Spring 2000

Sociology 111-01
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Sociology 111-03
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Sociology 291-01
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Sociology Department
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Grinnell College
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Kent McClelland

ARH 116C
Phone 3134

EDITING CHECKLIST FOR ACADEMIC PAPERS

Here is a list of subtle stylistic problems (things your high school teachers may never have explained to you) often found in Grinnell students' papers. While none of these errors is terribly serious, getting such things right will send a message to discerning readers that you are a person of cultivation and erudition (And the impression you make will be even better, of course, if you have something interesting to say!).

PUNCTUATION PROBLEMS

P1. COMMA BETWEEN SUBJECT AND VERB
P2. COMMAS WITH NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSES
P3. SEMICOLON, DASH, AND COLON
P4. COMMA SPLICES AND "HOWEVER" OR "THEREFORE"
P5. PLACING THE APOSTROPHE
P6. USING A SLASH
P7. HYPHENS WITH COMPOUND ADJECTIVES
P8. USING ELLIPSES

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SYNTAX (Arrangement of words in sentences)

S1. DANGLING MODIFIERS
S2. WORDINESS--"IT IS" OR "THERE ARE"
S3. WORDINESS--EMBEDDED CLAUSES
S4. UNCLEAR REFERENT FOR "THIS" OR "THAT"

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DICTION (Selection and use of words)

D1. AFFECT/EFFECT
D2. COMPRISE
D3. A LOT
D4. NUMBERS IN TEXT

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PUNCTUATION PROBLEMS


P1. COMMA BETWEEN SUBJECT AND VERB
Never put just ONE comma between the subject and verb of a sentence. Two commas, to set off an inserted phrase like this one, are acceptable. Be especially careful when one subject has two verbs not to put a comma before the second verb. If you have used a long and complicated phrase as the subject of your sentence and are then tempted to set the phrase off with a comma, a better option is to rewrite the sentence to make it less complicated.

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P2. COMMAS WITH NONRESTRICTIVE CLAUSES (THAT & WHICH)
Nonrestrictive clauses are set off from the rest of the sentence by commas, but restrictive clauses are not. How do you tell the difference between a restrictive and a nonrestrictive clause? Either one may be a "relative clause" and thus may begin with "who" or "which," but the restrictive clause restricts the meaning of the noun it modifies in order to tell the reader just which one of a number of possibilities you are talking about. "The person who stole my Walkman should be drawn and quartered!" Here the restrictive clause ("who stole my Walkman") tells exactly which person deserves torture. A nonrestrictive clause gives some additional and perhaps interesting information about the noun it modifies but is not essential to the meaning of the noun. "Kleptomaniacs, who are all too common around here, must be watched every moment." Note the commas around the nonrestrictive clause. If you were to cut out the nonrestrictive clause, the sentence would still make sense. When it comes to choosing between "that" and "which", choose the first for a restrictive clause and the second for a nonrestrictive clause. Or, putting it another way, the word that is most often used with restrictive clauses is "that", which makes sense.

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P3. SEMICOLON, DASH, AND COLON
The semicolon is a tricky little punctuation mark with two uses; it can be a weak period or a strong comma. Used as a weak period, it separates two independent clauses, that is, two groups of words that could stand alone as sentences. The semicolon, in place of the period, emphasizes the close connection between the clauses. A semicolon acting as a strong comma separates the items of a list that includes phrases that contain internal commas. For example, you might write a story about Spot, a dog; Puff, a cat; and Hercules, a ten-ton spider. If you just want to set off a phrase from the rest of the sentence, do not use a semicolon; use a dash--like this. Note that the dash in typescript is represented by two hyphens with no spaces. Some computer fonts now provide dashes which are twice the length of a hyphen. You should feel free to use them if your font provides them, again without any spaces before or after. While the dash is mainly used in informal writing, writers of formal papers often prefer a more formal punctuation mark: the colon. Its usual purpose is to separate an item or list of items from the rest of the sentence, with the part before the colon pointing to the item or list which follows. The trickiest thing about colons is that they only go at the ends of independent clauses. In other words, you should insert a colon in text only if you could end the sentence with a period at the same spot. Another tricky thing is that colons, like periods, should be followed by two spaces, not one.

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P4. COMMA SPLICES AND "HOWEVER" OR "THEREFORE"
"However" and words like it are not conjunctions; they cannot be used to link two independent clauses (groups of words that could stand on their own as complete sentences). Here are some fix-ups: 1) replace the comma splice with a period and start a new sentence with "however" or another conjunctive adverb near the beginning; 2) insert a semicolon between the two clauses; or 3) use an acceptable conjunction (and, but, or yet). Another situation in which students sometimes commit a comma splice is when they want to join a series of short, connected clauses. For instance, the temptation might be to say, "It rains too much in Seattle, the sun never shines, even the cars are all covered with moss." Here, the commas have been used improperly to join clauses that could stand on their own. Some possible fix-ups are to replace the commas with periods or semicolons, to stop repeating the subject if the same one is being used more than once, to insert conjunctions (and, but, or yet) in strategic spots, or to rephrase some clauses as participial phrases (with "ed" or "ing" forms of the verbs). In the example above we might say, "With all the rain in Seattle, cars deprived of sunshine soon sprout moss."

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P5. PLACING THE APOSTROPHE
In most cases the apostrophe indicates letters left out. The possessive form, apostrophe s, is a shortened version of the Middle English use of "his" to indicate possession; "John his house" became "John's house" when the "hi" was dropped. Eventually that same "'s" came to be used with female nouns and plural nouns as well. Many students find it confusing that possessive pronouns never need an apostrophe. For example, the possessive pronoun "its" has no apostrophe; the word "it's" stands for "it is" not "it his" (?!). The other use of the apostrophe is in forming the plurals of single letters, abbreviations, or numbers written as numerals. "Ph.D.'s always get A's on tests, unless temperatures are in the 90's." One common exception to this second rule is that most modern writers omit the apostrophe in referring to decades. "College students in the 1960s were more radical than students of the '90s." Note that the apostrophe in " '90s" comes at the beginning and indicates letters (numerals) left out.

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P6. USING A SLASH
The slash, or "virgule" as grammarians call it, is unfriendly to readers. I counsel students to avoid slashes if possible in text, unless they're quoting lines of poetry. Slashes slow the reader down and make your text look like a questionnaire or (horrors!) a government document. In our PC age, many writers are tempted to make a statement about gender equality by using "she/he" or the like. A better way to get around the awkwardness of having to refer to unspecified individuals by gender is to make your subjects plural. Another solution is to pick a gender arbitrarily the first time you refer to an unspecified individual and then switch the next time.

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P7. HYPHENS WITH COMPOUND ADJECTIVES
When you string together two or more words to make a longer-than-usual adjective, you should connect the words with hyphens (as above). A compound adjective following the noun it modifies usually doesn't need hyphens.

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P8. USING ELLIPSES
Ellipses are the three little dots for words left out of a quotation. Ordinarily, ellipses are typed as space-dot-space-dot-space-dot-space, like so: "My quotation . . . left something out." To make your text more readable, don't run the dots all together, and don't use the three-dots-crushed-together character from some computer fonts. If the phrases you quote are from two different sentences, use four dots instead of three to warn the reader that the omitted material includes a period.

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SYNTAX (Arrangement of words in sentences)


S1. DANGLING MODIFIERS
A participle is an "ing" or "ed" form of a verb that acts as an adjective or, in other words, modifies a noun. Sometimes the participle is the first word of a whole phrase that modifies a noun. The tricky thing about participles (and adjectival phrases in general) is that they need to be placed in the sentence as closely as possible to the noun they modify. If the noun being modified is left out of the sentence, or if another noun interposes between the participle and its noun, the sentence can be ambiguous and often very funny: "Walking down the street, a house appeared." "Coming into the kitchen in the morning, breakfast was the first thing seen by my father, cooked by my mother, sitting on the table." (This second example was crafted by a Grinnell student several years ago.)

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S2. WORDINESS--"IT IS" OR "THERE ARE"
Sentences starting with "It is . . . " or "There are . . . ." tend to be wordy. One can almost always find a way to rewrite such sentences more clearly using fewer words. For instance, "There are many people who have never seen a grinch." becomes "Many people have never seen a grinch."


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S3. WORDINESS--EMBEDDED CLAUSES
To make your writing more concise, get rid of little clauses-- noun-verb or pronoun-verb combinations--embedded in longer sentences. For instance, you can rewrite "The sentences which he wrote were ones that were pretty hard to read." as "His sentences were hard to read." The telltale words "which" or "that" often introduce embedded clauses.

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S4. UNCLEAR REFERENT FOR "THIS" OR "THAT"
Starting a sentence with the word "this" or "that" used as a pronoun often forces the reader to stop and backtrack to see what exactly in the previous sentence you are referring to. While you as the writer know exactly what you're talking about, the reader may have to guess. To avoid any confusion, turn the "this" or "that" into an adjective. In other words, insert a word after the "this" or "that" to indicate your meaning more precisely. For example, instead of saying, "This is easy," say, "This change is easy."

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DICTION (Selection and use of words)


D1. AFFECT/EFFECT
"Affect" is almost always the verb and "effect" the noun. "X affects Y. X has an effect on Y." Rarely, "effect" is a verb meaning accomplish--"X effects a change in Y." Even more rarely, "affect" is used as a noun, psychological jargon for emotion--"In response to the intense electrical stimulation the subject displayed an elevated level of affect." (Translation, "He got mad when we shocked him.") As a synonym for emotion, "affect" has the same root as the word, "affection."

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D2. COMPRISE
The whole comprises the parts, not vice versa. "Grinnell College comprises North Campus and South Campus." Do not use "comprise" as a synonym for "compose" or "constitute."

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D3. A LOT
In most academic contexts the slang phrase, "a lot," is too informal. Avoid it! Writers who go so far as to make it all one word--"alot" --are betraying ignorance. There is an English word "allot" (with two l's), but it means "to distribute or parcel out."

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D4. NUMBERS IN TEXT
Numbers under twelve, like "three" or "seven" should be spelled out in text. (Some authorities say to spell out all numbers under 100.) Use numerals for larger numbers, like "37" or "1,368,432." Note the following exceptions, however. Use numerals for small numbers you compare to larger ones: "Only 5 percent of elderly people now live in nursing homes, although 40 percent will spend some time there before they die." Write out any number that begins a sentence: "Sixty-one percent of males but just 42 percent of females voted Republican."

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Several of the dogmatic statements and some of the examples I use here are adapted from The Borzoi Handbook for Writers, by Frederick Crews and Sandra Schor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). I also consulted the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Random House, 1981) and The College Writer's Reference, by Toby Fulwiler, Alan R. Hayakawa, and Cheryl Kupper (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1996). Finally, I'm grateful to Judy Hunter and Mathilda Liberman for comments on earlier versions of these notes, but they are in no way responsible for any errors that remain.

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Page last modified March 30, 2000 by Kent McClelland