Some Common Mechanical Issues

Other writing tips:

You should be able to Here are a few of the mechanical problems or misunderstandings that commonly crop up in papers. Please look over these points carefully as you are writing, but the most important way you can avoid mechanical problems is to PROOFREAD carefully and several times.

  • Use quotation marks correctly.

    In the United States, all quotes are surrounded by double quotation marks (") and interior quotes by single quotation marks ('). Single quotation marks are never otherwise used (at least in MLA style).

    When a period, comma, or semicolon ends a quotation, that punctuation goes inside the quotation, i.e. before the quotation mark. Question marks, exclamation marks, or colons do not, unless they are part of the quote. Citations go outside the quotation mark, since they are presumably not part of the quote. Note that periods go after the citation, because the citation is part of the sentence:

    "...Duchamp's physics, amusing as it may be, really anticipates with startling acumen the subsequent scientific theories of relativity and indeterminacy" (Tomkins 34).


    and indeterminacy (Tomkins 34)."


    "...and indeterminacy." (Tomkins 34)

  • Note the proper format for block quotes.

    Block quotes should be used sparingly and only when a long quote is absolutely necessary. The rule of thumb is to use a block quote when the quoted text exceeds three lines of poetry or four lines of prose. Indent the left margin one-half inch, but use the normal right margin. Do not single space. Do not surround with quotation marks. The citation for a block quote follows after the last period, unlike an in-line quote. Block quotes are usually introduced with a colon (:).

  • Use italics instead of underlines.

    Italics are functionally equivalent to underlines. Underlining was invented because typewriters could not easily have an italics font set. However, since italic styles are easily available on computers, I prefer italics, not underlining for this class (even though examples of citations in some authoritative sources use underlines). If you do use underlines, BE CONSISTENT—don't mix underlines and italics in the same paper.

  • Use the correct formats for titles.

    Be careful about how to designate titles. Books, plays, magazines, newspapers, works of visual art, films, choreographic works, and complete musical compositions (except for very short pieces) are normally italicized. Poems, short stories, articles, and parts of larger pieces (musical compositions, for example) are shown "in double quotation marks." There are some exceptions. If a description substitutes for a title, that description is capitalized, but not otherwise designated. For example, Symphony fantastique is a given title and therefore italicized, but Symphony No. 9 is a descriptor and, while capitalized, is not usually italicized or put in quotation marks. The United States Constitution is also a description and is therefore also not italicized.

  • Distinguish dashes and hyphens.

    Long dashes (called "m-dashes"), short dashes (called "n-dashes"), and hyphens are distinct and have different uses. N-dashes and hyphens are usually represented by the same character (-), but m-dashes are longer (—). This page has an explanation of the different uses of each. Although you can find m-dashes in most fonts, double hyphens (--) can substitute for m-dashes, and many word processors automatically replace double hyphens with m-dashes. In MLA style, there is no space before or after the dash.

  • Understand the difference between "however" and "but."

    Both "however" and "but" (also "nevertheless," etc.) can connect sentences where the second is a surprise or seeming contradiction, but "but" is a conjunction. "However" is called a "conjunctive adverb," which means that it connects two independent sentences after a period or semicolon. "But" usually connects two clauses with a comma or no punctuation (see below). For example: "Duchamp's art shocked many New Yorkers, but it provided inspiration for a new generation." "Duchamp's art shocked many New Yorkers. However, it provided inspiration for a new generation." Earlier style guides discouraged having "however" as the first word of a sentence, but most writers today don't agree with that restriction. In any case, it is incorrect to replace the period before the "However" with a comma, though a semicolon would work. Beginning a sentence with a conjunction, such as "but," is often discouraged and considered informal. Although not incorrect, beginning a sentence with a conjunction is exceptional and generally used only for special effect.

  • Correctly use commas with conjunctions.

    Use a comma before a conjunction (for example, "and," "or," "but") whenever the two clauses that are joined could stand on their own as sentences (what grammarians call "independent clauses"). For example, "These clauses are independent, and independent clauses need a comma between them." Because the two halves could exist with a period instead of the conjunction, we need a comma. Here's another example: "This sentence is more concise and has dependent clauses." Since "Has dependent clauses" cannot stand alone as a sentence, we do not use a comma before "and."