Mechanical Matters -- Punctuation and Diction

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History

1. Don't use quotation marks, whether single or double, to indicate that you do not accept some word or phrase or that you take it ironically. Use "so-called" or some other means of showing what you mean.

2. Don't use quotation marks around blocks of inset (or set-off) text, since insetting text serves as a code equivalent to quotation marks. Of course, do use quotation marks inside such blocks of text when they appear in the original.

3. Do not begin a new paragraph immediately after a set-off quoted passage unless you move to a new subject. If you explain or discuss the quoted passage, start at the left margin. [This is not a problem when using html!]

4. When using a century as an adjective, (a) spell out number and (b) use hyphen: "eighteenth-century poets," not "18th century poets." On the other hand, when a phrase acts as a noun -- e.g., "poets of the eighteenth century" -- it takes no hyphen.

Diction Matters

1. Don't use humans when you mean people or human beings. Humans sounds like the dialogue of a bad 1956 sci-fi movie.

2. Don't use barbarisms such as s/he or his/her if you find offensive the convention of using the masculine pronoun for both male and female. Instead, try the following: (a) use plurals ("readers . . . they"); (b) use the feminine pronoun instead of the masculine, employing "she" all the time that one conventionally encounters "he;" and (c) use "he or she" and so forth.

3. Don't use through, which implies movement through space, when you mean by means of.

4. Don't use while, which means "at the same time," when you mean whereas or although. (This phrasing has become increasingly acceptable, but it still can weaken your style. Avoid.)

5. Don't start sentences with Also. Do use In addition, Moreover, Furthermore.

Stylistic Matters

1. Avoid introducing quotations with non-informative phrases (e.g., "Pope states," "She says") and try to lead readers into the quoted material by letting them know what to expect. In the following passage the author has a fine introduction but doesn't realize it:

Finally, Austen ends the passage with a distinct notion of sarcasm. She states: "To this speech, Bingley made no answer."

Fixing the errors in idiom and cutting the unnecessary words make this introduction much stronger.

Finally, Austen ends the passage ON a distinctLY SARCASTIC NOTE: "To this speech, Bingley made no answer."

2. A quick way to add strength and clarity: take the noun or phrase following due to and because of, and make that noun or phrase the subject the sentence. Thus: Instead of "Due to the war, his business failed," try (1) "The war made his business fail" or (2) "The war destroyed his business."

Related Resources


Victorian Web Victorian courses

Last modified 11 February 2002