Guide for Written Work

This page concerns expectations for the formal aspects of your major written assignments:  your two journals, and your term project.   Your work on these will be graded principally on the content of your ideas and their clarity of expression.  However, improving your writing skills is an important aspect of all college written work, and papers that include many errors in basic form, grammar, and spelling will be graded lower.  There are three principal ways to strengthen your control of written work:  first, take the formal aspects of your writing seriously and devote time to focusing on them; second, visit the Writing Tutorial Services for help on improving your writing; third, consult this page as you write, and as you reflect on comments that appear on written work that is returned to you.

This page includes sections dealing with two different types of issues: Mechanics deals with issues of basic written form, and includes the following exciting categories:  Syntax, Diction, Word choice, Agreement, Antecedents, Spelling, Punctuation, Quote marks, Parentheses, Ellipses and brackets, Non-English words, Book titles, Notes, citations, and bibliography.   Issues of Substance includes a series of points about how to prepare your ideas, organize them, present them, and reflect on your work.


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

1) Syntax [syn.].  "Syntax" refers to the structures of sentences:  their grammar.  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 all have problems of syntax.   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:

"I think Daoists are wrong to blame society alone for the evil in the world, one of the doctrines spoken of above, which they repeat over and over."  (The syntax points to "the evil in the world" as the doctrine spoken of above; the writer means to refer to the doctrine that identifies society as the cause of evil.  The sentence should read:  "I think Daoists are wrong to blame society alone for the evil in the world, which they repeatedly do, as that noted above.")

"I believe that asking a people who hold sticking together and all working for each other as such an important thing to serve one single person they will never see is too much to ask."  (The sentence has several problems; compare it with:  "I believe that to ask a people who hold that solidarity and mutual aid are very important to serve a ruler they will never see is to ask too much.")

"The merry king had the leader of the assassination plan thrown in boiling oil, which ruined it."  (The sentence says that the oil was ruined; the writer meant to say the plan was ruined.)

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2) Diction [dict.].  The most common problems on written work are problems of diction, which refers to the appropriateness and coherence of written phrases.  A sentence such as, "Confucius's writings are ok, but they're just so totally dull." includes no errors in syntax (or, perhaps, in fact), but the informal vocabulary and word contractions -- well, they just incredibly don't cut it.  "Ok" needs to be replaced with a phrase of substance in order for the first phrase to have meaning (what is "ok" about them?), while "just" and "totally" are contemporary colloquialisms in common speech that should be replaced by "only/merely" and "very/thoroughly."  Contractions such as "they're" are also colloquial, and the word "so" (which really means "so very") is actually syntactically misleading, because it moves the reader to expect a sentence ending such as, "so totally dull that I throw up" (which would, at least, not be a dull sentence). 

Except for brief homework assignments, all your writing in this course should use the diction of formal writing.  There's nothing specially good about formal style, in fact 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 here.

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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 Bronze Age 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 it's a good idea to check a dictionary (or a site like when you select words for their high tone -- bad use of highfalutin words is like slipping on a banana peel when you're wearing a tux or ball gown.   

Much more commonly, bad word choices reflect sloppy thinking, or more precisely, sloppy writing that conveys a lack of energy.   Sentences such as, "Women in China had many bad things to deal with," while grammatically correct, 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.")   "Confucianism was present throughout the land" would be a poor way to convey the meaning, "Confucianism became the all-pervasive ideology of 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.

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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 pronoun forms.  The second of these is complicated because the rules are in the process of change (because writing is moving towards gender neutrality, we sometimes now write, "Each of them ate their frogs," which should technically be "Each of them ate his or her frog").  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 Daoist texts is very unstructured."  (The verb should be are because the subject includes two items; adding "both" would be good as well..) 

"The population were very happy to hear the king suffered unspeakably." ("Population" is a singular noun.)

"His widow, along with the cheering courtiers and the visiting dignitaries, were grateful to the assassin."  (The verb should be was, because the subject is the widow.)

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5) Antecedents [ant.].  This really refers to what are called "missing antecedents," and it points to cases where you may use a pronoun (he, she, him, her, it, that) which does not have a clear reference to a specific earlier noun, so the reader is unable to be sure who "he" is.

         "Whenever Sima Qian and Wu-di were together in conversation, he would speak his mind frankly."

This would be an interesting fact if "he" referred to Wu-di, the emperor.  If it referred to Sima Qian, we would know that the great historian was a fool.

The most common cause of missing antecedents -- and they are pervasive in most of our writing -- is that in the rush of writing, we lose track of the fact that readers will not know what's in our minds.  One of the most important reasons to proofread papers carefully is precisely because we are all so likely to make this sort of error, and you should be relentless in checking that every "he," "she," or "it" in your paper points clearly to an earlier specified person or thing.  It is very common for me to encounter an "it" in a paper which I truly do not understand, so please do all you can to eliminate missing antecedents.

6) Spelling [sp.].  Please use a spell-check program if you have trouble with spelling.  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 (recently, a startling number of people have begun to write the past tense of "to lead" as "lead"; it's "led").   I'm a bad speller; I focus on spell-check indicators, consult online dictionaries often, and proof-read very carefully because my poor training is something I feel my employers and colleagues do not need to know about.  If you're a bad speller, practice deception!

I have a special request:   Please spell "Confucius" correctly (not "Confucious").  

7)  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 First Emperor dodged the assassin's knife, which allowed him to escape unharmed."                            
 -- Without the comma, it could be that the knife, rather than the dodging, allowed the emperor to escape.

"The prime minister slaughtered all of them, but one managed to escape."                                                      
-- Without the comma, readers could be misled as they read "all of them but one," and become confused about the grammar.

"Although Confucius never met Napoleon, he would have liked the French emperor'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.  

There are 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 head of a sentence are generally introduced by commas;
    - etc., et., etc. . . .
But the uses of commas are too complex to enumerate here.  Take note of any corrections concerning commas that appear on your papers, and ask about any that seem unclear.

    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; however, there is a rule that you should never follow such a 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.

"The King of Yue admired frogs with determined spirit; he detested ministers with cautious advice."

"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."

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).  For example:

"Among the distinctive items of Shang culture unearthed by archaeologists are the following:  oracle bones; 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."

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8)  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 the 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."

(or,  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."

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9)  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 94.831% 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.)

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10)  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 Naturalist thinker Zou Yan had this to say about Nature:   "[G]oing round and round in cycles, this is the natural Dao. . . .  [The forces of] yin (the female force) and yang (the male force) govern all the motions of the universe and these . . . wax and wane . . . .  [N]ever depart from the rhythms of this natural Tao."

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11)  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 jun-zi [or jun-zi (superior gentleman)], are general nouns, and are underlined but not capitalized; but Lao-zi, 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 was overly ren, it would violate the Dao, and Tian would allow his enemies to poison his noodles and effect a coup d'état.").

12)  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.").

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13)  Notes, citation, and bibliography.  In this course, your notes can be kept very simple in form.  For journals, notes will usually just mean page references to the article or chapter you are discussing, and this can be done parenthetically within the paper.

Jones makes the interesting suggestion that Confucius was actually a woman in drag (pp. 96-355), but when we read his evidence (p. 355), it is disappointingly sparse.

When you cite titles of journal entries at the outset, the form will be different for articles and for book chapters, which should indicate the title of the book.  Here is the basic form:

Author's name (first + last), "Article Title," Journal Title # (date), pp. #-#.

Chapter Author's name (first + last), "Chapter Title," in [Book Author's name, if different] Book Title (Place of publication:  Publisher, date), pp. #-#.

In term project papers, it is probably best to use footnotes or endnotes for references.  These can be kept brief by compiling your bibliography first, and then using abbreviated references to author, book title, or a combination in the notes.   For example, these bibliography entries:

The Analects of Confucius, Arthur Waley, trans. (NY: Vintage, 1938)                                            
Graham, A.C., Disputers of the Tao (La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1987)

might generate note references such as "Analects, 2.4," and "Graham, p. 212."  If your bibliography included more than one work by Graham, you might modify the latter reference to "Graham, Disputers, p. 212."

In organizing your bibliography, include works cited in your project paper only (not other works you may have consulted), and list them in alphabetical order, using the last names of authors as the first word of each entry for modern books, and the first word of the book title for translations of early Chinese texts (followed, where appropriate, by translator or editor's name).

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Issues of Substance and Preparation

1)  The basis for good written reports is attentive reading and taking notesFor journal reading, place two aims first:  extracting the author's main ideas, and reading so that you not become bored and inattentive.  These two aspects go together.  When you begin to read, look at the beginning, the ending, and any section titles there may be in order to get a first idea of what the author is likely to say.  These parts of the reading should indicate the author's main topics, claims, and arguments.  Make a written note of what these seem to be.  If you read from start to finish without losing attention, that's fine.  If you begin to get bored, skim the text searching for things that appear interesting, and read those parts first.  Make written notes of important or interesting points, and note down any questions, evaluations, or other responses you have as you go along.  Don't try to write down every fact -- you'll just drive yourself crazy and quit.   Last, fill in the linking parts by reading rapidly, until you can write a note of how the author has organized her argument, and immediately write a paragraph summary.   If an article details long series of specific evidence to back up its claims, don't feel you need to read every new piece of evidence described (you'll just forget the details anyway) -- as soon as you're convinced, move on.  Remember, every article or chapter you read began as an author's outline of main points -- see whether you can boil the article back down to that outline.  For term project reading, the goals are different; here you are trying to develop sensitive reading skills that will help you notice data relevant to your project.  Sometimes those passages don't leap out at you; you have to read with your search goals in mind.  When you read translated texts to seek out information,  don't feel you need to read every word.  Establish a rhythm of skimming for relevant material, and doing focused reading and re-reading when you spot possibilities.

2)  When you are ready to write, always sketch an outline before you begin.  Know what you want to say before you begin writing -- but be willing to modify your plans, if you find that in writing you have new ideas.  People have different styles of writing at their best -- some write slowly and don't need to rewrite; some do better writing several drafts quickly and then polishing.  Some people (like me) can't tell which style works from day to day.   Be willing to go with whatever method seems to work best, but be sure to give yourself enough time so you're not stuck handing in a poor paper because you had no time for a second try.

3)  Unless you feel very confident about your writing style, follow these general rules of organization:  Begin your journal entry or project paper with a "thesis statement," which summarizes in a sentence or two what your main point will be.  If you are writing a journal precis, go on to give an organized description of the main points and general content of the reading you're discussing, and then follow it with your response (push yourself for a thoughtful response -- of course there will be times when you just want to lie about a reading that you found dull and say, "This was a very interesting article and I learned a lot," and then go out for dinner, but if you take the job of responding seriously, some learning will stick from every article, even from ones you dislike).  If you are writing your term project, construct you paper in the form of an argument that attempts to "prove" (to a greater or lesser degree) the accuracy of your thesis statement.

4)  Be sure that individual paragraphs discuss a unified idea.  Check to see that the first and last sentences of each paragraph relate clearly to one another.  Make sure your sequence of paragraphs makes sense check carefully to make sure you're not jumping from idea to idea.  Remember that your reader will not know what thoughts are going on in your head as you write -- read your paragraphs critically to see whether you have made your ideas clear.   (This means you have to make your ideas clear to yourself first -- often we just let the onrush of vague words substitute for clear ideas.  It also usually means keeping your writing style pretty straightforward, so that your reader does not have to her, or in this case his, way through a jungle of twisting sentences.)

5)  When you make a claim that is central to your discussion, cite evidence that will back you up, even if you think your reader already knows the evidence.  Make sure your references are accurate -- that the evidence is really where you think it is, and that you've provided the precise page.

6)  Quoted citations should be brief, but adequate to make your point.  Do not cite long passages in full, but for any but the simplest passages, be sure to indicate in a phrase or two how your citation bears out your point.   Always cite precisely the words in the text, using quote marks or indentations, and indicating page number or, for books like the Analects, a passage number.

7)  If you cite or even paraphrase closely any language that is not your own, be absolutely sure to note that you are quoting someone else's work.  Not to do so is considered a form of plagiarism, a serious offence that can lead to an automatic course grade of F.  See the Policy on Plagiarism.

8)  Read the assignment sheet carefully, and as you write, check that you are recalling it accurately.  Decide what points you want to make, link them in an organized argument, and check each sentence to be sure that your words convey the point you want to make clearly and simply.

9)  Re-read your journal and project papers carefully before handing them in.  When they are returned to you, read the comments and technical corrections on them carefully.  Try not to repeat your mistakes.   If you don't understand the bases of any corrections or comments, come in to discuss them -- the purpose of making them is to help you improve; if they are not clear to you, the purpose is lost. 

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