Tag Archives: grammar

How to write, and not write, a history paper

A manuscript of Bede's, Historia Ecclesiastica...

A manuscript of the Venerable Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum

Trolling through some old material from my days as a Duke preceptor (teaching assistant), I find the following advice on papers I gave to Susan Keefe’s CH13 one year. Re-reading it now, some 15 years later, I find that students still have much the same issues when writing history papers, and I still recommend the same solutions. Some of these problems and solutions apply to any humanities paper, or any paper at all. Some are more specific to history.

[Point 1 of my notes had to do with a specific paper they were working on, so I’ve deleted it]:

2.  Key issues in papers.

a.  A certain distractedness; a tendency to drift from the question asked, or the topic at hand.  Given an assigned question—or in the case of your research paper, once you have established your own topic, question or thesis statement, make sure that everything you write relates to that question.  Cut everything out that doesn’t.  Don’t worry about running out of things to say; any given historical question—at least at the level we’re working—has had countless books written about it. There’s far more than enough material for a single paper.

—Watch out for getting caught up in the vivid details about the lives of those you write about; details that are compelling and fascinating, but don’t relate to the question.

—Look with particular suspicion at your first page.  Often “huffing and puffing,” getting the engine going, giving background material that only vaguely relates to the topic. Continue reading

Follow-up to “Don’t do this in any academic paper”: How to craft a central claim

Marc Cortez’s wise and funny piece on how not to destroy your own academic paper with wishy-washy language has obviously struck a nerve, judging from the number of hits. I thought it might be helpful to offer as a follow-up some advice on how to develop a strong, workable central claim (often called a “thesis”) for your paper.

The best thing I’ve seen on this topic is a handout from an old employer of mine, the Duke University Writing Studio. What follows is an excerpt. I love especially the list of criteria for a strong thesis: contestable, reasonable, specific, significant, and interpretive–Oh, if only my students would all read this before writing any more papers for me! Continue reading

Glorious, glorious grammar

My kids call me “the grammar Nazi.” Yet I know that although grammar matters, such hoary rules as “never split infinitives” and “never end a sentence with a preposition” can and should be broken with impunity, because sometimes that’s the best way to express your meaning. Now along comes friend Carmen Acevedo Butcher and puts the whole glorious mess of grammar in a wonderfully whimsical framework with this meditation. Thanks Carmen!


Actually, this column is NOT about s’mores, and I’m not going to apologize about that because who would read a column titled “Grammar”? Well, likely Danielle Buckley would, but still.

Anyway, grammar is as delicious to me as s’mores, and as messy and as community-nourishing (pun intended).

For some reason everyone has now forgotten, grammar has become a punitive class. I mean that ever since Robert Lowth published a very stern and omniscient grammar book in 1762, grammar teachers (and their obedient students) have been following its dictates blindly.

Already, this column will be making grammar-minders nervous and furious (future progressive tense used to indicate irony). Their minds are sharpening arguments: “But rules are important!” “I learned when I was in Mrs. Periwinkle’s grammar class in 19-aught-8 that you can NEVER split an infinitive!” “Only an uncivilized person ends sentences with prepositions!”

Well. Rules are important, but communication is more important. Who says we can’t split infinitives? Who decreed that we can’t end sentences with prepositions? If doing so helps us communicate better, why can’t we split those infinitives and find prepositions to end sentences with?

Is “being correct” the same as communicating?

Isn’t communicating that glorious process that hungers for, yes, both talking and listening? And also, shouldn’t a grammar class invite students to question why there are so many curious, seemingly illogical “rules” in English? And isn’t it easier to teach a rule as don’t-question-it-it’s-a-grammar-law than to explore a linguistic conundrum with students? (For example, why is the plural of “ox” not “oxes”? One “fox” turns into two “foxes,” while “one “ox” turns into two “oxen”?)

Finish the article here.