Thursday, December 11, 2008

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

EVERYONE has an Achilles heel....

...Even teachers of grammar. This morning I spoke to Tracey Bretag - author and senior lecturer in business communication and communication ethics at the University of South Australia.
Tracey Bretag has a list of teaching credentials and awards as long as your arm.

She has been convener of the Asia Pacific Conference on Educational Integrity, editor of a journal on the same topic and has taught English as an additional language in both Australia and throughout Asia. Her credentials as grammar and academic writing teacher are beyond dispute. However this blogger had to ask, 'do you have your own Achilles* heel when it comes to grammar?'

'Of course!', Tracey said. 'Sometimes I get stuck on subject verb agreement and sometimes it's with the spelling of words. For example, I always put two 'ls' in necessarily [necessarilly...]'

Tracey points to the fact that even though English as an additional language learners might think native English speakers don't have as many problems, they do!

Tracey said 'it's often better to think in terms of comprehensibility than grammar. Making things easy to understand is essential in business writing because miscommunication can cause a breakdown in relationships or loss of business deals and loss of money.

'Where correct grammar enhances a sentence, being able to say things simply - sometimes with strong, direct headings - is especially important in cross cultural communication'.

However, Tracey stresses difficulties with grammar is not just the province of the international student. 'In fact', said Tracey, 'students with English as an additional language can often talk about the rules of grammar with much more authority than native speakers - the problem is often putting it all into action'.

Tracey points to her most favourite tools as being a hefty large thesaurus, dictionary and style guide. When I asked Tracey about the value of electronic checking devices (such as the language tools in Microsoft word) she felt they were inadequate for additional language learners because they don't give enough context to the word.

(Biggravee [photobucket] 2007)

Tracey insists that grammar can only be learned in the context of communication (ie with examples). However, she points to traditional rote learning as being one of the foundation blocks of learning to use correct grammar. She likens this to learning times tables, as a foundation skill for more complex mathematical tasks. Although education purists might not agree with this approach to learning, Tracey advocates that being drilled in the fundamentals builds bridges to the ability to use language competently later.

Like learning any new form of language or skill - such as music or even driving a car - the essentials can be painstaking at first but well worth the effort in the long run.

What's your grammar Achilles heel? Click on 'comments' and post away!

* Achilles was a Greek mythological character noted for his strength, but for a weakness in his heel. This one 'small' weakness in his otherwise powerful body was pierced by an arrow and caused his death.

Friday, November 7, 2008

*Borrowed from

Principal Parts of a Verb

Verbs are usually identified by their four principal parts: the infinitive, the present participle, the past tense form, and the past participle. The infinitive is considered the "base form" of the verb because it serves as the stem for other forms of the verb. In English, the infinitive is constructed with the preposition "to" followed by the base form of the verb (a verb without the "to" is sometimes called the "bare infinitive"). If a verb is a phrasal verb, which means it takes a preposition afterwards, the preposition is also included in the infinitive.

infinitives: to make, to be, to speak out

The present participle is created by adding "-ing" to the stem or base form. The present participle is also sometimes called the "active" or "progressive" participle. Because the present participle is almost always formed in the same way, by adding "-ing" to the base form, some manuals will omit the present participle as a principal part.

present participles: making, being, speaking out

The past tense form is the form the verb takes in the third person singular. Some verbs follow a pattern in the past tense by adding "-ed" to the base form; these are called weak verbs. Other verbs do not follow a pattern and actually change by modifying the spelling of the base form; these are called strong verbs.

past tense forms: made, was, spoke out

The past participle is usually the same as the past tense form, except with some strong verbs. In contrast to the present participle, which only has active uses, the past participle has both active and passive uses. It has a variety of functions in English, but the most familiar uses are in forming the passive voice and in modifying a noun.

past participles: made, been, spoken

Passive voice: The document was signed yesterday.

Modifier: The signed document appeared on my desk yesterday.


So why should you learn the four principal parts? The principal parts can help you with particularly tricky verbs like "lay" and "lie." They can also aid in the reivising process. If, for example, your instructor remarks that you overuse the passive voice in your writing, a little knowledge about past participles and their functions may help you to recognize problem areas in your paper.

Open Questions

  • What are some noteworthy exceptions to the four principal parts schema?

  • Are there verbs that do not quite fit this pattern? Why? (of course there are, but that is for another post!)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Paired Conjunctions and Transitional Phrases

Dear Purdue or UniSA Grammar staff or students,

Can you explain what 'paired conjunctions' and 'transitional phrases' are for a teaching colleague in Singapore, please?

We are looking for an explanation, examples and resources.

Many thanks


Transitional devices connect bits of information (large or small) in different ways. To borrow from Purdue's OWL, transitional devices work like bridges, linking together various objects, ideas, paragraphs, or even whole parts of a paper. I use the phrase "linking together" quite loosely, because some transitional devices, such as "whereas" or "in contrast," highlight the fact that the items are completely different from or even opposed to each other. The OWL has an excellent list of transitional devices, which are categorized according to function.

There is one note of caution: it is possible to overuse transitional devices. If every sentence of a paragraph begins with a transitional device, it will become a distraction for the reader. Reading a paper with too many transitional devices is sort of like trying to fall asleep while a buzzer goes off intermittently. Eventually you stop focusing on sleeping and instead just wait for the next sound. As with many grammar principles, moderation is key. Use transitional devices to strengthen your argument or increase the paper's flow rather than to show off or take up space.

It is also worth noting that sometimes the lack of a transitional device can actually strengthen the link between the items. Here is an example.

With transitional device
Global warming is a worldwide problem, but although this may be true,
few communities seek to address it collectively.

Without transitional device
Global warming is a worldwide problem; few communities seek to address it collectively.

Paired conjunctions show equality between two items, which again is not necessarily positive (a=b). Like the name implies, paired conjunctions are specific groupings of words that generally frame an entire sentence. Our anonymous poster gave an excellent list in the comments section, so I will reproduce his/her list on the main blog (many thanks!).

both ..... and
not only.... but also
either ... or
neither ... nor
just as ... so (do)

When using a paired conjunction, the main grammatical principle to keep in mind is parallel structure. Parallel structure basically means that all items in a series (2 items make a series!) must be grammatically similar. This is especially true with paired conjunctions. For example, if a subject and a verb follow "not only," they should also follow "but also."

Not only does he write his papers at 3:00 am, but he also studies for exams at that time.

The OWL has a more in-depth discussion of parallel structure at the following link:

Monday, October 27, 2008

Grammar in Business - Let Your Experience Shine

One of the most important segments of your resume is the experience section. This is where you are able to describe all of your accomplishments and specific responsibilities for each job. Many people may have had experiences that weren’t so stellar. For example, maybe you were the new intern who accidentally caused an explosion during your summer internship while working for a chemical company. This would be one of those experiences that you would leave off of your resume and save for discussion at another time, if that time ever comes.

So what should you include? You should focus on your accomplishments and successes from that job or internship. Now while this may seem like a simple task, many people struggle with describing their experiences in a way that doesn’t sound like a job description ready for a review session with their boss. It is important to be creative, confident, and concise. The best way to do this is through the use of attention-getting action verbs. After all, your goal is to grab the attention of your reader, most likely a recruiter, and hold onto it. You are trying to separate yourself from the hundreds of other qualified candidates and the hundreds of unqualified candidates that might happen to be excellent writers.

For example:
Began new employee programs that decreased employee turnover.

Designed and implemented three new employee programs that resulted in a 29% turnover reduction.

The second example is much more exciting and will hold the attention of your reader for a longer time period.

You should always try to quantify your experience when possible. This can be done by including numbers, statistics, and percentages into your descriptions. The second example above states that the employee turnover was reduced by 29%.

Using the appropriate tense is another important concept to keep in mind when using these catchy action verbs. If it is a job that you currently have, then you will use present tense. On the other hand, if it is a job you held in the past, you will use the past tense form of the action verb.

Avoid repeating the same action verb over and over. There are plenty of attention-grabbing action verbs to choose from so be creative. If you are having difficulty coming up with different action verbs, feel free to use a resume resource. Many will provide a list of action verbs. The OWL is an excellent resource and a categorized list of action verbs can be found at

Remember your work experiences are constantly changing and so should your resume. Hopefully these tips will help you add a little sparkle to your resume.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Do you have gas?

(From the ether-nol, 2008)

(Clip art comes into its own in Blogger!)

No...I'm not asking you a rude question - merely raising the issue of how commas can clear up ambiguity. This is really a response to Brady's rather lovely comma post below.

Lynne Truss, in her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, gives some examples of how comma omissions (or additions) can make a big difference to the sense of a sentence. Here are a couple of examples:

Eat here, and get gas

Eat here and get gas

Slow, children crossing

Slow children crossing

These sentences (or clauses) raise some questions for us, don't they?

Can we purchase gas and get some food as well? Or does this refer to a grubby restaurant which serves lots of cabbage?

Should you reduce your speed because there are likely to be lots of children crossing (perhaps near a school) or are the kids just dragging their feet?

A comma can make a world of difference!

Perhaps you can think of some examples where the omission of a comma (or addition) can lead to altered meaning in a sentence?

Note: Australian's never use the term 'gas' when they refer to fuel. We always say 'petrol' (unless it's in reference to those cars which run on LPG Gas). Oh, and Aussies have 'wind' not 'gas' after eating baked beans.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Five Minute Comma Lesson

When it comes to proper comma usage, the advice out there can range from complete avoidance to complete saturation.

I once heard a professor of English say, "Commas are a complete mystery to me, so I just leave them out." At the other extreme, almost all of us have heard at least one time or another, "Every time you take a breath, put a comma there." If you do not want to avoid commas completely but also want to avoid complete comma saturation, here are a few guidelines that will help you decide where to put that confusing little squiggle.

1) Know Your Clauses

If the word "clause" scares you or only brings up images of Christmas, then you may first need to ask yourself how you know when a sentence is a sentence. Though there are always exceptions, a sentence is a group of words that contain a subject and a (conjugated) verb that together express a complete thought.
If your group of words fits this description, you have an independent clause. What, you may ask, is a "complete thought?" This is where your feeling or intuition plays a role; you just sense that it is.

If the group of words contains a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought or cannot stand alone, you have a dependent clause. Dependent clauses often contain a dependent marker word, such as "because," "although," or "since."

If the group of words is missing a subject or a verb, it is considered a fragment.

2) Compound Sentences

You can use commas to separate clauses in a single sentence. If you want to combine two independent clauses, use a comma followed by one of seven conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor, yet, so).

Example: I am going to the store, and my brother is cutting the grass.

Use a comma to separate dependent clauses that precede independent clauses. If dependent clauses follow independent clauses, commas are usually not required.

Example: Because my brother is cutting the grass, I am going to the store.

Generally speaking, you are only allowed a maximum of two independent clauses in one sentence. Exceptions can be made, but be wary of packing too much information into one sentence.

3) Series

Any series that contains three or more items should be separated by commas. There is some debate about whether to put a comma before the final item in the series. The general wisdom is to pick one method and use it consistently throughout the paper.

4) Non-essential Elements

Groups of words that are not essential to the meaning of the main clause should be set off by commas. These would include interjections, appositives (renaming a noun), and quotations.

5) Geographical Names and Dates

These are sometimes overlooked. Remember that a comma should separate cities from states, but they should also separate cities and states from countries.

Example: The Purdue Writing Lab is located in West Lafayette, IN, USA on the campus of Purdue University.

Commas should separate the day of the week from the date and month and the date and month from the year. They should NOT separate the date from the month.

Example: The conference begins on Friday, October 11, 2008.

6) Now It's Your Turn!

Add Your Simple Comma Guideline (not rule) to Our Five Minute Lesson

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Grammar tips for academic writing

As Learning Advisers at the University of South Australia, we see lots of student work which has grammar errors ranging from minor to gob-smackingly enormous!

Usually the students are unaware of what they have done until it is pointed out.

Here are some common errors and some resources to help you overcome them.

Run on sentences.
Make sure you use full stops (periods if you are from the US). If your sentences have more than one main idea, then you should think about giving each idea its own sentence. Commas are not subsitutes for full stops (or periods). Learn to use both well. Click here to see how to construct your sentences to avoid this common error.

Consistent use of tense.

Sometimes, tense can move from present to past in student work and this diminishes the quality of the work.

The use of homonyms.

For example 'whether' or 'weather' Relying on a spellchecker just won't do!

Use of the article

Choosing whether to use 'a', 'an' 'the' can sometimes prove tricky, but luckily Purdue and UniSA have a few good resources such as Using articles: 'a' and 'the' or no article and A versus An or How to use articles (a/an/the)

Count or non count nouns

It's important to get these right as it also affects whether you use plural or singular verb form in your sentence and also the article. Look at this excellent explanation from Purdue. These excellent rules will help you decide if a noun is countable or not. However, the rules do not apply in all cases so if you are still unsure be certain to check a good dictionary.

The best way to improve your writing is to practise and practise some more!

All the best from the Grammar Gang!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Send us your red pen sentences!

Luckily most people don't use red pen any more when they mark student work. Sometimes you might get a cross (x) or even nasty note in your margin and not really know the reason why.

Well here's your golden opportunity to vent your frustration and find out why your finely-crafted sentence was so red pen worthy.

Submit your sentence to comments, by:
  • Selecting anonymous OR
  • Google Blogger OR
  • Name/URL.
The Owls and Possums will do their utmost to give you a solution (if we possibly can).
Remember: we've had the red pen treatment, too!

Brady, Susanna and Andrea

Friday, August 22, 2008

Grammar Police Have No Authority

Speaking of misplaced apostrophes, check out the latest piece of John McCain memorabilia from an independent online retailer If you look real close, it reads, "Student's For McCain." Apostrophes do not just denote possession or contractions anymore; they are slowly taking over plural nouns as well.

Here's the link:

I found this article on about two grammar "vigilantes" (yes, the writer actually compared them to gun-toting civillians) who removed an apostrophe and inserted a comma in a seventy-year-old sign at the Desert View Watchtower in Grand Canyon National Park. If anyone knows what the sign originally said and what the corrections were, please let us know.

This just further proves one of the unwritten rules of grammar: the older it is, the more correct, or should we say "acceptable," it is.

**UPDATE** Thanks to Joe in Albuquerque for the link to a picture of the sign courtesy of the The Daily Telegraph online (see above). No word yet on what exactly was changed.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Event number 2 - Diving

Can you twist and turn without making a splash?


Write a sentence no longer than twenty (20) words that uses the most silent letters.

The winning sentence will receive a dual prize package from the UniSA Learning and Connection and the Purdue Writing Lab.

*Judge's note: from a linguistic perspective, there are various types of silent letters, including exocentric digraphs, endocentric digraphs, inert letters, and empty letters. For this competition, all types of silent letters will be counted.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Event number 1 - Track and Field

Can you make the distance?

Who can write the looooooooooooooooooongest sentence that makes sense to the reader?


Grammar Olympics - Opening Ceremony

Tonight (Adelaide time) The Grammar Gang (Brady, Susanna, Virginia and Andrea) decided this blog will be the site for the inaugral Grammar Olympics.

You can test your grammar skills and win great prizes like:

  • A Purdue Writing Lab gift set

  • A really hot polo shirt from UniSA (aka 'collectors item'!)

  • Anything else our respective marketing departments might like to donate.

Prepare to post to our upcoming Grammar Olympics events

To participate:
  • Click on comments

  • Select Google/Blogger or anonymous or name and URL

  • Remember to include your email address

On your marks...get set...go

Friday, August 8, 2008

A noun by any other name

The OWL recently received an inquiry about what to call "the damned" in the following sentence:

The damned inhabit [Anne] Rice's novels.

Though "the damned" functions as a noun, the grammatical origins of this construction are not quite as clear. The usual verb-as-noun explanation, the gerund (or "-ing" form), does not apply in this instance. What, then, is the connection between this noun and the verb from which it stems?

This one is tricky, because I think it has two parts. First, "damned" is the past participle of "to damn." Usually, past participles can function as adjectives, as in "the sunken ship." But I could only find one mention of past participles functioning as nouns. notes in very small print, "It is very rare." (

Think about it this way. If I said, "the sunken," would you recognize the person, place, or thing that I am referring to? You might have an idea, but the picture is not complete. We do, however, understand the reference when I say "the rich" or "the young of this country." These types of constructions are called adjectival nouns or attributive nouns. With "the damned," those of us acquainted with Dante understand that "the damned" actually refers to "those who are damned," a construction similar to "the rich" (meaning "those who are rich"). In this case, I think "the damned" is a past participle acting as an adjective that in turn functions as an adjectival noun.

I would be interested to know if anyone can think of other such cases. In short, how "rare" (or endangered) is this species of noun?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A wave from Oz

Hi everyone

Well, I'm back from my trip and ready to get the ball rolling with Brady and the Owlies from Purdue.

Thanks, gang, for your first post on subordinating conjunctions and dependent markers.

I'd like to do something just a little bit different and talk about differences in language between Australians and our friends in the US.

One thing which endears us to our US friends is the Australian penchant to put 'ie' or 'y' on lots of words:
  • Footy (football)

  • Breakie (breakfast)

  • Owlie (Owl - there was a telly programme a long time ago called 'Owlie School' It's true!)

  • Sickie (a sick day taken from work when one is not really sick)

  • Barbie (as in 'put another shrimp on the barbie' or barbecue)

These are just a few of our idiomatic language quirks! Maybe my Possum pals at UniSA can think of some others.

All of this is kind of cute, but it does make life difficult for our international and ESL students at first. Knowing the idiom (or the lingo) gives you a social badge. You fit into a culture better if you can both understand and use some of this quirky and wonderful language.

One of our best tips to our new international students is to go out of the way to speak to Aussies - on the bus, in the shops, at uni, in study groups.

Here's a great fun quiz that my friend and co-possum Helen found. You might like to give it a try.

You know, I didn't pick up many language quirks when I visited the US recently - are there any? Did I miss something blindingly obvious?


Friday, July 18, 2008

subordinating conjunctions and dependent markers

Recently, the OWL received an inquiry regarding the difference between "subordinating conjunctions" and "dependent markers" and whether one is favored over another. For a little context, the OWL favors "dependent marker word" over "subordinating conjunction." Here is my response to the inquiry. Please feel free to comment, criticize, or add.

There really is no reason to favor one name for this class of words over another. I think the general trend is toward"dependent markers" just for the sake of clarity. "Dependent markers" create dependent clauses, just as independent markers lead to independent clauses. Though probably more technically correct, calling these two classes of words"subordinating conjunctions" and "conjunctive adverbs" (respectively) does not express their function in a sentence as concretely. Though I can't pinpoint the source of the terms "independent and dependent markers," I imagine they were implemented as a teaching tool and have since caught on.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Today (June 27) Andrea Duff from the Learning Connection at the University of South Australia (UniSA) visited Linda Bergmann (and others) at the Purdue Writing Lab. One outcome of our discussion was to start an international discussion about teaching/learning/talking about grammar, style, and language issues as a part of the writing process. And so we started this blog. Stay posted!

Images from Google Images
Queensland Government (2008)
US Department of the Interior (2008)