© Damen, 2002

1. Informality.

Much as I may like you individually and as often as I may joke around because I'm enjoying the class, it's important to bear in mind that I'm your teacher and you are my students. We have an important duty to perform together—your education!—and we need to make that the highest priority in everything we do, especially writing.

Because I have to evaluate your writing for a grade, it's best if you are not too casual when you write, for the simple reason I need to know exactly what you have learned in order to assess your efforts fairly. Precision is, in fact, crucial in everything we do in this class—after all, you're expecting me to give you correct dates, names, and places, aren't you?—and that extends to employing precise language, too. Since informal expressions are usually imprecise, they do us little good here, so it's best to keep them to a minimum.

What is "informal" language? Mostly, I mean slang, humor and sarcasm. If you say, "The pyramids are so rad!" or "Augustus was a total wimp, dude!," what exactly am I to make of that? While I appreciate your enthusiasm—please don't lose that!—I need to know, in this context especially, what you've learned. Common informalities seen in student papers include "a lot," "a (little) bit" and "get." All in all, it's important that your writing be precise, since I can't grade something when I don't understand what's being said.

For much the same reason, your writing assignments in this class are not a very good arena for jokes or stand-up comedy either. In general, humor tends to fall flat on the pages of history. Please save the jokes for a different party, bro!

Sarcasm is even more of a problem, because it says the opposite of what the writer actually means. For instance, when I read, as I recently did, that "Greek women were not exactly looked up to, you know!," I find myself wondering exactly what this student does know. That is, how exactly were ancient Greek women looked to? Does this student mean, in fact, they were looked down on because they were all really short? Or, were they simply not worth looking at because they all had warts? Too often sarcasm ends up making a "non-statement" (see #4 below). That is, it just doesn't say anything meaningful.

The basic problem with humor, slang and sarcasm in this type of writing stems from the essential difference between spoken and written discourse. Since it is impossible, for instance, to reproduce through the written word the snarling tone in which the quote above about Greek women was probably meant to be delivered, the statement ends up adding little or nothing to what the writer's saying. That is, to assert Greek women were "not looked up to" is about as helpful to a history paper as claiming they did not live on Mars. It's meaningless.

Abbreviations and Numbers. Here are three other features which are commonly found in informal writing and are things to avoid in academic prose:

A. No abbreviations: Do not use &, w/, #, or anything found under "Iconic Symbols" on the pull-down menu of your computer! And never under any condition use "etc." If there are more items in your list, then cite them; if not, put an "and" in front of the last one and leave the "etc." out. Also, avoid "and/or." All in all, abbreviations are fine in a shopping list, but not a history paper, because they imply haste. Do you want to give your reader, especially a teacher, the impression you rushed through the preparation of your paper and didn't have the time to cite all pertinent data?

B. Numbers: Write out simple numbers, e.g. four, two hundred, one thousand, eighteenth, sixty-first. If, however, more than two words are required in writing a number, then use an arithmetic numeral (124; 2,453,799; 11:24; 407th). EXCEPTION: Always use numbers to write dates (1 A.D., 31 BCE, 476 CE), citations of passages in literature (Iliad 12.36; Hippolytus 26-89) and bibliographical references (page 34; volume 4).

C. You and Me. Formal language works best when it appears to be impersonal, driven not by opinion but fact. That entails creating distance between the reader and the writer, in that such a posture makes a statement seem more objective.

1. Among other things, objectivity precludes the use of personal pronouns like "you" and "yours" which bring reader and writer into direct contact. This also includes imperative (command) forms which imply "you." Examples of such imperative forms are "Remember how important it is . . .," "Bear in mind that this is true . . .," "Take for example . . ." and "Note the ways in which Sophocles uses character . . ."

2. For the same reason, "I/me/my" and "we/us/our" should also be avoided as much as possible.

D. Who and That/Which. The pronouns "who" and "that/which" should be employed properly. That is, say "who(m)" when you are referring to people: "Julius Caesar who (not that) conquered Gaul was a famous Roman general." Conversely, use "that" or "which" in reference to things: "Julius Caesar conquered Gaul which subsequently became a Roman province."

In sum, there's a great disadvantage to writing informally in a history or classics class, since it makes you look both casual and rushed, neither of which will help your grade. Conversely, there's a great advantage to writing formally, especially here, since formality forces you into a posture where you appear to create some distance between your own feelings and the cause you're arguing for. That's good in this case, because it puts you in a more objective stance right from the start. Objectivity—or even the mere appearance of being objective—is good in academic writing.

Moreover, it's my experience that, if I write formally, I think formally too. Where sound critical judgment is at a premium, we should do everything we can to form the sanest, soberest opinions possible, even if they only look that way. It's all part of learning to speak and listen to each other with respect.

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The General Tone of Your Writing


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