Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The rules we live by

Recently, I was reading one of my students' journal entries in which she discussed how she struggled with some aspects of academic style. To my surprise, she mentioned a particular rule she had been advised on: never use apostrophes in academic writing. I'd never heard this one before; I'd heard some people advise students not to use contractions, but had never taken any notice of such advice myself. But - no apostrophes at all? This student had realised how crazy this rule was when she was advising another student and suddenly realised how removing possessive apostrophes made the writing less concise and more cumbersome. When I asked her how she came by this rule, and why she had adhered to it for so long, she shrugged and said she'd never questioned the advice because it came from a reputable source.

This made me think about other rules I've come across that students think are absolutes: never use the passive voice, never use pronouns (any pronouns??), always write in deductive paragraphs, always use a transition at the end of each paragraph, always insert a comma where you would breathe in a sentence...I could go on.

Some of these rules fit into my 'maybe' category: maybe it's best to avoid the passive voice unless there's a reason to use it? Maybe deductive paragraphs are going to lead to clearer writing so you might want to make them your first option? But some of these rules are just plain wrong: please don't insert a comma wherever you breathe in a sentence, please feel free to use pronouns, and please, oh please, use apostrophes (correctly, and not too colloquially) in academic writing!

But where do these ideas come from? Some of them, I'm sure, must be misunderstandings on the student's part: I'm almost sure the apostrophe and pronoun 'rules' fit into that category. A teacher might have said "be careful using contractions in academic writing" and somehow it translated into "avoid all apostrophes" in my student's mind. A teacher might have said "avoid personal pronouns in formal reports" and it turned into "avoid all pronouns in academic writing". But some of these ideas will have emerged out of teachers trying to make the rules easier for students to understand: there are so many rules about commas, for example, that a teacher might give up trying to explain and come up with this simple (but entirely wrong) rule. We want our students to write more clearly, so we come up with the deductive paragraph rule and somehow it sticks as an absolute.

In my last two blog posts I have discussed particular rules relating to grammar and punctuation, and both have led to interesting discussion in the comments about whether the rules are correct or whether they are simply my taste. What I have loved about these comments is that they have challenged any absolutes, discussed the changing nature of language (David, I'd love you to write a blog post about Henry Hitchings on Grammar Gang one day), and invited a consideration of the relationship between rules and taste (shibboleth is such a fine word, thanks Allen!).

But what this raises for me, as a teacher of writing is how do we teach these issues without resorting to teaching 'rules' that can be misinterpreted or converted into absolutes? How do we give students the flexibility to work with language and make judgements about usage, while still meeting the formal requirements of many of their teachers? I'm still thinking around these issues: do you have any views on this? Or have you come across any absolutes about writing that your students believe in?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

peeves and passes

Recently, on a drive from Palmerston North to Auckland, I spent some time musing on which grammar issues bother me and which ones don't. Of course, the very fact that this issue was taking up space in my brain illustrates that I'm a Tragic Grammar Nut. I could have been taking in all the delicious signs of spring: the soft greens of newly unfurled leaves, spring lambs and calves, even little black piglets in one paddock. I could have been swelling with nationalistic pride; New Zealand is gripped by World Cup Fever so there were All Black flags everywhere, fluttering from cars, letter boxes, roof tops. One farmer had even filled a whole paddock with flags and black and silver balloons.

But no, I was thinking about grammar and punctuation.

What doesn't bother me? Well, I decided that comma splices in some situations (I recently read a PD James novel that was full of them) don't raise my blood pressure too much, especially if I can see the reason for them. Incomplete sentences don't worry me too much, again, if there's a reason for them. I can cope with some misplaced commas. And I'm very comfortable about starting sentences with conjunctions.

But what can't I live with? Sorry, I'm a stickler for apostrophes - even when the mistake doesn't really cause any confusion. I think this is a weakness in my character: I should be more forbearing, but there it is. I can't bear "should of" to such an extent that I would correct someone who uses such an expression, whether that person is a total stranger, a friend, a salesperson or my boss. But my biggest peeve is one that hit me in the face on this trip. We stopped in Hamilton for a meal at our favourite Turkish restaurant and there was a GIGANTIC advert which said, in letters half a mile high, "More data, less dollars". It was all I could do not to head to the nearest hardware store to buy a ladder, black paint and a paint brush and correct it. I was still yelling "FEWER dollars!!" as my partner bundled me hastily into the car, executed a swift u-turn, and headed back on to the motorway out to Auckland.

So what are the grammar errors you can live with? And which ones bring out the Grammar Nut in you?

Image source: https://mrswhitegsl.wikispaces.com/Words+to+the+Wise

Monday, October 3, 2011

SAVE THE SEMI-COLON (and impress everyone!)

Semi-colons get a bad press. They have been described as the most feared form of punctuation (right up there ahead of apostrophes). Here at the Grammar Gang, we love them: the rules are simple to apply, and when you use them correctly, the outcome will be a tighter and more elegant style. One of us declares that she fell in love with someone because of his masterful use of semi-colons. We're not sure we believe her - but hey! It's worth a try, isn't it?

So let's start by taking a look at the rules for using semi-colons.

Rule #1 Use semi colons to separate lengthy items in a list (especially if those items contain commas), like this:
The shop owner's defence consisted of three specious arguments: he couldn't be expected to use apostrophes correctly because he had been the victim of poor English teachers at school; no-one really valued apostrophes anymore because they were old-fashioned; and apostrophes had no impact on the meaning of a shop sign anyway.

The Grammar Gang includes three self-declared grammar nuts: Andrea Duff, whose commitment to the correct use of commas is legendary; Linda Bergmann, who has been known to attack shop owners who engage in apostrophe abuse; and Lisa Emerson, whose students refer to her as the Semi-Colon Queen.

You can see that in this latter example, it would be very confusing to use commas to separate out the items. So, avoid confusion and use a semi-colon.

Rule #2 Use semi-colons to join two complete sentences that are linked by meaning in some way.
This one is a little more tricky and requires some personal judgement and preference. Consider the following sentences:

She wrote the report in clear, simple prose. It received a positive response from the Board.

The grammar in the sentence above is correct and clear. Both sentences are complete and therefore can work independently. However, if you wanted to imply that the two sentences are related in some way, then use a semi-colon to link them:

She wrote the report in clear, simple prose; it received a positive response from the Board.

Using a semi-colon suggests that because the report was written in clear, simple prose, it received a positive response. Of course you could have written:

Because the report was written in clear, simple prose, it received a positive response from the Board.

But where is the elegance in that? And why use more words than you need to? The use of the semi-colon implies the connection more subtly, and its use makes the sentence more concise.

Some of you may be asking "but couldn't I just use a comma?" The answer is no, you can't use a comma to join two complete sentences: it's not a strong enough piece of punctuation.

Beyond rules

Applying Rule #2 (i.e. choosing to use a semi-colon instead of a full stop or a conjunction) is a matter of taste, discernment and context. Often it's a matter of considering the pace of your writing. Consider the passage below:

She stood in the dark, silent forest. Her heart thudded. She stepped forward. Behind her, something rustled in the trees.

Now try it with semi-colons:

She stood in the dark, silent forest; her heart thudded; she stepped forward; behind her, something rustled in the trees.

Both pieces of writing are grammatically correct. But they achieve a different impression. The pace of the second version is faster, perhaps reflecting the breathlessness of the person in the scene. Which version you prefer will depend on what you want to achieve in your writing.

Images sources from http://www.spreadshirt.co.uk/save-our-semi-colon-C4408A10321348 and http://fandom-grammar.livejournal.com/tag/usage:punctuation

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Into the Grammar Forest

Grammar can sometimes be a bit dry to teach, but it's such an interesting subject that it should be fun! I'm devising a grammar lecture involving an atmospheric story, introduced by a video. Who do you think the main character in the story should be? I have various ideas, but am interested to know how inter-cultural they are. Does everyone know the character of Little Red Riding Hood, for example? Or is a silent movie heroine more appealing? Or an Agatha Christie-style lady detective? (Yes, they're all female characters - I'm going to play the role!) I've put a poll up on the right, so do take the time to vote, or add a comment below. And of course, we'll put the finished story up on the blog too!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Kiwis are coming!!!

Dear Grammar Gang devotees

Advance notice that a Kiwi will be landing in our Helpnest logo very soon!

You may be interested to know that New Zealand's famous national symbol and extremely cute bird, has three surviving species but is now sadly endangered due to habitat destruction and the introduction of the possum to New Zealand!

Some interesting facts: a kiwi is the size of a chicken, its egg is very large for a bird its size and kiwis are nocturnal, surviving on worms which they forage for at night.

Watch out for our new logo, which welcomes our New Zealand colleagues from Massey University to the Helpnest.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Help us to help you

Don't forget to visit the Owl, Possum and Kiwi Helpnest to post your grammar question.   However, we have a curly one up there at the moment, and would really like some help.

Rajagond asks 'when to use to before you?'.   Can anyone attempt an answer or add some context so that we might help Rajagond?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

I speak English too.

In this post we have invited a colleague of ours, Hyejeong Ahn from Monash University to share her thoughts about English as an international language.

In this era of globalization, English plays a central role in linking people who do not have a common language and enabling them to share their ideas and cultures. Traditionally, a good deal of emphasis in English language education has been placed on ESL/EFL students achieving native speaker standards of English.

However, native English teachers’ English as an ideal target for students to learn inevitably promotes the knowledge of the forms and functions of English that must be oriented to the usage from particular English speaking countries. It also reinforces the perception that all second-language speakers are incomplete or deficient in their communicative competence while striving for the target competence of idealized ``native speakers.” It is also misleading to view other, non-native speakers as deficient rather than different and show disrespect to such varieties and users.

Consequently, billions of bilingual speakers of English are always measured against the standard of a native English speaker and found to be ``incomplete” and ``deficient.” In addition, the imposition of an impossible target ― speaking like a native English speaker ― often leads to resentment and frustration in learners, instead of significantly improving their English proficiency.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban, KiMoon, a Korean English speaker, does not speak like a native English speaker. However, his intercultural communicative competency in English is greatly appreciated and recognized worldwide. According to the British Council’s statistics in 2007, nearly 80 percent of today’s communication in English takes place between billions of proficient bi- and multilingual speakers of the language. Many forms of English languages collectively called "Englishes," which have naturally arisen from the different linguistic and cultural needs of diverse groups of speakers, are used for international communication around the world.

English learners, therefore, also need to be exposed to and develop an awareness of a variety of English speakers in order to get the real sense of English speaking situations. If the goal of English language education is to help students convey their ideas and culture in English comfortably and effectively, it is vital for English teachers to promote nationwide intercultural communicative competence in English rather than aiming students to speak like ‘native English speakers’. English language educators and policy makers should stop insisting on monolingual and chauvinistic views which idealize ‘native speakers.’

Hyejeong Ahn is currently working as an Instructor in English as an International Language at the School of Languages, Cultures, and Linguistics, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. She is also a Research Assistant at the Language and Society Centre School of Languages, Cultures, and Linguistics, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia and a PhD candidate.

We would love to hear your comments and experiences in learning English. Do you agree with Hyejeong's controversial view or not?

To get you started here is a clip found on You Tube which highlights the use of English as an international language - enjoy!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Apostrophe Song!

What do you think of this song about the misuse of apostrophes created by a friend who is a musician with an interest in language?

I think we should have a competition! Count the number of misusages in the clip, write them all down, correct them and submit to the GrammarGang.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Helpnest Feature #5 The active voice versus the passive voice

(Posted by Andrea Duff from the University of South Australia on behalf of Associate Professor Linda Bergmann from Purdue University)

'Active' and 'Passive' in writing refer to neither tense nor tone, but to voice.

The active voice sentence order is subject-verb-objective (or complement).  The passive voice order reverses this: object, a tense of the verb "to be" with the past participle of the sentence verb and then "by [the subject]."   The subject can often be dropped.

Here's an example:


Active:  The dog [subject] bit the boy [object].  
Passive:  The boy [object] was bitten by the dog [subject].  or   The boy [object] was bitten.

In the use of 'objective' versus 'subjective' writing, you can use either voice to achieve either goal.

The objective/subjective connection comes in when people are writing reports in which the observer is expected to appear impartial because the passive voice allows you to drop the use of  'I' (or hide the 'I' or other actor).

Using the example above, you can use the passive voice to hide the culprit (dog) which can be useful at times :-).  Alternatively, you can use it to suggest that the observation, not the observer, is the important information.

On the other hand, the active voice generally produces greater clarity, particularly in sentences with several modifying phrases and/or clauses.

I've consciously chosen to use 'you' in many of the sentences above, in order to avoid using the passive or using 'one' as the subject.  ('One' can sound pretentious in American English, although perhaps not in other Englishes.)

In my opinion, the best discussion of these issues can be found in Williams' Style: Ten Lessons Pearson/Longman.


Visit the Owl, Possum (and Kiwi) Helpnest to post your question

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reference correctly or it's the Star Chamber

A well-entrenched role at universities is that of the 'Academic Integrity Officer' (AIO).  At UniSA (and other institutions would have their equivalent), the role of the AIO is one of assisting students to understand the philosophies and mechanics of attributing another's work.  Often students are referred to the AIO after their lecturer has found significant plagiarism in their work.

'Attribution' is regarded as a 'moral right'. Sounds about right? It seems only 'fair' to reference the ideas and hard work of other people, and not pass these off as your own. That would be cheating, right?  Why should you get credit for using work that you haven't done yourself?  That's a no-brainer.  However, the answers to these questions might not be a clear-cut as they seem.

Firstly, citation and referencing traditions are not the same across cultures. In Chinese culture, for example, knowledge has collective ownership and it is expected a student and their teacher will know where information has come from (and therefore not be expected to explicitly cite it).

Secondly, the traditions have also changed over time.

It used to be the case that if you produced and disseminated information, you would find your printing presses smashed to smithereens.  Worse still, you might find yourself in the Star Chamber, wishing you hadn't insulted the King about his new hat in your pamphlet or tract.  The private ownership of information did not feature very strongly in an age where literacy among the populous was low and the Monarch was 'in charge' of people's thoughts and ideas.  (In fact, right up until the late 1800s, people read out-loud in communal groups as private reading meant you were a shifty character with something to hide.)

We love your hat, Your Majesty.  Really we do!  (Wikipedia, 2011)

Eventually, as the spread of information became unstoppable, censorship by the State became increasingly unfashionable.  John Milton in his seminal work Areopagitica (he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God...) espoused the values of free speech.   Freedom of speech principles were enshrined in the cafes of Paris, in the Bill of Rights in the US and eventually in the media.  The railways and eventually telegraph saw an unstoppable proliferation of information and ideas.

However, those who came up with the 'ideas' did not have a right to earn an income from these.   Indeed,   the printers owned any income from the sale of books once they were distributed.

Copyright law (through the Act of Anne, 1709) recognised people's right to the ownership of information for income purposes.  The 'moral right' of attribution was intermingled with this.  Thus grew the Western ethos related to attribution and 'ownership' of information.

Various amendments to Copyright Acts have tried to keep a-pace with the changes in technology and dissemination and the Act can now be viewed as performing at least two functions. The first of these is to protect a person's right to make money.  The second of these is to protect the 'Moral Rights' of the person who produced the information.  The Act also covers things such as treatment of another's work for satirical purposes and 'fair use' for academic purposes.

But what about the challenges posed by the Internet? Photographs, fragments and chunks of information can be recycled thousands - possibly millions - of times so that the original source becomes anything from obscure to invisible.  Photos can be broken up, mashed up and mixed with bits and bytes of sound and imagery so that the original source is barely recognisable.   Do we have time to track back to original sources of information?  (Smith in FlickR in Google in Wikipedia in PhotoBucket in YouTube adapted from Alice-in-Wonderland, 1865.)

Clearly, the implications for established scholarly traditions may be challenged by the Internet, but there are still some very good reasons to practice attribution.

Firstly (unlike a blog, which is meant to be subjective and opinionated writing), attribution adds weight to your argument - thereby attracting marks.  Secondly, reference to scholarly sources and studies makes your paper look professional.   Thirdly, we still hold dear the traditions of 'fair play' in the Western tradition.  Palming off another person's hard work as your own just doesn't seem fair.  It doesn't feel right.

Familiarise yourself with the rules and remember that correct referencing, paraphrasing and other academic skills do take time to develop.   Learning and Teaching Units, the Purdue Writing Lab (and, indeed, your local Academic Integrity Officer) can help you with the skill.

Good luck

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tea for two

As an English person living in Australia, I sometimes come across terms which have different meanings here compared to the UK. One such example is ‘high tea’. To me, with my English background, high tea is a fairly substantial meal served at about 5 or 6pm. It might include hefty slices of bread and butter, ham, salad, scones and fruit cake, probably served with mugs of tea from a big, solid tea pot. This fits the definition given by the Macquarie dictionary of ‘a meal eaten in the late afternoon or early evening, typically with a cooked dish, bread and butter, and tea to drink (usually taking the place of dinner).’ There is nothing delicate, to me, about high tea.

Afternoon tea in the UK is a much more refined affair, with cucumber sandwiches, small cakes arranged daintily on a tiered cake stand, scones with jam, and specialised blends of tea served in pretty porcelain cups (with saucers, of course!). It is usually taken at about 3pm.

In Australia, however, I have found the term ‘high tea’ used to describe what I would refer to as ‘afternoon tea’. Thus an Australian high tea is served mid-afternoon, and is an elegant repast of scones, small sandwiches, little cakes and tea.

This has prompted me to do a bit of research on how other countries view high tea. As far as I can see, high tea in Australia, Jamaica, South Africa and the United States is what I would call ‘afternoon tea’ in the UK. I may be wrong about this, though, and would love to see your comments on how this term is used in your country. You can contribute by voting in the poll, and by leaving a comment below. Our bloggers in India and China may have lots to say on this subject!

Monday, February 28, 2011

University essay writing – five top tips

The new academic year has just started in Australia, and the universities are full of new and returning students, some planning to do well, some aiming to do really well, and some maybe just hoping to muddle through. Academic skills advisors are here to help you make the most of your studies and get the best grades you can, so here are five top tips to help you do well in a Western university:

1) Plan your assignments. If you’re like I was as an undergraduate, you’ll think planning is boring and you’ll jump straight into writing your essay. Think again. If you don’t know where your essay is heading, the chances are you’ll lose direction and end up nowhere, with a string of ideas that may be excellent but are lacking in cohesion. To avoid this, you need to plan a structure.

2) Structure your assignments. Think about the question in your title, then think about your response to that question. This will give you your conclusion. Next, consider why you think this; that will give you the body points. Then all you have to do is write the essay, starting with the body points and leading to your considered conclusion. Finally, you can write the introduction. Of course you can write the introduction first, but be careful that writing the introduction does not become merely an essay planning exercise. Remember too to introduce each paragraph with a topic sentence, and keep to one topic in each paragraph.

3) Read efficiently. Did you know that you don’t need to read every word of your books or journal articles in order to gain information? If you’re not sure if something will be useful, read the introduction and conclusion first. Then, if it seems that the text will be helpful, scan through for key words from your essay title, as well as synonyms of these key words. Finally, read the sections of text that seem most relevant.

4) Reference correctly. In Australia, the US and the UK, as well as many other countries, it is important to put a reference in the text (or in a footnote) every time you refer to an idea from someone else, even if you are not quoting directly. This reference should appear next to the idea or quote, and not just at the end of a paragraph. It also needs to appear in a reference list at the end of the assignment. The importance of referencing in academic writing cannot be overstated, as failure to reference in Western academic culture is seen as plagiarism. There is a humorous video clip here that illustrates this.
Referencing may have different rules in different academic cultures, so if you’re studying at or through a Western university be sure to check what you need to do and which system to follow.

5) Critique, don’t just describe. In Western academic culture you are not expected to agree with everything your lecturer says; you are expected to argue and discuss and present a point of view. That means that you should think critically about what you read, and not just describe a writer’s ideas. Maybe other writers disagree, or maybe they support your first writer? Make sure you can see how these perspectives meet or diverge, and be prepared to argue your case and persuade the reader why your answer to the question is correct.

What about grammar, you say? If your essay is well structured and argued, with one main point in each paragraph, a clear introduction and conclusion and good referencing, the language will be only a minor issue for most Western lecturers, as long as what you say can be understood. If you’re not sure about vocabulary or collocations, try a learner’s dictionary for examples. (See my previous post for details of different learner's dictionaries.)

As you can see, I’m writing from an Australian perspective. If you do things differently in your country we’d love to hear from you and compare approaches. It would make a really interesting discussion.

Wherever you are, good luck with your essay writing!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

You say tomato and I say tomaito...

Thanks to Junior G for the inspiration and (again) my children for pointing this one out to me. This thought-provoking and satirical piece demonstrates how individual differences in pronouncing words can have some nasty consequences.

'Milk' or 'Mulk' by Julian Smith.

Here is another (somewhat less confronting) clip from Susanna which shows how pronunciation impacts on language:

And another from Julia about what happens when you get it wrong while trying to speak in another language - in this case, Mandarin.  This one comes from the popular television program, the Big Bang Theory,



Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Where are my bras? (or It's enough to give you pluralsy)

One size does not always fit all.
This question is surely a way to raise the ire of my 16-year-old grammarian daughter who says (after my habitual linguistic faux pas), 'mum, it's NOT bras, it's bra. It's SINGULAR. ONE BRA'. I then answer (rather smartly and smugly, even if it is a non-sequitur), 'well how come it's over-the-shoulder-boulder-holders, then, and not over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder?' (A quick search on Wikipedia has confirmed that the brassiere * is mostly referred to as 'bra', but I am not owning up to that one!)

My 13-year-old is similarly vexed when I ask, 'can I please borrow your hair straighteners'. She self-assuredly answers, 'mum, it's not hair straighters, it's hair straightener. It's SINGULAR. ONE HAIR STRAIGHTENER'. To which I answer, 'well how come it's curling tongs and not curling tong?!'

Don't you love it when your kids correct you?

I expect my long-standing pluralsy is generational and was conditioned into me at a very young age by my mother who always referred to her 'bras' and not to her 'bra'. Perhaps she was using an abbreviated version of brassiere* rather than meaning it to be plural? That's it. She was being sophisticated.

This little linguistic idiosyncrasy was part of a suite of quirks which included unusual pronunciations ('brocol-eye' instead of 'brocol-ee', for example) and culturally adapted words and phrases ('Dr Logan hung his entrails on a brass plaque outside his door').

We can go on and on through life using these family adaptations, not realising how daft we sound until a 16 or 13-year-old corrects us.

Just when we think we have mastered the art of self-correction, though, they can turn the tables once again:

'Mum - did you say straighten your hairs? Because if you did, you are technically correct as there is more than one hair on your head.'

Go figure.

Do share your own family foibles. I'm sure every one of our blogging community must have them. As long as they don't find their way into a public speech or university essay, then they're kind of cute.


* A quaint point I would like to share with you (and I am laughing as I write this) is that we have our own little cup of bra history in Adelaide. Yes, little old Adelaide "down under", in South Australia, at the bottom of the world (or top, whichever way you want to look at it) is home of the sports bra. This was invented by composer, pianist, Adelaidian AND New Yorker, Percy Grainger. Mr Grainger's life makes for very interesting reading.

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882–1961) from Wikipedia

Post your curly question to the Owl and Possum Helpnest