Keys to Structure and Style
Section and page numbers refer to Diana Hacker's Bedford
Handbook, Fifth Edition
- STRUCTURE: Organization, development, sequence.
- 1. Topic sentence. Sections 4a, 4e, 55d; pp. 78-82,
- At or near the beginning of each paragraph, include a topic
sentence that states your paragraph's central argument. The topic
sentence serves as a bridge between thesis and paragraph by making
an interpretive claim that indicates how the paragraph will
support your thesis. Remember that, like a thesis, a topic
sentence must make an interpretive claim: a thesis claim guides
the paper as a whole, and the topic sentence's claim guides a
- 2. Data. Sections 55d, 7d; pp. 651-54, 163-64.
- Remember to support your argument (expressed in the topic
sentence) with quotations from the text. Include sufficient
context for your analysis. For example, a single word taken out of
context may not provide ample support; instead, show how your
example functions in the context of the larger work.
- 3. Warrant. Sections 55d, 55e; pp. 651-59.
- Link your interpretation to the quotation.
- 4. Avoid "plot summary." Section 55d, pp. 652-54.
- Don't summarize; instead, analyze. While "plot summary"
coupled with explication is one kind of paper, we will not
be writing such papers in this class.
- 5. Paragraph length. Section 4f, pp. 106-108.
- Between 100 and 200 words is a comfortable length. Just as a
sentence provides order to a group of words, a paragraph provides
order to a group of sentences. Very long paragraphs tax your
reader's ability to follow them; very short paragraphs fail to
develop your ideas fully.
- STYLE: Sentences, spelling, punctuation, grammar,
- 6. Reducing wordiness and avoiding a choppy writing
- a. Write with nouns and verbs. Sections 8b, 8c, 8d,
16; pp. 189-94, 248-56.
- To quote William Strunk and E. B. White's classic
Elements of Style (1959, 1972, 1979),
- Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and
adverbs. The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a
weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place. This is not to
disparage adjectives and adverbs; they are indispensable
parts of speech. [
] In general, however, it is
nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good
writing its toughness and color. (71-72)
- So, if a sentence has become hopelessly long or confused,
stop and restructure. Decide what its main subject and main
verb should be, and then rewrite the sentence accordingly.
- b. Prefer the active voice and favor verbs other than
"to be." Sections 14a, 28c; pp. 231-35, 386-88.
- While neither passive nor "to be" verbs are forbidden, the
active voice and verbs other than "to be" tend to make stronger
connections between ideas. The passive voice tends to obscure
the relationship between subject and object because the subject
receives the action of the verb; the active voice makes this
relationship clearer. If a politician says, "Mistakes were
made" or "Campaign contributions have been made by tobacco
companies," the language chosen deliberately makes the
sentences' causal (cause-and-effect) relationship unclear. If
we rewrite these in the active voice, the first sentence's
hidden object ("by me") becomes its subject - "I made mistakes"
- and the second sentence's object becomes its subject -
"Tobacco companies made campaign contributions." While "to be"
verbs work well if mere equivalency is your aim, stronger verbs
can forge more particular relationships between ideas. So,
compare a sentence like "The poem is boring" with "The
speaker's matter-of-fact tone emphasizes the dull, mechanical
nature of office work." Both sentences discuss boredom, but the
latter very clearly articulates its point.
- c. Use subordination and coordination for clear
transitions between ideas. Section 8, pp. 182-94.
- To quote the Bedford, "Coordinate equal ideas;
subordinate minor ideas." As a corollary, do not subordinate
the main idea of your sentence or subordinate excessively. If
you do, then the point of your sentence will get lost (see
sections 8b, c, and d).
- d. Unclear antecedent. Section 23, pp. 331-36.
- A pronoun must clearly refer to its antecedent. Although
some may have grander ambitions, pronouns usually refer to
specific nouns or noun phrases. In general, do not use a
pronoun to refer to an entire sentence or a series of ideas
(see section 23 b).
- e. Repair misplaced and dangling modifiers. Section
12, pp. 213-20.
- Place modifiers near the words they modify.
- 7. Agreement. Sections 21 & 22, pp. 308-30.
- Verbs must agree with their subjects, and pronouns must agree
with their antecedents.
- 8. Run-on sentences & comma splices. Section 20,
- Independent clauses (which can stand alone as a sentence
because they include both subject and verb) must be joined with
either a comma and conjunction or a semicolon. The
seven conjunctions are "and," "but," "or," "nor," "for," "so," and
"yet." "However," "moreover," and "nevertheless" are not
conjunctions. Trying to use a comma to join independent clauses
results in a comma splice (a bad thing): Chocolate is one of
nature's perfect foods, I eat several bars every day. Instead,
write: Chocolate is one of nature's perfect foods; I eat several
bars every day. Or, try: Chocolate is one of nature's perfect
foods, so I eat several bars every day.
- 9. Avoid sentence fragments. Section 19, pp.
- Sentence fragments lack either a subject or a verb, and
therefore cannot stand alone as a complete thought. For instance,
do not write: Dickinson's frequent use of dashes, contributing to
the poem's ambiguity. Instead, write: Dickinson's frequent use of
dashes contributes to the poem's ambiguity.
- 10. Quotation marks and punctuation. Section 37f, pp.
- When they fall adjacent to a concluding quotation mark,
periods and commas land inside of the quotation marks, but
semicolons and colons land on the outside. (Note: in Britain, this
- 11. Possessive nouns. Section 36, pp. 463-65.
- Use an apostrophe to make a noun possessive: add an apostrophe
and an "s" ('s) to a singular noun and an apostrophe to a plural
noun (') to indicate possession. Do not add an apostrophe and an
"s" to make a noun plural.
- 12. Integrate quotations. Sections 51a, 53, 39d; pp.
573-78, 585-91, 483-84.
- Introduce quotations and integrate them into your writing; the
introduction combined with the quotation must form a complete
sentence. Verbs and some nouns can be changed and replaced with
bracketed forms which match the syntax of the sentence they
complete, but use such bracketed changes sparingly. Use ellipses
) for omissions within a quotation only. For
example, Keats describes autumn as "Conspiring with [the
sun] how to load and bless / With fruit the vines
[...] round the thatch-eaves" (3-4).
- 13. Block quotations. Section 37b, p. 469.
- When quoting verse, set off quotations of four or more lines
by indenting. Do not use quotation marks. Please note: if you
quote extensively, make use of your quotation. Do not assume that
the quotation will explain itself; interpret it in support of your
- 14. Quotation marks. Section 37, pp. 468-76.
- According to standard usage in America, use double quotation
marks except for a quotation within a quotation. So, use
single quotation marks only when a quotation falls
within other quotation marks.
- 15. Use the MLA citation method. Sections 53a & b,
- 16. Distinguish between the dash (- or --) and the hyphen
(-). Sections 39a, 44; pp. 480-81, 509-13.
- A dash can be used to set off an appositives (phrases that
rename nouns or pronouns). For example, after the election, the
senator - himself the subject of several Ethics Committee
investigations - became the new Chair of the Ethics Committee. In
contrast, a hyphen is most frequently used to make compound words:
The president's addle-brained assistants bungled the job.
- 17. Referring to books, plays, movies, poems, etc.
Sections 37d, 42; pp. 471, 495-96.
- Use quotation marks with all short works (magazine articles,
poems, short stories, songs, TV episodes, chapters). Underline or
italicize the titles of long or complete works (books, plays,
movies, magazine titles, book-length poems).
- 18. Write about literature using the present tense.
Sections 13b, 55e; pp. 226, 656.
- Fictional action occurs in a "literary present." While using
the literary present, you may use a past tense to refer to
something which happened earlier in the text.
- Revised January 1999.