Tag Archives: Grammar

Marking Up Your Text

The most popular post on this blog is consistently the one on reverse outlines. I’m sure this popularity is driven by the fact that reverse outlining is a powerful act of regaining control over a text. This renewed sense of control comes in part from the way that a reverse outline encourages us to mark up a text. There can be something so powerless about reading a text that we know to be flawed; as we move through the pages, we can end up mesmerized or demoralized rather than energized. This passivity can then impede our ability to revise since, needless to say, revision is essentially active. Doing a reverse outline can give us a sense of agency because we have to overcome our passivity in favour of actively marking up a text. In this post, I would like to discuss two other examples of gaining insight through marking up our texts: using highlighting to foreground proportionality with a text and using annotation to clarify the internal dynamic within sentences.

If you want to see what you are spending time on in your text, it can be very useful to make those allocations visible through highlighting. This addition of colour to your text will show you what you are up to and may even make you happy—academic writing feels way more fun when it has colours. You begin by deciding what you want to look for and then you mark up the text with a range of colours to make those findings visible. Generally, I advocate doing this when there is a question about whether we’re devoting the right amount of space to the right tasks. The two issues that I most often recommend tackling with this strategy are an insufficient focus on scholarly contribution and a reticence about using metadiscourse.

When introducing a research project, graduate writers often struggle to devote enough time to the elaboration of their own contribution. Instead, they spend a lot of time on the background context and supporting literature before turning quickly to their research plans; this quick transition often means that the underlying problem and its significance are under-explained. Taking an introduction and highlighting its different elements can show us how we are ‘spending our text’. When we highlight a text using the context-problem-response framework, we can see if we’ve given enough room to the elaboration of our problem and its significance. The goal is not parity, of course, but sufficiency: Have I said enough? Highlighting an introduction in this fashion also makes evident a common tendency in early drafts: saying the same thing in multiple ways. It can be very useful to say things in variant ways; doing so can be a crucial way to figure out what we want to say. And there are definitely species of repetition that fulfill important functions for the reader. But when the repetition is caused by the writer not yet knowing how they want to frame an issue—and thus coming at it in various ways—highlighting can help us see that dynamic and then move towards a more consistent message.

Another way we can use highlighting is to check to see if enough metadiscourse has been used. How much metadiscourse is ‘enough’ is obviously a legitimate question that can’t be answered in the abstract. However, it is always desirable to see how visible we as authors are in our own text, whether we are looking to become more or perhaps less visible. Being able to see our authorial presence in the text—by highlighting the various places where we crop up—allows us to make an informed decision about whether that presence is as it should be.

As we’ve just seen, highlighting is a way of marking up a text to illuminate broad tendencies in our writing. In other instances, we may wish to mark up a text to uncover what is going on with particular sentences. When a sentence has a lot of moving parts, we often struggle to manage its internal workings; by using some form of mark-up, we can lay bare those workings. I will use colour to demonstrate this here, but underlining (or italicizing or bolding) can work just as well. Consider this example:

Original: A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

Was the writer trying to say that the coalition prevented plans to relocate and to resist? That’s what the parallelism appears to suggest:

A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

But that reading makes the sentence incoherent: the two plans would stand in direct opposition to one another. It seems more likely that the writer wanted to say that the coalition prevented implementation and resisted efforts. That’s not what the original says, but that appears to be what it means.

A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and to resist efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

This version allows us to see that we need to change the form of the second verb (to resist) to parallel the first (prevented):

Revision: A coalition of developing countries prevented implementation of the World Bank plans to relocate ‘dirty industries’ to lower-income countries and resisted efforts to turn underdeveloped countries into a dump for toxic waste from the developed world.

The writer of this original sentence needed a strategy to help clarify its internal workings. By annotating the sentence, they would be able to see where it went wrong. Not all sentences deserve this level of attention, of course, but this practice can allow us to diagnose confusing choices in complex sentences. A variant of this strategy can also be used when reading aloud: we can use intonation to make sentence patterns evident to ourselves. But reading aloud generally only helps us to establish whether the sentence is working; once we hear that it isn’t working, we will often need to mark up the sentence to sort out exactly what has gone wrong.

When you are thinking about how you might use these strategies, it’s worth considering the difference between marking up on a screen and on a hard copy. My inclination is always to do them on paper: I love the feeling of stepping away from the computer and getting a pen—or a highlighter—in my hand. But that is a description not a recommendation. For me, a pen in hand leads to a particular sense of efficacy. And efficacy is the key here; these strategies are meant to put you back in charge of your text. Whatever places you in the driver’s seat is good. For some, that will mean working with pen and paper; for others, the digital setting is so natural that staying there will make more sense. I think working on paper—regardless of your inclination—is worth considering simply because it is noticeably different than working on-screen. Ultimately, however, it comes down to personal experience: choose the mode of revision that allows you to see your own text clearly and that gives you the efficacy to make the necessary changes.

Choosing the Singular They 

In this post, I want to talk about an issue that has been troubling me for as long as I have been writing this blog. Should I be using the singular they? That is, should I be using they as a gender-neutral pronoun for a grammatically singular antecedent? In general, I have not done so, but trying to fix this sentence from a recent post forced me to revisit that policy:

An established Harvard academic writing a book is doing something very different than a new doctoral student attempting their first article.

My usual way to circumvent this issue has been to use the plural. But that solution—‘doctoral students attempting their first articles’—worked dismally here. Making the whole sentence plural sounded daft, and making only the second half plural upset the comparison. So I left it as it was and made a note to make a more systematic decision later (and to make it the topic of a post).

People with much more expertise can give you actual reasons for using the singular they without compunction; I’ll include some helpful links at the end of this post. I’m only going to give my reflections:

1. It’s necessary. We need a gender-neutral pronoun in order to refer to a singular antecedent without specifying gender. The phrase that I often need to use in my blog writing is some variant of ‘When a student shows me their writing …’. Up till now, I have edited such sentences to read ‘When students show me their writing …’. While this is a solution of sorts, I’ve never particularly liked it; I want to be talking about a single generic student, not a bunch of students.

2. It’s correct. Despite what you may have heard, it’s not incorrect to use the singular they. The decision is ultimately a judgment call: Should we use the singular they or might it be disturbing to our readers? Will those readers recognize what we are doing? Might they find it incorrect or excessively informal? My main concern about adopting the singular they in this blog has been one about reception; if enough people believe it to be wrong, I’ve worried that it might be an unnecessary distraction. I’m ready now to let that worry go.

3. It’s beneficial. Using the singular they solves a real problem and gives us important flexibility in the way we reference gender. We should do more than just say that he can’t be a generic pronoun. Even saying he or she—which is obviously stylistically insupportable—makes it seem unduly important that we identify people by gender. Given our understanding of the complex ways that we perform and present gender, it seems entirely desirable to enrich our capacity to leave gender binaries out of places where they are irrelevant. Of course, there are those who argue for an entirely new gender-neutral pronoun, one which could refer to a specific person without identifying gender. Using the singular they doesn’t obviate this perceived need for a gender-neutral pronoun, but it does help. It may be that we will eventually say ‘Sam came to my office and showed me their writing …’ as a way of making Sam’s relationship to traditional gender categories irrelevant. Or it could be that a newly coined gender-neutral pronoun will emerge and take root. In the meantime, it is still beneficial to be able to use the singular they to refer to singular generic nouns and indefinite pronouns.

4. Finally, I can if I want to. If I see this practice as necessary and correct and beneficial, why not do it? In particular, why not do it in this space where I’m answerable only to myself? In the unlikely event that anyone cares enough to judge this decision, it won’t matter. I can continue to make decisions about this issue in other contexts as I wish. And I will certainly continue to teach this issue in such a way that students are aware of a range of opinions and practices. But if I think this usage is desirable and the main impediment is that it may ‘seem wrong’ to some, I think it behooves me to follow my inclinations.

So I’m making it official—this blog will use the singular they, as needed. I totally get that this is immaterial to all of you, but making the decision is a weight off my mind. If you are still troubled by this issue, I suggest having a look at the resources below. And, if you only have time for one, I recommend the first: Tom Freeman does an excellent job explaining the full range of associated issues on his terrific editing blog, Stroppy Editor.

Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”, Stroppy Editor

Singular ‘They,’ Again, Lingua Franca (Anne Curzan)

Epicene ‘they’ is gaining greater acceptance, Copyediting (Mark Allen)

There’s (Starting to Be) Some ‘They’ There, Lingua Franca (Ben Yagoda)

Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’, Sentence First

Dogma vs. Evidence: Singular They, Lingua Franca (Geoffrey Pullum)

The Oxford Comma, or the Limits of Expectation

Why talk about the Oxford comma? Surely everything has already been saidsung, or drawn. But why even have a blog if you can’t use it to share your great love of the Oxford comma? More importantly, its use comes up in all my classes; if I say ‘comma’ to a room of graduate students, someone will immediately ask whether it’s right or wrong to put a comma after the penultimate item in a list. I can explain both sides of the issue, but I cannot, in the end, answer the ‘right or wrong’ part of the question. Which leads me to another reason to talk about it: the very fact that there’s no simple answer to the question is instructive for the way we think about issues of style in our academic writing. Before delving into this topic, let’s look at what the Oxford comma actually is.

The first thing to note is that it is properly called a ‘serial comma’, the comma that appears before the conjunction in a list.

Peace, love, and happiness

Do you put a comma after ‘love’ or don’t you? That’s what my students want to know. Actually, that question is pretty easy—I do, always. The harder question—and the one they care about—is whether you should put a comma there. That’s the question that can’t be answered on the grounds of correctness. Both are correct, unless you are writing for a particular journal or press with a stated preference. Since most of my students are primarily concerned with writing their theses, they often have to make this decision themselves. And so they want a definitive answer. After I give a full accounting of the subtle pleasures and perils of the serial comma, someone is sure to say, while stifling a yawn, ‘so should we use it or not?’. Again, either way is fine, but here is a summary of my non-answer.

1. Despite the name and the song, the Oxford comma isn’t more formal. Students often tell me that they think it’s inessential but probably a good idea for a formal piece of writing. In truth, however, the serial comma is neither formal nor particularly stuffy. It’s not even more British: its presence in the Oxford style guide notwithstanding, it’s much more common in the US than in the UK. The only way in which it’s more formal is that it isn’t generally used in newspapers where narrow columns put space at a premium.

2. All the evidence about ambiguity can cut both ways, but in ordinary academic writing—in which internally complex list items are routine—the serial comma will help more often than it hinders.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture and finance.

This theory of community engagement addresses tensions within the spheres of politics, arts and culture, and finance.

In this case, I think that using the serial comma is the easiest way to show what goes with what. I also recommend using semicolons when list items get unruly, and those are always used serially. Overall, avoiding ambiguity is our responsibility as writers. If commas can’t help us, then we need to reword; that is, there are many instances in which the problem is not the presence or absence of the serial comma, but rather the awkwardness of the list itself.

During diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

During diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies, measurements of medication levels are often essential.

Measurements of medication levels are often essential during diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring of a patient’s pathologies.

While the second version avoids the obvious potential for misreading found in the first, the third may be better overall. I’ve written it with the serial comma, but it would, of course, be fine without.

3. Even if neither option is wrong, it’s still a good idea to make a decision. That is, just because both options are correct doesn’t make flipping back and forth desirable. Consistency is a useful principle when making style decisions. Doing the same things the same way every time is a kindness to your readers—since they will be saved the bother of wondering about stylistic inconsistencies–and a kindness to yourself—since you’ll be saved the bother of wondering what’s right each time. Some people will use the serial comma only when ambiguity might result from not using it, but I think that practice can potentially confuse the reader.

It took me a long time to get over my belief that the serial comma was inherently better. I believed this for years, and that was before I went to work for Oxford University Press, where it is house style. My editorial eyes are deeply attuned to it, and its absence trips me up every single time. But that just shows the limits of our own expectations. The serial comma is only better in a world where it is expected to appear. The only surefire solution is a world in which everyone does everything the same way, which is implausible and slightly creepy. The best we can do is choose our way and stick to it consistently, so our readers—consciously or unconsciously—become accustomed to our punctuation habits. Again, this is why I don’t like the practice of using a serial comma only when it’s obviously beneficial; inconsistency undermines our reader’s ability to becoming habituated to our writing style.

While the Oxford comma may seem more like a punchline than a punctuation mark at this point, I think that there is something important in this conversation. Writing requires us to make choices far more often than it demands simple rule following. And those choices should be made based on our best understanding of style conventions and reader expectations. The serial comma shows us the limits of expectation, but it also confirms the importance of making informed and consistent decisions about academic writing style.

A Question of Parallelism

The following letter was sent to me recently. After replying to the letter directly, I asked if I could reprint a version of the letter here on the blog. The letter writer’s problem was simple, but extremely common: the almost-parallel sentence. The fact that the necessary changes are small doesn’t mean that they are insignificant.

Dear Rachael:

Could you please tell me if the punctuation in the following sentence is correct?

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador, and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here is a reworked version of my reply:

The problem with the punctuation in this sentence is inconsistency. These list items could be separated by either semicolons or commas, but the pattern should be followed consistently. Here are three options:

ONE: The same pattern, used consistently

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have learned the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have learned patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have learned the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

The simplest solution: use the same verb in all four instances and replace the final comma with a semicolon. The benefit of this approach is the emphasis that comes via the repetition of ‘I have learned’; that simple repetition can help to draw the reader’s attention to the four different experiences. The downside is the repetition and the limits imposed by using a single verb to express many different things.

TWO: A similar pattern, with four different verbs

I have learned humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; I have experienced the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; I have demonstrated patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and I have discovered the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

In this case, the four different sentences are given different verbs. This version avoids repetition and gives the writer the opportunity to express more nuance.

THREE: A different pattern, with one verb followed by a list

I have learned many things from my work in the field: humility and empathy volunteering in remote barefoot hospitals on the Burmese border; the values of respect and dedication working alongside families in the rice fields of Thailand; patience and responsibility while educating both children and elders in village schools in Ecuador; and the worth of companionship and the value of support systems while working with abandoned children in Cambodia.

Here, the list is placed after a single verb. This approach works well when repetition is undesirable and when that single verb applies equally well in all cases.

Overall, the writer must consider meaning, preference, and context to decide on the best way to establish parallelism. Once we identify faulty parallelism, our decision about how to fix it must be based on a renewed understanding of what we are trying to say. And once that meaning is clearer to us, we can make further refinements based on our own stylistic preferences and any particular demands of the context in which we are writing.

Finally, the original question asked only about punctuation, so I focused my revision on the punctuation and the structuring of the list. Parallelism, of course, also relies on parallel expression. In this example, parallelism could be further improved by a consistent use (or omission) of ‘while’ and by a more consistent pattern across the four sentences.

Full Stop

As I was proofreading something recently, it occurred to me that discussions of punctuation and grammar contain relatively little about the period. If you go looking for information on using periods, you will mostly find technical advice about formatting. Such editorial advice is crucial, but not necessarily of primary interest to the writer. The obvious reason that writers don’t worry much about periods is that their use is pretty straightforward: we use a period after a complete sentence. The period has none of the apparent complexity of the semicolon, the colon, the dash (more on the dash here), or the comma (more on the comma here, here, here, and here). But that relative simplicity doesn’t mean that the decision to use a period isn’t consequential. A period makes evident key authorial decisions: whether to say a lot or a little before stopping; whether to be assertive or interrogative when raising questions; or whether to insert a full stop or just the rolling stop achieved by other types of punctuation. I certainly don’t want to problematize the one piece of punctuation that everyone feels good about, but the ways that we stop in our writing are worth some consideration.

Short vs. long sentences. Any time we use a period, we are deciding whether we want a short or long sentence. If we are generous with our periods, we will be writing clipped sentences; if we are stingy, on the other hand, we will end up with sprawling sentences. Neither is better. The previous sentence, for instance, is short because I want to emphasize it. And its brevity is enhanced by the fact that it follows a longer set of sentences with a semicolon framing their double-barrelled structure. It generally works well to use short sentences for emphasis and longer ones for depth. If we go too far in either direction, the reader will begin to suffer. Too many long sentences coming one after another—even if they are individually well structured—can be fatiguing for the reader. Too many short sentences will disorient the reader since not everything can warrant special emphasis. Those short sentences will inevitably contain unimportant things; the reader’s confidence in you can be undermined if you appear to be emphasizing the insignificant. Creating a healthy mix of short and long sentences can be the best thing for your paragraphs.

Direct vs. indirect questions. What is the impact of asking a question as compared with stating that a question exists? When raising questions in our work, we have to decide whether to use a direct question—i.e., one that ends with a question mark—or an indirect question, i.e., one that ends with a period. When we use too many direct questions, our readers may start to see us as having more questions than actual strategies for answering those questions. An indirect question gives us the ability to articulate a question, which is obviously essential to academic writing, while also indicating our plans for addressing the question.

Full stop vs. rolling stop. As a hopeless over-user of colons and semicolons in my own writing, I have a particular interest in this question. During editing, I often find long strings of sentences, all of which are connected by semicolons. An over-reliance on the rolling stop is a bit like an over-reliance on transition words: it tries to impose flow rather than establishing it. Genuine flow will involve the use of some colons and semicolons; there’s nothing wrong with nudging your reader towards the next sentence. The semicolon says that the next sentence is intimately connected to this one; the colon says that the next sentence completes what is being said in this one. Those relationships are emphasized by the punctuation choice, but the punctuation alone won’t create that relationship. The choice between a full and a rolling stop should be consciously based on an understanding of the nature of the connection between sentences.

In sum, if you understand what is requisite for a complete sentence, your use of periods will be perfectly correct. But thinking about how and why we end sentences can still be a useful avenue for improving the flow in your writing.

2012 in Review

Happy New Year! I’ll be back with a new post next week, but in the meantime here is a quick overview of 2012. The nice people at WordPress gave me a very pretty year-in-review page that is probably of interest to me alone: how many people looked at various posts; how they got there; and where they were from. But you—especially if you are new to reading this blog—may be interested in a quick recap of what we talked about last year.

Last year started with a bunch of posts on comma use: commas to punctuate for lengthpairs of commas to signal unambiguously that the sentence is being interrupted; and commas in relative clauses, a perennial topic of writing consternation. Apparently these three posts really took it out of me; I have yet to return to the topic of commas, despite the fact that I had promised two additional posts on commas! I’ll have to revisit this issue in 2013.

As always, I talked a lot about the editing process: letting go of ‘perfectly good writing’; deciding what to do when you have deviated from your own best laid plans; managing the perils of local cohesion; satisfying the reader’s desire for a one-way trip through your writing; and engaging in rough editing to bridge the gap between drafting and editing.

I took a break from writing about writing to reflect on my very own blog; in light of an article about the benefit of multi-authored blogs, I argued for the value of a single-authored blog.

During the summer, I did a podcast interview with GradHacker, in which we touched upon a lot of the issues central to this blog.

Over the course of the year, I looked at lots of general writing issues: the value of the injunction to put it in your own words; the pernicious impact a fear of error can have on the writing process; the way a reverse outline can help to structure a literature review; and the strengths and weaknesses of building a text through cut-and-paste.

Academic Writing Month provided the opportunity for lots of great reflections on the writing process; once it was over, I wrote about my own experience and the importance of reflecting on our own writing practices.

At the end of the year, I was interested in how graduate students ought to orient themselves towards dominant writing practices. Is graduate writing self-expression or adherence to form? And how should graduate students orient themselves towards established style conventions? I’m fascinated by this topic, so I’m sure I’ll return to it over the coming year.

Finally, here are a few links posts that I thought touched on important issues: caring about writing without succumbing to peevishness; the balance between disciplinary and professional training for graduate students; the value of writing early; and avoiding the temptation to compare insides with outsides.

Thank you all for reading—I feel very lucky to have such a great audience.

Next week I’ll talk about how to structure and introduce an introduction.

Style Conventions and Graduate Student Writing

I recently wrote a post about the tension between expressiveness and adherence to form in academic writing. By adherence to form, I meant following established genre conventions. But there is another level of adherence to form that I didn’t consider in that post: adherence to a particular form of grammatical correctness. As everyone knows, grammatical correctness is much more complex than it might initially seem. There are so many ‘rules’ that are actually apocryphal or at least highly contested by language experts. That awareness, however, can actually complicate my attempts to teach academic writing to graduate students. Graduate students are—in so many ways—standing in an odd space between student and professional. As students-aspiring-to-be-professionals, graduate students must face a unique challenge as they try to develop their academic writing skill while avoiding confrontation with the linguistic bugaboos of their audience.

My dilemma is that my own inclination towards descriptivism isn’t necessarily relevant to my teaching. There is a crucial difference between how I wish people thought and how I suggest people write given how people actually think. In other words, as much as I dislike a grammar hammer approach, I do think that graduate students ought to avoid aggravating their readers. For most graduate students, assuming a critical reader is a good idea. Even if our future reader has only one bête noire and is quite liberal about other usage matters, we generally can’t know that in advance. Split infinitives are an easy example. Despite there being no good reason to avoid them, I often suggest that students do so. In the first place, I do think that there is often a genuine benefit to thinking about modifiers placement: there is often a better place for the modifier or even a better way to word the sentence overall. But there are some split infinitives that are absolutely fine and yet I still suggest rewording to avoid aggravating those who believe this to be a real and important rule. My general practice is to make students aware of traditional ‘rules’ and to emphasize that people who care about those rules often care a lot.

Let’s consider a trickier example. How do you feel about using ‘they’ or ‘their’ or ‘them’ with grammatically singular antecedents? Is it acceptable to say, “Everyone should be able to eat their favourite treats over the holidays”? ‘Everyone’ is grammatically singular (so should be replaced by ‘he’ or ‘she’), but actually points to a group of individuals of indeterminate gender. Although many think of the singular ‘they’ as a recent response to our desire for gender neutrality, this usage is actually quite venerable. This post by Geoffrey Pullum does an excellent job arguing for the value of this usage and, more generally, for the value of basing our linguistic decisions on evidence rather than dogma. The Motivated Grammar blog has a comprehensive post explaining all the ways that a singular ‘they’ is acceptable. Despite the manifest good sense of these arguments, I feel that it is my job to point out to graduate students that some will take an ‘everyone/their’ pairing as evidence that they are unable to write correct English.

A closely related issue that frequently affects me in this blog is the need for an appropriate pronoun for a generic singular. I often write a version of the following sentence: “When a student brings me their writing …”. I intuitively write the sentence that way every time, before changing it to “When students bring me their writing …”. I never seem to use the plural form of ‘student’ the first time, presumably because I am thinking of a generic student. Students don’t come to my office en masse, they come one at a time. When I talk about those meetings, I naturally gravitate towards a generic singular: not a particular student, but a singular instance of student. The plural is grammatically correct and solves the gender neutrality problem yet feels inaccurate.

In this instance, I am simultaneously drawn in two directions: on the one hand, I feel that I should be liberal with the singular ‘they’ because I think it is acceptable, useful, and inevitable. Maybe I should be using it to hasten (in a very small way) its widespread acceptance. On the other hand, it isn’t particularly accepted at the moment and I don’t want my stylistic choices here on the blog to mislead. I feel it is my responsibility—despite my interest in descriptivism and my own faith in its wisdom—to remind students that their audience may have a decidedly prescriptivist bent. Those self-styled traditionalists seem to live on a razor’s edge, always ready to be driven around the bend by relatively benign stylistic choices or instances of neglect. Nobody wants a grant application or thesis proposal to antagonize its intended audience. Effective prose is prose that is well received by its audience. Without being able to call ahead and ask our potential readership how they feel about split infinitives, we have to make up our own minds, using all the information available to us and probably erring on the side of caution. (Erin Brenner has a great post on making sure that our ‘careful usage’ is still informed by all the available sources. Being cautious isn’t the same thing as being superstitious—you need to look things up! I also recommend this lovely post from Lucy Ferriss in which she describes how she is relinquishing the role of linguistic gatekeeper as she marks her students’ writing.)

Overall, I want to balance my own distaste for heavy-handed linguistic fundamentalism with a need to provide students with a good sense of current style conventions. But even as I think about that balance, I have to allow how disinclined I am towards the disparagement of other people’s writing. Someone recently sent me to the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, and as much as I tried to be amused, I found myself increasingly annoyed. Of course, quotation marks should ‘not’ be used for emphasis: doing so will lead to unintentional hilarity and that is never the effect graduate students should aspire to. (Or it will make people think you are writing for Zagat; if you want to see that tendency manifest in the most amusing fashion, try this old Shouts & Murmurs piece by Noah Baumbach.) But most of these utterances actually make their meaning quite clear. So I’ll end with a tentative conclusion: graduate student writers should be attentive to conservative writing conventions to avoid making stylistic choices that might aggravate their audience. But nobody should make a habit of deriding language that has made its point. “Fresh” meat may sound deeply unappetizing to a discerning reader, but we do know what is meant. “To boldly go” makes its point unambiguously. “If you love somebody, set them free” is perfect. Be cautious in your academic writing, but still strive for joy in language rather than fear of error.

I wish you all a very happy and productive holiday break! Explorations of Style will be back in mid-January.

Commas and Relative Clauses

Our task for today is to understand how we punctuate relative clauses. In the simplest terms, a relative clause is a clause that begins with a relative pronoun (which,  that, who, whom, whose). Let’s begin by looking at this example of a sentence with a relative clause:

CNCP patients, whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed, start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

This sentence—taken directly from student writing—is not incorrect as written, but it doesn’t say what the author intended. Here is what the author meant to say:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The difference? The second version of the sentence shows that it is about a subgroup of CNCP patients ‘whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed’. There are many CNCP patients in the world and only some of them suffer in this manner. The first version says that all CNCP patients have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. Because of the commas, we have to read the relative clause as supplementary information about all CNCP patients. Technically, our first sentence could be reworded as follows:

CNCP patients [all of them] have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. CNCP patients start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

Rewording the sentence in this way reflects the fact that the original sentence portrayed the relative clause as supplementary. But the author’s intention was not to provide extra information about this group of patients; instead, the author wanted to define a particular group of patients under discussion. The lack of commas in our revised version indicate that the information following the relative pronoun is integral to the antecedent noun:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The bolding emphasizes the integration of the relative clause. This integration is conveyed to the reader by the absence of commas. When we do use commas, we are telling the reader that we are providing supplementary information.

I chose this example because it is easy to see—even without being familiar with the subject matter—that the punctuation in the original sentence was probably misleading. One of the great difficulties in explaining how to punctuate relative clauses is that context matters. I always tell students to take whatever I have said about punctuating relative clauses home with them: only in applying those principles to their own sentences—sentences that they themselves fully grasp—will they come to understand whether a relative clause is integral or supplementary.

If you are familiar with this topic, you will notice that I am not using the traditional terminology (restrictive and nonrestrictive) or the usual variants (defining and non-defining, essential and inessential, identifying and non-identifying). It is possible, of course, to explain what is meant by these terms, but I have never found the common terminology to be particularly intuitive. More recently, I have noticed people using the terms integral relative clause and supplementary relative clause. I find these terms to be more intuitive, which is why I have started to use them in my classroom teaching. I would be interested to know if anyone has thoughts about whether this different terminology is helpful or just confusing.

Now let’s look at some more examples to reinforce the distinction between integral and supplementary relative clauses.

There are many narratives that can be used to illuminate the psychological concept of extraversion.

The relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘narratives’. The sentence isn’t just telling us that there are many narratives. It is telling us that there are many narratives that can be used in a particular fashion.

The philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty will set the tone for the proceedings at the conference.

This sentence is telling us what will set the tone for this conference. And it isn’t just any philosophical approach: it is the philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty. Again, the relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘philosophical approach’. Now let’s look at some examples of supplementary relative clauses:

Given the educational conditions in Malawi, which is located in eastern Africa, creative teacher training programs are essential.

Using transactional memory, which requires special hardware or software support, will address the problems associated with using locks.

Theorists argue that gender equity, which is defined here in economic terms, is a crucial component in any attempt to address the global AIDS crisis.

In each of these cases, the antecedent of the relative clauses is completely sufficient without the relative clause. A country is a useful example since it is easy to see that you don’t need any additional information to know what is meant by Malawi. Its location within its continent is obviously supplementary information. Likewise, ‘transactional memory’ is a fully defined term: the fact that it requires special hardware or software support is extra information. Take that information away and the term itself is just as informative. In the third example, even though the supplementary relative clause claims to be defining ‘gender equity’, it is doing so in a supplementary way. The sentence is telling us that gender equity is crucial and it is also clarifying what gender equity means in this context.

Here is a final example, one that gives three different versions of the same sentence:

The articles, which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s, show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles that stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The first two sentences follow the pattern I have been discussing. I chose this example because it shows how easily ambiguity can arise when we’re not clear about the punctuation we need. The first sentence is discussing a group of articles and using its relative clause to give us extra information about when they were written. The second sentence, on the other hand, is using its relative clause to identify a particular subset of articles. The implication of the first sentence is that all the articles were written in the 70s and early 80s. The implication of the second sentence is that there is a broader group of articles (presumably spanning a broader time frame); the author is drawing your attention to a subset of that broader group. Needless to say, it is important for the author to clarify which is meant. In my own experience, the decision about how to punctuate relative clauses often helps me to clarify my own meaning. Similarly, in discussing this issue with students, it often emerges that they aren’t quite sure what they were hoping to convey through their punctuation choices.

But what of the third sentence? Is it the same as the second sentence or is it different? In other words, is it okay to use ‘which’ to introduce an integral relative clause? Yes, it is. But while I would love to leave it at that, I feel I should say something about how I view this issue. The good news is that we have already covered the important part: you must signal your intention to your reader through your use of commas. If the information is integral, skip the commas; if, on the other hand, the information is supplementary, show that with your use of commas. Simple enough. But you do need to choose a relative pronoun and, for many, that decision raises a certain anxiety. When I ask students about their habits in this regard, I get a range of replies (often involving something a high school English teacher once said): guessing and then feeling bad; turn taking (first ‘which’, then ‘that’); using ‘which’ because it is more formal; never thinking about it. For a fairly typical prescriptive discussion, see this post from APA Style. For a more nuanced, historical view, try Stan Carey’s excellent post on this topic (as usual, Carey also provides a very helpful roundup of what others have said about this issue).

Given the general uncertainty this topic engenders, what should we do? My own preference—and that is all it is, a preference—is to use ‘that’ without commas and ‘which’ with commas. The first part of this practice is unexceptionable: nobody uses ‘that’ to introduce supplementary information. It is the second part that causes heartache. Look at this simple table:

integral supplementary
that YES NO
which ?? YES

My preference is to replace those two question marks with a ‘NO’. Not, to repeat, because I think this use of ‘which’ is wrong, but only because I like the clarity and simplicity of reserving ‘which’ and ‘that’ for different uses. I start with the important question—do I need commas or not?—and then use that as the basis for my decision about what relative pronoun to use. I explain this to students in just these terms: once they have sorted out the important issue of how to punctuate, they are free to choose their relative pronouns however they wish. But I do stress that this distinction is often treated in more absolute terms in advice on scientific writing. Whether or not this is true across the board, I do suggest that students preparing scientific papers consider reserving ‘which’ for instances in which they are using commas to convey supplementarity. For me it all comes down to this principle: if our audience might find a particular usage to be ambiguous—even if we know that it is perfectly acceptable—it can make sense to avoid that usage.

There is much more that could be said, but this post is already far longer than a blog post should be! If there is anything that you see as needing further explanation or elaboration, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

This post is the fourth in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. The third dealt with the importance of knowing when you need a pair of commas.

Impactful Pet Peeves

Everywhere I’ve been over the past week, people have been sharing this list of ‘grammar mistakes’. You don’t need to click on the link to know the sort of thing: a list of errors that are terribly egregious despite the fact that everyone makes them all the time. I am fascinated by the mindset that is unmoved by the prevalence of  such ‘errors’. The pleasure of being right when everyone else is wrong seems to be so great that it obscures any sense that we should view the prevalence of a particular practice as relevant.

I generally try to avoid linking to things that I find as unhelpful as this list; you surely don’t need my help finding shoddy advice on the Internet. But I went ahead and did so because I want to point to two key issues with this list. First, very little on this list is grammar (and the bits that are grammar are either wrong or dismally explained). This observation is more than just a quibble. The perception among students that their writing problems primarily involve grammar means that they often view their path to improvement as both narrow and fundamentally uninteresting. Not to say that grammar is actually uninteresting (obviously!) but rather that students might engage more readily with the task of improving their writing if they conceived of the task as having a broader intellectual basis. Improving your writing isn’t just fiddling with technicalities and arcane rules; it is a matter of thinking deeply about your ideas and your communicative intent. Calling it all grammar can be both dismissive and uninspiring.

The second—and more important—issue is the reasoning that underlies this list. A list like this says ‘all educated people should know these things, so avoid these errors lest you seem uneducated’. This edict misses an opportunity to talk about better reasons for avoiding certain usage patterns. For example, should you say ‘impactful’? It is meaningless to say that it isn’t a word: it is so obviously a word (if you aren’t sure, contrast it with ‘xsxsjwcrt’ and you’ll see the difference). But that doesn’t mean the world needs more instances of ‘impactful’. Use it at your own risk: most people find it icky and its presence in your writing may make them think unkind thoughts about you. Moreover, if something is having an impact on something else, you can likely convey that more effectively with a clear subject and a strong verb. Your writing will improve much more decisively if you disregard unnecessary discussions of legitimacy and instead think more about why certain usage patterns are so widely disliked.

After I had written this, I found a great roundup on this topic from Stan Carey. He discusses a range of these sorts of lists and provides his usual insightful response. He concludes with an excellent warning about grammar pet peeve lists: “Read them, if you must, with extreme caution, a policy of fact-checking, an awareness of what grammar isn’t, and a healthy disrespect for the authority they assume.”

Lastly, I really enjoyed the inaugural episode of the new language podcast from Slate, Lexicon Valley. The highly entertaining and wide-ranging conversation about dangling prepositions ends with an amusing discussion of Paul McCartney’s famous double preposition. A preposition at the end of a sentence is generally permissible, but it is probably best not to split the difference in this fashion: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die”.

Pairs of Commas

This post is the third in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. Today’s entry will discuss the way that some commas work best in pairs. Compare these three sentences:

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique, developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.

This innovative new technique developed by Woljert, has altered the way this surgery is performed.

The first sentence clearly conveys its meaning to the reader: there is an innovative new technique that has altered the way some surgery is performed. The reader is also given supplementary information: this technique was developed by some researcher named Woljert. This element (‘developed by Woljert’) either takes two commas (as in the first sentence) or takes no commas (‘This innovative new technique developed by Woljert has altered the way this surgery is performed.’). A single comma here (as in both the second and third sentences) will throw off your readers because it doesn’t clarify the grammatical role of the adjacent information.

When clauses like this appear at the beginning or end of a sentence, the need for paired commas is obviated:

According to Chen, this new technique is very valuable.

This new technique is very valuable, according to Chen.

This new technique, according to Chen, is very valuable.

In each of the first two sentences, an additional comma becomes unnecessary because of the placement of the clause at the beginning or end of the sentence. In the third sentence, we see the need for two commas to clarify the role of this brief interruption. (Of course, you will have noticed that the first sentence sounds much better than the other two. You don’t generally want to give this sort of unimportant information such a prominent place at the end of the sentence. Similarly, you don’t generally want to interrupt a sentence in this fashion unless the interruption itself is significant.)

This use of one comma instead of two (or none) isn’t a particularly grammatically complex issue, but it is a frequent occurrence in the student writing I see. And while it isn’t fatal, it does make your reader’s life more difficult. In lots of cases, this mistake may just be random carelessness; it’s certainly easy to miss a comma here or there. But if you repeatedly use a single comma when two (or none) are needed, you  may be experiencing some confusion between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses: not knowing whether to use no commas (as you would for a restrictive clause) or two commas (as you would for a nonrestrictive clause), maybe you split the difference and use just one. Come back for the next comma post, in which I will try to sort out the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. As I will stress then, this distinction is most crucially an issue of punctuation, but I will also touch on the persistent dilemma experienced by writers trying to choose between ‘which’ and ‘that’.