Knox College Psychology Department Writing Policy

The Psychology Department has seven learning goals for its majors. Goal # 5 is that students who complete the major will be able to effectively communicate with clear, grammatically-correct writing that conforms to APA style.

To help reach this goal, the Psychology professors have agreed to implement a common writing policy in all PSYC courses at the 200- and 300-level; the portion of the policy concerning APA format only applies to PSYC 282 and 300-level classes unless otherwise announced by your professor.

This policy will apply to all graded written papers/essays; it will not apply to in-class writing assignments, to ungraded written assignments, or to written essays that occur as part of exams. It applies equally to majors and non-majors in relevant
classes. The details of how this policy will be implemented are described below. 

To download a pdf file of the Psychology Department Writing Policy, click on the following link:  Knox Psych Dept Writing Policy.

When a professor finds one of the following mistakes in your paper, s/he will indicate the type of mistake by writing (or typing) a code nearby the mistake. S/he will write WM if it is a writing mistake, P if it is a punctuation mistake, T if it is a typographical error, and APA if it is an APA error. S/he will then write a # (and perhaps a small letter as well) to let you know which type of mistake was made. So, for example, WM2b signifies a problem with subject-verb agreement, P2a signifies a problem with a colon, and APA6 signifies a problem with line spacing. If you see one of these types of marks, you can then refer to this policy in order to know what mistake you made and how to avoid making that mistake again in the future; if you do not understand how to fix the mistake even after you have read this document, talk with your professor.

Writing Mistakes (WMs) are penalized at .5% per mistake; one freebie is allowed, and there is a 20% cap on the amount of points a student can lose due to WMs.  Punctuation mistakes (Ps) are penalized at .5% per mistake; 1 freebie is allowed per 250 words of paper length, and there is a 20% cap on the amount of points a student can lose due to Ps.  Typos (Ts) are penalized at .5% per mistake; 1 freebie is allowed per 250 words of paper length, and there is a 20% cap on the amount of points a student can lose due to Ts.  APA mistakes (APAs) are penalized at .5% per mistake; 2 freebies are allowed per paper and there is a 20% cap on the amount of points a student can lose due to APAs.

The total amount of points that a student can lose on a single paper due to mistakes s/he made relevant to this writing policy (i.e., summed across the four categories of WMs, Ps, Ts, & APAs) is capped at 25% for 200-level classes and 40% for PSYC 282 and 300-level classes.

In the recognition that reinforcement is a more powerful external motivator than is punishment, the Psychology Department also offers Extra Credit for excellent, error-free writing. A student can earn 2% Extra Credit points if the paper has 0 WMs and has so few Ts and Ps that the student was not penalized for these types of mistakes (only freebies occurred). In addition, in relevant courses, a student can also earn the 2% Extra Credit points if a paper has 0 WMs, so few Ts and Ps that the student was not penalized for these mistakes, and 0 APAs..

The details of each category are presented below.

Writing Mistakes
These mistakes include problems with grammar, clarity, and proper use of words.

1. Sentence Structure
a. Fragmented sentences occur when a sentence is not an independent clause, i.e., when it lacks either a subject or verb, or when a sentence is actually a phrase masquerading as a sentence.
    Fragmented sentences are always incomplete thoughts. For example "Near the printer on my desk" has neither a subject nor a verb. "Twenty seven females and ten males" has no verb and
    "Went willingly to the room" has no subject. All necessary parts of speech must be within a particular sentence. So "The stapler sits near the printer on my desk" adds a subject (i.e., stapler)     and verb (i.e., sits). "Twenty seven females and ten males participated in the study" adds a verb (i.e., participated). "She went willingly into the room" adds a subject (i.e., She). Sometimes a     fragmented sentence does have an action and an actor, as in "Bill, running down the corridor." The problem here is that the thought is incomplete. "Bill ran down the corridor" is a complete     thought, as is, "Bill, running down the corridor, smashed head first into Dean."

b. Run-on sentences occur when two clauses that could stand independently as sentences are smashed together into one seeming sentence, sometimes with a comma between them,        
    although not always. "Measures of depression are commonly used, they really work" is a run-on sentence because "Measures of depression are commonly used" stands alone as a sentence,     and "they really work" stands alone as a sentence (i.e., each has a subject and a verb). One way of fixing a run-on sentence is to make it two different sentences, as in "Measures of        
    depression are commonly used. They really work." Another solution is to separate the two sentences with a semi-colon or, less commonly in scientific writing, a dash "Measures of    
    depression are commonly used; they really work." Typically the best solution is to connect the two sentences with a comma and a type of conjunction, as in "Measures of depression are    
    commonly used, and they really work." With this solution, the run-on is fixed and a transition is provided.

2. Problems with Verbs
a. Consistent verb tense. Students sometimes switch verb tenses within a single idea, moving between past and present tense within the same sentence or paragraph, as in “Subjects
    complete a measure of depression; then they were randomly assigned to condition.”  This problem can be solved by identifying the verb tense that makes the most sense for the idea you     are expressing and using it throughout the idea unless there is a valid reason to switch. Thus, the better sentence would be “Subjects first completed a measure of depression; then they    
    were randomly assigned to condition.”

b. Subject-verb agreement. The verb form one uses in a sentence depends upon whether the subject is singular or plural and whether the subject is first, second, or third person (e.g., I am,
    you are, we are, she is, they are). Mistakes in subject-verb agreement increase when the subject and verb are not directly next to each other in a sentence or when the verb precedes the    
    subject. For example, the sentence “There were very few students who did not do well on that assignment” is correct because “students” is the subject, and therefore “were” is the
    correct verb form. 
    i.  Note that “Data” is a plural term; “datum”, which is rarely used, is the singular. As such, “These data are interesting” is correct.
    ii. Words that are “collective nouns,” like “set,” “class,” “audience,” and “couple” represent a unit, and therefore are almost always treated as singular. Thus, while one would    
       correctly write, “These findings are interesting,” one would also correctly write, “This set of findings is interesting.”

3. Pronoun Problems
a. Unclear references. This problem typically occurs when a pronoun refers to an earlier word (the antecedent) but it is not clear exactly what word the pronoun refers to. For
    example, "Lane told Joe that he had failed the course" could mean the Lane had failed the course or that Joe had failed the course. The reader has no way of knowing. This is easily
    solved by being clear and writing "Lane told Joe, ‘You failed the course.’" Another type of unclear reference sometimes occurs with "which," as in "She avoided using slang, which
    greatly improved her speech." Here the reader cannot tell whether the avoiding of slang or the slang itself improved her speech. It would be clearer in this case to write, "By avoiding
    slang, she improved her speech."

b. Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement. This problem often occurs when an earlier word in the sentence (the antecedent) is singular but the pronoun is plural, e.g., “the bird in their cage.” The
    problem is that “the bird” is singular but “their” is plural. This problem can be fixed by making the antecedent singular, “the bird is in its cage.” Note: The Psychology Department        
    recognizes “they” as a singular pronoun for a person.

c. I and me; he/she and him/her; we and us; they and them.
“I,” “he/she,” “we” and “they” are words that function as subjects (i.e., who the sentence is about). “Me”,
  “him/her,"“us,”and“them" function as objects (i.e., the receiver of the action associated with the verb). Thus, “Larry likes Hank more than me,” means that Larry likes Hank
   more than Larry likes me. “Larry likes Hank more than I” means that Larry likes Hank more than I like Hank.  This latter sentence would be clearer by adding a verb, as in, “Larry
   likes Hank more than I do.”

d. Who vs. that. Generally, “who” is used to refer to people and “that” is used to refer to animals or nonliving objects. For example, it would be correct to write, “The individual
  who was responsible for sending the hateful message was not available for comment.”  While the Psychology Department recognizes that many people, and some authors, use “who” and “that” interchangeably when referring to people, we believe it is important to ‘humanize’ people through the use of “who” rather than “that.”  

4. Parallel Construction
Parallel construction is necessary for clarity and involves making sure that lists of things are expressed with the same grammatical forms. So, in the case of "Joe went shopping, drank two beers, and one martini," there is a problem in grammar with the "and one martini" just hanging at the end of the sentence. In this case, the sentence could be fixed by writing "Joe shopped, and then he drank two beers and one martini" so that "shopped" and "drank" are parallel, and so it is clear what happened with the one martini. Another option would be to write, "Joe shopped, drank two beers, and downed one martini" to add a parallel verb form that explains what happened to the martini. Parallel construction problems also occur in sentences like "Many professors work hard, taking no vacation." In this case "work" is not parallel to "taking." The sentence can be fixed by rewriting it as "Many professors work hard and take no vacation" or as "Many professors are working hard and taking no vacation."

a. Then vs. Than. "Then" refers to comparisons in time, as in "First she ran, and then she swam," and to causal statements, as in "If I drop this, then it will hit the ground." "Than" is used for comparisons, as in "Daniel is taller than Frank."

b. Effect vs. Affect. When discussing causality, "affect" is a verb whereas "effect" is a noun. As such, the following is correct usage: "Joe's statement affected Helen's self-esteem; this, in turn, had drastic effects on her performance on the test." “Affect” can occasionally be a noun, referring to emotion, as in "The researchers measured levels of positive affect." “Effect” can occasionally be used as a verb meaning "to bring about," as in "The earthquake effected great change in the highway system." Your best rule of thumb is to use "effect" as a noun and "affect" as a verb, except for the two exceptions above.

c. There vs. Their vs. They're. “There” is an adverb that indicates place (e.g., “I want to go there on spring break”) or it is an expletive (a “stand in” for a subject or verb in a sentence; e.g., “There are many places I want to visit on spring break”). “Their” is a possessive pronoun (e.g., “Their spring break plans have changed”). “They’re” is a contraction that means “They are” (e.g., “They’re not going to New Orleans on spring break”).

d. Lay vs. Lie. “Lie” means to recline or rest on a surface whereas “lay” means to put or place something. “Lie” does not have a direct object (someone or something that did the lying) whereas “lay” does. “The laptops lie on the desk” and “Lay the laptop on the desk” are both correct. To make it more complicated, keep in mind that the past tense of “lie” is “lay” and the past tense of “lay” is “laid.”  

e. Too vs. two vs. to. “To” is a preposition, as in “He is going to France.”  “Two” is a number, as in “She has two dogs.”  “Too” is an adverb, as in “I have too many pimples.”

f. Your vs. You’re. “Your” is a possessive, as in “The baby has your eyes.”  “You’re” is a conjunction of “you” and “are,” as in “You’re wonderful.”

g. Loose vs. lose. “Loose” is an adjective, as in “That knot is loose.”  “Lose” is a verb, as in “I bet she will lose her tooth tonight.”

h. i.e. vs. e.g. While these abbreviations do not sound alike, they are often confused. “i.e.,” is a stand-in for “that is” and is used to express an idea in another way, as in “The driver stopped at the red light, i.e., he followed the law.”  “e.g.” is a stand-in for “for example” and is used to introduce possible examples, as in “The zoo has many animals, e.g., elephants, aardvarks, giraffes, etc.”  Importantly, both “i.e.” and “e.g.” should be followed by a comma in normal usage. Further, they are typically used in parentheses as opposed to the body of the sentence.

6. Proper use of articles (a, an and the)
An article signals that a noun is about to appear (although the noun does not need to directly follow the article). Generally, “a” or “an” means “one among many” and either word is used to refer to a noun that is not specific or specified but is “countable.”  “A” is used before a consonant sound; “an” is used before a vowel sound (e.g., “She wanted me to read a book” or “She wanted me to read an interesting book”). “The” is used with a noun whose identity is known (e.g., “She wanted me to read the book that the professor mentioned in class yesterday”). Non-count nouns (entities that cannot be counted, like energy, food, and advice) do not take an article (e.g., “She wanted me to read classic literature”).

7. Avoid Overstatements
a. Absolute statements. Using such words as “always” and “never” (and related words such as “constantly,” “continually,” “forever,” “endlessly,” “at no time,” “not in any way”) should be avoided. Many students write sentences such as "She never smiles" or "He is always a hard grader." Both of these are almost certainly overstatements and misuses of the words "never" and "always." "People never run faster than the speed of light" and "People always die eventually," are examples of proper uses of these two words. The earlier sentences can be fixed by choosing more moderate words, as in "She rarely smiles" or "He is usually a hard grader."

b. Prove. Scientists very rarely claim that they have “proven” anything, although some form of this word is used by lay people with frequency. The use of any form of this word typically overstates results (which are usually probabilistic). Thus, rather than writing “These results prove that…” a more appropriate statement is “These results support the idea that…” or “These results are consistent with the idea that…”

8. Making Comparisons
The sentence “The experimental group scored higher in aggression” makes it impossible for the reader to know to whom or what the experimental group’s aggression scores are being compared.  When comparison words like “higher” or “lower” or “more” or “less” are used, it is crucial to include the comparator. So, for example, a correct sentence would be, “The experimental group scored higher in aggression than did either of the two control groups.”

9. Dangling and Awkwardly Placed Modifiers
Words, phrases, and clauses are often used to modify (or further describe) some other word. Sometimes, however, writers place these modifiers in locations in the sentence that make it difficult to understand what the modifiers are modifying or that actually change the meaning of the sentence. For example, in the sentence, “The professor had two plants in her office that needed to be watered,” the phrase “that needed to be watered” is meant to modify “two plants,” but its location in the sentence actually makes it modify “her office”; obviously, her office does not need to be watered. Writing, “The professor had two plants that needed to be watered in her office,” solves the problem. This points to the clear solution for modifiers --- place them next to the word they are modifying. A similar problem can happen for “limiting modifiers,” which are words like “only”, “not”, “even” and “almost”. These words should be placed in front of a verb if they modify the verb; if they modify some other word, they should be placed in front of that other word. So, for example, “In the study, all subjects were asked not to place their hands in ice water” has a different meaning from “In the study, not all subjects were asked to place their hands in ice water.”   In the first sentence “not” modifies the verb “to place,” and the sentence means that no one put his/her hand in the ice water. In the second sentence, “not” modifies “all subjects,” and the sentence means that some, but not all, subjects placed their hand in the ice water.

10. Point of View Consistency
A particular sentence should usually stay with the same point of view in terms of person and number. So, for example, the following sentence drifts from one view to another:  “Our class had to complete two assignments. You had to write an essay and take an exam.”  Here, the author changes from the “we” point of view to the “you” point of view. The latter is incorrect, because “you” refers to the reader, when actually the reader was probably not part of “our class.” As such, it would be best to keep the point of view the same throughout the sentence by writing “We had to write an essay and take an exam.”

Although there are many forms of punctuation, the Psychology Department Writing Policy only concerns itself with some of the forms. Because the Psychology Department recognizes that punctuation errors occur occasionally even in the papers of careful writers, students are allowed one un-penalized punctuation error for every 250 words in the paper.

1. End Punctuation
Most sentences should end with a period, although if a sentence asks a question it should end with a question mark. Exclamation marks can also end sentences, but they are used very rarely in scientific writing.

2. Internal Punctuation
Internal punctuation occurs within the context of a sentence and affects how the reader reads that sentence.

a. The colon.
Colons are most often used to draw attention to a list or to a quotation. They can only be used after an independent clause. Thus, one might write “There are four main sections to a research paper:  introduction, methods, results, and discussion” because the portion of the sentence before the colon is an independent clause. However, one would not say “The four sections of a research paper are: introduction, methods, results, and discussion” because the portion of the sentence before the colon is not a full independent clause.

b. The comma.
Unlike end punctuation or a colon, each of which signals a strong pause, a comma indicates a slight pause, allowing the reader to better follow the flow of thought and to clarify meaning within a sentence. For example, “After taking her nap my mother wanted me to help with dinner” can be clarified by adding a comma after “nap.”  Commas are also often used to set off a phrase. As a general rule, to determine if commas should be used for this purpose, ask yourself whether the information is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Information essential to the meaning of the sentence is rarely enclosed with commas. For example, in the sentence “Musicians who are just starting out rarely make money,” the kinds of musicians who “rarely make money” are the ones who are “just starting out.”  As such, the phrase “who are just starting out” is not set off by commas. In contrast, information that is not essential to the meaning of a sentence is almost always enclosed by commas. “Professors, who often wear ugly ties, spend much of their time grading,” illustrates this rule, as professors spend much time grading regardless of their tie preferences; the information about the ties is extra. Commas are also used to separate independent clauses when conjunctions are used (see WM 1b); place the comma before the conjunction, as in, “My cat is usually distressed during the day, but when I come home she seems to calm down.” In addition, commas should separate all items in a series of three or more words, phrases or clauses. For example, “Lori worked in the yard, showered, did the laundry, and then cooked dinner.”

c. The semi-colon. As noted in the section on run-on sentences, a semi-colon is used to separate two independent clauses; failure to use a semi-colon in that context is considered a WM 1b, not a P2c. Students will lose points for a P2c in cases when they use a semi-colon when they should actually use a comma or colon.  

3. The Apostrophe
Apostrophes are used for possessives, as in "Joe's candy is tasty" and "One's health is important." There are two exceptions where an apostrophe is not used for the possessive.  The first is in the case of "Its,” as in "The paint can fell off the table and landed on its lid." The second is in the case of “whose,” as in “I have no idea whose paper this is.”  Apostrophes are also used sometimes to make a plural, as with numbers and symbols. For example, it is correct to say "The poker player held three 7's in his hand" but it is not correct to say "The chips and the poker player's sat on the table." An apostrophe is also used for contractions such as "It's" (when referring to "it is"), “who’s” (when referring to “who is” or “who has”) and "can't," (when referring to "can not"), but such contractions are too informal for the writing in most psychology classes and should generally be avoided.

Typographical Errors

There are several possible typographical errors one might make to a sentence like “I went to the circus.” The first is the misspelling of a word, as in “I went to the circsu.”  Second is a mis-keying of a word so that a different word is typed (other than words that are often confused – see WM5), as in “I went to the circle.” Third is the capitalization of a word that should not be capitalized, as in “I Went to the circus.” Fourth is the failure to capitalize a word that should be capitalized, as in “i went to the circus. Fifth is the omission of a word that needs to be present in the sentence (other than articles – see WM6), as in “I went the circus.” Sixth is the repetition of a word that doesn’t need to be repeated, as in “I went went to the circus.”

Because the Psychology Department recognizes that typographical errors occur occasionally even in the papers of careful writers, students are allowed one unpenalized typographical error for every 250 words in the paper.

APA Format
There are many features of APA format, and the Psychology Department Writing Policy focuses on only some of them. That is, although we encourage all students to carefully format all aspects of their papers in APA format, only some errors will count on this APA policy (unless your professor tells you otherwise). Because the Psychology Department recognizes that APA format errors occur occasionally even in the papers of careful writers, students are allowed two un-penalized mistakes per paper. Please click on this link to download a pdf of the APA Format Writing Policy for the 7th Edition of the APA Manual.