Faculty of Arts

Style of the Essay


History is the study of the past. So write in the past tense rather than the present tense.

"William the Conqueror and his Norman army go to England" is acceptable only if you are standing on the dock in Normandy in 1066 waving goodbye to Will and the lads. Otherwise, it should be "William the Conqueror and his Norman army went to England". However, refer to quotations from authors in the present tense, even if the author to whom you refer is a historical person. Example: "E.P. Thompson [a modern writer] says that the English working class evolved only in the 19th century", and also "Voltaire [an 18th Century author] suggests the Church of his time was corrupt." In the last case note that you use the present tense for what Voltaire says/writes/suggests but the past tense for his description of a past state of affairs.

The reason for the difference between the former and the latter is usually given as the fact that while you can still go back and read Voltaire's words, it is impossible to go and see William in action. While this argument has merit, and may be a useful mnemonic device, the honest truth is probably a lot closer to the fact that grammar does not always make sense.


A period is placed inside of quotation marks when the quote ends in a period and the sentence the quote is within has ended. For Example:

Dr. John Smith said he choose the life of a film critic over medicine "because I wished to be surrounded by cinematic beauty."

Some essays contain so many quotations that the Professor will become suspicious that the student is attempting to avoid any actual writing themselves, with marks awarded accordingly.

Although you should never strive to make your essay one giant quotation, there are situations where having a long quotation (also known as a block quotation) simply makes sense.

If your quotation is longer than three lines of text you should present it indented on both sides, single-spaced, and without quotation marks. The format alone shows that it is a quotation. This is called a block quote

Quotations within quotations are marked with single quote marks:

"In his first inaugural speech, Lincoln appealed to `the better angels of our nature'.”

If you wish to omit part of a quotation then you should use an ellipsis (...), although Chicago style allows this for any omitted word, phrase, line, or paragraph from within a quoted passage, if you omit enough phrasing that the quote loses its original meaning then you are being intellectually dishonest. For example it would be good form to shorter a quote from this:

Professional Film Critic Dr. John Smith said "The film 'Dude where's my automobile' is so incredibly bad I may wish to witness the awesome power of a nuclear bomb first hand instead of seeing it again".

to this: Professional Film Critic Dr. John Smith called the "The film 'Dude where's my automobile'... incredibly bad"

but terrible form to shorten it to this (even if it is technically gramatically correct):

Professional Film Critic Dr. John Smith said "The film 'Dude where's my automobile' is so incredibly... awesome" and that there is some potential he will be "seeing it again".

These examples may seem extreme but film companies do actually parse through critic's reviews in this way.

If you wish to place an explanatory note within a quote it must be enclosed in square brackets. For example:

Then Dr. Smith shouted "I cannot believe he [Dr. Smith's brother] is responsible for that terrible film".

If you quote a source that makes a grammatical mistake (most commonly a spelling error) then you should not change it. Instead the convention is to write the word "sic" in square brackets beside the error in order to show that the original author made the mistake. For example:

"The litle [sic] black dog ran through the door."

Sic is also used for outdated spellings and archaic grammatical conventions.


In order to decide whether you need a comma, read the passage aloud in order to determine whether a pause is natural or a separation is essential for clarity. In fact, it is a good idea to read all of your writing aloud; imprecise, ungrammatical writing is usually difficult to read.

Insert a semicolon to separate clauses that are also complete sentences, or to separate clauses that contain commas. Examples: The armistice took effect at eleven o'clock; the guns were silent by midnight. The armistice took effect at eleven o'clock; by midnight, the guns were silent. A colon is used in several ways. It is placed at the end of a sentence to introduce a list, a direct quotation, or an explanation. It also can separate the title and subtitle of a book or article. A humorous (and moderately offensive) summary of correct usage of semi-colons is given at the website The Oatmeal.

Usage changes

Words once divided by a hyphen are increasingly united without it. For example the term "anti-clerical" is now "anticlerical". When using a quotation go with whichever form of the word is provided (do not use [sic]), but otherwise go with the most modern usage.

Contractions and abbreviations

Do not use contractions (don't, didn't, can't, couldn't, etc.), the forms of daily speech, in your essay unless you are quoting them. Do not use "sic".


Apostrophes are not used in the plurals of words. Example: telephones not telephone's.

Apostrophes are used to indicate possession. Example: Parliament undercut the queen's authority. If the word that possesses is already plural the apostrophe goes after the s that was added to make it plural. For instance: "the Workers' Association" means the association belonging to many workers, whereas "the worker's association" means some association pertaining to a particular worker.

Correct use of "its" and "it's"

Its indicates possession, just as his, her, our, or their. Hence, a regime's legacy is its legacy. It's is the contraction of "it is", and contractions are not used in formal history essays.


Capitalize the first word in a sentence as well as all proper nouns (i.e. names). Words such as King, Queen or President are capitalized only when referring to a specific person (i.e. the French president, but President Pedro). Words in titles, except non-initial conjunctions, prepositions, or articles, also are capitalized.

Conditional Verbs

"He would have been elected" not "He would of been elected." "She could have done it" not "She could of done it." It has been very common to use phrases such as "If she would have helped him, he would now be elected", but this is grammatical nonsense and does not do what it intends, which is to make a conditional statement about the past. Literally the phrase as it stands means: "If she had wanted to help him, he would now be elected. The phrase should be "If she had helped him, he would now be elected".

Split Infinitives

The infinitive of a verb is that part which expresses the meaning alone, i.e. to go. In English the infinitive is marked by the word to, but in most other languages the infinitive is just one word, e.g. aller (French), gehen (German). For this reason, it has long been considered bad style in English to "split" infinitives with adverbs. Rather than "to quickly go" you should write "to go quickly".

Italics and underlining

Underline or italicise the titles of published works such as newspapers, books and periodicals. Quotation marks are used to identify titles of articles found within these works. In history essays non-English words and expressions are italicised or underlined. Examples: Reich (German: empire), raison d'etat (French: reason of state). A dictionary will say whether a word is still considered foreign to English. Be consistent, i.e. do not italicise one title or foreign word and underline the next. Common Latin abbreviations normally are not italicised or underlined.

Examples: et al. (et alii: and others), etc. (et cetera: and so forth), i.e. (id est: that is), e.g.

Latin words are used incorrectly on a regular basis by the public, but if there is one sector of society that knows their correct use it is the professors who will be marking your paper. Best to look up meanings if your unsure.

Numerals and Dates

Always use numerals for numbers that require more than two words to spell out.

Example: The stalemate lasted 211 days. However, spell out the numbers of one or two words.

Example: World War II may have claimed more than twenty million civilian casualties.

Roman numerals denote individuals in succession such as sovereigns and popes. Hence Edward Plantagenet, the first king of England named Edward, is referred to not as Edward the first, but as Edward I. Subsequent English monarchs include seven other Edwards, the latest reigning briefly in 1936 as Edward VIII. By the same token, the current head of the Roman Catholic Church is the sixteenth pope to take the name Benedict. Therefore he is Benedict XVI.

An apostrophe is not inserted when referring to decades. Its use is a peculiar to the profession of journalism and incorrect in formal history essays. The American Civil War did not occur in the 1860' s; it occurred in the 1860s.


Write in a vocabulary that is completely familiar to you rather than words whose meaning is even slightly unfamiliar. Otherwise establish the meaning by consulting a dictionary.

Long or seldom-used words do not necessarily convey meaning better than shorter or more familiar ones. Their use rarely impresses an instructor. Some academic disciplines develop a hideous jargon, perhaps because they are trying to appear scientific. Yet the best scientists explain quite complicated matters in very clear prose, without jargon. Good historians usually have a similar capacity. Purge your essay of slang, clichés, convoluted language, and extravagant use of adjectives. If your ambitious read Orwell and Hemingway to learn how to be economical with words.

Gender-specific language should be avoided where inappropriate. Countries, for example, do not have a gender or sex hence there is no reason to refer to Canada as she. By the same token, masculine pronouns should not be used as if they were universal or neutral. Also avoid using the words feel and believe in history essays. Your feelings are not relevant to the writing assignment, your analysis of the historical evidence is. When writing about historical figures, you only know what they felt if they left a record of their feelings or told someone else about them. Unless you can cite such information, do not state that so-and-so felt something.


Using language effectively is as much a key to making the most of a university education as learning to think critically or to use a computer. It is the medium for the transmission and discussion of ideas, for weighing their meanings and assessing their subtleties. An inability to use the English language accurately prevents students from expressing themselves with clarity.

Not so long ago Canadian spelling followed British usage. Increasingly, however, Canadians spell the American way. Although some instructors may accept either of the two, be consistent. For example, if you spell labour with ou according to British convention, you should not then spell colour with o, as in color, which is American. The same applies to words that double their final l, that end in ce or se or that end in que. Thus, marvellous, licence, and cheque are British (generally the preferred Canadian usage), while marvelous, license, and check are American. Decide on the appropriate usage and stay with it by consistently following one dictionary's preferences.