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   Copyright © Norman Swartz 1997, 1998
Original version: October 1989
This revision: November 12, 2007
Department of Philosophy
Simon Fraser University

Checklist for Writing Philosophy Papers


  1. Physical layout:

    • Print (or type) your name in the upper right-hand corner of the first page (title page if you have one).
    • Underline your surname (family name).
    • Write your student number under your name.
    • If there is a tutorial in the course, under your student number, write the number of your tutorial session, the time it meets, and the name of your tutorial instructor.
    • Staple the pages in the upper left-hand corner.
    • Do not put your paper in a binder or a folder.
    • A title page is optional.
    • Write (/typewrite) on only one side of each page.
    • On every page, leave a right and left margin of at least one inch (2.5 cm).
    • Pages must be numbered.
    • If your paper is handwritten, it must be in ink. Papers written in pencil will not be accepted.
    • Notes should be placed at the bottom of pages, not collected at the end of your paper.
    • Do not attach a blank page at the end of your paper.

  2. Be careful using right-justification.

  3. If you are typing your paper or using a word-processor, double-space the lines and leave two blank spaces after each period or question-mark that ends a sentence; leave one blank space after other periods, e.g. after "Mrs.", and after all commas, colons and semicolons. Be sure that you use a dark (preferably black) ribbon in your typewriter (printer).

  4. No photocopies will be accepted.

  5. If you are using a word-processor, make frequent backup copies to a (second) floppy disk and then store that backup diskette in some place remote from the original. Virtually every computer user has had the experience of finding a diskette suddenly unusable or of erasing a diskette accidentally. Making a backup copy of your work is very cheap; failing to make a backup copy can be very expensive. Please note: the excuse that your work in progress was destroyed by your computer or that you have lost a disk or had a disk stolen will not be acceptable. It is up to you to insure that you have a backup copy.

  6. If you are using a word-processor which has a spelling-checker, do use that feature.

  7. If you use any bibliographical material, your paper must have a Bibliography. Try to use primary sources. If the original source is available in the Library, do not write "... as quoted in ..."; instead, retrieve the original source and quote from it. Titles of books and journals must be italicized or underlined; titles of journal or magazine articles must be enclosed in quotation marks. Proper bibliographical citations include: the name(s) of the author(s); the date and place of publication; the publisher's name (for books); volume and issue (for articles); and page numbers (for articles).


    [3] Augustine, Saint, Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England, 1984.

    [4] Hofstadter, Douglas R., and Daniel C. Dennett, The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul, Bantam Books, New York, 1982.

    [5] McMullin, Ernan, "Persons in the Universe", in Zygon, vol. 15, no. 1 (March 1980), pp. 69-89.
    For instructions on how to cite sources on the Internet, see "The Columbia Guide to Online Style" by Janice R. Walker and Todd Taylor.

  8. If you quote a passage, you must include a bibiographical citation. You may do this in either of two ways: by an immediately following (in-line) reference to your bibliography, or by a footnote.


    Augustine asked, "What, then, is time?" ([3], p. 264).

    Augustine asked, "What, then, is time?"18

    Your footnote might, then, read:

    18.   [3], p. 264.

    Alternatively (provided there is only one reference to Augustine in your Bibliography), your footnote could read:

    18.   Augustine, p. 264.


  1. In general, it is useful in writing a philosophy paper to 'concretize' abstract principles with one or two short, well chosen, examples. Such examples must never substitute for an analysis or an argument; but they are often enormously helpful in explaining an argument.

    Examples, too, are especially helpful in thinking about your own thesis. Test your own argument against a wide variety of cases (examples) to see whether it holds up. Try, yourself, to find examples which undermine your own position. Of course not all these many examples should find their way into your final draft. They should be used as an aid to your figuring out what you want to argue. If your argument runs into trouble with your own examples, perhaps you should consider switching to the 'other' side.


  1. Contractions (e.g. "don't") are perfectly acceptable in casual and conversational prose. But philosophy papers are (supposed to be) scholarly productions, and scholarly productions do not use contractions. In general, write out contractions in full: "do not" for "don't"; "cannot" (or "can not") for "can't"; etc.

  2. Do not confuse "i.e.", "e.g." and "viz.". Their respective meanings are:

    • "i.e." = "that is" [used only when one is restating a point in different, but equivalent, phrasing]
    • "e.g." = "for example"
    • "viz." = "namely" (or, "to wit")
  3. Generally, do not quote dictionary definitions in your paper. Dictionary definitions are seldom helpful in making fine philosophical distinctions. (See for yourself. Look up the definition of "belief" or "knowledge" in your dictionary. The analysis given will, very likely, be exceedingly crude from a philosophical point of view.) Be particularly careful not to write "The dictionary defines 'xyz' as ...". There is no such thing as 'the' dictionary. There are many dictionaries, and their respective definitions will often vary, sometimes a very great deal. Incidentally, "Webster's" is not a copyrighted name; it simply signifies an American (U.S.) dictionary. Some Webster dictionaries are very good; others are deplorable. (For more on the theory of definition, see "Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meanings".)

  4. Avoid grandiose introductions of the sort, "For centuries in the history of philosophy, thinkers have struggled with the question of ...". State the problem as simply and directly as possible - forget about 'locating it' among larger issues - and then get on with the job of discussing the problem at hand. (See "Writing a Philosophy Paper".)

  5. The word "really" is not magical: in particular, it will not undo a contradiction. Do not write such things as, "she believed it, but did not really believe it". In general, try to avoid using the word "really".

  6. Although many students are in the habit of using questions to make assertions, it is a very poor practice. It annoys the reader and often elicits the wrong answer. If, for example, your point is that rational belief is possible only if one has evidence, do not write, "Could one have a rational belief without evidence?", but instead, "One cannot have a rational belief without evidence."

  7. The possessive ending " 's " should, in general, be reserved for terms which refer to creatures. Thus it is proper to say "Margaret Thatcher's back was against the wall", but inelegant to say "the chair's back was against the wall". Instead use the preposition "of": "the back of the chair was against the wall". There are, to be sure, many exceptions, e.g. "Hell's Gate" and "New York's financial difficulties", etc. As a rule, try the prepositional form to see whether it 'sounds right'.

  8. Use "who" (or "whom", as the case may be), not "that" or "which", to refer to persons. Write "she was the philosopher who first raised the issue", not "she was the philosopher that first raised the issue".

  9. "Relevant" is like "older than" in being a relational term. Nothing is, by itself, relevant; just as nothing is, by itself, older than. If something is relevant, it is relevant to or for something; you must spell out what this latter thing is.

  10. The 6-word expression "the question of whether or not" can be effectively shortened to three words: "the question whether".

  11. Do not use "this" to refer to previous assertions. In general, be very careful to make it absolutely clear what terms such as "this", "their", "its", etc. are referring (back) to.
    ambiguous:   The traditional view is that Hume argued that there is no necessity in nature. This is problematic.
    What does "this" refer to: the historical view about Hume himself or the thesis about necessity? The ambiguity can be resolved in two different ways:
      unambiguous: The traditional view is that Hume argued that there is no necessity in nature. This historical attribution is problematic.
    unambiguous: The traditional view is that Hume argued that there is no necessity in nature. This thesis about necessity is problematic.
    Along with "this", students tend to overuse and misuse the pronoun "which".
      incorrect: More history books than music books are sold, which is regrettable.
    To what exactly is "which" referring back? If we try substituting "more history books than music books are sold" - the only plausible candidate for the substitution - we generate a grammatical barbarism: "More history books than music books are sold is regrettable". Instead, the original sentence should be rewritten like this:
    correct:   That more history books than music books are sold is regrettable.
    correct:   It is regrettable that more history books than music books are sold.
  12. Avoid run-on sentences.


    Hume 'looked inwardly' to try to find what he called 'self' something distinct from his stream of consciousness, what, in effect, would be the 'owner' of that consciousness, and in his failure to find that self he claimed that self is nonexistent and that a person is nothing more than a stream of consciousness associated with a human body.

    This long, clumsy, sentence can be readily 'broken-down' into more digestible, shorter, sentences:

    Hume 'looked inwardly' to try to find what he called 'self'. For Hume, the 'self' was something distinct from one's stream of consciousness. In effect, it would be the 'owner' of that consciousness. When he failed to find that self, Hume claimed that self is nonexistent and that a person is nothing more than a stream of consciousness associated with a human body.
  13. Try to avoid using nouns as adjectives, particularly when the adjectival form is available. Do not write "history example", "explanation rule", etc. Instead write "an example drawn from history", or "an historical example"; "an explanatory rule"; etc.

  14. Generally "many" sounds better than "a lot" or "amount". Note that "amount" does not mean "large amount"; if it did, there would be no point in the qualification "large".

  15. The adjectives, "less" and "fewer" are not synonyms. Use "less" for mass terms, e.g. "water", "lumber", "meat", etc.; and use "fewer" for aggregates of countable items, e.g. "recordings", "books", "students".

  16. Although the popular press uses quotation marks less and less frequently, they are still required in philosophical writing.
    incorrect: The terms belief and knowledge are frequently interchanged.
    correct:   The terms, "belief" and "knowledge", are frequently interchanged.
    In short, be sure to observe the use/mention distinction. (For more on the use/mention distinction, see "Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meanings".) For example, do not write:

    "Although the term luck is difficult to define, we can at least say that it is a desired or undesired event."
    There are two errors here: (1) the unquoted occurrence of "luck", and (2) the unclarity of the antecedent of "it". If we correct the first error, we compound the second. Thus, we make a mistake if we write:

    "Although the term 'luck' is difficult to define, we can at least say that it is a desired or undesired event."
    In this latter sentence, the term "it" now clearly refers to " 'luck' ", i.e. the name we use to refer to luck. But we want "it" to refer, not to the name of luck, but to luck itself. Thus, to get our sentence to say what we mean, we must write:

    "Although the term 'luck' is difficult to define, we can at least say that a lucky event is one that is desired or undesired."
  17. Try to avoid the expressions, "it is the case that" and "it is not the case that". Their use in other than purely technical contexts is an affectation.

  18. The construction "not X because of Y" is usually ambiguous and ought to be avoided. Consider:

    "He did not kill her because of her dowry"
    is ambiguous between,

    "He killed her, but not for her dowry",

    "He forswore killing her in order to get her dowry".
  19. Similarly, do not write "all S is not P", but disambiguate it as either "no S is P" or "not all Ss are Ps".

  20. Observe grammatical parallelism.
    incorrect: The principal difficulties are that instruments can fail, a technician's misreading the dials, and having misremembered the data.
    correct:   The principal difficulties are an instrument failing, a technician misreading the dials, and a person misremembering the data.
    If you begin a sentence with "First", be sure to have another that begins "Second". Similarly, "on the other hand" should be preceded by "on the one hand". Also do not write, "he said that (1) .... and (2) that ....", but "he said (1) that .... and (2) that ...". Be particularly careful, in using the constructions, "both ... and ..." and "either ... or ...", to begin both 'fillers' with the same grammatical forms. Thus:
    incorrect: To pass a driver's test one must both study hard and must diligently practice.
    incorrect: To pass a driver's test one must both study hard and diligently practice.
    correct:   To pass a driver's test one must both study hard and practice diligently.
  21. Beware of misplaced modifiers. Years ago I read a short story which included this memorable gem: "She entered the room and saw a picture of her son hanging over the mantle." Here is another: "He registered at the desk without any luggage."

    There is a great tendency in constructing sentences which report indirect speech (and which use 'that'-phrases) to misplace the modifiers. For example, the sentence,

    "He said that the cake burned because he smelled smoke",
    obviously should read instead,

    "Because he smelled smoke, he said that the cake burned."
    Other examples of similar mistakes include: (1) "She heard that the king was murdered on her radio"; (2) "She reasoned that he was elected using the information she had read in the newspaper"; (3) "The degree of belief which is appropriate depends on the plausibility of the claim that such an object exists within the context of the prevailing scientific paradigm"; and (4) "President Bush was informed that Nicolae Ceausescu had been executed by his National Security Adviser."

    Here is a classified advertisement that appeared in the Vancouver Sun: "Black boy's BMX Raleigh bike missing from Nanaimo and East Broadway area. Call xxx-xxxx." I hope both the error and its correction are obvious.

    And here is yet another: "Quill said in the March 7 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine that he told the medical examiner the patient died of leukemia rather than suicide to avoid a police examination" ("Doctor won't be charged in mercy-killing", in Vancouver Sun [April 13, 1991], p. A10).

  22. If you have a parenthetical remark, or a qualifying phrase, within a sentence, be sure that the sentence without that remark or phrase is grammatical.
    incorrect: We do, or at least have, believed that knowledge is possible.
    correct:   We do believe, or at least have believed, that knowledge is possible.
  23. "Vague" does not mean "ambiguous"; "arbitrary" does not mean "conventional"; and "arbitrary" does not mean "random". Choose your words carefully.

  24. There is a distinction between "expert" and "authority" that is worth preserving. Experts are persons who are especially knowledgeable in their fields; authorities are persons who are empowered to enforce laws or rules, to issue orders, etc. For example, the principal of a high school may be an authority (within that school), but may not be particularly expert about educational matters. Similarly, a university professor may be expert on matters of aquaculture, but may have no authority whatever to enforce his/her views. There are no authorities in philosophy.

  25. "None" is singular; it means "not one".
    incorrect: None of these philosophers have written about free will.
    correct:   None of these philosophers has written about free will.
  26. Be careful in your placement of the word "only".
    incorrect: Locke only found one source of our concepts.
    incorrect: God only knows why the universe exists.

    correct:   Locke found only one source of our concepts.
    correct:   Only God knows why the universe exists.
    Each of the following sentences (except the second) means something different from each of the others. Try to see yourself what the differences are. (By the way, only the last of these examples is a correct description of empiricists.)

    • Only Empiricists claim that factual matters can be known by experience.

    • Empiricists only claim that factual matters can be known by experience. (Note: this sentence is ambiguous. It can mean either what is stated by the preceding sentence or what is stated by the following sentence.)

    • Empiricists claim only that factual matters can be known by experience.

    • Empiricists claim that only factual matters can be known by experience.

    • Empiricists claim that factual matters can be known only by experience.
  27. Be careful not to write such unqualified claims as "we cannot say ...". If you can write it, you doubtless can say it. What you would do better to write is something of this sort: "we cannot without misleading our hearers say ...", or "we cannot without violating certain rules of language say ...", or "we cannot justifiably say ...", etc.

  28. Words such as "may", "might", "can", "must", "possibly", "necessarily", etc. are modal terms. Try not to iterate modalities. For example, it is (usually) redundant to write "it must necessarily be that ...", or "it may be that it is possible to do ...", "we cannot possibly do ...", etc.

  29. The word "like" can be used to mean "similar to" and can be used to mean "such as". If you write a sentence using "like", double-check it for ambiguity, and if it is ambiguous, rewrite using "similar to" or "such as" as the case may be.
    ambiguous:   Certain English philosophers, like Bradford, were struggling with the problem of evil.
    unambiguous: Certain English philosophers, such as Bradford, were struggling with the problem of evil. ([Alternatively:] Certain English philosophers, including Bradford, were struggling with the problem of evil.)
    unambiguous: Certain English philosophers, in a manner similar to that of the South African, Bradford, were struggling with the problem of evil.
  30. The expression "try and see" is as barbarous as "could of seen". These should read, respectively, "try to see" and "could have seen". Be careful not to use "and" for "to"; or "of" for "have".


  1. Terms such as "concept", "idea" and "meaning" are technical terms within philosophy. Do not use them as substitutes for "statement", "belief", "proposition", etc.

  2. Philosophical prose is distinct from legalese. Among philosophers, parties are events where wine and cheese are served. Parties are not persons, collectivities, corporate entities, etc.

  3. In ordinary English prose, we often use "does not believe" when "disbelieves" is appropriate. In careful philosophical writing, these two phrases are distinguished. Similarly, "does not want x to occur" does not mean the same as "wants x not to occur".

  4. Be careful how you use "or" after "believes", "knows", "wants", etc. The two sentences, "He believes that Kant or Hume used that argument" and "He believes that Kant or believes that Hume used that argument", simply do not mean the same thing.

  5. Persons rarely deduce conclusions or hypotheses. Almost always you will want to use the term "infer" rather than "deduce". (A deduction is a deductively valid inference. Sherlock Holmes' so-called 'deductions' were virtually never deductively valid inferences.)

  6. In careful philosophical prose, "infer" and "imply" are never used as synonyms. While the copy-editor at the Vancouver Sun may allow Elizabeth Aird to write "Naming him man of the year infers greatness" (Dec. 22, 1994, p. B1), such a sentence will not be allowed in philosophical writings. Aird should have used "implies", not "infers". Persons (and some other conscious creatures) make inferences (i.e. draw the implications out of propositions); no statements or actions (such as naming someone man of the year) make inferences. Think of it this way: implications are 'pointings-towards'; inferences are 'elicitings-from'. Both persons and statements can imply (certain things); but only persons [and some other conscious creatures] (not statements, actions, etc.) make inferences. (Whether computers can make inferences is a question best left for courses in cognitive science or the philosophy of mind.)

  7. We may ascribe truth to a proposition; but we do not describe, prescribe or subscribe truth to a proposition. None of "ascribe", "describe", "prescribe" or "subscribe" is synonymous with any of the others.

  8. Do not confuse the terms "necessarily" (a modal term) and "universally" (a nonmodal term). "Necessarily" (when used without qualification [e.g. as in "physically necessary"]) is (logically) stronger than "universally". "Universally" means "throughout the (actual) universe, at all times and all places". "Necessarily" (again when used without qualification) means (roughly) "in every universe, both actual and possible". For example, it is a universal truth (we are pretty sure) that all living things need an external source of energy; but it is not a necessary truth.

  9. One sometimes finds in ordinary prose a use of the expression "begs the question" which is entirely different from the use that expression receives among philosophers. (Not too many years ago, this popular use was regarded as a misuse; but it has now become so common that it is frequently regarded as acceptable in ordinary [non-philosophical] contexts.) In the popular press "begs the question" is often used to mean something like "in turn raises the question ..." or "demands that we ask the question ..." For example, in Time we find:

    Many cities make statements; Dresden begs questions. Above all, there is this one: What can have kept this city alive after a wartime bombing that left it a wasteland ...? [Benjamin, Daniel, "Dresden Redivivus", in Time (Jan. 6, 1992), p. 57.]
    But in philosophy, "begs the question" preserves its original meaning. In philosophy, this expression is used only to describe fallacious arguments in which the conclusion either implicitly or explicitly occurs among the premises or in which the conclusion has to have been antecedently assumed in order to warrant the premises.

  10. "No reason in principle" means "no reason contrary to theory". For example, one might write: "There is no reason in principle to believe that establishing a colony on a distant planet is impossible."

    The expression "principled reason" means "a reason warranted by (moral) precept".

    Try to avoid writing "there is no principled reason ..." when your intent is to express the claim that there is no reason in principle ... .


  • common sense (noun phrase) / commonsense (adjective) [Examples: "Do try to exercise some good common sense." "It's a simple, commonsense, idea."]

  • consensus ["consensus of opinion" is as pleonastic (redundant) as "close proximity" (see "proximity" below)]

  • disinterest / uninterest ["disinterested" means "objective, unprejudiced, unbiased, lacking a stake in", etc. "uninterested in" means "has no curiosity about". Thus, for example, a judge might not be uninterested in the case she is hearing (indeed we might hope that she would be interested), but (there are legal expectations that) she should be disinterested.]

  • every day (adverb) / everyday (adjective) [Examples: "Every day she writes a newspaper column." "Everyday occurrences are the stuff of her newspaper columns."]

  • it's / its [Example: "It's a poor dog that has lost its tail."]

  • militate / mitigate

  • proximity [Do not write "close proximity". "Proximity" means "closeness". What would be the contrast of "close proximity"? "Distant proximity"? (a self-contradictory phrase).]

  • was / were [Although the subjunctive mood is falling into disuse, it does give one's writing a polish. Counterfactual or hypothetical cases require (or at least have traditionally required) the subjunctive ("were"), not the indicative ("was"), mood. Thus one would write "If I were to travel to the future ..." instead of "If I was to travel to the future ..."]


  • acquaintance; acquire; etc. [virtually the only words which begin with "aq" are "Aquinas" and words deriving from the Latin "aqua" (for "water"), e.g. "aquarium", "aquatic", etc.]

  • a lot / allot [there is no word "alot"]

  • accommodate [two "m"s]

  • affect / effect

  • argument [not "arguement"]

  • Britannica [one "t"; two "n"s]

  • casual / causal

  • criterion (sing.) / criteria (plural)

  • existence / existents

  • inferred [two "r"s]

  • inferring [two "r"s]

  • instance / instants

  • judgment [Canadian/American spelling]

  • occurred

  • occurrence

  • occurring

  • offered [one "r"; note contrast with "occurred" and "referred"]

  • phenomenon (sing.) / phenomena (plural)

  • precede [note: "cede"]

  • proceed [note: "ceed"]

  • principal / principle

  • rational / rationale

  • reference [one "r" in the middle]

  • referred [two "r"s in the middle; note contrast with "offered"]

  • spatio-temporal (or spatiotemporal) [not "spacio-temporal"]

  • than / then

  • their / there / they're [Example: "They're going to be late if their car stopped there."]

  • who's / whose [Example: "Who's the historian whose manuscript was accidentally used as kindling?"]

  • you're / your

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