Writing Tips
Doris Payne * Department of Linguistics

What makes a paragraph smooth and coherent?
What makes a complete sentence?
Referencing your sources

What makes a paragraph smooth and coherent?

1. In most cases, a paragraph should have a single topic.  If more than one topic occurs, the paragraph may seem "choppy" and hard to follow.  A clear topic statement may help both writer and reader know whether, and how, all parts of the paragraph cohere (see examples below).

2. If the connections between ideas are insufficiently clear, the paragraph may seem choppy or even incoherent.  Relational phrases like therefore, because of, in order to, as a consequence of, the next issue is, etc. often help the reader know how the ideas should relate to one another.  (In the analysis of the "better" writing sample below, various relational phrases are in bold.)

3.  Good writing generally flows from OLD information to NEW information.  If the order is reversed within sentences, the whole paragraph may seem choppy.  Old information is what the reader already knows and currently has in mind.  New information is what is brought into the discourse for the first time.

Example of not-so-good writing (After reading the following, do you have any idea what it is about?)
I have a really old car. The fan-belt of my car broke when was on my way home.  My friend was having a birthday party.  It was 8:00 p.m. last night when it started, but I was too late.  Lights were on in a house by the side of the road.  I needed to make a phone call so I went to the house....  To make a long story short, it ended up costing me over $200.00.

Example of better writing:
I have a really old car that often causes problems.  For example, last night my friend had a birthday party.  I planned to be at the party, which started at 8:00 p.m., but I was too late for it.  I was late because, while on the way home, the car's fan-belt broke.  Fortunately, it broke near where there was a house with lights on.  So, I went to the house to make a phone call... To make a long story short, that old fan-belt ended up costing me over $200.00.

ANALYSIS (below). (1) There is a clear topic statement.   (2) The phrases in bold help make explicit the types of relationships between pieces of information. (3) In nearly every sentence, old information precedes new information.  Note that what is old information at the beginning of one clause was generally new information towards the end of a previous clause. (You can see this graphically by drawing arrows from one instance of a to the next instance of a, and so on for each italic letter.  Note how the arrows generally slope leftward and downward.)

       have a really old car that often causes problems.
OLD                     STATEMENT OF TOPIC
INFO                                  NEW INFO

For example,          last night my friend had a birthday party.
SPECIFIES HOW                                                    NEW INFOb

I planned to be at the party, which started at 8:00 p.m.,
                           OLD INFO                  NEW INFOc

but   I was too late      for      it.
              NEW INFOd                            OLD INFOb
              BUT CONNECTED TO c

I was late   [because,             while on the way home,   the car's     fan-belt broke. ]
                           SPECIFIES LOGICAL                                                       OLD INFOa          NEW INFOe
                           RELATION OF "CAUSE"

 OLD INFOd      [                       ALL NEW RELATIVE TO   "I was late"                                                      ]

Fortunately, it broke     near where there was a house with lights on.
                         OLD INFOe          NEW INFOf

So, I went to the house    to make a phone call...
                            OLD INFOf              NEW INFOg

To make a long story short, that old fan belt ended up costing me over $200.00
                                                          OLD INFOe                                      NEW INFOh

What makes a complete sentence?

In standard written English, a complete sentence must have a SUBJECT and a VERB within a MAIN CLAUSE.  A common problem is being able to identify a main clause.  Typical features differentiating main from dependent (or subordinate) clauses are:

                  MAIN CLAUSE                                                               DEPENDENT CLAUSE

VERB         must have a verb that is:                                                    does have a verb, but the verb:
                   inflected for subject                                                           may be inflected for subject, or not
                   inflected for tense/aspect                                                   may be inflected for tense/aspect, or not

SUBJECT   must have an overt subject NP                                           may have an overt subject, or not
                      or pronoun

OTHER      can NOT have an initial adverbial subordinator                    may have an initial adverbial
                      or complementizer (unless the subordinator is                       subordinator or complementizer
                      is part of an embedded subordinate phrase or clause)

1'. Differences such as the Jutes and the Picts versus the Celts.    (lacks a verb)
1.  The Jutes and the Picts differed from the Celts.

2'. Many linguists rejecting the Nostratic theory.    (verb is not inflected for tense/aspect)
2.  Many linguists reject the Nostratic theory.

3'. Their warriors gone like the warriors of ancient Europe. (verb is not inflected for tense/aspect)
3.  Their warriors have gone like the warriors of ancient Europe.

4.' Because this tree only grows north of the River Elbe. (has an initial adverbial subordinator)
4.  This tree only grows north of the River Elbe.

5'. While the Romans were withdrawing from the far-reaches of their empire. (has an initial adverbial subordinator)
5. At that time the Romans were withdrawing from the far-reaches of their empire.

6'. That she is always late.   (initial complementizer that, and no main verb outside the subordinate clause introduced by that)
6'. That she disburbs me.     (no main verb outside the subordinate clause introduced by that)
6. That she is always late disturbs me. (The main verb is disturbs.)

Referencing your sources

1. References in main text:
Whenever information is taken from another source, whether the information is presented as part of a quote or not, an explicit reference must be made to the source. This can be done simply by placing the author's last name, date, and page number in parentheses within the main text, following the relevant information.  The full reference is then given at the end of the paper, in a section entitled "References".

EXAMPLES (all are excerpts or adaptations taken from Valentine (1995)) :

Ojibwe is one of seven Central Algonquian languages, which include Cree-Montagnais-Naskapi, Potawatomi, Menominee, Fox-Sauk-Kikapoo, Miami-Illinois, and Shawnee and Ojibwe (Goddard 1978).

This focus on the radio as a source of news and entertainment is consistent with the programming choices reported for Cree and Inuit listeners throughout northern Canada (Hudson 1977: 136).

This is somewhat different from the analysis of Dicks (1977:129), which indicates that the telephone in Inuit society has caused real changes in the social structure:  "In closely-knit Inuit communities, the telephone permits instantaneous, random access to other members; and this association can neither be observed nor controlled by third parties."

2. Reference style:
There are a number of acceptable bibliographical formats for books, articles, etc.  However, certain pieces of information must always be included.  The examples below are roughly in the style used by the journal Language, which is something of a standard within linguistics.  A hanging indent for non-initial lines of a reference is pretty standard. (You could also consult the Modern Language Association or the American Psychological Association handbook.)


Valentine, Lisa P.  1995. Making It Their Own: Severn Ojibwe Communicative
     Practices.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

The necessary pieces of information here are:
Author.last.name, First.name.  Year.of.publication. Book.Title.  City.of.publication:  Publisher.

Anderson, Stephen R. 1981.  "Why phonology isn't 'natural'." Linguistic
    Inquiry 12:493-539.

Author.last.name, First.name.    Year.  "Article.title."  Journal.Title.  Volume.number: pages.

Perlmutter, David, and Paul M. Postal.  1983.  "Some proposed laws of basic
    clause structure."  Studies in Relational Grammar 1, ed. by David Perlmutter,
    81-128.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Author.last.name, First.name.  Year.of.publication. Book.Title, ed. by First.name Last.name, pages.
    City.of.publication:  Publisher.

Payne, Doris.  "Writing."  http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~dlpayne/dcourses/Writing.htm.
    January 29, 2000.

Author's name  "Title of web page." http://web address. Date page was consulted or downloaded.

For many pages a specific author may not be available.  Include date that the page was consulted. (Since web "publishing" is potentially so "fluid", any dates ON the page may actually not reflect the latest revision.)