Three Decisions You Must Make About Your Dissertation or Thesis

Set in StoneWhile much of grammar and punctuation is set in stone, language is a living thing. Many of the ‘rules’ have come about through usage or convention, and usage and convention change all the time. There are many grey areas where there is no fixed practice, and it is enough that a given document is internally consistent.

Which means that you have some decisions to make.

In professional writing, these decisions are written down in a document known as a style guide.  The purpose is to give uniformity in the style and formatting of a document. There may already be one that you are expected to follow (it’s best to check at an early stage), or you will need to either find one, or make up your own.

Whichever way you go about it, you will have to make the following three decisions.

1. Decide which words you will capitalise

You need to decide which words are going to be capitalised. For example, electricians is not normally capitalised.

However, if an important part of your work is a comparison of the behaviour of a test group of electricians compared to a group of technicians, you might want to call them Electricians and Technicians, to distinguish them from the rest of the world’s electricians and technicians.

Make a firm decision. Whatever you decide on page 1 must still be implemented on page 150.

2. Decide which words will be hyphenated

Hyphenation is a curious phenomena. Words that are often used together eventually get hyphenated. Then, if they stick around for long enough, and are suitable candidates, they get stuck together.

So we had hyper text, which was followed by hyper-text, which is being replaced by hypertext. All this means is that for many words there is no consensus on whether there should be a hyphen or not.

If you’re not sure, look it up. You’ll probably find examples of both. Now it’s your choice. Hyper-text or hypertext. It doesn’t matter, but, as above, choose firmly. Whatever you decide on page 1 must still be implemented on page 150. Yes, I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s really important.

3. Decide on a language

I don’t mean choose between English and French, or English and German, although it may well happen that parts of your document are written in another language. I do mean choose whether you are writing in British English or American English, and set your spell-checker accordingly. You will probably be copying and pasting text from other documents. If you are re-writing the pasted text into your own words, be aware that you need to spell-check the re-write in your language, and not the language of the original.

Top Tip

Top TipBy the way, as we’re talking about spell-checking, be aware that you absolutely must not spell-check quotes. As you know, quoted text must be one hundred percent accurate. With a spell-check there is a high risk you will turn a quoted ‘specialize’ into ‘specialise’.


How To Write A Research Report – A Guide

Guide to Writing a Research ReportThis document (in French) explains in clear and simple language how to write a research report for a Master’s degree or a post-Master’s degree (Mastère Spécialisé in France).

Anyone writing a thesis, dissertation or other research report will find it useful.

Unfortunately, it is only in French for the moment. A translation may be in the pipeline.

My Top Tip for Writing a Thesis

Writing a thesis or a dissertation can seem like an overwhelming task when you are looking at a blank piece of paper. There are so many words to write. It’s hard to know where to begin, and even harder to actually begin. So, my top tip is – don’t.

The WheelDon’t start with a blank slate, don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, find yourself the thesis or dissertation that you wish you had written. Or ask your tutor to suggest an example that they consider excellent. Something that is powerful, well-structured, and well-written. Read it, save it to your computer, and rename it as if it was your document.  Voila!

While practically, you’re no further forward, at some psychological level, your job is done. You know where the bar is set. You know what you have to produce. It’s sitting in front of you. Now all you have to do is re-fill the pages with your own content. You don’t need to figure out how to insert the table of contents, because it’s already done. You don’t need to look up how to format the references. You have plenty of examples right in front of you. You don’t need to puzzle over what to put in the summary. You can follow the model you’re looking at.

That all taken care of, now all you have to do is the research. Good luck!


Abbreviations come in three flavours. Vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate. Well, not really. But otherwise it’s too boring. Let’s start with the vanilla ones.


Truncation, a vanilla-flavoured abbreviation

This is probably what you first thought of when you read abbreviations. It is a short version of a long word. Some examples:

Lieut. = Lieutenant
Tues. = Tuesday
cent. = century

There’s not much to say about these, except to mention that a full stop replaces the missing letters.


Initialism, a strawberry abbreviation?

Initialism, yes it is a word. You use the first letter of each word instead of writing the whole word. Examples:

HTML = Hyper-Text Markup Language
UK = United Kingdom
ESRC = Economic and Social Research Council

In British and technical English, you don’t need to add full stops, if there is more than one capital letter, i.e. UK, not U.K.


Acronyms, the chocolate brownies of abbreviations

Exactly the same as initialism, except that the letters themselves create  a word that you can say. Examples:

NATO = North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
UEFA = Union of European Football Associations

Note the difference. You cannot make a word from CIA, BBC. You could make a word from UN, but nobody would know what you are talking about.

As above, you don’t need to add full stops to indicate the missing letters when there is more than one capital letter. For example,  UEFA, not U.E.F.A.

SIO (Spell It Out)

Initialisms and acronyms drive me crazy when they are not spelled out. Including the ones you think are simple. Never assume that your reader will know what you mean, and always make it as easy as possible for them to find out. Sometimes this will entail providing a glossary, other times you just need to SIO (spell it out) as you go along.

Bear in mind that abbreviations are culturally dependent. The BNP means two very different things to a French person and a British person. The French person will assume you are talking about the bank, BNP Paribas, while the first thing the British person will think of is the British National Party, a right-wing political organisation.


This is one of my pet peeves. Maybe not so annoying as acronyms that haven’t been spelled out, but it’s up there.

You cannot put however in the middle of a sentence. I’ll repeat. You cannot put however in the middle of a sentence. Well, in certain circumstances, you can. But don’t.

However, preceded by a comma is wrong. Like this example:

The evidence appears to be conclusive, however there is another factor to take into consideration.

However, preceded by a semi-colon is correct, but personally, I don’t like it. Like this:

The evidence appears to be conclusive; however there is another factor to take into consideration.

However, at the beginning of a sentence is elegant and clear. Like this:

The evidence appears to be conclusive. However there is another factor to take into consideration.


However is an adverb. It is not a conjunction. Only conjunctions can join two sentences together. Examples of conjunctions include and, or, but, while and yet.  Not however.

If you follow these two simple rules, you won’t go far wrong:

  • However should always have a capital letter.
  • Whatever follows it should disagree with whatever preceded it.

Top TipBy the way, the same applies to other linking adverbs such as nevertheless, also, consequently and hence.