What is Research?


Imagine that you arrive at a party, and everyone in the room is discussing the same topic. Some people are passionate and animated, some try to sound rational or conciliatory, and others appear to be mumbling to themselves. As it turns out, you also have an opinion on the subject. You might even have the urge to yell at everyone to be quiet so that you can address the entire room. However, deep down you know that wouldn’t do. It would be more polite to first get to know the crowd. You might introduce yourself and hear what others have to say. You might ask questions when you don’t understand something. Only then will you be you in a position to state your own opinion. And, when you do, you can have a real conversation in which everyone’s voice is heard.

In academic writing that conversation is called research. Research is the attempt to understand the viewpoints of others. In the process, your own ideas and opinions will evolve, and may even change entirely. When you then turn to writing an academic essay or book, you are able to express your conclusions in a way that is interactive, constructive, and respectful. And, if you do all these things, you will be the star of the party.

Primary and Secondary Sources

Scholars often split their sources into two kinds: primary and secondary sources. Here’s how to tell the difference.

Primary Sources

A primary source is either the main focus of your discussion (e.g., a novel you’re analyzing), or it’s a source that provides first hand information about a particular topic or event (e.g., a newspaper from the time period you’re studying).

Primary sources are valued for their immediacy. For instance, when you do historical research you’ll want to hear from eye witnesses who were close to the action. Here are some common types of primary sources:

  • newspapers
  • letters
  • diaries and autobiographies
  • original books and articles
  • government documents
  • legal records
  • scientific experiments
  • interviews
  • photographs
  • artifacts (clothing, historical objects, etc.)
  • buildings and architecture

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are a kind of commentary on primary sources. For example, if I write an analysis of a Shakespeare play I’m producing a secondary source. Here are some more examples:

  • book reviews
  • academic books or articles
  • biographies
  • documentaries
  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks
  • dictionaries

These lists are not exhaustive, and there is often considerable overlap between primary and secondary sources. For instance, how would you characterize an older work of criticism (say a medieval commentary on Aristotle)? Obviously, the lines get blurred a little, but the main point is that good research is about finding the best sources–which often means looking for primary sources that get us as close to the action as possible.

Using Sources

As you incorporate your research in your writing, you’ll need to decide on the purpose of each source. Here are some of the most common ways to use a source:

Proof. By citing or quoting from a source you can demonstrate that you have sufficient evidence for your argument.

Agreement. You can explain what parts of the source meet your approval.

Background. Perhaps you just want to add some flavour or context to your writing. You can do this by providing background information.

Clarification. Sometimes a source says it better than you can. Alternatively, sometimes your source provides additional perspective and broadens the point you’re making.

Advancement. It can happen that you agree with your source, but you want to share how the insight gained might be applied in a new context or in a different way.

Disagreement. When you find sources you disagree with, you can point out their inaccuracies and shortcomings.

Once you’ve decided how you want to use your source, the next step is to interact with the source in your writing. This is where you have to decide how important the source is to your argument. If your source illustrates a minor point, you might be content with a quick mention or a paraphrase. You might even relegate the source to a footnote. If you source is absolutely central to your argument (say your entire essay is a reply to one person’s opinion), you’ll need to introduce it early and spend some time explaining why your audience should care.

Either way, it’s important to remember that your essay belongs to you, and not to your sources. That’s why we generally discourage people from using quotations in their thesis or in topic sentences. First clarify your own argument and then relate it to the viewpoints of others. Even if an entire paragraph is dedicated to a single source, we still want to know your opinion about it.

Integrating Sources

When you use a source, there are typically three things you need to do. First, you’ll have to introduce the source, which means that you have to give enough context that we can understand it. For a quotation this might mean explaining who is talking, or what the quotation means. For an illustration or graph you might want to point out what it demonstrates and how it relates to your argument.

Next, you need to provide the source, whether by quoting, paraphrasing, or inserting an image. Make sure you cite the source, following the appropriate style guide in your discipline. For the rules on quoting and paraphrasing, please consult our pages on integrating quotations (in the section on Essay Writing).

Finally, you need to interact with your source. Explain any difficult aspects (key words, concepts, ideas), indicate if you agree or disagree with your source, and connect your source to the rest of your argument.

Tip: Don’t go overboard when you introduce a source. If you’re quoting, for instance, you often just need to provide the author’s name. You don’t have to mention the title of the book or article (or publication information) unless it’s immediately relevant to your argument. All such details can be saved for your Works Cited page.


The following excerpt from an essay on the death penalty is just one example of how sources can be incorporated. In this case the author has a mixed opinion about a source:

A New York Times editorial notes that in 1966 support for the death penalty was lower (42%) then it is now (“The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End”). Yet the author of the article nevertheless concludes that the United States “has evolved past it [the death penalty], and it is long past time for the [supreme] court to send this morally abhorrent practice to its oblivion” (“Nearing Its End”). Such rhetoric assumes that as societies evolve and become more progressive, they will abolish the death penalty. Yet people do not change that quickly, and it is quite possible that should homicide rates creep up, the public may clamour for the death penalty to be brought back.

Source: “The Death Penalty, Nearing Its End” [Editorial]. New York Times, 24 Oct. 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/24/opinion/the-death-penalty-nearing-its-end.html

Notice that the author clearly introduces and explains the source. That way the reader can easily make sense of the information.


Research is not meant to be antagonistic. You don’t have to critique everyone else. Instead, research allows us to learn from others so that through collaborative effort we can all gain in knowledge.

That also means that the tone of academic writing should be constructive. There is no need to make fun of others, or go out of your way to point out mistakes. Of course you can try to correct errors, and you may need to find flaws in other people’s arguments. Yet it is also important to point out areas of consensus and have something original and valuable to say.

So avoid adjectives like ridiculous or nonsensical, and be generous even when you’re being critical.


Students often ask how many sources or quotations their essay is supposed to have. The answer is that there is no set number. It’s always a matter of balance, of presenting sufficient evidence, of respecting the views of others, and of making sure your voice is also heard. If your entire essay is a string of quotations then your reader will wonder if you have anything meaningful to add. If you don’t provide proof or interact with other critics, your interpretation will lack depth. Doing research and incorporating research is thus an essential skill, and hopefully reading this page has given you the knowledge to write with confidence.



Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote a poem comparing the work of writing with manual labour. In the poem “Digging,” he describes how his Irish ancestors have always dug for potatoes and have found a sense of fulfilment in such backbreaking work. Although Heaney savours the smells and sounds of the earth, he prefers to write poems:

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it. (25-31)

Heaney realizes that by making poetry his vocation he is breaking with family tradition. He himself is cutting through “living roots” (27).

“Digging” expresses an anxiety many of us feel. What is the value of immersing ourselves in a world of words and ideas? Is there not more satisfaction in honest work than in staring at a screen for an hour, wondering how to express ourselves? Should we feel guilty if the “pen rests” (30) and we don’t know what to write?

Heaney suggests that it is okay to take our time. Writing is a slow process, and when we rush it the results are often predictable.

That’s why before we talk about the nuts and bolts of essay writing it’s good to have the proper mindset. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this introduction took over an hour to write.

What is an essay?

The word essay is derived from the French verb essayer, which means to try. In other words, an essay is a first attempt at something. It’s not the final word and you can always change your mind about what you’ve written. If you do, you simply write another essay.

This also means that an essay doesn’t have to solve all the world’s problems. You can zoom in to the one specific question that interests you. If someone shares your concerns they will read your work; if not, they’ll move on. Not everyone cares about the Spanish Civil War or the Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, and though your prose should be accessible, you do not need to come up with some lesson or moral that applies to everyone. So make your subject matter your primary focus.

Essay Structure

In high-school, a lot of students get taught the five paragraph model, where every essay has an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion.

We don’t believe in such a rigid structure. Ideas are fluid and your essay structure needs to be adaptable. In fact, a good essay structure is organic: it grows and branches out like a tree. And every tree looks a little different from the next.

So be prepared to be flexible, to adapt the rules to your own needs. If you avoid short cuts you will write much better essays.


Writing is one of the most difficult things to master, but at the same time everyone can do it. As long as you accept the challenge and do your best, your writing will improve. To back up this claim we could give you a money back guarantee, but then this website is already free.

Good luck!

Works Cited:

Heaney, Seamus. “Digging.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47555.



The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) provides citation advice for students in the humanities and social sciences. CMS is known primarily for its Notes and Bibliography system, where writers use detailed footnotes or endnotes in combination with a final bibliography.

For writers in the sciences, CMS does provide an Author-Date citation style (similar to APA), but that will not be our focus of this introductory guide.

Our guide to CMS will teach you the rules found in the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed.). However, do be aware that occasionally we follow the more student friendly advice provided in Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (9th ed.). This applies especially to the rules for formatting an essay.

Using Notes

What is unique about CMS is its use of footnotes (or endnotes). Whereas MLA and APA require writers to cite their sources right in the body of the text, CMS tends to keep the text free of clutter. Most bibliographic information is provided in the notes. This way it’s possible to provide a detailed citation every time a source is mentioned for the first time.

To create a note in MS Word, go to the References tab, and click on Insert Footnote (or Insert Endnote).

The first time you cite a source, you’ll need to give fairly detailed information (as in this citation of a book):

The Q-tip, or cotton swab, was advertised as the end of ear wax, but, as Hegel found out, history has no end, and doctors now warn people that Q-tips pose a significant danger.¹

1. Bernard Upperlip, A Brief Inquiry into the History of Ear Wax (London: Candlelit Press, 2011), 98.

If you also provide a full bibliography at the end of your paper, you are allowed to cite less information (though consult your teacher first!), but most often your first citation of a source should be as complete as possible.

Information in a footnote is separated using commas. By contrast, in your bibliography you’ll want to use mostly periods:

Upperlip, Bernard. A Brief Inquiry into the History of Ear Wax. London: Candlelit Press, 2011.

You’ll also notice that now the author’s name is inverted, the publication information for a book is no longer in parentheses, and the page number does not have to mentioned (though you do need to give a page range when citing a chapter in a book).

Finally, after you’ve cited a source in a footnote, subsequent citations can be much shorter. Often you can do with the author’s name, a shortened version of the title, and the page number:

2. Upperlip, History of Ear Wax, 99.

In such cases, CMS used to recommend writing Ibid. (the same), but the current style guide suggests you avoid this abbreviation.

The notes and bibliography system described here is what CMS is all about. With a bit practice you’ll get the feel for it soon enough.


With our APA and MLA citation guides we have kept in-text citation separate from final citation (in the Works Cited or References page). For CMS we will use a different approach. For each type of source (periodical, book, etc.) we will provide simultaneously examples of both footnotes and bibliographic entries. That way it’s very easy to see how you would cite a source in both the notes and the bibliography.

Finally, we haven’t covered every last type of citation. In particular, we’ve left out legal sources, for which we recommend you consult one of the following texts:

  • The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation 
  • ALWD Guide to Legal Citation
  • Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation 

Additional Resources

While our CMS citation guide covers a lot of information, we do provide a few additional resources you might find handy:

Also, if you’re likely to write a lot of research papers, we recommend you check out the free Zotero citation software (no affiliation).



Welcome to the MLA citation guide! Please note that this is not the official MLA guide. For that you will have to buy the MLA Handbook (9th ed.). However, we have done our best to cover the essentials, hopefully in a concise and interesting way.

In fact, one thing you will quickly notice is that most of our examples are made up. Don’t waste your time trying to find them!

Basic Principles

The MLA Handbook is primarily used in the Arts. Other disciplines use different style guides.

The focus of the MLA guidelines is on ease of reference. When you cite your sources in the body of your essay (what is called “in-text citation”), you most often have to provide only the author’s name and the page number. The rest of the bibliographic information is contained in your Works Cited page at the back of your paper.

When it comes to those final citations, there are typically three key sections for each entry:

1. Author
2. Title
3. Container

Each of these sections ends with a period. Within a section, you separate information with commas.

Here is a more detailed overview of the basic structure, along with a specific example:

Container Example

Once you have collected as much information as you can find, you can easily turn it into a complete entry:

Warbling, Wren. “The New Zealand Pigeon Revisited.” The Backyard Birder, vol. 3, no. 4, 1992, p. 9.

The Container System

(Photo by Flickr user Vanveen, with permission)

The last section of each entry is a bit like a shipping container. It holds the contents (the author and title), and is often the larger work in which the source is found. For example, an essay might be found in an academic journal, or a short story in a book.

It may even happen that one container is part of another container. For instance, a television episode might be part of a larger series, which in turn is found in an online streaming service (e.g., Netflix). Think of this second container as the container ship.

At other times, the container is not really a larger work but simply consists of some publication information. In that case it’s more like a packing label.

Whatever metaphor you prefer, the main point is that every entry consists of at most three parts. Fill in as much information as you find relevant.

How to Use this Guide

Often there are multiple correct ways to cite a source. This flexibility can be difficult to teach, so to make things easier, we have split our version of the MLA guide into three major parts:

  1. In-text citation (how you cite your sources in the body of your essay).
  2. The sections of each Works Cited entry (author, title, container).
  3. The type of publication (books, articles, electronic sources, etc.).

There is significant overlap between the last two sections. However, this structure will make it much easier to find what you’re looking for.

In addition to these three sections, we also share MLA guidelines on formatting your paper, alphabetizing entries, optional elements, and much more.

Further Resources

For more information about the MLA guidelines, please consult the following resources:

  • MLA Handbook. 9th ed., Modern Language Association of America, 2021.
  • The FAQ section at the MLA Style Centre.
  • The OWL at Purdue MLA section.


The Goal

Writing a proper essay is quite the challenge, and it may be difficult to know where to start. That’s why it’s best to learn to write essays in easy stages. If you follow these steps and do the various activities, you will quickly develop the skills to write a complete essay.

It’s good to remember though that there are all kinds of essays. Some are personal. Others are formal and abstract. Still others are comparative, argumentative, or descriptive. So don’t think there is just one kind of essay you should write. There are lots of ways to communicate. After all, an essay is simply an attempt to share some ideas in a way that makes it easy for the reader to follow. And how you structure your ideas depends on your topic and what you want to say.

So we’ll start by picking a topic and doing some research, and then we’ll figure out how you might best organize the information.

Your assignment will be to write an essay about a natural disaster. You’ll be able to choose which disaster you want to write about. How you want to approach your topic is also up to you. You can provide a scientific explanation of what causes the disaster. You can talk about the deadliest disasters in history. You can even talk about your own experience dealing with a disaster. The main goal is to write an essay that’s engaging, educational, and interesting.

Essay Analysis

Before you start writing your own essay, you may want to study other people’s essays. To that end, here is a question sheet you can use. Writing down your answers will help you formulate your thoughts, and will make it easier to contribute to class discussion.

Read more: Introduction to Essay Writing



Welcome to our introduction to the APA style guide. APA stands for the American Psychological Association, a body that provides guidelines for a number of disciplines, particularly those in the social sciences. In this guide we explain the essential APA rules for citing sources and formatting your paper. For the official (and complete) style guide, you’ll have to buy the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.).

Common Features

APA, like MLA, uses in-text citation, by which we mean that sources are cited in the body of the text, as opposed to in footnotes or end notes. Unlike MLA, APA puts more emphasis on the date of publication. Often it is enough to cite the author’s last name and the date:

Bobbejaan (1999) argued …

… melancholy (Hrapniuk, Irate, & Wyrd, 2017).

This is sufficient if you’re referring to the general argument of the source you’re citing. On the other hand, if you’re quoting or drawing attention to a specific passage, you will also need to provide a page number:

(Smith, 2008, p. 11).

In APA style, the final bibliography is called a reference list. Again, the date of publication receives more emphasis, and is placed close to the start of each entry:

Frenetick, J. (2014). The psychology of trout tickling. LNG Press.

Clearly, APA papers value research that is current and up to date.


APA style can seem overwhelming, since it covers not only citation and formatting rules, but also gives advice on how to do research properly. Our focus is on the former. As you take courses in the social sciences, you will learn how to do everything from statistical analysis to conducting experiments. Don’t feel you need to know everything at once–simply consult whatever sections are relevant to you now.



Many of us have a conflicted attitude towards punctuation. On social media, we tend to enjoy it when friends share humorous pictures of punctuation mistakes. But when it comes to actually studying the rules of grammar, we can be a bit lazy. Intuitively we feel that we know the rules, but most of us end up guessing where a comma or a semi-colon should go. It’s time to change that.

Funny Mistakes

One of the most common punctuation mistakes is to form the plural with an apostrophe. This is sometimes called the “grocer’s apostrophe,” since it seems to happen all too frequently in supermarkets:

Would you have spotted that this should read “bananas”? It’s good to avoid such basic errors, but if we want to improve more substantially, we really need to study grammar.

Sentence Structure

The key to learning punctuation is to understand how the parts of a sentence work together. Take the following sentence:

If you’ve watched enough TV detective series, then you’ll get the impression that the most dangerous places in the world are Oxford, small islands in the Caribbean, and pretty much anywhere in the British countryside.

Why the commas? The first one is to separate the dependent clause (starting with “if”) from the independent clause (starting with “then”). The remaining commas separate the items in a list. People often argue about whether the last one is necessary, given that we’ve already used “and.” The added comma is known as the Oxford comma: it is increasingly preferred, as it provides more clarity.

The point, however, is that knowing something about sentence structure makes punctuation much easier.

The Breathing Theory of Punctuation

What you want to avoid, by contrast, is adding punctuation marks such as commas and semi-colons whenever it sounds like there is a pause. Writing is not like swimming, where you take regular breaths between strokes. It’s quite possible to have an entire sentence without punctuation, other than the initial capital and the final period. Although our pauses and our punctuation marks will often line up, the breathing theory of punctuation is imprecise and best avoided.


There is a real beauty to punctuation. Once you see how the different parts of a sentence work together, you’ll feel more at ease, even with some of the trickier punctuation marks. You might even take pride in being able to use a semi-colon or a dash effectively.


Why Parts of Speech Matter

There are eight parts of speech, and it pays to learn them. If you want to become a better writer, you need to know something about the building blocks of language.

Our approach to parts of speech is fairly straight forward. The primary goal is to help you identify each part of speech in the context of a sentence. That’s why we’ve tried to keep this section as streamlined as possible. Most of the instruction in usage and specific grammatical problems has been set aside for later.

If, after you work through this section, you can spot an adverb or a preposition, then that’s cause for celebration. Any other grammatical rules your pick up along the way are just a nice bonus.



The resources in this section are meant primarily for English students, but anyone interested in essay writing can benefit from them.

Our goal is to provide an in-depth reading of a literary text. To make things easy, we’ve picked a fairly short and accessible poem–William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” As we analyze the text, we’ll explain the basics of literary interpretation and build up to a sample research essay.




Before we explain any literary text, it’s good to take a step back and reflect on the act of interpretation itself. What is the best way to approach a poem, play, or novel? What should you focus on? These questions are answered by what’s called literary theory.

Literary theory is the study of how we read, where we should look for answers and explanations, and whether we can truly discover the meaning of any text.

On this page we introduce a few basic concepts from the world of literary theory.

Author – Text – Audience

A text is a form of communication between an author and an audience. Most authors would like their text to reach a broad audience. After all, texts are generally meant to be enjoyed, appreciated, and understood:

At the same time, any act of communication raises some fundamental questions. Who determines the meaning of the text? The audience? The author? And if the author, how is the audience supposed to know what the author meant to say?

This problem is especially pronounced if the author is dead. For example, you can’t very well write an email to Shakespeare to ask if he meant to insult his mistress in Sonnet 130. Worse, you might not even be totally sure he even wrote the sonnet.

We recognize, then, that over time interpretation becomes more difficult. History brings change, and change brings different viewpoints and values. Our worldview may be quite different from the author’s.

The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer calls this limited perspective a “horizon of understanding.” We all live with opinions and beliefs that influence how we see the world. To to be more objective, to see beyond the horizon, we have to move beyond our preconceptions, beyond our prejudice (pre-judgment).

To understand the text properly, then, we have to keep in mind that the meaning of the text is linked somehow to the passage of time. In addition, we have to decide what we want to focus on most: the author’s life and historical background, the features of the text (its content and form), or our personal responses and interests. Let’s look at each of these areas in more detail.


Does the author’s life matter? Literary critics often warn against the intentional fallacy, the mistake of thinking that we can reconstruct the intentions of the author. We cannot know exactly what was going through the author’s mind, and speculating can be a dangerous game.

The psychologist Sigmund Freud was particularly notorious for psycho-analyzing various authors and their works. Freud believed, for instance, that Dostoevsky’s novels should be related to his strong bisexual tendencies. Such an approach can easily lead to meaningless conjecture.

Because of this, certain postmodern critics claimed that “the author is dead,” by which they meant that we should stop pretending that our reading of the text corresponds to the author’s original intentions. Instead, texts should be read in relation to language, culture, and history. Above all, texts should be seen as polysemous, i.e., having multiple meanings, some of them even contradictory ones.

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. We do interpret texts to understand what the author meant to say, but it is also good to remember that the search for truth is difficult. To quote from 1 Cor. 13: 12, “now we see in a glass, darkly” (KJV). In the same way, a text is a clouded mirror of the past, and our best interpretations are always open to revision.

The Author’s Background

A biographical reading can of course simply relate the text to significant events in the author’s life. Sometimes such an approach is inevitable. For instance, John Milton’s poem “Lycidas” (1638) is dedicated to the memory of Edward King, a friend who died by drowning in 1637. While the poem is about much more than friendship, it would be nonsensical to ignore the biographical connection.

However, we can do more than relate the text to the author’s life. We can also examine the author’s time period:

As you can see, this opens up a wealth of topics–even more than this graphic shows, and certainly more than you could cover in a single essay. The key is to figure out what subjects are most appropriate to the text. For example, if you’re trying to understand Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might start by having a look at contemporary understandings of science. If you’re reading the poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, a knowledge of Catholic theology is essential.

As you explore the author’s background, there is another theoretical question to consider. Did the author present a unique perspective, or is his or her writing indicative of broader currents of thought? This is a question that particularly preoccupies Marxist critics, but it should really concern anyone interested in questions of determinism and free will.

If we take a fairly simplistic Marxist perspective, we might argue that a literary text is merely a form of propaganda for the ruling classes. The opposite viewpoint–an equally naive one–would suggest that art is always revolutionary, and that the author stands at a remove from society, providing a thorough critique of social customs and beliefs.

Many literary critics tend to one of these extremes. Either they read the text as a mirror of the larger historical period, or they see the author as some kind of genius immune to the prejudices of the age. Try to resist either urge, and let the text speak for itself.

Form and Content

In addition to focusing on the author, we can also do a close reading of the text. This is what high-school students spend most of their time on. The expectation is that you can identify significant themes and pick out literary devices. By itself, such an approach can be rather boring. Who cares if a poem contains a simile, or that a novel is about the theme of “man vs. nature”? The challenge is to see how the form and content of the poem adds up to something greater, something beautiful or thought provoking. Here we’ll briefly review three strategies literary critics commonly use to make us appreciate the text as a unified work of art.

Form Equals Content

Something that makes a literary critic’s heart beat just a little bit faster is when the form of a text mirrors the message. Consider how John Donne starts his Holy Sonnet 14, a sonnet in which he begs God to save him:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend. (1-2)
These are not smooth, flattering lines that flow from the tongue; this is a cry of despair. The second line is particularly choppy and rough. In addition, a traditional sonnet is iambic, which means that every set of two syllables starts with an unstressed syllable (u) and ends with a stressed one (/). For example, here is the opening of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:
By contrast, Donne’s sonnet starts with a trochee (stressed, unstressed), which is a much more forceful opening. It upsets all expectations, but then that’s appropriate for a sonnet that speaks to God in such frank and forceful ways. Donne suggests that God will have to use something like a battering ram to break down the door to his heart. The poetic form of the lines makes that abundantly clear.

Pattern Recognition

Reading a text is a bit like searching for constellations in the night sky. We’re always looking for patterns and systems that provide a sense of order and meaning.

Consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, which describes the life of Mr. Stevens, an English butler who has spent his life serving others. To demonstrate Stevens’ inability to forge his own identity, Ishiguro keeps returning to metaphors of clothing and light. The fact that Stevens wears his employers’ old suits demonstrates that he is not his own man. Stevens even talks of “inhabiting” the role of the butler. Stevens also prefers to remain in the shadows, and at one point, as he is trudging through a field, he avoids shining his flashlight on his feet, for fear of seeing the muck on his trousers. Readers can find satisfaction in spotting such recurring metaphors, especially if they can spot a connection to the message of the text.

Structural Analysis

Pattern recognition can lead to a more extensive structural analysis. Instead of analyzing a single text, you can compare the structure of multiple texts. You might discuss the genre(s) the text belongs to, or you might look at shared language and plot motifs. There are a number of theoretical approaches you can use, ranging from formalism to narratology.

There are two key questions to consider with any structural analysis. The first is whether the structural pattern you’re studying is timeless or changes over time. Is the Gothic novel an unchanging paradigm or do the parameters of the form vary from one historical period to the next? Is the fairy tale a universal construct?

The second question is one you should always keep at the back of your mind when you do comparative work: do the similarities outweigh the differences? Too often literary critics look only for similarities. Yet your analysis will be much more interesting if you are willing to acknowledge some degree of difference.

Reader Response

Sometimes students wonder if all literary interpretation is not completely subjective. What makes one explanation better than another? Aren’t there as many meanings as there are readers?

To some extent it’s true that we will all have a unique, personal reaction to a text. However, we are all part of society, and so we share a common field of reference. We have probably had some similar educational experiences, we share the same language, and we have access to the same interpretive tools.

In other words, if you want to find consensus for your personal interpretation, you will have to make use of common concepts and theories. You might use ideas from fields like philosophy or psychology, you might reference popular culture, or you could quote popular critics.

Always remember, though, that any theory or idea you reference is itself open to criticism, and may be disputed by others.


There are many approaches we have not mentioned. These include Gender Studies, Ecocriticism, Post-colonial Studies, and so on. Our advice is to let the text speak for itself. Try to find the right theoretical approach for the text. Whatever you do, don’t adopt a single pet theory and apply it to every text you read. Be eclectic. Read widely. Be open to new ideas.

Pronouns: Intro


A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun. The word goes back to Latin (pronomen), and literally means in the place of (pro) a name/noun (nomen). That’s why pronouns usually come after the noun that they refer back to:

John‘s robot even combs his hair for him.

Here the pronoun his refers back to John, a proper noun. Bonus points if you noticed that the same applies to him.

The noun that comes before the pronoun also has a fancy Latin name: it’s called the antecedent (from Latin antecedere, to go before).

It can happen that the pronoun comes before the noun, as in this example:

In his last will and testament, Carl left his wife the whole kit and caboodle.

It can also happen that a pronoun has no antecedent, as Lewis Carroll famously pointed out in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In this passage, the Mouse is trying to read a history lesson, when the Duck rudely interrupts him:

[Said the mouse,] “…even Stigand, the patriotic archbishop of Canterbury, found it advisable—”

“Found what?” said the Duck.

“Found it,” the Mouse replied rather crossly: “of course you know what “it” means.”

“I know what ‘it’ means well enough, when I find a thing,” said the Duck: “it’s generally a frog or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?”

Whereas the Duck insists that language should follow the rules, and that it must refer to something, the Mouse takes the view that his intended meaning is clear. Intentions are more important rules.

As the Duchess will later say, “take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”

If life were only that easy.



If you’ve made it through the section on parts of speech (see the video above for a thorough review), then you’re ready to tackle sentence structure.

This section has three parts. First we’ll talk about the different components of a sentence. How do you find the subject of a sentence? What is a phrase or a clause? How can you combine these into complete sentences?

After that, we give some constructive advice about how to make your sentences more stylish and concise.

Finally, we’ll help you learn what sentence errors to avoid.

The Goal

Much of this material is challenging, so take your time and do the exercises. The reward is worth it though: some time spent learning about sentence structure will make you a much better writer.


What Are Mechanics?

The word mechanics is used to describe the formatting of the printed word. For example, in an ordinary conversation we don’t worry about capitalization. However, in print, capitalization helps to provide clarity and reading ease.

Although the rules covered in this section may seem boring, they will help you add some polish to your writing. At the very least, try consult the guidelines when you have a specific question about presentation.