This week and next week we’re going to address two types of punctuation that you’re likely to need in academic writing at some point: ellipsis points and a few types of dashes. I confess, I was going to make this just about dashes, and then the idea for the post title came to me, and I just had to include the dots too. In the interest of consistency and order, I’ll start with dots—that is, ellipsis points.
Whatchoo talkin’ about, Willis? These: . . .
When to use them: They came up briefly last week, and the context covered then is the main context in which an ellipsis is going to be used in academic writing: for showing that content from a quotation was not included.
Ex.: “New York and Los Angeles are the two largest cities in the United States. . . . There was something else interesting my source said about them, but it wasn’t important enough to leave in, so I took it out and replaced it with those three dots over there.”
When not to use them: I (and others I know) have a bad habit of using ellipses in casual online real-time chat and text messages, usually when a period or semicolon would have been correct. If you share this habit of mine, keep it to the casual chat and don’t let it seep into your formal writing; it doesn’t belong there. You also might pick up a casual habit of using ellipses to suggest a pause or introduce a change in direction or tone. As effective as this technique can be in informal communication, it is also not an appropriate use for formal academic writing.
Last week I wrote about how to treat quotations with respect to the content of your lit review. This post is more about basic mechanical aspects.
Quotations that aren’t being presented as block quotes (we’ll get to those in a second) are opened with quotation marks. That much is pretty intuitive, but the hard part is at the end. It can be tricky to remember the correct order for the various elements that fall at the close of a quotation that you’re citing parenthetically, but the order is as follows:
“Here is an example” (Popielinski 2015, 1).
That particular parenthetical reference is in Chicago style. APA would use “(Popielinski, 2015, p. 1),” and MLA would use “(Popielinski 1).”
In-text versus block quotes
Most styles that govern your writing will have a rule or guideline as to how long a quotation needs to be before it gets set off as a block quote rather than appearing in the text with quotation marks around it, what’s called a “run-in” quote. For APA, it’s forty words. With Chicago, it’s five lines, and with MLA, it’s four. In all three, the punctuation differs a little from how it appears as a run-in quote.
A surprisingly difficult part of learning to write for an academic audience is how to quote other authors effectively. In my experience, some writers simply have an ear for it and have no trouble incorporating their source material into their analyses. But many others struggle with applying the text and ideas of others in a way that doesn’t feel awkward or mechanized and that moves their own ideas forward.
Here is a set of approaches, encapsulated in the easy-to-remember abbreviation AC/DC, to help you strengthen your use of other authors in your writing.
How many quotations are too many? And how much material should you be quoting from each? The conventions for this will vary according to your field and the type of publication you’re writing or writing for. I have read literature reviews that were made up 40–60% of direct quotations, and I would say that in most cases this is far too much. However, the graduate students’ professors had instructed them to provide this quote load, and in those cases, following professors' requirements is much like working with a house style guide in that there's probably a reason for the rule (though we may never know or understand that reason) and so you just go with it.
Some modern languages have a gender-neutral pronoun for human beings, and others, like English, do not. The first country I’m aware of that has introduced a gender-neutral pronoun into its language in a deliberate manner is Sweden. The pronoun “hen” has been in use in Swedish long enough that the Swedish Academy has added it to the latest edition of its dictionary, which will be available on the 15th of this month.
This should be leading English language lovers and professionals to wonder why we haven’t managed to do the same yet and how far off we are from doing so.
It’s not for lack of gender-neutral pronoun options. On the contrary, the surplus of options is more likely to blame.
E, Ey, Zie, Per, Co…
…and so on. Most have their roots in a person or organization’s effort to invent an option that they perhaps believed did not yet exist. If they knew of earlier gender-neutral pronouns, they must have considered them inadequate in some way. Most emerged in the 1970s or later. I can’t claim to know why each one chose to create a new pronoun instead of taking an old one and promoting its cause; the only thing certain is that they did.
One conundrum I sometimes face while editing academic writing is the question of tense and whether to use present or past when discussing previous work, as in a lit review. My own habit when I was in graduate school was to write in the present tense, but many of my clients use past, and I have wondered whether to change it or not. That is, were my own habits standard or just a style preference? or even incorrect?
The answer is, it’s largely a matter of style, particularly pertaining to the field of research. There are arguments for both present and past tense in lit reviews and other parts of a paper that address prior research. The important thing is that the writer either be consistent in his or her choice or have a particular reason for any variation.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when establishing present or past tense for an academic paper:
Are you describing concrete findings or general theoretical contributions?
This distinction is probably at the core of why I have a present tense habit in my own writing: although my background is a mix of social science and humanities, it seems the humanities have dominated my writing in this respect. When you’re describing general theoretical contributions, the kind of thing that is intended to apply broadly and into the future, the present tense will usually feel more natural (e.g., “Butler proposes…”). When the work you’re citing is an experiment or study with discrete preparation, follow-through, and conclusion segments, then past tense might be more appropriate (e.g., “the researchers found…”).
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.