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Marginal Notes on Essays
? a) When I put a question mark by your writing, I am asking what you mean at that point. It indicates that I'm not sure I understand you. The appropriate correction, of course, is to revise so that your meaning is clear. Try to reread the section with fresh, even potentially skeptical or uninformed eyes.
b) When I put a question mark after a comment of mine, I mean to say that I am asking you if my comment seems correct. For example, while "ww" means "wrong word" (see "ww" entry below), "ww?" means "I think this is the wrong word, but perhaps I've misunderstood what you intended to say." In that instance, the appropriate correction might not necessarily be to change the word but to change something else in the context so that the propriety of the word would become clear to the reader.

??? This means I really can't figure out what you mean to be saying because what the language actually says just doesn't seem to me to be what you could possibly have meant to say either in this context or perhaps ever. I could be reacting to grammar, logic, word choice, or some combination of those.

?! This means that if the marked section really means what it seem to me to mean, I'm surprised. Added ? or ! marks are intensifiers.

! This means I'm surprised at what you wrote or adds emphasis to a comment of mine. Alone it could be a favorable or an unfavorable surprise. "Yes!" means I feel the marked section is surprisingly correct.

!!! This means I'm very surprised at what you wrote. Alone it could be a very favorable or a very unfavorable surprise. "No!!!" means I feel the marked section is astonishingly wrong.

<> Does not equal.

ad Advertising. Some writing instructors say we should tell our readers what we're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what we've told them. The first and last of those are mere advertising and represent uneconomical writing in an argumentative essay. Professional writers don't advertise; they proceed. Even if a summary is used in a conclusion (see "concl" below), good writers deploy it in such a way as to enrich our understanding of what is being rehearsed and to lead us to the so far unstated conclusion, the final and hence most lasting point.

agr Agreement. This means that some aspect of agreement (for example, number of a noun and pronoun) is mistaken. Corrections can be found in any standard college writing handbook*.

ambig Ambiguous. This means that the marked language has more than one possible meaning in this situation and needs disambiguation. Even if on reflection a reader would know what was meant, ambiguous language often slows a reader unnecessarily and should be disambiguated to retain maximum reader engagement. "ambig: yes!" would mean that I recognize that you are using ambiguity for good rhetorical effect, as surprising as that choice may be.

ante Antecedent. The reference of a pronoun or article (for example, "the") is unclear.

awk Awkward phrasing. When I write "awk," it means that I think I understand what you intend to say but I can't be sure because this phrasing doesn't say it well or clearly enough. This often reflects an imprecision in your underlying thinking, so ask yourself what you really meant and revise accordingly. By contrast, when I write "uncl," which means "unclear," it means I am not sure what you intend to say even if I might be able to make a plausible guess. This, too, suggests an imprecision in thought but it might be a mistaken thought which would require first rethinking and then revision not only of the marked language but of the way that language fits within the essay.

cliché Cliché. This comment means I believe you have used a fixed phrase either to weak rhetorical effect or thoughtlessly and thus not really analyzed your subject well enough and expressed the results of that analysis freshly. If you use a cliché for what seems intentional and good rhetorical effect, (for example, "I hate clichés like the plague"), I either will not mark the use or, if I admire it, will mark it "gd" (see "gd" entry below).

concl Conclusion. A conclusion should conclude an argument, that is, both pull it together and take the last, decisive step. A mere summary (see "summary" entry below) is not a conclusion, although it may be the end. It may be a variety of mere advertising. (See "ad" entry above.) "concl" means that you don't seem to have a conclusion at the end of this section of your essay or at the end of the essay as a whole. "concl?" means that you seem to break off before arriving at a conclusion although as a reader I had expected a further conclusion; was I mistaken?

condense Condense your writing. You are taking too many words to make your point; that is, you could say as much, more powerfully, more quickly. So don't just go on. See? (See also "del" entry below.)

cs Comma splice. See any standard college writing handbook* for correction..

def Definition. This means that you seem to have in mind a mistaken definition of this word. For example, "I imply an unspoken meaning when I speak; you infer what that unspoken meaning is." If you use "imply" where you should use "infer," I would mark it with "def." This is slightly different from "ww" (see "ww" entry below) which I tend to use when I suspect that you intended to use the word you did but should not have. For example, you meant to use "mad" to indicate "angry," but the character, who is angry, could also plausibly be understood to be insane, that is, mad. In that instance, the writing problem is not that you don't know the dual definition of "mad" but that it is the wrong word to use in that instance.
"def?" means that while I understand the definition of this word as it would normally be understood in this context, it is not clear to me how your using it helps (for example, you may be writing that something is "interesting" or "good" and I will comment "def?" meaning that I want to know what you mean by those terms, which usually means you should choose a more precise word).

del Delete. A deletion of all or part of the marked section would improve the essay. Deletion, especially a large deletion, may require a bit of rewriting or new writing before or after the gap it creates in order to suture the essay. If improvement of the section requires not deletion but rewriting throughout with an aim, at least in part, to become more concise, I mark it "condense" (see that entry above).

dif Difference. This indicates that an unclear difference or distinction seems to be implied by the marked passage, often when two different terms are used either serially in reference to the same item or together in such a way that the reader can’t tell if they refer to a single item. For example, “He studied the market and consumers” seems to imply that the writer wants us to understand that there is a difference between the market and the consumers functioning in the market. If that is what the writer wants, “dif” means that that difference needs to be clarified; if it is not so, the statement needs to be rewritten to a single term, either “markets” or “consumers” or some third phrasing that better represents the writer’s thought, such as “producers and consumers.”

ex? Example? This is a request for an example, or at least reference to an example, to clarify, specify, or support what is written.

expand Expand. The marked section seems to me clear in meaning yet also to warrant or sometimes even require being discussed in more detail, depth, or extent.

expl Explain. This comment means that the marked section seems to me logically incomplete in the essay, wanting either that you explain how you came to hold this statement to be so or explain more precisely what you meant by this statement.

frag Fragment sentence. See any standard college writing handbook* for correction.

gd Good. This is equivalent to a check mark, indicating approval, be it of content or language. Exclamation points serve as intensifiers. "gd!" means the marked section struck me as very good; "gd!!!" means the marked section struck me as astonishingly good.

gen Too general. This comment points to language (for example, "children's literature is always better when it can also attract an adult audience") that can be weak for one or more of four reasons:
1) It is obvious, and thus does not need to be said at such length if at all.
2) It is debatable, and thus needs to be argued, not merely asserted, if it is to contribute to the success of the essay's overall argument.
3) It is often true but not necessarily true or, if true in this instance, not obviously relevant.
4) It is false even though it sounds good.
Correcting "too general" language can be done in several ways:
1) Condense or delete.
2) Make more specific and demonstrate the assertion's truth by analytic reference to at least one well known work outside the focal work or simply make the focal argument and omit the generalization.
3) Delete comments that do not advance the argument about the focal work.
4) Delete false assertions.
In all instances, ask yourself what motivated you to make a statement that was too general. What point had you truly wanted to make? Can that more precise point really be supported? If so, make it more precisely; if not, either omit the point or revise the thinking behind it and then, accordingly, revise what you write.

hdyk? How do you know? Whether or not I believe that your assertion must be wrong, I feel the need as your reader to know the grounds or source that led you to believe it is true.

header Header. You have incomplete or mistaken header information, for example, date or page numbers are missing.

hmm Hmm. This is the sound of me moved to ponder if the marked item might be false, invalid, irrelevant, or in some other way might be objectionable, although I am not moved to make a specific objection. This usually can be dealt with by supporting the item with example, citation, or logic or by clarifying its significance.

hyperspecific Hyperspecific. This refers to a fallacy that comes of making an assertion that, even though it may be true, by being too narrow, is implicitly false. "You're an excellent student. You have attractive hair." You may have attractive hair and may be an excellent student, but the conclusion of the implicit syllogism (see "Logic and Literary Argument" linked to the Supplementary Materials section of our syllabus) is false because the implied major premise, that having attractive hair makes one a good student, is false.

key term Key term. Although writing teachers often counsel students to vary their word choice, that plea for engaging variety should not be allowed to undercut the power of establishing and exploring a precise and fixed key term. A key term is one that is central to one's argument either because it is a key concept or a key finding. As you use a key term in context, the reader's idea of what that term implies grows. If you needlessly vary it, you undercut your rhetoric. Unless there's a good reason for calling the main character "Bobby" in one instance and "Robert" in another, stick with one. Similarly, unless there's a good reason to use "social" in one instance and "communal" in another, if the concept of the social (or the communal) is central to your argument, don't switch. Switching "Bobby" and "Robert" or "social" and "communal" raises questions in the mind of an attentive reader, questions you only want to raise if their answers advance your argument. Choosing a precise, evocative, and accurate set of key terms is often the most important step in moving from study to drafting.

logic Logic. The marked section strikes me as committing a logical error or being part of a logical error. For more on logic, including particular logical fallacies, see "Logic and Literary Argument" linked to the Supplementary Materials section of our syllabus.

mod Misplaced modifier. See any standard college writing handbook* for correction.

no No. This comment means I feel sure the marked section is wrong. It is not quite a full opposite to my use of "yes" (see "yes" entry below) in which I express my own agreement with what you say but don't necessarily assert my belief that what you say must be true; that is, by "yes" I mean that you and I think this, but I admit the possibility that we could both be mistaken. No, however, means no.

num Number. This means a mistake has been made in number reference. "Ham and eggs is great for breakfast" might or might not be a number mistake depending on whether one conceives of "ham and eggs" as one or more than one food.

oh Oh. This comment can be used to indicate my reaction to what you write. "oh" indicates something like "I see what you mean although I hadn't before."
"oh?" indicates that I'm inclined to question what you say.
"oh!" indicates that I'm surprised by what you've now made clear.
"oh?!" means I'm surprised you're asserting this since it doesn't seem right to me.

org Organization. This comment indicates that there is some organizational problem, usually implied by an associated comment. For example, if I raise a question at one point in your essay and find that question is addressed at a distant point, "org" signifies that you may want to consider moving the questioned text and the text that addresses it into a different, perhaps closer, relationship in the flow of the essay.

par Parallelism. This marks an error in parallelism. For correction, consult any standard college writing handbook*.

prfrd Proofread. This marks an error that should have been corrected by basic proofreading. All essays should be assiduously proofread, both at points I marked and throughout. Those essays that have many such errors will detract substantially from a reader’s trust in the authority of the writer.

punc Punctuation. If the error in punctuation marked here is not clear to you, ask me or, better yet, own and consult a standard college writing handbook*. It will always be available.

red Redundant. Redundancy is saying the same thing more than once without adding something new. Going over the same ground without offering new findings is redundant. Get rid of it. Remove redundancy.

ref Reference. This means that it is not clear what is being referred to. Unclear antecedent (see "ante" entry above) is a specific example of a reference problem.

rep Repetitious. Repetition may be a useful intensifier. Repetition may help establish a meaning for a key term (see "key term" entry above). Repetition may be a useful intensifier. Remove redundant repetition; keep useful repetition.

run-on Run-on sentence. See any standard college writing handbook* for correction.

sig? Significance? Often an observation or other statement feels true to the reader, but nonetheless it is unclear why it is significant to mention at this point or what the significance of that observation or statement is in general. "Sig?" asks what that significance is and typically indicates a need for further thought as well as rewriting.

sp Spelling. This marks a spelling error. "sp?" either marks a word that is spelled correctly but may not have been the one you intended (for example, "They sat in the room discretely/discreetly" are both correct but have different meanings) or marks a word about which I'm not sure if yours is the correct spelling (for example, the name of a character in a book I haven't read).

src Source. This means that the marked section seems to need to have a source noted for it. "src?" means that I wonder if you can supply a source for the marked section and, if you could, you should.

summary Summary. This indicates that the marked section merely tells your reader what s/he is already expected to know (either from general knowledge, from having read to this point in your essay, or from having read the text if such readers are your intended audience) without using that telling to add new knowledge or argument or to usefully crystallize what has come before. Summary for its own sake is inefficient and may undercut your essay. (See "concl" entry above.)

uncl Unclear. See "awk" entry above.

usage Usage. This means that the word or phrase is misused here as I understand your meaning.

yes Yes. This means that I agree. Of course, I could be wrong, but nonetheless I share your view. By contrast, when I write "no" (see "no" entry above) I express my belief that you are in fact wrong, not merely of a different opinion than mine.

ww Wrong word. This means that I suspect you probably didn't mean to say here what this word means or could reasonably be taken to mean. Look up the word you used to see if my suspicion is correct. If I am correct, refine your thought and find the precisely correct word. See also the "def" and "?" entries above.
* A good college writing handbook, although a bit expensive, is a solid investment. A thorough one, like the St. Martin’s Handbook, is a thick yet compact, durable reference that quickly clarifies most matters of grammar, punctuation, citation, and many common usage difficulties. It also will have good advice, and examples, about how to research for and write diverse non-fiction genres. You will probably keep it for as long as writing is an important part of your life. There are also pocket guides, like Pocket Keys for Writers, that do a stripped-down version of the same tasks. They are not as compendious as the full-size sort, but they are light enough to carry with your other books and cost less than half as much. Finally, online sites like Jack Lynch’s “Guide to Grammar and Style” ( and “The OWL at Purdue MLA Formatting and Style Guide” ( although even more abbreviated, are both free and convenient.

Proofreader’s Marks from (11 Jan 2012)

Copyright © 2000-2012 Eric S. Rabkin

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