Note: This resource was developed for our Lewis & Clark ENVS students in 2017; additions/edits will be made as per our own needs, but feel free to modify for your institution.
Environmental communication necessitates as much attention to good English style as in other subjects. Below are some reminders, based on what we have seen as common issues in student writing; then at the end, we provide guidance regarding the use of what we call Big Words.
Where possible, we link to the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition; this and below links work from Lewis & Clark campus), one definitive style guide for American English. See also Chicago guidance on styling citations.
- Quotation marks (in American English, which applies to all below) are always double quotes, except when a quote is in a quote (CMS 13.28).
- Closing quotation marks follow a period or comma (CMS 6.9). (Note that footnotes follow all punctuation; see e.g. CMS 14.19.)
- Don’t overuse scare quotes, and make sure if you use them that you are referring to how someone else uses the term, not you (CMS 7.55). (See related note at bottom regarding use of Big Words.)
- Section headings never include a colon at the end (see CMS 2.17 for general guidance).
- Author-date citations require page numbers for quotes (CMS 15.22). For more detailed guidance on the Chicago author-date style, see here.
- Figures require figure numbers and captions, typically directly under the figure (CMS 3.23).
- A nice summary list distinguishing common from better/correct usage of words can be found at CMS 5:220. Here are a few we’ve seen among ENVS students:
- Its vs. it’s (possessive vs. contraction). If you can’t say “it is” in place of your word, use “its,” not “it’s.”
- Affect vs. effect. This is important in ENVS given all the cause-effect relationships we discuss. If you’re looking for a verb, choose affect; if you’re looking for a noun (other than to describe emotions), choose effect.
An important final style note: how should you best use Big Words (general concepts) commonly deployed in environmental discourse, such as nature, environment, holistic, sustainable, western, and so forth? Here’s what we strongly recommend:
- If you are quoting a publication, interview, etc. that uses the word, use it exactly as your source does, without any added scare quotes, making sure to cite the source.
- If it’s your own original text, however, try your best to use more specific words (e.g., instead of “impacts on the environment,” say “impacts on freshwater ecosystems”; or, instead of “make buildings more sustainable,” say “make buildings more energy-efficient.”)
- Never simply enclose a Big Word in scare quotes (e.g., “I think organic foods are better because they are more ‘natural’ for people to eat”); this is just an excuse for sloppy writing (and thinking).
- The Big Words prohibition in ENVS also applies to laundry lists, e.g., “…social, economic, and environmental dimensions…,” because this implies that “environment” is a category of reality distinct from other categories.
- You will find that if you can avoid use of Big Words your writing will be clearer, and you will be appreciated more as a careful, creative scholar.