Wednesday, December 9, 2009

All Too General

Greetings Grammophiles!

After a semi-hiatus due to hip surgery and the birth of my first child (a son!), I have found my way back to the wild world of English grammar. Today's post has less to do with grammar proper and more to do with word choice and style. Stringing words together in an acceptable order is one thing, but it is quite another to know which words create the best sentences and, ultimately, the best arguments. As a general rule, the more general a word is, the less meaning it conveys. "Many" does not have the same mathematical force as "hundreds," nor does "have" express as much as emotional attachment as "possess."

General words exist in all parts of speech, and it's nearly impossible to avoid them all the time (nor should you). There are general verbs, adjectives, and even nouns. Here, I am not advocating that you spice up your prose by using obscure synonyms from a dictionary. The meaning of "manifold" is just as general as "many." The purpose of this post is to remind you to do some thinking about what exactly you are trying to say and then to think about how to say it in the most concrete, non-abstract way possible.

In earlier posts, I have already discussed ways to avoid general verbs. The main culprits are "do-everything" verbs such as "to be," "to do," and "to have." Another verb that writers often overlook is "to talk." Using "talk" in reference to what someone says does little to express how the person said it. Think of the phrases, "talk is cheap"; "just talking"; and "talk, talk, talk." All of these phrases suggest that whatever is being said is relatively insignificant. If you are looking for verbs to express human speech, focus on what the speaker is doing with his or her words rather than the fact that he or she is speaking. One example may be: "In her History lesson, Mrs. Ferguson connected America's founding history with Rome's."

I have already touched on the perils of using "many." As an instructor, I often see "many"-based sentence in introductory paragraphs. Sentences such as, "Many believe that oranges taste better in warm weather," provide little support to an overall argument. In fact, such general sentences often lead readers to ask more questions about the merits of the argument. How "many" believers are there, and how did this writer discover their opinions? In short, any time you can quantify, itemize, or categorize who or what you are talking about, you are well on your way to avoiding the trap of generality. This is why "hundreds" is so much better than "many." Here is a list of other general adjectives that are worth avoiding:

many, few, some, other, any, all, every

When thinking about style, writers often overlook the negative impact that general nouns have on their writing. In this sense, using "something" is as good as saying nothing at all, because "something" specifically expresses an unknown quantity. I often see generalities appear in reference to people or groups of people. Even the word, "people," identifies absolutely no one in particular. Instead of "people," try to be more specific about your subjects. These "people" might actually be university students, coffee drinkers, or SUV drivers. Think about exactly who it is you want to write about and leave the people alone. Other examples include

persons, everyone, no one, these, kids, individuals, persons

Happy writing!
Brady Spangenberg

Monday, November 2, 2009

The anatomy of an essay (Part 6): Winning ways with referencing

Hi Grammophiles!
Special greetings to all those bloggers who have recently joined our community.
A well-referenced piece of academic writing will definitely win extra marks. Without a variety of good references your work can look stream-of-consciousness, unplanned and unresearched.

Here are a few ideas:
  • Refer to Brady's post on evaluating sources

  • Quantity does matter (as well as quality). If you are writing a 2000 word paper (which is roughly 10 pages) think of the way three references in your reference list appears to your marker, as opposed to 10. The more references used, the more scholarly (or well-rounded) the work appears

  • Use a well-recognised and approved referencing system and learn to use this consistently. Often, your university or course will insist on you using a particular style of referencing. For example, at Purdue University, you might be required to use the APA (American Psychological Association) style. At UniSA, the Harvard (Author Date) style is more common

  • This has probably been said before on this blog, but it's worth mentioning it again. Use a variety of viewpoints (Duff, 2007; Hussin, 2008 p. 39; Carter, 2009a, p. 149). If you can show a 'club' of writers, this will help your case

  • If your referencing system allows, consider using 'author prominence' to create strong arguments. Use 'information prominence' to acknowledge facts or ideas:
    Author Prominence: Duff (2009) highlights how using authors in this way can add weight to the argument you are attempting to drive home.
    Information Prominence: This is often (but not exclusively) used in scientific writing where data is used to illustrate a point (Carter, 2007 p. 3).

  • Try and interpret the paraphrase or quote for your reader within the context of your argument. 'This means...' 'This is important because...' 'This differs from Carter's (2006) view because...' 'An example of this is where...' In the example below, 'your voice' is in red.

Of course, as we said in an earlier post, sometimes you are required to write a piece of 'reflective' writing, which means you are providing a sometimes more emotional account of your observations and experiences.

At your university, you might have some variations to these 'rules' or some other ways to use referencing effectively. Please do chip in to the conversations on this blog - we'd love to hear from you.

Andrea Duff
Learning Adviser
University of South Australia

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The language of argument in essay writing (Anatomy series part 5)

Dear Grammar Gangers,

I want to pick up on a question Andrea asked when she wrote: 'Is your case well supported?' and another that appeared on Susanna's mind-blowing mind-map, 'What is your argument'? Both of these points assume that 1. You have taken a position on an essay topic and 2. You are arguing your case throughout your essay. Of course, this is exactly what you need to do!

An essay presents a point of view formulated by critically assessing the information or ideas relevant to the essay topic, that is, an essay IS an argument. The word 'argument' does not have to be written anywhere in your essay for it to be an important part of your task. Your lecturers may assume that you know this and thus may not explain the importance of arguments to you in class.

Academic arguments are used for a range of purposes such as:
1. Supporting something we think has merit – a position, a point of view, a program, an object.
2. Persuading someone that something would be beneficial to do (or not to do) – a particular course of action.
3. Showing someone the problems or difficulties with something – a theory, an approach, a course of action.

An essay requires a thesis statement - this is your concise response to the essay questions which takes the form of an argumentative assertion that states the point of view or claim that the essay will go on to support.

Be aware though, that statements of fact are not thesis statements as they do not tell the reader what the author thinks about the topic. Have a look at the paragraphs below. Can you tell which is a series of facts and which contains a thesis statement?

The Black Death (otherwise known as the Bubonic Plague) first appeared in Europe in the 1340s. Spread by rodents and fleas. the infection is said to have 'carried off' a third of Europe's population. Plague causes fever and a painful swelling of the lymph glands called buboes. The disease also causes spots on the skin that are red at first and then turn black.

The Black Death of 1348 coincided with fundamental changes in the social framework of the later Middle Ages. However, the disease alone was not responsible for these changes. Rather, it is necessary to consider a number of economic, agricultural and health factors in assessing the transformation of late medieval society.

Topic sentences should clearly signal to your reader the main idea in the paragraph. In the body section of a good essay, you should be able to get a sense of the overall argument by reading only the topic sentences!

Don't forget though, that the argument should also form a cohesive whole so this means that the paragraphs need to be logically ordered and connections made between the points presented in those paragraphs.

As you write, you need to draw out the implications of the information you are including by explaining to the reader why you have used evidence and how it serves your argument. Have a look at the following essay extract and note how the student writer is using signposting language (e.g. this argument) and linking words to show what she is doing in her writing.

ESSAY TOPIC: Discuss the argument that it makes financial sense for employers to make the workplace safer so that they can reduce their payroll expenses and save money.

This argument also relies on the idea that companies use financial sense exclusively to make decisions about improving the work environment. However, this is not always the case. Companies look at other considerations such as the negative social ramifications of high on-job injuries. For example,Toyota spends large amounts of money improving its environment because, while its goal is to be profitable, it also prides itself on high employee morale and an almost perfectly safe work environment (Matsuki & Fewick 2002). Therefore, Toyota finds that it can do both, as by improving employee health and employee relations they are guaranteed a more motivated staff, and hence a more efficient staff. This guarantees more money for the business as well as more safety for the employees (Grieves et al. 2004).

Happy arguing!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The anatomy of an essay Part 4 - Introductions and conclusions

Hi Grammophiles

Yes, indeed, Brady this blog is subjective but, then again, what piece of writing isn't? In my view, even the most technically-laden report has a degree of subjectivity. Authors make decisions on the basis of what is left in, what is left out, how numbers are represented, the nature of references used.

However, for now, we need to turn our attention back to the essay.

Firstly, ask yourself this question: 'when I read a long body of work, do I start from the first syllable and end at the last?'

If you really think about it, you probably read a paper in sections. In a journal article, it is likely you'll read the abstract and maybe jump straight to the reference list or the conclusion. Perhaps you skim the paper first by looking at the topic sentences. In an essay, though, you may well gain an overview by starting with the introduction and glancing over the conclusion and reference list before you tackle the body of the paper.

Anyway, the point I am making here is introductions and conclusions really COUNT. They are like the bookends of your work, providing a strong basis for the volumes of ideas held within.

Introductions and conclusions can make or break your paper. If they don't grab the reader's attention straight away, it is likely they will lose interest pretty quickly. Some lecturers say that these two sections should take around 10% of your paper.

Here are a few pointers you can use to strengthen these two very important aspects of your work. (Note: These examples are fictitious, but hopefully you'll get the general idea.)


  • Begin with a clear statement of aim
The aim of this paper is to discuss the role and nature of postoperative care for cardiac patients.
  • Include academic definitions - that is, definitions of your key terms drawn from the literature

According to Rolland (2007, p. 5) postoperative care can be understood to mean the period of time between a patient's surgery and discharge from the hospital. However, Jones (2005) points to some periods of care extending as long as a year, depending on the regime required. In the case of cardiac surgery...

  • Sometimes, the scope might be required. Are there particular forms of cardiac post-operative care? Are there particular 'cardiac patients' Will you discuss these and not others? It is important to outline this in the introduction.

In the context of this paper, 'cardiac patients' are those who have undergone...

  • Give a snapshot introduction of each section of your paper and follow this through with a parallel construction (that is, discuss each point in the order in which it is introduced)

There are three key aspects to postoperative care in relation to cardiac patients. This paper will firstly describe... Secondly... Thirdly...

  • Sometimes, you might use a key author, report or theory to help frame some of your discussion. If so, this needs to be discussed in the introduction.


  • Summarise your key points in the order in which they appeared in your work.
  • Refer back to some of the key literature. Do this sparingly.
  • Emphasise one or two very important points. Conclusions should pack a final punch.

It is essential when considering postoperative care that patients...Further....

  • Sometimes it is useful to point to the future or speculate about what is important for further research or action.

The future of postoperative care is likely to include... With imminent cuts in Government funding to health, it is likely patients will receive less quality care following discharge from hospital...therefore...It must be emphasised

Introductions and conclusions from UniSA will give you some fresh ideas about your approach to these two very important sections - the bookends of your essay.

Andrea Duff

Pictures courtesy Microsoft ClipArt Thank you!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Anatomy of an Essay Part 3: Evaluating Sources

Greetings grammophiles!

In this third installment of our series on the anatomy of an essay (we've come a long way since Robert Burton's Anatonmie of Melancholie!), I will discuss how to evaluate the quality of a particular resource. The proliferation of the internet has certainly made information more accessible, but ease of accessibility also makes it more difficult to determine which sources are the most credible. A credible source makes your argument more credible as well.

Ranking Quality
As you may have learned from a few of my recent posts about writing lab, a second reader tends to improve the quality of your work. The same is true in the publishing world. Any resource that has been reviewed by one or more experts (peers) in a particular field is considered the highest quality or most credible. Some of the most credible sources are:

Scholarly Journal Articles
News Magazine Articles
Newspaper Articles
Expert Testimony (like in court)

Sources are considered less credible when they are not reviewed by an editor, publisher, or expert in the field. Does this mean you cannot use these resources at all? Absolutely not. This just means that you should be even more suspicious about how well the author has grounded his or her arguments (empirical research, logic, other expert opinions). Some less credible resources include:

Authorless Papers
Personal Blogs
Subjective Reports (the author fails to deliver both sides of the argument)
Wikipedia (great place to start your research but doesn't belong in
your final works cited page)

Of course this list is subjective as well (this is a blog too you know), and it may not be directly applicable to all types of writing. But if you are looking to write an argumentative essay, founded on factual research and logical argument, you should definitely make every effort to establish the credibility of your resources.

Hints and Caveats
* Age matters: some resources get better with age, and some do not. Some of the best thinking about Homer's Iliad was published in the 1920s. However, the same is not true for rocket scientists.

* Expertise matters: some people just have better and more insightful things to say about a subject than others. Do some research to find out who is the most widely regarded expert in your particular field. Read that person first.

* Conciseness matters: why read 300 pages of rambling musings on a subject when you can read 30? Just because a book or resource is longer, does not mean it is automatically better. Look for the resources that develop a clear argument within a manageable amount of space.

Happy researching, and keep the comments coming.

Brady Spangenberg

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The anatomy of an essay - Part 2 - Planning before writing

A step that students often leave out is the essay plan.

It is important to have an idea of what you are going to write before you begin. Once you have done your research and gathered your notes, you will have a good idea of your approach. A mind map is a great tool to use to help you organise your thoughts and make a solid framework for your ideas.

Mind maps are based on the work of cognitive specialist, Tony Buzan who is featured on the side of this post. They enable you to expand your ideas exponentially, helping you to understand your readings, topic notes and make links and associations with your question.

I have made up a simple generic mind map to demonstrate the basic structure of an essay. You can organise the body of your essay and the content of the answer with references easily and this can be a great tool to help you as you write and further develop your ideas. (Make sure you click on the image to enlarge it.)
Below is an example of two completed mind maps for an essay.

In these mind maps, the body 1 and body 2 headings have been replaced by the topics for that section of the essay. Your mind maps could look like this, or could be quite different depending on your writing task. Happy mapping!

Susanna Carter

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The anatomy of an essay Part 1 - Why an essay?

Hi Grammophiles!

For your reading and writing pleasure, the Possums (that is, Andrea, Susanna and Virginia from the University of South Australia) and the Owls (that is Brady and colleagues at Purdue) present our series 'The anatomy of an essay'.
These posts are partly our (and hopefully your) own personal reflections as writers. We also present some of the well-established 'rules' and resources from our respective organisations. This is a transcontinental view, over continents and seas, from writing departments at two universities. No doubt you have your own reflections and anecdotes so please add them.

Ultimately, essay writing at university is designed to test your critical thinking and writing skills. It is a way to synthesize your knowledge about the topics you are learning, while demonstrating your ability to find strengths, weaknesses, comparisons and solutions. These skills are directly transferable to decisions you make at work and in daily life.
Essays (compositions; papers; semester papers; term papers) come in a variety of forms. They can be long and constructed over the course of a semester (for an undergraduate at UniSA, they can be as long as 5000 words). They can also be short (such as in the case of the short essay in an exam setting). You may be assured your lecturer (professor) will look for some KEY aspects in your work.
  • Have you answered the question properly? Do you understand the directive words? Arguing the case for or against something is very different to defining an issue.
  • Do you meet the word limit set by your lecturer? In some instances, there is an unwritten 'agreement' that 10 percent over or under is acceptable. You need to check this out, as well as whether the reference list or bibliography is included.
  • Is your case well supported by plenty of relevant references and citations? 'Millions of people think' is very different to 'A survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009) found...' Avoid bold and subjective statements and use an objective writing tone (unless asked to do otherwise)

  • Is your work backed up with plenty of examples ('an example of this is where'....'this can be seen where'...'for example...')

  • Have you proofread properly? This is the thing we leave the least amount of time for and sometimes find it lets us down terribly.
  • Do you have a good introduction (usually 10% of the paper); balance in your argument and a strong conclusion (with a strong, definitive statement about your position - perhaps even speculating about the future)?
  • Do you define key terms using both your own interpretation and supporting these with literature:
Grammar can be described as the lexical components which make up language. Chomsky (1972) explains how grammar... According to Spangenberg (2009) being good at grammar involves...

Essays (and/or compositions) require good time management skills. In my own personal experience, I have spent far, far too long looking for the just right literature - compromising the rest of the writing process - particularly the proofreading. Plot the milestones around the planning, research, drafting, proofreading. Whatever you estimate for the drafting and proofreading, add a day or so. I would allow (conservatively) two weeks for the construction of a 5000 word paper. However work should start way before this time as you collate lecture notes and keep a log of your readings.

Here are some of the areas which really let people down:

  • Sparse reference lists (a 5000 word essay would have between 15 - 20 references)
  • Bold statements and generalisations not backed up with theory or evidence (I think...)
  • Lack of proofreading
  • Not answering the question properly.

Here are some things which attract great marks:

  • Meaty reference lists - plenty of citations which are relevant and recent. (This is strictly between you and me*, but I have a sneaking suspicion some lecturers and professors go straight to the reference list, looking for breadth and currency, before they look at the rest of the paper!)
  • Balance in arguments - use of linking words to show contrast and similarity; structure and alternative ideas
  • Use of objectivity in expression (an academic tone avoids the first person 'I')

What are your thoughts about essays? Do you have some pointers to share? What have you learnt through the essay writing process?

Andrea Duff
* That is, between you, me and the other 3,000 or so people who visit the Grammar Gang blog each month
PS Thanks Clip Art for this week's graphic.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Lessons from the Writing Lab

Greetings grammophiles! Today is my official last day as a graduate tutor in the Purdue Writing Lab. I am off to more literary pastures in the following school year (not "greener" just different). While all these experiences are still fresh in my mind, I wanted to pass along some of the lessons I've learned about writing and, maybe, life.

Be Persistent
For the vast majority of writers, the Romantic notion of genius-inspired creativity just doesn't apply. There are very few people who can sit down and write a perfect essay, poem, or report the first time. Good writing takes time, and it is the persistent writers, the ones who consistently revisit their ideas, who generally succeed in communicating something interesting. Writing can be frustrating. I see it in my clients' faces on almost a daily basis. Luckily, I have never had anyone cry during a consultation. There have been plenty of sighs and groans.

That frustration may not be a negative thing. Take it as a sign that you need to slow down and think about the topic a little more. I also notice that our repeat clients, particularly the ones who have poured hours into a document, tend to exhibit less and less frustration as they move along. I am also struggling through a personal statement at the moment, and I came across Mary Hale Tolar's (Executive Secretary, Truman Scholarship Foundation) suggestions for writing a personal statement. She suggests engaging in activities that keep your body busy but your mind free to wander. Some of my favorites: take a walk, weed the garden, take a shower (you would be surprised how many ideas come up in the shower!).

Get a Second Reader (and a Third and a Fourth)
The idea sounds simple. It can be a little intimidating to ask someone else to read your stuff. Strangers generally work better as second readers than friends or relatives. Strangers are more likely to give you an honest assessment. Since strangers are unfamiliar with your work, you may find that having to explain your ideas to someone else can actually be quite fruitful. You may see your project in a new light, or you might suddenly utter that perfect sentence you have been stuck on for two weeks. Just make sure to have paper and pencil (or computer) handy if you are talking informally about your writing. A few nights ago, I was walking with my wife and said something that would have been fantastic to put in my personal statement. But by the time I got home, the magic had vanished. If this happens to you, see above.

Seek Out Strategies Rather Than Fixes
Anyone can "fix" your paper, but if you passively sit by and do not participate in the revision process, chances are you will make that mistake again. Allowing someone else to correct what you did wrong means that you haven't learned anything. You will always need to have that other person's approval to make sure it is "right." That is why it is better to seek out "strategies" for writing and revising rather than quick fixes. Strategies serve as a guidelines for choices. Yes, think of writing as a series of choices to be made. Strategies should help you decide between active and passive constructions, simple and complex sentences, or even something simple as the verb "abscond" over "sneak out." If you have trouble with articles, seek out some guidelines for using "the/a/an" in your writing. You may be surprised that as your writing gets better, so too will your speaking.

There Is Always an Audience
You can help your writing immensely by finding an audience, even if it means you have to imagine one. "You" can also be your own audience, which works great for diary entries but can only get you so far with other types of writing. Audiences, imagined or otherwise, will help give your paper a focus as well as an argumentation style. Do you want to persuade, inform, or entertain your audience? What type of information will they appreciate (and recognize) the most? Having an audience may also help you bring your document to a close. If you know there is someone out there waiting to read your writing, you are more likely to finish it at some point.


In closing, I just want to write a note of thanks to everyone in the Purdue Writing Lab. It has been a great place to work for the past two years, and I have learned more about writing and the process of writing than I ever would have otherwise. This, however, does not mean I'll be leaving the Grammar Gang. Good luck and keep typing away.

Brady Spangenberg

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Does It Even Matter?

Today I want to address a fairly simple question with a not-so-straightforward answer. Why should we care at all about grammatical "correctness?" This post is dedicated to anyone who has ever thought grammar just seemed like one of those tools that over-bearing instructors use to harass unwitting students. Sure, many grammar rules seem trivial at best. For example, does it really matter if I end a sentence with a preposition? Do I really deserve a lower grade for inserting commas where (you say) they don't belong? By whose authority did knowing the difference between "that" and "which" become the standard for testing English competency? The short answer is both "no" and "yes." The most frustrating part for English speakers, both native and non-native alike, is that with no Academie Francaise (French) or Kultusministerium (German) to regulate spelling and grammar, the English language can truly seem like the wild frontier. Time to bring out your dueling pistols.

Instead of worrying about the business of right and wrong, let's think about grammar as a puzzle. Some pieces fit in particular places better than others. But the great part about language is that it is combinative, meaning that the puzzle can be put together many different ways. Particular pieces or words do not always have to go in certain spots. You can start a sentence with a noun, an adverb, or even a twenty-word phrase if you want. By moving things around, you can add emphasis, change direction, or even hide something.

In terms of "right" and "wrong," the most important factor to consider is audience. When you are chatting with friends or family, it matters very little whether you say "who" or "whom" in the appropriate places. They will understand you regardless and are probably more focused on the content of your speech rather than how you say it. In fact, there are some instances where using the grammatically correct word, like "whom," may draw unwanted attention. Your family might think you are trying to talk down to them or, even worse, making fun of them.

Grammar is a puzzle in two ways. You have to string together the words in a way that makes sense logically. But these words and phrases also need to be appropriate for your audience. Slang, contractions, and ungrammatical phrases are great for communicating with friends but not so great at a job interview (unless the job is working for your best friend--if that's the case you probably won't be sitting in a formal interview anyway). Audience awareness is almost just as important as grammar knowledge. In fact, the identity of your audience can even change the grammar rules you will use.

So, does it matter if you end your sentences with a preposition? The short answer is yes, if your audience cares. No, if your audience doesn't. See y'all at the OK Corral.

Brady Spangenberg

Friday, June 12, 2009

Nicer than the Nicest

Greetings grammophiles! It is summer in Indiana and time to relax, so I want to discuss something a little less mind-bending than "over-nominalization." About a year ago, we received an email question at the OWL about the comparative of the adjective "clever." Is it "cleverer" or "more clever?" The dictionary recommends "cleverer," but almost everyone I talk to about this hedges toward "more clever." I think it's because "cleverer" sounds like a car engine that doesn't want to start.

Anyway, most people have been reciting "good/better/best" since elementary school days, but I am interested in some of the more obscure comparatives and superlatives out there, like "cleverer." Here is a small list of adjectives that do not have an easy "gut feeling" answer. Ask yourself whether you would create a comparative by adding an "-(e)r" to the end of the word or placing a "more" in front of it.


Well, if you're stumped, you aren't the only one. I have actually learned a lot from researching this post. I have given the "recommended" answers in the comments section--just to keep you from cheating. As always, additions, arguments, or anecdotes are welcome (how's that for alliteration?).

Brady Spangenberg

Monday, June 1, 2009

The end of language, as we know it...

It's outrageous!
With all these young people SMS-ing and texting all over the place today, correct grammar is going out the window (Professor Cods-wallop)

Often, lecturers complain that emails from students contain SMS-speak and students are losing the ability to write cogent, formal sentences.

Is it the case that the use of SMS language will lead to the demise of correct English and grammar in writing - or is this pure speculation (ie a load of rubbish on the part of the stuffy establishment!)

Wot r yr views re txting? LOL!! BRB.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Style Tips: Avoiding Over-Nominalization

Hello grammophiles. With only four weeks left until final exams, the semester is coming to a close at Purdue. Many of my recent sessions with clients at the Writing Lab have touched on strategies for improving sentence structure. Sometimes, even if all of your sentences are grammatically correct, they can still read a little "clunky." It is as if the writer goes through a series of wordy gymnastics and still doesn't get his or her point across.

An overuse of nominalizations is one major cause of "clunkiness." Nominalizations are nouns that have been created from adjectives or verbs; some examples include,

-- influence, evaluation, understanding, clarity, or [my current favorite] receptivity

Though these words carry do much of the same work as verbs or adjectives, they must be handled as nouns. In practice, this often means that your sentences will feature many more prepositions, helping verbs, and passive constructions, all of which tend to slow down your sentences and confuse your readers. Here are two over-nominalized sentences:

--An evaluation was undertaken as an investigation of the process by which sentences are formed. (3 nominalizations: evaluation, investigation, and process)

--The impression left by the judge was stern in his call for strengthening the regulation and arbitration of workplace disputes. (5 nominalizations)

Revision Strategies
Fixing nominalizations can be a difficult process, especially when it seems like there is no other way to say what you mean. The best advice is to turn your nominalizations into verbs. Instead of saying, "an evaluation was undertaken," say "we evaluated." Instead of saying, "the impression left by the judge," why not write, "the judge sternly announced." If you are having trouble with this, you may want to ask yourself this question:

-- What is the main action of the sentence? What really happens?

If the answer to this question cannot be found in the verb of your sentence but rather in one of its nouns, then you have some work to do. My friend and OWL Coordinator Allen Brizee often refers to the Paramedic Method, which was first developed by Richard Lanham. This method directly addresses issues relating to nominalizations as well as inexpressive verbs (such as "be" -- see my last post). For more on the Paramedic Method, here is a link to the OWL:

As always, good luck to all, and keep the interesting comments coming!

Brady Spangenberg

Monday, March 30, 2009

Summer time is over in Oz

Hi there!
Summer is over in Australia and on the first of April, we had our first day of 'autumn' (or 'fall', if you live in the States). In our regular Purdue/UniSA editorial meeting, the Grammar Gang was discussing the language used in different cultures to talk about the weather.
In Australia, summer is traditionally linked to long days on the beach. We often say that it is 'beach weather'.
If it's very hot: 'It's a stinker today'
Humid weather: 'It's muggy today'
If there is a shower: We are having a spot of rain. If it's heavy rainfall: 'It's raining cats and dogs' or 'good weather for ducks'
Please post your weather language and sayings and let us know on Earth you are from.
Susanna Carter
Learning Adviser, University of South Australia
Adelaide, South Australia

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Writing Like a Native: More Quick Tips for ESL Writers

This second round of tips has less to do with specific strategies and more to do with developing habits. Like playing the piano or riding a bicycle, writing in a particular language requires practice. The more you do it, the better you will become. The question is, how do you know if you are practicing it the right way? You don't want to spend years reinforcing bad habits, so here are few ideas for developing positive, language-building habits.


1) Involve as Many Senses as Possible

Just reading words on a page will only get you so far. If you really want to learn how to speak and write like a native speaker, you need to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible. In addition to reading English, you also need to speak it and, above all, hear it. If you do not live in a place where English is regularly spoken, the internet provides many alternatives. With news podcasts, live radio streaming, and even YouTube, you have a wide variety of opportunities to access real, spoken English. Listen to a news program or radio broadcast and then try to mimic the words they say.

Unlike reading, which requires a large amount of brain power and attention, listening to a radio simulcast requires much less of your direct attention. You can play it in the background while doing other things, such as cooking, eating, or even sleeping. That's right. When I was trying to learn German, I used put on a simulcast of German radio when I would lay down for an afternoon nap. Sometimes, this type of passive listening can help you with pronunciation, pitch, and vocabulary.


2) Read a Newspaper, Especially the Living or Lifestyle Section

Newspapers are the single greatest source for interesting and up-to-date information in a target language. Newspapers also contain more idiomatic (colloquial) language than anything else. There was a woman who came to the Writing Lab Conversation Group every day with questions about the words used in the Purdue student newspaper. Just by reading the student interviews and profiles, she was able to gain quick and easy access to the linguistic world of native speakers. If there are no English-language newspapers in your area, newspapers also have great online content. Just Google your favorite newspaper, and you will generally find the same information as you would find in the print edition.

If you have limited extra time during your day, I suggest looking through the Lifestyle or Living section of a newspaper (the one filled with local profiles, cartoons, and advice columns). These sections generally contain the highest amout of easy-to-read language, and they are also the most interesting. Sometimes it is tough to concentrate on a news story discussing complex political or economic issues. It is much more easy to relate to a woman seeking advice about her nosy mother-in-law.


3) Write Emails to a Native Speaker

Most composition work is now done on a computer, and so if you are looking to improve your English writing skills on the computer, you should do it in as many venues as possible. The easiest and most rewarding venue is email. Make it a habit to write at least one email per day to a native speaker of your target language. Don't limit yourself to conversational topics such as the weather. Try to discuss what you are learning in one of your classes, or try to tell them about recent political developments in your country. Once you find success composing emails to native friends, you may find that composing an essay in English has also become easier. Emails are high reward, low risk writing tasks. You won't receive a bad grade or failing test score for making a mistake.

If don't have any native speaker friends, there are plenty of places that will help you. Try posting something on someone's blog. You could even post something on this blog! Or try an international pen pal Web site like,


As always, good luck, and I would love to hear from some of you out there about your own L2 (second language) composition strategies.

Brady Spangenberg

Friday, February 20, 2009

Writing Like a Native: Quick Tips for ESL Writers

Do you wish you could write like a native-speaker but feel like something always gets in the way? It may be just a missing article or the wrong preposition, but somehow your writing doesn't quite read like English. You may have had the frustrating experience of some instructor or reader muttering, "Well, you can't really say it THAT way." Unless you have the time and the money to go through an intensive immersion program, you may find it difficult to know exactly how to phrase it in English without some extra help. So here are a few quick tips that will help you check your how to say it in English.

1) Google + Quotation Marks
A quick Google search is the best way to check for the most appropriate ways to use prepositions and articles. For example, if you are not sure whether you should say "at Purdue," "in Purdue," or "on Purdue's campus," type each of these phrases, surrounded by quotation marks, into Google. The results will provide you with examples in context. You will not only get a sense of how people use the phrase, but you will also be able to judge how often people use the phrase. If your Google search turns up only 3 hits, you can be pretty sure that the phrase, "in Purdue's campus," is not a phrase that native English speakers often use.

Try these two phrases and see which one pops up the most and in which contexts. You may find that sites using more colloquial (spoken) language will favor one expression.

"at the house of my mother" vs. "at my mother's house"

Remember that for an accurate representation of which phrases people use and how, you need to enclose the phrase in quotation marks. That way, the search will only look for the phrase.


2) Use a Thesaurus
Once you have established a working English vocabulary, a thesaurus (dictionary of synonyms) is one of the best tools for expanding it. You don't even need to have a printed version anymore. Most word processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, are already equipped with a thesaurus function. All you need to do is:

highlight the word and then hit "shift + f7."

The program will automatically bring up a list of synonyms and a few antonyms. Other resources include This strategy does not just apply to ESL writers. Even native writers can forget about words from time to time. Especially if you find yourself using the same verb, particularly a generic verb, over and over again, using a thesaurus can bring some great variety to your writing. You may also find that a more specific and expressive verb exists than the one currently stuck in your mind.

Here is a list of generic verbs that should be "thesaurus-ized."

make, do, say, talk (about), work, think, have, like
and any form of "to be" (is, are, was, were)


3) Read it Aloud (Slowly)
Because many writers focus so intensely on creating the perfect sentence, they often overlook more general grammar principles, such as plurals, subject-verb agreement, and verb tense. I have found that writers can often recognize their own mistakes if they read their papers aloud and pay careful attention so that the words they say match the words on the page. Writers will often say the phrase correctly even though it is incorrect on the page. Here is an example:

"Yesterday, she walk to the store with three empty bag."

Attentive readers may notice that the word "yesterday" requires that the verb should be in the past tense (i.e. "walked). They may also notice that the number three means that "bag" should be in the plural.

If you find it difficult to read and edit or if you do not notice your mistakes, find a friend to read along with you. The friend should mark down any differences between what you say and what is on the page.


Hope these tips help, and, as always, if anyone out there has any other tips, please share them.

Brady Spangenberg

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A rose by any other name

Well, here in Australia, it's almost the start of the new academic year. I thought it would be a good time to review some of the topics on our Grammar Gang blog and because it's just 2 days until St Valentine's Day, I want to take a look at my favourite Shakespearean sonnet.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And oft' is his gold complexion dimm'd:
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd:

But thy eternal Summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breath, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee

Can you believe the length of this sentence? Does anyone want to 'have a go at' counting independent clauses? (Have a go at = attempt to, in Australian English usage.)

Of course, Shakespeare's use of punctuation is known as 'poetic licence' but I wonder if you all approve of his use of colons and semi-colons and if you would find it easier to read if he'd used more sentences with full-stops? (I know I would find it easier to read if he had.)

I asked my daughter to 'have a go at' writing the first 2 lines of the sonnet in her own words and this is what she came up with:

If I compared you with a day in summer, I'd have to say that you are even more beautiful and gentle'

She adds that this would be saying quite a lot, as she was born on December 1st, the first day of Summer which is also her favourite season!

I then asked a young guy who lives in our street for his interpretation of the first two lines which were:

You're dead gorgeous and really hot but not that extreme sort of hot that you get on a day in a heatwave'.

We'll, we'd love to hear your version of the first 2 lines or better still, of the whole poem so post away!


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Two Minute Semicolon Lesson

Unlike the comma, which can take five minutes to explain, the semicolon is quite an easy punctuation mark. So that is why this post should only take two minutes to read. The semicolon has two main uses. They are used to join two independent clauses (minus the coordinating conjunction). They are also used to divide long or comma-laden elements in a series. Aside from its small role in bibliographic references, the semicolon has no other traditional function in English grammar.


When you use a semicolon to combine independent clauses, make sure that both of the clauses share a direct and logical connection. The second clause should either restate or emphasize the first clause in some way.

Professor Johnson believes that people should obey traffic laws at all times; the roadways, he says, are already dangerous enough.


Semicolons can also be used to set off items in a complex series. A series is considered complex if it includes items with their own commas or lists with a conjunction in each item.

Simple example with conjunctions
He walks and talks; chews and thinks; and runs and stumbles.

Simple example with commas
For the European Cup, football matches were played in Vienna, Austria; Basel, Switzerland; and Salzburg, Austria.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Winning ways with academic writing

Welcome back to the Purdue students. You are about six weeks ahead of the students at UniSA (in Adelaide, South Australia) who will return to Uni in early March.

We thought it might be useful to give you some 'gold passport' tips towards winning academic writing. Here is a triangle we use here at UniSA which is based on the work of Kaldor, Herriman and Rochecouste (1998). It lists the hierarchy of things you need to get right in writing at Uni. It's not that any of these are any less important than the others, but they generally occur in this order when writing. In other words, you need to get the big picture right first.

Understand the question, task or form

Is it an essay you are writing? Is it a report? Each of these genres will have particular attributes. Essays, for example, are continuous prose which more often than not explore a particular argument. Reports are exemplified by their headings and subheadings - they are highly structured and objective.

Introductions, conclusions, sections - structure

Your work should have a clear introduction (aim or statement of position, purpose, academic definitions of key terms); conclusion (summary, point to the future) and logical 'sections' (topic sentences in the case of an essay; logical headings and subheadings in the case of a report).

Quality sources and citation

You should aim to use for up-to-date sources - ideally from academic journal databases. Wikepedia is generally out (although probably OK for gaining an understanding of a topic). Make sure you know about paraphrasing and reporting the ideas of others.

Your reference list may well be the first place a lecturer (professor) goes before reading your paper and they will be looking at the breadth of sources used as well as their quality.

In text referencing and reference list

The mechanics of referencing are important. If you are using, say, the Harvard system, then find a guide which gives you information about the conventions and layout (where all the punctuation goes).

Clarity, grammar, punctuation

These are also important, as they give your work the professional touch. Without attention to these things your work is demeaned and the meaning of what you're communicating can be compromised.

Be sure to post a comment about your best academic writing tip. What have YOU been rewarded for?

Andrea and Susanna

Friday, January 23, 2009

Up With Which I Will Not Put

One of the grammar rules that many of us remember from our elementary school days is the one that says, "A sentence cannot end in a preposition." Attempts to follow this mythic rule (Grammar Girl calls it "grammar myth number one") often lead to some pretty twisted relative clauses, including those relative clauses involving whom. Here are two examples, one attributed to Winston Churchill (though some dispute that he ever wrote or said this), and one I heard just yesterday.

This is something up with which I will not put.

This is something I'm not gonna put up with.

If the first sentence doesn't send your head spinning, then I am sure the second sentence is surely setting off slang alarm bells. Let's back up for just a moment and refresh last week's post; what are relative clauses anyway, and why should you care about them? Relative clauses are dependent clauses (they cannot stand alone as sentences), and they provide additional information about a noun. Relative clauses feature both a subject and a verb that are grammatically INDEPENDENT from the main clause. Take this sentence for example:

I went over to my friend's house, which is located on Mason Street.

The relative clause provides additional information about the friend's house, but the friend's house is not the subject of the main clause, which is "I." In other words, relative clauses can have nothing to do with the main subject of a sentence.

Secondly, and this is where many "whomists" start sounding the alarm bells, the relative clause is introduced by a relative pronoun. As I noted in last week's post, the relative pronouns in English are

who, whom, that, which, whose, where, when, and why

Once you select a relative pronoun, all you need to do is finish out the clause. This is where the No Preposition at the End of a Sentence Brigade chimes in. Just like regular sentences, relative clauses cannot end with a preposition, they say. The best solution is to take the preposition and place at the beginning of the clause. So we have constructions like:

To whom it may concern
With whom I was speaking
Upon which I was standing
Up with which I will not put

These types of constructions are quite common in German. But as I said in the last post, they sound quite formal to my non-Churchillian, American ears. Guessing from the readership commentary, the "whoms" and "with whoms" sound too highbrow for most of our sensibilities.

Reader question of the week: What is the weirdest preposition + relative clause combination you have ever heard? Send it in and let us all have a laugh. For my part, here is a YouTube video of a Ben Affleck Saturday Night Live skit that satirized Keith Olbermann, one of America's more excitable news commentators.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Does "Whom" Still Exist?

After a winter holiday, the Grammar Gang is back! We want to poll our readers and ask whether the word "whom" still has a place in their everyday vocabulary. Do you still use, or perhaps hear others using, the relative/interrogative pronoun "whom?" Or do the people who use "whom" all sound like nineteenth-century Victorians who just stepped out of a time machine?

What is the word "whom" anyway, and how should you use it?

"Whom" is a pronoun that always refers to a person. You would never use "whom" to refer to your pet rock or your most recent video game purchase. Secondly, "whom" provides a signal that the person in question is the direct object of the verb. In other words, whomever (see!) the "whom" refers to is receiving the action of the verb (not performing the action). As my German 102 instructor once said, the direct object is the thing that is being verbed.

"Whom" can function as a relative pronoun or an interrogative pronoun. Though the names of these words may sound scary, they stand for a group of words that you probably use everyday. The relative pronoun introduces additional information about someone or something. There are specific relative pronouns:

who, whom, that, which, whose, where, when, and why

The name, relative pronoun, comes from the type of clause that it introduces, namely the relative clause. These clauses are subordinate clauses (i.e. cannot stand alone as complete sentences), and they provide additional information about someone or something. Here are two examples:

The man, who is standing in the corner, is my father.
The boy, whom the teacher told to go outside, is crying.

There are many questions surrounding relative clauses at the moment. Some of them have to do with punctuation (to comma or not to comma), and some of them have to do with the pronouns themselves, such as whether you can use "that" to refer to a person. For more on relative clauses, you can visit the materials published by the OWL here:

So, who will answer this post? And to whom shall I reply?