cornerpic Linguistics TA Manual > Characteristic linguistic courses > Teaching basic skills >Tips on writing a linguistics paper

Tips on Writing a Linguistics Paper

On writing a linguistics paper

[from: Defining a research question for your term paper]

Defining a research question for your term paper
Basic criteria for a research question:
* It must be possible to answer it (within a reasonable time span)
* It must be specific

Once you have an idea for a research question, find out
* what has been written on the topic before (library + previous theses)
* what kind of and how much data you need
* spoken/written English
* texts, words, sentences ...
* different text types?
* which corpus/corpora you are going to use
* how you want to classify your examples

Where can you find the ideas?
* special interest
* claims made in grammars or linguistics articles that you distrust or disagree with
* suggested topics for further research at the end of research articles
* `hands-on' exercises in the study modules
* discussions with teacher and/or other students

Getting started
* talk to your teacher about your research question
* form a hypothesis: i.e. what do you think you will find out?
* read secondary literature (but not forever)
* start as early as possible with finding data and analysing them
* write a tentative outline
* set deadlines for yourself
As a rule: the more precisely you have formulated your research question and your hypotheses, the easier it is to get started with the real work.

More on writing a linguistics paper

[from: Writing a Paper in English Corpus Linguistics ]

Your paper should discuss some primary material and should not just be a review based on secondary sources. Primary material is the actual linguistic data you write about, such as written texts, transcriptions of spoken material, tape recordings, or elicited responses from native speakers. For the Corpus Linguistics course, you will be expected to get your primary material from a corpus. Secondary material is what has been written previously on the topic.
3.1 Secondary material
Start by making a general survey of secondary material. This will show you what has been done before (which means that you do not have to do it) and will probably give you ideas on how you should (or should not) deal with your primary material, on problems that you had not thought of, etc. Start with general surveys in grammars, handbooks, dictionaries, etc. In connection with a term paper there is of course a limit to the amount of secondary sources you can be expected to go through. Consult your teacher, who may advise you on relevant sources or bibliographies.
In going through the secondary material, you should make notes and excerpts as you go along. It is important to organize your notes in such a way that you can survey (and rearrange) them while you are working on your paper. If you are writing in a computer document, make sure you organize your paragraphs with headlines or keywords that will help you see immediately what the paragraph is about. If you write on paper, write on one side of the paper (or on index cards), to make it possible to reorder the notes or add to them. Make sure that you copy your excerpts correctly and write the name of the source and the page number immediately. This will save you a lot of extra work and trouble later on. Getting the facts right is fundamental in scholarly procedure.
3.2 Primary material
Though it is important to study the secondary material carefully, your main task is to collect and analyse some primary material. You may draw your primary material from the corpora provided in the course (the English-Norwegian Parallel Corpus and the Longman/Lancaster English Language Corpus) or other corpora you may have access to, such as the Brown Corpus or the British National Corpus.
It is often useful to make a pilot study first, i.e. to make a small collection of material and analyse it along the lines intended. This will show you if your material is giving you enough data, and the right kind of data, or whether you may have to use different kinds of material.
Be careful in registering your material. If you have a database program, you can use it for storing surveying, analysing and retrieving your material efficiently. Alternatively, a card index can do the job. Normally a card index should be quite sufficient for the limited amount of material that can reasonably be dealt with in a term paper.
Whichever system you use, make sure to copy each example correctly, to copy enough context, and to note the source correctly at once, to save time and trouble later on. This is because you may want to look up the example in the corpus again (for example, if you need to look at the wider context) and because you should specify the source when you give quotations from your material. Leave enough space on the index cards for classification codes and for notes.

Some Guidelines for Writing a Linguistics Paper

Fritz Newmeyer

1. STRIVE FOR CLARITY. Be clear! A technical linguistics paper is not a mystery story -- there should never be any surprises. Say what your conclusion is going to be at the beginning of the paper with a few words on how you plan to get to the conclusion. A good typical opening for a paper is something like:

In this paper, I will argue that a voiced segment must be bound in its governing category. This conclusion challenges previous work by Kenstowicz (1983) and Postal (1987), who maintain that such segments are invisible to all syntactic constraints. My argument will take the following form. In section 2, I will show that [d] and [o] are 'alpha-emitters', and thus free in COMP. In section 3, I will establish that being free in COMP entails the property of counterjunctive trijacency (CT). Section 4, shows how, given the natural assumption that CT is sigma-sensitive, the effect of being subject to CT and that of being bound in one's governing category are notational variants. The final section, section 5, generalizes [d] and [o] to all voiced segments and speculates on the implications of the general findings in this paper for Gricean implicature.

Summarize in an analogous fashion at the end. In fact, the first paragraph of a paper and the last can be virtually identical. Each section should be like a mini-paper in itself, previewing what will be said and summarizing at the end.

Your paper should be peppered with phrases like I will now argue..., As we have seen..., etc. Anything to baby the reader is fine!

Almost all papers refer to the work of others, either to adopt or to challenge some principle proposed elsewhere. That's fine, of course, but it is absolutely essential that the reader understand whether a particular point is your own contribution or whether it is that of the author being cited. It is surprising how easy it is to confuse the reader, if you present someone else's idea in one paragraph and discuss the idea in the next, without saying at the beginning of the second paragraph if you are continuing to present the other author's ideas or are beginning to challenge them.

Avoid using deictic this as in all-too-common passages like This suggests that we must abandon the UCP. Invariably there is more than one potential antecedent for this. Write instead: The failure of coreference to hold between the subject and the object trace in sentence (89) suggests that we must abandon the UCP.

2. EXAMPLES. The reader should never be in doubt as to the relevance of a particular example and should know why it is being given before reading it. In other words, as the reader encounters an example or set of examples, they should already know what to be looking for. They shouldn't have to wait until after reading the examples to find out why they are there.

It should be clear when you give an example whether you thought of the example yourself or if you are citing somebody else's example.

Never break up a sentence of text with an example. Examples should follow a full sentence of text, which should end in a colon.

An example in the text itself should be in italics (or underlined) followed by the gloss, if necessary, in quotation marks. For example: The German word Buch 'book' is neuter.

NONENGLISH EXAMPLES. Examples from other languages should consist of (1) The sentence itself; (2) A word-for-word or morpheme-for-morpheme translation, containing the relevant grammatical information; (3) The actual translation:
der Mann der Bohnen gegessen hat
the man who beans eaten has
(masc. (masc.
nom. sg.) nom. sg.)
'the man who ate beans'

3. IN-TEXT CITATIONS. Use the author-date format: Chomsky (1981) and Lakoff (1983) agree that language exists. Use small letters after the date if there is more than one reference per year for any author, as in Chomsky (1963a).

If you are giving a direct quotation, you must use quotation marks, and put the author, date, and page number after the quotation. It's the law! Also, it's not enough to change a word here or there in a quotation and decide that you now don't need to use quotation marks. In fact, you still do. But there is very rarely any reason to put a direct quote in a paper. It is always much better to paraphrase the material that you want to cite in your own words. Even so, you still have to give a citation to the author you are paraphrasing.

4. FOOTNOTES. Footnotes should always be contentful. Something like See Selkirk (1980) belongs in the main text, not in a footnote. Footnotes are normally reserved for little bits of extra clarification or material for further thought that would be digressions if they were put in the main text.

The first footnote is often an acknowledgement. By tradition, term papers do not have acknowledgements, MA theses sometimes do, while Ph D dissertations, articles, and books invariably do. However, if you rely heavily on an individual for data, even in a term paper, there should be an acknowledgement to that effect.

5. REFERENCES. There is no single agreed upon format for references in the bibliography -- just copy a format from a journal article if you are unsure. But make sure that you include page numbers for articles and publisher and city for books.

After you have finished the paper, make sure that every paper or book that you cited in the main text has a reference in the reference list.

6. PERSON, NUMBER, AND VOICE. It is best to write in the first person singular: I will argue that.... Personally, I find the first person plural very pompous sounding: (e.g. We will argue that...).

Above all, avoid the agentless passive construction. Never use phraseology like It has been argued that ... You would be amazed how often it is really not clear who has done the arguing.

7. THE ONLY "PROOFS" ARE IN MATHEMATICAL LINGUISTICS. You should avoid using the word prove as in I will prove in this paper that tense has its own maximal projection. Proofs are attributes of deductive systems, not empirical science. It is much better to use instead expressions such as attempt to establish, argue convincingly, suggest, and so on.

5 Writing strategies
The writing of the paper should not be deferred to the end. It is natural to write notes while working on the material, such as comments on examples or notes or ideas that you think may become useful later. You might even have a brainstorming session at an early stage when you write down in telegraphic form whatever you think is relevant to the topic.
At a fairly early stage it is useful to write a brief outline of your paper, organized according to some major headings (very often the ones taken up below will be useful) and with some notes under each heading.
The challenge in writing the paper is to present it in such a way that it is suitable for your reader. What do you need to explain? What can be taken for granted? It is often natural to skip the introduction and write the main body of the paper first. The first draft is ... a draft. Make sure that there is a logical progression in your paper, without gaps in the argument. Ask your teacher or a fellow student to read your draft. And be prepared to re-write!
There are at least two ways of presenting your investigation (and they can be combined):
* inductive: let the reader take part in the process of discovery; proceed gradually; do not start with revealing your results.
* deductive: you start with (a taste of) the conclusion, and show how you have reached it.
6 Some characteristics of linguistic discourse
To a linguist (as opposed to a literary scholar), describing the language of a period, a writer, or a character is something that may be worth doing as such. This is exactly what descriptive linguistics is about: describing the language as it is actually used, not as it should be used. Describing somebody's language therefore should not contain prescriptive comments. (It is a different matter that there are non-standard variants of English and that there may be different opinions about such variants, the use of accents, and so forth.)
By comparison, if you write about a novel or a poem, you will often have to make subjective interpretations which are not simply tied to words or combinations of words but to associations and experiences of your own which may go far beyond the text itself.
Nevertheless, a linguistic description is not simply a bare presentation or summary of some material. Judgements have to be made at the different stages of the investigation, and these should be reflected in the written paper. What sort of a problem are you dealing with? What material might be appropriate to use as a basis of the investigation? How should it be delimited? What method of analysis is appropriate? Example material may require interpretation. What do the examples mean? What is the effect of this or that construction? The results should be interpreted. How do they fit in with previous knowledge about the language? To what extent have you been able to answer the original research question?
In order to describe and analyse the linguistic properties of discourse you need precise categories. You must also use the terminology correctly and consistently. Your secondary reading will provide guidance on terminology. Note also that there are dictionaries of linguistic terms (such as Crystal 1985).
There are situations where there is disagreement about terminology. Then it is an advantage if you know by what criteria a category is pinned down. There are also occasions when you cannot rely on ready-made categories; sometimes you may have to define your own, in case the categories found in your reading are inadequate, or if the topic is very specific.
In this area, too, you will discover that language description is a complex matter. There are many instances of fuzzy categories. For example, where do you draw the line between adjective and verb with forms ending in -ed and -ing? How do you delimit phrasal verbs from related constructions? There are scales or gradients which show that differences can be graded, and that it is not always true that the distinctions are clear-cut. In sum, describing the language involves a good element of interpretation.
7 Supporting your statements
In your discussion, make reference to your own data and the secondary sources. When you quote, include as much as is necessary, but no more. If you need to abbreviate an example or a quotation from a secondary source, insert three dots (indicating ellipsis). Editorial comments can be added within square brackets. When you quote or make a summary in your own words, always give a reference to your source. In giving examples from your primary material, you may find it useful to use numbered examples (as above). This makes it easier to refer to them in your discussion. Each example should have an identification of the source. Look at the articles on your syllabus to see how this is done.
Distinguish between safe conclusions clearly validated by the data, and uncertain ones, for which you have inconclusive or incomplete evidence. Do not conceal data which may be difficult to account for. On the contrary, such material may require special comment.
8 Organizing the paper
Organize your paper into sections, with headings. This makes it easier to follow the steps in your investigation. It is often useful to number the sections (as in this paper).
8.1 Before the main text
On the title page, write the title of the paper, your name, the name of the department, the date (term), and the course your term paper relates to. Make sure the title of the paper reflects its aim and scope. If your paper is long, add a separate contents page. If you use a lot of abbreviations (apart from conventional ones), you should have a list of abbreviations. If your paper includes many tables and figures, include a list of these.
8.2 The main text
The main text can often be organized as follows (needless to say, the organization may vary depending upon the type of topic).
* Introduction. State your aim briefly and give the reasons why the subject of your paper is worth writing about. Give a brief, critical survey of earlier work dealing with your subject.
* Aim and scope. State your purpose in greater detail and tell the reader what aspect you intend to investigate as well as what will be left out.
* Material. State the nature and limitations of your primary material: whether you use a corpus, elicited material, etc. Describe your method of collecting data as well as the advantages and/or limitations of your material. Consider whether your choice of data is likely to affect the results in an important way.
* Method. (a) State along what lines your investigation will be conducted, and, if possible, give the most important sources of inspiration. (b) Define your terms and principles of classification. Explain your use of abbreviations and symbols (if these are numerous, give a list of abbreviations/symbols at the beginning of your paper). State any technical conventions you intend to follow. (c) If your investigation is long and complex, give a step-by-step description of what you intend to do.
* Analysis and discussion. First you present the results of your study of the primary material, and then you analyse them. You will probably want to present your results in the form of tables or lists of examples, or both. Focus on one aspect at a time. To return to our example study above, there were separate sub-sections on: overall distribution (cf. Table 1), length (cf. Table 2), definiteness (cf. Table 3), literal vs. figurative meaning (cf. Table 4), adverbial specification, and text category (cf. Table 5). Support your arguments with reference to the data. Long and complicated sections should have a short summary at the end.
* Conclusion. To what extent have you been able to answer the question raised at the beginning of the paper? Give a general summary of your results and state the conclusions you can draw on the basis of them. To what extent do your conclusions agree with what was known before? If some of your results are inconclusive, e.g. because you have not had enough material, say so. Also indicate what aspects or areas demand further study.
8.3 After the main text
* Notes. Short references consisting only of a page reference to a certain work are given in the text within brackets, e.g. (Quirk et al. 1972: 243f.). Longer references and comments are given in footnotes or numbered notes at the end of your paper, just before the list of references.
* References. Under this heading you list your sources in alphabetical order according to the author's surname. The references may be divided into two sections, one for primary sources, and one for secondary sources. If you have used abbreviations for dictionaries or your primary sources, these should be clearly indicated in the list of references. Click here to see how you go about making references and bibliographies.
* Appendices. It is often useful to relegate some material to appendices, e.g. long lists of examples or detailed tables. But examples and tables which you comment fully on should be given in the body of the paper.
9 Language use
Before you hand in your paper, make sure that it is free of errors in language (grammar, vocabulary, spelling). Check that pronoun references are clear: do not overuse this and that in referring to the preceding text. Make sure the verbs agree with their subjects. Avoid sentence fragments, without a subject and a verb. On the other hand, do not use long run-on sentences, with main clauses loosely strung together. If you can replace a comma by a full stop, do so. Be careful with paragraphing - this contributes greatly to the clarity and coherence of your paper.
It is natural to adopt a fairly formal style. Avoid contractions (she's, aren't, etc.). Reduce reference to yourself to a minimum. Note that there are many ways of expressing opinions: I think/doubt/disagree..., it is clear/doubtful/possible..., clearly/possibly/no doubt..., etc. Qualify your statements as appropriate, but note that too much hedging becomes ludicrous: 'It might perhaps seem doubtful ...'. Say what you think is true, but no more and no less.
Finally, to avoid boring your reader you should try to vary your language (but not at the expense of clarity!). A synonym dictionary or a thesaurus may give you ideas for alternative ways of expression. The English language, the subject of your paper, is a rich and flexible instrument, and it is good if this shows in your paper.
4 The investigation process
We can broadly distinguish between the following stages:
* data collection
* classification
* analysis
4.1 The research question
Suppose you are interested in studying the position of the direct object with phrasal verbs; i.e. do you say she switched the light on or she switched on the light? The secondary sources will tell you that a pronoun as direct object is placed between the verb and the particle (e.g. she switched it on), while a noun or noun phrase may appear either before or after the particle. You decide to focus on the word order problem in the latter case. The working title of your term paper could be "What factors determine the placement of nouns and noun phrases as direct objects of phrasal verbs?".
4.2 Data collection
To start your investigation you first need to collect relevant examples from a corpus. In collecting the material you immediately meet a number of problems. It is not always easy to distinguish phrasal verbs (e.g. she put on her coat) from other superficially similar constructions, e.g. constructions with prepositional verbs (e.g. she called on Mr. X to speak) or with prepositional phrases as adverbials (e.g. she called on Monday). And what about examples like these (from the LOB Corpus): Dr Horn swayed two or three inches back, Ugo had his glasses off now, I own some land up in the foothills? The first example looks superficially like a construction with a direct object, but should no doubt be analysed as containing an adverbial. In the last example up clearly goes with the following prepositional phrase rather than with own. The second example is a real problem. Do we recognize have off as a phrasal verb?
Collecting the primary material is not easy. It is necessary to be alert, so as not to miss out relevant examples or include irrelevant ones. If you have studied the secondary material carefully, you will have a good idea about what to look for and how to distinguish relevant from irrelevant examples. Nevertheless, there will always be doubtful examples. Make sure to include these, with a note on the type of problem. Such material is usually important to discuss in your paper.
As you go on you may discover that it is necessary to limit the material a great deal. For example, in a study of phrasal verbs, it may be necessary to limit the search to certain verbs with different particles, or to certain particles with different verbs. A dictionary of phrasal verbs will guide you in the process.
In a study of phrasal verbs (1986) Stig Johansson decided to focus on all examples in the LOB Corpus of six lexical verbs co-occurring with a noun or noun phrase as direct object and ten particles; see Table 1. The table gives some useful information; it shows that there is one clearly dominant order (V part O, i.e. verb + particle + direct object). But this is only the starting-point of the analysis.
4.3 Classification of the material
The next logical step in the investigation process is the classification of the material. It is normally natural to start the classification while the material is being collected. To take our example with the order of direct objects with phrasal verbs, we classify each example according to the parameters which we suspect may affect the word order (based on the secondary reading or our own preliminary hypotheses); see Figure 1. Needless to say, it may be necessary to revise the classification later and/or add new parameters.
4.4 The analysis
Having classified the examples, we can now rearrange and analyse the material in various ways. In a quantitative study it is usually best to draw up tables first, and then go on to describing and commenting on the data. Note that you should not just give the tables; you must comment on them and give examples from your material. Make sure that each table is numbered and has a legend that says what the table is supposed to show and explains any abbreviations or codes. Be careful in using numbers. Do not give percentages without presenting the raw frequencies. If you give averages, also provide some measure of dispersion. In addition to tables, you may wish to present figures or diagrams. These too should have a legend and adequate explanation.
4.5 Discussing the findings
To continue with our example case, see Tables 2-5. These show that the less common order (V O part, with the direct object between the verb and the particle) is more frequent with a short direct object, a definite form as direct object, and with a literal meaning of the verb plus particle combination. We can now deal with each parameter in turn, illustrating the main tendencies and commenting on any deviations from the main tendencies. We find, for example, that the four examples in Table 2 of V O part with a direct object consisting of three or more words are all definite and that the particle in three of the examples is followed by a prepositional phrase indicating direction, as in:
(1) ... bring these opulent days back to life ... LOB F35:68
With respect to the seven examples in Table 3 of V O part with indefinite noun phrases, we find that the direct object is short (one to two words) and in several cases followed by a prepositional phrase indicating direction, as in:
(2) The barman put two glasses down on the counter. LOB L11:73
With both literal and figurative meaning (Table 4) there is a clear preference for V part O, but the preference is much stronger in the latter case. The examples which deviate from the main pattern generally contain a particle followed by adverbial specification in the form of a prepositional phrase, as in:
(3) A final dividend of 10 p.c. brings the total distribution up to 17.5 p.c. ... LOB A16:178
Such adverbial specification is also common in the V O part pattern with combinations used in a literal sense.
Analysing the material means asking interesting questions about it. In our case we found three parameters which turned out to be important: the length of the direct object, the definiteness of the direct object, and literal vs. figurative meaning of the verb + particle combination. The minority pattern V O part is used particularly with short and definite noun phrases as direct object and when the verb + particle combination has a literal meaning. In the process of the analysis we discovered another important factor: the occurrence of adverbial specification after the particle in the form of a prepositional phrase. This strengthens the minority pattern V O part.
The results may not always be clear-cut; see Table 5. There seems to be a slight tendency for the minority pattern V O part to be more frequent in fiction. In such cases we need to bring in statistical tests. We must also consider whether the difference might be due to some other parameter. Could it, for example, be a reflection of the length of the direct objects? We could expect noun phrases as direct objects, like noun phrases in general, to be less complex in fiction than in informative prose. If there really is a difference between fiction and informative prose which is not due to some other parameter, what might it be due to? These are the sorts of questions that must be asked.
If our results are to be of real value, we should try to generalize beyond our data and find deeper explanations for the regularities observed. Do we have reason to believe that the regularities we have noted extend to phrasal verbs in general (and do not just apply to the six verbs and the ten particles we selected for our material)? Can we find a deeper explanation for the regularities observed? In our case we can relate two of our parameters to two general word order principles: end weight (cf. Table 2) and end focus (cf. Table 3; indefinite noun phrases are more likely to introduce new information and appear in final focus position). It seems reasonable to suppose that a figurative combination (cf. Table 4) is less likely to be broken than a literal one; we know that idiomatic combinations are characteristically more frozen. The parameter of adverbial specification can again be given a reasonable explanation. Note that there is a tendency for adverbial particles to be attracted to related prepositional phrases; the result may even be a compound preposition: into, up to, out of, etc. An indirect result of this attraction is that we get the minority pattern V O part, with the particle plus prepositional phrase in final focus position.
In other words, we have answered the question posed at the start of the study and have been able to relate our findings to other phenomena in the language. We have reached the final stage of the investigation process and can finish the writing of the paper.

Back to Linguistics Home Page

Back to Manual Home Page

Last updated September 28, 2003