5. Tips for English
Some advice for writing, structuring and layout of papers and theses
Make sure your sentences are primary sentences, containing a main verb. Avoid using secondary sentences as independent sentences, such as: “The artist did not take perspective into account. Although he knew how to.” This should be one sentence: “The artist did not take perspective into account, although he knew how to.”
Likewise, do not paste a string of primary sentences together with commas, like this: “The artist worked mainly outdoors, he had a cottage in the rural South, friends used to come and visit him there.” Use a construction with primary and secondary sentences instead (or truly separate the sentences), such as: “The artist worked mainly outdoors from his cottage in the rural South, where he would often receive friends.”
Limit the number of direct quotes to the absolutely necessary. Try and paraphrase instead, whenever this is possible and useful. Only use a direct quote if you need the exact words of the original text and if you do, make this explicit by using (double) quotation marks. Use a footnote to provide the origin of the quote.
Try to use English words and terms whenever possible. If you do need to use a word in another language, make sure to italicize it: Quattrocento, chiaroscuro.
Book titles, as well as titles of journals (but not titles of articles in journals) need to be italicized, when you use them in a text. Titles of journal articles need to be provided in single quotation marks.
Each new subject/topic/argument should be introduced in a new paragraph. A paragraph should start with a topic sentence; ideally, the reader should be able to read only the topic sentences (first sentences) of all paragraphs in the text and get a sense of the structure and main argument running through the entire text.
Separate paragraphs by using ‘hard enters’, followed by an indent on the next line, like this:
The indent is necessary, because otherwise the reader might not notice a new paragraph if the last paragraph happens to end exactly at the margin of the page.
Make sure singular/plural subjects match with singular/plural verbs: “The composition and size are important elements.”
Do not end the title of your paper, chapter or section with a full stop.
Two or three artists, eighteen or twenty artworks, 37 years; only use digits for numbers 21 or higher.
Single and double quotation marks cannot be used interchangeably: single quotation marks are used to accentuate words (and for journal articles) while double quotation marks are used for quotes.
In the sentence “After decades of being neglected, the builders started renovating the house.” the builders are the ones who have been neglected, not the house. A participle like that refers to the subject of the main sentence. A correct version would be: “After decades of being neglected, the house was finally being renovated.”
Do not confuse its and it’s (native speakers of English often make this mistake!). It’s (with apostrophe) is a contraction of two words, it is or it has. Its (without apostrophe) is a possessive pronoun and means ‘belonging to it’. This is confusing, because all other cases of possession require apostrophes: Sophie’s choice, Andreas’ parents. Be careful to distinguish between my mother’s cake (my one mother made a cake) and my mothers’ cake (my two mothers made a cake together).
Avoid repetition (of verbs, nouns, phrases etc.) in sentences and paragraphs.
Use the same tense (present or past) in main and secondary sentences.
Each page should have a page number, even the title page, although you do not print the number on that page.
Be respectful in email contact with lecturers. In the Netherlands lecturers are not commonly addressed as professors. On the Leiden University website () you can look up the titles of your lecturers. In emails, address lecturers with “Dear prof. Lammes” or “Dear dr. Bertens” (depending on their title), instead of “Hey Laura” or “Hi professor Sybille”. Refer to them as authors in your paper or thesis as: Laura Bertens and Sybille Lammes.
Do not use contracted phrases such as we’ve, don’t, he’s. Write them out as we have, do not, he is.
Avoid colloquial language, such as “an awesome idea”, “lots of people”.
Do not italicize quoted text (unless the original contains words in italics). A direct quote should always be formatted the way the original author did. If you do want to emphasize a word in the quote by italicizing it, make sure to add a note to the quote to indicate that the italics are yours (for instance “my italics” in parentheses behind the quote).
Hyphenate compound adjectives: large-scale, site-specific, self-taught, computer-assisted, three-dimensional. Be careful to distinguish between compound adjectives and combinations of adjective + noun:
- ‘a three-dimensional painting’ versus ‘a representation of three dimensions’
- ‘a twentieth-century artist’ versus ‘a famous artist of the twentieth century’
Never start a sentence with a digit. A sentence like “1970 marked a watershed for performance art.” should be rewritten: “The year 1970 marked a watershed for performance art.”
British and American English differ in spelling. Pick one of the two and be consistent. Lists of differences can be found online and spelling checks (set to the chosen version of English) can help.
Finally, one of the most contested topics in punctuation: the ‘Oxford comma’. When introducing a list, separated by commas, the last two list items are usually separated by ‘and’. The question is whether a comma needs to be added here as well.
In American the answer is yes:
“The show includes works by Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci, and Andrea Fraser.”
In British the answer is no:
“The show includes works by Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci and Andrea Fraser.”
However, there are sentences in which the Oxford comma is necessary to avoid confusion:
“I’d like to thank my parents, president Obama and God.” might lead a reader to believe you are the child of Obama and God. Including a comma will solve that problem:
“I’d like to thank my parents, president Obama, and God.”