Some Common Grammar and Usage Mistakes in Undergraduate Philosophy Papers
© 2003 Tim O'Keefe
Georgia State University
It's vs. its, who's vs. whose, and you're vs. your
The word it's is always a contraction of it is; to see if it's correct to use it's, substitute in the phrase "it is" and see if it makes sense. The possessive form of the pronoun it is its, not it's. Similarly, the word who's is always a
contraction for who is or who has. The possessive form of the pronoun who is whose, not who's. You're is always a contraction of you are, and the possessive form of you is your.
I.e. vs. e.g.
I.e. is an abbreviation that means that is, as in the following example: "Epicurus is an ethical egoistic hedonist, i.e., he thinks that only one's own pleasure has intrinsic value." E.g. is an abbreviation that means for instance, or such as, as in the following example: "Aristotle thinks that many things are intrinsically valuable, e.g., virtue, virtuous activity, and pleasure."
Cannot should be one word, not two. If you say "Tim cannot sing well," you mean that Tim is unable to sing well. If you say "Tim can not sing well," you mean that Tim is able to refrain from singing well.
Then vs. than
Then is used to indicate a time ("Now I feel OK, but I was scared then") or to introduce the consequent in an "if...then..." phrase ("If death is annihilation, then it is nothing either to the living or to the dead"). Than is used to make comparisons ("Jesse Ventura is taller than Dr. Ruth").
In philosophy, valid is a precise term that is applied only to arguments. It means that the conclusion of an argument is entailed by its premises. Bad arguments can be valid, and statements cannot be either valid or invalid. (A fuller description is available here.) So don't say that "I think that Descartes' argument is valid" when you mean that you think his argument is convincing, or "Hume's statement is valid" when you mean that his statement is true.
Begging the question
In philosophy, begging the question is the name of a logical fallacy in which one is already assuming the truth of the conclusion of one's argument in the premises. (A fuller description is available here.) It does not mean "raising the question" or "prompting the question." So don't say something like the following: "Now that Barry Sanders has retired, this begs the question of who is the shiftiest running back in the NFL."
Unique means "one of a kind," so something cannot be very unique or quite unique. (It is possible, however, for something to be almost unique.) In such cases, use the word distinctive instead, e.g., "Barry Sanders' running style is quite distinctive."
Using rhetorical questions instead of statements
Strictly speaking, using a rhetorical question isn't a mistake, but rhetorical questions are often misused, especially when objections are phrased as questions. Rephrase rhetorical questions as direct statements. Your paper will read better, and often your point will be clearer.
Don't write your paper in the form of a dialogue, either between you and a philosopher, or between you and your roommate. Handled well, the dialogue form can produce impressive results, as Plato and Hume show. But it's difficult to write a good philosophical dialogue, and trying to do so usually just creates problems, as the student concentrates on adding cute literary touches rather than on presenting convincing arguments.
"They" and "their" are not singular pronouns.
"They" and "their" are plural pronouns, not singular ones. So the following sentence isn't grammatically correct: "Chisholm thinks that for someone to be responsible for their actions, they have to have the ability to do otherwise." "Someone" is a singular pronoun, whereas "their" and "they" are plural pronouns. The following sentence contains a similar mistake: "A person who cares only about their own happiness will not achieve happiness."
Students often use 'they' and 'their' as generic singular pronouns because they want to avoid using 'he' and 'his,' which are male pronouns, to refer to people generally. There are other ways to avoid this, however.
Note: 'they' and their' are often used as generic singular pronouns in conversation, and some people have claimed that this usage was common even in writing at some points in the past. I believe that usage determines 'correct' grammar, and at some point in the future, the 'generic singular' they and their might be generally considered acceptable. However, standards in written language (especially academic written language) tend to be less relaxed than those in spoken English, and also to lag behind spoken English.
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