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Guide to Writing Linguistics Papers

I. So what are these papers all about anyway?

II. Ok, how do I organize this thing?

III. But what do I do with my example sentences and tables?

IV. If these are my own arguments, what do I need to cite, and how?

V. What if my professor doesn't like how I did it?


I. So what are these papers all about anyway?

Linguistics papers offer analyses of data. You must defend a hypothesis accounting for a set of data, uncover the assumptions of the hypothesis, and test its predictions against data. Linguistics faculty members agree that the student's analysis is more important in a paper than the analyses of others (unless, of course, you are asked to critique others' analyses). Arguments should come "from the student's head" (Napoli).

Papers should be concise, but provide sufficient explanations of your points. Linguistics papers are analogous to lab reports for chemistry or papers for mathematics and so should read more like scientific writing than humanities writing. Clear expression of ideas, application of proper technical terms, and a clear, well-developed argument are necessary. Pay attention to the details of analyses and theory from class and readings, be thorough, and present your data clearly! Your job is to convince the reader that your well-developed analysis is the best one.


II. Ok, how do I organize this thing?

Linguistics papers follow an outline form with numbered (1.0, 2.0, 3.0, etc) and titled sections (and subsections when necessary). For answers to all of your nitpicky organizational questions, consult the Style Sheet of Linguistics Inquiry . A general overview:

1.0 Introduction: Is very brief, it summarizes the information in your paper.

  • Introduce the data, question/problem, hypothesis that you will discuss
  • Tell why the problem is interesting (theoretically/empirically)
  • Given an overview of the organization of your paper

2.0 Survey of Data

  • Present your data and previous analyses or theories related to your hypothesis

3.0/4.0 Analysis

  • Discuss problems with prior analyses
  • Point out questions left unanswered
  • Present you proposed analysis with thorough explanation

5.0 Conclusion: Is very brief; can be almost like QED

  • Summarize your claim (should be reflective of your introduction)
  • Give theoretical implications of our analysis (optional)
  • Raise questions not answered by your analysis, or allude to questions you've raised for further research (optional)


III. But what do I do with my example sentences and tables?

Rule of thumb for example sentences: Any examples referred to in your text must be indented and numbered sequentially (as they appear). They should be set apart by a single lne above and below. For example:

The verb hung in (3) is transitive; in (4), hung is intransitive
         (3) John hung the painting on the wall.
         (4) The painting hung on the wall.

An example that is used in passing in your text does not have to be set apart or numbered, unless it is referred to again later in the text. What's with the italics? When a letter, word, phrase, or sentence is used as a linguistic example or subject of discussion (like hung above), it should appear in italics to differentiate it from your text. Tables and figures? They are usefulfor presenting data clearly. When you use them, number them separately from the example sentences.
Want the whole story? See the Style Sheet of Linguistic Inquiry for every detail and circumstance you could imagine.


IV. If these are my own arguments, what do I need to cite, and how?

If your topic has been the subject of other papers, you should cite those works in your paper (see recommendations for introduction content above). Citations are usually in-text with the last name of the author and the page number, as well as the year (if the author has more than one work). If the author's name is part of the sentence, it is not put in parentheses; if it is not part of the sentence, it is put in parentheses. Check out these examples (courtesy of Donna Jo Napoli):

"Assume the analysis of clitic doubling in Aissen (1990)." OR
"Verbs come second in the independent clause (Hoeksema,p.23)."

The citations refer to a Bibliography (Works Cited) section that should appear at the end of your paper. Format the entries according to MLA rules or see that all-knowing Style Sheet of Linguistic Inquiry. You should only include works in your Bibliography that were directly referenced or mention in your text.

Footnotes (or endnotes) are not used for citing other works, but for giving tangential comments on your text.


V. What if my Professor doesn't like how I did it?

Linguistics faculty members at Swarthmore have different recommendations and opinions about use of first person, length/content of conclusion/ MLA vs. Style Sheet
for bibliographies, endnotes vs. footnotes, and probably other issues. If you're unsure, check with your professor!



Harrison, K. David, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics. Email to author. 31 October 2001.
Napoli, Donna Jo, Professor and Chair, Department of Linguistics. Email to author. 23 October 2001.
Raimy, Eric, Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics. Email to author. 6 November 2001.
Swingle, Kari, Instructor of Linguistics. Email to author. 4 November 2001
The MIT Press: Linguistic Inquiry. Viewed 7 November 2001