Style Concerns when
Submitting an Article to the WTHA Yearbook
Style matters. Editors of
the West Texas Historical Review concern themselves with
writing, with good English prose, and with proper usage.
Communication is the key, of course.
People write to communicate their ideas, their views. Sometimes,
as a result, people do not always follow so called correct grammar and
proper English usage. And, moreover, what is proper for, say,
newspaper writing may be different from what is normally considered
proper for the West Texas Historical Review.
Editors of the Review - and there
have been only five or six of them over the years - have used the
University of Chicago Press’s A Manual of Style to govern matters
of style and footnotes or endnotes. A good, shortened version is Kate Turabian’s guide for writing. One of the best brief style guides is
William Strunk and E. B. White’s little book, The Elements of Style.
It is terrific.
But, there are several good
guidebooks for writing history. They come with all kinds of titles:
Historian’s Handbook; A Short Guide to Writing about History; Writer’s Guide: History; and for students there is Getting the
Most out of Your U.S. History Course: The History Student’s Vade Mecum.
Don Whisenhunt, one of the WTHA’s Life Members, produced such a guide to
the writing of history.
A longer guide is Savoie
Lottinville’s, The Rhetoric of History. Lottinville was for many
years editor of the University of Oklahoma Press. In his book,
Lottinville writes about the importance of balance, proportion, and,
above all, continuity in writing. He talks about “internal clarity,”
tricks of style, the character of a paragraph as a unit of thought, and
how short, one-punch titles are best. He writes about abolishing
wordiness, about grammar and usage, about word choice, and about how
good writing must be clear, forceful, and elegant.
Whether one uses Lottinville or
Strunk and White or someone else, the writer of history will find that
good, clear writing is hard work.
Some helpful hints for all
good writers submitting articles and essays to the WTHA YEAR BOOK
Avoid the use, or over use, of
“this” and “these.” Far too often the adjectives/pronouns are used
poorly, lazily, carelessly. Consider, the following sentence from a
good 2002 book from Texas A&M University Press: This explanation
is insufficient, for any increase this had on their total
population would have only been a result of this practice . . . .
The motivations for this behavior . . . .” Sometimes they are
even used as the subject of a paragraph.
Do not use “since” for “because,”
as in “since John was ill, Pete took him home.” A better construction is
“because John was ill, Pete took him home.” Review editors think
“since” means a time: as in “since 1924.”
One of the most frequent grammatical
errors is the use of improper antecedents. For example, “Although
John was ill, he went to the WTHA meeting in Abilene.” A pronoun- he in this case- must, if it is to be used correctly,
refer to a person in an independent clause. “Although John was ill” is
clearly a dependent clause; it cannot stand alone as a sentence.
Properly, the sentence should read: “Although he was ill, John went to
the WTHA meeting in Abilene.”
No split infinitives.
Newspapers use them all the time. Newspaper people think they read and
sound better. Editors of the Review try to eliminate them. In other
words, try to carefully eliminate split infinitives. But, no
less an historian as the great Carl Becker had no aversion to them. He
once wrote: “he has in any case no time, and no need, to curiously
question or meticulously verify.” How does one not split the
infinitive? Curiously to question does not work, nor does to question
Avoid passive voice. Why
hide the subject and dull the prose with passive voice? It is not WRONG
usage, perhaps, and, granted, sometimes passive voice works well, but it
is not the best usage. For example, “He was sent by the air force to
Abilene” is not as strong, as active, as effective, as “The air force
sent him to Abilene.” Newspaper persons who write history, it seems,
are often “guilty” of the sin. One of them, who has written several
books for the University of Oklahoma Press, is particularly enamored of
the usage. In one of his books there is a paragraph of seven sentences
and six of them are in passive voice. It makes for dull reading.
The proper use of commas
remains a common problem. Perhaps a good rule on comma usage is: be
consistent. The Review editors want its writers to follow A
Manual of Style on matters of commas. Thus, when 3 or more items
are listed consecutively, there ought to be a comma before the “and”
that ends the list- as in: “Lubbock, Taylor, and Tom Green counties,” not
Lubbock, Taylor and Tom Green counties.”
Again, on commas: as per the use of
dates, the editor of the YEAR BOOK wants a date to read, “I heard this
sorry lecture on April 2, 2004, in Abilene,” not “I heard this sorry
lecture on April 2, 2004 in Abilene.” Set off the year with commas.
On dates, moreover, a good rule
of the thumb on the use of dates is to place the date near the verb or
noun it modifies, it goes with. Do not put dates at the end of the
sentence- unless the date is the most important aspect of the
Again on dates, the editor of the
West Texas Historical Review, tries to eliminate constructions that read something like “By
1928 the WTHA was four years old.” Rather, the sentence should read:
“In 1928 the WTHA was four years old.” Or, try a similar construction:
By 1928 the money had
totaled $40. Not, “By 1928 the money totaled $40.”
Better is: “In 1928 the money totaled
One topic equals one
paragraph. That should be easy enough to remember, but too often
writers try to squeeze two or even three subjects into one paragraph.
a good rule is be consistent- kind of like commas.
Numbers: A good rule is to
spell out numbers of one or two digits, but use numerals for those
running to three or more.
Quotation Marks: Periods
and commas are always placed within the end quotation marks; colons and
semicolons outside. Question marks, dashes, and exclamation points
stand outside unless they are in the original. Is that
clear? Actually, the good and experienced writer can make his own
exceptions to the rules. There is a military adage that “a good general
does not place his army with its back to a river, unless he is of a mind
to do so,” meaning, of course, that there should be a good reason for
an action contrary to accepted practice.
Note the following sentence
and its use of “this.”
|This explanation is
insufficient, for any increase this had on their total population
would have only been a result of this practice . . . . The
motivations for this behavior . . . .”
|Because he was ill, John did
not go to Abilene.
Not: Since he was ill,
John did not go to Abilene.
|Although he was ill, John went
to the WTHA meeting in Abilene.
Not: Although John was
ill, he went to the WTHA meeting in Abilene.
|Try carefully to eliminate
Not: Try to carefully
eliminate split infinitives.
|The air force sent him to
Not: He was sent by the
air force to Abilene
Wherever possible use
action verbs rather than “be” verbs.
Thus, try to avoid “am,
is, are, was, were, be, being, been.”
Note the small
letter (no caps) on “counties”:
|Lubbock, Taylor, and Tom Green
Not: Lubbock, Taylor
and Tom Green counties
|April 2, 2004, in Abilene. . .
Not: April 2, 2004 in
Abilene. . . .
|By 1928 annual dues had
reached the staggering sum of $3.00.
Not: By 1928 annual
dues reached the staggering sum of $3.00.
Good: In 1928 annual
dues reached the staggering sum of $3.00.
This website, which is best
viewed in Internet Explorer versions 6.0 or higher.