July 4, 1776, is regarded as the birth date of American liberty.

Without the date itself, however, the comma disappears:

·         July 1776 was one of the most eventful months in our history.

In international or military format, no commas are used:

·         The Declaration of Independence was signed on 4 July 1776.

10. Use Commas With Caution. As you can see, there are many reasons for using commas, and we haven't listed them all. Yet the biggest problem that most students have with commas is their overuse. Some essays look as though the student loaded a shotgun with commas and blasted away. Remember, too, that a pause in reading is not always a reliable reason to use a comma. Try not to use a comma unless you can apply a specific rule from this page to do so.

Concentrating on the proper use of commas is not mere form for form's sake. Indeed, it causes writers to review their understanding of structure and to consider carefully how their sentences are crafted.


The Slash or Virgule

A slash or slant or solidus or virgule [ / ] is used to indicate a choice between the words it separates.

·         Using the pass/fail option backfired on her; she could've gotten an A.

The slash can be translated as or and should not be used where the word or could not be used in its place. To avoid gender problems with pronouns, some writers use he/she, his/her, and him/her. Many authorities despise that construction and urge writers either to pluralize when possible and appropriate (to they, their, them) or to use he or she, etc. instead. Notice there is no space between the slash and the letters on either side of it.

There is, however, a space when the slash is used to indicate a line-break in quoted poetry: "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep / but I have promises to keep." (This way of quoting poetry is limited to four or five lines of verse, within the normal flow of text.)

When using slashes in a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for a World Wide Web address (, be especially sure not to include spaces and not to confuse the slash with its backward cousin, \, used as a path separator in Windows (for example, c:\program files\Adobe).


The Dash

Use a dash [ ] (or two hyphens [ -- ] on old-fashioned typewriters) or dashes as a super-comma or set of super-commas to set off parenthetical elements, especially when those elements contain internal forms of punctuation:

All four of them—Bob, Jeffrey, Jason, and Brett—did well in college.

In most word-processors, the dash is created by holding down the option key and hitting the key that has the underline mark above the hyphen. This can vary, though, from program to program. Usually, you get an en dash (see below) with the option + hyphen key, and you get the larger em dash (used more frequently) with option + shift + hyphen keys.

Do not use dashes to set apart material when commas would do the work for you. Usually, there are no spaces between the dash and the letters on either side of a dash, although the dash is frequently shown that way in documents prepared for the World Wide Web and e-mail for typographical and aesthetic reasons (because the WWW authoring and e-mail clients have little control over line-breaks).

In writing dialogue, the dash is used to show breaks in thought and shifts in tone:

"How many times have I asked you not to —" Jasion suddenly stopped talking and looked out the window.

"Not to do what?" I prompted.

"Not to — Oh heck, I forget!"

A dash is sometimes used to set off concluding lists and explanations in a more informal and abrupt manner than the colon. We seldom see the dash used this way in formal, academic prose.

Modern word processors provide for two kinds of dashes: the regular dash or em dash (which is the same width as the letter "M," ) and the en dash (which is about half the width, the same as the letter "N," ). We use the em dash for most purposes and keep its smaller brother, the en dash, for marking the space between dates in a chronological range: "Kennedy's presidency (19611963) marked an extraordinary era. . . ."; in time: 6:308:45 p.m.; and between numbers and letters in an indexing scheme: table 13C, CT Statute 144A.

The en dash is also used to join compound modifiers made up of elements that are themselves either open compounds (frequently two-word proper nouns) or already hyphenated compounds: the Puerto RicanUnited States collaboration, the New YorkNew Jersey border, post-Darwinianpre-Freudian theorems. The Gregg Reference Manual and the Chicago Manual of Style both recommend using the en dash whenever a compound modifier is combined with a participle as in "a Frank Lloyd Wrightdesigned building," "a White Housebacked proposal," and "a foreign exchangedrelated issue." A string of modifiers in a single compound, though, is joined with hyphens: hilarious, never-to-be-forgotten moments. If you are using an old-fashioned typewriter that cannot create an en dash, you can denote to your typesetter or editor that a hyphen is to be converted to an en dash by using a hyphen and hand-writing the letter "n" above it.

Some reference manuals are urging editors and publishers to get rid of the en dash altogether and to use the em dash exclusively, but en and em are still handy words to know when you're trying to get rid of those extra e's at the end of a Scrabble game. Finally, we use what is called a 3-em dash (or six typewriter hyphens) when we're showing that someone's name or a word has been omitted (perhaps for legal reasons or issues of taste):

Professors ______ and ______ were suspended without pay for their refusal to grade papers.



The Ellipsis

An ellipsis [ ] proves to be a handy device when you're quoting material and you want to omit some words. The ellipsis consists of three evenly spaced dots (periods) with spaces between the ellipsis and surrounding letters or other marks. Let's take the sentence, "The ceremony honored twelve brilliant athletes from the Caribbean who were visiting the U.S." and leave out "from the Caribbean who were":

The ceremony honored twelve brilliant athletes…visiting the U.S.

If the omission comes after the end of a sentence, the ellipsis will be placed after the period, making a total of four dots. … See how that works? Notice that there is no space between the period and the last character of the sentence.

The ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in the flow of a sentence and is especially useful in quoted speech:

Juan thought and thought … and then thought some more.
"I'm wondering…" Juan said, bemused.

Note carefully the spacing of the ellipsis marks and the surrounding characters in the examples above. In mid-sentence, a space should appear between the first and last ellipsis marks and the surrounding letters. If a quotation is meant to trail off (as in Juan's bemused thought), leave a space between the last letter and the first ellipsis mark but do not include a period with the ellipsis marks.

If words are left off at the end of a sentence, and that is all that is omitted, indicate the omission with ellipsis marks (preceded and followed by a space) and then indicate the end of the sentence with a period… . If one or more sentences are omitted, end the sentence before the ellipsis with a period and then insert your ellipsis marks with a space on both sides.… As in this example. A coded ellipsis (used in the construction of this page) will appear tighter (with less of a space between the dots) than the use of period-space-period-space-period.

When words at the beginning of a quoted sentence are omitted, it is not necessary to use an ellipsis to indicate that words have been left out when that fragment can fit into the flow of your text. An exception: in a blockquoted fragment, use an ellipsis to indicate an omission:

According to Quirk and Greenbaum, the distinctions are unimportant…for count nouns with specific reference to definite and indefinite pronouns.

However, if the material quoted can be read as a complete sentence, simply capitalize the first word of the material and leave out the ellipsis marks:

This principle is described by Quirk and Greenbaum:
The distinctions for count nouns with specific reference to definite and indefinite pronouns remain unimportant.

When a lengthy quotation begins with a complete sentence and ends with a complete sentence, do not use an ellipsis at either the end or the beginning of the quotation unless it is, for some reason, important to emphasize that some language has been omitted.*

The ellipsis should be regarded as one unit and should not be broken at the end of a line. Toward that end, it is useful to know the code that will create an unbroken and unbreakable ellipsis for you on the word-processing program you are using. On most machines, it's a simple matter of holding down the option key and hitting the semicolon, but this varies from program to program. To avoid problems when you reformat a paper (change margins, font sizes, etc.), the spaces that surround the ellipsis should also be created as "non-breaking spaces."

Some handbooks recommend using square brackets on either side of the ellipsis points to distinguish between an ellipsis that you've added and the ellipses that might have been in the original text. Such a bracketed ellipsis in a quotation would look like this:

"Bohr […] used the analogy of parallel stairways […]" (Smith 55).

(Other research manuals do not address this use of bracketed ellipses.)

The plural of ellipsis is ellipses but the points themselves (the dots that make up the ellipsis) are called ellipsis points or ellipsis marks.


Using Unbiased Language

Gender-Specific Pronouns

A student planning to graduate this spring should see his advisor at once.

And we hope that the writer of the sentence above is working at an all-male school. We should avoid gender problems with the singular "his".Most gender problems can be avoided without the use of the clunky he or she/him or her construction or the more monstrous he/she by using the plural: "Students planning to graduate this spring should see their counselor at once." An occasional he or she is all right, but after a while it becomes too demanding of the reader's attention, and the device becomes more important than the message. Where a singular pronoun is necessary, use either the masculine or feminine consistently enough to avoid confusion.

Avoid Sexist Terminology

Avoid language based on hurtful assumptions about gender:

"I need to see a doctor."
"She's busy right now."
"No, I said a doctor."

The conversation above probably took place between some chap and the "girl" at the front desk. A responsible, sensitive writer will never make demeaning assumptions about gender role. Whether words such as chairman and congressman are sexist and hurtful and whether their substitutes chairperson and members of congress are unnecessary and cumbersome is an argument that some people will still make, but if we can avoid the argument (and the possibility of hurt) with the use of reasonable substitutes, it's well worth it. The following table lists words that many people regard as sexist and some appropriate substitutes for those words.


Use instead. . .





all forms of alumnus/a





chairperson, chair








first-year students, frosh


mail carrier

male nurse


man (meaning any human being)

person, people

managers and their wives

managers and their spouses


humanity, people




police officer


sales representative, salesclerk


flight attendant





Random House Dictionary offers an excellent online guide to "Avoiding Insensitive Language" with lists pertaining to age, persons with disabilities, sexism, sexual orientation, national origin, etc. Click the enter button to find it.


In most cases, use "woman" as the noun and "female" as the adjective. "Female soldiers," "female priests." Things like "women senators" should be confined to quotes (does anybody say men senators?). "Female" is OK as a noun when talking about animals, when it hasn't been established whether the person in question is a woman or a girl, and when talking about a group that includes both women and girls. If it's ever necessary to use the sexist cliche "women drivers," that would be an exception.

Being careful to avoid sexist language should not lead one into silliness. High schools do not have women's basketball programs unless they have men's basketball programs, also, which is doubtful (in spite of the bulk and hairiness of that kid playing center). To use women and men in that context suggests that there is something wrong with being a girl or a boy. On the other hand, why do some universities still have a women's basketball program, but the men's program is simply called the basketball program? One last thought: writers should no more apologize for the sexism so liberally sprinkled throughout the history of our literature than they should apologize for the way our predecessors dressed.

In the box below is a perfectly wonderful definition of a college. It was written, probably in the late 1940s, by Howard Lowry, a critic of nineteenth-century literature and a President of the College of Wooster. There are word choices in this definition, however, that might make people cringe today.

A college is a corner of men's hearts where hope has not died. Here the prison house has not closed; here no battle is yet quite lost. Here, we assert, endow, and defend as final reality the best of our dream as men. Here lies our sense of community.

__ Howard Lowry


How would we write this piece of text differently today? How about "A college is a corner of our hearts where hope has not died"? and "Here, we assert, endow, and defend as final reality the best of our dreams."? We certainly have not improved upon the sound of Lowry's words, but have we lost anything by these changes? Probably not much, and what we have lost, we've more than gained by decreasing the chances of offending or marginalizing an entire gender from the definition of a college — something that would never have entered Howard Lowry's unbiased mind and generous heart.

Gender Neutral Language

Referring to Groups of People

Any time a writer wishes to or has to refer to a group of people to the exclusion of others, he or she must be cautious not to use language that is regarded as hurtful by the group being referred to. Nowadays, minority groups and special-interest groups have a great deal to say, and rightfully so, about the language used to refer to them. More than one political career has fallen upon hard times through an insensitive or rude remark. When a presidential candidate a few years ago made a reference to "you people," he surely did so without conscious or wicked intent. Still, the phrase you people or those people excludes groups without reason for doing so and thus is regarded as hurtful. Staying current with appropriate language is not always easy. In fact, following the history of the ideas and attitudes inherent in words such as crippled or retarded can be an interesting (if not dizzying) exploration of a nation's social consciousness.

The need to be sensitive, fair, and respectful can lead to all kinds of social and personal discoveries. A blind person will be the first to remind us that he or she is, indeed, a blind person, and the term visually impaired is a needless euphemism. On the other hand, we should speak of "blind people," not "the blind." The word special, in this regard, has become almost meaningless, and even the term queer, which has often been used in a nasty, derogatory way, has writers who claim it as a badge of honor. The power of language to hurt is never more clear than in the realm of racial slurs or epithets. Within an extremely restricted context, the word nigger has been claimed as a mark of camaraderie and affection, but only a fool or a boor would use that word outside of that limited social and artistic context and only certain writers and journalists in special circumstances would have the artistic license to use it at all.

One must be careful, too, in using ethnic and nationalist terms. The word Asian is now widely used instead of Oriental (except, for some reason, when talking about carpeting) and, in general, it is wise to use a specific geographical term or area when speaking of people's origins. For that reason, the word Hispanic seems to have been supplanted by Latino/Latina and that, in turn, by Cuban, Colombian, Puerto Rican, Chicano/Chicana, etc. Most writers nowadays will use Native American instead of Indian or Indian-American, but many Native American writers will use the term Indian themselves or insist that writers be more specific (and exact) about tribe and nation grouping (Sioux, Navajo, Paugausset, etc.). In fact, American Indian seems to be regaining ascendancy. The discussion about black versus African American (no longer Afro-American) may know no end, especially if Islander blacks are involved. (Note that the terms black and white are not capitalized.)

And that is precisely the point: discussion — it is ongoing and it reflects important changes in our culture. As long as writers try to be sensitive to the feelings of minorities and special-interest groups and as long as writers consciously attempt to avoid divisive language that offends, stereotypes, belittles, or hurtfully excludes people, i.e. all that anyone can ask.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage sums it up this way:

As a general rule, it is good to remember that you should only refer to a person by category when it is relevant or necessary to the discussion at hand. That is, you should ordinarily view people as individuals and not mention their racial, ethnic, or other status, unless it is important to your larger purpose in communicating.



Sequence of Verb Tenses

Although the various shades of time and sequence are usually conveyed adequately in informal speech and writing, especially by native speakers and writers, they can create havoc in academic writing and they sometimes are troublesome among students for whom English is a second language. This difficulty is especially evident in complex sentences when there is a difference between the time expressed in an independent clause and the time expressed in a dependent clause. Another difficulty arises with the use of infinitives and participles, modals which also convey a sense of time. We hope the tables below will provide the order necessary to help writers sort out tense sequences.

As long as the main clause's verb is in neither the past nor the past perfect tense, the verb of the subordinate clause can be in any tense that conveys meaning accurately. When the main clause verb is in the past or past perfect, however, the verb in the subordinate clause must be in the past or past perfect. The exception to this rule is when the subordinate clause expresses what is commonly known as a general truth:

·         In the 1950s, English teachers still believed that a background in Latin is essential for an understanding of English.

·         Columbus somehow knew that the world is round.

·         Slaveowners widely understood that literacy among oppressed people is a dangerous thing.

The tables below demonstrate the correct relationship of tenses between clauses where time is of the essence (i.e., within sentences used to convey ideas about actions or conditions that take place over time).

Tense in

Purpose of Dependent Clause/
Tense in Dependent Clause



To show same-time action, use the present tense

I am eager to go to the concert because I love the Wallflowers.

To show earlier action, use past tense

I know that I made the right choice.

To show a period of time extending from some point in the past to the present, use the present perfect tense.

They believe that they have elected the right candidate.

To show action to come, use the future tense.

The President says that he will veto the bill.


To show another completed past action, use the past tense.

I wanted to go home because I missed my parents.

To show an earlier action, use the past perfect tense.

She knew she had made the right choice.

To state a general truth, use the present tense.

The Deists believed that the universe is like a giant clock.


For any purpose, use the past tense.

She has grown a foot since she turned nine.
The crowd had turned nasty before the sheriff returned.


To show action happening at the same time, use the present tense.

I will be so happy if they fix my car today.

To show an earlier action, use the past tense.

You will surely pass this exam if you studied hard.

To show future action earlier than the action of the independent clause, use the present perfect tense.

The college will probably close its doors next summer if enrollments have not increased.


For any purpose, use the present tense or present perfect tense.

Most students will have taken sixty credits by the time they graduate.
Most students will have taken sixty credits by the time they have graduated.

Unless logic dictates otherwise, when discussing a work of literature, use the present tense: "Robert Frost describes the action of snow on the birch trees." "This line suggests the burden of the ice." "The use of the present tense in Carver's stories creates a sense of immediacy."

Sequence of Tenses with Infinitives and Participles

Like verbs, infinitives and participles are capable of conveying the idea of action in time; therefore, it is important that we observe the appropriate tense sequence when using these modals.


Tense of

Role of Infinitive


(to see)

To show same-time action or action later than the verb

Coach Espinoza is eager to try out her new drills. [The eagerness is now; the trying out will happen later.]

She would have liked to see more veterans returning. [The present infinitive to see is in the same time as the past would have liked.]

(to have seen)

To show action earlier than the verb

The fans would like to have seen some improvement this year. ["Would like" describes a present condition; "to have seen" describes something prior to that time.]

They consider the team to have been coached very well. [The perfect infinitive to have been coached indicates a time prior to the verb consider.]


Tense of

Role of Participle



To show action occurring at the same time as that of the verb

Working on the fundamentals, the team slowly began to improve. [The action expressed by began happened in the past, at the same time the working happened.]


To show action occurring earlier than that of the verb

Prepared by last year's experience, the coach knows not to expect too much. [The action expressed by knows is in the present; prepared expresses a time prior to that time.]

Having experimented with several game plans, the coaching staff devised a master strategy. [The present perfect participle having experimented indicates a time prior to the past tense verb, devised.]






Notorious Confusables


1.         What is its color? It's green. It's been a long, long time.

These come first, out of alphabetical order, because they're the champs, surely the most often confused words in English! Remember, it's means it is or it has! Use its to show possession.

2.         I would accept your excuse, except the part about losing the watch.

3.         The number of students who wanted access to the computer labs was in excess of two hundred.

4.         The government would often adopt policies that required people to adapt to a harsh regime.

5.         I need your advice. Please advise me on this.

6.         The teacher's aide more than once came to the aid of her supervisor. [AIDS, the acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is spelled in all caps.]

7.         Sometimes it seems more shocking to be amoral than to be immoral.

8.         When they got the assent of the weather bureau, they allowed the enormous balloon to begin its ascent. [N.B. The word accent — what we hear in one's speech — has no "s."]

9.         Aural — see oral

10.       Are you all ready already, or do we have to wait for you?

11.       Allusion — see illusion

12.       In mock debates, we used to alternate sides, taking alternative positions.

13.       Among — see between

14.         It's difficult to anticipate [prepare oneself for] things that one doesn't expect.


15.       He told a funny anecdote about mixing up his soda with the snake-bite antidote.

16.       She felt bad about his behaving badly at the conference. [Use the adjective form with linking verbs.]

17.       She was afraid of him after seeing his bizarre behavior at the county's annual bazaar.

18.       Besides my unphotogenic aunt and uncle, there were fourteen other people standing beside the train station.

19.       He has divided the money between Carlos and his daughter. He has divided the rest of his property among his three brothers.

20.       The economy seemed to slide backwards thanks to the backward government policies. ["Backward" can be either an adverb or an adjective; "backwards" can be only an adverb.]

21.       I was so bored at the Board of Trustees meeting that I fell asleep.

22.       She brought with her all the Christmas gifts she had recently bought.

23.       He will break the car brake if he keeps pushing on it like that.

24.       Every breath counts, so breathe deeply now.

25.       Bring — see take

26.       You may begin this exercise whenever you can get around to it. [In negative constructions, the word can can be used to express permission: You cannot go to the movies today.]

27.       You cannot blame him for screaming, "Damn it, Bob! You can not do that anymore!"

28.       Capacity — see ability

29.       Some people thought he was sweet and childlike in his innocence, but I always thought he was boorish and childish.

30.       I chose the red balloon. Now you choose a balloon of another color.

31.       His clothes were made of cloths of many different colors.

32.       She complimented her sister on the way her scarf complemented her blouse.

33.       She didn't seem conscious of the fact that her husband has no conscience.

34.       I kept a weekly diary during those years that I worked on the dairy farm.

35.       Any cool dessert would taste great out here in the sandy desert.

36.       She thought her dog would die after it drank that bowl of blue dye.

37.       It was part of the government's economic strategy to direct the military to purchase the most economical material available.

38.       When it comes to abbreviations of Latin words or phrases (e.g., etc., et al.), wise writers use them sparingly (i.e., primarily when documenting resources and then only parenthetically) or not at all. [E.g. means for example, and it is usually better to use the English phrase, for example. I.e. means that is.

39.       Emigrate — see immigrate

40.       We would like to ensure good weather for our company picnic, but our insurance company won't insure good weather with an inexpensive policy.



Using Numbers, Writing Lists

The advice proffered here is meant primarily for standard academic prose. Business and technical writing sometimes goes by a different set of standards, and writers of those kinds of text should consult a manual dedicated to those standards. (The APA Publication Manual has an extensive section devoted to the use of numbers in technical papers. The Chicago Manual of Style [chapter 13] addresses just about every issue that might come up in a technical or mathematical text.)

  1. Write out numbers that require no more than two words, remembering that a hyphenated number between twenty-one and ninety-nine counts as one word. Some writing manuals will suggest that whole numbers from zero through nine should be written as words, and numbers from ten on up should be written as numerals, especially when the word modifies a noun as in five students or two professors.

o        Use numerals, however, when the number modifies a unit of measure, time, proportion, etc.: 2 inches, 5-minute delay, 65 mph, 23 years old, page 23, 2 percent.

o        Use numerals for decimals and fractions: 0.75, 3.45, 1/4 oz, 7/8 in. (Notice that abbreviations are always written in the singular form whether they would be expressed as plurals or not: 14 oz, 12 in. The period can be omitted from such abbreviated measurements unless confusion would result [after in., for example]).

o        Use numerals for any number greater than nine: 237 lb, 32 players. (But this may be determined by context and how exact the numbers are. In business and technical writing, yes, all such numbers would be written as numerals; in other kinds of text, you might see something like six million victims, four thousand volunteers.

o        Approximate figures — fractional or otherwise — may be written out as words: one half the students, a quarter cup of sugar, a third of the time, four times as often.

o        Place a hyphen after a unit of measure when the unit modifies a noun: 10-foot pole, 6-inch rule, 3-year-old horse. (The unit of measure in such expressions is, for some reason, always singular.)

o        When many numbers are involved, use all numerals unless all the numbers are whole numbers less than nine.

o        When fractional or decimal expression are 1 or less, the word they modify should be singular: 0.7 meter, 0.22 cubic foot, 0.78 kilometer. Precede decimal fractions with a value less than one with a leading zero before the decimal point.

o        Percentage expressions should be written out as words: Last semester, 78 percent of the first-year students passed English Composition. (as opposed to 78%)

o        Avoid using ordinals when writing dates: February 14, not 14th.

2.       There are twenty-six students in my wife's third-grade class.

3.       Juan is over 183 centimeters tall.

4.       Hartford has over ninety-three thousand citizens.
(Some people would argue that all such statistical information should be expressed in numerals; when rounded off, however, spelled-out words are appropriate.)

5.       Hartford has 97,500 citizens.

2. Consistency is important here!

·         Juan is about 183 centimeters tall, which means that he is just over 6 feet tall.

3. To avoid confusion by running numbers together, combine words and numerals when one number follows another. Generally, write out the shorter number.

·         My wife teaches 26 third-grade students.

·         There were 10 four-foot boards on the trucks.

·         The lab has 24 seventeen-inch monitors.

·         We need six 50-watt bulbs for this apartment.

4. Avoid beginning a sentence with a number that is not written out.

·         Seventy-two inches equals approximately 1.83 meters.
An exception: you can begin a sentence with a date:

·         1997 was a very good year for owls.

5. Use figures instead of words for

·         Dates and years: December 18, 1997. Avoid using ordinals when writing dates: Her birthday is on April 4th.

·         Decimals, percentages, and fractions: 235.485, 55%, 14 1/4

·         Scores: The Bulls won the final game by a score of 114 to 106.

·         Addresses: 1032 Maple Avenue. Sometimes, though, an address is part of a building's name, and then you'll want to spell it out: One Corporate Plaza. Unless space is at a premium, write out numerical street names (of one hundred or less): 1032 Fifth Avenue.

·         Political and military units (for numbers of one hundred or less): Seventh Precinct, Fourteenth Congressional District, Fifty-third Regiment, Third Batallion, 112d Artillery

·         Finances: Tickets cost $35.50 apiece. The city spent $1.1 million for snow removal last year. (Or use $1,100,000.) You can leave the comma out of figures in the thousands: They spent $7500 on that car before junking it. Also, leave the comma out of addresses and year-dates: In 1998, they moved to NE 12887 53rd Avenue.

·         Ranges: Between 18 and 25 bald eagles have been counted near the Connecticut River this spring.

·         Time: 9:15 a.m. If you use the word o'clock, however, for rounded off times, spell out the number in words: We left at seven o'clock. Use a.m. and p.m., not AM and PM.

Numbered, Vertical ("Display"), and Bulleted Lists

Writing and reference manuals offer different advice for creating lists. It seems that as long as you're consistent within your document, you can devise just about any means you want for creating your lists, whether you want them as run-in lists (built into the flow of your text) or as vertical lists (indented and stacked up). Technical writing may have its own requirements in this regard, and you should consult a technical writing manual for specific rules. Use parentheses around the numbers (no periods after the number, though) when using a run-in list:

I have three items to discuss: (1) the first item; (2) the second item; and (3) the third item.

Use semicolons to separate the items, whether they're expressed as fragments or full sentences.

For a vertical list (sometimes called a display list), you may choose to capitalize the items or not, and you may choose to put a comma after each item or not. (If you use commas, put a period after the last item.)

We will now review the following three principles:

1.      fairness in recruiting

2.      academic eligibility

3.      scholarly integrity

Your choice to capitalize or not may depend on how elaborate your lists are and how many of them you have in your text. If a vertical list contains complete sentences or lengthy and complex items, you may prefer to end each element in the list with a semicolon, except for the last element, which you will end with a period.

Most coaches conform to three basic principles in recruiting new players:

1.      Look for players first who can fill those positions you will need the subsequent year;

2.      Look for players who are "court smart" as opposed to being merely athletic;

3.      Look for players who are academically eligible and who have an academic purpose in going to college.

Although the elements in the list above begin with capital letters, that is not absolutely necessary. Notice that there is no "and" at the end of the next-to-last element (although some reference manuals allow for or recommend its use). Although we have used numbers for this list, bullets would work equally well if numbering seems inappropriate or irrelevant. The list below is based on a format suggested by the New York Public Library's Writer's Guide to Style and Usage:

Most coaches conform to three basic principles in recruiting new players—

§         Look for players first who can fill those positions you will need the subsequent year

§         Look for players who are "court-smart" as opposed to being merely athletic

§         Look for players who are academically eligible and who have an academic purpose in going to college

Note that this format does not include a period even at the end of the last element. Most writers, however, want to use some kind of punctuation in their listed items. When the introductory statement is a complete sentence, you can end it with either a period or a colon. Use a colon if the sentence is clearly anticipatory of the list, especially if it contains phrasing such as the following or as follows. A colon is also appropriate if the list that follows will be numbered or will establish a priority order. If the introductory statement is not a complete statement, however, neither a period nor a colon would be appropriate since that would interrupt the grammatical structure of the statement; use either no punctuation or try the dash technique noted above.

Listing Names in Alphabetical Order

Putting people's names in alphabetical order is done on a letter-by-letter basis, taking into consideration all the letters before the comma that separates the last from the first name. Omit titles (such as Lady, Sir, Sister), degrees (M.D., Ph.D.), etc., that precede or follow names. A suffix that is an essential part of the name — such as Jr., Sr., or a roman numeral — appears after the given name, preceded by a comma. (Ford, Henry J., III or Pepin, Theophilus, Jr.)

Beethoven, Ludwig van (The van or von in Dutch or German names, if not capitalized by family usage,appears after the first name; if capitalized, it appears before the last name and determines the alphabetical order.)
D'Annunzio, Gabriele
Deere-Brown, Juan (Ignore the hyphen.)
Deere-Brown, Juan-Poivre
Dante Alighieri (Some Italian names of the 15th century or before are alphabetized by first name)
D'Arcy, Pierre
de Gaulle, Charles (With French names, the de goes before the last name when the last name contains only one syllable. See de Maupassant, below.)
Descartes, René
Ford, Henry E., III
Garcia Lorca, Federico (Use full surnames for Spanish names.)
López y Quintana, María
MacDonald, George
Maupassant, Guy de
M'Cauley, Josephine
McCullers, Carson
Morris, Robert
Morris, William
Morrison, Toni
(Ignore the apostrophe.)
Pepin, R. E.
Pepin, Theophilus, Jr.
Pepino, D.
Rueda, Lope de (For Spanish names, de comes after the first name)
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de
San Marco, Josefina
St. Denis, Ruth
Von Braun, Werner (See Beethoven, above.)



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