Brief summaries of some common stylistic and grammatical errors, courtesy of Professor David Silverman.
Affect and Effect
The words affect and effect do not mean the same thing. There is no noun "affect"; the verb "to affect" means "to have an effect upon" or "to adopt as a facade". The noun is "effect". The verb "to effect" means "to bring about".
Because, The Reason is Because
Because is a subordinating conjunction that introduces a subordinate clause. That subordinate clause functions in the sentence as an adverb: with reference to the action of the verb, it tells us *why* said action is done. Clauses which begin with "because" are adverbial clauses. Another kind of subordinate clause is the noun clause.
Adverbial clause: We fail because we have no skill. (Why do we fail?)
Noun clause: I know that we must fail.(What do I know?)
Noun clause: The reason is that we have no skill. (What is the reason?)
You have to say "the reason is that" and not "the reason is because" or "this is because" because you cannot put an adverbial clause on the other side of the verb 'to be'; an adverb cannot be the predicate.
Between vs. Among
Use between when there are only two things (two objects of the preposition). Use among when there are more than two.
San Francisco is between L.A. and Portland.
There is a thief among us.
Citation of secondary sources
When referring to or quoting from a secondary source, even if it is a book that has been assigned for the course, it is necessary to give a full bibliographic identification of the book for the reader (on the assumption that the reader is the general public and not just the teacher. Broadly there are two possible ways to do this (though the precise form of the citation varies according to the conventions of particular disciplines). First, you can give all the information in a footnote:
Vernant argues that the Ionian philosophers divorced the forces of nature from the traditional gods.1
Alternatively, you can use a shortened reference form in the text of the paper similar to what you use for references to ancient sources, and give a complete bibliographic reference in a bibliography at the end of the paper:
Vernant argues that the Ionian philosophers divorced the forces of nature from the traditional gods (Vernant, Origins 103).
Then the entry in the bibliography would look like this:
Vernant, J.-P. The Origins of Greek Thought, Ithaca, 1982.
Comma between subject and verb
Be careful about separating the subject from the verb by a comma. There are some situations in which a phrase can come between them and be set off by commas. But a simple subject-verb sequence should never be broken up by a comma. Examples:
Wrong:The boy, went home.
Right: The boy went home.
Right: The boy, after the sun set, went home.
Avoid using contractions such as "don't" or "wouldn't" in formal prose.
Counsel vs. Council
The words "counsel" and "council" are not the same. "Counsel" can be a noun meaning "advice" or a verb meaning "advise". "Council" is only a noun, and it means a group of people gathered to deliberate about something.
Cynical and Stoic
When writing about antiquity, and most especially when writing about ancient philosophy, one should avoid using the terms "cynical" and "stoic" as they are commonly used. The reason is that Cynic and Stoic are philosophical schools, with a whole and complex range of tenets and beliefs. To use cynical in the sense of "jaded", or stoic in the sense of "having the ability to endure pain" is therefore not appropriate to the context. Likewise, when writing about Plato, you would not expect the reader to understand the word Platonic to mean what it means in popular parlance (i.e. nonsexual).
Different from vs. Different than
Different from is a prepositional phrase with a noun as its object; different(ly) than is a conjunction introducing a subordinate clause.
I ate a different meal than she (ate).
The meal I ate was different from hers.
Use three dots to indicate that material has been omitted, but the omission does not cross a sentence boundary such as a period. Use four dots to show that an omission does include one or more sentence boundaries. If the omitted material is the beginning of a sentence, use three dots and capitalize the first word of the quoted portion.
Ending sentence with preposition.
It is best to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. This can usually be avoided by the use of the relative "which" instead of the quasi-relative "that".
Bad: Greek society is the foundation that western civilization rests upon.
Good: Greek society is the foundation upon which western civilization rests.
Idem vs. Ibid. or Ibidem
Idem means "the same person" whereas ibidem (abbreviated ibid.) means "at the same place." So use idem when the author and work are the same as cited immediately before, but the page number is different: idem, page 56. Use ibidem when the reference is exactly the same as the preceding citation.
Imply vs. Infer
Imply and infer are two words which are often confused. To imply something is to suggest it to someone else. To infer something is to understand it on the basis of what someone else has said or done.
Sir, are you implying that my wife is a duck-billed platypus?
I was able to infer from the way he spoke that several chain saws were missing.
It's vs. its.
Its and it's are not the same.
It's It's a nice day. (IT'S = IT IS)
Its The dog was chasing its tail. (ITS is possessive)
Some people recommend never using the first person 'I' in an expository essay. That is probably too rigid. It is permissible to use the first person, but it should not be done Gratuitously. Use it, for example, to contrast your own opinion with that of someone else.
Gratuitous: I will now demonstrate that Thucydides is a scientific historian.
Justified: Cornford thinks Thucydides has a tragic sensibility, but I cannot agree.
A sentence Fragment is a group of words intended to be a complete sentence but not succeeding at it. Aside from grammatical rules, you can often spot a sentence Fragment by reading your text out loud. The thought is not completed, and you are left hanging on the edge of a cliff. Two common sentence fragments are (a) subordinate clauses with no main clause, and (b) sentences where a participle tries to be the main verb.
Fragment A When the cow fell over.
Fragment B The cow falling over.
Complete When the cow fell over, I was afraid.
Always italicize (or underline) non-English words appearing in your essay.
When drawing upon or quoting the opinions of modern scholars, the most important thing to remember is that their opinions are only that, opinions. They are not in and of themselves evidence about the ancient world, and something is not true just because someone who wrote a book says it is true. In general it is best to keep quotations (as opposed to citations) of modern writers to a minimum, especially if you are only quoting them to agree with them. Remember that you can cite their works without quoting.
Number vs. Amount
Use "number" for things that can be counted, "amount" for things that cannot be counted.
Quotations and Syntax
A problem often arises when a quotation is integrated with the text in such a way that an ungrammatical sentence results. In general, it is best to quote entire sentences so as to avoid this problem. If you must integrate another author's sentence with yours, it may be necessary to change a few of his or her words, especially verbs and pronominal references. Such changes must be indicated by brackets.
Quoting Poetry and Long Quotes
For any quotation which is more than two lines of poetry or more than two lines of text in your paper you should indent and single-space the quotation. Also, poetry and prose are not the same. When quoting poetry you must preserve the line structure of the quoted passage. For short quotes included in the text, use the slash (/) to indicate a line break. For longer indented quotations, simply reproduce the original line structure on your page.
Populous and populace
The adjective is populous; the noun is populace. They sound the same.
Pronouns refer to nouns. If the noun is expressed and it is singular, the pronoun must also be singular. In English pronouns such as "his" and "himself" are the default, meaning that they may stand for persons of either gender. English grammar is sexist but we still have to be correct. If this bothers you, you can use "his or her" or "himself or herself" but not "their" or "themselves" to refer to a singular noun.
Wrong: Everyone knows their own weakness.
Right: Everyone knows his own weakness.
Wrong: No one likes to hear themselves insulted.
Right: No one likes to hear himself or herself insulted.
A run-on sentence is when two or more complete sentences (main clauses) are strung together, with or without a comma between them. There are several ways to fix the problem. One is the semicolon. Use the semicolon (not the comma) to separate two complete sentences that are too closely related in thought to be separated by a period. Another is a coordinating conjunction (such as 'and' or 'but') or a subordinating conjunction (such as 'when, since, because'). Which one you use depends on the sense.
Run-on: Achilleus is a great warrior, he has no trouble killing Hektor.
Fixed: Achilleus is a great warrior; he has no trouble killing Hektor.
Fixed: Achilleus is a great warrior, and he has no trouble killing Hektor. (coordinating conjunction)
Fixed: Because Achilleus is a great warrior, he has no trouble killing Hektor. (subordinating conjunction)
It is not a good idea to say that something is "an excellent example" or "the best speech to illustrate this" because it sounds as if you are patting yourself on the back for finding that example. You just call it an example; if it is an especially good example, the reader will figure that out for himself.
Use the semicolon to separate two complete sentences that are too closely related in thought to be separated by a period. A secondary use of the semicolon is to separate items in a list. Do not use the semicolon as a substitute for a comma.
Avoid splitting infinitives. The verbal element should come right after the "to".
Wrong: I wanted to wildly dance in the moonlight.
Right: I wanted to dance wildly in the moonlight.
Be careful how you use tenses (past and Present). Do not mix them up haphazardly. You should use the Present tense for anything which happens in a work of literature, or when speaking about what a writer does in a work of literature. Use the past tense only for straight historical statements.
Present: Homer makes Achilleus the hero of the Iliad.
Present: Achilleus grows angry when his friend Patroklos dies.
Past: Homer probably lived around 750 B.C.
There vs. Their
The words "there" and "their" are not the same. "Their" is the possessive.
Their shields were flung aside in the river.
There were some shields there, in the river.
Avoid the two-tiered reference, wherein one reproduces the citation of Scholar X by Scholar Y, although the writer has seen only the work of Y and for whatever reason has not seen X. You cannot assume that Y has cited X accurately or that his characterization of X's argument is fair. Accordingly, you can only discuss the opinions of those whose works you have read. In footnotes and bibliographies, do not cite or list any book or article that you have not actually seen.
1. J.-P. Vernant, The Origins of Greek Thought, Ithaca, 1982, p. 103.