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...

Read More

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...

Read More

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!...

Read More

Write like a pro: use a style guide

Posted by on Mar 28, 2013 in Writing |

How do you write about the person who plays music on the radio or at the club?  Is it DJ, D.J., D. J., deejay or dee-jay? Should there be 3 commas or 4 commas in the list above? Should I have written three and four in the sentence above this one? Should I have written “three” and “four” in the sentence above this one? Is it better to write from 2-5:00 pm or from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm? Do you write the abbreviations for meters, kilograms, etc. next to the number or leave a space?  100m or 100 m? It’s confusing for everybody, even professional writers.  And for the pros, there is always someone who delights in finding “mistakes” and “exposing” the writers as barely literate children.  I’m sure the same thing happens in your language. The solution for this is the style guide.  Each publication that you read has a set of rules that they declare to be THE RULES.  Many of these rules will be the same for everyone, but sometimes they are particular for the institution.  But the purpose of style guides is not to declare one set of rules to be the only correct set of rules, but to make consistent choices in your writing.  So choose one of the style guides below and stick to it.  If you’ve followed the guide, you don’t have to worry about people telling you where to put your commas. These are all respected English publications written to a high standard: The Economist style guide The Guardian style guide The Telegraph style guide For business writing, why not follow the European Union style guide? The European Union style guide American style guides (sometimes called “stylebooks,” a term I doubt would be permitted in a British English publication) are a for-profit industry, I’m afraid.  All of the major publications’ stylebooks are available for purchase or online subscription only.  You can see a small sample of the Associated Press stylebook in the link below.  You can also try a free 30-day trial of the Chicago Manual of Style: Chicago Manual of Style AP Stylebook FAQs New York Times Manual of Style...

Read More

CAE writing style guide: review

Posted by on Mar 12, 2013 in CAE style guides |

5 of 5, click the buttons to read more about the the different styles of writing you may have to do in the exam: Essay Email/letter  Proposal  Report This is a short summary of some style points to keep in mind when attempting the tasks in the Cambridge English: Advanced writing section. Review Who is the audience? The audience for this question is usually an interested consumer or magazine reader. What is the purpose of the writing? You need to describe something (or some things) and give your opinion. Is it formal? No. Should I use headings or bullet points? You can use headings if you like. How should it start? You want to capture the readers’ interest.  Use a good title and an exciting opening sentence. How should it finish? Clearly state your opinion in the...

Read More