Tag Archives: Strong verbs

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”.

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Links: Argument as Action, Writing Assignments, Break Writing

I have no idea why an incomplete draft version of this post was sent to those of you who are subscribers. I can’t decide whether I hope it was WordPress’s fault (meaning that any draft post might be randomly published at any time) or my own fault (meaning that I’m incompetent). I don’t see any discussion of this problem in the WordPress forums, so I have to assume it was just me. My apologies for taking up unnecessary space in your inbox!

This post from the Lingua Franca blog addresses the nature of complexity and obscurity in academic prose. Lucy Ferriss mentions the University of Chicago sentence generator (which I discussed here) and then evaluates some of the pitfalls of academic writing. I particularly like her decision to direct attention away from jargon toward the prevalence of weak verbs. Jargon is an easy target: it can seem so gratuitous and so obstructive. But it is, in many cases, a red herring; jargon is often just doing its job and is thus not deserving of the amount of vitriol directed its way. (To be sure, I am talking specifically about academic writing and not bureaucratic or business writing; the use of jargon in those types of writing requires a very different analysis.) By deflecting concern away from the obvious suspect, Ferriss is able to turn her critical eye towards the verbs that are failing to animate the relationships between these bits of jargon (or ‘technical vocabulary’ as we say when we are trying to make nice). In Ferriss’s words, “we’ve lost sight of argument as action”. Solving this problem won’t be possible at the level of vocabulary choice; we will need to target the weakness that is often found at the heart of such sentences, the verb.

This post from the Hook and Eye blog deals with the length of writing assignments. The author makes a good case for asking students for shorter pieces of writing: that practice would allow instructors to pay closer attention and would increase the chances of giving feedback on multiple iterations of the same text. What if instructors assigned 3 pages to be submitted twice rather than 6 pages to be submitted only once? Obviously, there are unique skills involved in writing long texts, skills that all academic writers need to develop. And if short writing assignments were treated as insignificant precisely because they were short, that would undermine the value of this proposal. Overall, however, the close attention and multiple iterations might give students the chance to develop skills that they could later use in the pursuit of excellence in longer pieces of writing.

Break Writing is a collection of posts on academic writing from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University (they are called ‘break writing’ because they were sent at regular intervals over the recent winter break). These posts—all based around the importance of writing everyday—are full of helpful advice for academic productivity. Everyone needs different strategies and motivations, but I am sure there is something here for everyone. And the list of resources provides lots of places to look for more guidance.

Lastly, from the The Professor Is In blog, here is a good overview of a recent conference on non-tenure track faculty. The author provides her own take on the conference plus links to other reactions to this conference and the issue of contingent faculty more broadly. This topic falls outside the normal range of topics for this blog, except that academic writing can never be divorced from the professional circumstances under which academics write.

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Lists: Backwards and Forwards

The last post was about writing effective lists. In that post, I talked about two important aspects of lists. At the simplest level, we should be able to use parallelism to make sure our lists are easy to read. At a more sophisticated level, we should be able to look at our own lists analytically to see if we can deepen our understanding of the ideas we are trying to convey. Apparently, I have a lot to say about lists since I now realize that I have two more points I wish to make. Today I would like to discuss the first of those points: how to improve ‘backwards’ lists. These are lists that list first and explain themselves last. Here is an example:

Effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support were all issues identified by the focus group.

As a reader, you aren’t aware that you are reading a list of issues until you get close to the end. At that point, you might have to double back to fully grasp the sentence. Or you might even have had trouble the first time through since the structure of the sentence isn’t self-evident. Here is a revision:

The focus group identified three issues: effective patient care, respect for patient and family knowledge about the condition, and the need for community support.

This simple revision—and certainly more could be done to improve this sentence—has two obvious benefits. One, it starts with a clear subject and a strong verb (‘The focus group identified’), and, two, it notifies the reader that a list is coming. It is valuable to have a strategy for dealing with backwards lists because they are a natural reflection of how we think; we often figure out what the ‘issues’ themselves are before we know to characterize them as issues. It seems plausible to me that we will write ‘x, y, and z all matter in some way’ before we can write ‘the significant issues are x, y, and z’.  We just need to remember to switch these backwards lists around; once they have done their initial work in allowing us to understand the list we are trying to construct, we can rework them in a way that suits the needs of the reader.

This strategy is also helpful in dealing with transitions between sentences. If you find yourself using a lot of additive transition words (for instance, ‘also’, ‘in addition’, ‘moreover’), it may be helpful to go back and see how the various points relate to one another. When we analyze the internal relationships in our writing, we will find many different sorts of relationships, most of which will benefit from being made more explicit. One of those relationships could be that of a list. Since I don’t have room here for an elaborate example, let’s look at a version of the sentence we used last week:

Today’s educational leaders must provide instructional leadership. In addition, they must demonstrate moral leadership and support their staff. Long hours on the part of educators are necessary to improve student achievement. Also, they must exercise fiscal prudence.

A quick analysis of this passage would show the writer that these four sentences all concern things an educational leader must do. It would then be easy to reword to reflect that commonality:

Today’s educational leaders have multiple responsibilities: providing instructional leadership, demonstrating moral leadership, exercising fiscal prudence, supporting their staff, and working long hours to improve student achievement.

While this example was simple (and slightly exaggerated for effect), it does show how implicit lists can be identified in our writing after the fact. Once we have so identified them, we can turn them into explicit lists. And an explicit list is, of course, a list that the reader experiences ‘forwards’: first the announcement of the list and then the list items themselves.

The final point I want to make about lists—how we can use them to guide the reader through our text—is too long to tackle in this post. So come back next time when I’ll talk about how the internal organization of a list communicates structural information to the reader.

Subjects

Our topic in this post is the importance of using clear subjects to express the characters in our sentences. ‘Characters’ is Williams’s useful term for the people/places/things/ideas that are doing something in our sentences. Since this discussion of subjects is closely connected to last week’s discussion of verbs, we can now take another look at the same sentences  (one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing):

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Last week, we discussed the possibility that our dislike of this sentence stems from its use of nouns to express actions. Williams suggests that our dislike may also stem from a lack of clarity about who is doing those actions. So, who is doing something in this sentence? We did not know something and thus could not determine something else; the committee allocated something; areas needed something. However, in the original sentence, those characters were not acting as grammatical subjects. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for characters and ask whether those characters are the grammatical subjects of the sentence. If we find no such overlap between characters and subjects, we can rewrite with characters in the role of subjects. The easiest way to start this process is by asking who or what the sentence is about; in this case, the opening clause is about the meaning of literacy and the main clause is about what scholars think about that definition. When we rewrite the sentence, we can make those terms into subjects:

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

Choosing clear subjects can sometimes be more involved than choosing strong verbs. It is, however, so valuable to ask ourselves–especially in the context of paragraph development–who (or what) is doing something in our sentences. The benefit of thinking about sentences as having characters is that it can reframe writing, even academic writing, as story telling. This reframing is important because someone who is telling a story must be aware of their audience, must be aware of what that audience expects a particular passage to be about. Pushing yourself to define your characters and then to use them as the subjects of strong verbs will allow you to write sentences that are clear and that are much more likely to fit cohesively into a broader piece of writing.

Verbs

One of the challenges of writing this blog is going to be the somewhat arbitrary division of topics. My hope is that this initial weakness will ultimately become a strength. At this point, the blog consists of a collection of distinct topics, an arrangement that does not reflect the way writing topics interconnect. But in the long run, I hope that the non-linear form of the blog will actually offer something valuable. By establishing multiple links between posts, I hope to create a cohesive whole, one that allows readers to combine related topics according to their own needs. Stay tuned to see if that actually happens! For now, I am going to try to talk about verbs without stealing any thunder from the next post’s discussion of subjects.

Joseph Williams suggests that we are troubled by writing in which the action is not expressed by verbs. I am going to explore this idea using two examples, one taken from Williams and one adapted from student writing:

1. Our lack of knowledge about local conditions precluded determination of committee action effectiveness in fund allocation to those areas in greatest need of assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

According to Williams, most of us will dislike this sentence. While it is a hard sentence to like, Williams’s point is that this adverse reaction alone is not a particularly helpful editorial judgment. We need to know what it is about this sentence that does not work. His answer is that the action in the sentence is not expressed through strong verbs. What is the action in this sentence? Someone did not know something; something did not get determined; someone allocated something; some place needed something. In each case, however, those actions were expressed through nouns: knowledge, determination, allocation, need. Here is Williams’s rewrite (emphasis added):

2. Because we knew nothing about local conditions, we could not determine how effectively the committee had allocated funds to areas that most needed assistance. (Williams, Style, p. 17)

Here is the second example:

1. Although there has long been contestation as to the meaning of literacy, there is some agreement among scholars that this new definition is complementary rather than contradictory to the essence of the term.

Again, we look for the action in the sentence to see whether that action is being expressed through verbs. When we find nouns instead, we can try changing them to verbs: contestation becomes has been contested and agreement becomes agree.

2. Although the meaning of literacy has long been contested, scholars largely agree that this new definition complements rather than contradicts the essence of the term.

(Note that I have also changed is complementary and is contradictory to complements and contradicts. This is a related topic that we will look at in a future post.)

We will return to these sentences in the next post when we discuss the need for clear subjects.