The Sheet of 26
posted with permission from the
Robert Levine (this version 2007; original c.1985)
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.
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:
quoque, cum vacuas fuero dilapsus in auras,
Exanimis mores oderit
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
- 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
—not to be confused with run-on
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
- 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).
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.
qui non sequitur, vult sine lege loqui… ”
ista turba, quae non novit legem”
most honors my style who learns
under it to destroy the teacher.”
-- Walt Whitman
1. “Anyone who would do something, must in
everything, in action, in writing, in building, obey rules, without
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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