Common Pitfalls and Professors' Pet Peeves
(printable version here)
Common Pitfalls and Fallacies
Generalization occurs when a writer makes a statement like, "all fish are bass". Obviously that is not true, although many fish definitely are bass. In a more historical writing context, such a statement could be easily proven incorrect. Writers need to carefully review their texts and get rid of such unsubstantiated generalizations.
A reductive fallacy occurs when a writer uses a phrase which effectively limits diversity to one thing, through phrases like "nothing but". History teaches that all events are complex, and stating that the Civil War was caused by slavery reduces a complex event to a much undeserved simplicity.
Tautology occurs when the writer has different wordings of the same thing acting on each other as though they were separate. An example would be, "English aggressiveness spurred the nation to stimulate commerce on the seas and win the supremacy of trade routes." So, English aggressiveness works on England, and England works on English commerce. Obviously, the three are the same, but the writer treats them as being different.
Misplaced literalism occurs when a writer takes someone's words out of context. If you merely quote a short passage from a book, you may not get an accurate idea of what the author's opinion is. Quotes are all right, but the sentences around them must be perused to determine if there are contradictions to the quoted passage.
Note: The preceding work incorporated material from The Modern Researcher (Barzun & Graff, 146-48).
Common pitfalls for younger students:
- Presence of grammatical or technical errors in the page can significantly detract from a writer's argument: rules concerning punctuation, capitalization, etc. should be followed. When in doubt, Dr. Treadway recommends referencing Strunk and White's Elements of Style.
- A lack of proofreading can result in distracting inconsistencies within a paper. Active proofreading will ensure that your paper maintains a logical flow and will help to eliminate such grammatical answers mentioned above.
- Students must be careful to not get caught up in narration in lieu of meaningful analysis.
- Students should avoid normative claims: avoid telling how things should be.
- Avoid inferring or supposing something to be true without first ensuring its validity.
- Historical writing is not merely a matter of using the past tense. Students must not forget that evidence is necessary and that focusing on the elements of context is paramount.
Common pitfalls for older students:
- Older students often still have problems integrating their own voice into the evidence that they present. Don't just reassert another historian's argument!
- Lack of effective transitions.
- Many upperclassmen still do not have enough knowledge of research and the best manners of approaching it. Majors are expected to know how to conduct effective research prior to taking the History 400 Research Seminar.
- Upper-level students are often timid when approaching the debates and interpretations of history. They should be careful to actively engage in the differences in the works and arguments of past historians.
Professors' Pet Peeves
- Students not knowing how to perform appropriate research!
- Students taking the "line of least resistance" in historical writing, AKA doing the "bare minimum" that is required.
- Referring to any and all books as novels. Novels, by definition, are fictional.
- Lack of use or misuse of useful punctuation such as colons and semicolons. Instead, students will often write multiple (3+) sentences in a row that could be powerfully combined with such punctuation.
- Use of vague and or overly grand or universal statements such as: "throughout time"; "in all of history"; "people have always...".
- The president does not pass legislation; Congress is what passes acts into laws.
- Inadequately or improperly referenced essays.
- Overuse or over-repetition of certain words or phrases such as "clearly" or transitions such as "however".
Also see the Writer's Web list of faculty pet peeves.
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