Guide to the Marking of Written Assignments
by Ian Johnston
[This document is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone.  Released July 2000]


7.1 To maintain the clarity of a sentence, do not confuse the reader by using words which do not mean what you think they mean. Do not guess at the meanings of words or always rely upon the meaning in colloquial conversation.

Do not, for example, use infer when you mean imply, or disinterested when you mean uninterested, or unique when you mean strange or different, or mad when you mean angry, or crazy when you mean foolish or unwise or difficult to understand or emotionally upset, or awesome when you mean impressive and so on. Particular words have particular meanings, and a sloppy attention to these can create confusion or inaccuracies in your style.

7.2 Avoid the many colloquial expressions for extraordinary, words which writers too often use to convey a sense of remarkable quality: awesome, terrific, tremendous, amazing, incredible, fantastic, and so on. These words all have specific meanings different from their colloquial meanings.

For the same reason don't use the word great to mean very good (as in, for example, "The acting in this play is great"). The word great has a very specific meaning, so don't use it sloppily. Instead use an expression like very good, exceptional, outstanding, and so on.

Do not use the adverbs from the list of words given above to intensify the meaning of an adjective or adverb (as in, for example, "This part of the book is incredibly [or amazingly, terribly] suspenseful"). If you simply want to intensify the meaning of an adjective or adverb, use an expression like very, remarkably, extraordinarily, uncommonly.

7.3 Remember that the words you use have two levels of meaning: (a) the denotation (the literal meaning, the one given in the dictionary) and (b) the connotation (the implied range of meanings and the emotional power of the word). Since the connotations of words express emotional attitudes, you should be careful not to use a word which injects into your style an inappropriate emotional attitude. This point is particularly important in essays where you are trying to persuade the reader to adopt a particular point of view. Your choice of language, if inappropriate, may persuade the reader that you are too flippant, biased, or narrow-minded to take seriously.

People who participate in environmental protests are practising ecological terrorism
This governmental attitude to students reminds me of the tactics of the Gestapo.

The words terrorism and Gestapo here are extremely strong and might suggest that you are so unsympathetic to one side of this issue that you are incapable of discussing it rationally. A better word in the first example might be something like ecological harassment, and in the second something like excessive police force would be a far less loaded expression.

7.4 Avoid using words which have very vague meanings. Choose a word which expresses what you want to say as clearly and accurately as possible. In particular, avoid using words like positive, negative, or interesting. These words often fail to convey anything sufficiently particular.

The scene makes the reader feel positive about Elisa and negative towards her husband.

Rewrite this sentence to make your meaning much more precise:

The scene makes the reader respect Elisa's strength and question her husband's apparent contempt for her.

One word to watch carefully is realistic. This word has almost no analytical precision, unless you are prepared to clarify exactly what you mean by it. It almost all cases, you should substitute for this word something more precise: naturalistic, plausible, credible, convincing.

Be careful not to base an argumentative interpretation on words with very little analytical meaning. You may think you are saying something significant, but unless you are prepared to explore in greater precision what that term actually means, your claim may be saying very little. This point is particularly important in essays on literature.

Richard's problem is that he is a weak king. All his troubles stem from that point.

Lady Macbeth's mind is clearly not working normally when she utters her famous prayer.

The trouble with statements like this is that they say nothing worth attending to. In the first sentence, the adjective weak needs to be unpacked in detail. What precisely is the nature of Richard's weakness? What does he do or say or think or feel (or not do, say, think, or feel) that enables you to make this judgment about him? Similarly in the second example, a statement about Lady Macbeth's mental abnormality has no explanatory value unless you are prepared to discuss in some detail what you mean by that term.

The point is that such words (and there are many of them, especially terms indicating psychological states) sound meaningful, but they are not unless you explore how you have determined that they are appropriate here. In this connection be really careful of the word mad. Do not confuse it with expressions like emotionally disturbed, depressed, upset, passionately angry, acting irrationally, and so on. When you use the term mad (especially in relation to a character in a work of literature), you are saying, in effect, that she is insane, that her actions have no discernible logic, and that there is no point in trying to figure them out reasonably.

7.5 The proper attention to the meanings of words is particularly important when you are using words which express logical relationships and transitions. Notice the following common words which fall into this category:

since, because (introduce a reason)
although (introduces a concession)
consequently, so that (introduce a result)
therefore, thus (introduce a logical outcome)
nevertheless, but, however (introduce a contrast)
subsequently (introduces something later in time)
furthermore, moreover (introduce an additional point)

7.6 Be careful with the word as when you use it to introduce a dependent clause. Usually the word is a poor choice because it is inherently ambiguous.

As I drove home, the argument started.

Does as here mean since, or while, or when? The reader is not certain. So rather than using as here, select the most precise word to express what you mean (since, while, or when).

7.7 Use transition words frequently and properly to indicate the logical flow of your paragraph, especially in relation to the previous paragraph. The skilful use of transition words and phrases is one of the best and most sophisticated ways to keep the reader in very close and clear contact with your argument.

Some of the commonest words and phrases which function as effective indicators of logical transitions are the following:

For indicating a continuity with what has gone before: and, in addition, moreover, furthermore, also, indeed, besides, secondly, next, similarly, again, equally important, beyond that.

For introducing an example or illustration of a point: for example, for instance, as an illustration.

For introducing something adding emphasis to a previous point: in fact, in other words, that is, indeed, as a matter of fact

For leading into a conclusion from or a result of what you have just been discussing: thus, hence, therefore, consequently, as a result.

For introducing a contrast with what has just been said: but, however, nevertheless, by contrast, on the other hand, conversely.

For leading into a qualification, doubt, or reservation about what you have just been discussing: no doubt, of course, to be sure.

For leading into a summary statement: in short, all in all, in brief, in conclusion, to conclude, given all this.

Pronoun and adjectival links to something which has gone before: this, that, the above-mentioned, such.

Words establishing time relationships (important in narrative paragraphs): after, afterwards, then, later, before, while, at the same time, immediately, thereupon, next, meanwhile, subsequently, previously, simultaneously.

Words indicating spatial relationships (important in physical descriptions): above, beside, next to, on the other side, facing, parallel, across from, adjacent.

7.8 The commonest form of logical obscurity appears when the sentences are so awkward and confusing that the reader has difficulty determining a clear meaning. Generally this fault happens because the writer is unsure about how to control a sentence or is trying to cram too many ideas into the same sentence.

If your writing suffers from this problem then the only immediate remedy is for you to simplify your sentence structure drastically. You should confine yourself to one clear and simple idea per sentence. And you should keep your sentences very short (no more than 12 words per sentence). The result may sound repetitious and simple, but if the result is a new clarity to your prose, then the price is worth paying. If you cannot control long sentences, then you must go back to a much simpler style. This is very important advice for anyone experiencing such difficulties with a basic writing style.

7.9 Avoid the logically awkward expressions is where and is when.

The climax of the play is when Hamlet kills Claudius.
The best technique is where fertilization occurs before replanting.

Rewrite these getting rid of the awkward expressions:

The climax of the play occurs when Hamlet kills Claudius.
The best technique is to fertilize before replanting.

Logically, the expression is when should occur only in connection with a precise time (e.g.., "I read that 6:30 p.m. is when the train is leaving"). Similarly, is where should occur only with a precise spatial location: "The northern tip of the lake is where the fishing is good"). Do not be sloppy about the use of these two terms.

7.10 Pay particular attention to the phrase is because. Writers very commonly misuse the phrase.

The reason she dislikes him is because he lied to her.

Rewrite this sentence to avoid repeating the idea of the causal relationship:

The reason she dislikes him is that he lied to her.
She dislikes him because he lied to her.

Never use the expression The reason for . . . is because. . . .

7.11 To keep the logic of an argument clear, make sure you define clearly any key terms you intend to use throughout the argument. Do not assume that, because the term you are using is common, everyone shares exactly the same definition. Such definition is particularly important when you are dealing with social issues, where they may be a significant difference between the legal meaning of a term and the general meaning (e.g., murder, abortion, poverty, alienation, euthanasia, child abuse, and so on). Any term which is crucial to your argument must be clearly defined.

Normally the best place to offer such a definition will be early on in the paper, usually in a special paragraph immediately after the introductory one which defines the argument (the thesis).

If you use a term in an argument which you have not defined earlier in the paper, then define it quickly the very first time you mention it, either in your own paragraph (if a clear definition is essential) or (less commonly) in a footnote.

7.12 Make sure that the conclusions you present about something do not display a degree of certainty which is not warranted by the evidence you have presented or the principles you have invoked. Be especially careful about using words like all, none, always, never, and so on when your argument only entitles you to use words like some, frequently, sometimes, rarely, probably, perhaps.

In the same way, use a language appropriate to the evidence you have presented when you set out the verbs in your conclusions. It may be better (it usually is) to use verbs like suggests, perhaps indicates, raises the possibility, indicates a strong probability, and so on, rather than the much more definite verbs like proves, demonstrates, establishes.

The above point is particularly important in essay on literary fictions, where unequivocal conclusions are usually impossible to establish, because the evidence is inherently ambiguous. Remember that a single point or even a few similar points do not entitle you to claim that something has been proven. In fact, it's generally a good idea to avoid really definite verbs like prove when you are presenting the conclusions to a literary analysis.

As a general rule always let the tone and assertiveness of your conclusions match the quality of the evidence. Strong evidence allows you to be more confident, sometimes virtually certain. Weak evidence requires a good deal more caution, sometimes even a hypothetical suggestion ("If Gertrude helps to murder King Hamlet, then there is a possibility that. . . .").

In technical writing be especially careful to avoid asserting something definitely when the evidence for it is incomplete.

7.13 Avoid sweeping grand statements about complex subjects, especially historical generalizations:

In the Middle Ages everyone believed in and obeyed the Church.
Russians in the 1950's were all Communists.
All the Ancient Greeks believed in a huge variety of gods and goddesses.
All women have always been violently persecuted by men.

Such statements are immediately suspect because they are simplistic general assertions about very complex subjects and raise questions about your ability to make discriminating judgements.

This habit is particularly to be avoided with historical generalizations which you use to explain away literary or philosophical issues in a text:

King Lear treats his children that way because in the seventeenth century all fathers treated their children severely.

Elisa breaks down because women were much more easily frustrated in the 1930's than they are today.

Descartes drags in the proof of God's existence because all his readers believed in God and, besides, he had to appease the church authorities.

As a rule, never try to explain away particular complexities in a work of literature (fiction or philosophy) with a casual appeal to a historical generalization or to some easy biographical link to the author. Deal first and foremost with an explanation which arises out of the details of the text itself.

And if you are dealing with a work of fiction which is based upon a historical event or person (e.g., Shakespeare's Richard II), never interpret the play with reference to historical details of that event or person, unless the play itself presents such facts. In many cases, the work will deliberately alter well known historical facts to create a specific effect.

7.14 Make sure that you do not base an argument on a hasty generalization, that is, upon a conclusion arrived at with insufficient evidence.

In literary essays, for example, your conclusion about characters and events should arise from good (and repeated) evidence in the text and not from your quick impression of one or two casual details or from imaginary speculations about things which the text does not mention (e.g., upon speculations about the childhood experiences about which the text is silent).

By the same token, you should not simply overlook a significant part of a fiction or another text which does not fit the argument you want to present. A working principle of any argument about a text should always consider the following question: What is there here which goes against the case I am trying to present? A sophisticated argument will take that into consideration and will deal with it.

7.15 Use hard evidence, that is, facts which are reliable, typical, up-to-date, and accurate. In literary or historical analysis, for example, do not base your entire argument on some fact that is relatively insignificant and unsupported by anything else or from an obscure, outdated, or unreliable source.

Evaluate quotations carefully before putting them into an argument. Do not quote or refer to someone who just happens to share your opinion or a text which is making an unsubstantiated plea (especially if the document comes from an advocacy group). Use secondary sources which are based on firm, reliable studies. Identify the studies and the authors of them. This point is particularly important nowadays, because the Internet makes available all sorts of unsubstantiated opinions by every imaginable interest group. A source is not to be trusted just because it appears on the Internet.

For instance, using an Internet source like the following (imaginary) one does not advance your argument very persuasively:

Last year the Society for the Extermination of All Those Who Smoke in Public Places (SEATWSPP) stated that "Second hand smoke is clearly the single biggest cause of medical problems in Canada today" (qu. in Johnston 4).

The trouble with material like this is that the source, as identified, sounds very unreliable. The quotation is merely an opinion given by an advocacy group. We do not know if there is anything reliable supporting that view.

Remember that empirical information (data) or opinions which arise from such data are only as reliable as the source. Just because someone who sounds important declares something to be the case does not mean that that opinion is worth attending to. To make your presentation of empirical evidence persuasive, therefore, identify the source, the study, and the results. And, as much as possible, make sure these come from reputable sources, rather than from unknown or suspect advocacy groups.

7.16 Do not provide lengthy descriptions of how the secondary source collected the data. If the reader is interested, she can examine the original source herself. In referring to a secondary source of empirical information (statistics, hard data), you should normally do three things: name the author, explain quickly the basis of the study, and focus on the results. Here are some examples of how to do this (notice that they are made up).

At Harvard University Shaw (1996) carried out a study of five thousand women who had used the drug Zapane more than once a week for three years. She concluded that 75 percent of the women had suffered at least one serious side effect (migraine, internal bleeding, anxiety, significant weight gain).

In a detailed study of six hundred adult heroin addicts in British Columbia, Johnston (1998) found that the vast majority (83.2 percent) had little idea of the source or the quality of the drug they were using.

Notice in these examples that the writer refers briefly (but does not dwell upon) the method and moves directly to the really important point she wants to use here, the results.

7.17 Do not appeal to vague authorities, unless you are prepared to supply very specific references to back up the claim.

Many critics have argued that. . . .
Scientific studies have revealed that. . . .

What critics? What studies? If you are not prepared to identify the sources for these assertions (in references, perhaps), then avoid such appeals to unnamed authorities.

7.18 Do not make yourself sound more authoritative than you really are.

Of all Ibsen's plays, Doll's House is the most complex.
The Gay Science is Nietzsche's most polemical work.

Have you read all Ibsen's or all Nietzsche's work? If so and this is your considered judgement, then you are quite entitled to make this comment. But if you have not, don't issue such sweeping statements on your own authority. If the statement comes from a secondary source, then you must identify the source in an appropriate reference.

7.19 Be careful of misleading or false analogies, particularly historical ones. Analogies, which are comparisons, are often useful to illustrate a point and to supplement an argument, but they are usually, in themselves, very poor proofs, especially when you use analogies which involve extremes (e.g., comparing Reagan's America to Hitler's Germany or the NDP's platform to Soviet Communism).

As a general rule, avoid setting up an essay in which the thesis is an analogy.

Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is just like Germany's treatment of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe.

This may be a point you wish to introduce into the essay later (perhaps), but do not make such a comparison the major thesis of the argument.

And never use historical analogies unless you are very well informed about the historical event to which you are calling attention. In particular, be very cautious about any analogy involving Nazi Germany, since that comparison clearly involves an extreme, not immediately applicable to something else without considerable reservation.

7.20 Do not fall into the basic logical error of a false dichotomy, that is, stating or implying that there are only two alternatives, when, upon reflection, you may find other options.

Since he's a drinker and since his alcoholism is not acceptable on the work site, we have to fire him.

Nora has to leave her house, because she finds out that husband is not what she thought he was and she cannot go back to what she used to be.

What about other options? The above arguments are based on a false dichotomy, an assumption that there are only two alternatives. If you want to set up an argument as based upon only two or three alternatives, then you have to make sure that there are no others. Many apparently persuasive arguments rely upon a false dichotomy to close off alternative possibilities.

7.21 Remember that coincidence is no proof of causation. That is, you do not prove that A is the cause of B just because B happens after A. Only repeated experimentation or observation can establish the validity of a causal connection in a sequence of events, and even then the conclusion may only be a statement of probability. For this reason, evidence from observation needs to include a number of confirmations of a similar sequence of events before a persuasive conclusion offers itself.

7.22 Do not seek to argue by misrepresenting an opponent's case, that is, by setting up what is called a "straw man" argument which you can easily dismiss. If you are going to introduce an opposing argument into your own case (and a sophisticated and capable arguer will often want to do that), then represent the opponent's position fairly, and answer it properly. This point is especially important when you are seeking to disprove a claim by a source which disagrees with the views you are advancing.

7.23 Similarly to not try to shift the argument from something important to something irrelevant, what is called a "red herring," a claim without any immediately convincing connection to the case you are making.

I failed the course because the teacher is a Roman Catholic.

The problems with Shakespeare's Hamlet derived from the fact that his son's name was Hamnet.

Here the reasons the writer offers for the opening conclusion are not clearly the cause of anything connected to the main clause. If you want to make a logical connection between the reasons and the results here, you will have to offer a much more convincing link between them.

For the same reason, you should not pull into an argument material which is not directly relevant to the position you are advancing (no matter how interesting that material may be).

7.24 Watch that you do not end up begging the question, that is, assuming the truth of the conclusion you wish to prove.

The government must reduce its spending because lowering government costs is essential.

Nora leaves her family because she walks out on her family. She hates Torvald because she cannot stand to be with him.

Macbeth is ambitious because he wants to be king. He's a murderer because he kills Duncan.

Notice how these reasons explain nothing; they simply repeat the conclusion: "X is the case because X is the case."

This logical error can occur in essays on literary interpretation where the writer simply assumes that the particular interpretation is obvious and sets out to make connections between that interpretation and something else. This is a serious problem, if the task at hand is to establish the validity of the interpretation.

Notice that this expression begging the question or begs the question does not mean raising or raises the question. In this expression the verb beg means avoid.

7.25 Be careful you do not construct a circular argument. This habit consists of setting up criteria for a particular quality and then finding those qualities in the subject you are discussing. Here is a very short example.

A really good tragedy is one in which there is a ghost, revenge within a family context, and multiple deaths at the end. Hamlet has all these characteristics. Therefore Hamlet is a really good tragedy.

The problem here is the initial criteria. Who says that these make a "really good tragedy"? Unless you are prepared to defend in detail the criteria you have selected, you are really talking in a circle.

An important aspect of this problem and the previous one is the tendency of interpreters of literature to impose on a text something they have determined in advance, rather than letting the interpretation emerge out of the details of the text.

If, for example, you want to argue that Shakespeare's Tempest is an exploration of colonialism, you cannot just assume that it is or list a number of characteristics of the colonial experience and then apply to the play various historical parallels (e.g., Caliban has to learn Prospero's language. This is just like the natives of North America. They, too, went through an experience just like his. . . . and so on). If you want to make the case, then you have to look much more closely at what goes on in the text and let the interpretation emerge bottom up, rather than being imposed top down.

7.26 A key part of any essay argument is the opening paragraph in which you define the subject, focus, and thesis of the argument. You need to take time here to clarify precisely what the essay is setting out to argue, usually by identifying a general subject, narrowing that subject down to the particular part of it that you wish to focus on, and finally by declaring an opinion about that focus which you wish to persuade the reader to adopt.

Normally in an essay on a literary text, the opening sentence should identify the particular work you are dealing with (by naming the title). Then, you should in the next few sentences identify the particular part of the text you wish to focus on (a particular character or incident in the fiction, a particular portion of an argument in a philosophical work, for example). Once you have made clear to the reader the precise part of the text you are addressing, you should conclude the opening paragraph with a clear statement (in one or two sentences) of what you are endeavouring to argue about the focus you have selected.

Please strive to avoid the following common mistakes:

7.26.1 Do not make the opening paragraph too abrupt. If you are defining the argument properly, the first paragraph should be substantial (150 to 250 words). If your opening paragraph is simply three or four lines, then the introduction is almost certainly insufficient.

7.26.2 Make sure you narrow the focus of the essay to something very specific which you can manage to deal with in a relatively short paper. As a general rule, the more specific and narrow the focus, the easier it will be to make the argument persuasive. A major cause of poor essays (and especially research papers) is a very large, vague topic. You should, in particular, avoid any arguments which are based upon large historical generalizations (i.e., which make sweeping statements about complex historical developments or which offer historical surveys of complex subjects).

7.26.3 In an argumentative essay make sure the thesis of the essay (which normally comes at the end of the first paragraph) is something we can argue about (i.e., it is possible for someone to disagree with your statement). If you set the essay up as a statement of an obvious fact, then the essay is in trouble right at the start, because there is nothing disputatious on the table. In an argumentative or interpretative essay, make sure you check the introduction carefully to ensure that there is a clearly opinionated thesis (usually at the end of the paragraph).

7.26.4 Make the thesis as specific and opinionated as you can, so the reader is in no doubt about what you are setting out to argue. If necessary take two or three sentences to establish the argumentative stance of the essay.

7.26.5 Don't make the introduction merely a promissory note, which only indicates what you will do: e.g., "In this essay I will look at Elisa's character and discuss the relationship she has with her husband." Such an indication offers no opinionated stance which we can argue about. The task in the opening paragraph is to define the argument, not simply announce the focus. In general, you should avoid phrases like "this essay will," "I will discuss," "I am going to," and so on in the introductory paragraph.

7.27 Be very careful when you proceed in a deductive argument from the initial assumptions to the conclusions. Make your initial assumptions clear to the reader. For example, if you are making an argument based on the law, then inform the reader what the law to which you are appealing actually states. If you are appealing to a moral principle, then make that clear to the reader. And when you move from this initial principle, make sure you apply it correctly to the particular case you are considering.

Do not appeal vaguely to some unspecified law or right. If such an appeal is to work as part of a deductive argument, you need to locate the authority behind the claim. Notice the following examples.

Everyone has the right to die.

According to Canadian law, every child has the right to a free public education up to a certain age.

The first claim above is empty. Who says we have this right? Where is such a right codified? All this statement means (if anything) is that you are in favour of people having the right to do away with themselves. The second sentence makes a claim about rights, but backs up the claim by pointing to a specific authority which confers the right.

In general, be very careful about using the term right in a deductive argument, unless you can anchor the right in some document, law, or shared agreement.

7.28 Do not try to win an argument simply by attacking the personalities of the people who hold alternative views. Some vigorous words against your opponents will often liven up a debate, but the issue is not their characters but their arguments. And obviously you should not try to advance your case by emotional appeals to prejudice, popularity, or famous people who endorse your views (unless there is reliable scientific evidence to back up their support). A good argument works by the logical relationship between the facts, principles, and conclusions, not by attacks on personalities.

7.29 As a general rule in literary or historical or sociological interpretation, remember the principle of inclusiveness. This means that arguments which can best account for most of the facts of the case (or the event or the text) have more weight than an argument which explains far fewer points and which fails to account for much of the text. In any conflict among interpretations, the principle of inclusiveness becomes an important means of assessing the relative merits of different interpretative possibilities.

7.30 An important principle in logical arguments is the notion that unnecessarily complicated explanations are less convincing than simpler accounts of the same evidence. In other words, in any argument about interpretations, the one which requires a less complicated series of assumptions is often preferable to the one which rests on a more elaborate and less convincing set of initial postulates. This principle is called Occam's Razor.

7.31 In logical interpretations the principle of consistency is also important. That is, your interpretation of evidence should not change arbitrarily to fit whatever point you want to make, just as your definition of a term should not change half way through an argument.

Thus, while literary evidence is almost always ambiguous, your interpretation cannot create out of it whatever you think necessary, changing from one point in the argument to another to fit whatever it is you wish to establish. To take an obvious example, you cannot logically explain one passage of Hamlet by asserting that the Prince is a teenager and then, later in your argument, deal with another passage by asserting that he is a mature thirty year old.

7.32 Take care you do not contradict your argument from one paragraph to the next. Remember that every point you raise in an argumentative essay should contribute to the main thesis of the paper. If you are bringing alternative views into the argument (i.e., giving your opponents a hearing), then make sure you answer them satisfactorily.

7.33 In general the quality of an argument depends upon the interaction between the opinions you are expressing, the evidence you present, and the interpretation of that evidence. All three must be present to make the argument clear and persuasive, and the absence of one element may seriously hurt the argument.

7.33.1 Without a clear topic sentence (usually at the start of the paragraph) the reader will not understand what the point of the paragraph (and the evidence it contains) might be. Always state the point you are moving to at this stage of the argument before bringing in evidence. Do not start a paragraph in the argument with a statement of fact or with a statement summarizing some part of the story. Indicate the interpretative point you are now moving to consider.

7.33.2 Usually there must be some evidence in support of the opinion you are advancing. This evidence need not be extensive, but it must be reliable and bear directly upon the point you are trying to establish. Do not let opinions stand without evidence to support them. And do not overwhelm the reader with evidence.

7.33.2 Always interpret the evidence that you introduce. Do not leave it to the reader to understand the significance of evidence. The most important part of an argument is usually the way in which the writer presents an interpretation of reliable evidence.

7.34 Do not overquote (i.e., use too quotations too frequently) in a research paper, assuming that the quotations can do all the work of the argument. Normally, you should offer a direct quotation only when the precise wording of the original is vital to the point you are making (as in the analysis of the language of a poem, for example, or a key moment in a philosophical argument). If the only point of the quotation is to cite some factual evidence, some information, which the quotation contains (i.e., the wording is unimportant), then put that information in your own words and provide a reference.

In many research papers (particularly those on subjects in social science), you should require direct quotations quite rarely, even though you are incorporating a considerable amount of secondary material into your argument. The only time you should need direct quotations often will occur when your point requires you to call attention to the particular way in which something is expressed (rather than merely to the information the quotation contains).

As a general rule, you should spend more time in an argumentative paragraph interpreting the evidence you have introduced (in references to the results of certain studies or to particular portions of the text), rather than in just listing evidence or in long quotations.

7.35 If you introduce a direct quotation into your argument as evidence, you should normally then immediately discuss the importance of this evidence (i.e., interpret the quotation). Do not simply deposit a quotation and then move onto to something else. By putting the quotation into the argument, you are saying, in effect, that this is important support for the point you are making. Don't leave it up to the reader to figure out the importance of the quotation. Discuss that in some detail.

7.36 Do not fabricate evidence or rely upon imaginary or irrelevant evidence. In essays on literature, for example, do not build a case on matters about which the fiction is quite silent (e.g., the childhood of a character about whom we know only a segment of his or her adult life). In general, do not attempt to explain away some part of text or an argument with casual reference to the author's biography or to some historical events outside the work (unless you are prepared to go into great detail to establish a highly probably link between the historical fact and the point in the text).

And never analyze a character in a short story with detailed reference to men or women in general or to the history of a particular world problem. Make your argument with specific evidence about that character which the story provides, and confine your attention to interpreting that story or argument. Of course, you may speculate about what the story does not reveal clearly or link the fiction or the argument to wider issues (especially in the conclusion to the argument), but do not make such habits central to the case you are trying to make.

7.37 Make sure you avoid structuring an essay simply as a catalogue of examples, a particularly common mistake in essays on literature. The most basic assignment in an essay on literature focuses on a pattern in the work (a character, a theme, a series of images, a relationship), and makes a case about the significance of the pattern. Do not forget this, by turning the essay merely into a series of examples of the pattern.

For example, suppose you are asked to write an essay exploring why Shakespeare frequently has his female characters experience unnecessary suffering, often when they are totally innocent. The task in this essay is not to discuss in a sequence a number of examples (e.g., one paragraph on Ophelia, one paragraph on Cordelia, one paragraph on Lady Macduff, and so on), but rather to structure a series of paragraphs each of which makes a claim about the significance of the pattern (the characters will then come into the essay as evidence for different aspects of this significance). In such an essay, each topic sentence should be a particular assertion about Shakespeare's treatment of women, not simply the introduction of another example.

Similarly, if you are writing an argument about, say, the imagery in a particular poetic style (or poem), do not make the essay simply an opening assertion about the imagery and then a long catalogue of examples. Make each stage of the argument start with a particular assertion about what the imagery contributes and draw examples in support of that assertion.

Similarly, if you are focusing on the changes a character undergoes in a fiction, concentrate upon the significance of those changes, not merely on a description of them. If, for example, you are discussing the significance of the Duke of York in Richard II or of Dr. Rank in A Doll's House, make the essay an argument about their significance, with each paragraph making an assertion about that. Do not simply describe what the characters undergo.

7.38 Arguments about performing arts events (e.g., films, theatre) are often quite weak in supporting detail. In such arguments, it is not enough simply to say that something is good or bad. You need to provide the supporting detail which leads you to that evaluation. Notice the following example:

In the lead role of Hamlet, Tom Dickson is very good. He really makes the character come alive in a convincing way which really holds the viewer's attention.

The setting for the play is very effective. It really contributes a great deal to one's enjoyment of the production.

The trouble with statements like these is that they provide no convincing detail. All they tell us is that you liked this aspect of the production. They do not tell us why. Notice the difference between those two sentences and the following:

In the lead role of Hamlet, Tom Dickson is very good. He speaks his lines with an interesting rhythm and his movements and gestures are particularly effective. For example, in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy the nervous intensity in his voice and movements (especially in his walk) really underscores the emotional pressure in the character.

The setting for the play is very effective. The rough planks on the floor and the seedy yellow wallpaper (peeling in the corners) contribute to the sense of desperate poverty the family is dealing with. In addition, the picture on the wall is a constant reminder (for us and for the characters) that the family has seen better days.

Notice how in the above examples there is some evidence given (specific observations) to back up the evaluative judgment. This detail is essential if your argument about the production (in, for example, a review) is going to be at all persuasive.

7.39 Very subjective evidence is never very logically convincing. You should never base an interpretative argument on something which is merely personal.

I sympathize with Hamlet because he reminds me so much of my unfortunate cousin Tom, who passed away at an early age on our farm in Saskatchewan, after a difficult but very promising childhood. And Elsinore is just like my uncle's farmhouse on the hill, where we used to play.

This style may help us to understand why you feel about something the way that you do, but it is not much help if you want us to share your view of the play.

Do not conduct an argument as an exercise in writing poetic impressions or hallowed personal memories. Your task in an argumentative essay is not merely to communicate to the reader how you feel about an issue: the task is to persuade the reader to adopt (or at least to consider seriously) the opinion about the text or the issue you are discussing.

7.40 If the essay calls for an interpretation of a lyric poem, you must address the central purpose of the poem, the exploration of the complexities of certain states of feeling about an experience. This requires a detailed attention to the language of the poem, something which looks directly at the way in which very particular features of the poem (imagery, rhythm, particular words, inherent ambiguities in the language, and so on) help to illuminate a range of feelings in the speaker of the lines.

Be careful in such an essay that you are not simply translating the content of the poem into your own prose (that is, providing a summary of what the poetic lines say) or treating the poem as if it is an argument with a clear moral. Such an approach will almost certainly make the essay simply an unsatisfactory rehash of the obvious. So avoid sentences like "In the second verse the speaker says that. . . ." or "The ending of the poem leaves us with the moral that. . . ." Instead you should be writing sentences like the following, "The speaker's response to this experience is ambiguous. His frustration and despair come out clearly in the vocabulary, especially in line 3. . . ." and so on.

An essay on a lyric poem which is not constantly looking at very particular features of the style of the poem and interpreting how these help to define a particular state of feeling in the speaker is probably going astray.

7.41 In writing about lyric poems, get used to calling the speaking voice (the "I") of the poem, the speaker, rather than the author or the poet or the poet's surname. Although many poets do write closely autobiographical poems, many do not, and often the speaker of the poem is deliberately different from the author. Use the terms author, poet, or the surname to discuss the writing of the poem but not to refer to the "I" of the poem.

7.42 Be very careful to avoid plagiarism, a habit that is considered equivalent to cheating, even if you do it inadvertently. Here are some common forms to watch for:

7.42.1 Obviously you should never simply copy out someone else's work and present it as your own or get someone else to write your work for you.

7.42.2 The most common form of (often unintentional) plagiarism occurs when you borrow from a secondary source (e.g., a journal or Internet article), put the idea or argument into your own words, provide a reference, but lean too heavily on the wording of the original. When you put a borrowed idea into your own words, you must express the idea in your own words and not with a pastiche of phrases or an impressive sounding vocabulary which comes directly from the original. Such a borrowing of the style of the original is plagiarism (cheating), even if you provide a reference at the end of the relevant section. Such plagiarism is, incidentally, quite easy for an instructor to discern, since it almost always involves a marked shift in the writing style. Make sure you avoid this error.

7.42.3 Never make the mistake of thinking that a full list of works you have used presented at the end of the paper is all you need to provide by way of references. Such a final list is essential, but within the body of the essay or report you must provide in-text references every time you bring in material from secondary sources (articles, books, lectures, and so on).

7.42.4 Do not think that the Internet is a particularly safe source from which you may freely take ideas without acknowledgement, simply because there is so much material available online. There are easy ways to search the entire Internet quite quickly for a particular sentence or two.


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