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Art History: A Preliminary Handbook

by Dr. Robert J. Belton


For whatever reason, many students simply don't understand why a particular assignment merited such-and-such a mark. Here is a set of guidelines that concerned students should study carefully before approaching the instructor for explanation. If you still think your work merits a higher grade, be very certain that it meets the criteria given here.

First class standing

  • A+ 90% and up
  • A 85 to 89%
  • A- 80 to 84%

Second class standing

  • B+ 76 to 79%
  • B 72 to 75%
  • B- 68 to 71%


  • C+ 64 to 67%
  • C 60 to 63%
  • C- 55 to 59%

Marginal pass

  • D 50 to 54%


  • F 0 to 49%

Understand borderline marks as a teaching tool. Don't think of them simply as an opportunity to appeal. If the effort clearly merits a low A instead of a high B, then that is what you should have. On the other hand, markers sometimes give a student a carrot on a stick: for example, 79% says "try just a little bit harder and you'll merit the first class standing." Students usually need to meet minimum standards to continue in their programmes. If markers persist in giving you grades just below your expectations, it's probably because they're avoiding the tendency to overlook flaws because they "know what you were trying to say," or whatever. Low marks are not punishment but warnings that a student's work doesn't meet academic expectations. Instead of appealing a grade, get stronger. As a general rule of thumb, markers will be conservative about marks in the A range. Even an extremely good essay will usually merit a mark only in the mid to high eighties. An A+ will be reserved for the truly exceptional student, a very infrequent occurrence. Good teachers will keep a running record on each student, however brief: "Good thesis but poorly organized," and/or "Inadmissible evidence," and/or "Frequent misuse of passive voice," and/or "Brilliantly conceived and immaculately executed." It is in your best interest to make such records portray you in a good light, so do what you can to improve things. (This happens in the "real," workaday world, too, so it's a good general rule of thumb.) Above all else, don't procrastinate.


The A Paper. The characteristics of a first class essay include a lively, polished style -- this does not include overt purple prose -- sound judgement based on solid evidence, effective organization, and an argument of substance. A first class paper often has a special flair distinguishing it from a competent B+ paper: e.g., originality or profundity, a special way with words, a controlling metaphor or organizational device that first challenges and later satisfies expectations, or exceptionally sound research. Clearly, you should not take first class standing lightly.

The B Paper. This is usually competent but undistinguished. It is basically sound in style, content, grammar, and the like, but will exhibit minor lapses and inconsistencies. It is sound enough to win respect, perhaps, but not admiration.

The C Paper. Here one expects to find distinct lapses in style, grammar and content. The paper will have shortcomings which suggest that although it has something to say, that something is not particularly clear. This category would include papers which stray from the assigned topic or those which deal with the topic in too perfunctory a manner.

The D Paper. Here one sees serious stylistic and organizational flaws, rambling and incoherent arguments, padded texts and bibliographies, repetitive assertions, and so on. In general, the D paper falls quite a bit short of the requirements, but still does enough (perhaps just barely) to merit a passing mark.

The F Paper. Here the faults in style, grammar, content and the like will be considerable. There may be glimmerings of an argument, but these will be obscured by faulty logic, syntax, incoherent presentation, etc. Papers which require the reader to guess at the writer's meaning belong in the F range. So do papers which bear little or no relation to the topic. Other possibilities: slapdash last- minute efforts, pseudo-arguments that are little more than a string of quotations, and impressionistic imitations of the manner of certain topics -- for example, dadaistic blathers or surrealistic fantasies instead of disciplined considerations of Dada and Surrealism.


Depend on the marker's advice for all matters from spelling to thesis. Effective marking -- which is a teaching and learning tool in itself, not a punishment -- requires an edited text, marginal commentary and a set of concluding remarks summarizing the marker's reasons for a particular grade. This is especially important when a carrot is dangling on a stick. Frequently, markers simplify matters by briefly identifying common stylistic lapses -- say, squinting modifiers, tense shifts, or sentence fragments -- or by using standard editorial symbols like those in the section below. If the editing of a text becomes overwhelming because of a student's poor grasp of the basics, a marker will sometimes edit one or two pages thoroughly and add in the margin: "style marked in detail only to this point." If your markers are not giving you this type of feedback, you are within your rights to ask for it. Nevertheless, you should always do your own thorough proofreading before submitting an assignment.


The format of this list is:

abbreviation or mark in margin (in bold)
Identification of the problem
Example of the problem (in italics)
[explanation] (in brackets)
Corrected version

Abbreviation faulty
The arch was built about 313 a.c.
["a.c." should, of course, read "a.d."]
The arch was built about 313 a.d.

Agreement faulty
Her lithographs is startling.
[Subject and verb should agree in number.]
Her lithographs are startling.

...Arp and Dali. He chose to pick up the brush....
[Who chose to pick up the brush?]
...Arp and Dali. Arp chose to pick up the brush....

apos or '/ or '
Apostrophe needed
...the artists brush was coated with....
[An apostrophe indicates a possessive, with certain exceptions, the most notoriously misspelled of which is "it's," which means "it is".]
...the artist's brush was coated with....

Jacques-Louis David were an interesting man.
[Any clumsy wording or grammar.]
Jacques-Louis David was an interesting man.

[/] or /
Brackets needed
He said, "I worship Pisacco sic."
[Certain situations, such as remarks added into a quotation, require square brackets. Here, for example, "sic" is added to indicate that Picasso was misspelled in the source from which the quotation was taken.]
He said, "I worship Pisacco [sic]."

cap or caps
Capitals needed
...the art of the french court....
[Certain words -- like the nationality in this example, are capitalized by convention.]
...the art of the French court....

Geniuses are few and far between.
[This phrase contains two cliches: "few and far between" is an overworked phrase, and "geniuses" is an overworked concept.]
Only a very few artists are recognized by posterity, giving them the appearance of timelessness.

Close up
...Andy War hol's new haircut....
[There is an unwanted space in the text.]
...Andy Warhol's new haircut....

Coherence faulty
I enjoyed watching David Salle do the painting. Most painters are a tremendous inspiration. I read to him as he worked on the left half.
[The writer is jumping around from remarks specific to an individual to general information which belongs in another paragraph.]
I enjoyed watching David Salle do the painting, and I read to him....

This performance bites.
[Choose a vocabulary appropriate for your intended audience.]
This performance was uninspiring.

colon or :/ or :
Colon needed
He flattered the sitter thus he....
[One of many punctuation problems. Here, the absence of a colon produces a run-on sentence.]
He flattered the sitter: thus he....

comma or ,/ or ,
Comma needed
...the air light and atmosphere were....
[One of many punctuation problems. Here, the items in a list should be separated by commas.]
...the air, light and atmosphere....

Comma splice
Their act, was great.
[No comma needed.]
Their act was great.

dm or dg
Dangling modifier
Looking on, the image took shape.
[The subject of the sentence must be that which performs the action in the preceding phrase. Here, for example, "the image" seems to be that which is "looking on," which clearly doesn't make sense.]
The image took shape while I watched.

dash or --/ or --
Dash needed
The Pope an artist too watched him.
[Certain interruptions which clarify a point should be set off from the sentence between dashes.]
The Pope -- an artist too -- watched him.

del or a line with a little loop on the end
Sherri Levine coppies the work of others.
[Points out unnecessary components in the text. Here, for example, there would probably just be a line through the second "p" in "coppies."]
Sherri Levine copies the work of others.

D or d or dict
Diction inappropriate
This sculpture sucks, or Botticelli hung out with the Neoplatonists.
[Same as colloq.]
This is a poor sculpture, or Botticelli frequented the same places as the Neoplatonists.

d neg
Double negative
"I can't get no satisfaction."
[One negative cancels out the other.]
I can't get any satisfaction.

Piss off!
[Saying something in terms that are more disagreeable than are really necessary.]
Go away.

ell or .../ or ...
Ellipsis needed
"O Canada, the true north strong and free. We stand on guard for thee."
[Any missing portions in a quotation must be indicated by ellipses.]
"O Canada, the true north strong and free. We stand on guard...for thee."

err or X
Error of fact
The Eiffel Tower is well over 200 stories high.
[Indicates an error in information.]
The Eiffel Tower reaches a height of 300 metres (about 984 feet).

Pollock passed on after a car wreck.
[Saying something in terms that try to make something less disagreeable (which rarely works).]
Pollock was killed in a car accident.

excl or !/ or !
Exclamation mark needed
"...but oh, what an eye."
[Punctuation for emphasis.]
"...but oh, what an eye!"

All dolphins are mammals; all printmakers are mammals; therefore, all printmakers are dolphins.
[Any of several types of faulty reasoning. This example is a type of invalid syllogism.]
This statement cannot be repaired because the idea is fundamentally flawed.

An important picture, admired by all.
[Same as incomplete sentence.]
It was an important picture, admired by all.

Grammar faulty
They is here.
[Any error of grammar or usage. Here, there is a flawed number agreement between subject and verb.]
They are here.

hyph or -/ or -
Hyphen needed
He was copyediting.
[Basically a spelling problem.]
He was copy-editing.

Incomplete sentence
An important picture, admired by all.
[The verb is missing.]
It was an important picture, admired by all.

ind or a little arrow pointing to the right
This is a new paragraph, where these words are aligned with the left margin.
[Indicates a need for a new paragraph.]

ins or / preceded by whatever is missing
Paul Gaugin was a bit....
[Indicates a missing element.]
Paul Gauguin was a bit....

Ins sp or /
Insert space
VitoAcconci's Red Tapes were in the VCR when....
[Indicates a need for a space.]
Vito Acconci's Red Tapes were in the VCR when....

Italics needed
Delacroix called it flochetage.
' [Foreign words and titles of books and works of art are conventionally printed in italics. Prior to the widespread use of computers, the convention for italics in typescript was underlining.]
Delacroix called it flochetage.

[See colloq and dict. Technical jargon is fine in an appropriate context.]

Lower case needed
David Salle's Odd Mixture of object and design....
[Do not use capitals where they are not required by convention.]
David Salle's odd mixture of object and design.

Misplaced modifier
An article describes the way artists handle gesso in Arts Magazine.
[Consider the ambiguity: does the article (which describes gesso-handling) appear in Arts, or does the article describe gesso-handling which appears in Arts?]
An article in Arts Magazine describes the way artists handle gesso.

Misplaced restricter
Gentileschi only had the courage to go to court to sue her attacker.
[Consider the ambiguity: is it that Gentileschi was the only one who had the courage to do such and such, or is it that Gentileschi was unable to do anything other than have the courage to do such and such?]
Only Gentileschi had the courage....

Mixed construction
Taken from their proper religious environment and placed on view in a secular museum are among the many injustices of the Elgin marbles.
[The meaning of the sentence is garbled.]
It was unjust that the Elgin marbles should suffer so many injustices, including their removal from their proper religious environment and their placement in a secular museum.

mix met
Mixed metaphor
Caravaggio smelled a rat, but he nipped it in the bud.
[Only Shakespeare had the subtlety to get away with something like this.]
This statement cannot be repaired because the idea is fundamentally flawed.

move or a little arrow pointing to the left
Move left
Miriam Schapiro's femmage...., where the phrase occurs as if at the beginning of a new paragraph.
[No new paragraph needed.]
Miriam Schapiro's femmage....

no ital or rom
No italics
The Pope paid for the painting but he would not pay for the lunch.
[Certain words do not really need to be highlighted through such things as italics.]
The Pope paid for the painting but he would not pay for the lunch.

n seq
Non-sequitur (faulty reasoning or faulty sequence)
Kennedy wasn't killed by a single bullet. Emily Carr had a gun....
[One of a number of types of faulty reasoning. Make sure that each sentence logically flows from the preceding one.]
This statement cannot be repaired because the idea is fundamentally flawed.

parallel or //
Parallelism faulty
Mapplethorpe first decided to enter the exhibition and then that he would sell the works.
[Keep formal constructions parallel.]
Mapplethorpe first decided to enter the exhibition and then to sell the works.

paren or (/) or ()
Parentheses needed
It the lecture was unsuccessful.
[Set interruptions from the flow in parentheses.]
It (the lecture) was unsuccessful.

Passive voice overused
The photograph was made by Rodchenko, who was taught by participants in the Revolution, which was started by....
[State what people or things do, rather than what is done to people or things.]
Trained by participants in the Revolution, Rodchenko made this photograph....

per or ./ or .
Period needed
The lecture was unsuccessful
[Indicates a missing period.]
The lecture was unsuccessful.

Predication faulty
A cire-perdue casting is when you melt wax out of a hollow mold.
[Avoid "is when" constructions.]
The cire-perdue process involves melting wax out of....

The ludic dimensions of the endeavour evaporated before the perspicuously sceptical essentialism of the critical eye.
[Use plain language where plain language will do.]
Critics maintained that the work was less playful than it seemed.
Pronoun error
Daumier disliked the legal profession. He accused them of....
[Faulty agreement between number of pronoun and referent.]
Daumier disliked lawyers. He accused them of....

?/, when preceded by something, as in "fell?/"
Query to author
The speaker ill while on stage.
[Inquires whether something is missing.]
The speaker fell ill while on stage.

?/ or ?
Question mark needed
What happened during the lecture.
[Indicates missing question mark.]
What happened during the lecture?

""/ or ""
Quotation marks needed
She said, I will be a great painter.
[Indicates missing quotation marks.]
She said, "I will be a great painter."

q str
Quotations strung together with little or no individual thought
He said that "X...." In contrast, she insisted that "Y...." However, somebody else always maintained that "Z...."
[Use resources to provoke thought, not as a source of material for textual collages.]

She painted the painting in a painterly manner.
[Eliminate repeated words and phrases.]
Her brushwork was free and painterly.

Run-on sentence
Napoleon III paved the streets of Paris the populace couldn't throw the cobblestones.
[Make grammatical sense of the components. In this sentence, is it that the people couldn't throw stones because Napoleon III paved the streets?]
Napoleon III paved the streets of Paris so that the people would not be able to....

no sq
Scare quotes are unnecessary
The image is really "painterly."
[Scare quotes are quotation marks misused to identify words about which the writer has some doubt or skepticism. Here, the writer evidently thinks the word "painterly" is jargon. However, it is no more peculiar a word than "flannel," and you would never write "I have a 'flannel' shirt."]
The image is very painterly.

semicolon or ;/ or ;
Semicolon needed
...such and such is bad, thus, in some cases....
[Indicates a need for a semicolon.]
...such and such is bad; thus, in some cases....

Sexist language
Modern man has an odd attitude to art.
[Fails to use gender-neutral language.]
Modern people have an odd attitude to art.

Spell out
She painted there for 5 more years.
[Spell the word out. This isn't necessary for numbers of three digits or more.]
She painted there for five more years.

Spelling error
Kruger's aforisms appeared....
[Indicates misspelling.]
Kruger's aphorisms appeared....

Split infinitive
She really wanted to passionately paint.
[Infinitive verbs (i.e., verbs preceded by "to") shouldn't be separated by adverbs.]
She really wanted to paint passionately.

Squinting modifier
The Pope Michelangelo met in the Chapel sometimes performed Mass.
[Consider the ambiguity: did the Pope sometimes perform Mass, or did Michelangelo sometimes meet the Pope in the Chapel?]
The Pope, whom Michelangelo sometimes met in the Chapel, performed Mass.

Let it stand (you were right)
[Indicates that a correction made by a marker or editor should not have been made after all.]

Subscript needed
Mix the powdered pigment with H2O.
[The "2" should be smaller and lower.]

Superscript needed
10 x 10 is the same as 102.
[The "2" should be smaller and higher.]

Tangled sentence
Due to advances in art reproduction technology, there has been an increased opinion among gallery-goers that such advancements bring as new styles are easier to understand, resulting in a greater popularity.
[Meaning is unclear. Straighten the sentence out.]
Changes in technology can change the audience of art.

t or t shift
Tense shift
Her art is celebrated and she was too.
[Keep tense consistent.]
Her art was celebrated and she was too.

Her video slickly was edited.
[Words are out of order.]
Her video was slickly edited.

Gericault's Raft of the Medusa....
[Indicates need for underlining. In most cases, given the prevalence of computer technology, this has been replaced by a need for one of the italic fonts.]
Gericault's Raft of the Medusa....

Upper case
o'keeffe's famous flowers....
[Capitals are needed.]
O'Keeffee's famous flowers....

Verb missing
Purple the colour of royalty.
[Where is the verb?} Purple is the colour of royalty.

It is a matter of the gravest possible importance to the reputation of anyone who claims to be an artist that he or she should cultivate a circle of friends that includes the rich and politically powerful.
[State things clearly and simply whenever possible.]
Artists should have friends in high places.

© Copyright 1996 Robert J. Belton

Last reviewed shim12/19/2012 11:14:44 PM