The Sheet of 26
By Robert Levine ( 2007; original c.1985). Posted with author's permission.
Although Schopenhauer claimed that “jeder der etwas leisten will, muss in jeder Sache, in Handeln, im Schreiben, im Bilden, die Regeln befolgen, ohne sie zu kennen,” most modern students need this style sheet; only bottomless self-pity will permit you to imagine that these evitanda have the power to impede your creative powers.
Students who become upset, even paralyzed, when they read this sheet often do not belong to the set of students whose attitude towards language originally provoked the production and distribution of the sheet. Failure to pay close attention to these instructions will be followed by embarrassment, among other undesirable results:
Tum quoque, cum vacuas fuero dilapsus in auras,
Exanimis mores oderit umbra tuos...
Quidquid ero, Stygiis erumpere nitar ab oris,
et tendam gelidas ultor in ora manus.
- Read aloud every sentence that you write. If you find the sentence difficult to read, or if you would be embarrassed to be caught speaking such a sentence to another human being, rewrite the sentence immediately.
- Your readers are as intelligent and as well-informed as you are. They have already read the works about which you are writing, and do not need you to describe them, or to tell them when and where the author lived, or even that he was an author. Please do not try to convince them of the beauty, truth, greatness, or profound significance of the texts you are discussing. A vacuous opening sentence is inexcusable. Instead, papers should begin with a vivid, direct, complex, precise assertion, from which the rest of the essay flows inexorably. The best papers often are written by people who write their opening sentence AFTER they have finished the rest of the essay. Under no circumstances should an opening sentence contain a passive or impersonal construction. An opening sentence should not contain an assertion of a universal truth; “always,” “in every society,” should appear neither in an opening sentence, nor in any other sentence. For example, having read an English translation of one or even several Greek texts does not entitle you to make categorical statements about “the Greeks.” Having read several hundred lines of Chaucer does not entitle you to speak with any comfort about what may or may not be “medieval.”
- A paragraph rarely consists of one sentence. Most paragraphs contain at least three sentences. On the other hand, paragraphs longer than one page are not likely to be paragraphs. If you begin and end paragraphs according to whim, you are wasting your time and the reader’s. The weakest writers often fail to provide a transition from the end of one paragraph to the beginning of the next.
- “Truth is in detail.” Only assertions supported by specific, significant detail are acceptable. Make no generalizations that cannot be supported by referring to specific passages, phrases, words, in the texts you are discussing. A paragraph should not consist entirely of unsupported assertions.
- Avoid impersonal and passive constructions (e.g., “it is,” or “there is,” or “attention must be paid”) whenever possible; “it is interesting to note” too often means that you have nothing whatever to say about what follows.
- To say that two passages, characters, poems “can be compared” leaves many readers wondering why they should be compared. Such constructions are too often symptoms of intellectual sloth, of outright cowardice, or of an inability to conceal distaste for the assignment.
- A high proportion of sentences containing subordinate clauses —not to be confused with run-on sentences— usually characterizes a thoughtful, interesting paper. A paper composed primarily of paratactic constructions will receive an “F”; if you find that more than two consecutive sentences in your paper begin with “he,” or “she,” you should begin to grow anxious; if those sentences contain no subordinate clauses, you are well on the way to failure. If you are interested in demonstrating the complexity of your mind, try beginning a sentence with “although” or “since” or “in spite of” (cf. #26).
- If the main verbs in your sentences tend to be copulative (e.g., “is,” “are,” “was,” “were”), you probably are writing mush.
- Each outright grammatical error lowers the reader’s willingness to read further, as does each split infinitive and misplaced modifier, or the use of a transitive verb intransitively or vice-versa.
- Commas, semi-colons, and periods function not as random decoration, but to reduce the amount of energy a reader must expend to understand what you are trying to say. The proper use of semi-colons makes a startling impression, and may often prevent major disasters. No semi-colon should be followed by a sentence fragment.
- No sentence may begin with “This”; since “this” and “these” are often used ambiguously, use them sparingly, and with extreme caution.
- “Quite” uses up five spaces on a line, but generally has no other function. “A great deal” and “a lot” point to no useful quantities.
- No sentence should begin with “And,” “Also,” “So,” or “Then.” Make every effort to avoid beginning a sentence with “Thus” followed by a comma. “Therefore” should be used to complete a syllogism, not to clear your throat at the opening of a final paragraph. No final paragraph should begin with, “In conclusion… .” Do not fill a final paragraph with safe, vapid generalizations; hot air has no place in any paragraph.
- Do not use adjectives as nouns, or nouns as adjectives (“human” is an adjective; “Shakespeare” is not).
- “As” should not take the place of “because,” nor should “like” usurp the place of “as.” For an explanation, see Fowler, Modern English Usage. “As previously mentioned” is a symptom of careless organization. No paragraph should begin with, “Another example is…”
- Only ashes remain of students who have used “upon closer examination,” “lifestyle,” “as evidenced by,” “hopefully,” “thought-provoking,” “in-depth,” “interface,” “insightful,” “due to,” “our hero,” “mindset,” “utilizes,” “employs,” or “input” in their writing. Students who have confused “infer” and “imply” now lie with Ixion and Sisyphus, together with students who use “affect” instead of “effect,” “center around” instead of “center on,” “societal” instead of “social,” “simplistic” instead of “simple,” “motivational factors” instead of “motives,” “moralistic” instead of “moral,” “its” instead of “it’s,” (and the reverse). Few students have used “respective” without creating distress for themselves and others. Before using “enormity,” look it up in the dictionary. Never use “tremendous.” Never use “reference” as a verb. Whenever you find yourself using the word “flowery,” replace it with as precise a description of what you mean as you are capable of producing.
- If you are submitting to a journal published in England, you may use “different to,” but in the continental United States use “different from.” Never use “different than.”
- Phrases like “I think” or “I believe” or “in my opinion” or “in this writer’s opinion” are unnecessary, and often powerfully irritating; instead of saying, “I think that Lear is a tedious old man,” merely write, “Lear is a tedious old man,” confident in the knowledge that the reader will not make a mistake about who is making the statement (unless you are plagiarizing, in which case see #25) . A paper in which “the reader” can be replaced by “I” with no loss of meaning needs to be revised.
- Italicize the titles of books; place the titles of chapters, articles, poems, and smaller works between quotation marks. List the books you have used at the end of the paper and refer to them in the body of the paper by enclosing the last name of the author and the page number (e.g., "Levine 671") in parentheses immediately after the passage quoted or paraphrased.
- Use the present tense to describe the action in a text. For example, Oedipus “gouges,” not “gouged,” out his eyes).
- The only dictionary whose definitions you may use is the OED.
- Throw away desiccated printer ribbons. Every mark of punctuation (comma, period, semicolon, colon, quotation mark, parenthesis, bracket) must be followed by at least one blank space. Anyone who stores files only on the hard-drive of her or his or a roommate’s computer shall reap what they sow.
- Proofread with care; a paper should not have more typographical errors than pages. Normal human beings are unable to proofread their own papers. Make every effort to induce a friend or passerby to proofread for you. Abandon all hope that your inability to spell is an essential part of your personal charm.
- In writing a comparative paper, never open with a sentence like this: “There are many similarities and many differences between the two…” Never use the word “comparison” when you mean “resemblance;” do not say that A and B may be compared, when you mean that A resembles B. Thou shalt not organize comparative papers serially.
- If you borrow other people’s words and ideas, give them credit; otherwise you are plagiarizing.
- Avoid making brutally reductive, univocal assertions; the best writing avoids sounding like what George Berkeley called “the illiterate bulk of mankind”:
Yet so it is, we see the illiterate bulk of mankind ... walk the high-road of plain common sense, and are governed by the dictates of nature, for the most part easy and undisturbed. To them nothing that is familiar appears unaccountable or difficult to comprehend.
“Me qui non sequitur, vult sine lege loqui… ”
“execrabilis ista turba, quae non novit legem”
“He most honors my style who learns
under it to destroy the teacher.”
1. “Anyone who would do something, must in everything, in action, in writing, in building, obey rules, without knowing it.” <<back
2. “And then, when I have faded into empty voids, / My shade will despise your rites for the dead ... Whatever I may be, I’ll strive to break from the Stygian shore, / and in vengeance stretch an icy hand across your mouth.” – Lines 141-2 and 153-4 of Ovid's “Ibis” as translated by Rebecca Bourke. <<back
3. “A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is . . . paragraphs are emotional not because they express an emotion but because they register or limit an emotion.” – Gertrude Stein <<back
4. “I am a friend to subordination, as most conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed.” – Samuel Johnson <<back
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