Clifford's Advice on Writing

6th ed., copyright 2005, by Dale Lothrop Clifford

History Department Policy on Plagiarism and Cheating

Simply put, plagiarism is the act of appropriating the work of someone else and passing it as your own. In college work, the obvious case is the term paper bought, borrowed, or stolen from another person and turned in as one's own.  However, the most common forms of plagiarism arise from sloppy paraphrases and quotations.  A  paraphrase must do more than change a few words of the original, and a direct quotation (whether a phrase or a page or two) must appear with a footnote/endnote to credit the original author, and quotation marks. 

When you use someone else's research or ideas (including that person's idea of how to put together a particularly good sentence or phrase), you must attribute the material to its author.  For a longer discussion of plagiarism, see the American Historical Association's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.

Plagiarism is academic dishonesty, an offense in the same category as copying another student's answers on a test. In either case, history department policy is that the piece of work involved will receive the grade of "F."   Greater penalties may be assessed, depending on circumstances.


Good expository prose of any kind should be both clear and interesting. A solid knowledge of the rules of grammar and composition will provide clarity; once your prose is clear, you can afford to work on style. 


Proper grammar is essential for written work. Your reader has only the words you have written; you cannot be there to explain what your prose left unclear. The advice below concerns common grammatical mistakes. If yours are uncommon, or you are weak on fundamentals, you should investigate the programs offered by the Academic Center for Excellence (ACE).

  • Use complete sentences, not fragments. Watch out for phrases that seem like sentences but are not. "Because he thought Mary was wrong." "Which indicates imprecision of thought."

  • Subject and verb must agree in number (singular or plural). Watch out for tricky cases like "Within the rectangles was [not were] a labyrinth of walls." In this case, labyrinth is the subject.

  • Nouns and the pronouns that replace them (words like he, she, it, they, this, which) must agree in number and gender. Watch out for vague or incorrect pronoun antecedents. A pronoun refers to the closest preceding noun of the correct number and gender; if there isn't one, or it's the wrong one, you will confuse your reader. Avoid using "this" as a pronoun and you will avoid the most common mistake.

  • Watch out for dangling phrases -- ones which don't say what you think they do. "Six months pregnant, her doctor told her she could run through July" actually says that her doctor was six months pregnant.  The key to clearing up this problem is to make sure that phrases are as close as possible to the words they modify. A proposal "to revoke the license of any driver found to be intoxicated for a period of 90 days" would leave out most drunk drivers, whose period of intoxication is usually less than a day. To clarify the meaning, we should propose a 90-day revocation of the license....

  • Do not use run-on or comma-splice sentences. [See the following section on punctuation.]

  • Punctuation guides your reader through your prose, explaining the relationships between words and phrases, and in some cases telling the reader how to feel. Improper punctuation can confuse your reader. [Note: punctuation has a different function in foot/endnotes, which is explained in the section on notes.]
  • A period says stop. What precedes or follows may be linked in ideas, but a sentence must contain a complete thought.

  • The semi-colon and the comma plus conjunction link things which could be separate sentences, but which you choose to join in order to emphasize the relationship more strongly than you could by placing two sentences next to each other. A conjunction specifies the kind of link ("and" and "but" do not mean the same thing); a semi-colon implies the relationship.

  • What follows a colon is in one way or another the equivalent of what went before. Usually, it is a list, but sometimes it is a specific example without the words "for example."

  • Commas tell your reader to pause, and say that what follows is partly separate from what went before, although the elements depend on each other as parts of the same sentence.

  • Exclamation points are also known as "screamers."  Do not scream in formal prose.

  • Parentheses are used to set off things that are less important in a sentence, usually as a form of "aside" to the reader. Use them sparingly.
  • Proofread carefully for spelling. Even if you have a word processing program that checks, remember that some words change meaning with spelling, and the spell checker doesn't check for meaning. Note especially principal/principle, its/it's, affect/effect. If you are a non-speller, keep a list of the most common problem words, and find a spelling friend to proofread for you.

  • To form the possessive, usually you add an apostrophe and an "s". If the noun already ends in "s" you may either include or omit the final "s". The apostrophe is necessary in either case. An apostrophe is never necessary to form the plural.
  • Advice on Formal Prose

    When you are writing a paper, assume that your audience is generally educated, unknown to you, and timeless. If you are to communicate effectively to such an audience you must write for it, not for your relatives or classmates. 

  • Avoid repetition. Your reader can always go back to a particular section or paragraph if necessary. Do not use redundant phrases like "refer back," renew again," and "continue on."

  • Avoid using "I" in formal prose. Most sentences that begin with "I think" can be expressed without that qualifying phrase. If your evidence proves your point, simply state the point; using "I think" does not exempt you from responsibility for proving what you state.

  • Avoid using absolutes like "always" and "never" when writing history. Absolutes are almost impossible to prove.

  • When you mention a person for the first time, be sure to use the full name. Only in very rare cases should you refer to a person by the first name. Such usage usually indicates close friendship or inferior status (such as children and servants). For subsequent references to a person, simply use the last name.

  • Do not use the verb "to feel" when what you mean is "to think."

  • In general, do not abbreviate. The exceptions are commonly used titles like Dr. You may abbreviate the names of organizations or individuals when the abbreviations are commonly used (like NATO, EU, FDR), but only after using the full name the first time and indicating the abbreviation in parentheses following that use.

  • Italicize or underline book, journal, record or album, and movie titles, names of ships and art works, and foreign words.

  • Place between quotation marks the titles of parts of a bound work (articles or chapters), the titles of television and radio shows, and direct quotations. You may also (very sparingly) use quotation marks to indicate to your reader that you are using trite words or jargon on purpose.

  • Use clear, idiomatic English, but avoid jargon, clich├ęs, and slang. Slang rapidly goes out of date, and jargon may mystify your reader. Don't be too pedantic or pretentious: "big" words improperly used will not impress a reader.

  • Must countries always be female? Their power elites are still predominantly male; their constitutional and institutional structures do not possess gender qualities; and there ought to be something contradictory about calling the Fatherland a she. The way out of the problem is to use neuter pronouns (like "it") for neuter things.

  • Do not anthropomorphize (make a person of a thing, as in "the twentieth century saw" or "history proves"). Centuries do not have eyes, and it is historians who prove, often in contradiction to each other.

  • Avoid hyperbole and purple prose. When you are telling an exciting story, the temptation to sensationalize is difficult to resist. But when you use highly emotional words, especially adjectives dripping with connotations, your reader will become so suspicious of the exaggeration that your work will lose its impact. Never claim more -- even in choice of words -- than you can prove.
  • Organization

    There is no formula for organizing a history paper: the structure of your work must come from your subject, your thesis, and the way you deal with your material.

  • The introduction is the most important part of a paper. It should tell your reader what you intend to do (your thesis), and how. It should also interest the reader enough to keep him or her reading.

  • The thesis of a paper is an interpretive statement about the topic or subject matter. For example, the topic might be airpower in World War I; one possible thesis statement might be that airpower had very little effect on the outcome of World War I, although its development in that war did have an important impact on World War II.

  • A paragraph is something like a short essay in itself. The topic sentence is the introduction to a paragraph: it tells the reader what the paragraph is about. It should almost always be the first sentence of the paragraph. The body of the paragraph should explain or illustrate the topic sentence.

  • Organize logically. Introduce the reader to material in an order which will promote understanding. Most readers will not wait two pages to understand something you failed to explain earlier.

  • Try to make the transitions between paragraphs smooth.

  • Watch out for what historians call Scissors-and-Paste history -- paraphrases and quotations strung together, with only a few words or lines from the student author between them. The result is often choppy and confusing, because the material isn't really yours.

  • The conclusion should restate your thesis, now proven. Often the conclusion places your thesis in a wider context, and it may also discuss implications which are beyond the scope of your paper but deserve mention as you sum up what you have done.
  • Using Tables, Charts, and Illustrations

    Tables, charts, and illustrations can be an effective way to present your evidence. However, they do not stand alone, or substitute for effective discussion of the evidence in the body of your paper.

  • When possible, place tables or illustrations close to the part of your text that explains the information presented. If that is not possible, use an appendix and refer the reader to the appendix at the appropriate spot in the text.

  • Number tables, charts, or illustrations sequentially: Table 1, Table 2, Figure 1, Figure 2, and so on. Do the same with appendices, if that is the placement you choose.

  • Tables and illustrations must be clearly labeled. For tables and charts, a descriptive title may be all you need; for illustrations, including maps, usually some form of caption works best.

  • As is the case with all evidence, you must cite the source of the information in tables, or of illustrations or maps. You may write a traditional foot/endnote (in which case you use the note number that follows the preceding note in the paper, whether that note refers to written or to visual text); or include a note to the source as the last element of the caption.

  • Make sure you label the elements of tables and charts clearly. Your reader cannot understand a bar graph without knowing what each bar represents.

  • When you present numerical evidence, be especially careful that your prose says what you want it to. Make sure the reader understands what "90%" is a percentage of.

  • When you are writing about people, the appropriate word is number, not amount. An amount is infinitely divisible; despite the jokes about a family with 2.5 children, humans actually come in indivisible units of one.
  •   Style

    Writing style is unique to the individual writer, but it is not something you either "have" or "don't have." Style develops and improves with practice. 

  • A well-chosen verb is the key to a good sentence.  Use active voice whenever possible. Avoid both passive and intransitive verbs of being (in other words, rewrite to remove 90% of all forms of the verb "to be"), because they tend to make your prose dull and heavy.

  • When writing about the past, use the past tense. At all costs avoid mixing tenses in the same sentence.

  • The most annoying tense any historian can use is the past predictive "Five years later, he was to become president."  The historian already knows the outcome, and since the event took place in the past, it can and should be expressed in simple past tense.

  • Avoid the construction that quotes the dictionary definition of a word and then proceeds to discuss and/or attack it. It's trite, and the result is often a poor argument.

  • Vary the length and construction of sentences, but remember that a short clear sentence is often better than a long complex one. In any sentence, try to keep subject and verb close together.

  • Don't begin too many sentences with dates.

  • There is no more useless phrase than "it was then that...."

  • Almost as annoying is "he was able to...." Use that construction only when you want to stress the ability more than the action itself.

  • Don't use two adjectives or adverbs where one would do.

  • Avoid using articles (the, a, an) unless they are necessary.

  • Do not use words like "seems" or "appears" when the answer to the question "seems to whom?" is "to me." That usage reflects cowardice: the writer is trying to avoid responsibility for making a decision about the evidence.
  • Quotations

    The historian must provide evidence to support her or his interpretation of the past, and a well-chosen quotation from that evidence can often convey the flavor of an era as well. Use quotations wisely. Misquotes or poorly-chosen quotations will lose your reader.

  • In general, quote only from primary sources. An important part of the historian's job is to convey the reality of the past to the reader. Quoting a secondary source adds one more obstacle between the reader and your attempt to recreate the past. Secondary sources do contain useful insights and information about the past, but in almost all cases, that information should appear in paraphrase form.

  • Don't use a quotation to repeat what you have just said in your text. Introduce the quotation, but don't make it redundant at the same time. This advice also applies to the sentence after a quotation.

  • Avoid long quotations. Quote the vivid or important statement and paraphrase the rest. For example: One observer commented in September 1789 that one had to be "20 years old or insane" to find guard duty dashing or patriotic.
  • Quotations longer than three typed lines must be indented and single-spaced. These block quotes do not require quotation marks. Use block quotes sparingly. Readers are lazy, and will often skip a long quotation.
  • Paraphrasing involves more than simply changing a few words in someone else's sentence. A genuine paraphrase expresses someone else's ideas or information in completely different form, usually much shorter than the original (a paragraph into a sentence, for example). A poorly-executed paraphrase might easily be construed as plagiarism.

  • A note tells the reader where you got your information or your quotation. When you use someone else's words, ideas, or research, you are plagiarizing if you do not give the person credit. Someone else's words must be put in quotation marks, to indicate that the words are not yours. Whether you are quoting or paraphrasing, you must use a note to indicate your source. Plagiarism in published work may be illegal; in academic work it earns a failing grade. The section entitled Clifford's Advice on Notes explains in detail how and when to use notes.
  • Bibliographical Essays

    As a student you may be asked to write a bibliographical or historiographical essay. This assignment really asks you to do a form of historiography, the study of the writing of history. A bibliographical essay explains and analyzes what various historians have written about a particular subject. The quality of your work will rest on how well you choose the works to consider (whether or not you have chosen a representative group of works) and how well you analyze what you have found. In that sense, the assignment is no different from a more traditional research paper, which is also judged on the quality of the research and the analysis.

    Remember that a bibliographical essay is an essay, not a simple annotated bibliography. It must have a thesis, that is, a statement that makes an analytical judgment about the historical interpretations and treatments of the subject you are investigating. The organization of a bibliographical essay should stem from your thesis: it should group historians and their work according to their approaches to the subject, and not just string together a series of separate reviews.

    When you mention a particular work, the common practice is to include the publication information in parentheses in the text after the first full mention of author and title, just as you would in a note. If you do that, your references can then consist of the author's last name and a page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence. Another way of approaching the assignment is to put all of the bibliographical and reference information in the notes, and include only author and title in the body of the paper, just as you would in any research paper. Ask the professor which form you should use.

    Above all, whatever you are writing:


    If you haven't rewritten at least once, then you are probably not communicating your material well.

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