Philosophy Essay Vocabulary

Philosophy Paper Writing Guidelines

© 2000 Tim O'Keefe and Anne Farrell











If you have any questions about your paper, please feel free to come by my office to talk to me. I'll be happy to look at rough drafts of papers, to talk to you about possible topics, or to discuss arguments you're thinking of giving. You may also find the following sample paper illustrating some of the above points helpful.

The above suggestions are a good place to start, but aren't exhaustive. Two excellent paper-writing guides that are more extensive than this one are

A parting thought:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you--even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent--and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.
--George Orwell, from "Politics and the English Language"

Send e-mail to tokeefe AT gsu DOT edu

Philosophy essay writing: vocabulary

It is very common for students to choose the wrong item of vocabulary to express what they want to say. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to worry about so long as one is aware of the problem and tries to tackle it: it is a phase everyone goes through. The best way to improve one's sense of the appropriate word is to pay close attention to the choice of words in good writers, and consult lists (there is one in The Oxford Dictionary and English Usage Guide) of words which are commonly confused or misused. Here are some examples which have come to our attention:

Causal particles.

The most common conjunctions introducing a reason are because, since, for and as. They are not (normally) interchangeable. Here are some differences. Because introduces a fact which may be unfamiliar, and cites it as a reason; since introduces a fact which will usually be familiar, and cites it as a reason.

Because it was raining, we decided to stay indoors (addressee doesn't yet know that it was raining)

Since it is raining, we may as well stay indoors (addressee already knows that it's raining)

As (causal) is often an alternative to since, but it is colloquial and generally to be avoided in formal contexts: a good rule of thumb is to avoid it altogether. For is a useful word, which has the advantage that it can start a sentence (unlike the other three). In the following sentence as should be replaced by for:

Propositions can, however, be pictures, as according to Wittgenstein a thought is a logical picture of the facts and a proposition is the expression of a thought.

Given that is a useful alternative to either because or since.

Begging the Question

To beg the question is to assume what is supposed to be proved or argued for: it does not mean to invite the question (that...).


The negative of can is cannot (one word) notcan not (two words).

I cannot do X = I am unable to do X.

I can not do X = I am able not to do X.


Do not omit the reflexive pronoun in such sentences as:

I was unwilling to commit myself to this principle.

Compriseand Compose

It is very common to confuse these. If X is a whole made up of parts A, B and C, then X comprises, or is composed of, A, B and C, and A, B and C compose X. The mistake that is commonly made is to say that A, B and C comprise X, or that X is comprised of A, B and C. Comprise does form a passive, but it is used as follows: A, B and C are comprised in X.

For-and fore-

Distinguish: forbear (refrain) from forebear (ancestor), and forego (precede) from forgo (abstain from).

Implyand Infer

Statements and states of affairsimply; only peopleinfer. Hence in the following infer should be replaced by imply:

The conclusion of the argument is false, which infers that one of the premisses must also be false.

For the budding lawyers among you (I hope there are some), note that there is a legal use of imply with agents, as when one implies a term in a contract, but this usage does not occur outside such contexts.

Insofarand inasmuch

Insofar (which may be written as three separate words), joined with as, means to the extent that; inasmuch (which must be written as a single word), joined with as, means since. Forasmuch as is a (now obsolete) alternative to inasmuch as.

Likeand As

Use as to connect two clauses, not like:

It hurt him as it had hurt others.

Do not use (un)like with adverbial phrases, as in:

In prose, unlike in poetry, inversion is rare (example from Dummett, p.49).

The in of this sentence should be deleted. In such contexts like should be replaced by as.

Do not use like in place of as if in sentences such as:

She looked as if she had finished her talk.


This word means soon or shortly afterwards, not at the present time.


The usual past participle of the verb prove is proved, not proven, which should be confined to legal contexts (a verdict of not proven) and a few set phrases such as of proven ability.


To refute someone or something is to offer a successful argument for the falsity of the position to be refuted. A common mistake is to treat refute as a performative verb, i.e., one whose correct application is merely a matter of its sincere utterance (like I promise or, on some interpretations of Descartes, I think). So you must not say

I refute the view that justice is the interest of the stronger

with the intention of thereby rendering it true that you refute it. To anyone who does say that, the response should be: let's see your refutation.

The performative alternatives to refute are reject and repudiate.

Sometime/ some time

When some time means at some time, as in

Some time later, he came to realise his mistake,

it must be written as two words. The single word sometime does exist, though it is now almost obsolete: it means former(ly).


To transpire means to become known. It does not mean to happen.

Verbal and oral

Verbal means 'in words' (spoken or written), not 'conveyed by word of mouth', which is oral.

Some miscellaneous further points:

Avoid excessive Colloquialism

as in the second sentence of

Leibniz was a Christian and it was important to him to allow free choice in sinning. The whole shooting match about sin, repentance and forgiveness is central to the Christian faith.

Avoid cliché: life as we know it, at this moment in time, the thin end of the wedge etc.


Make sure you keep homophones (and near-homophones) distinct, e.g.

affect/effect, cite/site, accept/except, amend/emend, discrete/ discreet, insure/ensure, immanent/imminent, impassable/impassible, rein/reign, led/lead (note this last example, which seems to confuse a lot of writers: the past tense of the verb to lead is led, not lead which, pronounced as led, is the name of a metal). If you're not sure of any of these distinctions, look them up.

Non-homophones which are sometimes confused

Apart from the ones singled out for special treatment above, be on your guard against confusing the following: apprise/appraise, flaunt/flout, militate/mitigate, expect/anticipate, avenge/revenge, continual/continuous, prescribe/proscribe, depreciate/deprecate, disinterest/uninterest, less/fewer, homogeneous/homogenous, delusion/illusion, intern/inter, venal/venial.

Again, if you are not sure about any of these distinctions, look them up.

i.e. and sc.

It is perfectly acceptable to use these Latin abbreviations in formal contexts. i.e. (short for id est = 'that is') introduces an explanation (which can also be introduced in other ways, e.g. by using a colon or namely); sc. (short for scilicet = 'to wit') introduces a word or words to be supplied. You might use it if supplying extra words of your own in square brackets to eke out the sense of a quoted text.

Other Latin phrases

You will find that the philosophy texts you read make extensive use of Latin phrases; some of these have perfectly good English equivalents and are used merely as a matter of stylistic preference, but others are technical terms which could not be avoided except at the cost of inelegance and prolixity. In the former category fall, for example, eo ipso ('thereby'), toto caelo (in the phrase 'toto caelo distinct', i.e., completely distinct), ergo ('therefore'). In the latter category we have, for example, a priori, a posteriori and a fortiori. The Oxford Dictionary and English Usage Guide and Hart's Rules (the standard used by Oxford University Press) say that the former two expressions should be written in roman type, the last one in italics. The basic principle at work here is that foreign words and phrases should be italicised unless they have become Anglicised. Obviously this is a reasonable enough principle as far as it goes (it would be absurd to italicise 'cafe', 'nuance' or 'rapport'), but I have to say that I am not happy with dropping the italics from a priori and a posteriori, and I do not myself do so: the reason is simply that a, when it appears in roman, is likely to be momentarily interpreted by the reader as the English indefinite article (which of course it isn't in the Latin phrases in question: it's a preposition meaning 'from'). The mistake will only be momentary, no doubt: but the remember that the key principle of good writing is to facilitate the reader's understanding so far as possible, and that seems to me better achieved by continuing to italicise these phrases, as everyone does in the case of a fortiori.

Since most written texts employ italicising both for marking non-English words or phrases and for emphasis, if you adopt my policy of italicising these Latin phrases you automatically encounter the following problem: suppose you want your use of a priori to receive special emphasis in a sentence; how do you mark that? Obviously this is a general problem with phrases of foreign origin, not one restricted to the cases of a priori and a posteriori. And equally obviously there can be only one rational and quite general solution: to use different means of marking emphasis (say, underlining) and phrases of foreign origin (say, italicising). With the advent of word processing, it is now very easy to combine distinct ways of marking text (e.g. italicising and underlining an emphasised phrase of foreign origin), as it was not when we were dependent on typewriters, so that there really is no reason to carry on in the old, limiting way.

In the meantime, however, while we wait for my proposed reform to win general acceptance, there is no alternative, if you want to emphasise a foreign phrase which you are obliged to italicise anyway, to rephrasing the sentence so that the emphasis is clear without being graphically marked as such.

And now on to (note, in passing, the difference between onto and on to!) the meanings: a priori means knowable in advance, or independently, of having an experience. In some contexts (especially where Kant's views are in question) this really means in advance, or independently, of having any experience at all, but the word is often used quite loosely to mean in advance, or independently, of having some particular experience, where the relevant experience is to be gathered from the context: for example, if one says it is not possible to work out someone's name a priori all that's meant is that certain kinds of experience - e.g. meeting a people, talking to them etc. - don't suffice to tell you their names (not a very interesting example, I agree, but if you get the general point you'll find that it applies to more interesting cases). A posteriori is the contradictory of a priori (i.e., it means knowable only by having certain experiences or, in some contexts, by having experience tout court). A fortiori is used to signal the inference of something weaker from something stronger, as in the claim: God cannot bring about states of affairs involving a logical contradiction, and so a fortiori cannot affect the past (the person making this claim is asserting or assuming, as many thinkers have done, that to affect the past would involve - be a particular case of - bringing about contradictory states of affairs).

Some more Latin phrases are:

ab extra (from outside); ab initio (from the beginning); ad hoc (one-off, not resting on a general principle); pro tempore (for the time being); re (in the matter of, concerning) is informal (and legal) and best avoided in formal (non-legal) contexts; a response to an argument can be called a tu quoque (lit. 'you too') if it maintains that the propounder of the argument is liable to same difficulty or incoherence as he is seeking to pin on his opponent.

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