Practical Guidelines for Writing a Paper in Linguistics


Rev. ed., September 2010

Original authors: Karsten Schmidtke-Bode, Holger Diessel (FSU Jena)

Modified and enhanced by: Timo Lothmann (RWTH Aachen), August 2014


This document is meant as a reference guide for writing papers in linguistics at our department. The general guidelines for issues of content and style are applicable to all levels of our programmes (i.e. Staatsexamen, B.A. and M.A., including final theses). While individual instructors and seminars may differ with regard to the particular expectations for term papers (especially in terms of topic areas, approaches, etc.), the guidelines presented here are widely agreed upon by the staff members of the English Linguistics department. Note that there are similar guidelines for writing term papers in literary studies. To your relief, the general conception of what you are supposed to do in term papers is pretty much overlapping in both areas, the specifics simply being adapted to the object of investigation and to the conventions of the respective academic discourse community.

Further, this document is open to suggestions by students and colleagues in order to tackle FAQs that have come up during seminars or to catch up on recent developments in academia.

This reference guide covers the following:

  • How to write a paper in linguistics
  • Style sheet – style, formatting, and citation conventions
  • Appendix 1: The structure of an empirical investigation
  • Appendix 2: How to find and read academic literature
  • Appendix 3: Recurrent practical language mistakes in term papers

1. How to write a paper in linguistics

1.1. What are you supposed to do in a term paper?

In general, the successful composition of a term paper is an important qualification you are supposed to achieve in linguistics seminars at our department. It demonstrates the following:

  • You have acquired a certain amount of expertise in a particular subfield of linguistics, so that you know your way around basic concepts, research interests and debates in the field
  • You can collect relevant academic literature on a particular topic in this field in a sophisticated and independent manner
  • You can identify (for your particular topic area) a problem or question worth researching
  • You can read and understand previous research on this question conducted by professional linguists
  • You can write a coherent piece of text in which you discuss a manageable selection of this research from a particular perspective (i.e. with a certain goal in mind that you pursue systematically and consistently throughout the paper)
  • Your writing adheres to certain formal standards of academic discourse (i.e. clear and register-adequate English, text formatting, conventional ways of citation and referencing, sensible structuring of the paper, and a reader-directed way of making your goals, methodology, analyses and results transparent)

1.2. From a research question to the structure of the paper

You can never cover an entire topic area in your paper. You always need to narrow a potential topic down to a very specific research question, i.e. a particular problem within the topic area that you deal with. Therefore, probably the most important conceptual step in the planning of your paper is to distinguish between a topic area that you are interested in, and a very specific goal that you pursue in your paper. It is one of the most common mistakes to confuse those two things, leading to students writing about a certain topic (area) without having a precise goal in mind. Thus, always set out to answer a specific question! Prior to writing your paper, you should always consult your instructor for confirming the suitability of your specific topic, goal, and overall strategic focus.

Once you have identified a research question, i.e. a particular problem, hypothesis or general goal, the following points are worth noting:

  • Deal with the topic in an objective and reliable way, adhering to the general principles of academic work. Remember that a term paper is not a personal report; we are neither interested in your intuition nor in a personal narrative or review. Throughout the writing process, take the academic literature you read on your topic as an example of good scientific practice, i.e. as a role model for the general approach, procedure, structure, style, idiomaticity, etc.
  • Never lose sight of your specific goal in the paper. Sometimes students get lost in the literature on the topic or in specific aspects of the topic (area) that are not immediately relevant to their own investigation. Therefore, it is crucial that every part of the paper is immediately relevant to your hypothesis, i.e. at any stage of your analysis it is clear to the reader why this paragraph is important for achieving your goal. If you cannot justify this, cut it out!
  • The structure of the paper reflects your particular way of dealing with the topic, specifically your line of argumentation. Therefore, structure your paper in a sensible way, and remember that the internal structure of larger sections reflects how the different aspects of the research question are weighed by you.

1.3. Typical structure of a paper

Every academic paper is framed by an introduction and a conclusion section. The ‘main body’ in-between is then structured according to your own preferences. It is generally neither advisable to have only one ‘mega-section’ between the introduction and the conclusion nor to have a fragmentation into a dozen of itsy-bitsy chapters. Rather, your argumentation stretches over several, relatively equally weighed sections. The particular focus of your paper should also show in relative page quantity. Here is an example:

  Picture of an examplary table of contents English Linguistics

Imagine a term paper written in a B.A. Hauptseminar/Vertiefungsmodul on Second Language Acquisition. It deals with the factors that affect the degree of foreign accent in L2 learners. The following table of contents is adapted from a suppositious student paper dealing with this topic.
(Do not worry about the terms. It is the outline that is of interest here.)

This outline shows you that the topic is first contextualized (2.), i.e. embedded in its theoretical context. It is here that the topic is properly introduced and defined, and that relevant theoretical literature is surveyed. The author then narrows down the scope of the paper (3.) to the three factors that she sets out to investigate in particular, i.e. her specific goal in this paper is to argue for the importance of precisely those three factors. After providing some important information on these factors (3.1-3.3), the author then analyses, discusses and compares selected empirical evidence on which her hypothesis is based, namely two case studies dealing with the specific factors she is interested in (4.). (The discussion of empirical research was a required aspect of this paper.) Finally, a conclusion section rounds off the paper, followed by a bibliography.

On the basis of this example, some common misconceptions deserve to be mentioned:

  • On the one hand, it is mandatory that your own discussion be embedded into previous research and proceed from a presentation (and precise definition) of the concepts relevant to your specific goal. That is, never start your discussion of a topic in a theoretical vacuum, as if you had never attended a course in this area and never bothered to read the foundational literature on the topic. This may seem self-evident, but many papers read just like that.
  • On the other hand, it is not true that your paper has to be split up fairly evenly into a ‘theoretical’ and an ‘analytical’ section. The length of the theoretical embedding of the topic depends entirely on the specific goal you pursue in the paper. In other words, do not summarise and discuss unnecessary aspects of the literature in order to fill pages.
  • Although we sometimes speak of a ‘main body’ (as a term that neatly captures everything but the introduction and conclusion of your paper), never actually call any section in the paper ‘main body’! The substantial part of your paper is rather divided into several sections, each of which receives its own meaningful title, just as in the example above.