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Writing Guide for Upper-Level Undergraduates and Others*

By Charlie Tyson, edited, extended, and somewhat revised by Allan Megill, to April 24,

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Rules are indispensable, but they take us only so far. In Making Social Science Matter,
Bent Flyvbjergthe Danish social scientist and urban planning expertoffers a five-step
model for human learning. By following rules, Flyvbjerg argues, we can attain
competency in a given field, such as driving a car or playing chess.1 But to become an
expert, we must move from rule-or-principle-based problem-solving to intuitive judgment
(Aristotles ideal of phronesis, or practical wisdom). Virtuosity requires practical
Flyvbjergs point is as applicable to academic writing as it is to chess-playing. To write
well, you must do more than follow rules. First, you must read widely. Explore serious
nonfiction to internalize the clean sweep of analytical thought that cogent argument
requires. Study novels and short stories: narrative storytellings evocative possibilities
will become more relevant as your thesis approaches. And read poetry to sensitize your
mind to words. Second, you must write often. The Political and Social Thought seminar,
luckily, offers ample opportunities for wide reading and frequent writing.

Much of this guide was written by Charlie Tyson (University of Virginia B.A., 2014; English and
Political and Social Thought major) in summer 2013, under the direction of Allan Megill, for the use of
students in the Program in Political and Social Thought at U.Va. It was originally titled PST Writing
Guide. The organization, almost all the wit, and most of the examples in this document are CTs. AM has
edited the document for wider use, and has also contributed the addenda. CT and AM claim copyright in
the document, except for the mini-essay on Machiavelli, which is the work of Liam McCabe, and for any
elements that could legitimately be considered common knowledge. It need hardly be said that we are
indebted to Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 8th ed.,
revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press
Editorial Staff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), and especially to The Chicago Manual of
Style, currently in its 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter, trans. Steven Sampson (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2001), 13-15. This is an example of a footnote in Chicago style.

But rules come first. Although rules alone wont give you the intuitive grasp of language
that exceptional writing demands, they will make your efforts easier.
In this handbook, we aim to give you a place to start. In the first section, we present some
general principles that make for effective writing. Next, we turn to writing tips and tricks
that we consider particularly useful for students in Political and Social Thought.
Well start with ironclad commandments and then move to eager suggestions. While you
must never break rules of spelling or grammar, some elements of usage are contextspecific: different academic style manuals will offer varying requirements for
representing numbers and percentages, for example. In other respects, as in punctuation,
disobeying standard usage is akin to writing ungrammatically.
From time to time you may part ways with principles of style, such as the dictum to avoid
passive voice, but only if you have compelling reasons to do so. In all cases, you must
master the rules before you are permitted to flout them. Though seasoned stylists may
operate on intuition, to arrive at this stage of proficiency requires the sturdy foundation
that rule-based learning provides.2


Spelling errors are unacceptable. If you are unsure how to spell a word, consult a
The spell-check function of your word processing software will catch mistakes
sometimes caused by the tap of an errant pinkiethat turn words to gibberish. More
subtle errors wont provoke a red underline. Practice caution when using homonyms. The
difference between principle and principal is significant.
Most students at good colleges can write at an intermediate level by the time they reach
their third year. Some achieve that level earlier. Here, we highlight a few grammatical
errors that intermediate writers sometimes make. Some examples come from essays that
third-year students have written. Other examples we have fabricated.
Dangling modifiers


we do not recommend the insouciant approach to rules of grammar and usage that Steven
Pinker promotes in his witty and lively The Sense of Style: The Thinking Persons Guide to Writing in the
21st Century (New York: Viking, 2014). See Nathan Heller, Steven Pinkers Bad Grammar, New Yorker,
Nov. 3, 2014, available at

Dangling modifiers are usually introductory phrases that suggest but do not name an
actor. When the suggested actor is not the subject of the sentence, the modifier dangles.
Confusion follows.
An example:
As a young woman, Aristotle fascinated me with his theory of rhetoric.

A gender-bending modifier of this sort might be more forgivablephilosophically, not

grammaticallyif applied to Judith Butler rather than Aristotle. But in either case it
produces incoherence. The student means to say:
When I was a young woman, Aristotles theory of rhetoric fascinated me.

Present participles are verb forms in which an ing is added to the verb stem. If you
must start a sentence with a present participle, do not do so idly: this verb form is dangerprone and dangle-prone. For example:
Upon entering the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson caught my attention.

This sentence conveys the meaning that Jefferson, not the writer, entered the University,
at which time he caught the writers attention. Jefferson did no such thing, because he is
dead. The writer means to say:
Soon after I entered the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson caught my attention.

Another example:
In dealing with religion, concrete objects beyond experience are not necessary for they have
little to do with religions results and impacts upon lifewhich is what James is concerned with

The subject of this sentence is concrete objects beyond experience. But the student
does not mean that it is concrete objects that are dealing with religion. The implied
actor is either a general we or the philosopher William James (it is ambiguous, which is
why you should identify who does what in your sentences). A simpler style would have
helped this student communicate his ideas more clearly. We edit accordingly:
James finds that religious experience does not require concrete objects, such as a rosary or a

Here, the easiest way to repair the dangling modifier is to remove it. A simple declarative
sentence often conveys meaning more clearly than a circuitous construction muddled
with modifiers. Considerations of grammar frequently converge with considerations of

By giving examples of the concrete objects to which the student might refer, we have
attempted to clarify what the student means. The term concrete object is itself far from
Run-on sentences
Sometimes a run-on sentence is a marathon: it goes on and on, blissfully unaware that it
is not one sentence but seven. But a run-on can also be a sprint. No matter the length,
run-ons are independent clauses that the writer has not properly joined.
An independent clause is a word group that can stand as a sentence. You can join
independent clauses in one of two ways: with a comma and a coordinating conjunction
(such as and, yet, or but), or with a semicolon, colon, or dash.
A fused sentence is easy to spot.
Plato is great he is really smart.

What you need to worry about is the comma splice error, which you ought not to commit.
Plato is great, he is really smart.

An easy fix:
Plato is great; he is really smart.

Mixed constructions
Mixed constructions occur when you start a sentence with one grammatical pattern and
then improperly switch to another.
Steer clear of is when, is where and reasonis because constructions.
According to Smith, the reason a free market aids society is because it increases net wealth.

Smith argues that a free market aids society by increasing net wealth.

Another example:
The ideas of Thomas Hobbes are much more extensive than Machiavelli.

The student unwittingly compares two things that are incommensurate: the ideas of
Thomas Hobbes and the person of Machiavelli. The student means:

Thomas Hobbes ideas are much more extensive than Machiavellis.

Subject-verb agreement
The verb must agree with its subject. So you must be aware of which word or word group
is the subject of your sentence.
High levels of air pollution causes damage to the respiratory tract.

The subject of this sentence is High levels [of air pollution]. As youll see from the s
at the end of levels, the subject is plural. If the subject were air pollution, it would be
Correct: High levels of air pollution cause damage to the respiratory tract.
Most subjects that are joined with and are plural.
Charlies habit of correcting others grammatical errors and his lack of dancing ability has led his
friends to, one by one, abandon him.

This sentence is (grammatically) incorrect. It should read:

Charlies habit of correcting others grammatical errors and his lack of dancing ability have led
his friends to, one by one, abandon him.

Some subjects that seem plural (family, team, jury) are collective nouns that we treat as
Incorrect: The family are happy to see you.
Correct: The family is happy to see you. Or: Members of the family are happy to see you.
Most indefinite pronouns (each, either, neither, everyone) are singular.
Incorrect: Each of the schools of thoughtSmiths and Marxsare incomplete.
Instead write: Each of the schools of thoughtSmiths and Marxsis incomplete.
Pronoun-antecedent agreement
A pronoun is a word that stands in place for a noun. An antecedent is the word or word
group to which another word refers. Antecedents usually precede the pronouns that refer
to them.
As with subjects and verbs, pronouns and their antecedents must agree. A plural pronoun
requires a plural antecedent, and a singular pronoun requires a singular antecedent.

Incorrect: In seminar, everyone does their best work.
Correct: In seminar, everyone does his or her best work.
Incorrect: A student must work hard if they want to succeed.
Correct: A student must work hard if he or she wants to succeed.
With compound antecedents connected by or or nor, the pronoun must agree with the
nearer antecedent.
Correct: Neither Melville nor many of his contemporaries received much money for their
literary works.

The pronoun their corresponds with many of his contemporaries, a plural antecedent.
Grammar is about comprehension. For your writing to make sense, you must write
Proper usage is about details. Adhering to standard practices of how academic writers use
words, punctuation, and numbers lends your work the sheen of legitimacy. A seemingly
trivial lapse can doom youas in the case of the murder suspect who leaves a stray
fingerprint on the door handle, or, equally damning, the aspiring literary scholar who
writes The Wasteland instead of The Waste Land.
To navigate these choppy waters, clasp The Chicago Manual of Style to your chest and
read on.
The comma
The serial commathe comma before the and that connects the last two words of a
series of three or more termsis a point of dispute. Many newspaper stylebooks, such as
that of The New York Times, oppose the serial comma. But many academic guides
including our own Chicago manualdemand that the comma appear. Other entities, such
as the indie pop group Vampire Weekend, have dismissed the debate altogether. In this
guide we endorse the penultimate comma in accordance with Chicago style.
For example: In college, you will read works by Hegel, Hobbes, and Tolstoy.
Use a comma to set off a nonrestrictive adjective clause (a clause that is not needed for
the sentence to retain its meaning). Do not use a comma to set off a restrictive adjective
clause (a clause that is required to make the sentences meaning clear).
Incorrect: Anyone, who is in college, must hunger for ideas.

Correct: Anyone who is in college must hunger for ideas.

The word group who is in college is restrictive: it is necessary in order for the sentence
to retain its meaning.
Here is an example of the same word group used non-restrictively.
Charlie, who is in college, spilled ketchup on his textbooks while making a sandwich.

Comma usage becomes trickier when sentences grow longer.

Rawls contends that to engage in public reason is to appeal to political conceptions, which are
narrower than comprehensive doctrines and refer to things like constitutional essentials and
matters of basic justice (e.g. the right to vote, political virtues, etc.) when debating fundamental
political questions, like abortion.

The error is slight, so read closely. This student has, admirably, used the penultimate
comma. But elsewhere the students comma usage could be tightened. The comma usage
in this sentence could lead a reader to think the material bracketed in commas modifies
the plural noun political conceptions.
Rawls contends that to engage in public reason is to appeal to political conceptions . . . like

This sentence does not make sense. Lets edit accordingly:

Rawls contends that to engage in public reason is to appeal to political conceptions, which are
narrower than comprehensive doctrines and refer to things like constitutional essentials and
matters of basic justice (e.g. the right to vote, political virtues, etc.), when debating fundamental
political questions such as whether there is a right to abortion.

Here, commas bracket the students point about political conceptions. We favor such
as above the slightly more ambiguous like; that preference, however, lies in the
domain of style. Well arrive there soon, but not yet.
The semicolon
Use a semicolon to connect independent clauses or to separate items in a series that
follows a colon.
Lets turn to an example of incorrect semicolon usage.
For [Platos] claim here to be relevant or meaningful, we must first accept not only that
humankind will sacrifice material pleasure in pursuit of intellectual abstraction; but also that
happiness and justice are the abstractions for which we will be willing to make that sacrifice.

A novelist or poet might defend nonstandard semicolon usage as a matter of style or
rhythm. In academic writing the semicolon as employed above marks an error in usage
because the but also is not an independent clause. In this sentence we need to omit
the semicolon. We note with delight that this student seems to have mastered the not
onlybut also parallelism that good form requires.
Here is an instance of correct semicolon usage from the same student:
Throughout The Gorgias and The Republic, Plato advances an inconsistent understanding of
human nature; by turns optimistic and pessimistic, it mutates and evolves as needed to fit
Platos argument.

The colon
Punctuation is, in part, a matter of rhythm. The comma marks a one-beat pause, the
semicolon marks two beats; the colon marks three.
Use a colon to introduce a list, a long quotation, an explanation or definition, or an
independent clause that demands more emphasis than a semicolon would provide.
When a colon introduces an independent passage or sentence, capitalize the first word
that follows it.
The em dash ()
Use the em dash to set off an explanatory or parenthetical phrase or to indicate an abrupt
change in the sentence.
Because the em dash allows you to isolate or clarify ideas within a sentence, it is a handy
tool for making your writing clear and easy to read.
If you use an em dash to set off material that deserves emphasis, be sure to close your
However, [Aristotle] argues that those characteristicsthe ones he suggests for being
persuasive are personal and involve character and sentiment.

Like an unclosed parenthesis that irritates the reader by remaining open for pages, this
lonely em dash requires another.
Correct: However, [Aristotle] argues that those characteristicsthe ones he suggests for being
persuasive are personal and involve character and sentiment.

Avoid confusing the hyphen (-) and the em dash (). Figure out how to make the em
dash in WORD.
Quotation marks

Use double quotation marks to enclose direct quotations from the text. Use single
quotation marks to enclose a quotation within a quotation. If for some reason you must
enclose a further quotation, go back to double marks.
Place quotation marks outside when you use a comma or a period, and inside when you
use a semicolon or colon.
Chicago recommends using a block quotation when the text youre quoting is 100 words
or more, or at least eight lines. Set off long quotations by indenting them. Do not enclose
these quotes in quotation marks.
For example:
Adam Smith suggests that the talents we perceive as natural are to a large extent acquired. He
The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are
aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different
professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause,
as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar
characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to
arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. When they came
into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps,
very much alike, and neither their parents nor play-fellows could perceive any
remarkable difference.3

It is unlikely that you would use a 100-word quote in a very short essay. You would
probably use quotes of this length in a senior thesis, M.A. thesis, or Ph.D. dissertation.
Some academics bristle at contractions in formal writing. The Chicago manual is more
forgiving. Most be- verbs, Chicago declares, can be contracted when followed by not.
Correct: Whilst the pursuit of wealth for its own sake in part hints at the constitution of the
spirit of capitalism, it surely does not wholly capture the idea.

Also correct: Whilst the pursuit of wealth for its own sake in part hints at the constitution of
the spirit of capitalism, it surely doesnt wholly capture the idea.


Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R. H. Campbell and A.
S. Skinner (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), 28-29.

Chicago advises non-technical writers to spell out whole numbers from zero to one
hundred, as well as certain round numbers (e.g., one million).
In matters of style, aim for clarity and vividness. Clarity is about saying what you want to
say. Vividness is about saying it memorably.
Do you use long words or short words? Do you organize your sentence in a
straightforward way? Do you opt for concrete verbs and nouns? Do you pepper your
prose with adverbs and adjectives? All these, and more, affect the clarity of your writing.
If you want to write vividly, you must write clearly. But you must also do more than that.
The finest prose is evocative and immediate. It conjures up images. It drums out a
rhythm. It stabs like a needle. To arrest the readerto entrance himyou need an ear for
tone and tune, cadence and pulse. But above all you need humanity. Sentences that matter
have authors standing behind them, breathing life into the words.
Clear writing reflects clear thinking. If you dont know what youre trying to say, you
wont be able to express your points intelligibly.
Clear writing also promotes clear thinking. Each of your sentences should contain an idea
or insight. And each sentence should move your essay along. Distilling your ideas into
sentence-long pieces forces you to think harder about the assumptions and sub-ideas that
make up your larger point. These sub-ideas are the sentences that make your paragraphs,
and the paragraphs that make up your essay. Organizing your thoughts by writing them
down stimulates as many ideas as it reflects.
Dont try to sound smart
Trying to sound smart often backfires. Ornate prose does not make you appear intelligent.
Pretense becomes perceptible.
Resist the urge to write the way you think academics write. The best academic writers
start out writing clearly. Some of these academics, once they have moved more deeply
into their specialties and acquired more precise vocabularywords they use to talk with
other scholars in that specialtywrite prose that seems arcane. But the opacity of
scholars who write well is usually just superficial. Real opacity does not come from big
words. It comes from muddled thinking.
As an undergraduate, you have not yet been initiated into a sub-field that requires
specialized vocabulary. So you do not need to write as if you were an expert writing for
other experts. Instead, think about how an academic would write for a general audience.
How would she explain a difficult concept simply and cogently?


Clarity is the sturdiest foundation for intelligent writing. If you want to sound smart, strip
your sentences down instead of puffing them up.
The same applies to graduate students, unless they are members of a subgroup wherein
obscurity is valued. But even here, be careful. Most successful academic writing is
fundamentally clearto those who understand the language. To be sure, some highly
valued works (e.g., Being and Time, The Sound and the Fury) were once regarded as
profoundly obscure. We aficionados now understand that those works were not quite so
obscure after all. But unless you know that you have the capacity to pull off what
Heidegger and Faulkner did, we suggest that you avoid trying to make your academic
debut with such writing.
Be suspicious of very long sentences
Long sentences, by and large, are more difficult to read than short sentences. Excessive
length can be a sign that you are trying to pack too many ideas into a single sentence.
Consider clarifying a confusing long sentence by breaking it up. Two clear short
sentences trump one unclear long sentence.
Write how you speakand then edit
One strategy for achieving clarity is to write as if you were talking to a friend. This
technique can help you relax. Your writing will sound more natural as a result.
Because we tolerate more errors in speech than in writing, be sure to edit afterwards to
clean up your sentences.
Aim for the concrete over the abstract
In college, you will often be writing and talking about concepts. Do not get mired in the
For example:
Kuhn supports his argument first by using a comparison between puzzles and paradigms and
then by demonstrating this relation with rules and paradigms.

This summary of Kuhn is not helpful. The author has not answered the following
questions: What does Kuhns comparison between puzzles and paradigms show? What is
the relation between rules and paradigms? And, indeed: What is Kuhns argument?
When you use abstract words, you run the risk of concealing your meaning. Worse, you
run the risk of concealing from yourself that you do not know what your meaning is.

Provide concrete examples to help your reader understand what the terms you use mean.
What is an example of a puzzle, a paradigm, and a rule, as Kuhn understands those
In academic writing, you must cite the evidence for your claims, thus making it available
to your reader. Disciplining yourself by supplying short, exemplary quotations and
specific page references may help you avoid vague and elliptical summaries of the
authors argument.
Citations are, of course, more than a matter of style. If you cannot find justification for a
claim you make, that is often a signal that your claim is incorrect. Attentiveness to textual
evidence will make your writing not only evidentially more sound but also clearer.
Passive voice
In active sentences, the subject does the action. In passive voice, the action is done to the
subject (quick: is this sentence passive or active?).
Aristotles Rhetoric is an intricate analysis of rhetoric. Rhetoric is defined as the power of seeing
what is capable of being persuasive on each subject.

Who defines rhetoric? Presumably Aristotle, because his work is the subject of the essay.
So why not say so?
Aristotle defines rhetoric as the power of seeing what is capable of being persuasive on each

Always use active voice, unless you have a good reason for using passive voice.
Sometimes passive voice names an agent.
The votes are counted by volunteers.

Sometimes it names no agent at all.

The votes are counted.

The political scientist Harold Lasswell famously defined politics as who gets what,
when, how. David J. V. Bells treatment of politics as talk reworks Lasswells
formulation to describe politics as who talks to whom, when, how.4

John S. Nelson, Stories of Science and Politics, in The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences, ed. John S.
Nelson, Allan Megill, and Donald [Deirdre] N. McCloskey (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
1987), 209.

Regardless of which view of politics you agree with, knowing who does what to whom is
crucial in the social sciences. Passive voice either conceals who does what to whom
The votes are counted, but who counted them?or buries it later in the sentence.
Avoiding passive voice is a matter of style: active sentences are more direct and more
elegant. But avoidance of the passive voice also accords with the ethics of academic
inquiry. Academic writers should explicate and clarify, not bury or omit information that
their readers need. So the passive voice is not your friend. It is not your readers friend
either. Think of it as the passive vice.
The word as
Be wary of as, because it is ambiguous. Use because and since (although since is
tricky as well, because it can be temporal), or while and when.
Alice did not want to clean her room as she was crying.

This sentence could mean either that Alice did not want to clean her room because she
was crying or that Alice simply did not want to be shedding tears while tidying up.
Ambiguous pronouns
Every pronoun has an antecedent. Make it clear to your reader which antecedent any
pronoun you use refers to. The pronoun which is particularly dangerous.
For example:
Namely, opponents of equality for homosexual individuals and same-sex couples are faced
increasingly with functionally separate historical instances in which egalitarian principles have
prevailed in the face of tradition-driven reasoning, which are then ostensibly available to
advocates for gay rights to invoke as precedential weight behind their claims.

This sentence tries to do too much. Readers at first might think that the which that
follows tradition-driven reasoning refers to tradition-driven reasoning. Instead, the
which refers to the functionally separate historical instances in which concerns of
equality have trumped concerns of tradition.
Lets make this sentence clearer:
Opponents of gay rights face numerous historical instancessuch as Loving v. Virginia, which
overturned laws banning interracial marriagein which egalitarian principles prevailed over
arguments that rested on tradition. Gay-rights advocates can assert that these instances offer
precedential weight supporting their claims.

The edited version repairs the confusion over which by breaking the sentence into two.
It also simplifies the language, removes unneeded adverbs, and adds a concrete example
of a historical instance.


Another pronoun liable to be abused is it.

While Confucius makes the importance and necessity of following ones parents extremely clear,
what is not made clear is the rationale behind it or the extent to which it must be followed.

The it refers to filial piety. As phrased, the sentence reads awkwardly. Like Confucius,
the author has not clarified his points.
While Confucius makes the importance and necessity of following ones parents extremely clear,
he does not clarify the rationale behind doing so nor the extent to which people should practice
filial piety.

The word this

The word this nearly always needs a noun to follow it.
Thus it seems clear to me that Socrates had a rather idealistic and unrealistic view of what
human nature is or should be. This brings up a pertinent problem in making it rather
inapplicable to todays times. It is with regards to this that Cephalus brings up an interesting
point in The Republic.

This passage uses this ambiguously in two sentences in a row. One sentence is hard to
get away with. Two is impossible.
Lets rewrite:
It seems clear that Socrates had a rather unrealistic understanding of human nature. Because of
Socrates starry-eyed view of human motivation, we cannot apply his ideas to contemporary
debates about justice and punishment. Cephalus, on the other hand, presents a more nuanced
view of human nature in The Republic.

Starting a sentence with this and not following the this with a noun is a red flag. It is
a signal that you are not sure what the this refers to.
When writing about various arguments an author makes, saying this view or this
understandingas opposed to an unqualified thiswill make your response to the
writers arguments clearer, because you will know which aspect of the argument you are
commenting on.
In this section, Aristotle is telling or instructing rhetoricians about three things essential to
rhetoric. This suggests that rhetoricians do not discover rhetoric but perhaps learn it by being
subject to Aristotles knowledge of the topic.

An easy fix:
In this section, Aristotle is telling or instructing rhetoricians about three things essential to
rhetoric. This didacticism suggests a view on Aristotles part that rhetoricians do not discover

rhetoric but perhaps learn it by absorbing Aristotles knowledge of the topic.

Too many linking wordsprepositions and conjunctions such as of, for, to, that, and so
onoften are signs of a cluttered sentence.
Clutter is the bane of clarity. If a word adds nothing to your sentence, omit it.
Noun and verb styles
Noun style: Arrival; Reconnaissance, Victory.
Verb style: I came. I saw. I conquered.5
The verb style moves swiftly. Reading the noun style is like swimming through mud. If
you can say with verbs what you might say with nouns, do so. If you can say with nouns
what you might say with verbs, resist the impulse.
Be suspicious of nouns ending in tion. Excessive tion words are a sign that you are
veering into noun style.
The use of I
Dont be afraid to use I. Some academic disciplines abstain from using Ias if a
piece of writing simply appeared, with no one having written itbut history, the
humanities, and most of the social sciences endorse its use.
Music and cadence
Read your written work aloud. See what rhythms and patterns you can detect. Does it
read smoothly? Or is it clunky and halting?
Absorbing poetry and serious fiction is the surest way to make your writing sing.
We now move on to short-form response papers of the sort that professors may well
assign in their courses, as a means of stimulating student learning and of getting feedback
about how well students are learning. We shall call these Reading Response Papers
(RRPs). We envisage RRPs as being no more than 500 words in length, and probably

Richard Lanham, Analyzing Prose (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1983), 15.

You get no prizes for going long in this genre: most likely, the professor simply wants to
know how insightful you have been in your reading of the assigned material. If you have
not adequately grappled with the reading that the professor assigned, writing twice the
number of words that the professor has asked for will not save you. It will only annoy
her, because 1,000 words take longer to read than 500 words. Moreover, writing at
greater length offers a greater risk of exposing the limits of your knowledge.
Reading Response Papers (RRPs)
An RRP is an attempt to convey your understanding of what an author is saying, and to
comment on some aspect of the text in question.
RRPs serve three purposes.
First, RRPs get us into the habit of writing. Students must not fear putting pen to paper
(or, more likely, fingertips to keyboard). Writing a senior thesis, an M.A. thesis, or a
Ph.D. dissertation, or a marketing report, or a legal brief, is in many respects a matter of
applying the same willingness to commit your thoughts to paper as is required in shortform writing.
The big difference between writing a very short piece and writing a senior thesis, M.A.
thesis, dissertation, or other piece of long writing is this: Long-form writing requires clear
and explicit advance planning, lest the writing turn into an aimless and undirected
ramble. In many cases, short-form writing requires only that you think for a few minutes
about the reading or the problem the professor has asked you to write about, and then
write. After you have written your 300 or 500 words, print it out, edit it severely on
paper, and then re-write it. Never submit work to a professor unless you have edited and
revised it.
Second, we compose RRPs to refine how we approach complex problems and how we
interpret conceptually dense texts. Good academic writing, with few exceptions, needs to
be about real stuff: scenes of practice (including imagined scenes of practice) that we
approach in a reflective rather than a merely polemical way. Distilling and commenting
on an authors argument in 300 to 500 words, or attempting to clarify the gist of a
problem, is good preparation for longer-form writing.
Third, RRPs elevate the level of discussion and understanding in seminars and in
lectures. They are a check to make sure students read in advance. They are also a check
to make sure students think in advance. Writing an RRP before class forces you to
articulate your response to the text. It ensures that you will have intelligent things to say
in the seminar.
Where to start?
If there is a single best way to go about writing a RRP, it is something like this:

1. State in your own words what you believe the author is saying. (Or, state in your
own words the gist of the problem.)
You need not summarize the entire text, or the entire range of the problem (for example:
the problem of justice, or the problem of breaking into the Chinese market for widgets).
But you should not refer to an authors argument in your RRP unless you have said what
that argument is. Summing up an authors argument shows that you have understood
what the author is saying. It also tells the reader that you have given the authors claims a
fair hearing. Mutatis mutandis, you also need to say what the problem is that you are
dealing with.
2. Identify a feature of the authors argument, or a feature of the problem, that you
would like to explicate, critique, or suggestively extend.
Say what aspect of the text or problem you would like to focus on. It might be helpful to
mention why you find that aspect interesting. Do you perceive a contradiction or tension
in the authors treatment of a particular subject? Do you believe that the authors
approach toward the subject casts light on a contemporary matter, such as a recent
Supreme Court decision or political dilemma? Is there a formal aspect of the text that
intrigues or puzzles you? Did the author make an argument that you didnt expect him to
3. Elaborate on the aspect of the text (or problem) that you find interesting. Use
examples, and offer evidence for your claims.
Include carefully selected quotes from the author you are discussing to ground your
arguments in textual evidence. Be concise: in this genre you have only a limited number
of words.
What to avoid
1. Vague or dense language that conceals a misunderstanding or misreading
For the purposes of the RRP, it is better to be clear, and clearly wrong, than abstruse and
equivocal. If you put forth your understanding of the author in lucid terms, even if it is
incorrect, other people will be able to add nuance to your view or suggest ways in which
you have misread. Some people call this process learning. It is well known that truth
arises more readily from error than from confusion.
We would wager that if you attempt to say what you think the author is saying in an
understandable way, you are less likely to misread in the first place.
2. Needless abstraction
Do not waste words wandering around in philosophical minefields. Get to the point you
want to make. Ground your point in evidence and examples.


3. Lack of evidence
We can think of two telltale indications that you are not marshaling sufficient evidence to
support your claims. First is a failure to cite the text when you reference it directly and
indirectly. Second is making broad, sweeping claims.
These signs that an RRP is going off track often emerge together. If you remain focused
on the text you are studying, you are less likely to leave it aside to make a sweeping
argument that you fail to give evidence for. Similarly, if your focus is on a problem,
make sure that you do not create the impression that you think you are the first person to
have ever noticed the problem. For example, if your topic is freedom, you should at least
hint that you have read John Stuart Mill; if it is the banking crisis, then youd better make
sure that you allude to, if not directly reference and discuss, the important authors on that
4. Bambi vs. Godzilla
You are smart, but Aristotle is smarter. You are unlikely to take him down in 600 words.
Nor are you likely to solve the problem of world peace in such a work.
If you would like to dispute a point that an author makes, do so: but in a measured way.
An antagonistic mode is not the best approach for an RRP. Given the time and space
constraints of the exercise, an attempt to refute an authors point is likely to give his
arguments short shrift.
Tips for success
1. Define the terms you use. Do not use a word unless you know what it means.
Some commonly misused words:
Refute. To refute a statement or theory is to disprove it. Dont confuse a mere denial with
a refutation. If you say that someone has refuted someone elses allegations, you are
responsible for showing how this is so, if there might be any doubt on that score in your
readers mind.
Ideology. This term connotes more than you might think. Avoid it unless you have
carefully studied Marx, Lukcs, or both. If you want to speak about an authors system of
ideas, you can say, for example, Platos philosophy.
Rationalism. Rationalism is different from rationality as an introductory economics
course might define it. The word rationalism most commonly refers to the view that
knowledge (that is, true, certain knowledge) comes from reason rather than from

experience. Thomas Hobbes is a famous rationalist, in this sense. However, the word also
has other meanings.
You might say that an author is rational, but if you wish to brand the author as a
rationalist, be very, very careful. Most likely, you are stepping onto a minefield.
Empiricism. Empiricism is rationalisms counterpart. Empiricism holds that knowledge
comes from sense-experience.
Implication. An implication is a conclusion that we can draw. It is not explicitly stated.
Effect. Effect differs from implication. An effect is the result of an action or other cause.
Explanation. An explanation, in the social sciences, answers the question: What caused
x? We advise you not to obscure the difference between an explanation in that sense and
a description, which attempts to say what is (or was) the case.
Assertion / claim / contention. Says that something is the case without necessarily
providing proof.
Argument. To provide a reason or reasons to persuade others that something is the case.
Do not confuse a claim with an argument. To claim that x is the case is not yet to offer an
argument in support of that claim.
To posit. To posit something is to suggest that we treat it as if it were true, simply for
the sake of making an argument. In actual fact, it may or may not be true. Do not say that
Hobbes posits that true knowledge comes from reason. On the contrary: that is what
Hobbes claims.
Let us posit that cockroaches are peculiarly resistant to nuclear radiation.

2. Be careful of idioms. Say discussion of x, not discussion on x. Avoid with regard to

or in regard to: better to say regarding or concerns or is about.
3. Write about something that interests you. If youre bored, your reader will be too. So
have fun!
Examples of RRPs (mini-essays) done well
Machiavelli, The Prince
It is in many ways tempting to label Machiavellis The Prince as an early work of
extreme-realist nation-building strategy and foreign policy theory. He does, after all, explicitly
subscribe to the philosophy that war is inevitable and, in writing The Prince, sets out to detail the
steps to gaining and preserving power at any and all cost. There seems to be, however, at least
one critical and somewhat confounding difference between Machiavellis approach to power
politics and the tenets of contemporary realism that makes his stance significantly the bolder of

the two. While modern realists generally view the world in a sort of vacuum devoid of most
ethical and moral considerations and judgments in which most state actions are inherently
justified, Machiavelli openly and repeatedly passes ethical judgment on the very policies he
recommends and the actions of historical figures whom he points to as models.
Much of the evidence for this point comes simply from Machiavellis choice of words.
For example, in chapter eight, he describes the need to distinguish between cruelty well used and
cruelty abused (30). A few things immediately stand out from this section. First, by using the
word cruelty, rather than traditional realist terms (or, in some cases, euphemisms) like force or
even violence, Machiavelli seems to be passing some ethical judgment on the action. This
argument gains even greater traction when considered alongside Machiavellis later
recommendation that new rulers should make a list of all the crimes [he] has to commit and do
them all at once (30). In using highly charged terms like cruelty and crime, Machiavelli
injects his own moral judgment into discussions of state building and international relations and
seems to break the golden rule of classical realist theory that stresses that all acts in the interest of
state power and security are justified in a world of cut-throat competition and unrelenting selfinterest between nations. If this were the case, and unthinkable cruelty happened to be used by a
particular city or people against another in the interest of power or security, wouldnt it cease to
be a crime? Wouldnt it be justified by the nature of the game that is statecraft? Machiavellis
seems to indicate that he believes the answer is no, though, interestingly, it doesnt stop him from
recommending such policies anyway.
So in promoting the ostensibly realist strategy manifesto that is The Prince, is
Machiavelli simultaneously making an argument against it? Is he admitting that the whole
concept and mindset is morally deplorable, but the only way to survive in a world of selfish state
actors? Or, more directly, can one infer that Machiavelli believes only criminals can win in the
struggle for life on the global stage? All of these questions seem worth considering in further,
more detailed study.

This RRP is surprisingly short: not even 500 words. One minor imperfection is that the
author does not define realist theory. Realist theory is a term familiar to students of
international relations and conflict, but it has different connotations in other disciplines,
such as literary studies. But this RRP is lucid, intelligent, and would add significantly to
classroom discussion of the text.
Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction
One of the three principal reactionary theses Albert O. Hirschman identifies in The
Rhetoric of Reaction is the perversity thesis. The perversity thesis holds that any purposive
action to improve some feature of the political, social or economic order only serves to exacerbate
the condition one wishes to remedy (7). Reactionary arguments, Hirschman asserts, sometimes
employ the perversity thesis to oppose progressive action. Such arguments contend that an action
will result in the exact opposite of what the progressive actors intend. Hirschman examines critics
of the French Revolution, the welfare state and, to a lesser extent, universal suffrage to show how
reactionaries argued that these attempts to remake society would backfire.
The perversity claim stands as the single most popular and effective weapon in the
annals of reactionary rhetoric, Hirschman holds (140). The thesis owes much to a religious or
quasi-religious view of a remarkably volatile social world (72). Hirschman highlights the
kinship between the reactionary principle of perverse outcomes and a belief in Divine
Providence whose task is to foil the designs of men, whose pretensions to build an ideal society
were to be exposed as nave and preposterous (17). The perversity thesis implies that attempts to
redesign society are hubristic. One can read the perverse consequences of a progressive policy as

divine punishment. The perverse effect, Hirschman writes, has an affinity to myth and religion
and to the belief in direct supernatural intervention in human affairs (73). Human intentions will
be thwarted, purveyors of the perversity thesis hold.
Given its associations with religion and divine intervention, the perversity claim has a
close affinity with another type of reactionary argument we often hear today: the playing-God
objection. The playing-God argument, when levied against a particular policy or action, can take
an explicitly religious form or a less religious form. The explicitly religious form assumes that a)
God exists; b) certain decisions or actions are reserved for God, according to Gods commands;
and c) we should obey Gods commands. The metaphorical form does not rely on religious texts
but nonetheless holds that people should not behave as if they were God.
One hears the playing-God argument most often in debates about genetic engineering or
de-extinction efforts. The thesis also comes up in arguments about abortion deciding who can
live or die, some pro-life advocates contend, amounts to playing God.
One can see radical attempts to remake society as efforts to play God, especially if one
believes, as many 18th-century critics of the French Revolution did, that the social order is
divinely ordained. To play God by enacting progressive social reform is to invite divine
retribution. Such retribution could take the form of perverse consequences. Thus we have the
perversity thesis, a heartbeat away from the playing-God objection.
Considering the playing-God claim alongside the perversity thesis clarifies both lines of
argument. The comparison brings to light the playing-God objections debts to reactionary
rhetoric. It also highlights the perversity claims roots in religious thinking.
There is, however, a key difference between the two strains of argument. The perversity
thesis focuses on consequences. Critics who wield the perversity thesis focus on the potential
negative effects of a particular policy or action. The playing-God argument, on the other hand,
focuses on means. People who criticize a policy by saying it amounts to playing God voice
concerns primarily about the attitudes or methods progressive actors employ rather than a
particular policys consequences. But the perversity thesis often implies a playing-God objection:
perverse consequences come as a result of humans playing God. And the playing-God argument
often suggests the threat of perverse consequences: if you dare to play God, your efforts will




une oeuvre, cest une question bien pose. Franois Furet
The question should be appropriate to the field in which you are writing. A good question
will likely be simple. Dont attempt, in the question, to prove how much you already
know. Make sure that you have available to you, or can readily obtain, material that will
I adapt this document from a longer document dealing with the Program in
Political and Social Thought senior thesis requirement.

make it possible for you to answer the question, or at least move closer to answering it.
An academic paper normally requires evidence and argument in support of the claims the
author makes in it. Dont assume that people will believe you just because you said it.


Without being too self-critical or taking too much time, you should sit down (or stand up)
and formulate anywhere from five to ten questions that you have some interest in, and
which, through research, you might be able to clarify, or even answer. Write the
questions down.
Eliminate the worst, least feasible questions, until you arrive at anywhere from two to
four questions that you might want to work with. Write the questions down.
Spending a bit more time at this stage of the process, write up, in no more than two
single-spaced pages (probably less) a justification and plan of attack indicating how
you might approach the task of addressing two, three, or all of those questions. Ideally,
you should submit this short document to an informed critic. If you are writing the paper
for a class, that person would probably be the professor who teaches the class. (NOTE:
Just because someone knows or seems to know a little more than you do does not in itself
make that person an informed critic.)
The next stage is to write up a Paper Prospectus. For a very short paper, the Prospectus
will likely be extremely short: a sentence or two at most. But let us assume that the paper
is much longerperhaps the length of a senior thesis (normally 60-120 pages in many
Distinguished Majors Programs).


A Thesis Prospectus requires: 1) a title. 2) a brief statement of the animating question of
the thesis.
3) a brief statement of the rationale (justification) and projected aim of the research.
4) a brief layout of a proposed argument of the thesis. The proposed argument is likely to
be tentative, and may even be undecided between two opposing positions (with the
hypothesis implicitly, if not explicitly, being put up against its opposite, the null
The proposed argument section should not be confused with a thesis statement, about
which some people hear in secondary school. We assume in a scholarly investigation (as

distinguished from polemic or propaganda) that the answer is not known in advance
(otherwise, no scholarly investigation would be needed).
The laying out of a proposed argument is important, because otherwise there is a
tendency for undergraduate theses to drift toward becoming, in large chunks, mere
summaries of vaguely relevant material. Of course, there will be a need to convey
information to the reader, but the conveying of information needs to be subordinated to
the carrying out of an argument.
5) Next comes a chapterization of the anticipated thesis, giving a view as to how the
student anticipates organizing the thesis from page 1 through to the end. There will be
separate headings for the Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4, and
Conclusion. (Normally a thesis will not have more than four chapters and it may well
have fewer. More isnt necessarily better.) These segments need to be laid out in such a
way that the reader of the proposal will have a feel for what the possible argument
connecting these segments will be. In this way, there will be a plausible flow from
Introduction to Conclusion.
Further Advice concerning chapterization:
Each anticipated chapter will be given a descriptive title. Each of the elements from the
Introduction through to the last chapter will include three to five sentences in which the
thesis-writer indicates what the chapter will be describing and what the anticipated
argument or narrative or logical flow of the chapter will be. The Conclusion section
will also include several sentences, but because the research has not yet been carried out
these sentences will not present a set of claims. Rather, they will highlight, perhaps in an
interrogatory mode, the as yet unresolved issues that the thesis will be addressing.
The entire sequence needs to be conceptually and argumentatively coherent (it should
tell a plausible story, in a broad sense of story). The reader of the Prospectus should
at no point be puzzled as to how each statement connects with what precedes and what
follows it. At the same time, the story/argument should acknowledge that the truth is not
yet known, given that the research has not yet been done.
A general comment: The rules given below relate to academic style. If you were writing
for a newspaper, or if you were writing a work of fiction, or if you were blogging, you
would in some instances below not follow these rules. Moreover, a few of these addenda
are merely instances of A. Megills preferences. If you are writing for AM, follow these
rules; if for others, take your chances.

After C. Tyson composed the Writing Guide, Pts. I and II, A. Megill wrote up these
addenda in response to mini-essays (RRPs) that violated CTs rules, or that made AM
aware of other rules that needed to be made explicit.
Although: I have a mild preference, in most cases, for although over though, on the
grounds that although is instantly unambiguous, whereas though could be
momentarily confused with through or thought. Call me obsessive-compulsive if you
will: but you lose nothing, except two spaces, if you follow this rule (most of the time
sometimes the sound or rhythm of the sentence tells against this rule).
Amongbetween: We reserve between for a relation between two entities, and
among for a relation among three or more entities.
Avoid passive voice: This prescription is in the Writing Guide, but students have
ignored it so persistently that I repeat it. Go through your half-finished piece of writing
and convert unjustified passive-voice constructions to active voice.
Based off [of]: Attend to the metaphor: something is based on something else. For
example, the statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown Charlottesville (we do have such a
statue, do we not?) is based on its supporting plinth. Were someone to blow it up, it might
no longer be on that base. It might be off it. So when a student writes that X is based off
Y, I imagine a whole sequence of blown-up statues. Unless that is what you are actually
trying to convey, dont say based off.
Bothas well as: This construction makes no sense, and marks you as inattentive.
Instead, in English we say and write bothand.
Both writers agree that P: Dont say that! If the two writers hold the same position (P),
you should write The two writers agree that P or Both writers hold that P. It is a
logical error to say that Both writers agree that P, because their mutual agreement
requires, as a prior condition, that they hold the same position with respect to P. If you
say that They both agree that P, you are writing illogically. But perhaps you mean that
the two writers agree with a third or fourth writer, agent, etc., that P. If that is what your
intended meaning is, and if it is true, say Both writers agree [with a third writer, agent,
etc.] that P. However, I find that this is very rarely the intended meaning.
Evident vs. apparent: To avoid offending people who know the etymology of apparent,
with its connotations of mere appearance (par exemple, en franais on dit trs souvent il
parat que, which means it appears [seems] that), I prefer that you write evident
when you want to say that something is obviously true, and that you write apparent
when you mean to convey the idea that there is some tincture of doubt. I concede that
most readers of English arent aware of the etymology; tant pis.
Its: See The symmetry preference, below.

The manner in which: Why not the way? Dont refer to the manner in which
Augustine went about pursuing truth; refer rather to the way Augustineetc.
More: When you use the word more, make sure that it will be utterly clear to the
reader what follows the implied, but often unstated, than.
Most vs. the majority of: Never say this sort of thing: The majority of the beans in the
experiment were red. No, we have a fine English word most that you should use in
that caseunless the beans have the right to vote, which I doubt.
Parentheses and brackets: If you have parentheses within parentheses, you should
operate as follows, using brackets where you would otherwise use parentheses: ([ ]).
Realize and recognize: People sensitive to etymology will be offended if you use
realize to mean recognize, when the etymology of realize suggests, rather, the
meaning to make real, or to effectuate, or to bring about. If you mean to
recognize, why not say to recognize?
The reason for which: Clunky. The reason why or even simply the reason are
almost always preferable: Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to
do and die: / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred. And you too, if youre not careful.

Refute/deny: To refute means to definitively and absolutely demonstrate that

something is false. You should almost always substitute deny for refute. Only use
refute when you yourself have offered, and fully take responsibility for, the supposed
refutation. And make sure that it really is a refutation. If a reasonable reader might doubt
the absolute solidity of your logical thinking and of the empirical supports that you offer,
well, thenyoud better say deny.
The symmetry preference: It is no accident that Blakes Tyger was symmetrical (What
immortal hand or eye / Dare frame they fearful symmetry?). Who are you to go against
God? In general, even at the expense of adding an extra word or two, it is better to follow
the rule of symmetry. Here is an example:
Its interesting that the audience member was asking for a set of action points, not, so far as I
remember, for principles.

In correcting a students mini-essay, I inserted the second for for reasons of symmetry
(and also to make sure that the grammatical role of principles would be instantly clear).
BTW, in academic style one would usually avoid the contraction its (one would also
not write BTW). However, although Ive not run a check of academic articles and
books to see how often authors are allowed by copy-editors to say its or (Ive)
instead of it is (or I have), I dont find these contractions conceptually offensive.
That: Tell someone that she should come home, vs. Tell someone she should come home:
If you are writing a novel, go for the second option. If you are writing academic prose,

consider going for the first option. Inclusion of the that avoids a momentary feeling of
ambiguity on the readers part. This is not, however, a hard-and-fast rule: taste is required.
Time period: In almost every instance, the phrase time period is an extremely
annoying redundancy. Usually, you should simply say period, unless there is a danger
that the reader might think that you have some other kind of period in mind.
Upon vs. on: If on will do, do not use upon. Reserve upon for instances where you
need an intensification of some sort, or where there is a idiomatic saying (Once upon a
time,) to be honored.
Use complete sentences: Write in complete sentences. Only rarely, and perhaps never,
should you diverge from this rule.
Within vs. in: Never use within unless there is reason to intensify the idea of in-ness,
which, usually, is perfectly well conveyed by in.
Do not write only for initiates: If your discussion of a particular text or situation in
written in such a way that it can be understood only by people who are intimately familiar
with that text or situation, your writing is ipso facto badvery, very, very bad. Your
obligation is to write in such a way that your piece of writing stands on its own feet.
Otherwise, nobody will read you. Even initiatesperhaps especially initiateswill be

V. ODDS AND ENDS AM, August 2014

Here are a few more points that I dont have time or inclination to comment on in detail,
at least not right now. Some are so evidently justified that they need no commentary:
Identifying your work: Include your name both in the filename and on the first page of
everything you submit to a professor. MYPOLTHEORYESSAY says nothing to a TA
or professor.
Quoting and citation rules: Except in informal pieces of writing where the professor
exempts you from following formal citation style, your method of citation needs to
follow the examples given in the Writing Guide. Everything that you write that is not in
proper academic style impairs the reception of what you are saying. Such divergences
also suggest that you either dont know, or are unwilling to follow, the rules of the game.
For the citation rules in detail, see Turabian et al.; for the rules in excruciating detail, see
Chicago Manual of Style. Note that Turabian and Chicago also provide rules for the
Author/Date mode of citation, which is preferred in many disciplines (although not in

Again, if the professor explicitly exempts you from following formal citation style, you
have an outif you wish to take it.
Twenty years ago, when I was the Journal of the History of Ideass designated hit man
for all would-be articles dealing with Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, and related
luminaries, I could usually tell within the space of three sentences which authors were in
the game and which were not. I kick myself now for reading all the manuscripts
through from beginning to end, instead of only the manuscripts that passed the three
sentence rule. What a waste of time that was.
Font and font size: Preferred font is the neutral and quite boring Times New Roman,
font size 12; feel free to use a font size of 10 in notes. The great thing about Times New
Roman is that we never notice it. In an academic context, usually anything of a formal
sort that draws attention to itself is bad. You might say to me: ButFoucaults Chinese
encyclopedia?7 To which I would say: You arent Foucault.
Headers: Do not put any stuff in the header apart from a page number, and a running
head if you need one (a running head would be appropriate for a chapter in a thesis or
dissertation, for example).
Breaks: Do not put page or section breaks in your text, unless you have a very strong
need to do so (for example, in order to start numbering footnotes from 1 again).
Sometimes section breaks can be horrible to get out.8 Also avoid inserting any other
unnecessary elements into the text. Keep it simple.
WORD/RTF vs. PDF: In general, submit your work in a WORD or WORD-compatible
format (.rtf), not in PDF. Most professors at U.Va. cannot easily edit and comment on
PDF files. On the other hand, PDF is good for archiving a completely graded and finished
piece of work.

Actually, it was Borges Chinese encyclopedia. You is in trouble already.

Here and just above, I write Do not instead of Dont to convey a greater intensity.