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Tips on Style & Grammar

William Blattner
Professor of Philosophy

No, I'm not an English prof, but I might still be able to help you all with your writing. I will sometimes put stylistic comments on your work, when I return it, but I will also make some more general comments here.

Important stylistic points:

  1. The pronoun "they" and errors of agreement. When we speak, we often say things like this: "If a person is hungry, they should eat." When you're speaking, esp. in informal contexts, it sounds stilted to say, "If a person is hungry, he or she should eat." It sounds stilted in emails and informal notes as well. In formal writing, however, the use of "they" above is incorrect, because "they" does not agree (in number) with its antecedent, "a person." "They" is plural, "a person" is singular. So, use "he or she" or some other formulation that is singular. ("He or she" is to be preferred on grounds of non-sexist language, of which more below.)
  2. Non-sexist or Inclusive language.
    • Although some still regard this issue as "political," increasingly it is becoming simply a standard part of appropriate style. Remember that there was once a time when white men were addressed as "Mr. So-and-so," while men of color were addressed by their first names, as if they were children. The abandonment of that obnoxious practice was also a political transformation.
    • Aovid using "he" systematically as a supposedly generic pronoun referring back to "one." It no longer sounds generic; it sounds like it refers to men, rather than women. There are a number of different ways to avoid using "he" in this way. You can alternate, using "he" in one paragraph, "she" in the next. You can use the plural: "When people are hungry, they eat." Do not use "they" to refer back to a singular antecedent, however. (See point (1) above.)
    • Avoid using "man" and "mankind" to refer to human beings at large. This one is easy: write "humans" and "humankind."
    • For more detail on this theme, see my excerpts from the Amer. Philos. Assoc. website.
  3. Semi-colons. Semi-colons are used to separate two independent clauses when they are not joined by a conjunction. Commas are used to separate independent clauses when they are joined by a conjunction. (You may "reduce" the semi-colon to a comma for short sentences, e.g., like this: "I'm hungry, I'm going to eat.")

Less important points & typographical issues:

  1. Punctuation marks go within quotation marks. Ex.:
    President Bush said, "Invading Iraq was a good move."
    Publishing houses have started setting everything but commas and periods outside the quotation marks. I still prefer to set everything within, but I can't tell you it's wrong to put a semi-colon outside the quotation marks.
  2. Split infinitives. On this issue too the generally accepted standards of writing may be changing. I will stick to my old-fashioned views and recommend to you that you try to avoid split infinitives. Instead of writing, "to boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before," write, "boldly to go ... ." Of course, you shouldn't correct the split infinitive when you're administering the oath of office to the president of the United States!
  3. When citing a page number for a quoted passage, the period at the end of the sentence (or comma at the end of the clause) falls outside the quotation and after the parenthesized page number, thus:
    Aristotle says, "I am a great philosopher" (p. 241).
  4. Set off (indent one half inch from the left and right) lengthier quotations (more than three lines) from the body text.  Single space them, and do not put quotation marks around the entire quotation.  (Setting off of the text has the same function as quotation marks.  Thus, quotation marks are redundant.)

Awkard or Inarticulate Phrases

  1. "with regards to" – You can sign a letter, "with regards," but if you mean "with respect to," then you write "with regard to" or "in regard to," in both cases singular.
  2. "meaning" – Don't define a term by means of a participial phrase that begins "meaning ... ." Use a relative clause instead. So, don't write: "Compatibilism, meaning the idea that freedom and determinism are compatible, ... ." Instead, write: "Compatibilism, which is the idea the freedom and determinism are compatible, ... ."

Online Style & Grammar Links

  1. provides free online access to Strunk's Elements of Style (1918 edition, not the edition updated by E.B. White), The American Heritage Book of English Usage, and The Columbia Guide to Standard American English
  2. Lauinger Library provides free access to Oxford Reference Online, which includes The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style.

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