Written Form

(Terms in [brackets] are the abbreviations used in marking paper corrections.)

1) Syntax [syn.]. "Syntax" refers to the structures of sentences: their grammar. Problems include:

-- sentence fragments [frag.], which omit verbs:

 -- run-on sentences [run-on], which add on phrases with changed subjects or topics:

-- sentences that alter the subject in mid-sentence or that refer to an "it" or a "her" that is unclear [unclear ant. (ant. = antecedent word or phrase)]:

and sentences that are simply garbled. Sometimes it is impossible to pin down the thought that underlies a sentence with syntax problems, in which case the errors not only make the paper read badly, they undermine its basic purpose. Here are some examples of sentences that have syntax problems:

2) Diction [dict.]. Your papers should use the diction of formal writing.

Diction refers to the appropriateness of written phrases and vocabulary -- the tone of your writing. Among problems of diction, the use of colloquial speech in formal writing is the most common problem. Consider this sentence:

The sentence includes no errors in syntax (or, perhaps, in fact), but the informal vocabulary and word contractions -- well, they just so don't make it in college writing. Here are the problems:

  1. "ok" needs to be replaced with a phrase of substance in order for the first phrase to have meaning (what is "ok" about them?)
  2. "just" and "totally" are contemporary colloquialisms in common speech that should be replaced by "only/merely" and "very/thoroughly" 
  3. contractions such as "they're" are also colloquial - don't use the (I mean, do not use them)
  4. "so" (which really means "so very") is actually syntactically misleading - "they're just so totally dull" moves the reader to expect a sequence such as, "that I want to throw up" (which would, at least, not be a dull sentence) 

An alternative would be:

There's nothing specially good about formal style; it can be pretty dull. But mastering it is a central task of college, and if you leave college unable to write formal prose, you have left a major obstacle to future success in your path. Once your control of formal style is clear, you become free to liven it up by violating its rules for emphasis, for humor, or to show how much you dislike formal prose. But not in G380.

Some rules:

Other problems of diction include these:

3) Word choice [wd.]. There are two different types of problems that lie behind bad word choices, the limits of a writer's vocabulary, and sloppy thinking. Sometimes, poor word choices result from trying to use vocabulary that you don't fully control.

  • After having done so much research on Qin Dynasty China, I feel I can describe its principal attributes very fulsomely.

"Fulsome" doesn't mean "fully"; it means "offensive" or "disgusting." Everyone who tries to expand his or her vocabulary makes errors like that, but when you select words for their high tone, it's a good idea to check a dictionary (online ones like dictionary.com make this very easy). Misuse of elevated vocabulary is like slipping on a banana peel.

Much more commonly, bad word choices reflect sloppy thinking, or more precisely, sloppy writing that conveys a lack of energy.

  • Women in China had many bad things to deal with.

While grammatically correct, this would be a very unclear sentence if it was intended to convey the point that:

  • Women in China faced many forms of discrimination and oppression by a society that accepted male privilege.

After all, we all have many bad things to deal with.

  • In the Tang period, Buddhism was present throughout the land.

This would be a poor way to convey the meaning:

  • Buddhism became a pervasive religious force in Tang China. 

The only way to avoid these sorts of writing problems is to read your own writing carefully to make sure you have clearly conveyed a clear idea.

4) Agreement in tense and agreement in number [agr.]. Make sure that you do not switch arbitrarily between past and present tenses (avoid sentences such as this: "When Confucius speaks about Tian, he was actually repeating what his mother told him."). This is a very common error, and one that you should look for carefully when you proofread assignments.

Agreement in number includes two aspects: agreement between the form of the subject and the form of the verb (a plural subject takes a plural verb) and agreement between pronouns. The second of these is complicated because the rules are in the process of change. Agreement between subject and verb usually only becomes a problem when the subject is complex, denotes a group by means of a singular form, or is separated from the verb:

  • The form and content of literati texts is very structured. 
        (The verb should be
    are; the subject includes two items.) 
  • The population were very happy to hear that the Empress Dowager suffered unspeakably.
        ("Population" is a singular noun.)
  • His widow, along with the cheering courtiers, were grateful to the assassin. 
        (The verb should be
    was, because the subject is the widow.)

5) Spelling [sp.]. Use a spell-check program - if you have automatic spell check, pay attention to it. Even a spell-checker, however, will not catch common and important spelling errors that confuse two words, such as writing "their" for "there," "effect" for "affect," "principle" for "principal," and so forth. (I'm a bad speller, but I'm careful, because I don't want you to find out. If you're a bad speller, deceive me.)

I have a special request: If you refer to him, please spell "Confucius" correctly (not "Confucious").

6) Punctuation [punc.]. Rules about punctuation are complex. Here are just a few that you should follow.

Periods: Use them after abbreviations and at the ends of complete sentences -- period!

Commas: The principal purpose of commas is to remove ambiguities that would result if all the words in a sentence were simply listed in a string. Sometimes a sentence may not be ambiguous in itself, but may "read" ambiguously, because until you reach the end of the sentence, you may be unsure which direction it is going. Commas can help there too. Commas also are used to contour the voice we hear in our heads as we read, so that it sounds "conversational," pausing the way our spoken voices pause in conversation. Here are some examples:

  • The lady-in-waiting who loved poetry was elevated.
        -- This implies some other lady-in-waiting (not the one who loved poetry) was not elevated.  If the writer meant, "The lady-in-waiting, who loved poetry, was elevated," then the sentence is incorrect.
  • The prime minister slaughtered all of them but one managed to escape.                                                     
         -- Without a comma after "them," readers have to mentally adjust the grammar in mid-sentence.
  • Although Confucius never met Genghis Khan, he would have liked the Mongol warlord's courteous modesty.   
        -- Without the comma the sentence would still be clear, but we generally pause after complex stage-setting clauses, such as conditionals (If . . .) and other adjuncts (Although . . ., When . . ., and so forth), and commas help us understand the structure of the sentence easily through such a pause.  

A few other specific rules about using commas:

  • always place a comma after the word "however," except when it is an adverb, as in "however small it may be"
  • always place commas between the items in lists of three or more things
  • quoted sentences that are not placed at the lead of a sentence are generally introduced by commas

There are, of course, more rules about commas and this list could go on for many dull pages. Hopefully, these points are the most important.

Semicolons: Semicolons ( ; ) are sometimes called "super-commas." They have two principal uses. First, a semicolon can link together two closely related shorter sentences into a single long sentence. (This device should always be used when you want to embed a contrastive "however" in the middle of a statement.) Never follow this type of semicolon with the words "and" or "but.") In this way, the semicolon becomes a comma with the power to bind what a period usually divides.

  • Empress Lü admired courtiers supple enough to kowtow  quickly; she detested courtiers whose kowtows were too quick.
  • The Confucian thinker Mencius would not serve an immoral ruler; however, he was not above collecting a salary while carefully thinking over whether a ruler was moral enough for his taste.

An added set of examples on "however." When a mid-sentence "however" could be relocated at the start of the sentence, it should be enclosed in commas; when it serves as a "but" contrasting the two parts of a sentence, it is preceded by a semi-colon:

  • Emperor Wu wanted to rule supreme.  His caring grandmother, however, thought that her grandson would be happier without the burdens of real power.
  • Emperor Wu wanted to rule supreme; however, his caring grandmother thought that her grandson would be happier without the burdens of real power.

Semicolons that link sentences can help you to interrupt a string of short, choppy sentences, but if you overuse them, you'll just have an equally unattractive string of long ones. Remember:

  • Strictly speaking, the semicolon is not a necessary mark; the two phrases it separates can always be presented as independent sentences. Avoid too many sentences with semicolons; they can become confusing or monotonous. Many people have trouble using semicolons properly; the result is often many run-on sentences.

The second function of semicolons is in lists of items where individual items are described in phrasing that requires a comma (usually, such complex lists are preceded by a colon). In these cases, it is permissible to use "and" after the final semicolon. For example:

  • Among the distinctive items of Shang culture unearthed by archaeologists are the following:  oracle bones, both ox scapulae and turtle plastrons; ritual bronzes, of which there are many different varieties; hairpins; and decapitated skeletons of sacrificial victims, who were often royal servants lovingly executed and entombed with their late masters.

Colons: Colons are generally used to set off complex lists, as in the preceding example sentence. The basic logic of a colon is that what follows it "unpacks" the contents of what comes before it (as if the colon were saying, "and this is what the phrase I've just stated includes"). They may also replace a comma before a complex quoted phrase, as a way of adding emphasis.

  • The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi loved three things above all else: the Dao, Nature, and meat carving.

Dashes: The most common use of the dash is to indicate a sharp break or change of direction in thought. Sometimes the break serves for dramatic emphasis, other times as a parenthetical remark inserted for clarity. The dash is represented by two hyphens (--) that link surrounding words (some writers use spaces, others do not). Most wordprocessing programs convert double hyphens to "m-dashes": a line broader than a hyphen (compare a dash – and a hyphen - ).

  • While she was used to the admiration of men -- and she had always been especially popular with the palace troops -- this time Yang Guifei thought the soldiers seemed especially excited to see her.

7)  Quote marks.
Place the following punctuation marks inside quotation marks ( ". . ." ), even when it feels wrong:
        periods, commas, question marks, exclamation marks ( . , ? ! these always go inside).
   Place the following outside quotation marks:
        dashes, colons, semi-colons ( -- : ; these always go outside).

  • "Should I burn all books?" asked the Emperor.  The ministers said, "Yes" -- they knew how the Emperor loved bonfires -- "but do it," they added, "tenderly."                  

Quotation marks are used for two purposes: (1) To cite the precise words of some person or text; (2) To indicate a "term of art"; that is, a word that is being used in some technical or ironic sense that sets it apart from the surrounding sentence. Often, when using quotation marks in this second way, writers will employ single quote marks ( ' . . . ' ) and place all punctuation outside of the quote marks (this is a British convention). If you wish to do this you may. However, if you use ordinary double quote marks for terms of art, punctuation should be incorporated according to the standard rules. (These rules also hold for instances when single quote marks are used to signal a "quote within a quote.") Here are some examples:

  • The last king of the Shang Dynasty imprisoned the leader of the Zhou people because he was "disorderly"; this led the Zhou people to overthrow the king because he was "immoral."


  • The last king of the Shang Dynasty imprisoned the leader of the Zhou people because he was 'disorderly'; this let the Zhou people to overthrow the king because he was 'immoral'.
  • "I do not think," said Confucius thoughtfully, "that when the duke said, 'Off with his head!' about me, he employed the proper ritual form of speech."

When quoting a complete sentence, the quote is preceded by a comma if it introduced by a verb and a colon otherwise. The first letter of the quoted sentence is capitalized. If the quoted passage is not a complete sentence, the surrounding sentence must be configured to accommodate it grammatically.

  • Emperor Wu said, "I have great faith in the loyalty of Confucian ministers, so long as they remain in terror of the emperor."
  • Emperor Wu proclaimed his "great faith in the loyalty" of Confucian ministers, but he insisted on keeping them "in terror."

8) Parentheses. Parentheses are most often used to set off a phrase that is a digression, or side-comment. There are many examples on this page of proper uses of parentheses (at least I hope they're proper!). The most troublesome issue with parentheses is combining them with punctuation. Here are the most basic rules, which cover 94.83% of all relevant situations:  

  • If you are placing an entire sentence within parenthesis, include final punctuation within the parenthesis too.  (I think that sentence was quite elegantly stated.) 
  • If a parenthetical remark appears within a sentence (for example, within this sentence), punctuation appears outside the parenthesis (since the punctuation belongs to the basic sentence itself), unless (Heaven forbid!) the punctuation is a question or exclamation mark (is that clear?), which are included within the parentheses even if another punctuation mark appears immediately after (what a long sentence this was!). 
  • It is best to avoid long parenthetical remarks within a sentence, but if you do write one (and I sometimes do myself; I wrote one just this morning.  It was completely irrelevant and irritatingly mindless), use appropriate punctuation within the parenthesis, but follow the rules for omitting all final punctuation other than exclamation and question marks. 
  • (If you write a parenthetical remark within a parenthesis [for example, this parenthetical remark], use brackets.)

9) Ellipses and brackets. "Ellipsis" (plural: "ellipses") means an omission in something, such phrases or sentences left out in the middle of a quotation. Whenever you cite some statement or other passage of text, the words inside quotation marks must be the precise words of the original text -- yet sometimes, you may want to omit some irrelevant words in order to shorten the quotation. You can do this if you substitute three spaced dots for the ellipsed text (adding a fourth dot if there is a period preceding or after the ellipsis). In doing this, you'll sometimes find that after the ellipsis (or at the start of your quote), you need to convert a letter from a lowercase to a capital letter, because you've created a new start to a sentence. You do this by bracketing the capital letter. Other times, you'll find that you need to clarify the remaining text by adding a few words; you also use brackets to add these words -- the brackets indicate that these words alone are yours, while everything else in the quote comes directly from the text. If you want to insert a clarifying comment within the quote, use parentheses. Here's an example.

  • The Japanese samurai classic, The Hagakure, reports instances of disloyalty:  "[T]he records of the Nabishima clan . . . speak of a retainer who told [his lord] that he would never forget the on (grace) his lord has bestowed upon him. . . .  Two years later, the retainer noted to comrades that his former words and the giri (obligation, or debt) that he owed had temporarily slipped his mind when he assassinated his old [lord] on behalf of his new [lord]."

10) Non-English words, except for proper nouns, must be underlined or italicized (use Upper Case [initial caps] for proper names only). For example: ren [or ren (humanity)] and junzi [or junzi (superior gentleman)], are general nouns, and are underlined but not capitalized; but Laozi, Dao, and Tian are proper names (names for a unique person or personified thing), and they are not underlined and take capitalized initials. For example:

  • The Legalist statesman Li Si claimed that if a ruler were too ren, it would violate the Dao, and Tian would allow the ruler's enemies to poison his noodles and effect a coup d'état."

11) Book titles should be underlined or italicized (not both). For example, Analects [or Analects] (note: "the Analects," as a book title, is a singular noun, as in: "The Analects avoids overexciting its readers.").

Story titles, chapter titles, and titles of poems should be placed in quote marks and not be underlined or italicized. For example, "The Story of Lord Mengchang"; "The Mulberries By the Path."

12) Notes.

There are several standard forms for notes. For this paper, we will combine two types. References to your Shiji chapter and to online course reading materials should use parenthetical citations inserted within the text - you only need to cite specific points that you are using as evidence to support assertions you are making or phrasing that is quoted or closely paraphrased. All other references should be cited in a footnote or endnote. Tangential or non-essential amplifying comments should also be placed in a note.

Examples of parenthetical references (always placed at the close of a sentence after punctuation):

  • To your Shiji chapter (simple numbers refer to pages):

    Sima Qian conveys Zhang Liang's character by noting how he "swallowed his resentment." (Shiji 55: 100)

  • To online course materials:

    Liu Bang's treatment of Li Yiji when Liu was Governor of Pei contrasts with his approval as Emperor of Shusun Tong, after the latter fashioned li so simple that even a peasant could perform them. (Reading 4.9: 6)

If you cite from other sources and use footnotes/endnotes, note numbers appear as superscripts within or directly after the sentence to which they apply - avoid placing notes within sentences, unless it would create an ambiguity to place them at the sentence end. Note numbers follow all punctuation marks, except for dashes.

  • Hilton makes the interesting suggestion that Confucius was actually a woman in drag.4  However, when we read his evidence, it is disappointingly sparse.5

When citing a source in a note, give the author's name in the usual order (given name first for Western authors, surname first for East Asian authors unless they were originally writing in a Western language for a Western publication). The place of publication, publisher, and date appear in parentheses (in that order), followed by page references ("p." is singular; "pp." is plural). Sources cited from the web are documented by their URLs and the date they were accessed (course materials may follow a simplified pattern). When you cite one source several times, you can shorten the reference by using the last name of the author and a short form of the title, plus the page number. Avoid the Latin forms Ibid. and op.cit. (which mean "identical reference," and "work previously cited"). Follow the forms in these examples:

  • 1P. W. Hilton, "Empress Wu Is My True Inspiration" (http://www.starztalk.org.cn/par/confessions/67ew.html; accessed 6/2/2007).
  • 2P. W. Hilton, "Empress Wu."
  • 3Hu Jintao, "Zhu Xi's Lost Beauty Tips," Vogue 455 (Sept., 2006), p. 388.
  • 4Conrad Hilton Jr., Confucius Unmasked: New Evidence from Long Lost Hotel Records (Waco: Inquirer Press, 2007), pp. 57-565.
  • 5Conrad Hilton, Confucius Unmasked, p. 566.
  • 6Lionel P. Frobisher and Herbert Hoover, Our Lives Amongst the Mandarins (London: Macmillan, 1916), vol. 2, p. 677.
  • 7Frobisher and Hoover, Our Lives, vol. 7, p. 1066.
  • 8Yuan Zhen, "The Story of Cui Yingying," E232 Online Readings (Spring 2008), p. 6.
  • 9Peter Zhang, "The Joy of House Arrest," in F. Thompson, ed., Tales of Law and Order (Wash, DC: Library of Congress, 2008), p. 7.
  • 10Zhang, "House Arrest," pp. 2-3.

13) Bibliography.

When citing a source in a bibliography, which is arranged alphabetically by author surname, the surname always comes first (this is only true for the first author listed - the purpose placing the surname first is simply to create an alphabetized list; the regular order is used in every other type of reference). A comma separates the given name and surname, except in the case of East Asian names, which appear in simple East Asian form. (Exception: When a Westernized form of name is used, or when an East Asian author publishes in a Western language and his or her name is given in the Western order, then treat the name as you would a Western name.) Page numbers are not cited for books, but are cited for articles, chapters, etc., within a larger work. Follow these examples (note the differences from footnote form):

  • Frobisher, Lionel P. and Herbert Hoover. Our Lives Amongst the Mandarins (London: Macmillan, 1916), 9 vols.
  • Hilton, Conrad, Jr. Confucius Unmasked: New Evidence from Long Lost Hotel Records (Waco: Inquirer Press, 1997).
  • Hilton, P. W. "Empress Wu Is My True Inspiration" (http://www.starztalk.org.cn/par/confessions/67ew.html; accessed 6/2/2007).
  • Hu Jintao. "Zhu Xi's Lost Beauty Tips," Vogue 455 (Sept., 2006), pp. 388-90, 422-24.
  • Yuan Zhen. "The Story of Cui Yingying," E232 Online Readings (Spring 2008).
  • Zhang, Peter. "The Joy of House Arrest." In F. Thompson, ed., Tales of Law and Order (Wash, DC: Library of Congress, 2008), pp. 3-10.