Monthly Archives: March 2011

Scaffolding Phrases

This blog began with three key writing principles, all of which boiled down to the idea that we write initially for ourselves and ultimately for our reader. We write to clarify our thoughts, and then we revise extensively to craft a version that will meet the needs of our reader. In the early stages, when we are writing for ourselves and not yet fully for a reader, we may have some habits that serve us well but that might act as impediments for the reader. I am referring here to what I call scaffolding phrases, phrases that help us write but that may eventually be removed. We all have bad writing habits; my point here is that some of those habits will be ‘bad’ only in the sense of ‘bad for the reader’. These habits may actually be good for our writing, as long as we have the awareness to remove them later. As an example, I will use one of my own writing crutches: ‘in other words’. I use this phrase fairly indiscriminately to propel myself from one sentence to the next. Since the gravest writing troubles involve not getting from one sentence to the next, I am eager to hang on to anything that helps me do so. But my reader would be baffled by a series of sentences all of which were linked by ‘in other words’. When I find this phrase in my writing, I run through a series of options designed to help me understand the true relationship between the sentences:

1. Perhaps the second sentence is an example, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘for instance’.

2. Perhaps the second sentence is expressing a consequence of the first sentence, in which case I can switch to a transitional expression such as ‘as a result’ or I can reword to say something like ‘Given this [idea from the first sentence], [second sentence]’.

3. Perhaps the second sentence is just a better way of expressing the idea and the first sentence is unnecessary. I find this option to be the case frequently; the second try is often better than the first.

4. Finally, perhaps ‘in other words’ does accurately describe the relationship and should be allowed to stand. This sort of rephrasing is particularly useful in those cases when the first way of saying it wasn’t fully your own. Following up a quote or a paraphrase with another way of saying it can be invaluable, especially when the ‘in other words’ leads to a rewording that explicitly picks up on your key themes and terminology, allowing the reader to see essential connections in your text.

Other common scaffolding phrases include ‘that is’, ‘what this means is’ and  ‘it is important to note that’. Some writers also use simple questions to advance their text. Consider this use of a question:

X is very important for Y. What do we mean by Y? Y means ….

In this case, the question can simply be removed, without any need to put something in its stead. I wouldn’t, however, want to prohibit the use of such questions if they are helpful. Often my students will point to various things that I have excised from sentences and say ‘so we should never do that?’ (everyone is hungry for absolutes in an advanced writing class). I always say–after a tedious little lecture about the impossibility of absolutes in writing–that even those elements that are ultimately unhelpful for your reader may still be helpful for you as a writer.

In sum, identify your writing tics and decide if they do any work for you during the composing process. Plan to remove them, if necessary, but don’t plan to do without them. Anything that helps you get your ideas down on paper should be thought of as a good strategy; the only cautionary note is that you need to be sure those ‘scaffolds’ aren’t lingering in your final work, obscuring your true intentions. If you think of any of these scaffolding phrases that are helpful in your own writing process, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Next I am going to talk about dashes: their uses in academic writing and the difference between a single dash and a pair of dashes.

Links: Life of the Mind, Scientists in the News, In Defence of the Humanities PhD

From Inside Higher Ed, here is an essay about the implications of the shifting attitudes of universities to the study of humanities; according to Andrew Taggart, if our universities continue to move from a ‘welfare’ to a ‘neo-liberal’ view of education, humanities research will suffer. With this in mind, the author suggests some new models for thinking about the life of the mind outside a university setting.

Here are two interesting reflections on the role of scientists as interpreters of current events. Writing in the University of Venus blog, Itir Toksöz discusses the role of scientists as experts, arguing that their highest responsibility should be to present the general public with accurate scientific information. The Women in Wetlands blog discusses how the scientific approach to certainty can be misused to justify opposition to established scientific claims.

I have to admit, I was tired of these so-you-want-to-get-a-[degree] videos almost as soon as I saw my first one: the cynicism quotient is just too high for me. So I was interested to see one–Yes, I want to get a PhD in the Humanities–that tries to acknowledge some of the privilege and pleasure of graduate study in the humanities. I was subsequently even more interested in the virulence of the reaction to this video; commenters were very quick, I thought, to suggest that any expression of positivity in this realm was naive if not delusional. Finally, if you are curious about these videos, here is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education about the broader phenomenon of Xtranormal videos.


As promised, today’s topic is the semicolon. I am always surprised by the numbers of writers who express genuine apprehension about semicolons. Somebody out there is giving people the idea that the semicolon is a risky bit of punctuation. There is, of course, the possibility for some initial confusion about the semicolon (is it more like a period? or a comma? or a colon?). But academic writers–people who study topics that are genuinely challenging (every semester I get at least one actual rocket scientist in a class)–can definitely handle the slight complexity of semicolon use.

The semicolon has two main uses. One, we can use a semicolon in the place of a comma in a list; in such cases, the semicolon does more than a comma, allowing us to include complex elements without worrying about unnecessary ambiguity. Two, we can use a semicolon in the place of a period between two complete sentences; in such cases, the semicolon does less than a period, allowing us to express a close topical connection between two independent sentences.

1. Semicolons in lists:

When we need to separate list items that are themselves complex or that have internal punctuation, semicolons work far better than commas.


The research on workplace equity confronts three main issues: the difficulty of finding an acceptable definition of workplace equity; the tension between workers, given that inequity will be perceived differently by different groups; and the tendency of managers to value business performance over working conditions.

Compare that to a version with commas between the list items:

The research on workplace equity confronts the difficulty of finding an acceptable definition of workplace equity, the tension between workers, given that inequity will be perceived differently by different groups, and the tendency of managers to value business performance over working conditions.

In the second example, the comma before given can create confusion. If we use semicolons, however, we avoid that ambiguity. (I will devote a future post to the topic of lists; we all use lists extensively in our academic writing, and there are things we can do to make sure we are using them effectively.)

2. Semicolons between sentences

When we need to divide two independent sentences while still maintaining a close thematic connection, semicolons work well.


Drying shrinkage can be eradicated by the application of the proper curing method; this reliance on curing means that we will need accurate measurements of the free water left in the concrete and of the relative humidity of the environment.

Compare that to a version in which both ideas are expressed in a single sentence:

Drying shrinkage can be eradicated by the application of the proper curing method, which means that we will need accurate measurements of the free water left in the concrete and the relative humidity of the environment.

The second example is less effective because of the potential ambiguity of the referent for which. You could, of course, solve this problem with a period instead of a semicolon. But those two sentences (having once been a single sentence) would still be closely connected. Showing that close connection with a semicolon can be a useful approach, especially for the academic writer who is looking to make complex connections among ideas without writing dense or ambiguous sentences.

The semicolon, as we just saw, can divide grammatically while uniting thematically. As readers, we are attuned to the end of sentences: when we reach the end of a sentence, we happily stop thinking about the grammatical relationship between the parts of the sentence. So ending sentences can be good. But short sentences–if they are too common or come in batches–can be bad.  A semicolon allows us to end a sentence while explicitly continuing our treatment of an idea. This benefit of semicolons is why we so often see them used with conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions (e.g., however, instead, nevertheless, specifically, equally important, for example, in fact, on the contrary):

Ninety percent of Canadians recognize the components of a healthy diet; however, they fail to apply this knowledge when selecting foods.

These sentences could be separated by a period, but most of us will want to keep them closer than that. This is not to say that transitional words or phrases demand semicolons but rather that semicolons will often accurately reflect the relationship we are constructing when we use such expressions.

If you have questions about semicolons, please feel free to ask them in the comment section. And if you have no such questions, you should be happily using semicolons to great advantage in your writing. The next post will be an editing tip: identifying your own scaffolding phrases.

Links: National Inquirer meets Scientific Research, Social Media and Academics, DIY Academic Sentence Generator

This article from Inside Higher Ed describes an attempt by the Association of American Universities (AAU) to defend scientific research from mockery and poorly informed funding cuts. Make sure you follow the link that the article provides to the Scientific Inquirer: it will take you to the inaugural issue of a faux tabloid that the AAU has created to show how easy it is to make valuable peer-reviewed research sound daft and wasteful.

Here is something from The Chronicle of Higher Education on social media use among academics. The author summarizes a new report from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, a report which found that academics are using social media for “collaborative writing, conferencing, sharing images, and other research-related activities”. Interestingly, the researchers found that the biggest users of social media were scholars from the social sciences and humanities; they suggest that the appeal of social media for these scholars may be the increased speed of dissemination. The Scholarly Kitchen provides a nuanced and critical response to the study, focusing in particular on the fact that ‘social media’ has been defined so broadly in this study as to be potentially meaningless.

Finally, if you have some extra time on your hands this weekend, The University of Chicago Writing Program has a great game for you: Write Your Own Academic Sentence. Here is my first attempt: ‘The linguistic construction of the gaze invests itself in the historicization of agency.’ To get the full effect, you need to use the ‘Edit It’ option on your sentence. Once you are satisfied, you can even get a second opinion from a virtual critic: ‘Your desultory treatment of the linguistic construction of the gaze deserves the obscurity into which it has fallen.’ Hopefully, once you are done playing, you’ll be able to get back to writing sentences that don’t sound like this!

P.S. I mentioned the Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities project last week. If you are interested in seeing how this project is shaping up, you can follow blogs from all the participants here.

How I Always Exaggerate Everything!

This blog has now been in existence for a few months, and I would like to pause for a moment to reflect. I have been pleasantly surprised by the degree of interest and would like to thank you all for reading and commenting. I particularly want to thank those of you who have blogged about my blog, added me to your own blogrolls, and tweeted my new posts. (Special thanks are due to The Thesis Whisperer and College Ready Writing.)

Although the actual experience of writing this blog has been very different than I expected (who knew it would be so engrossing!), the actual content has worked out more or less as planned. As was my intention, I started with key principles, sources, and strategies, all of which I hope will now act as a foundation for future posts. The completion of this initial phase means that I am now ready to tackle more specific writing issues. But I find myself unable to decide what to tackle first. I have given a ridiculous amount of thought to this–as those of you who know me will find easy to believe–without coming to a decision. What I did come to, however, was a realization about a quirk in my teaching style.

In trying to find a suitably significant topic for today’s post, I thought back to things that I present to my students as particularly significant. What I realized was that I use a lot of superlatives. In fact, you might say that I use superlatives in a way that suggests I don’t actually understand the concept of a superlative. ‘This is my favourite strategy’, I say about many different strategies. ‘This is the most important idea that you will learn in this class’, I say in reference to many different ideas. There is a pleasing simplicity about saying ‘If you learn one thing in this class, it should be this.’ But that simplicity is undermined by saying it about more than one thing. In course evaluations, students often mention my enthusiasm, although it sometimes sounds less like praise and more like pity (‘Rachael sure does care a lot about grammar.’) I am sure, overall, that my enthusiasm is a strength in the classroom. But the indiscriminate enthusiasm could stand to be replaced with something a bit more measured.

From now on, I will attend to the true meaning of ‘favourite’–and ‘best’, ‘most’, etc.–and exercise an appropriate degree of restraint. For instance, I will have only one favourite punctuation mark (although, at home, I will continue to have two favourite children because that is just sound domestic policy). Since that favourite punctuation mark is definitely the semicolon, I will make that the topic of my next post.

Links: Cascading Review, Digital Humanities, Research in Haiku

Here is a blog post from The Scholarly Kitchen that discusses some of the strengths and weaknesses of cascading peer review.  In cascading peer review, a journal will forward a rejected article (and its peer reviews) directly to another appropriate journal, thereby allowing the article to be considered by a new journal without the author having to repeat the submission process. This practice certainly isn’t standard but has been adopted by some larger publishers.

Friday, March 18 will be a Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities: “A Day in the Life of the Digital Humanities (Day of DH) is a community publication project that will bring together digital humanists from around the world to document what they do on one day, March 18th. The goal of the project is to create a web site that weaves together the journals of the participants into a picture that answers the question, ‘Just what do computing humanists really do?’ Participants will document their day through photographs and commentary in a blog-like journal. The collection of these journals with links, tags, and comments will make up the final work which will be published online.” Click here for an interesting collection of definitions of the digital humanities. I am planning to participate in this project, so I’ll discuss that experience in a future post.

Finally, here is a lovely blog devoted to dissertation research presented in the form of haiku. What makes this blog so enjoyable is that each contributor also provides a more conventional explanation of their research, allowing us to compare the poetry to the prose. I offer this link as more than just entertainment: I suggest trying it at home. Anything we can do to get at the essence of our research (even reconfiguring it as a 17-syllable poem) is likely to give us further insights into our own projects.

Links: Grammar Day, Fowler Revisited, Googlization

Happy National Grammar Day, everyone! Needless to say, it is always grammar day around here, but I am glad all of you get to join in the fun once a year. If you click the link, you’ll find grammar day e-cards, a theme song, a recipe for the grammartini, an exposé of common grammar myths, and even merchandise!

From The New Criterion, here is a review of Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. In the review, Barton Swaim discusses a reprint of Fowler’s first edition as a way of revisiting the ongoing debate between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Swaim argues, in effect, that prescriptivism is both inevitable and way more fun. We will always, in his view, go looking for expert opinion about our writing decisions. And those expert opinions will be more stimulating than the bland descriptivist work of academic linguists. I have no trouble with the view that prescriptivism is more entertaining and often more immediately satisfying. However, what Swaim’s highly dismissive account of descriptivism fails to take into account is the possibility that persistent exposure to descriptivism might actually change the way we approach questions of usage. That is, a dominant descriptivist view might discourage our belief that all educated writers should use language in only one way and that all deviance from that way is deficiency. It may be unsatisfying to be told that a particular usage will be acceptable to some readers and unacceptable to others, but that may be all we, as writers, can hope for: a sound description of current practice to help us make up our own minds.

From Inside Higher Ed, here is a review of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). The review includes an interview with Vaidhyanathan, who offers a clear-eyed case that Google’s ubiquity is significant. If everyone gets their information via Google, it matters how Google’s search standards are constructed. Despite its title, the book is clearly less a condemnation of Google, more a call for greater public conservancy of the wealth of human knowledge; Vaidhyanathan is urging us to have a serious discussion about the responsibilities and risks of the digital scholarship era.


The most potent way to improve our academic writing is to think about meeting the needs of our readers. We are all generally aware that this imperative is true at the global level: we know that readers will be frustrated if our writing doesn’t meet their broad structural expectations. Sometimes those expectations will be based on their familiarity with the various genres of academic writing; sometimes those expectations will be based on promises we have made through our use of metadiscourse. We may also be familiar with the idea that readers need certain elements in order to understand our writing at the paragraph level. At the local level, however, writers are often unaware of what their readers will need for maximal enjoyment and comprehension. Indeed, readers themselves are often unaware of these needs; they simply know that some writing is easier to read than others. But if readers in fact have implicit expectations about writing at the sentence level, it seems plausible that writers could learn to anticipate and thus satisfy those expectations.

In this post, I am going to discuss three basic approaches to sentence clarity, each of which is designed to help us meet readers’ unconscious expectations. These strategies all derive from the helpful work of Joseph Williams. In addition of offering concrete advice for crafting better writing, Williams has given a superb articulation of why writing is so challenging to characterize: “But when we use clear for one [sentence] and turgid for the other, we do not describe sentences on the page; we describe how we are feeling about them. Neither awkward nor turgid are on the page. Turgid and awkward refer to a bad feeling behind my eyes” (Williams, Style, p. 17). This observation is crucial, especially for graduate students, who are often on the receiving end of feedback that they struggle to act upon. To be told, in so many words, that our writing is giving someone a headache is not without value. We need this knowledge because knowing the effect of our writing gives us the impetus to change; however, it is only the first thing we need to know. In most cases, such feedback gives us very little guidance about what to do next. We all need a subsequent step: what we will do after we learn that our writing is making our readers blink, shake their heads, and rub their temples.

That subsequent step can involve learning what readers generally need from sentences, so we have some strategies to work with when looking at our early drafts. Here are three such strategies to try during the revision process:

  • Place subjects and verbs together early in sentences
  • Choose stronger subjects and verbs
  • Employ the orienting–informing pattern

Subject-Verb Placement

The first strategy is the easiest: try to put your subject and verb close together and relatively early in the sentence. Before the verb arrives, the reader often feels a sense of incompletion. By delaying the verb, the writer is asking the reader to start processing the meaning of the sentence without its most crucial animating element, the verb. Consider this example:

Ontario’s education system, which requires further attention from policy makers to ensure coherence in educational policies, a need that has been extensively captured in a recent report published by the Canadian Education Association that evaluates the PCS policy initiative in its early years of implementation, is frequently cited for its attention to early years learning.

While we are working our way through all the things that the author wants to tell us about Ontario’s education system, we are likely slightly uneasy. The most common way of characterizing that uneasiness is to say that the sentence is ‘awkward’ or simply ‘too long’. Those judgments are the sorts that convey that there’s a problem but don’t tell us how to craft a solution. Observing that the verb comes very late in the sentence—42 words later—is a crucial step towards that solution. To rework this sentence, we could take all the things that the author wanted to say about Ontario’s education system and turn that into its own sentence, before turning to the ostensible main idea of the original:

Ontario’s education system requires further attention from policy makers to ensure coherence in educational policies, a need that has been extensively captured in a recent report published by the Canadian Education Association that evaluates the PCS policy initiative in its early years of implementation. Despite this lack of policy coherence, Ontario’s system is frequently cited for its attention to early years learning.

Both sentences now have a subject and verb that are close together, early in the sentence. The implication that the frequent citations happen despite a lack of policy coherence can be expressed in an opening clause before the second sentence.

Topic Subjects and Action Verbs

The second strategy asks us to look at what words we are choosing for our subjects and verbs. A grammatical subject that is also the topic of the sentence will give your writing more strength; similarly, a verb that is expressing the action of the sentence will make for writing that is more straightforward and energetic. Consider this example:

In the present study, focus is on the vibration of a clamped beam exposed to the recurring impact of the particles in a vibrationally fluidized bed.

Is ‘focus’ the true topic here? Does ‘is’ convey the action of the sentence?

The present study focuses on the vibration of a clamped beam exposed to the recurring impact of the particles in a vibrationally fluidized bed.

This revision makes the true topic (the present study) the grammatical subject and manifests the action with the verb (focuses).

Orienting–Informing Pattern

The final strategy is both simple and powerful: use the early parts of your sentences to orient the reader before providing novel information in later parts. This pattern is what Williams calls the old–new pattern, but I prefer to talk about the activities of orienting and informing. This terminology focuses on what the writer is doing for the reader: orienting and then informing. The concept of what is old and new often confuses writers with its hint of judgment; it is easy to think of new as good and old as bad. Talking instead about orienting and then informing puts the emphasis on the relationship being built between the writer and the reader who is being first oriented and then informed. Consider this example:

This slow reallocation is due to the high costs of job switching and migration. The Hukou registration system added to the migration costs. The Hukou system, which operated from 1958 until the late 1980s, was designed to restrict labour migration.

This slow reallocation is due to the high costs of job switching and migration. These migration costs were exacerbated by the Hukou registration system. The Hukou system, which operated from 1958 until the late 1980s, was designed to restrict labour migration.

This slow reallocation [orienting] is due to the high costs of job switching and migration [informing]. These migration costs [orienting] were exacerbated by the Hukou registration system [informing]. The Hukou system [orienting], which operated from 1958 until the late 1980s, was designed to restrict labour migration [informing].

Committing to this pattern is the best way I know to ensure that your reader will move easily from sentence to sentence.

You may have noticed that these three strategies for sound sentences don’t mention the use of active or passive constructions. This omission is purposeful: while there are many things to be said about active and passive, I find that these three sentence strategies are the best way to craft energetic writing. Most everyone is familiar with some degree of moral panic about the passive voice, either from an early encounter with Strunk and White (“The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive”) or your grammar checker’s relentless warnings about the dangers of passive voice. While there are absolutely cases of unhelpful passives, these three sentence strategies will generally root them out without limiting your ability to enjoy the affordances of appropriate passive voice. This topic is one for another post—since this one is already too long—but I didn’t want to end without acknowledging a topic that is often top of mind for writers eager to improve their sentences.

This post describes the fourth of five key strategies for strong academic writing; I have chosen these five simply because they are the ones that I most frequently turn to in my work with students. In the four other posts, I discuss reverse outlines, paragraphstransitions, and metadiscourse.

For more on sentences, you can consult this other post: