Edited Standard Written English (ESWE)

Don Byrd

(Adapted by me from an adaptation by Philip Schrodt, Political Science, University of Kansas, of material provided by Barbara E. Walvoord, Professor of English, University of Notre Dame.)

I. Introduction

Suppose a group of people were living on a small island, all using the same forms of language, until one day the island broke in two, separated by impassable rough water. In 100 years, would the people on both halves still use the same language forms? No. Human language is always changing. Language on the each half of the island would evolve with different forms and rules; neither would be "better" in any absolute sense; they'd just be different.

Similarly, in the U.S., language variations have developed among people separated by culture or geography. However, a common societal pattern, fair or not, is that the ruling class imposes its dialect on everyone else. In the U.S., the "standard" dialect is the dialect of the white middle and upper classes. Dialects developed by people of other races and by people who have been poor or geographically isolated (as in Appalachia) are often considered "bad" English. But actually such forms are different, not "bad." Each dialect has its own rules and its own uses, and in fact many regional variants of English simply add grammatical elements that are common in many languages but have dropped out of English, for example a separate form for the second-person plural, or the distinction between a completed and an on-going action.

As you're probably aware, readers of serious expository writing, as opposed to poetry or fiction, generally expect to see well-edited standard English. In fact, one of the criteria a great many people undoubtedly use (consciously or not) to evaluate the quality of an information source is simply how much it "looks" like high-quality sources in terms of correct and standard language use. This is the main reason I feel the subject is important. "Edited Standard Written English" (with the words capitalized; "ESWE" for short) is Prof. Walvoord's attempt to describe the rules, and I think it's a reasonable way to do it.

II. Editing Criteria

On finished, final, formal papers, in order to avoid having your grade reduced, you must not have too many departures from ESWE per page, in any combination of the following areas:

  1. all quoted material enclosed in quotation marks
  2. spelling (a typo is a misspelling)
  3. sentences and end-of-sentence punctuation (avoid run-on sentences, comma splices, fragments, and misuse of semicolon). Note: very occasionally, you may use a fragment or comma splice for a special effect. This should be done only sparingly in technical writing.
  4. verb forms (use standard forms of "lie", "lay", etc., and rules for adding "-ed" and "-s", using helping verbs, etc.)
  5. verb tense (avoid confusing shifts in verb tense)
  6. agreement of subject and verb
  7. pronoun form (use standard rules to choose between "I" and "me", "she" and "her", "who" and "whom", etc.)
  8. agreement of pronoun with antecedent (the antecedent is the word the pronoun refers to)
  9. apostrophe, "-s", "-es"
  10. sentence sense (words omitted, scrambled, or incomprehensible)
  11. proper use of the possessive pronoun "its" in contrast to the contraction "it's" (meaning "it is")
  12. documentation: formatting of footnotes, citations, bibliography

How many violations per page is too many, and how much will they affect your grade? I can't give an exact rule, since it might vary from assignment to assignment. Except for final papers, if your paper has "too many" departures from ESWE, I may return it ungraded for you to improve and resubmit. If you're not confident about your use of written English, IU's Writing Tutorial Services can help. Also, the Common Errors in English web site is very useful.

Note: this policy applies only to finished, final, formal writing, and only when I've announced it applies. In informal writing, it's perfectly legitimate to pay less attention to ESWE conventions and to focus only on content.

III. ESWE Light: Editing Criteria for Presentation Slides

Of course, slides for a presentation are very different from a written paper -- for one thing, space is at a premium, and the visuals should supplement what the speaker says, notoverwhelm it. For that reason, on slides, sentence fragments are usually preferable to complete sentences. In addition, viewers can't have standards that are too high, if only because they won't have time to spot most minor flaws! Nonetheless, most of the departures from ESWE listed above are still a problem. To be specific:

The remaining rules all apply in full.

Last updated: 16 Nov. 2007
Comments to: donbyrd(at)indiana.edu
Copyright 2007, Donald Byrd

Music InformaticsSchool of InformaticsIndiana University