Getting It Right: It’s Academic

I work a few days a week at a nearby college, mainly plucking typos from website copy and asking people to use consistent written language. Choose the futile metaphor of your choice (affixing gelatin to trees, managing herds of cats) and yeah, sometimes it feels like I do a bit of that, too. It’s also made me ridiculously aware of the academic terminology errors in the novels that I read. For instance:

Six Degrees of Stupefaction

Students attending a community college (sometimes called junior college) are pursuing a two-year degree. This is an associate degree. No “s” on the end, no apostrophe, and no caps unless you’re spelling out the entire degree for a formal usage, say, on a diploma or in an academic journal:

Associate in Arts (although associate in arts in informal usage)

It means that Suzie is getting an associate degree, an AA, an associate in arts, an associate in applied science or associate in science, depending on what she’s studying.)

If our intrepid heroine intends to transfer to a four-year school from her community college, or if she mortgages her soul to start her education at a four-year-college in the first place, she can pursue a bachelor’s degree. Yes, that one has an apostrophe and an “s.” Again, if spelled out, this is bachelor of arts or bachelor of science.

Moving on? You go, Suzie. She’ll be pursuing a master’s degree or a master of (whatever.) And a doctorate is written as PhD. Although this educated soul is entitled to be called “Doctor,” the degree and the honorary are not used together. So “Dr. Arnold Katydid, PhD” is incorrect.

Title, Chapter, and Verse

Titles like professor, dean, assistant professor, associate professor, and president take the same rules as titles in other institutions. Capitalize if using before a person’s name. If it’s used after the name (particularly after a “the”) it is lower case. Examples:

Professor Katydid did not have his contract renewed because of his questionable research methodology on Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Arnold Katydid, PhD., the professor being investigated by Greenpeace, had no comment. Neither did Suzie, a graduate student assisting him.

The dean of administration wasn’t at the disciplinary meeting. However, President Mayfly barely registered his absence.

Now is the Semester of My Discontent

Spring semester, fall semester, summer semester: when used generically, seasons are normally lower-case. If you are referring to a specific semester, it’s normally capitalized: Suzie checked the online catalog and discovered that Geology 101 will be offered in Spring 2014. (Note: no comma after spring.)

The Department of Redundancy Department

In general, class names (geology, physics, anthropology) are not usually capitalized with the exception of languages, like English or French classes. Specific class names (for example, Trends in Advertising Copywriting) are capitalized. The capitalization of program or department names can be dicey. They can be capitalized if part of someone’s title: Professor Dragonfly, chair of the Department of Antiquities. Although, the departmental rule normally follows the title rule: According to Suzie’s diploma, she has an Associate in Business Administration, but she studied business administration.

Goodbye, Alumnus

This one trips a lot of people up. But you’ll see the pattern if you remember your high school Latin.

Alumnus = One male graduate.
Alumna = One female graduate.
Alumni = Multiple graduates, male or female.
Alumnae = Plural female graduates. Often seen in traditionally all-female colleges. Vassar, for example, even though it has been admitting male students since the 1970s, has a building called “Alumnae House” on its campus. The name is only a nod to Vassar’s all-female heritage, however, because the actual department that handles alumni affairs is called the Alumnae/Alumni Office.

Okay, got all that? Now when your college-age characters are hanging out in the quad with a few alumni while talking about sociology, Communications 101, and French literature, you’ll get it right.

Class dismissed.

(Note: Examples are based on US-English usage, Chicago Manual of Style. The AP Stylebook, used mainly for newspapers, does things a little differently. If you are writing for a particular organization, check if it has a style guide of choice.)

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “Getting It Right: It’s Academic”

  1. I enjoyed your post very much. Those types of mistakes frustrate me. You know what else makes me insane? Listening to a professional journalist on television say, ” This is an historic event.”

    Thanks for reminding us.

  2. Fab post, Laurie. I worked for a community college for years and many of the employees (yes, occasionally I was one of them) would still write copy with the above errors. Thank heavens for the Communications Dept.–it didn’t look good for an educational institution to not get the nomenclature right 🙂

  3. Fun read, and makes me aware that I’m probably only familiar with the types of errors you point out because I went to school for sooooo long 😉 I’ve probably read more university catalogs than I care to count, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

  4. Sorry I’m late to the party, Laurie; better late than never though. Although I know most of the above; on occasion, I can trip over it. A pet hate of mine also is the pronunciation of the ‘t’ in often. However in regard to brha99’s comment, and I know it was a long time ago, at the school I attended it was ‘an historic event’, pronounced ‘an istoric event’; and the same rule for ‘an hotel’ and pronounced ‘an otel’. Is this an American English vs British English thing?

    Excellent article, Laurie.

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