I 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, though some are repeats of earlier ones—the students hadn’t gotten the message):
- Passive voice is not to be used. When passive voice is used, the reader has a hard time figuring out who actually did anything. A thesis is written toestablish that someone is competent to do research and write about it. If the entire thesis is written in passive voice, with no first-person singular, the implication is that all the work was done by person or persons unknown.If you did the work, claim it! If you didn’t do the work, tell me who did!
- “however”≠”but”: “However” is a sentence adjective, but it is not a conjunction. “However” is best used in the middle of a sentence—it can, however, be moved to the beginning, if necessary for readability. However, there is some danger when it is at the beginning of a sentence of merging the sentence with the previous one, and treating it like a conjunction. If you make that mistake, replace “however” and the following comma with “but”.
- A number of students are using dangling modifiers: starting sentences with modifiers that would apply to the subject of the sentence, then changing their mind and putting a different subject in the main part of the sentence. (I won’t embarrass students by quoting their work here—there are a number of examples at http://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-dangling-modifiers.html.)
- Lists need to consist of parallel items. The items need to be grammatically parallel as well as semantically parallel. If one is a noun phrase, then all need to be noun phrases. If one is a verb clause, they all need to be verb clauses. The semantic parallelism is a little subtler—don’t mix properties of an object with instructions for using the object, for example. The bulleted lists of visual aids for talks are a particularly important place to apply the rules of parallelism.
- I recommended that students start each chapter on a new page. Not only is this conventional book and thesis formatting, but starting each chapter on a new page makes it easier for the reader to distinguish between chapter breaks, section breaks, and subsection breaks. Anything that makes it easier for a reader to stay oriented in a large document is useful. (I also recommended numbering sections and subsections with the chapter.section.subsection style used in most computer-science documents.
- Figures and tables should be sequentially numbered, and the name of the figure is the word “Figure” followed by an unbreakable space, followed by the number. Because this is the name of the figure, it is capitalized like other proper nouns: Figure 1, Table 3, … . All figures should be referred to in the text, and the figures should appear near where the first reference to them is (unless there are a group of figures relegated to an appendix, with their existence mentioned in the main body, but not discussed there). If you need to insert a new figure, you need to renumber everything after that point—so make all your figure numbering be handled by automatic cross references by the program, as manual renumbering is highly error-prone. If you have a name like Figure 2b, it means a subfigure of Figure 2, not a figure you added late between the old Figures 2 and 3. (Incidentally, I hate how WordPress throws away unbreakable spaces when converting back and forth between “Visual” and “Text” editing. No matter how carefully I put them in, WordPress manages to mess them up and turn them back into ordinary spaces.)
- “parse”≠”scan”: Every year I get a number of students who have picked up the word “parse” from a computer science class, and misunderstood it to be a synonym for “scan”. That’s not what it means. To parse something is to determine its structure—to break it into parts and analyze the relationship among the parts (generally in terms of some grammar). The verb “parse” is transitive—it takes an object, not a prepositional phrase, that holds the thing being analyzed.
- Students are still having trouble with countable and uncountable nouns. For some students, this is understandable, as their native languages do not make the countable/uncountable distinction that English does. I pointed students to the Oxford Student Dictionary of American English, edited by Hornby, which is now out of print, as being a dictionary that actually tells you whether a noun is countable or not. The Oxford Advanced American Dictionary for learners of English is not as nicely formatted, but also has the [C] and [U] markings and is still in print.I used two examples of nouns that changed meaning depending on whether they were countable: “grub” and “time”. “Grub” is food, but “a grub” is the larval form of an insect, which may or may not be food. “Time”, when uncountable, is a duration, but “times”, when countable, are separate events.
Even native speakers of English sometimes mess up the countable/uncountable distinction (though usually not with articles). The contexts where native speakers mess up are “amount of”/”number of”, “less”/”fewer”, and “much”/”many”—in all of which the first form should be used with uncountable nouns and the second with plural forms of countable nouns.