Grammar and style

Below are a handful of pointers, mostly jotted down while marking.  There is now a much more systematic resource on style and grammar for philosophy students, available to Glasgow philosophy students here.



Bad spelling is not a serious vice, though it's unlikely to impress employers and it's easily avoided.  The following are particularly frequent and distracting spelling mistakes in philosophy essays.  It's ....

  • argument, not arguEment
  • independent, not independAnt.

Grammar, Meaning, Style

Argue. If Smith’s arguing a claim, is he defending it or opposing it? Use argue for or argue against

Begging the question. Outside philosophy, this is coming to mean posing the question. In philosophy, use it only to mean assuming that which is being argued for, i.e. arguing from a premise whose justification presupposes the conclusion. Question-begging reasoning is circular, e.g. arguing that God exists on the basis that the Pope says He does and that the Pope is made infallible by God. This is question-begging since the premise that the Pope is made infallible by God presupposes God's existence, which is just what the argument is supposed to give us reason to believe. 

Semi-colons ;. These can be used as soft full-stops or hard commas. Used as soft full-stops, they separate sentences so closely related that a full-stop would be too abrupt, e.g. Many are uninterested in politics; few are disinterested, or It was the best of times; it was the worst of times (though Dickens admittedly uses a comma). They are also useful as hard commas when, for example, a phrase in a list itself uses commas, e.g. He argued the following: that the invasion of Iraq was morally unjustified; that it was illegal, as many have pointed out; and that it was imprudent.

Colons :.  These anticipate delivery of the goods invoked by what precedes the colon, as in She studied the three most famous empiricists:  Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, or She argued as follows:  if determinism is true, then our actions were predictable before we were born; determinism is true; therefore, our actions are unfree (note also how semi-colons are used here). 


Compare with, compare to.  According to a useful convention, comparing to is identifying similarities, contrast comparing with, hence I leave it open that you might be gloomy if I compare you with a summer's day, but not if I compare you to one.  (These aren't Glaswegian summer days we're talking about.)


Disinterested, uninterested.  Many are uninterested in politics; few are disinterested (that is, even if it bores them, politics affects their interests).


Forward an argument?  You forward emails, but you advance (or put forward) arguments or objections.


Momentarily, presently.  Worry if the announcement says that the plane will be airborne momentarily, but not if it says it will be airborne presently.  Momentarily in British English means for a moment, not in a moment.  Presently means in a moment, not currently.


Only.  Place “only” next to the word you want to qualify.  Contrast the following:

  • I eat only chocolate (as opposed to other foods).
  • I  only eat chocolate (as opposed to sticking it up my nose).
  • Only I  eat chocolate (as opposed to anyone else).
  • I eat chocolate only if I am bored.  My being bored is a necessary condition of my eating chocolate.  (Rule:  only if introduces a necessary condition, e.g. You can graduate only if you write a dissertation.)
  • only eat chocolate if I am bored.  Interpreted as qualifying the word that it's closest to, this means that my being bored is a sufficient condition of my only eating (as opposed to doing something else with) chocolate.  Given the oddness of this claim, we'd probably interpret the sentence as saying what its predecessor says.  But to guarantee that interpretation, place the only next to the if to indicate that a necessary condition is being stated.  (This matters little when talking about chocolate, but can matter a lot when doing philosophy.)  A useful rule:  an if not linked to an only introduces a sufficient condition, e.g. If it rains, the pavement will be wet.


Inverted commas. One use of inverted commas is to report directly someone's words, e.g. Galileo said, "La Terra muove", as opposed to indirectly, e.g. Galileo said that the Earth moves.  But inverted commas have a couple of other important uses:

Use and mention.  In the philosophical senses of use and mention, one uses a word to speak of its referent but mentions it to speak of the word itself.  Usually the clearest way of mentioning a word is to put it in inverted commas, as in

1. “Trees” has five letters

which is coherent and true.  Contrast:

2.  Trees has five letters

which is senseless or else false.  Insisting on this convention in philosophy is required to avoid substantial errors.  Without it, Fred refers to a physical object would be genuinely ambiguous.  Instead of inverted commas, some use italics (as I am doing here, to avoid proliferation of inverted commas) or they preface the mentioned word or phrase with the word or the phrase.  But inverted commas are usually the clearest and best means.

Scare quotes.  Inverted commas can also indicate that you’re using an expression in an unusual sense or don’t mean fully to endorse its meaning, as when speaking of Mugabe as the “elected” President. Unless you have good reasons -- which you're prepared to explain -- for being suspicious of the notions of truth or rightness, don't enclose truefalseright, and wrong in scare quotes, e.g. It's "wrong" to torture.


Reject, refute.  Some creationists think they've refuted the theory of evolution, but they haven't, although obviously they reject it.  To reject p is to deny p; to refute p is to show it to be false, which can be done only if p really is false.  You can reject p by saying "I reject p"; you can't refute it by saying "I refute p".  Refutation takes work.

Use, utilise.  Why use utilise rather than use?  Some, I suspect, like that it sounds more technical.  But it's ugly and longer.