by Kate Epstein

This checklist describes the most common errors I see in writing. It is long. If it seems like it will be a lot of work to apply it, that’s because it will be a lot of work to apply it. A lot of things go into writing (and grading) a paper. You will probably need to go through the paper multiple times to make sure that you have kept track of everything you should keep track of.

  • plagiarism? there are many different kinds of plagiarism. The best-known form is quoting someone else’s exact words without citing the source. But there are two lesser – known kinds as well:
    • changing only a few words from someone else’s work and not putting the passage in quotation marks. Even if you cite the source, you have committed plagiarism by failing to put the passage in quotation marks. You can avoid plagiarizing either by keeping the original language exactly and putting it in quotation marks, or by genuinely paraphrasing it, which involves changing more than a few words. Even if you paraphrase rather than quoting directly, you must still acknowledge your debt by providing a citation.
    • recording information that you read in someone else’s work and not providing a citation. Students sometimes struggle to understand what information they need to cite. To explain, it is helpful to distinguish between facts and interpretations. For factual information, the basic rule of thumb is that you do not need to provide citations for well – known or easily accessible facts (for instance, the dates of World War I), but you do need to provide citations for facts that are either not well known or not easily accessible (the logic being that suspicious readers need to know where they can go check your information). Although you do not need to provide citations for all facts that you learned from reading someone else’s work, you MUST provide citations for ALL interpretations that you learned from someone else’s work. The logic is that, while historians do not invent or “own” facts, they do invent and “own” their interpretations of facts. You must acknowledge that you are using their property.
  • evidence of the author’s political and/or religious beliefs? Authors sometimes unconsciously reveal their political and religious beliefs by using loaded words or phrases, like the following: “Fortunately, the rationalism of the Scientific Revolution triumphed over religious superstition”; or conversely, “Religious faith provided the necessary foundation for the scientists’ experimental work.” Especially when they are just starting out, historians should try to separate their own identities from their historical work.
  • sentence fragments? Examples:
    • “While the Military Revolution was more important.”
    • “Like the infantry, artillery, and fortifications revolutions.”
  • subject-verb agreement? make sure the numbers agree (i.e., if the subject is singular, the verb should be singular; and if the subject is plural , the verb should be plural) . Examples:
    • “The church were scared of the Scientific Revolution.” (Should be, “The church was scared of the Scientific Revolution.”)
    • “Planetary interactions was being linked with math.” (Should be, “Planetary interactions were being linked with math.”)
  • noun-pronoun agreement? make sure the numbers agree
    • “The church was scared of the Scientific Revolution. They felt that the scientists were blasphemers.” (Should be, “The church was scared of the Scientific Revolution. It felt that the scientists were blasphemers.”)
  • indefinite pronouns? Examples:
    • “Many scientists in the Scientific Revolution came up with new ideas about the natural world. This [indefinite pronoun] made the church nervous.” (Better: “Many scientists in the Scientific Revolution came up with new ideas about the natural world. Their discoveries made the church nervous.”)
    • “Thanks to new technology, ships could engage in battle at great distances. This [indefinite pronoun] encouraged nations to build up their fleets.” (Better: “Thanks to new technology, ships could engage in battle at great distances. This new ability encouraged nations to build up their fleets.”
    • “Thus the Military Revolution led to many changes. While all this was happening…” Better: “Thus the Military Revolution led to many changes. While it was happening…”
  • passive voice? Examples:
    • “An answer was found.”
    • “Cannons were made stronger.”
    • “Many were outraged by Newton’s findings.”
    • “The work of Kepler was reinforced by Galileo.”
  • excessive use of forms of the verb “to be” (which tends to produce weak and boring writing, much as the passive voice does). Examples:
    • “There were many important events in history.” (Better: “Many important events have occurred in history.”)
    • “It is evident that the Military Revolution was more important than the Scientific Revolution.” (Better: “Evidently, the Military Revolution was more important than the Scientific Revolution.”)
  • verb tense? does the author switch between past and present tense?
  • verb mood? does the author switch between indicative (“The trace italienne helped defenders”) and subjunctive (“The trace italienne would have helped defenders”).
  • split infinitives? Examples: to better serve, to mathematically prove.
  • contractions? Examples: wasn’t, don’t, weren’t, doesn’t, can’t, etc.
  • economy of words? does the author use more words to say what she could say in fewer ? Examples:
    • “This new ability led to nations building up their fleets.” (10 words). Better: “This new ability encouraged nations to increase their fleets.” (9 words)
    • “The Scientific Revolution was important in the context of the fact that it led to a re negotiation of the relationship between religion and science.” (25 words) Better: “The Scientific Revolution was important because it changed the relationship between religion and science.” (14 words)
  • repetition? Examples:
    • “There were a number of dramatic changes in warfare, including new tactics and changes in the art of war.”
    • “The problem with Copernicus’s theory of heliocentrism was that it caused problems for the Church.”
  • hyperbole? authors should not exaggerate or use words that they don’t really mean. Examples:
    • “The Infantry Revolution made wars incredibly bloody.” Really? “Incredible” means un-believable. Can you really not believe how much bloodier the Infantry Revolution made wars?
    • “The Infantry Revolution enabled musketeers to wipe out whole armies.” Really? “Whole armies”?
  • wrong words? does the author use words correctly? Examples of wrong words:
    • “The Military Revolution changed the way that people performed war.” War cannot be “performed.”
    • “This revolution was less specific.” How can a revolution be less specific?
    • “Experimentation became the central core behind the scientific method.” (Should be “of,” not “behind.”)
    • “Revolutionary ideas took place.” Ideas do not “take place.”
  • awkward phrasing? Examples:
    • “The Military Revolution affect ed finance in the fact that it required heavier taxation.” Better: “The Military Revolution affected finance by requiring heavier taxation.”
    • “The military fighting style had changed.” Better: “Fighting styles had changed.”
    • “The Infantry Revolution led to the retirement of armor as mobility and dexterity were placed at a premium over protection.” Better: “The Infantry Revolution led to the retirement of armor, as mobility and dexterity came to be more important than protection.”
  • circular logic/tautologies? does the author define or explain something in terms of itself? Examples:
    • “The Military Revolution was clearly more important than the Scientific Revolution because it was more important to people.”
    • “The stages of the Military Revolution were all important because they all had important impacts.”
    • “Both revolutions were revolutionary because they had revolutionary results.”
  • parallelism? Examples:
    • “The Military Revolution not only was important for war, but also for politics.” Better: “The Military Revolution was important not only for war, but also for politics.”
    • “The Scientific Revolution both threatened the church’s confidence and its authority.” Better: “The Scientific Revolution threatened both the church’s confidence and its authority.”
  • informal colloquialisms? Examples:
    • “Europe was a heavy hitter in the world.”
    • “Heliocentrism was only the tip of the iceberg in the Scientific Revolution.”
  • consistency of capitalization? does the author sometimes write “the Military Revolution,” and other times “the military Revolution”? How about “the Catholic Church” and “the Catholic church”?
  • consistency of formatting? does the author sometimes underline book titles, and sometimes italicize them? Does the author sometimes put the author before the title in footnotes, and sometimes the title before the author?
  • use of the first person? does the author say “I,” “we,” or “our”? Examples:
    • “I personally believe that the Military Revolution was important.”
    • “Our science today relies on the discoveries made during the Scientific Revolution.”
    • “Let us now proceed to discuss the second stage of the Military Revolution.”
    • “First, we will examine the Fortification Revolution.”
  • use of the second person? does the author say “you” or “your”? Examples:
    • “As you can see, the Military Revolution was revolutionary.”
    • “You needed to be rich to thrive in the Military Revolution.”
  • careless historical judgments? Examples:
    • “The Infantry Revolution was inevitable after the invention of gunpowder.” Really? The Infantry Revolution was destiny, was it? Things couldn’t possibly have happened any other way?
    • “Without the Scientific Revolution, the church would not have lost so much authority.” Really? What makes you so sure that something else wouldn’t have come along to make it lose authority?
  • careless value judgments? Examples:
    • “Unfortunately, the church felt threatened by the Scientific Revolution.” Why was that “unfortunate”?
    • “Luckily, the trace italienne was invented.” “Lucky” implies that a development was a good thing. Why was this development a good thing?
    • “Galileo should have been more careful in challenging the church.” Really? Do you know enough to say what he “should” have done?