Some Stylistic Conventions for Academic Essays in the Humanities
A cliché is a phrase — most often a metaphor or simile — that has been used so often that it no longer has any trace of originality about it and therefore cannot excite the reader’s imagination. Examples include life is a journey, cried a river of tears, loved him with all her heart, an emotional rollercoaster, grew like a weed, high as a kite, drank like a fish, and so on. Using clichés is like writing on automatic pilot.. They make your writing boring, and make you seem lazy. Avoid them. How? If you are using a metaphor or simile or making a comparison you have heard before but you don’t remember where, you can almost bet it is a cliché.

When people speak, they tend to combine pronouns and basic verbs, and verbs and the word not. Thus, I am becomes I’m, he is becomes he’s, she did not becomes she didn’t, and so on. But in writing, the time and effort saved by writing we’ve instead of we have are virtually worthless, especially because of the potential confusion that can arise. For example, she’s is the contraction for both she is and she has; one can only figure out which one the author intends from the context. For this reason and others (including that readers like to decide when to combine words for themselves) it is usually best in academic essays to use the full words rather than contractions.

For essays written in what is called semi-formal or general English style — this includes some journalism, especially articles in the sports and entertainment or style sections — occasional contractions can be acceptable. Still, you should always be careful that no confusion results, and that the contraction adds to the rhythm and even sense of the sentence. For example, it is not can be contracted into either its not or it isn’t. While both are acceptable, each creates a different emphasis. Using contractions well requires a great deal of self-awareness and a good ear for the rhythms of the language.

First Person

Using the first person in scholarly papers was long considered weak. This may partly be because scholars liked to think of themselves as objective, as if their own personalities and foibles had no influence on their work. This ban on first-person usage has loosened up considerably in recent years, but students still tend to use it too much. After all, you could easily add the phrase “I think that” before every assertion you make, but doing so is pointless because your name is already on your work. Avoiding the first-person is also a good way to make your writing more concise. I suggest saving the first-person for when you are either describing a personal experience (which is extremely awkward to do without writing “I”) or you want to make a distinction between an assertion and a speculation (you write any assertion you are planning to support without using the first-person, but when you want to share a more speculative opinion with your readers you signal as much by using the more personal “I”).

On those occasions you do find the first person desirable, be careful of the verbs you link with “I.” Writing “I know” suggests certainty, but may strike readers as arrogant. Writing “I believe” indicates you are quite confident about the following assertion, but cannot support it with any evidence. Writing “I think” suggests you are unsure about whatever comes next. Writing “I feel” is almost always a terrible choice — except when your subject actually is your feelings (sensations or emotions) in a particular situation, of course. One cannot argue with feelings, which by their nature are subjective and cannot be presumed to be rational. If you tell me you feel sad, or cold, or happy, or hot, or sleepy, I cannot say “No, you don’t.” Writing “I feel” is thus a way of avoiding any rebuttal and makes you sound weak. This has no place in an academic or professional paper.

Never refer to yourself in the third person. Writing “I disagree” is always preferable to writing “The author of this paper disagrees,” which makes you sound as if you are suffering from a dissociative disorder.

Latin Abbreviations
For a long time, higher education meant a classical education, meaning one rooted in Latin and even classical Greek. Using Latin abbreviations — etc., e.g., i.e., cf., q.e.d., et al — was an expected part of a scholarly voice. This is no longer true in most circles and for most audiences. The better choice now is to use the English equivalent.

Special note: rarely is using either etc. or its English equivalent and so on a good idea. It shifts the burden of completing the list you are providing onto the reader. If providing a complete list is impossible or silly, the better approach is to use such as or for example before the items, and then restrict yourself to one or two items. Readers will get the idea. For example, say, “Reviewers have compared her to classic horror writers such as Edgar A. Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King,” not “Reviewers have compared her to classic and modern horror writers: Edgar A. Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and so on.


The first time you use someone’s name, the custom is to use both the first and last names, or whatever names, initials, and titles the person used in life, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Emily Dickinson, or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Every time after the first, you should use just the last name. A few authors and artists are so well known that you can use the last name exclusively from the beginning. If you just write Shakespeare, Dante, Van Gogh, or Rembrandt, no one will think you mean Bob Shakespeare, Fred Dante, Tracy Van Gogh, or Susan Rembrandt. But those exceptions are rare. (And in fact Joe Dante is a well-known film director.)

A particularly common bad habit is to start with a person’s full name at the beginning of an essay, switch to using just the last name throughout the essay’s body, and then return to using the full name at the beginning of the conclusion. Why? What’s the logic there? My guess is that it is a side-effect of that old and horrible advice you may have received that your conclusion should re-state your introduction. Do not do that. Your reader does not suddenly forget the person’s first name between reading the last sentence of your penultimate paragraph and the first sentence of your conclusion.

When you quote a scholarly source, you need not use the scholar’s name in your text; you can just use the citation, for instance (McGann 125). However, if you do choose to use a name, the same rules apply: full name the first time, just the last name afterwards.

When writing your text, spell out whole numbers requiring two words or fewer; you should use numerals for numbers requiring four words or more or for those involving a decimal point; you may use either words or numerals for numbers that would require three words, but be consistent. Spell out numbers requiring only one or two words. Thus, you would write “seven,” “sixty-one,” and “twelve million” by spelling them out, but “1251,” “67,522,816” and “3.6” in numerals.  You can write either “three hundred thousand” or “300,000.”

Exceptions: This rule does not apply to dates (“Walt Whitman was born on 31 May, 1819”). Large amounts of money sometimes appear in this format: “$420 million” or “£19 billion.”
Praising the Bard

Your readers do not need you to tell them that classic authors wrote well, or great artists painted well. Therefore, sentences like “Virginia Woolf is a wonderful writer,” “Yeats was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century,” “Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a spectacularly beautiful novel,” and “Shakespeare creates extraordinary, memorable characters” have virtually no impact. They state the obvious and are too general to make an interesting point. A compelling essay depends upon specific critical judgments: “Yeats’s mercurial character, as seen in his ability to change his poetic style repeatedly and the many distinct stages of his career that resulted, helped make him the greatest poet of the twentieth century.” The same applies to art, music, and history as well: “Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest presidents in American history” and “Winston Churchill was an important leader” are almost meaningless statements, even though by almost any rational standard they are true.

For several reasons, slang should usually be avoided in papers. First, slang is usually wordy and imprecise. Second, many slang phrases are clichés. Third, slang changes rapidly: one of the reasons for speaking slang is to use a code the uninitiated cannot understand, so as soon as everyone recognizes a slang phrase, it is passé. Often, the meaning of the slang then changes: When it first appeared, “It’s all good” meant “Don’t worry about apologizing” or “Things are fine between you and me,” but then car companies began to use it in commercials (Toyota: “It’s all good!”) to mean something more literal. Thus, slang stamps your work with an unseen expiration date. “This line is a’ight,” “this line is dope,” “this line is def,” “this line rocks,” “this line is wicked awesome,” “this line is groovy,” and “this line is the cat’s pajamas” all say the same thing; their varying ridiculousness is merely a function of age and cultural context.

Write about history in the past tense, current events in the past or present perfect tense, and art and literature in the present tense. The assumption is that historical events happened once and current events happened recently but have ongoing effects. However, every time somebody reads a literary work, looks at a painting or sculpture, or watches a movie, the event being depicted happens again at that moment. Thus, while Queen Elizabeth reigned from 1558 until 1603, and William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon and died in 1616, Hamlet stabs (not stabbed) Polonius, Jay Gatsby almost knocks (not knocked) the clock off the mantle when he meets Daisy again, and Moby-Dick begins with the line “Call me Ishmael.”

The exception occurs when you are referring to events that happened prior to the action of the literary work, or prior to the part of the literary work you are considering. For example, you cannot say “King Hamlet kills King Fortinbras in combat” because that happens years before the play starts. In that case, use the past or perfect tense: “King Hamlet killed Old Fortinbras years earlier” or “King Hamlet had killed Old Fortinbras years earlier.” It would also be a little odd to use the present if you are clearly referring back to an earlier part of the work; in that case, use the present perfect: “By the time Hester tells Dimmesdale who Chillingworth is, the minister’s health has deteriorated markedly.”

Perhaps a little more strangely, critics also generally use the present tense for the authors when we discuss their books: “In The Golden Bowl, Henry James writes [not wrote] in an obsessively analytical style,” and “F. Scott Fitzgerald uses [not used] color symbolism throughout The Great Gatsby.” The same is true for critics:  “Paglia calls Dickinson ‘Amherst’s Madame de Sade.’” However, we use the past when discussing their lives or whole careers: “Henry James lived almost the whole remainder of his life in England, and wrote repeatedly of naïve Americans living abroad.”



When referring to the titles of literary and artistic works, the general rule is that the titles of works published on their own are italicized and the titles of works published as part of a larger volume (an anthology or journal.) belong in quotation marks:

The Great Gatsby [novel]
“A Diamond as Big as the Ritz” [short story]
“I am born” [chapter title in a novel]

Paradise Lost [book-length poem]
The Autobiography of George Barker [poem published on its own]
“Ode to the West Wind” [shorter poem]

The Importance of Being Earnest [play]

Lohengrin [major classical musical composition]
“Moonlight Sonata” [shorter classical musical composition]

London Calling [record album, cd]
“Guns of Brixton” [song]

Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring [movie]
“Duck Amuck” [cinematic short]

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine [television series]
“In the Pale Moonlight” [episode of a television series]

Titling your essay

Never use the title of another written work as your title:
WrongThe Brothers Karamazov
Right:  Guilt and Expiation in The Brothers Karamazov
Also good:  “The Torments of Disgrace”:  Guilt and Expiation in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov
In this case, the first part of the title is in quotation marks because the writer of the paper took this phrase from the book. Otherwise, no quotation marks would be needed. Also, no colon would be needed if the title and the subtitle were written on separate lines.

Avoid vague or generic titles. At minimum, a title should inform potential readers about your specific focus, not just your topic. Ideally, it also offers wit or memorable phrasing to intrigue them. A title is your first opportunity to engage your reader’s interest and impress them with your voic — don’t waste it:

Bad title
: Perspectives on The Great Gatsby
Great title: Color My World: Daisy Buchanan and Whiteness

Bad title
: Bleak House —  An Analysis
Great title: Revolution in the Manor:  Dickens’ Plea for Social Justice in Bleak House

Bad title
: My Critique of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet 
Great title: “The Cheer and Comfort of My Eye”:  Shakespeare’s Claudius and Surveillance

Bad title
: “Returning, We Hear the Larks”:  A Reading
Great title: Random Death and Dangerous Beauty in Isaac Rosenberg’s “Returning, We Hear the Larks”

Note that the phrases that are in quotation marks in these titles are actual quotations, or what I call borrowing your cleverness, which is perfectly fine to do. Otherwise, you should not put your own title in quotation marks.

Home | Syllabus | Class Calendar and
Schedule of Assignments
| Resources