A short guide

Introduction. Most of the essays in English Language will not ask you to devise your own theories, but to understand and apply other people’s terms and ideas and to arrive at your own assessments of them. What is original is how you interpret the ideas, or how to apply them, or your critique of these ideas. You will therefore be judged on how well you have done these things.

Relevance. You need, first of all, to identify what kind of an essay you have been asked to write – is it

·         to analyse or describe a phenomenon?

·         to discuss or evaluate a theory, approach, or finding?

·         to argue for or against a theory or approach?

·         to apply a theory or approach to a particular situation?

It is simply not acceptable to put down all you know about a topic. Plan your essay so that only what is needed is put down.

Clarity, coherence, and organisation. You must plan and write your essay so that your reader can understand your points clearly. This means you have to use clear language, and explain any claims you make. It is important that your reader should grasp your main point(s) at the end of your essay. To help your reader, you should say what the point of your essay is in the introduction and conclusion of your essay. You can also help your reader along by using appropriate connectors — like however, similarly, on the other hand — to show how all your subpoints are related.

Referencing. Some concepts and ideas are accepted by the academic community of linguists as a whole, and need not be attributed to particular people. Most theories and ideas in English Language studies, however, are not agreed upon by consensus, but have been proposed by particular individuals. When you refer to these theories, you must say who they ‘belong to’, by referring to the documentary source of the idea. There are three main reasons for doing this:

·         If you acknowledge your sources, you tutor can see which are your own ideas and give you credit for them. If you do not acknowledge your sources, you give the impression that these ideas are yours, and might lead to an accusation of plagiarism, for which you will be heavily penalised.

·         Some terms have been used differently by different people; it helps your reader if you mention your source, so that it will be clear whose use of the term you are referring to.

·         Different people writing on the same topic might disagree. If you do not say that these opposing views come from different sources, you might give the impression that you are contradicting yourself.

When you refer to what someone else has written you may either quote it or paraphrase it. If you want to quote something of two lines or less, use inverted commas:

Aitchison notes that in the child’s development of language ‘direct teaching seems to be a failure’ (Aitchison 1976: 74).

Please note the position of the full stop after the reference. If you want to quote something longer than two lines, you should begin a new line, and indent it about ˝ inch (about 1.3 centimetres) from the margin. At the end of the quotation, put down the writer’s surname, the publication year, and the page(s) from which the quotation is taken.

Dick Leith also refers to ‘British Black English’, which he describes as

the [variety] used by descendants of West Indian immigrants who were born in English cities and towns such as London, Manchester, Bristol, Bedford, and the West Midland conurbation which includes Birmingham and Wolverhampton. (Leith 1987: 307)

Note that quotations should not stand independently, but be integrated grammatically within your own sentence. This might mean you will have to alter the form of the word used in the quotation (eg the tense) or even alter the word (eg use a lexical word instead of a pronoun) for the sake of clarity. You can indicate that you have done this by using square brackets. (See above.) Please also note the position of the full stop from the quotation, before the reference. This is one of the differences between the non-block style quotation and the block style quotation.

Warning on plagiarism.
The following constitutes plagiarism:

·         using attributable ideas without acknowledgement;

·         copying of sentences or passages from one or more sources without acknowledgement;

·         closely paraphrasing sentences from your sources or from another student’s work without acknowledgement; or

·         handing in another student’s essay.

The Department takes a very strong view of this, and the policy is that all plagiarised work will be failed. The Department will report serious cases to the Dean for more drastic disciplinary action.

Bibliography (Reference List). At the end of your essay, you should include a bibliography; this is a list of all the books and articles you have consulted for your essay, arranged alphabetically. If you quote a lecturer or lecture notes, ‘lecture notes’ should not appear in the bibliography. You should simply put the lecturer’s name in brackets after the quotation or paraphrase. Titles of books and journals are normally underlined or italicised; titles of articles and dissertations/theses can be put within inverted commas. Items in the bibliography should take the following form (take note of the punctuation, and where italicisation is used):

For books: [Surname], [Initial(s)] [(Year)] [Title] ([City/town of publication]: [Publisher]).
McArthur, T (1998) The English languages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

For articles in journals: [Surname], [Initial(s)] [(Year)] [‘Article title’], [Journal title] [Volume], [Issue]: [Page numbers].
McWhorter, J H (1995) ‘The scarcity of Spanish-based creoles explained’, Language in Society 24, 2: 213–44.

For articles in books: [Surname of article writer], [Initial(s)] [(Year)] [‘Title of article’], in [Name/s of editor/s] (ed.) [Title of book] ([City/town of publication]: [Publisher]), pp. [Page numbers].
Haynes, J (1989) ‘Metre and discourse’, in R Carter and P Simpson (eds.) Language, Discourse and Literature (London: Unwin Hyman), pp. 234–56.

For web pages or web sites: [Surname of author], [Initial(s)] [(Year)] [‘Title of Web page’], available from [URL], ([access date]). If the name of the author is unavailable, you can omit it. If the year is not included on the page, right-click your mouse and select View Info; this should give you the date when the document was last modified.
Barth, J I (1997) ‘The Importance of a “Pure” Eurasian Identity To Singapore's Multiracial National’, available from (accessed: 30 July 2000)

Note that the quality of material available from the Web can be very variable, and the rule of thumb is that more weight should be given to material in book or article form.

Language. Check your essay for errors in grammar and punctuation, and for any lack of clarity in expression. In particular, pay attention to:

      tense: use the present tense to refer to arguments and theories advocated by someone who is already dead (eg, ‘Saussure makes a distinction between “langue” and “parole”.’). Use the past tense only when there is good reason to do so (eg, describing the procedure of an experiment, describing historical events – eg, ‘The Normans invaded Britain in 1066’).

      concord: make sure that there is subject-verb agreement, etc.

      punctuation: when you cite words, terms and forms, they should be set apart somehow – eg use inverted commas or underlining or italics. Use square brackets for phonetic transcriptions, oblique signs for phonemic transcriptions, and angled brackets for graphemic symbols (eg ‘the phoneme /t/ in English, normally spelt <t>, has the allophones [t]  and [t h]’).

      spelling: spelling should normally conform to British conventions (as represented in, say, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). Most word-processing software comes with a spelling checker. Do make use of this facility, after you have selected the appropriate language. In Word 2003 or Word 2007, you should select the whole text (shortcut: press <Ctrl>+<A> together), then either, in Word 2003, click on <Tools> then select <Language> then select <Set Language> then select <English(UK)> or, in Word 2007, click on <Review>, go to the <Proofing> box and click on <Set Language> then select <English(UK)>.  

Style and Tone. Good style is important; you need to put down your ideas effectively; pay attention to your sentence structure and your choice of words. If in doubt, do consult a dictionary.

Most essay topics also encourage you to give an opinion. There is no need to write ‘I think’, or ‘in my opinion’, because we assume as much. There is no general prohibition of the use of the first person singular, but many students are understandably humble. Aim at a modest, but firm tone.

Many students believe that they should agree with their tutors’ or lecturers’ opinions – or at least, that it pays to do so. Tutors can vary widely in the readiness and vigour with which students express these opinions. However, it is your opinion that we seek; we expect it to be well informed, clearly expressed and supported by evidence and argument.

When you have written you essay, your tutor might make use of some proofreaders’ marks on the text of your essay. If you have never seen proofreaders’ marks, have a look at this document: proofreaders’ marks. Alternatively, go to Conrad’s reference of proof correction marks ( and click on the relevant link; this is based on the new British standard (BS 5261).

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