Term Paper Style Guide

Ian MacLachlan (maclachlan@uleth.ca
Associate Professor of Geography 
University of Lethbridge 
4401 University Drive 
Lethbridge, AB T1K 3M4 
Updated: February 1, 2003 



This is a brief style guide for undergraduate students writing their first term paper. It is not intended to be comprehensive or to include every fine point that is covered in the dozens of full length style guides available in any academic library and increasingly on the web. But it does provide a reasonable format that should be acceptable for most arts and science, education and management disciplines. No matter how much university teachers emphasize the substantive content, analysis, and originality of a term paper, the basic mechanics of grammar, style and documentation are among the most common complaints and most easily corrected faults.


It is essential to organize the paper in a logical sequence. It is not unusual to experiment with several different sequences of material as the paper develops. But no matter how you structure your paper, it must have an introduction, a body, a conclusion, and a list of references. The paper should begin with an introduction that states the goal of the paper, shows why it is an important topic and explains how you will accomplish the goal. The main portion of the paper is called "the body" and it should be divided into sections. At the end of the text you will need a conclusion to summarize the results you described in the body of the paper and demonstrate that you have achieved the goal that you stated in the introduction. The conclusion may also discuss the implications of your conclusions and propose directions for further research. A list of the books and articles consulted in your research is the final section.

Heads and Subheads

It is usually helpful to separate each major section of the manuscript with a heading. Major headings are typed in upper case (capital letters). Further division using underlined or bolded subheadings is recommended for lengthy sections. Subheadings, like titles, should capitalize the initial letter of all words except prepositions, and articles. Sub-subheadings may also be used. The headings, subheadings and sub-subheadings in these guidelines provide examples.


Sections of the manuscript are divided into paragraphs to separate different ideas. Except for the first paragraph below a heading, paragraphs are usually indented one tab stop and separated by a double space. While a business letter often has one sentence paragraphs, the rule of thumb for expository writing is to have no fewer than three sentences to a paragraph.


Italics are used for words in foreign languages and to identify the titles of published books, journals, popular magazines and newspapers. In years gone by, when typewriters could not form italic characters, underlining was accepted as equivalent to italics thus book titles were traditionally underlined. Now that italics are available with all word processing software, underlining is going out of usage for titles and foreign languages in favour of italics.


Short quotations should be identified as such using quotation marks. Quotations longer than three lines should be single spaced and double indented in lieu of quotation marks. Page references must always be given at the end of quotations. If more than 10 percent of an essay is made up of quotation the originality of the paper is compromised. In general, quotations are used for two purposes. One is to provide evidence of a specific argument which you wish to discuss. The second is to include a particularly apt piece of prose which succinctly expresses an idea which you want to incorporate. Avoid quoting material that must have parts excluded. If it is absolutely necessary to omit parts of the text, signify the gap with three periods (an ellipsis) e.g. "To be ... is the question."

    It is possible to take a quote out of its context or to strategically delete words using ellipses,  changing the meaning intended by the author. This is unethical in academic work. Ask yourself: Would the author agree that the quotation I am using is a fair characterization of the original argument?

Endnotes and Footnotes

Endnotes (grouped at the end of the paper) or footnotes (typed at the foot of the page) are becoming obsolete for all but discursive or explanatory material that is not a part of the main text. Footnotes or endnotes are seldom used as a reference system in the social, natural, or management sciences, however they are still commonly used in humanities such as philosophy, history, and English literature.

    Parenthetical referencing (sometimes called "in-text referencing") is now the preferred method for giving credit for ideas or the source of quotations (see the references heading below). In the event that explanatory notes are necessary, they should be consecutively numbered in superscript (e.g.1). If used, the notes themselves should be listed in numerical order on a separate page headed ENDNOTES which is placed after the conclusion and before the references.


Numbers of 100 or greater and all decimals should be expressed as figures (11). Exact numbers less than one hundred should be spelled out (nine), except for: (a) numbers referring to tables and figures (e.g., Table 4); (b) numbers preceding the word percent (e.g., 5 percent); (c) numbers preceding units of measure (e.g., 7 kilometers) or (d) dates. Never use a numeral at the beginning of a sentence. The "#", "%", and "&" symbols should not be used in text, spell out the word in full.


Many insist that Canadian spelling conventions should be followed in a Canadian university (e.g. colour, honour and labour not color, honor or labor). Use the simplest constructions available (oriented not orientated). Avoid contractions in formal writing (e.g. she'll). Normally abbreviations are not used, though in some technical writing they are acceptable, especially for units of measure.

    If you wish to use an acronym it should be defined first unless it is in common usage (e.g. "U.S.A."). For example, in the first usage you would write, "The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)..." Once the acronym has been defined, you may subsequently use "UNESCO" without further explanation.

    Remember, "it's" is a contraction for "it is" and as a contraction, should not be used in a term paper. The possessive adjective "its" requires no apostrophe just as "my" "his" "her" and "our" require no apostrophe.

    The spell checker included with your word processing software is very useful but it is vital to use it intelligently and carefully. Many technical terms are not included in the word processor's dictionary even though they are found in the literature. For example, the term "Gini," referring to a coefficient of inequality, is not in my word processor's dictionary. "Gin" is suggested as the preferred alternative!

Two Common Grammatical Faults 

While English grammar is beyond the scope of this guideline, two simple faults are so common and so easily avoided that they are worth mentioning.

Split Infinitives 

An infinitive is the purest generic form of a verb comprised of "to" and the verb. For example: "to write" or "to walk." If the "to" and the verb itself are split by inserting an adverb it becomes a split infinitive which should be avoided. Examples of split infinitives include: "to badly write" or "to softly speak". The error is easily avoided: "to write badly" or "to speak softly." Sometimes a split infinitive is clearer or used commonly and therefore is acceptable, as any devotee of Star Trek will attest ("to boldly go where no one has gone before").

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition 

A preposition is a short word that links other words (e.g. by, for, of, with). Avoid ending a sentence with a preposition. "This is the only example I can think of." Instead, you could write: "I can think of only one example". Sometimes this rule is broken too. "I have much to be thankful for" is surely preferable to, "I have much for which to be thankful".


Tables and figures (graphs, diagrams, or maps) are vitally important to geographic papers but they must be referred to and discussed in the text. Photocopies are acceptable in a term paper but only if all of the photocopied material is relevant to the point at hand. An edited and typed table or an original graph is a much more effective way of documenting your argument than a sheaf of photocopies. If you use photocopies of tables or figures you must add the source where you obtained it.

    Sources for tables and figures must be acknowledged. The word "SOURCE:" followed by a full citation should be at the base of all tables and figures.

    Tables should be numbered consecutively. The table number and its title should appear above the table. Tables may be integrated into the text or they may be on a separate page immediately after the figures and before the references.

    A "figure" is a graphic such as a map, bar graph, or diagram. Figures should be numbered consecutively. Figures may be integrated into the text or placed on a separate page and inserted between the text and the references. The figure number and title of the figure should be placed at the foot of the page. Neatly hand drawn figures and freehand lettering are quite acceptable for term papers.


Until recently, it was considered inappropriate to use the first person singular (I) or even the first person plural (we) in academic writing. There are two reasons for this. 

The social sciences have traditionally followed the natural science model which places a premium on objectivity. Whether I measure 10 milliliters of one molar sulphuric acid or you do it, there should be exactly the same amount in the beaker. And if we use union density as a surrogate measure of class struggle, you and I should both draw the same conclusions about class consciousness in Alberta compared with Ontario. Assuming that scientific evidence is gathered and reported in completely objective fashion, it does not matter who conceives the hypothesis, records the evidence or writes up the results; the objective conclusion from objective evidence is beyond subjective interpretation. Thus the subjective pronoun wrongly personalizes science and wrongly infers that someone could possibly have a personal influence on scientific outcomes.

The second reason is that any use of  I” shifts the emphasis away from the subject of the paper and towards its author. Academic papers are not works of autobiography, the subject of an academic paper or report is a problem, phenomenon, or event. Any reference to “I” makes the author the subject of the paper instead of the task at hand. The substantive subject of the investigation deserves pride of place as the grammatical subject of the sentence. For example:
1. “I think that capital punishment is a barbaric practice.”
2.  “Capital punishment appears to be a barbaric practice as it involves the ritual slaughter of a human being as an act of atonement.”
In the first declarative sentence, a personal opinion is expressed. It clearly admits that it is a personally held position and that others may think differently. Such an unjustified personal opinion has no place in any academic paper, no matter how controversial the topic. An academic paper is based on reason supported by evidence. The second claim is an argument, it offers a rational position and then supports this by reference to its ritual character. The subject is capital punishment, not the author.

In a research report writers may need to refer to specific actions and procedures that they had to undertake themselves. For example:
3. “I computed the standard deviation using a hand calculator and the standard formula for a sample.”
4. “The standard deviation was computed using a hand calculator and the standard formula for a sample.”
The third example uses “I” quite unnecessarily and leaves open the question that someone else might have obtained different results. The second example uses the passive voice to make “standard deviation” the subject of the sentence. There is only one standard deviation for the data set and it does not matter who actually does the mechanical procedure. It could have been done by your laboratory partner or your employee and the sentence would still be correct.

All of the preceding subscribes to the view that science is and ought to be a strictly objective inquiry. This view has been under fire for some time by a variety of critics arguing for different conceptions of knowledge, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Post-modernists would argue that research is unavoidably subjective. They sometimes drive this point home by using the subjective “I” as an integral part of their reasoning. Most readers would now consider the use of the first person to be acceptable in explicitly post-modern scholarship.


Until the 1980s, the use of masculine singular pronouns such as "he" was accepted as generic and applicable to either a male or a female. (For example: "If a student follows all of these instructions, his paper should have no stylistic problems.") This is no longer the case and most universities have adopted inclusive language policies mandating language which does not discriminate among any social characteristics, including gender.

    Unless you are referring to a particular male or female, you should use "gender neutral" or "inclusive" language in all of your academic and professional writing. For example: "If a student follows all of these instructions, his or her paper should have no stylistic difficulties". The preceding example is inclusive but it is also cumbersome! With a little practice it becomes quite easy to write inclusively without the ponderous and repetitive usage of she/he or his/her. For example, one could write: "By following all of these instructions, students should have no stylistic problems with their papers" or, "Papers which follow all of these guidelines should have no stylistic faults".


Double spacing is traditionally required for term papers, however, one and a half spacing is very common, conserves paper and is easy to format using a word processor. Leave one inch margins on both sides, top and bottom of each page. With the exception of the cover page, all pages should be numbered with Arabic numerals.

    A term paper should be printed in black ink on only one side of white letter-size (8.5x11 or A4) paper. If you are using a dot matrix printer, make sure the ribbon is reasonably fresh and operating in high quality, not draft mode. Submit the original, not a photocopy. Avoid weird font designs and use a 12 point font for text.

    Traditionally academic papers were expected to have a cover page with the title, author's name, course and instructor for which it is prepared and the date that it is submitted. In the interest of saving paper, some people are putting this material at the top of the page and starting the text about two-thirds of the way down the page. Avoid putting any form of commercial clip art on the cover page, it is unoriginal and unprofessional. All pages should be stapled securely in the upper left hand corner. Use a heavy duty stapler for papers over 15 pages in length. Bobby pins, paper clips or a folded corner do not convey the impression that you want to make.

    Contrary to popular belief, most professors do not appreciate any type of report cover and the clear plastic ones are especially hated. Pages may slip out of the plastic spine and they double the weight and volume that must be lugged home for grading.


Whenever you use a specific fact or discuss a concept that has been obtained from a source document you must clearly identify the source so that the interested readers may obtain it for themselves. This is called "referencing" or "citation."

    A complete list of references in alphabetical order by first author's family name should be placed at the end of the paper. It should be headed "REFERENCES". Multiple publications by the same author should be listed in chronological order with a letter code if two or more were written in the same year (see item d. below). Normally, only work actually cited in the paper should be included. Note that every style guide and journal uses a slightly different format. The following examples illustrate a reasonably common format for references.

Using Parenthetical References in the Text

It is necessary to cite your reference source when you state a specific finding, fact, inference, or quotation that you obtained from a secondary source. In such cases you should enclose the author's name, date of publication and page number in parentheses. It is essential to give the page number when you refer specifically to an individual fact or figure or if you use quotation. If you are referring to a more general idea which is the gist of an entire piece of work you need only note the author and date. The examples below show how to use parenthetical references in more detail.

1. In a typical year, new housing construction adds only 2-3 percent to the total housing stock of North American cities (Yeates, 1990: 187).

[A page number (p. 187) is given because a specific fact was obtained from a particular page of the book.]

2. Miernyk et al. (1970) adopted a neo-classical approach to explain development.

[No page number is given in this case because this is a general reference to the whole approach of the article. The abbreviation et al. may be used in the text as a short form for references having more than three authors; the full list of authors, however, must be included in the reference list. Note that "et al." is the abbreviation for et alii which is Latin for "and others." As it is Latin, it should be italicized.]

3. "Such is the tenacity of these simple geometric forms, the circle, the straight line, and the right angle. They survive because of their adaptability" (Blumenfeld, 1943:171).

[This a short quotation of three lines or less, the reference must include a page number.]


In a system of central places developed according to the marketing principle, the great long-distance lines necessarily by-pass places of considerable importance, and the secondary lines built for short-distance traffic can reach the great places of long-distance traffic only in a roundabout way--often even in remarkably zig-zag routes. (Christaller, 1966: 74)

[This quotation is more than three lines long thus it is double indented and single spaced.]

Sample Reference Entries

It is not enough to just put the author's name and date of publication in brackets. The name and date must be keyed to an entry in the references section at the end of the paper to provide all of the information necessary for an interested reader to locate the publication. The precise format of the entry in the references varies, depending on the type of publication.

a. Single-authored book:

Yeates, M. 1990. The North American City. New York: Harper and Row.

[N.B. The title of a published document should be italicized.]

b. Multiple-authored book:

Miernyk, W.H., Shellhamer, K.L., Brown, D.M., Coccari, R.L., Gallagher, C.J., and Wineman, W.H. 1970. Simulating Regional Economic Development. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company.

[N.B. The abbreviation "et al." should not be used in the reference list no matter how many authors there are.]

c. Selection from an edited collection:

Mera, K. 1978. "Population concentration and regional income disparities: A comparative analysis of Japan and Korea." In Human Settlement Systems, edited by N.H. Hansen. Cambridge: Ballinger: 255-75.

[N.B. The title of the article or chapter is in quotation marks, the title of the published book is italicized. The abbreviation "pp." stands for "pages'.]

d. Journal articles:

Scott, A.J. 1982a. "Locational Patterns and Dynamics of Industrial Activity in the Modern Metropolis" Urban Studies 19: 111-142.

______1982b. "Production System Dynamics and Metropolitan Development" Annals of the Association of American Geographers 72: 185-200.

[N.B. The first article appeared on pages 111 to 142 in Volume 19 of a journal called Urban Studies. Two articles by the same author which were published in the same year are distinguished with "a" and "b" after the date.]

e. Working, research or discussion paper:

Boyce, D., Kohlhase, J., and Plaut, T. 1978. Estimating the Value of Development Easements on Agricultural Land. Philadelphia: Regional Science Research Institute, Discussion Paper 105.

f. Institutional books and reports with individual author:

Irwin, R. 1977. Guide for Local Area Population Projections. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Technical Paper 39.

g. Institutional books and reports with no author specified (corporate author):

Statistics Canada. 1979. System of National Accounts, National Income and Expenditure Accounts. Catalogue 13-201. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services.

h. Magazine or Journal article with author indicated:

Helmer, Joanne 1999. "Casson predicts landowner revolt: Farmers won't take kindly to endangered species proposal, says MP" Lethbridge Herald August 28: A1.

iMagazine or newspaper articles without a byline:

Globe and Mail. 1985. "Completion decline for U.S. family houses" October 11: B2.

[The newspaper article has a corporate author which is the newspaper itself. N.B. Anonymous is not used in such a case. "Anonymous" is only used as an author's name in a list of references when the word "anonymous" actually appears in the source document.]


The web has become an important source for essay writing and academic research. Mixed in with some very useful and heretofore inaccessible information there is a huge volume of unreliable and downright pernicious misinformation. Like any printed source material, the web must be approached critically. Referencing style for web based information is still in its infancy. Anything you can do to make it easier for your reader to find the relevant page is a good idea.

Sample Entries for Web References

1. If you wish to refer to an entire web site, it is sufficient to simply insert the universal resource locator (URL) in the text in brackets, no entry in the references is necessary.

For example: Like most Alberta municipalities, the Town of Coaldale has a web site with a host of information relating to municipal governance, social services and economic development (http://www.town.coaldale.ab.ca/)

2. On the other hand you might want to refer to a specific document available through the web. Of course there is no guarantee that it will remain on the web site!

For example: The American Psychological Association (1999) has one of the best guides to academic citation of web sources

In this case you would need the following entry in your references at the end of the essay:

American Psychological Association 1999, August 9) Electronic Reference Formats Recommended by the American Psychological Association Washington, D.C. Retrieved August 27, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.apa.org/journals/webref.html

[The date following the author (a corporate author in this case) is the date of the last update of the document. The date of retrieval is necessary because web sites are constantly changing and the document may no longer be available, a disadvantage of using the web when a more permanent source is available.]

3. Some good quality academic geography journals are now available in electronic format. A wide variety of contemporary popular magazines and newspapers may be accessed through the web, however anything prior to 1995 is normally only available in hard copy or microfilm format.

For example: Mercosur has not developed as quickly as the European Union due to growing friction between its two largest members: Argentina and Brazil (Murphy and Kessler 1999)

In this case you would need the following entry in your references at the end of the essay:

Murphy, Tom and Kessler, Richard 1999 "Will Mercosur Get Left in the Dust?" Business Week Online August 18. Retrieved August 27, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/index.html

[This entry looks quite similar to an ordinary reference to the hard copy of a magazine, the only difference is that the date of retrieval and URL are given. Note that the title of an electronic publication is italicized.]

4. The web is becoming a useful source of data from a wide variety of statistical agencies. For example, Lethbridge grew by only 3.4 percent between 1991 and 1996 compared with 5.9 percent for the province of Alberta as a whole (Statistics Canada 1998).

And in the references section of the essay you would write:

Statistics Canada 1998 "Statistical Profile: Population Statistics for Lethbridge (City), Alberta - Part 1" Retrieved August 27, 1999 from the World Wide Web:



Plagiarism is the representation of the words of another person as your own. It is an academic offence and is punished very severely. Whether the text is taken from a published source, from another student or the internet, it is still plagiarism. Plagiarism includes:

1. Extended word-for-word quotation of another source without indicating that it is quotation and identifying its source.

2. Extended paraphrase of another source without indicating its origin. Some people believe that they can rip off a paragraph, changing a word or two here and there and so avoid being accused of plagiarism. This is not so.

    Judgement plays an important role in deciding the appropriate number of times to cite your sources. Library research papers are an exercise in summary, synthesis and analysis of other works. Obviously a library research paper will require a lot of citations or notes to identify where ideas were obtained. Taken to its extreme, however, the text could be so littered with citations and notes as to be unreadable. As a rule of thumb when a large amount of citation seems necessary, I would normally be satisfied to see a single citation at the point where an idea is first raised in the text and a citation at the end of a paragraph to indicate the source which was used for the preceding material. When in doubt, give credit for the idea.

    Other unethical essay writing behaviour includes the fabrication of references, disguising of source materials and the submission of work which has already been used to fulfill the requirements of another course of instruction. Many of these issues are matters of fine judgement. Your instructor is available to discuss them with you.


This thumbnail style guide for university term papers is geared to students having little prior experience with academic writing. It does not attempt to replace the many detailed manuals of style available in the library or book store. Many disciplines have a standardized stylistic format for all academic writing. Those who have learned to follow the excruciatingly detailed format of professional associations such as the Modern Languages Association or the American Psychological Association may not need this précis though they may appreciate its brevity.


(American Psychological Association 1999, August 9) Electronic Reference Formats Recommended by the American Psychological Association Washington, D.C. Retrieved August 27, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.apa.org/journals/webref.html

Northey, Margot 1993 Making Sense: A Student's Guide to Research, Writing, and Style 3rd ed. Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1993

Secretary of State of Canada 1985 The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing Toronto: Dundurn

Turabian, Kate L. 1996. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations 6th ed. Revised. by John Grossman and Alice Bennett, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

December 14, 2005


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