Gas station without pumps

2015 January 26

More senior thesis pet peeves

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:17
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I previously posted some Senior thesis pet peeves. Here is another list, triggered by another group of first drafts (in no particular order):

  • An abstract is not an introduction. Technically, an abstract isn’t really a part of a document, but a separate piece of writing that summarizes everything important in the document. Usually the abstract is written last, after everything in the thesis has been written, so that the most important stuff can be determined. Most readers will never read anything of a document but the abstract.
  • Every paragraph (in technical writing) should start with a topic sentence, and the remaining sentences in the paragraph should support and expand that topic sentence. If you drift away from the topic, start a new paragraph! The lack of coherent paragraphs is probably the most common writing problem I see in senior theses.
  • I don’t mark every error I see in student writing. It is the student’s responsibility to learn to recognize problems that I point out and to hunt down other instances themselves. Students need to learn to do their own copy editing (or copy edit each other’s work)—I’m not interested in grading my own copy editing on subsequent drafts of the thesis.
  • Every draft of every document that is turned in for a class or to a boss should have a title, author, and date as part of the documents.  Including this meta-information should be a habitual action of every engineer and every engineering student—I shouldn’t be seeing last-minute hand-scrawled names and titles on senior thesis drafts.
  • Page numbers!  Every technical document over a page long should have page numbers. If you don’t know how to get automatic page numbers with your document processor, either stop using it or learn how!
  • Earlier this quarter I said that I did not care what reference and citation style you used, as long as it was one of the many standard ones. I’ve decided to change my mind on that—I do care somewhat what style you use for the reference list. Use a reference style that contains as much information as possible: full author names, full journal name, dates, locations of conferences, URLs, DOIs, … .  You may format it in any consistent manner, but provide all the information.
  • Use kernel density estimates instead of histograms when showing empirical probability distributions. My previous post explains the reasons.
  • Avoid using red-green distinctions in graphics. About 6% of the male population is red-green colorblind. There are color-blindness simulators on the web (such as that you can use to check whether your color images will work.  Modern gene-expression heat maps use red for overexpression, blue for underexpression, and fade to white in the middle.  This scheme has the advantage of having the strong signals in saturated colors and the weak ones in white or pastels, blending into the white background.
  • Comma usage continues to be a problem for many students. I discussed three common comma situations in English:
    • Comma splices. Two sentences cannot be stuck together with just a comma—one needs a conjunction to join them. If a conjunction is not desired, an em-dash can be used (as in the previous sentence). Sometimes a semicolon can be used, but never a bare comma.
    • Serial comma. There are two different conventions in English about the use of commas before the conjunction in a list of three or more items. In American English, the comma is always required, but in British English the comma is often omitted. I strongly favor the American convention (also known as the serial comma or the Oxford comma), and I will insist on it for the senior theses—even for those students raised in the British punctuation tradition.
    • When using “which” to introduce a relative clause, the clause should be non-restrictive. That is, omitting the clause beginning with “which” should not change the meaning of the noun phrase that is being modified by the relative clause. Non-restrictive relative clauses should be separated from the noun phrase they modify with a comma. If you have “which” without a comma starting a relative clause, then check to see whether you need a comma, or whether you need to change “which” to “that”, because the clause is really restrictive. Note: “which” is gradually taking over the role of “that” in spoken English, but this language change is still not accepted in formal writing, which is more conservative than speech.
  • The noun “however” is a sentence adjective, but it is not a conjunction. You can’t join two sentences with “however”. You can, however, use it to modify a separate sentence that contrasts with the previous one.
  • Colons are not list-introducers. Colons are used to separate a noun phrase from its restatement, and the restatement is often a list. The mistaken notion that colons are list-introducers comes from the following construction: the use of “the following” before a list. The colon is there because the list is a restatement of “the following”, not because it is a list. Note that two sentence back, I used a colon where the restatement was not a list. Similarly, I don’t use a colon when the list is
    • the object of a verb,
    • the object of a prepositional phrase,
    • or any other grammatical construct that is not a restatement or amplification of what came before the colon.
  • Most students in the class use “i.e.” and “e.g.” without knowing the Latin phrases that they are abbreviations for. I suggested that they not use the abbreviations if they wouldn’t use the Latin, but use the plain English phrases that they would normally use: “that is” and “for example”. If they must use the Latin abbreviations, they should at least punctuate them correctly—commas are needed to separate the “i.e.” and “e.g.” from what follows, just as a comma would be used with “that is” or “for example”.
  • Some students use the colloquial phrase “X is where …”, when what they mean is “X is …”. The “where” creeps in in some dialects of English to serve as a way of holding the floor while you think how to finish the sentence—it doesn’t really belong in formal technical writing.
  • “First”, “second”, and “last” are already adverbs.  They don’t need (and can’t really take) an “-ly” suffix. It grates on me the way same way that “nextly” does. “Next” has exactly the same dual status as an adjective and an adverb, but for some reason does not often suffer the indignity of being draped with a superfluous “-ly”.
  • I recommend that students not use the verb “comprise”, as few use it correctly. You can say that “x, y, and z compose A”, “A is composed of x, y, and z”, or “A comprises x, y, and z”. The construction “is comprised of” is strongly frowned on by most grammarists—avoid it completely, and avoid “comprise”, unless its usage comes naturally to you.  “Compose” and “is composed of” are less likely to get you in trouble.
  • “Thus” does not mean “therefore”—”thus” means “in this manner”. Note that “thus” is an adverb, so there is no “thusly”.
  • “Amount” is used for uncountable nouns (like “information”), while “number” is used for countable nouns (like “cells”). There are many distinctions in English that depend on whether a noun is countable or not (the use of articles, the use of plural, “many” vs. “much”), but “number” vs. “amount” seems to be the one that causes senior thesis writers the most difficulty.


  1. The copy editor strikes again! Two missing spaces:

    “…theuse of “the following” before a list. The colon is there because the list isa…”

    Comment by Michael K Johnson — 2015 January 27 @ 06:42 | Reply

    • Thanks. Both now fixed. I’m surprised that those errors escaped me (not surprised I made them, as my typing is not that polished), but I did run through WordPress’s spelling check, and that usually catches errors like missing spaces. Perhaps I was even more tired than I thought last night.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2015 January 27 @ 09:04 | Reply

  2. Another awesome post on writing. Thanks!

    Comment by xykademiqz — 2015 February 2 @ 21:04 | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on A Professor in Waterloo Engineering and commented:
    This is a very nice post about mistakes commonly found in engineering student writing, and I see the same issues described here. The inability to write clearly can be a career-limiting problem when they graduate.

    Comment by profbillanderson — 2015 February 7 @ 08:55 | Reply

  4. […] previously posted some Senior thesis pet peeves and More senior thesis pet peeves. Here is another list, triggered by a couple of groups of second drafts (in no particular order, […]

    Pingback by Still more senior thesis pet peeves | Gas station without pumps — 2015 February 11 @ 21:33 | Reply

  5. […] first design reports are similar to the problems I see in senior theses (Senior thesis pet peeves, More senior thesis pet peeves, and Still more senior thesis pet peeves). I hope that by catching them early, I can squelch the […]

    Pingback by Freshman design seminar writing notes | Gas station without pumps — 2015 February 25 @ 19:27 | Reply

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