Past Tense (PT)

When you are writing about the past, use the past tense consistently.

Use the past tense to write about the past. You should only use the present tense in a historical essay when you are writing about the present. Note that your historical interpretation itself is taking place in the present; so it may be appropriate to write that evidence “suggests” a particular conclusion.

Wrong: The coming of World War II finally ends the Great Depression.

Right: The coming of World War II finally ended the Great Depression.

***

Wrong: Thomas Jefferson says that “all men are created equal,” and this principle helped inspire the American Revolution.

Right: Thomas Jefferson said that “all men are created equal,” and this principle helped inspire the American Revolution.

Comment: Although it is technically acceptable to write “Thomas Jefferson says,” because you are writing about a text that exists in the present, this use of the “historical present” does not work well in historical writing–it will lead to unnecessary and confusing tense switching.

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Integrate Quotations (IQ)

All quotations must be properly integrated into your own sentences.

When using quotations to provide evidence or examples, you must connect them to your own sentences. This connection is necessary to help the reader see both the source of the quotation and your reason for using it. (The relationship between your own words and a quotation should be immediately apparent; readers should not have to look for the citation or footnote.)

Short quotations can often be integrated directly into your own sentences, but quotations that include a new grammatical subject or that consist of more than one independent clause must be set off with a colon. You cannot incorporate a multi-sentence quotation into the syntax of your own sentence. It just doesn’t work! Even putting aside the rules of grammar and syntax, you need to introduce quotations in order to use them effectively to support your points. A quotation dropped into your prose from out of nowhere is confusing rather than helpful.

Wrong: Powhatan’s famous daughter was not the infatuated girl from Disney’s version of the story. “Pocahontas was a dutiful child who fulfilled a very traditional function in Native politics and diplomacy.”

Right: Powhatan’s famous daughter was not the infatuated girl from Disney’s version of the story. As Daniel Richter argued in Facing East from Indian Country, “Pocahontas was a dutiful child who fulfilled a very traditional function in Native politics and diplomacy.”

Comment: In the wrong version, the source of the quotation is unclear. The purpose of quoting a secondary source is to supply evidence or an especially insightful idea. To achieve the intended effect, the quotation must come from an apparent and reliable source.

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Wrong: In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln noted the surprising length and severity of the Civil War, “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.”

Right: In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln noted the surprising length and severity of the Civil War: “Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease.”

Comment: Notice that the wrong version creates a comma splice, because the first comma is followed by an independent clause without an intervening conjunction (see SENT). Furthermore, the syntax collapses, because the multiple independent clauses of the quotation are erroneously inserted into the syntax of the primary clause.

***

For more help with integrating quotations into your writing, see section 41 of the Pocket Style Manual and chapter 7 of the Pocket Guide to Writing in History.

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Gender-Inclusive Language (GIL)

Use gender-inclusive language when appropriate.

Avoid using language that apparently excludes women when you actually mean to include them. Use humanity or humankind instead of man or mankind. Do not use he or him or his to refer to a generic person. Instead, alternate male and female pronouns, use both pronouns together, or switch to a plural construction. (But do not use s/he, which is a non-word, or she/he, which is clumsy.) Please note that in some cases, you would be distorting the past by using gender-inclusive language. If you are writing about American voters in the 1830s, for instance, it would be misleading to write about men and women casting ballots.

For more help with this issue, see section 9d of the Pocket Style Manual.

Wrong: In order to become a full member of the congregation, a Puritan had to tell about his conversion experience.

Right: In order to become a full member of the congregation, a Puritan had to tell about his or her conversion experience.

Right: In order to become full members of the congregation, Puritans had to tell about their conversion experiences.

Wrong: In order to become a full member of the congregation, a Puritan had to tell their conversion story.

Comment: Their is a plural pronoun. Do not use it when referring to a singular noun or pronoun (in this case, Puritan).

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Complete Sentences (SENT)

Every sentence must be a complete sentence, with an independent clause consisting of both a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb).

Sentence-level errors will frustrate your readers, forcing them to stop to retrace their steps in order to figure out what you really meant to say. Notice the effect of the following error on your reading process:

The Aztecs conquered many peoples and established a tributary system, under Aztec power the subordinate villages paid tribute in the form of corn and other valuable items.

After reading the initial independent clause—the words leading up to the comma—you might naturally have expected that under would have begun a prepositional phrase modifying the word system. The sentence would have been fine, if it had proceeded as follows:

The Aztecs conquered many peoples and established a tributary system, under which subordinate villages paid tribute in the form of corn and other valuable items.

Instead, the original sentence violates basic rules of punctuation and syntax by splicing together two independent clauses with a comma, thus creating a RUN-ON SENTENCE. The original sentence above, then, would stymie careful readers, requiring them to reread the sentence while mentally correcting the error.

Our rules about punctuating sentences exist for a very good reason: the human mind does not easily cope with syntactical indeterminacy. The only way to makes sense of such a sentence is to go back to the beginning and start over.

Below are a few more examples of common sentence-level errors.

Wrong: Although the United States entered the Great War in 1917.

Right: Although the United States entered the Great War in 1917, the conflict actually began in 1914.

Comment: Notice that the wrong version would be a complete sentence without although. With although at the beginning, however, the clause is no longer independent—it is a FRAGMENT.

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Wrong: Abraham Lincoln, writing a great speech, called the Gettysburg address.

Right: Abraham Lincoln wrote a great speech called the Gettysburg Address.

Comment: This error also creates a FRAGMENT. Notice that there are verb forms in the wrong version (writing and called), but they do not function as predicates.

***

Wrong: The Populist Party grew rapidly during the early 1890s, it lost its strength after backing the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896.

Right: The Populist Party grew rapidly during the early 1890s, but it lost its strength after backing the Democratic presidential candidate in 1896.

Comment: This serious problem is known as a COMMA SPLICE. The two parts of the sentences are both independent clauses, and they must either be joined by a comma and a conjunction (but, in the right version) or separated by a period or semicolon.

***

Comment: Please note that however is not a conjunction. If you use however in place of but, as in the first example below, you create a COMMA SPLICE.

Wrong: I enjoy visiting the zoo, however I am afraid to set foot in the reptile house.

Right: I enjoy visiting the zoo, but I am afraid to set foot in the reptile house.

Right: I enjoy visiting the zoo; I do not, however, set foot in the reptile house.

***

For more help with sentence errors, see sections 14 and 15 of the Pocket Style Manual, which includes multiple suggestions for identifying and repairing fragments and run-ons.

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Robert Ingersoll, “The Divided Household of Faith” (1888)

Reading: Ingersoll, “Divided Household of Faith

Robert Ingersoll (1833-1899) was the most prominent American freethinker of the 19th century. He was a very popular (if scandalous) lecturer, and he spoke in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States during the 1880s and 1890s. In his youth, Ingersoll had been influenced by Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, as well as by many other writers and intellectuals (he read widely). He also revered the work of Charles Darwin. Because of his studies, he came to reject many of the beliefs of Christianity, which he condemned as an absurdity. He declared himself an “agnostic,” by which he meant that he claimed no knowledge of any supernatural reality. (See the last two sections of his essay, “Why I am an Agnostic.”) Like many other critics of orthodox Christianity, Ingersoll promoted a humanistic ethic, judging actions or policies right or wrong based upon their impact on human beings, rather than on their accordance with religious rules.

In the “The Divided Household of Faith,” Ingersoll criticized the American churches for failing to come to terms with the new discoveries of science (especially astronomy, geology, and biology) and with the (relatively) new moral consensus regarding such issues as slavery.

I see several main questions to ask of this text:

  1. How did Ingersoll criticize Christian beliefs? What beliefs in particular did he go after?
  2. What attitude did Ingersoll adopt towards science?
  3. How might Ingersoll’s beliefs compare and contrast with pragmatism?
  4. What positive beliefs did Ingersoll express here? (By positive, I mean beliefs that go beyond the negative points of his criticism.)

It’s also worth noting that Ingersoll’s father was a Presbyterian (albeit a liberal Presbyterian), and that he grew up in a quite Christian region of upstate New York and went on to serve in the Civil War. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William James, then, he was to a certain extent rejecting the truisms of the culture from which he emerged.

Proofread (PRF)

Proofread to eliminate errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. (PRF)

Proofreading errors include not only obvious spelling errors but also other basic mistakes such as confusing to and too or its and it’s, using improper capitalization, and misusing punctuation, especially apostrophes, semicolons, and colons. Misplaced and dangling modifiers also count as proofreading errors. For help, see the guidelines in the Pocket Style Manual on grammar, punctuation, and mechanics. See also the American Heritage Book of English Usage, which has a handy glossary.

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