English Literature Essay Manual [PDF 370.72KB]

English Literature Essay Manual [PDF 370.72KB]



Guide to

Planning and

Writing Essays and




Please keep this manual in a safe place. It contains essential information.





The English Manual has been prepared to give you basic information on the planning and writing of your essays, on using the styles of reference and of citation preferred by the School of English and on avoiding the most common errors in undergraduate writing.

It also contains guidance on planning and writing your third year dissertation.

You will want to consult this again when you are planning your final dissertations.

Your tutors will give you feedback on all your written work. If you think you need extra help with your written work, please discuss this with your tutor, during your tutor’s office hour or by email.

There are a number of study-guides you might wish to buy:

Phyllis Creme and Mary R.Lea:

Writing at University: A Guide for Students


University Press, 2003);

Peter Elbow:

Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process

(Oxford University Press, 1998);


Mind the Gaffe: the Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English

(Penguin, 2001);


The Penguin Guide to Punctuation

(Penguin, 2004);

Lynne Truss:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

(Profile, 2003).

All students of English Literature should possess and use a substantial dictionary of the English language, to check usage and spelling. It is not sufficient to rely upon spell-check. The library contains a number of useful dictionaries, including the complete Oxford English Dictionary. [You can also access the Oxford English

Dictionary via the web.] We recommend for purchase the

Concise Oxford English



Plagiarism & Academic Misconduct

The University takes the issue of plagiarism and collusion seriously. Penalties will be applied to any student found committing these offences. The Sussex University website provides detailed information specifically dealing with plagiarism and collusion, including the following topics -


Definitions of plagiarism and collusion;

examples of plagiarism;

advice on how plagiarism can be avoided;

a student checklist to prevent plagiarism;

the penalties applicable for those found guilty of misconduct;

 online exercises to test students’ understanding of plagiarism.

The Sussex University plagiarism web pages can be found at:

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/academicoffice/1-4-1-2-1.html and http://www.sussex.ac.uk/academicoffice/1-4-1-2.html


Planning Your Essay


Always make a clear and attractive attempt to engage interest from the start. Set out your stall in the opening paragraph and make the goods look tempting. You may not be able to do this immediately when you start writing but do not worry if you go back to your opening paragraph when you have reached the end of your essay. In fact, we recommend you go back to your opening paragraph and substantially revise it. In some ways, your essay is a story. Ideally, you want to be making a claim - something which you believe is plausible and which you wish to defend. This creates a dynamic to your essay. It also gives plenty of scope to deploy evidence which supports your claim and to examine evidence which might be adduced against it.

Here are some suggestions about planning your essay. We all have different ways of going about this but you may find the following useful:

Have a working title. You can change this if your essay has developed in a different direction but remember that

your reader will expect your essay to be a relevant and persuasive argument directly related to your title


Prepare an outline plan by thinking about the texts or the theories you wish to appeal to and the examples from your texts you could use to illustrate them.

Think about your attitude to the texts, theories, examples and arguments you have encountered during your course. Use these to help you form



Think also about the ways in which concepts you have encountered in courses you have already taken may be helpful in constructing and pursuing your argument.

Remember you need to analyse and evaluate. It will probably be useful to consider different theoretical perspectives and compare and contrast them and give your views based on this.

Be prepared to show a critical attitude to the literary texts you have read and the discussions/arguments you have encountered about them.

Read and take notes for the content of your essay, the critical approach you will adopt and the examples from texts you want to use to illustrate your argument.

Remember that you will receive credit for close and deft analysis of the form, style and language of the texts you discuss; but do not make your quotations too long. If you do use a long quotation, try to break it up and always reflect back on it so that it plays an active part in your argument


Decide on the sequence of your argument and begin to write each concept/idea as a paragraph. (The average number of paragraphs to a page is about 2.5.

Between two and four is fine. More than four paragraphs to a page probably means your links are poor.) If your paragraphs are too long, they probably contain more than one idea and would benefit from being divided.


Group paragraphs together in a logical order, check the links and see whether sub-headings are helpful. This may be useful if you are using the pattern 'description

I, analysis I, textual analysis 1, description II, analysis II, textual analysis 11'.

Check your word limit. Are you within about 80% of the total? (Remember the introduction and conclusion need about 20%.) If you are satisfied, write the conclusion.

Start editing.

Make sure that you have written complete sentences, well constructed paragraphs, with accurate punctuation and flawless spelling. Use your spell check and your dictionary [there is no excuse for poor spelling and you will be penalised for this].

Check that your references and quotations are properly acknowledged. Make sure that you have given titles, names of authors, names of characters and places correctly.

Nothing undermines the authority of your work more quickly than mistakes of this kind


Make sure that both left and right hand margins are the correct size. Your tutor will need space to make comments on your work.

Check the bibliography (set out in alphabetical order).

Get another student to read your work to see if it 'makes sense'. If you are invited to present a draft to your tutor, make sure that you double space between lines and make margins big enough to allow him/her to make comments.

Try to begin each paragraph with a topic sentence because some tutors read first sentences of each paragraph to get a general idea (as well as headings, subheadings) before reading for detail.

Write the introduction. You should now know clearly what your essay argues and how it does it and what your conclusions are, so you can write an introduction which

'fits' your essay precisely and which it lives up to.

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare your essay. If you can, leave it for a day or two before final printing. Re-read it with 'fresh eyes' and you may notice that further corrections are needed. This will also give you some idea of the impression your essay will make on other readers. If your work is an extended essay or a dissertation, will it benefit from a contents page? If you do add a contents page, it will show clearly whether you have 'balance' or not and will also serve as a guide to the reader. Check for details, like long quotations (three lines or more) - are they indented, have you removed the quotation marks from those that are indented? Have you acknowledged all sources? Have you remembered page numbers?

Make a final check of your punctuation, especially the use of the apostrophe [see below].

Print out and hand in (you will normally be asked to submit 2 copies of your work)


Remember that there are severe penalties for late submission for course work so you must make sure that you plan your time well in order to meet all your deadlines


The paragraph

The paragraph is the building block of your essay as a whole. Remember that it needs to rest on what has gone before and provide support for what comes afterwards. If you move on to a completely new topic, you might wish to indicate this by using a mini-heading or by indicating that you are doing so in the first sentence of your paragraph.

It is sometimes said that every paragraph has a topic sentence. The rest of the paragraph is a series of sentences which are extensions of that topic sentence. Your extensions will probably be various pieces of evidence in support of your topic sentence. Make sure you are not just stringing quotes or facts together. Instead, tie them to your argument and show how they support what you are saying.

Think of a paragraph as having three elements: the topic sentence, the development, the supporting quotation or example from the text. This need no be a rigid format but it is worth testing out your paragraph by applying this structure and seeing how it measures up.

Your concluding paragraph should make clear that you have reached the end of your argument - either by reflecting upon what has been argued or by summing up what you have argued. Remember that all essay writing is a form of persuasion: these are the last words by which you wish to win over your reader.

Some advice on grammar and punctuation

Good grammar is important because it aids clarity, both for the reader and for you as the writer. Fudged grammar can mean fudged thinking. Of course, we talk

‘ungrammatically’ all the time but an essay is not a recorded conversation. A conversation also has the added ‘meaning conveyors’ of body language (face to face chat) or at least tone and inflection (as on the ‘phone). Speaking is not the same as writing. There is not a rigid line between them: one shades into the other. Think of it as a spectrum: at one end, let us say we have two friends speaking to each other in a state of excitement; at the other end, we have a piece of formal and complex writing such as a you will find in a textbook. If you are writing an essay, you need to be nearer to that end of the spectrum.

Some argue that teaching formal grammar has no discernible effect on helping students to write. But writing requires clarity and if what you have written is unclear, it is very probably because what you have written contains errors of grammar.

Try to keep your sentences short and avoid overcomplexity of expression. Clarity is paramount. The fundamental rule of writing is that we pay attention to the words we use so that we leave the reader free to concentrate on the thoughts expressed. If the reader has to wonder what thought is being expressed, then you have a problem. So


you need to check over what you have written to make sure that it is clear and says what you mean to say.


In its earliest form, punctuation was added to a text to help the reader to read it out aloud. Few people could read; many people listened. So it was to tell you where to take a breath. Punctuation functions like musical notation. If you look at a long paragraph with no punctuation in it, you find it daunting, tiring and shapeless.

Full stop (.)

A full stop marks the end of your sentence, the end of a completed meaning.

Remember always to write complete sentences in formal writing. The most basic of basics: a sentence needs to have a verb in it. There are many places where you see sentences without a verb: in advertisements, in newspapers, all over. But they do not have verbs because the idea is to have an effect: of brevity, of urgency, of fun. If there are no rules, then there is no effect. If there are no rules, there are no rules to break, and the drift is towards writing which becomes endlessly unvarying and boring.

Comma (,)

The comma is used within the sentence to break it up so that you can distinguish clearly the relationship of words and phrases in your sentence.

Semi-Colons (;)

Can be used to balance two ideas which are grammatically complete sentences as an alternative to conjunctions/adverbs. They also imply academic neutrality.

The sciences search for change; the literary humanities reflect on what is.

Other uses after a colon(:) to denote major categories. Other examples/comments inside the main category may need commas.

'There are x major forms of domestic central heating: gas heated boilers serving radiators installed throughout the house; oil-fired central heating, also servicing radiators through heating water in a boiler, but having an external oil supply; electric storage heaters served by 'off peak' electricity and switched on at peak periods;...'

Colon (:)

Introduces a list (see above)

An explanation (very similar).


'The exploitation of North sea oil can be problematic: the dangers of under sea exploration; the vast investment involved in advanced technology; the vagaries of the weather and world oil prices make it an undertaking not to be lightly considered.'


'The problem was this: how to add taped dialogue to film sequences and synchronise them in projection.'

[Main ideas come


a colon (i.e. to the left) a, b or c come


the colon.]

Quotation marks

for verbatim quoting in texts as part of formal academic conventions. However, note more than three line quotations require left and righthand margin indentation, no quotation marks and no double spacing. [See Guidance on Referencing and Citation.]


These are useful for very pertinent explanations/comments which would be removed one step further away through the use of commas or brackets. For example:

The knight can move in any direction - forwards, backwards or to either side - but it always has to move three squares at a time.

Recent developments have taken a new turn - as discussed in this essay - but it is not clear what the long term outcomes will be.

Developments in the genetic engineering of plant reproduction have contributed to an increase in harvests - the so-called green revolution.


Are used to add parenthetical comments. This is one step removed from the dash.

You must use them for author and date and after a quotation.

Too many brackets mean it may be better to shorten sentences and/or use a footnote.


Why, after years of schooling, do so many students of English literature not know how to use the apostrophe?

Please read the section on the use of the apostrophe below.


Guidance on Referencing and Citation

When submitting an essay, term paper, or project you will want to give the impression of professional competence, which involves familiarity with the conventions of the discipline. Learning proper citation techniques and mastering the scholarly conventions in the study of English Literature are skills that you should hone during your career as a student.

Failure to use references and citations correctly can result in the serious charges of plagiarism or academic dishonesty,

so it is most important that you are careful to present correct and complete information on the sources you use. [Plagiarism involves the use of specific ideas, words, phrases or sentences from unreferenced sources as if they were your own. Please see section on Plagiarism in the ‘Handbook for

Undergraduate Candidates’.] The most important things to remember are: be thorough and be consistent. The guidelines below are general practice in the study of English Literature, but some stylistic variations (especially in punctuation) can be found in di fferent publishers’ styles. English has a preferred system of citation and of reference given below, but if you choose another style you must follow it consistently.

Presentation of Written Work

The following requirements are designed to ensure that your written work is professionally presented, in a form in which it could - theoretically, at least! - be submitted to a publisher. To supplement the information given here, consult the

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers

published by the Modern

Language Association.

Your written work must be




using a font no smaller than


and no larger than



Garamond, Century, Times


New Roman



are all fine. Leave a

generous margin

for your tutor’s comments. Make sure that your name appears on your work. Remember that it takes time to print out work, so allow adequate time for this, and for proof-reading and correcting.

Keep to the




the first line of all paragraphs except the first, and do


leave extra space between paragraphs.

Some tutors ask you to justify the right-hand margin of your page, others do not.

Please ask.


Bear in mind that you are writing for someone who is thoroughly familiar with the text(s) you are writing about, and is interested to see what


have to say about specific aspects and issues.

Neither broad generalisations nor ‘telling the story’ are appropriate.

Do not write down to your reader.


At the beginning of your essay, capture your reader’s attention with a specific point or with a quotation. Do not tell the reader what you are going to argue in the essay as a whole (even if this is what you have previously been told to do).

Instead, open your essay in a way that will make your reader


to read on.

Do your best to make your writing comprehensible, knowledgeable, persuasive and enjoyable to read.


Italicise titles and sub-titles of texts and journals, e.g.:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Community, Gender, and Individual Identity: English Writing 1360-1430

Review of English Studies

Titles of component parts of a text (articles, short stories, short poems etc.) have single quotation marks, e.g.:

‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’

‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’

‘“Miranda, where’s your sister?”: reading Shakespeare’s

The Tempest

But books of the Bible are an exception, e.g.:


1 Corinthians

In word-processed work, titles are never underlined.

In work written by hand, *including examinations* underlining stands for italics.

Do not attempt to imitate italics in work written by hand.



quotations (up to about three lines of text) should be included inside single quotation marks within the syntax of your own sentence, e.g.:

David Aers claims that ‘there can be no doubt that hero [that is, Gawain] and community interpret the girdle and the experience it betokens in sharply conflicting ways’.


‘There can be no doubt’, David Aers claims, ‘that hero [that is, Gawain] and community interpret the girdle and the experience it betokens in sharply conflicting ways’.


According to David Aers, Gawain and the court at Camelot ‘interpret the girdle and the experience it betokens in sharply conflicting wa ys’.


If you are quoting verse within your own sentence, indicate line-endings with a solidus,


Make sure that the syntax of your sentence and the syntax of the quotation fit together.

Do not italicise quotations.


quotations should be




quotation marks except to indicate direct speech); they should normally be introduced with a colon [


] and should be syntactically complete in themselves, e.g.:

David Aers, on the other hand, finds the ending of the poem problematic:

One sympathi zes with readers’ reluctance to accept that the poet abandoned such profound issues in courtly laughter and his own non-judgemental silence.

Still, this is what he did, leaving the issues not only unresolved but unexamined.

Furthermore, his ending sharpens our discomfort with this move by reactivating the split between the public and the private that now emerges in a particularly disconcerting form.

For all quotations, decide which of the above formats, shorter or longer, is appropriate.

Do not ‘dangle’ a semi-detached quotation at the end of a sentence or paragraph.

If you insert words of your own into a quotation, enclose them in square brackets (see the examples above). Three dots signalling that words have been omitted from a quotation are only necessary in the middle of a quotation,


at the beginning or end.

Do not quote just the first and last words of a passage with dots in between; all quotations should make sense in themselves. If you wish to include a lengthy quotation from a text you should include the whole of it

(indented, as described above). But you will probably find it more effective to quote only those lines that are crucial for your argument.

The first time an author is mentioned, s/he is called by given name (or initials) and surname. At the second and subsequent reference, s/he is called by surname only.

Referencing and citation

Providing full and accurate information about works that you quote from and refer to is an essential scholarly and academic skill. Failure to give adequate references risks laying your work open to the charge of plagiarism.

There is a variety of systems in use. For an explanation of some of these, and of the principles involved, you may like to consult the online tutorial on referencing available vi a the Library’s ‘infosuss’ web page



Here we give a summary of the widely-used MLA system, which is suitable for our discipline and which you are encouraged to use. Whatever system you adopt, be sure to use it consistently, carefully and accurately.

Citation Guide: MLA Style

You can find more information in the

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers


7 th

edition. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009. Print. For online help go to


These sources will give you information on how to cite web publications, and anything else not covered by the short summary which follows.

In MLA documentation style, you acknowledge your sources with brief parenthetical citations in your text which are keyed to an alphabetical list of works that appears at the end of your paper. Here is an example:

The aesthetic and ideological orientation of jazz underwent considerable scrutiny in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Anderson 7).

Readers, looking to the end of the paper will find the following:

Anderson, Iain.

This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American


. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2007. Print.

This entry states that the work’s author is Iain Anderson and its title is

This is Our

Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture

. The remaining information relates, in shortened form, that the work was produced in Philadelphia by the

University of Pennsylvania Press in 2007 as a print publication. If more than one work by the author is in the list of works cited, a shortened version of the relevant title is given in the parenthetical reference: (Anderson,



Note that titles of longer works such as journals and books are put in italics. Titles of shorter works such as articles, short stories and poems are put in double quotation marks (American style) or single quotation marks (British and Irish style). Either one is fine as long as you are consistent. If you use single quotes throughout, you must use double quotes for quotes within quotes. If you use double quotes throughout, then you use single quotes for quotes within quotes.

Works Cited: Sample references

A book by a Single Author:

Franke, Damon.

Modernist Heresies: British Literary History, 1883-1924


Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2008. Print.

An Anthology or Compilation:

Kepner, Susan Fulop, ed. and trans. The

Lioness in Bloom: Modern Thai

Fiction about Women

. Berkeley: U of California P, 1996. Print.


Shell, Marc, ed.

American Babel: Literatures of the United States from Abnaki to Zuni

. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002. Print.

A Book by Two or More Authors:

Booth, Wayne C., Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams.

The Craft of


. 2 nd

ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. Print.

Bodily Charm: Living Opera

. Hutcheon, Linda, and Michael Hutcheon.

Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2000. Print.

A Work in an Anthology:

Bordo, Susan. “ The Moral Content of Nabokov’s



Aesthetic Subjects


Ed. Pamela R. Matthews and David McWhirter. Minneapolis: U of

Minnesota P, 2003. 125-52. Print.

Hanzlik, Josef. “Vengeance.” Trans. Ewald Osers.

Interference: The Story of

Czechoslovakia in the Words of its Writers

. Comp. and ed. Peter

Spafford. Cheltenham: New Clarion, 1992. 54. Print.

An Anonymous Book:

American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style

. Boston:

Houghton, 2005. Print.

Article in Scholarly Journal:

Piper, Andrew. “Rethinking the Print Object: Goethe and the Book of



121.1 (2006): 124-38. Print.

Article in Scholarly Journal that uses only issue numbers:

Kafka, Ben. “The Demon of Writing: Paperwork, Public Safety, and the Reign of Terror.”


98 (2007): 1-24. Print.

A Special Issue of a Journal:

Appiah, Kwame Anthony, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds.


. Spec.

Issue of

Critical Inquiry

18.4 (1992): 625-884. Print.

A Film or a Video Recording:

(For this there are alternatives, depending upon whether your focus is on a specific director or a film. You can do it either of the following ways).

It’s a Wonderful Life

. Dir. Frank Capra. RKO, 1946. Film.

Chaplin, Charles, dir.

Modern Times

. United Artists, 1936. Film.


Internet sites and other sources

You are encouraged to use print sources wherever possible. If you do use web sources (because information there is not available in print sources or you are accessing a poem or a primary text on-line), make sure that you do so with a critical eye. There are some reputable sources produced by literary scholars and English

Departments (the University of Toronto produces an excellent on-line series of annotated poems), but there are far more sources that are simply student projects or personal tirades. If you do use a web site, make sure its reference entry contains the following information: Author, date of publication, title of page, (if relevant, title of larger site, in italics), URL (web address), and date that you accessed it (in brackets).


dates are necessary because the page you cite today might not be there tomorrow. (This is one of the reasons that print sources are preferred.)

The information here should give you basic guidelines for citing references for the sources you use. Some sources not given here (CDs, newspaper articles, reference works) might require that you tweak the format a bit. Just be sure that you include author-date-title-source and model the formatting after that used in the other entries.

Remember that the point is to enable a reader to consult your source as conveniently as possible. If you’re in doubt about how to do a reference, consult your course tutor for advice.

Final Year

Special Subject


As the mode of assessment for your final year spring and summer course,



, you will be required to produce a 6,000 word dissertation.


A dissertation is a substantial piece of work on a single topic that gives evidence of independent and original work. The standard size for a University of Sussex BA dissertation is 6,000 words (maximum). In comparison with a 4,000-word essay, a dissertation is intended to be more ambitious, and to involve some element of originality.

An English Literature Final Year

Special Subject

Dissertation is normally one of these types (or some combination):

Your own research a) involving wide reading of primary texts b) involving wide reading of secondary texts

Theoretical work, e.g. proposing a new way of looking at some issue

Critical work, e.g. evaluating different approaches to a topic

In all three types it is a good idea to formulate a


which your project sets out to answer. The question may well form the title of the project.

All projects are expected to show thorough familiarity with and understanding of the topic under discussion; a critical understanding of its literary and cultural contexts; and a grasp of and ease in the use of a body of theoretical knowledge.


Theoretical project

A theoretical project involves the development of a new perspective to a particular topic. You will provide a critical account of research in the field, and you will take the opportunity to develop a particular line of thought or theoretical position on a chosen literary issue or issue appropriate to the course you have taken.

Critical project

A critical project involves an evaluation of different approaches to an issue or problem in literary study. A critical project is NOT a simple description, but rather involves an interpretive consideration of various theories and/or methods. You can achieve a critical approach both by considering and comparing the advantages and disadvantages of existing approaches, and by constructing your own perspective and evaluation of the topic under study.

The Dissertation itself

The appropriate structure and organisation of your dissertation will depend upon the nature of the topic, and upon what type of project it is; this is something to discuss with your tutor.

However, for any kind of project it is important to get the


correct, that is, in the standard form for the study of English Literature. Plagiarism [that is, the use of phrases or sentences from an unreferenced source as if they were your own] will not be tolerated: thus it is essential to reference texts and sources correctly (for more information on Plagiarism please see the exam notice board). In the

English Manual

, there is a section

Guidance on referencing and citation

. Read this carefully, and obey its instructions to the letter.

Nothing less will do

. As soon as you start reading for your topic you will need to keep accurate notes of your sources, including pagenumbers. Do not rely on memory, that is, do not leave it till the last minute to find that you have to consult again every book you have ever used, to get authors' initials, place of publication, date, or whatever. Getting the referencing right may well seem tedious to do, but it creates an impression of professional competence, and may even encourage an examiner to be more tolerant of weaknesses elsewhere.


There can be variations from what follows: the guiding principle

is what will be most helpful to a reader

. Typically there will be the following:

title page

contents page

four or five sections, of which the first might be an introduction. The last will contain a section of 'conclusions': this section may be quite short.


If you have an appendix or appendices (e.g. containing copies of documents) they


should be placed before the references. It may well be sensible to write the introduction section after you have finished the rest.


English Literature Final Year

Special Subject


You should start thinking about possible topics for your dissertation as early as possible, and discussing them with your tutor. During the Spring term of your final year, you will receive guidance on selecting your topic. You will submit a preliminary title for your project by the end of Week 7 in the Spring term. You will need to agree a timetable with your supervisor, both for your own project

–preparation activities and for meetings with your supervisor to review your progress.

In the Summer term, you must submit an outline consisting of section titles and [if you are sufficiently advanced in your preparation] synoptic paragraphs for each section and a selective bibliography to your supervisor by the Thursday of Week 1 of the Summer term. You may want to organise your time so as to produce outlines well before this date.

Your tutor will expect to give advice on topic, reading, methodology, organisation of material, layout, and so on, but will not expect to mark or comment in detail on a draft text. (You may, of course, ask someone else, including a fellow student, to read and comment on a draft text.)

Three common errors to avoid at all costs.

Avoid the following three mistakes:

1) Always write a grammatically complete sentence.

2) Always check your spelling, first through using your spell-check and then through consulting your dictionary.

As students of English literature, you have no excuse for inaccuracy in spelling. You will be expected to produce written work in which your spelling is without error or eccentricity.

The only way to improve your spelling and your writing is to keep your dictionary at your side.

3) Check and double-check your use of the apostrophe. If you get this wrong, your writing will lose its authority.

The University of Sussex website contains full guidance on punctuation.

If you are at all uncertain about your punctuation, please consult this. Or you can buy

R.L. Trask:

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation

(Harmondsworth: Penguin,




English Manual

prints below a section from the University website written by

Larry Trask on the use of the apostrophe. Please read this even if you think you know the rules:

The apostrophe (') is the most troublesome punctuation mark in English, and perhaps also the least useful. No other punctuation mark causes so much bewilderment, or is [as we shall see] so often misused. On the one hand, shops offer





greeting's cards


ladie's clothing

; on the other, they offer

childrens shoes


artists supplies

. The confusion about apostrophes is so great, in comparison with the small amount of useful work they perform, that many distinguished writers and linguists have argued that the best way of eliminating the confusion would be to get rid of this troublesome squiggle altogether and never use it at all.

They are probably right, but unfortunately the apostrophe has not been abolished yet, and

it is a blunt fact that the incorrect use of apostrophes will make your writing look illiterate more quickly than almost any other kind of mistake.

If you find apostrophes difficult, you will just have to grit your teeth and get down to work.


An apostrophe is used in a possessive form, like

Esther's family


Janet's cigarettes

, and this is the use of the apostrophe which causes most of the trouble.

The basic rule is simple enough: a possessive form is spelled with


at the end.


Lisa's essay

England's navy my brother's girlfriend

Wittgenstein's last book children's shoes women's clothing the aircraft's black box somebody's umbrella a week's work my money's worth

This rule applies in most cases even with a name ending in



Thomas's job the bus's arrival

James's fiancée

Charles Dickens’s novels

There are three types of exception. First, a plural noun which already ends in


takes only a following apostrophe: the girls' excitement my parents' wedding both players' injuries


the Klingons' attack the ladies' room two weeks' work

This is reasonable. We don't pronounce these words with two esses, and so we don't write two esses: nobody says

the girls's excitement

. But note that plurals that don't end in


take the ordinary form: see the cases of





Second, a name ending in


takes only an apostrophe if the possessive form is not pronounced with an extra


. Hence:

Socrates' philosophy

Saint Saens' music

Ulysses' companions

Aristophanes' plays

Same reason: we don't say

Ulysses's companions

, and so we don't write the extra



The final class of exceptions is pronouns. Note the following:

He lost his book.

Which seats are ours?

The bull lowered its head.

Whose are these spectacles?

Note in particular the spelling of possessive


. This word never takes an apostrophe:

The bull lowered it's head.

This is

wrong, wrong, wrong

but it is one of the commonest of all punctuation errors. Even teachers of English get this wrong. The conventional spelling


makes clear that the head belongs to the bull. Spelling the possessive as


will cause many readers to turn up their noses at you.

The mistake is very conspicuous, but fortunately it's also easy to fix. There's only one word, so learn the standard spelling. (There is an English word spelled


, of course, and indeed I've just used it in the preceding sentence, but this is not a possessive: it's the contracted form of

it is

or of

it has

. And there is no English word spelled


‹ this is another common error for



The same goes for possessive


: this cannot be spelled as


, though again there is a word


, a contraction of

who is

or of

who has

, as in

Who's your friend?


Who's got a corkscrew?

Note, however, that the indefinite pronoun


forms an ordinary possessive


, as in

One must choose one's words carefully.

There is a further point about writing possessives: when you add an apostrophe-


or an apostrophe alone to form a possessive, the thing that comes before the apostrophe


be a real English word, and it must also be the


English word.


Thus, for example, something like

ladie's shoes

is impossible, because there is no such word as


. Moreover, a department in a shoeshop could not be called

lady's shoes

, because what the shop is selling is

shoes for ladies

, and not

shoes for lady

, which is meaningless. The correct form is

ladies' shoes

. (Compare

that lady's shoes

, which is fine.)

Finally, while we're discussing clothing departments, observe that there is at least one irritating exception: though we write

men's clothing

, as usual, we write


as a single word, with no apostrophe. By historical accident, this has come to be regarded as a single word in English. But just this one: we do not write





Unusual plurals

As a general rule, we never use an apostrophe in writing plural forms. (A plural form is one that denotes more than one of something.) Hence the things that those shops are selling are





fine wines


cream teas


mountain bikes

. It is absolutely wrong to write





fine wine's


cream tea's


mountain bike's

if you merely want to talk about more than one pizza or video or whatever. The same goes even when you want to pluralize a proper name:

She's trying to keep up with the Joneses.

There are four Steves and three Julies in my class.

Several of the Eleanor Crosses are still standing today.

Do not write things like







Eleanor Cross's

if you are merely talking about more than one person or thing with that name.

In British usage, we do not use an apostrophe in pluralizing dates :

This research was carried out in the 1970s.

American usage does allow the apostrophe:

(A) This research was carried out in the 1970's.

You should not adopt this practice unless you are specifically writing for an American audience.

In writing the plurals of numbers, usage varies. Both of the following may be encountered:

If you're sending mail to the Continent, it's advisable to use continental 1s and 7s in the address.

If you're sending mail to the Continent, it's advisable to use continental 1's and 7's in the address.

Here, the first form is admittedly a little hard on the eye, and the apostrophes may make your sentence clearer. In most cases, though, you can avoid the problem entirely simply by writing out the numerals :


If you're sending mail to the Continent, it's advisable to use continental ones and sevens in the address.

An apostrophe is indispensable, however, in the rare case in which you need to pluralize a letter of the alphabet or some other unusual form which would become unrecognizable with a plural ending stuck on it:

Mind your


's and



How many


's are there in



It is very bad style to spatter


's and


's through your writing. Always write these out in full: that is; for example.

Without the apostrophes, these would be unreadable. So, when you have to pluralize an orthographically unusual form, use an apostrophe if it seems to be essential for clarity, but don't use one if the written form is perfectly clear without it.


The apostrophe is used in writing contractions, that is, shortened forms of words from which one or more letters have been omitted. In standard English, this generally happens only with a small number of conventional items, mostly involving verbs. Here are some of the commonest examples, with their uncontracted equivalents: it's it is


it has we'll we will


we shall they've they have can't can not he'd he would


he had aren’t are not she'd've she would have won't will not


Note in each case that the apostrophe appears precisely in the position of the omitted letters: we write


, not


, and


, not


. Note also that the irregular contraction


takes its apostrophe between the


and the


, just like all other contractions involving


. And note also that


has two apostrophes, because material has been omitted from two positions.

It is not wrong to use such contractions in formal writing, but you should use them sparingly, since they tend to make your writing appear less than fully formal. Since

I'm trying to make this document seem chatty rather than intimidating, I've been using a few contractions here and there, though not as many as I might have used.

But I advise you not to use the more colloquial contractions like


in your formal writing: these things, while perfectly normal in speech, are a little too informal for careful writing.

Such contractions represent the most useful job the apostrophe does for us, since, without it, we would have no way of expressing in writing the difference between




























, and perhaps a few others.

A few words which were contractions long ago are still conventionally written with apostrophes, even though the longer forms have more or less dropped out of use.

There are so few of these that you can easily learn them all. Here are the commonest ones, with their original longer forms: o'clock of the clock


Halloweven fo'c's'le forecastle cat-o'-nine-tails cat-of-nine-tails ne'er-do-well never-do-well will-o'-the-wisp will-of-the-wisp

Some generations ago there were rather more contractions in regular use in English; these other contractions are now archaic, and you wouldn't normally use any of them except in direct quotations from older written work. Here are a few of them, with their longer forms:

'tis it is o'er over

'twas it was e'en even


There are other contractions which are often heard in speech. Here are a few:

'Fraid so.'Nother drink?

I s'pose so.'S not funny.

It is, of course, never appropriate to use such colloquial forms in formal writing, except when you are explicitly writing about colloquial English. If you do have occasion to cite or use these things, you should use apostrophes in the normal way to mark the elided material.

Contractions must be carefully distinguished from clipped forms. A clipped form is a full word which happens to be derived by chopping a piece off a longer word, usually one with the same meaning. Clipped forms are very common in English; here are a few, with their related longer forms: gym gymnasium ad advertisement pro professional deli delicatessen hippo hippopotamus bra brassière tec detective flu influenza phone telephone copter helicopter cello violoncello gator alligator quake earthquake

Such clipped forms are not regarded as contractions, and they should not be written with apostrophes. Writing things like








will, not to mince words, make you look like an affected old fuddy duddy who doesn't quite approve of anything that's happened since 1912. Of course, some of these clipped forms are still rather colloquial, and in formal writing you would normally prefer to write




, rather than




. Others, however, are perfectly normal in formal writing: even the most dignified music critic would call Ofra Harnoy's


instrument a


; he would no more use


than he would apply the word


to a London double-decker.

Important note: Contractions must also be carefully distinguished from



Abbreviations are things like











before Christ




for example


Finally, there are a few circumstances in which apostrophes are used to represent the omission of some material in cases which are not exactly contractions. First, certain surnames of non-English origin are written with apostrophes:








(Scots Gaelic). These are not really contractions because there is no alternative way of writing them.

Second, apostrophes are sometimes used in representing words in non standard forms of English: thus the Scots poet Robert Burns writes









You are hardly likely to need this device except when you are quoting from such work.

Third, a year is occasionally written in an abbreviated form with an apostrophe:


Baroja was a distinctive member of the generation of '98

. This is only normal in certain set expressions; in my example, the phrase

generation of '98

is an accepted label for a certain group of Spanish writers, and it would not be normal to write

generation of 1898

. Except for such conventional phrases, however, you should always write out years in full when you are writing formally: do not write something like

the '39'45 war

, but write instead

the 1939-1945 war



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