History 364 Style Guide

1. Structure your paper with a comprehensive thesis paragraph, clear transitions, and strong topic sentences.

The first paragraph should begin with an enticing--not formulaic--introductory sentence and then proceed to outline your thesis with broad strokes. Tell the reader what you plan to argue in the paper but save the evidence and the juicy quotations and specific details for later. Each subsequent paragraph should feature a topic sentence, either at the beginning or immediately after the transition. Each topic sentence should serve to advance the main thesis and to summarize the evidence presented in the paragraph. Each sentence within a paragraph should support the topic sentence of that paragraph. Transition sentences link thoughts and arguments to one another and send a signal that you are moving on to the next point.

Writing with skill and clarity is a painstaking endeavor. Often you may not discover the full extent of your argument until after you have completed the first draft of the paper. In that case, go back to the thesis paragraph and underline your thesis statement. Then read the paper, making sure each topic sentence and each paragraph advances the main argument of the paper. A good trick is to read only the topic sentences in order, to see if the paper flows smoothly. Then reread to determine whether the evidence supports the argument. Be sure to restructure and rewrite the paper if necessary.

 

2. Use active voice verbs, and avoid passive voice.

Make each sentence tell who did what to whom. The passive voice obscures historical actors, fails to allocate responsibility for the actions of the past, and betrays your uncertainty as a writer. Passive voice also leads to unclear and cluttered sentences. Active voice verbs help make prose more lively and compelling, and they force you to answer instead of evade critical historical questions in the process. Read through your paper and circle every compound verb that begins with "was" or "were." These verbs almost always accompany passive voice or boring language.

A. Passive voice as a stylistic violation, reversing subject and object.

Passive Voice: "The rock music of the 1980s was listened to by the teenagers in Less than Zero."

Active Voice: "In Less than Zero, Clay and his friends listened to Elvis Costello and watched a lot of MTV."

B. Passive voice as an historical violation, obscuring responsibility and actors.

Passive Voice: "Millions of white families were permitted to move to the suburbs after World War II, but black families were not allowed."

Active Voice: "The policies of the Federal Housing Administration and the GI Bill enabled millions of white families to move to the suburbs after World War II, while federal mortgage policies and private forms of discrimination generally excluded black families by requiring residential segregation in new developments."

 

3. Avoid the verb "to be."

Active and lively verbs represent critical components of good writing. The various forms of the verb "to be" usually signal weak and vague sentences. The "to be" verb implies a static state of "being" rather than a dynamic state of agency and often leaves the impression that an abstract force is acting upon historical subjects.

Instead of: "The 1920s was the decade when automobile-based suburbs appeared."

Write: "During the 1920s, the mass production of the Model T helped spur the development of automobile-based suburbs."

 

4. Try not to unnecessarily split infinitives.

The preceding sentence represents an example of this stylistic violation. Choose another construction that flows more smoothly: "Try not to split infinitives inappropriately."

 

5. Use the past tense for historical writing.

Historical writing requires use of the past tense in almost every situation, with a few conspicuous exceptions. The past tense requirement includes discussion of writers whose work appeared in the distant past:

               "In Revolutionary Road, originally published in 1961, Richard Yates examined the domestic life of the Wheelers, an upper-middle-class family that lived in the Connecticut suburbs."

The exception to this rule involves discussion of recent writers and artists and ideas, if you are using these sources in a contemporary context:

               "In Happiness, Todd Solondz offers a dysfunctional portrait of an upper-middle-class family in the New Jersey suburbs."

               "The discourse of suburban pathology provides a window into many Hollywood films that feature nuclear families as their protagonists."

 

6. Avoid "I" and especially "we" in your arguments.

The reader will assume that the author of the paper is making the arguments contained within the narrative. You do not need to write:

"I think that Happiness is brilliant and provocative."

Instead, write something along these lines:

"Happiness represents a gloomy and depressing vision of suburban life in modern America."

The prohibition of first-person pronouns is not absolute. Under certain circumstances, first-person pronouns may be appropriate, notably when a passage in your paper is explicitly personal or when you find yourself using awkward and convoluted language in order to avoid personal pronouns. But these exceptions should be chosen cautiously and employed sparingly.

 

7. Make sure that pronouns have clear antecedents and maintain singular/plural consistency.

Avoid: "Bill Levitt and other developers built subdivisions for thousands of families. They thought this would fulfill the American Dream." (The antecedent of "they" is unclear, and "this" is a vague pronoun as well.)

Instead: "Thousands of working-class families achieved a new version of the middle-class dream of homeownership in the subdivisions developed by Bill Levitt and other corporate developers."

Note: As writers adopt more inclusive language, they often struggle with dilemmas in pronoun/antecedent agreement. In speech, many people now employ singular/plural disagreement: "Each student is responsible for their reading assignment." This construction avoids the gender exclusiveness of using his/her but represents a violation of singular/plural agreement. On the other hand, "Each student is responsible for his or her reading assignment" is wordy and distracting. In many cases, you can resolve this dilemma by using plural subjects. Other times, more creative writing may be necessary.

 

8. Capitalize and hyphenate consistently.

Write the "South" or the "North" (but for directions, use lower case, as in "heading south for the winter").

Write "middle-class family" with a hyphen when used as an adjective, but "the middle class" without a hyphen when used as a noun.

 

9. Use appropriate racial designations.

Most historians use "black" and "African American" interchangeably, and while "Latino" is replacing "Hispanic" in popular usage, each label remains common in current usage. "Negro" and "mulatto" and other outdated racial designations should not be used without quotation marks and clear indication of context.

 

10. Qualify nouns when necessary for purposes of accuracy and complexity.

Never forget that you are writing about individuals instead of caricatures, and groups of diverse people instead of historical abstractions.

Instead of: "White people moved . . . ," write: "many working-class white families . . . " or "millions of middle-class suburbanites . . . " and so forth.

Instead of: "The black man found himself in the ghetto," write: "Many black citizens who moved to the North for better opportunities faced new forms of discrimination in the federal policies and homeowner resistance that helped shape the divisions between suburban and urban areas."

 

11. Have people and policies provide the action, instead of allowing abstractions to shape history.

Instead of: "Racism caused segregated neighborhoods" or "Dysfunction creates suburban problems," write sentences with subjects that identify clear actors: "federal housing policies," or "common white assumptions about residential integration" or "unsupervised teenagers in Los Angeles" and so forth.

**Beginning sentences with the pronouns "this" or "these" represents a related problem that often obscures the real subject of the sentence. For example, avoid transitions such as "Many women experienced political awakenings during the 1960s. This was a very important development for the feminist movement." Instead: "Many women experienced political awakenings during the 1960s and joined the growing feminist movement," or "Many women experienced political awakenings during the 1960s. The feminist movement grew dramatically because of this development."

 

12. Numbers.

Write out numbers spelled in one or two words (forty-five). Use Arabic numbers for three words or more (143).

 

13. Misc. to avoid:

A. different than (always use: different from)

B. the reason is because (a redundant phrase)

C. very unique or more complete (these adjectives cannot be qualified)

D. less (when "fewer" is appropriate--use "fewer" when referring to numbers that can be quantified. "Less milk," but "fewer votes")

E. center around (use "revolve around," or "center on")

F. "impact" as a verb (the trend these days is toward "verbing" nouns. Resist this)

G. fragments and run-on sentences

H. omitting commas after dates and places

 

14. Quotations.

Use quotations sparingly, when the quoted material provides evidence or flavor that a paraphrase cannot convey adequately. Do not use quotations to drive the narrative forward as a substitute for your own arguments. Use an ellipsis (. . .) whenever you omit material from a quoted passage. You may alter capitalization and punctuation without using[brackets], and your goal should be to make the passage read smoothly. Quotations should not be set aside in a separate paragraph unless they exceed five lines, and you should rarely quote such a lengthy passage in a short paper. You also should identify the source of the quotation in the text is you are using the quotation for analytical purposes ("Kenneth Jackson argues . . . " or "Richard Yates portrays . . ."). A quotation intended to provide analysis, but hanging all alone in the middle of a paragraph without the context of the source, is more likely to confuse than to edify.

 

15. Citations.

Historians use footnotes or endnotes rather than the parenthetical citations common in the social sciences. Footnotes are more readable, while endnotes allow you to save more space for the main paper. Different acceptable styles exist for footnotes; the most important points are to maintain consistency and provide the full citation the first time that you refer to a source. On subsequent occasions, you should use a short citation. Titles should be italicized or underlined. Consult a style manual for proper citation techniques. Footnote citations and bibliographic entries use different styles. In this course, you do not have to include a bibliography providing that your footnotes are comprehensive. If you consult a source that does not appear in any of your footnotes, however, it must be included in a bibliography.

Some examples of standard citations, followed by acceptable short citations for subsequent footnotes or endnotes:

Book

Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 45-46.

Subsequent citation: Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 78-80.

Edited collection

Elaine Tyler May, "Cold War, Warm Heart: Politics and the Family in Postwar America," The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, eds. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), 153-181.

Subsequent Citation: May, "Cold War," 175.

Journal article

Thomas J. Sugrue, "Crab-grass Roots Politics: Race, Rights, and the Reaction against Liberalism in the Urban North, 1940-64," Journal of American History (Sept. 1995), 551-78.

Subsequent Citation: Sugrue, "Crab-grass Roots Politics," 570.

Magazine article

David J. Dent, "The New Black Suburbs," New York Times Magazine (June 14, 1992), 18-25.

Subsequent Citation: Dent, "New Black Suburbs," 22-23.

Newspaper

New York Times, Jan. 1, 1960.

**You do not need to cite author, title, and page number for a newspaper article, although you should for a journal or magazine article.

Interview

Interview, Matt Lassiter, September 15, 2009 (Ann Arbor, MI).

Subsequent Citation: Lassiter interview.

Film

 Todd Solondz, Happiness (Trimark Home Video, 1999).

**Film information can be found through MIRLYN.

Website

David Brooks, "Patio Man and the Sprawl People," The Weekly Standard (Aug. 12 & 19, 2002) <http://www.weeklystandard.com/content/public/articles/000/000/001/531wlvng.asp>

**The date should be either the listed date of publication for a newspaper or magazine article or a policy report, or the date of your consultation for an information-based website, whichever is more appropriate.

 

16. Plagiarism

Direct quotations must be footnoted as well as enclosed in quotation marks. It is also absolutely essential that you footnote any source that influences your thinking on a subject, or any source from which you draw information, whether or not you quote from it directly. This includes facts, paraphrased material, and also cases in which the connection may be less direct. For example, if you read a book review of a book before you write a paper on the same book, then you must reveal that in the notes or in a bibliography. If you read a film review before writing a discussion project analyzing the film, you must cite the source. If you find yourself unable to resist google or wikipedia before writing, then you must cite any websites that you consult—although it is far more preferable to have the confidence to evaluate sources on your own without reflexively venturing online.  If another scholar's conclusions helped shape your own, then you must provide credit.

There should be no confusion: plagiarism and every other form of academic dishonesty is a serious offense. This includes all forms of unattributed borrowing, from another student's paper, to material found on a website, to copying passages from books, to turning in the same research paper you also turned in for another class.  Academic dishonesty also encompasses situations of deliberate fabrication, such as claiming that the "GSI must have lost the paper you turned in" or the "computer crashed and you lost your only copy" when such stories are not true.  Please don't put yourself or your instructors in any of these situations. The penalty for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty in History 364 is an automatic failing grade and submission of the case to the dean's office.