Bad grammar: to how people boring angry make!

Posted by on May 10, 2013 in Grammar |

There really is nothing quite so tedious and boring as a prescriptive grammarian.  And I’m a native speaker, and an English teacher with a section about grammar on his blog!  I really have a lot of sympathy for people who are learning English.  Let me explain what I mean by “prescriptive grammar.” To paraphrase the linguist David Brazil, a grammarian must begin from one of the following assumptions: We can discover the rules of grammar by assuming that when people speak or write, their motivation is the production of what we call “sentences.” We can discover the rules of grammar by assuming that when people speak or write, they do so with some communicative purpose.  By analysing their purpose and the structures they use, we can find patterns. So if you want to make correct sentences, the prescriptive grammarian can tell you the rules of sentence-making.  The second position is called descriptive grammar: we assume that communication is generally successful and we look at how that communication was achieved.  Unfortunately, a great number of people still assume that what we all want to do when we open our mouths or sit down at the keyboard is make a bunch of correct sentences.  And oh, how they complain when we don’t! I found an example of this in yesterday’s Guardian: Grammar rules everyone should follow.  By the time I read the article, about 16 hours after it had been posted, there were more than 600 comments by people who were mostly complaining about grammar mistakes in the newspaper or other comments.  People have a special sort of passion for some of the rules in the list (especially the two items in the list–numbers 3 and 5–which the writer explains aren’t actually rules of grammar!), regardless of whether they are accurate or not.  If your friend is enjoying some music, would you ask them, “Hey!  To what are you listening?” The Guardian’s article was written as a result of the Bad Grammar Award which was ironically given to a group of educators who wrote a letter to a politician.  The “critique” of the letter is a perfect example of assuming that everyone sets out primarily to write correct sentences.  The authors seem to have never heard the expression “too much too young” and to deliberately have difficulty understanding other straightforward sentences based on the perceived parts of speech of the words.  All of this prescriptive grammar is not just boring, it’s harmful.  In another article criticising the writer of the Bad Grammar Award: “I suspect [he] will have immense amounts of fun and satisfaction telling people what is “right”. People attending his classes will feel immensely pleased that they have been...

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This I Believe–Essays from ordinary Americans

Posted by on May 2, 2013 in Listening, Reading, Writing |

It’s difficult to become a good writer without spending a lot of time reading good writing.  And I think we all know the quality of most of the writing on Facebook and Instagram.  So where do you find good writing that’s not 350 pages long? One place where you can read (and listen to!) short essays about hundreds of different topics is at This I Believe.  The website is a revived version of a radio programme in the 1950s where people could listen to essays from famous people talking about their beliefs and motivations.  The new version of the show is similar except the essays are by people from all walks of life.  The goal of the programme–as the Executive Producer says on the about page,–is “not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, the hope is to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.” Start reading and listening to essays at This I Believe now! Check the other posts I’ve written about places to read good writing: blogs daily news sites weekly or monthly news sites...

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There is no “I” in academic writing

Posted by on Apr 26, 2013 in Writing |

The obligation to write in the correct style does not only apply to examinations.  The author of this article is struggling with the rigid constraints of academic style.  I am having the same struggle as I complete my master’s degree.  It’s very strange having to write about what I think without being allowed to use the word “I”! But unfortunately, this is just the way things are.  This is the style and fighting against it will only get me a bad mark.  There are a number of complex social reasons behind the different styles we write in, and part of successful writing is knowing how to manipulate styles effectively.  When you’re preparing for your exam, make sure you are familiar with the type of styles that will appear on the test!  Check my writing tips for the CAE and the IELTS to be sure you are...

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Write emails easily with a new app

Posted by on Apr 17, 2013 in Grammar, Learning Websites, Writing |

Email Writer is a new app for iPhone, iPad and Android which will allow you to select from thousands of sentence combinations so you can write your business emails quickly and easily.  Sometimes you don’t want to look for the right preposition or expression when you’re in a hurry and this app will be a huge help in those situations.  Watch the video to see how it works! The maker of the app also runs The Business English Blog with regular updates, exercises and activities.  If you need to practice business English, I recommend checking it...

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What makes good writing?

Posted by on Apr 2, 2013 in Writing |

How do readers decide if something is written well?  I think the most important thing is, did I understand it?  Then one can consider style, humour, tone and all the rest. It’s a lot easier to write a confusing sentence than a simple one.  Here are some quotes from authors (and a grammatician) to keep you motivated when the going gets tough!  I found the first three while I was preparing last week’s post on style guides, they are in the introduction to the Economist’s introduction. Mark Twain described how a good writer treats sentences: “At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.” Long paragraphs, like long sentences, can confuse the reader. “The paragraph”, according to [H. W.] Fowler, “is essentially a unit of thought, not of length; it must be homogeneous in subject matter and sequential in treatment.” One-sentence paragraphs should be used only occasionally. Clear thinking is the key to clear writing. “A scrupulous writer”, observed [George] Orwell, “in every sentence that he writes will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” Finally, Ernest Hemmingway was accused by William Faulkner of using crude and simple language, to which he had this reply: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Happy writing and good luck!...

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