Survey of American Literature, 1865 to Present
We will consider the ways in which the texts we read illuminate a continuum in American literature to answer the question, “What is American about American Literature?” In addition, the class utilizes cultural studies and psychoanalytic critical approaches to consider socially constructed identity and issues of race, class, and gender in texts of American authors.
At the end of this course, students should be able to:
- Think critically about the works of American Writers from 1865 to the present. Students will have in-depth knowledge of several authors and a working knowledge of others. Students will write papers, make presentations, participate in class discussions, and take an exam to indicate their command of authors’ styles, genres, literary periods, and themes that relate to historical, cultural, and intellectual trends in American literature.
- Recognize and apply some of the key critical theory and discourse connected with literary analysis of American literature and major literary periods (e.g. naturalism, realism, modernism).
- Construct sound, probing questions and hypotheses appropriate to literary analysis and identify, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and employ information resources and/or other forms of supporting evidence appropriate and relevant to scholarship on American literature.
- Develop close reading and analytical skills.
- Apply critical analytic and evaluative thinking to their own writing, through drafting, revising, and/or editing processes appropriate to literary analysis.
- Apply critical analytic and evaluative thinking to the work of their classmates through collaborative practices such as peer review.
WRITING ASSIGNMENTS: DETAILS
Here is detailed information on the writing assignments for the course.
PAPERS (2 papers, each worth 25% of your final grade):
Students will write two papers, one close reading of a text and one extended analysis paper. These papers are essays that argue a thesis. The final version of the extended analysis incorporates research to help make the argument. Frequent in-class reflections will serve as a way for students to gather their ideas and thoughts about each of the readings and to help them develop topics for their papers. Writing is an integral part of critical thinking. Critical thinking comes from writing and rewriting about your ideas because writing allows you to think and rethink your topic. Students often complain that they “wasted time” with their first drafts. On the contrary, those first drafts lead to the “right” ones. So no thinking or drafting time is wasted time, but rather the path to articulating your points.
Paper Assignment #1: Close Reading of a Text (5 pages)
This paper can be on any of the works for the class that we have read (through T.S. Eliot). What is a close reading of a text? Choose one of the assigned readings and read it several times. Underline or highlight memorable passages as you read, marking any passages that you sense are significant regarding the style and the meaning of the work. Each time you read it, take notes to record your thoughts, things you do not understand, meanings that are not clear. What are the multiple meanings of words in the text? How does the author lay out the text and build from one idea/word to another? What is the symbolic value of objects or images in the work? What references to prior literature can you detect? What words, references, or ideas does the author repeat? What tensions exist? What images or references seem ambiguous? Why? Are there places where the author uses irony to make a point? Do you detect any allusions to history, cultural context, or other works? Who is the audience that the writer is addressing?
After asking all of these questions and jotting down notes during several readings, what themes emerge? What are the multiple levels or layers of meaning in the text?
Once you have answered these questions, you can look at your notes and begin to formulate a thesis about the final meaning you take away from reading the work. Consider the broader argument that you wish to make about the work you are analyzing. A good thesis answers the question “So what?” In other words, the thesis should do more than state the obvious. Rather than a statement or observation about the text, your thesis should say why it is important. What is your “so what?” Once you have answered that question, you can write your introductory paragraph and proceed to lay out your own argument in a logical way, using good transitions, quoting passages from the work you are analyzing to provide evidence and support for the argument you are making, and then concluding with a recap of your most important message to the reader of your paper. No research is required for this assignment, and no secondary source material should be incorporated into it.
Paper Assignment #2: Extended, Critical Analysis/Research Paper (10 pages)
This paper uses close reading of a text (your primary source) and outside research (your secondary sources) to present a critical analysis of the work you have chosen. A critical analysis is always a good argument—you are asking the reader to see and interpret the text your way. Every text has more than one idea and there are multiple meanings to uncover. Your assignment is to integrate these various meanings into a larger idea about the text. Before writing the analysis, read the text several times and write down your response after each reading. The purpose of each reading is to uncover another layer of the text. Take notes to keep track of your thoughts and responses. How does each reading increase your understanding of the text? What does each reading reveal that the previous reading did not? What questions did it raise for you? What about the text intrigues or troubles you? A good thesis answers the question “So what?” In other words, the thesis should do more than state the obvious. Rather than a statement or observation about the text, your thesis should say why it is important. What is your “so what?” Once you have answered that question, you can write your introductory paragraph and proceed to lay out your own argument in a logical way, using good transitions, quoting passages from the work you are analyzing, and then concluding with a recap of your most important message to the reader of your paper.
You will write this paper in two versions. In the first version (about five pages) you present a reading of the text, using selected passages from the text to support your opinions. As you plan your paper, explain the following to your audience:
. your thesis (your reading or claim about the text)
. how you reached your conclusion
. evidence or details from the text that support your conclusions
. the weaknesses of arguments that might disagree with your reading, although you can also concede why other readings would be legitimate
. why readers would agree with you
Remember to define your terms of critical analysis, using examples so that both you and your reader understand your terms. Avoid generalities and abstractions—be as concrete in your examples and reading as possible.
In the first version, focus on articulating your own ideas and reading of the text. For the revised version (about ten pages) you will enter an on-going discussion of the work by consulting secondary sources to see what others have said. These outside sources help you to expand your own reading with supportive remarks. They will also present opposing readings that you can accommodate in your own reading. Your research will enlarge your analysis by helping to develop your critical thinking and by adding depth to your discussion.
Selecting a Topic:
Scholarly papers on literature offer new insights about literary works. Your audience will be those who have read and have not yet read the work you write on. Your job is to educate them about some aspect of the work. You will need to be as thorough and complete in describing the text: begin with an opening general overview (that will prevent you from having to use plot summary in the paper) and then include specific textual proof to support your argument.
To generate critical insights, you should pose questions about each work as you read. Did anything in the reading intrigue you or puzzle you? What layers are there that you need to unpack in order to gain the deepest understanding of the work as a reflection of the culture that produced it? What is difficult to understand? Why? If you could ask the author one question, what would it be? Something that appears to be a small point may be developed into a solid thesis. By answering questions that arise during your reading and through class discussions, you can begin to formulate an argument about the text. This argument will form your thesis statement and it will be your own, unique way of looking at the work. That is how new knowledge and original ideas come about. For example, in an article I wrote for the Faulkner Journal, “‘Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers’: The Insistence of the Past and Lacan’s Desire in Light in August,” I began with the following question: why does Joe Christmas refuse to choose to be black or to pass for white? How do characters/people move out of the socially constructed roles of their culture and how do other characters in the novel, such as Lena Grove, Byron Bunch, and Gail Hightower, respond to their prescribed positions? To answer these questions, I looked closely at the text and read what other critics had said about these characters and this question. I decided to use the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan to explain why people stubbornly refuse to let go of historically inherited responses even though these responses cause them pain. The result of my inquiry was the argument and discussion that I make in this article.
Remember that the most important step is to choose a topic that you want to discuss. If you are not interested in your topic, you won’t be able to interest your readers. Do not worry that there is nothing new to say. When I was in graduate school and wanted to work with Faulkner’s texts, everyone told me that I would never get through all of the published articles much less have anything new to add. I ignored that advice because I loved Faulkner’s novels and knew that I would never get bored or tired of writing about them. I was right! So get excited and explore. That is really what academic research is all about. Read a lot, think a lot, and finally, explore through writing a lot. Think while you are walking across campus. Think in the shower. Thinking of the topic is half of the work. All topics must be approved by me, so come to see me during office hours in order to brainstorm and come up with a topic. Alternatively, you can submit some ideas to me and I will give you feedback. My email is [email protected]. My office hours are T 2:30-3:30 and by appointment. You can also make an appointment with a tutor in the Writing Center, located on the first floor of Gelman Library.
Having an open topic can be both liberating and overwhelming. You have a great deal of freedom in your choice of topic so that you can explore and discuss something that really interests you. On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to narrow or focus your choices and ideas. You might begin by thinking about issues or themes that we have talked about in class.
Remember that the draft for the extended analysis paper will be revised and only the revised version will be graded. You will add your secondary sources when you revise.
Framing a topic in a Thesis Statement:
The thesis statement sums up the main point that you want to make in your paper. It is a statement that you will defend and develop through a close reading of the text, discussion of the context in which the work was written, and for the final revised analysis paper, support from literary critics or theorists who have written about the work or your theoretical argument. For example, my thesis in my article on Light in August is found toward the end of the introductory paragraph:
Lacan suggests that enjoyment comes from the repetition of the past because
doing so represses the anxiety of lack. This psychic enjoyment from the repetition of the past explains to a great extent the “past that will not pass” in much of Faulkner’s work. Lacan’s theory of desire and subjectivity explains why and how the past, both cultural and personal, refuses to pass for a character such as Joe Christmas, who functions in a “circle” he cannot escape. In contrast, Lena Grove and Byron Bunch [. . .] are able to reconfigure their relationships to lack and the cultural symbolic structure so as to embrace new signification, allow the past to pass, and strive for an altered future in the symbolic order. (71)
You will notice that my thesis is more than one sentence. Because my thesis has several layers to it, I found it necessary to lay it out in several sentences. So think more broadly about how to compose your thesis to include all of the parts of your argument.
The papers can be on any topic and on any of the works we read for class. See the Purdue OWL for more information about thesis statements: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/545/01/
Your discussion will analyze some aspect of the work you choose to write about. Develop your thesis/argument with specific passages from the novel. These passages form the textual evidence for your argument. For example, one could argue that in The Bluest Eye, Morrison presents the damage that the dominant white gaze inflicts on blacks. Textual evidence for this argument includes passages that describe the inability of black girls to achieve white standards of beauty as presented in the Shirley Temple doll; the value within the black community of lighter shades of color; the unattainable beauty of white movie stars; and the blue eyes that Pecola desires.
Always introduce your passages and discuss them afterwards. Do not let the passages “speak for themselves.” Here are four examples:
- Claudia tries to understand exactly what it is about the Shirley Temple doll that makes her so lovable and thinks: “all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured. [. . .] I could not love it. But I could examine it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable” (Morrison 20-21). Claudia then physically attacks the doll, taking it apart limb by limb to try to discover its mysterious power of beauty.
- Like the Shirley Temple doll, Claudia’s classmate Maureen Peal is deemed pretty and receives favor from teachers and other students. The special attention she receives causes Claudia to wonder, “If she was cute—and if anything could be believed, she was—then we were not. And what did that mean? We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser” (74). Thus, Claudia and her sister learn that outer beauty counts in society much more than other qualities.
- When Pauline goes to the movies, she remembers how society values physical beauty and that only white women can possess this trait: “In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. [. . .] She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (122). Pauline internalizes how her culture determines beauty and concludes that she herself and all of her children will be categorized as ugly.
- Pecola tries to pinpoint what about her appearance would render her lovable and acceptable to her friends and family. She thinks, “if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different. [. . .] If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, ‘Why look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes’” (47). Pecola’s obsession with blue eyes and how they can rescue her from her misery ultimately causes her to escape into a fantasy world split from the reality around her.
Notice that in each example, there is a sentence to introduce the quote and a sentence to comment on its meaning.
You will also notice in the four examples that I have included the page numbers in parenthesis in order to follow MLA style. I have also used three dots in brackets like this [. . .] to indicate that I have left out some of Morrison’s text. This bracket, [. . .], is called an ellipsis and is useful when you want to include only parts of a sentence or paragraph.
One purpose of research is to help you defend or make your argument. Another is to become familiar with the discussion about the novel in the critical world. What has been said already? Do you agree or disagree? Can you argue one point further than what has been said? In other words, your job is to become part of the scholarly discussion already in progress. Think about what you bring to the discussion. What is your angle of vision that augments or changes what others have said? Take notes and engage with the authors. Critique what they have written in order to better understand your own thoughts.
You can do a literature review through Gelman library’s website. Look at single-authored books, collections of articles in an edited work, and articles that have been published in literary journals such as American Literature, Modern Fiction Studies, the Faulkner Journal, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review, Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), and MELUS. Remember to take good notes or to make copies of articles in order to quote them later. MLA style requires page numbers, so you will need to keep track of where you collect your information. Most of the journals are in Gelman’s stacks and most are available through the journal’s on-line location (e.g. Academic Search Premier, J-Stor). Be sure that you access an on-line copy that reproduces the pages of the article so that you can cite the page numbers as they appear in print.
Remember to evaluate your sources. Only use credentialed authors whose published work has gone through a blind peer review.
Use your sources to support your argument. You can also use sources that make a different argument in order to discount them and to argue your point instead. You may also use sources to explain your theoretical framework. For example, I cite Lacan and Fanon to explain the psychoanalytic perspective I use and I cite Raymond Williams to outline cultural studies. So my discussion has both scholars who talk about the novels and theorists who present theory as resources that help me develop my argument.
Citation Style: Citation styles differ for each discipline. Publications for American literary studies use the Modern Language Association (MLA) style manual. This style uses parenthetical citations instead of footnotes. That means that after a direct quote or paraphrase, you put the author’s name in parentheses with the page number, like this: (Schreiber 102). You can use footnotes for further explanations of something in the text. MLA also uses a Works Cited section. Only list the sources that you have cited in your paper. Follow this format carefully, as I take off points for not following the form. Remember to list your works in alphabetical order and include the publishing information in the proper format. Here are two examples, one for a book and one for an article:
Alcorn, Marshall W., Jr. Changing the Subject in English Class: Discourse and the
Constructions of Desire. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.
Schreiber, Evelyn Jaffe. “‘Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers’: The
Insistence of the Past and Lacan’s Desire in Light in August.” The Faulkner Journal 18.1 (2003): 55-68.
You can find a copy of these guidelines in most writing handbooks, in a handout from the Writing Center or a link on the Writing Center website, or on-line at the following websites: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01 or http://www.dianahacker.com/resdoc/
The following link lists some commonly used transitions:
Some Tips for Academic Writing and for Writing English Papers in MLA style:
- Number your pages.
- Italicize the titles of books, journals, anthologies, and collections; chapters, poems, short stories, and articles titles go in quotation marks.
- In general, use the third person.
- Never use the word “This” without a noun after it.
- Use the present tense when writing about literature; use the past tense for the historical past.
- Do not use contractions in formal papers. Therefore, the only apostrophes you will use will be to show possession. Certain words indicate possession without an apostrophe, such as his, hers, theirs, its, ours. You will never use its with an apostrophe (it’s) in formal writing (for school or job) because you will not be using contractions. Use “its” only to show possession.
- In parenthetical citations, there is no comma between the author’s name and the page number. The period goes outside of the parentheses. Example: (Schreiber 26).
- When you quote from the text and you want to omit some of the material, you can use what is called an ellipsis. (See the examples from The Bluest Eye under Critical Analysis above.)
- Use a semi-colon the same way you would use a period. You have to have a complete sentence on each side. A colon sets off a quote or list.
- When quotes are more than four lines long, you block indent them and do not put quotation marks around the material unless it has quotation marks in the original text. When you cite indented material, the period goes before the parentheses: end of sentence. (Schreiber 52)
- Work on using transitions to link your paragraphs and your ideas within each paragraph. (See the transitions website under “transitions” heading above.)
- Use the novel’s text as your primary evidence for your argument. The secondary sources support your thesis or argue against it.
- Read your paper out loud to catch sentence errors.
WHEN YOU TURN IN YOUR FINAL DRAFT, TURN IN COMMENT SHEETS FROM PEER REVIEWS AND MYSELF AND A COPY OF YOUR MARKED FIRST DRAFT, ALONG WITH ROUGH DRAFTS. YOUR FINAL DRAFT CANNOT BE GRADED WITHOUT THESE EARLY COPIES.
Writing Conclusions to your paper:
There is an old saying to describe an essay: “Tell them what you are going to say, say it, and tell them what you said.” Basically, the conclusion restates your thesis with the main points you want the reader to remember. Many times, students get to their conclusion and realize that they have perfectly stated their thesis at the end because they have worked through it in their writing about it. A good tip is to write a draft and look at your conclusion, make it your thesis paragraph, and restructure/organize the paragraphs if necessary. William Zinsser, a famous teacher of writing, says that he doesn’t know what he wants to say until he says it. This is why we revise our papers—to better articulate our ideas once we have worked through them in writing.
Your thesis should state what you want to do in the paper, your research helps you accomplish your goals, and your conclusion artfully focuses the reader on your main accomplishment.
Revision is not a dirty word. It does not mean that you failed the first time. It means that you are continuing to revise how you see your topic and how you end up in the argument you are making. You may change your mind through your research or your deep thinking. That is OK. That is why you revise and fine-tune what you want to say. It takes me about ten drafts to get it right. And I always think it could be better. That is what good writers do!
Write at different points. Consider what you have done and then reconsider how you might have done things differently. Since revision is critical to a good final paper, come to class prepared to take notes; plan how you will manage you time wisely; spread out the writing process over several weeks rather than the night or even a few days before it is due; and don’t fall behind in any of the reading or assignments.
Read your paper out loud to hear how your argument sounds. You will hear all of your grammar mistakes as well as your lapses in organization and argument. When a sentence sounds funny or is unclear, just say out loud what you meant to say and write that down!
Worksheet #1 – Looking at your Outline or Rough Draft
- Restate the thesis of the paper
- Discuss what is the most interesting aspect of the draft
- Point out three strengths of the draft
- Discuss the textual evidence used: What evidence is used? Is more evidence needed? If so, where and what type? What is the relevance of each quotation? Is the evidence introduced properly and explicated well?
- What other questions would you like to address?
- List concerns you have about the essay.
Worksheet #2 – Developing your Thesis and Bibliography:
- What is the topic of your paper?
- What is the thesis of your paper?
- What points support your argument or thesis?
- What passages from the novel explain or exemplify the thesis?
- What sources will be useful and why?
- How did you come up with the critical support in your working bibliography?
If you are having difficulty finding sources, see a librarian to do a bibliography search or go to the Writing Center to do a bibliography search with a tutor.
Worksheet for FINAL REVIEW
- Before each use of or reference to the text, how effective is the transition that leads the reader to the text?
- What is the purpose of the text in the paper? How does the use of the text support the statements made?
- Is each citation or example clear? Specific? Adequate? Have you used correct MLA style for parenthetical citation and for Works Cited?
- Have you interpreted the text or merely summarized? Can you identify places where interpretation or summary is necessary but omitted?
- Where have you summarized instead of interpreted?
- Consider each sentence as a unit. Which sentences need to be more concise or need to be clearer?
- Circle transitions between and within paragraphs to assess how the paper flows.
- Do a final proofing of the paper for typos and grammatical errors by reading the paper out loud and using spell check. Spell check will not pick up some typos, but reading the paper out loud will help you find them.
Check Sheet for a Literary-Critical Essay (from Barbara Walvoord’s “How to Make Grading Fair, Time-Efficient, and Conducive to Learning” workshop, GWU, Spring, 2009)
___ I have read the novel at least twice
___ I revised this essay at least once
___ I spent at least five hours on this essay
___ I started work on this essay at least three days ago
___ I have tried hard to do my best work on this essay
___ I looked at the grading criteria on the assignment sheet to check and revise the paper
___ I proofread the essay twice (one time OUT LOUD) for grammar and punctuation
___ I asked at least one other person to proofread the essay
___ I ran the essay through a spelling check
___ If I were to revise this paper again, I would ________________
Technical Aspects of the Papers to be graded:
Paper #1 will be 5 pages and the revised version of Paper #2 is 10 pages in length (they can be longer if you need more space to explore and argue your idea). All papers must be double-spaced, with one-inch margins all around, and stapled in the upper left-hand corner. Do not justify margins. Include a cover sheet with your name, due date, and title. Submit notes, drafts, and outlines with papers. Papers handed in after the due date will be considered late and will be penalized one grade for each day late. All papers should be typed in Times New Roman 12 point font and should be printed out and submitted as hard copies.
An “A” paper presents original thinking, an interesting research question, a compelling argument, intricate textual support, and an analytical thesis with, in the case of the final analytical paper, excellent sources to provide evidence. The paper is well-organized, with logic and smooth transitions, and uses proper MLA documentation style. Finally, the paper contains no or just a few minor grammatical/sentencing errors.
A “B” paper presents an interesting thesis argument with good evidence from the text to support your points and, in the case of the final revised analytical paper, good sources to provide secondary support. The thesis is clearly presented and the argument is organized with transitions and topic sentences. The paper uses proper MLA documentation style and contains minor grammatical/sentencing errors.
A “C” paper presents an average effort and fulfills the assignment by discussing the text, but is more descriptive than argumentative. Excessive plot summary replaces textual analysis. Meets the minimum requirements for outside sources, when required. May or may not follow the MLA style and contains grammatical/sentencing errors.
A “D” paper fails to present a thesis or provide analysis of the text. Does not meet the minimum requirements for outside sources, when required, and/or does not follow MLA documentation style. Contains grammatical/sentencing errors that obstruct the reading and meaning of the paper.
One-page Handouts for Class Presentation on assigned reading (10% of your final grade)
You and another member of the class will lead the opening class discussion. Consider the topics and themes that you as readers found most intriguing. You and your partner will conduct the first 30 minutes of the class with a presentation of any sort, such as leading a class discussion, lecturing to the class, or providing a writing or small-group activity. Make sure that you have a clear learning objective to stimulate critical thinking about the reading. To help you organize your presentation and to clarify your thinking, prepare a one-page handout that summarizes your major points. Your handout can contain bullet points that consider:
. What is the most interesting aspect of the reading?
. How does this work compare or contrast to others we have read?
. How does this work reflect major stylistic and/or thematic movements in American literature?
. What questions do you have about the reading?
. What parts of the work are unclear? Why?
. What allusions or references need do you need to contextualize?
. How does historical, cultural, regional, and/or literary context affect the understanding of the piece?
. In what ways does the work stand on its own?
. What aspects of the work require additional information?
You will make 20 copies of the handout so that each class member and I will have a copy. We will use these handouts when we review for the final exam.
Final Exam Essay (25% of final grade):
For the final exam essay questions, you should begin each essay with an introduction and clear thesis and use examples from the works to illustrate your points in your discussion. Your introduction should define the terms you will use and summarize any theoretical framework you will incorporate, as well as introduce the works you will discuss. Because this is a closed-book test, discuss the works by using examples (paraphrased or summarized, not word for word) that you recall from the readings. AVOID EXCESSIVE PLOT SUMMARY. A comparison/contrast format is useful. Please see the following link for information on comparison/contrast essays:
SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM
DISABILITY SUPPORT SERVICES (DSS) (202-994-8250)
Any student who may need an accommodation based on the potential impact of a disability should contact the Disability Support Services office in the University Student Center, Suite 242, to establish eligibility and to coordinate reasonable accommodations. For additional information please refer to: http://gwired.gwu.edu/dss/
UNIVERSITY COUNSELING CENTER (UCC) (202-994-5300)
The University Counseling Center offers 24/7 assistance and referral to address students’ personal, social, career, and study skills problems. Services for students include:
– crisis and emergency mental health consultations
– confidential assessment, counseling services (individual and small group), and referrals
UNIVERSITY WRITING CENTER (202-994-3765)
The Writing Center is located on the first floor of Gelman Library. You can make an appointment at the Writing Center on-line at their website (http://www.gwu.edu/~gwriter/about.html) or by calling 202-994-3765. Graduate and undergraduate student tutors can assist you in brainstorming for a topic; looking at a draft to help you organize and develop your ideas as well as help you find evidence to support your thesis; and looking at a final draft to make sure that your ideas are clearly stated and logically developed. Tutors will also help you understand the assignment. Sessions are 50 or 25 minutes. You should bring your assignment, any work you have done on the paper, teacher or peer comments, and any other resource materials that can help make the best use of the session.
OFFICE HOURS (202-262-0107)
Please come see me (Rome 661) about any of your writing assignments for this class at any time. Call to make an appointment or stop by on Tuesdays, 2:30-3:30.
Common Writing Errors
(Adapted from: Hacker, Diane. A Writer’s Reference: Sixth Edition. Boston:
Bedford/St. Martins, 2007.)
When writing for any course or in a business context, it is important that your writing style, grammar, and punctuation are correct. It is always appropriate to use the Spell Checker and Grammar Checker functions on Word when you have finished writing; however, remember that these do not always catch errors. Below are some of the more common errors that have occurred from previous students’ writing. Use this “cheat sheet” to catch some of your own errors before turning in papers.
• Be sure that your formatting is correct and consistent throughout your paper. Save your document, close the file, re-open it, and print a paper copy to see how it looks before submitting it. This can also help you identify paragraphs that are too long or too short.
• Be sure that you have used hard pagination to ensure that when you send a document, the page ends appropriately (without hanging titles at the end of a page, in the middle of a table, etc.).
• Be sure that you pay attention to detail. Read through your assignment carefully and make sure you have the facts correct. Misspelled names, for example, indicate sloppiness to the reader.
• Consistent verb tenses establish the time of the actions being described. When a passage begins in past tense, the rest of the sentence should be in past tense. For example, an incorrect sentence structure:
He traced the class systems of earlier times and concludes that there are only two classes.
The correct sentence structure:
He traced the class systems of earlier times and concluded that there were only two classes.
• Be sure that a verb agrees with its subject, not with a word that comes in between. Example:
The governor as well as his press secretary was shot.
• Avoid run-on sentences. There are 4 ways to correct a run-on sentence: Example:
Gestures are a means for everyone but they are essential for the hearing-impaired.
o Gestures are a means of communication for everyone, but they are essential for the hearing-impaired.
o Gestures are a means of communication for everyone; however, they are essential for the hearing impaired.
o Gestures are a means of communication for everyone; they are essential for the hearing impaired.
o Gestures are a means of communication for everyone. They are essential for the hearing impaired.
• Avoid leaving a preposition hanging at the end of a sentence. Example:
We looked at all the options to be compared to.
The correct sentence structure:
We looked at all the options for comparison.
• When using acronyms, spell out the words the first time they appear in your document; put the acronym in parenthesis. Then you may use just the acronym:
Soon, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will be expecting mail from us.
• Affect/effect: Affect is usually a verb meaning “to influence.” Effect is usually a noun meaning “result.”
The drug did not affect the disease, and it had adverse side effects.
• Its, it’s: Its is a possessive pronoun; it’s is a contraction for it is.
The dog wagged its tail whenever its owner walked into the room. It’s a perfect day to take a walk.
• There, their, they’re: There is an adverb specifying place; it is also an expletive. Their is a possessive pronoun. They’re is a contraction of they are. Examples:
Adverb: Sylvia is lying there unconscious.
Expletive: There are two plums left.
Possessive Pronoun: Fred and Jane finally went on their honeymoon.
Contraction: They’re later than usual today.
• Than, then: Than is a conjunction used in comparisons; then is an adverb denoting time. Examples:
That pizza is more than I can eat.
Tom laughed, and then we recognized him.
• Use of a comma between all items in a series: When three or more items are presented in a series, those items should be separated from one another with commas (including the last two items):
Bubbles of air, leaves, ferns, bits of wood, and insects are often found trapped in amber.
• Use a colon to introduce a list (do NOT use a semi-colon):
Amber often contains the following: bubbles of air, leaves, ferns, bits of wood, and insects.
• Apostrophes: Use an apostrophe to indicate that a noun is possessive. Examples:
Roy managed to climb out on the driver’s side.
Both diplomats’ briefcases were searched by guards.
Have you seen Joyce and Greg’s new camper?
• Quotation Marks: Direct quotations of a person’s words, whether spoken or written, must be in quotation marks. Examples:
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Note,
the punctuation is inside the quotation marks.)
According to Paul Eliott, Eskimo hunters “chant an ancient magic song to the seal they are
after: ‘Beast of the sea! Come and place yourself before me in the early morning!’”
(Note, use single quotation marks to enclose a quotation within a quotation.)
• Articles and titles of publications: Use quotation marks around titles of newspaper and magazine articles, poems, short stories, and chapters of books. Titles of books, plays, Websites, magazines, and newspapers are put in italics.