Monthly Archives: April 2011

Language Users vs The Grammarians

I advise avoiding pronouns when possible because most writers “tangle” the text. Though the writer knows what is intended, the readers end up confused. I’ve wasted too much time as a reader trying to determine what “those” and “these” were replacing in a paragraph.

Other languages can still create their own confusions for any number of reasons. English lacks any formal rules, though we keep trying to apply them to the language. We spoke for more than 400 years without any concept of grammar or “correct” usage. Grammarians did not create the rules — they noticed and documented the structures that had become standardized usage.

Today, we tell students these rules are important. Why? We imagine there were grammarians in Rome? I’ve lectured on the evolution of writing instruction and most of what we do today didn’t emerge until the nineteenth century. Many of the “rules” we teach students first appeared in Fowler’s essays and texts. If I recall the history, Fowler added the rule demanding we not end sentences with prepositions, though doing so was common in Shakespeare’s works and every other major English-language writer’s compositions.

Intensive grammar instruction in the 1950s and 60s did not produce a wave of brilliant writers. Grammar is an artifact, to be discovered through observation and then documented. Grammar is not something to be dictated by a few self-elected experts. Until the German educational reforms of the nineteenth century, we understood that grammar was subordinate to effective communication.

I am not arguing each person should create his or her own grammar, but I am arguing that the purists overstate the importance of grammar. I believe, based on my own research and readings, that grammar is somehow inherent in the human brain; we seek to organize and standardize for efficiency and clarity. Languages are constantly and unconsciously revised by a community to meet changing circumstances. Grammarians are the antithesis of change and evolution, assuming the roles of careful moderators to restrain the wild libertines abusing the grammarians’ beloved syntax.

My students should learn grammar and appreciate it. I expect students to learn “standard” English and adhere to it in all academic writing. However, I also remind them that speaking in and insisting on “proper” English is a guaranteed path towards isolation. I’m not about to tell my students “Urban English” (“Ebonics”) is acceptable to the business or academic communities. However, I also remind the students that business English is not the same as academic English. We simply “disguise” our linguistic differences better in the supposed middle- and upper-class professional realms.

I am appalled that “texting” slips into student papers. The reality is that their “new” language will be widely used in a generation, even in business writing. I might not like that, but language will continue to evolve without my consent.

Writing: Organization

There are two types of organization we should address for students struggling with academic writing assignments: process organization and document organization.

Reminder: This blog entry is part of an ongoing series. Writing-related topics I am addressing include: organization, audience analysis, supporting arguments, and mastering genre norms. If you have specific questions be sure to ask and I’ll try to address them.

I am addressing “academic writing” in these posts, though I might discuss “creative writing” later in this series of essays.

Personal Organization

High school teachers tell me that a lack of personal organization is the single greatest challenge for most high school students.

I am not organized. I know my colleagues would disagree, but my natural state is a complete lack of focus. Each day is a struggle to stay on task until something is finished — and too often I end up bouncing from distraction to distraction and not meeting self-imposed deadlines. Because I know I’m “Driven to Distraction” (quoting a well-known book title), I had to develop routines to keep me focused on my writing projects.

Curiously, many of the best writers I know fall into one of two extremes: those with laser-like focus and those, like me, lacking focus. Most students also fall into the “easily distracted” category. Hopefully my tips for organizing help students as well as many others.

Many of us imagine that we can multitask far better than any research suggests. Most research has found we do more things poorly when multitasking, but we believe we’re doing various tasks well. Doing one major task at a time remains the best way to perform that task. (An exception that I have located in the research: listening to instrumental classical music while working improves focus for many people. Notice, that’s instrumental music, not music videos on VH1 Classic.)

Distraction number one in my life is the Internet. I’m not going to claim that I was more focused before having a constant, high-speed network connection. Then again, I’ve had high-speed network access since 1987; the last time I didn’t have such a distraction was in high school.

- Planning on Paper

To deal with most distractions, I turn to working on paper. Yes, paper. While typewriters, computers, and dictation software have made it easier to write, nothing beats the distraction-free nature of blank paper and a pencil. Could I outline and brainstorm faster on a computer? Maybe, but that also assumes I wouldn’t end up distracted by tangential research.

One of the projects on my to-do list is updating a guide to desktop publishing. I am fascinated by typography, so I ended up on a multi-hour tangent last night researching a set of font designs. The research had nothing at all do to with what I should have been writing. Yes, the information might add interest to an essay, but the research was inessential to the project.

On paper, I would make a note to check a few facts and then keep writing. I wouldn’t find myself lost in a tangled web of research, literally, if I had been writing on paper. Losing focus means losing time, which eventually leads to a panicked last-minute rush to complete projects.

Though it might seem wasteful to many people, I keep the draft notes for each project on its own yellow legal pad. After I transcribe the notes and other scribblings from a pad to the computer, I tear off the pages and file them away, keeping many of the originals. The pad is then free for another project. I have to avoid mixing projects or I never finish a single one.

As a student and teacher, I keep one spiral-bound college-ruled notebook per class. I’ve tried the thicker multiple-subject notebooks under the theory that one notebook would reduce the risk of losing my notes. The real result: I flip through pages, get confused, worry about one class when I’m in another, and generally lose focus. One notebook per class works better for me. From that experience, I learned that one notebook or binder per writing project is also best for me.

- Checklists and Calendars

When I speak to teachers and students, I emphasize the importance of maintaining a schedule. Teachers and parents have to help students.

I use checklists and calendars, both on computer and on paper. Having a visual measure of my progress, as well as what remains to be done, helps me organize myself a little. I’ve written about the need to plan and organize on the Tameri website:

Note: I will be updating the Tameri page on the writing process as time permits; it is an incomplete discussion of the process.

For an academic paper, I create a schedule that leaves more time for writing than research. I do this because I will lose myself in research. I need to spend more time writing and revising than on research. Other people need to invest the bulk of their time on research. Whatever your personal strengths and weaknesses are, make sure that you schedule time accordingly.

- Writer’s Block

Stress can be its own distraction. When I have anything else on my mind, when something is bothering me, I cannot focus on anything else. Unfortunately, a lack of focus or problems sticking to my schedule causes stress. I believe that’s what many people mean when they talk about writer’s block: stress that halts the writing process.

The best way to avoid stress-related writer’s block is to reduce the possible causes of stress. For me, this means sticking to my schedule. I realize that’s easier said than done, but parents and teachers can help students with scheduling.

Once the writing starts, dealing with stress can involve using proven organizational techniques. In the next section, I’ll explain how following proven structures can help students compose academic papers. Following models is what most academic and professional writing does. Reminding students that relying on models is what even the best writers do can help reduce stress.

Organizing an Academic Paper

Academic writing is highly structured, which can help students as they prepare documents. I remind students that professors and research scientists rely on structured formats, which allows scholars to focus on the content instead of the structure. When someone suggests this isn’t creative, I remind them that various poetic forms are also rigidly structured — and that doesn’t stop poets from being creative.

Parents can help students by asking if the teacher or class textbook provides a model paper or at least an outline of the assignment structure. I’ll be posting some of the standard formats to the Tameri website, but nothing is a substitute for whatever models and guidelines are provided by an instructor.

High school students and incoming college students might want to focus on traditional “five paragraph essay” models. There are models of these based on their purposes in most academic writing textbooks. When a student challenges me on the usefulness of such structures, I can point to the models used to write doctoral dissertations. Men and women completing their doctorates know there is a model even for this “final” academic exercise:

I plan to post more about writing and academic paper organization in a few days.