This is not a comprehensive style guide; rather, it focuses on the most common problems I have found in student writing. Sections A and B give general tips on how to write a paper (esp. a philosophy paper). Sections C-F list common errors.
1: Common views of incest
2: Failed arguments for the common view
2.1: The argument from birth defects
2.2: The argument from emotional harm
3: The virtues of incest
4: Objections and replies
Bad: The question as to whether fish can experience pain is an important one. [13 words]
Ok: Whether fish experience pain is important. [6 words]
Bad: It has not often been the case that any mistake has been made. [13 words]
Ok: Few mistakes were made. [4 words](2)
Bad: Rights are related to obligations.
Bad: Rights imply obligations.
Ok: If someone has the right to do A, then others have the obligation not to stop him from doing A.
Bad: I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.
Bad: I utilized a fork to ingest my comestibles.
Ok: I used a fork to eat.
Bad: Clocks usually tell the time of day. As such, an appeal to a clock may be used to support a belief about the time of day.
Ok: Clocks usually tell the time of day. Therefore, an appeal to a clock may be used to support a belief about the time of day.
Ok: W is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As such, he can order bombings of other countries. [The last sentence means: As commander-in-chief, he can order bombings, etc.]
Bad: Being that I just had a tofu sandwich, I am no longer hungry.
Ok: Since I just had a tofu sandwich, I am no longer hungry.
Bad: My car lost one of it’s wheels on the freeway.
Ok: My car lost one of its wheels on the freeway.
Bad: Their sure that there cat is still they’re.
Ok: They’re sure that their cat is still there.
Bad: He should make the argument for sense-data without referencing physical objects.
Ok: He should make the argument for sense data without mentioning physical objects.
Ok: He referenced his colleague’s work.
Bad: I believe the
last step in the argument— Ok:
I believe the last step in the argument—
I believe the last step in the argument—
Ok: We discovered an interesting phenomenon.
Ok: We discovered many interesting phenomena.
Bad: Russell thinks that when you look at a table, all you see is a sense data.
Ok: Russell thinks that when you look at a table, all you see is a sense datum.
Ok: Russell thinks that when you look at a table, sense data are all you see.
Bad: Whose reality is true?
Ok: Whose beliefs are true?
Bad: There are many different realities.
Ok: There are many different beliefs.
Bad: To the medievals, it was true that the sun went around the earth. But to us, this is not true.
Ok: The medievals believed that the sun went around the Earth, but we do not believe this.
Ok: The medievals believed that the sun went around the Earth, but that is not true.
Bad: Are you inferring that I had something to do with the assassination?
Ok: Are you implying that I had something to do with the assassination?
Bad: Back in the middle ages, everyone knew the sun went around the Earth.
Ok: Back in the middle ages, everyone thought the sun went around the Earth.
Bad: Clinton refuted charges that he had sex with Monica.
Ok: Clinton denied that he had sex with Monica.
Bad: Hume’s argument is based off of three premises.
Ok: Hume’s conclusion is based on three premises.
Bad: Determinism is reliant on two definitions.
Ok: There are two definitions of determinism.
Bad: The state of the world at any point in time is reliant on the second before.
Ok: The state of the world at any point in time depends on the state of the world the second before.
Bad: Dennett argues compatibilism.
Bad: To argue this, he uses an analogy of a chess-playing computer.
Ok: Dennett defends compatibilism.
Ok: Dennett argues that free will is compatible with determinism. To argue for this, he uses an analogy involving a chess-playing computer.
Bad: Honderich said that “there is no experimental evidence in a standard sense that there are any [quantum events],”(3) which begs the question of what he thinks “experimental evidence in the standard sense” is.
Ok: Jon argued that we should believe the Bible because it is the word of God, and we know it is the word of God because the Bible says it is the word of God. This argument begs the question.
All pages numbered
A staple in the corner
12 point font
Robert Nozick writes:
“Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor. Some persons find this claim obviously true: taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose.” (Nozick 1974, 169)
Ok: Robert Nozick writes:
Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor. Some persons find this claim obviously true: taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose.(4)
Articles: Author, “Article Title,” Journal Title volume # (year): pages of the article, page where they said the thing you’re discussing. Example (note punctuation):
Michael Huemer and Ben Kovitz, “Causation as Simultaneous and Continuous,” Philosophical Quarterly 53 (2003): 556-65, p. 564.
Books: Author, Title of Book (City of publication: publisher, year), page where they said the thing you’re discussing. Example:
Michael Huemer, Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 110-11.
Use the following abbreviations for U.S. states (not the postal
Bad: Nozick compares taxation to forced labor(p.169).
Ok: Nozick compares taxation to forced labor (p. 169).
Ok: Hare’s definition is too narrow (it makes some physical facts “subjective”), while Adams’ is too broad (it makes everything “objective”).
Ok: In the weak sense, to undertake an obligation is, roughly, to purport to place oneself under an obligation. (The exact analysis is not important here.)
Bad: “The past consistency...calls for some explanation...”
Ok: “The past consistency . . . calls for some explanation. . . .”
Bad: Our inalienable rights- to life, liberty, and handguns-are under constant attack by liberal sissies.
Ok: Our inalienable rights--to life, liberty, and handguns--are under constant attack by liberal sissies.
Ok: Unger’s celebrated paper, “Why There Are No People,” first appeared in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, volume IV.
Bad: Scientists use experiments to “prove” the “truth” of their theories.
Ok: Scientists use experiments to prove the truth of their theories.
Ok: Scientists use experiments to try to prove their theories.
Bad: Carrying a mouse in its mouth, John saw the cat enter the room.
Bad: While unable to master grammar, the English teacher had to explain the use of adverb phrases to me again.
Bad: By using this premise, it makes Hume's argument more plausible.
Ok: John saw the cat enter the room carrying a mouse in its mouth.
Ok: Since I could not master grammar, the English teacher had to explain the use of adverb phrases to me again.
Ok: By using this premise, Hume makes his argument more plausible.
Bad: We had no alcohol. We also did not have drugs.
Ok: We had neither alcohol nor drugs.
Bad: Guns are for family protection, to hunt dangerous or delicious animals, and keep the King of England out of your face.
Ok: Guns are for protecting your family, hunting dangerous or delicious animals, and keeping the King of England out of your face.
Ok: The purpose of guns is to protect your family, hunt dangerous or delicious animals, and keep the King of England out of your face.(6)
His theoretical errors, however, would not have mattered so much but for the fact that, like Tertullian and Carlyle, his chief desire was to see his enemies punished, and he cared little what happened to his friends in the process.
I might quote this as follows:
Ok: Russell writes:
[Marx’s] theoretical errors . . . would not have mattered so much but for the fact that . . . his chief desire was to see his enemies punished, and he cared little what happened to his friends in the process.(7)
I insert “Marx’s” in place of “His” so readers who can’t see the context know whom Russell was talking about. I use square brackets to indicate that this is my insertion/substitution. I use ellipses where I omitted unnecessary words. (Obviously, do not omit anything whose omission changes the meaning of the passage.)
Bad: It is not often necessary to use the expression “the case.”
Ok: The expression “the case” is rarely needed.
Bad: In this paper, I will attempt to defend moral realism.
Ok: In this paper, I defend moral realism.
Bad: My speculations on this score are at best the roughest approximations to the truth. Still, I try sketching a naturalistic picture of human normative life, and enough in it coheres and fits the phenomena to make me think the truth may lie somewhere in its vicinity.(8)
Ok: The naturalistic picture of normative life that I sketch is probably approximately correct.
Bad: My claim is that x. If I am right, then it follows that y.
Ok: x. Therefore, y.
Bad: It could be said that it is a fact about the world that clocks usually tell the time of day.
Ok: Clocks usually tell the time of day.
Bad: Testimony is not sufficient enough to defeat a perceptual belief.
Ok: Testimony is not sufficient to defeat a perceptual belief.
Bad: It may be possible to rephrase this sentence more concisely. [This means, “It is possible that it is possible to rephrase this sentence more concisely.”]
Ok: It is possible to rephrase this sentence more concisely.
Ok: This sentence can be phrased more concisely.
Bad: That people exist has been denied by Peter Unger.
Ok: Peter Unger has denied that people exist.
I believe we have free will, but I don’t really know anything about it.
[Then why would I care what you think?]
I am not claiming that my argument establishes the reality of free will.
[Then why did you make me waste my time reading it?]
Obviously, I have conclusively refuted direct realism.
[The unlikeliness of your having done this undermines your credibility.]
Ok: I have given grounds for preferring representationalism over direct realism.
Bad: Such generalizing nonsense needs to be put in its place.(9)
Ok: This objection is fallacious.
A classic little book of advice on composition, commonly used in college writing courses.
A brilliant guide for web authors. Much of it applies just as well to print writing.
The best-known authority on matters of style, including punctuation, grammar, formatting of books, and so on.
Another well-known style manual. Cheaper than Chicago, but less comprehensive.
Long list of word usage errors. Also discusses some non-errors (such as splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions).