Single-page handout for students preparing to write historical essays

Common Usage Problems

Especially in Historical Essays

”.—In American (unlike British) English, a comma or period at the end of a quotation should be placed inside (to the left of) the closing quotation marks.

!—Exclamation marks tell the reader how to feel rather than convey information that might create thoughts and feelings naturally. It is best to avoid them in formal writing.

and yetYet will do.

base off of, build off, focus in on, center around—Things are based, built, focused, or centered on.

changed forever, would never be the same—These clichés tend to be vague, false, or melodramatic.

dictionary defines [word] as—This is a notorious cliché in student essays. It usually looks like a cheap way to add length.

feel that—Thoughts are not feelings. You do not feel like something is true; you think it is.

females—Unless you are writing about agricultural stock, you probably mean women.

firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc.—Use first (or second, third, etc.) instead.

instill—This means “infuse,” not “install” or “disseminate.” Use it cautiously.

irregardless—Use regardless to avoid a double negative.

man, mankind—Avoid writing about “men” when you are referring to humans in general. (Granted, using men to mean "people" has been common in history. Another thing that has been common in history is sexism.)

negro, colored, Oriental—Although you may encounter these old terms in a history course, they often have very disrespectful overtones now and should not appear in your writing except in direct quotations. (People of color may be appropriate, however.)

not un-—This double negative produces wordy and cowardly sentences. It is not unbetter to say what you mean in a direct way.

novel—A novel is a book-length work of fiction. Nonfiction books are never novels.

people that—Use who, not that, for people.

put in place—This is a vague and overused phrase. There are better alternatives.

quote—This is a verb. The noun is quotation.

reason is becauseBecause means “for the reason that,” so this is redundant.

similar yet different—This is redundant. If two things are similar (instead of identical), they are already different.

throughout history, since the dawn of time, etc.—Formulas like this are clichés in historical writing, and they are almost always false as well. Very few things have been the same throughout history.

transformation, change, development, evolution, modernization—By themselves, these are vague terms. Change is everywhere. It is best to be more specific about the kinds of change you are discussing.

utilize—This means to make something useful, not to use something that is already useful. Use is generally better.