Common First-Year Writing Mistakes

Dr. Greg Cavenaugh of Rhetoric and Communications Studies will work with my trainee Writing Consultants this semester. His First-Year Seminar, “Heroes and Villains” is a great topic, but no matter the subject matter, first-years always make the same errors.

So I asked Dr. Cavenaugh for a list. Here is what he sent. Please send me other issues/concerns you have about first-year writing!

No governing claim/thesis at all.  Alternately, a governing claim stated only as a question.  This more often occurs in reflective writing such as reading journals, but it sometimes appears in more formal assignments.  This problem may well stem from the assumption that writing is simply “stating what I think.”  Scholarly writing is a lengthy process of crafting and revising an argument; “stating what I think” is at best a first step in the creation of an argument.

Several sentences (sometimes multiple paragraphs) of fluff before the author reaches his/her governing claim/thesis.  This may well stem from the notion that scholarly writing is “fancy writing” and that the first few paragraphs of scholarly research are fluff.  When a reader is familiar with the norms of the academic field that an author is addressing, it becomes clear that what students regard as “fluff” is actually essential to the author’s argument.  The reason that a novice reader views these paragraphs as “fluff” is simple unfamiliarity with the academic discipline and the communicative norms of that interpretive community.  In Grad School Essentials, David Shore sums up this concern as, “Get to the bloody point.  Please.”

Essid’s note: I call such “fluff” a “March of History” introduction, and it seems to come from public-speaking experience in some cases. You  know it: “As soon as humans stood erect, they gazed upon the night sky in wonder. For millennia we have wondered about the Moon. Finally, in 1969 we went there…” would be a typical paper about Neil Armstrong in my FYS, The Space Race. -10 points and a week to cut to the chase with a revision, please!

Paragraphs that run across multiple pages.  From the early 2000’s to about two or three years ago, I would ask students, “How long is a paragraph?” and get back a disturbing answer.  “Oh, a paragraph is 8-12 sentences long,” students would routinely say.  I’m not sure where this definition of a paragraph came from, but it was taught with remarkable consistency for much of the last twenty years.  Over the last few years, I am starting to hear a different, more functional answer:  “Oh, a paragraph is about 3-4 sentences at least and maybe about 7 sentences at most.”  Despite this relative improvement in the perception of paragraph length, I still find students writing “mega-paragraphs,” and those “paragraphs” often (let’s say) start on page 2 and end on page 4.  These “mega-paragraphs” usually develop from a lack of clear organizational structure—instead of making one point that leads to another point in a programmatic fashion, the author attempts to say several things all at once.

A lack of explicit reasoning that moves from one concept to the next to programmatically prove a point.  This is the broad, structural version of the previous issue.  Students may articulate a clear governing claim/thesis that can be reasonably supported, and yet their argument bounces randomly through ideas rather than making a linear case.  Of course, good writing sometimes cannot be linear and direct; sometimes authors must take “side treks” in order to guide the reader to the final conclusion.  These side treks should never be considered the default for academic writing, however.  Instead, writers should build a case like a lawyer in a murder trial.  Classic detective-novel reasoning here is good enough for our purposes—in order to prove that Tom killed Jerry, we need to show that Tom had the means to commit the murder, a significant motive for killing Jerry, and the opportunity to commit the murder. If those are the three things that we must demonstrate, then we craft our argument to support those three points, in whatever order best allows for clear movement from one idea to the next.

To extend the analogy, beginning writers often start out showing the Tom had the means to commit the murder, then take a detour into Tom’s character and the horrible things he wrote on social media, then return to the issue of means while confusingly introducing a hint of Tom’s motives, then going into an elaborate forensic analysis of the DNA at the crime scene, then proving that Tom had no alibi, and finally concluding with, “There, as you can plainly see, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Tom killed Jerry.”  Note that all of these elements COULD be used in a court case against Tom, including the references to his horrible social media posts.  The problem is that there is no clear line of reasoning that helps the reader understand how (for instance) the DNA evidence relates to the question of opportunity (maybe the DNA proves Tom’s alibi is false).

Equating scholarly, formal writing with a stiff, abrupt tone.  Good writing can be personalized and can reflect a writer’s sense of style.  With the exception of some specific disciplinary audiences, such as writing up a lab report for a physics class, there is no need to sound stiff, inhuman, and impersonal.

Alternately, equating scholarly formal writing with a loopy, baroque style.  Sometimes young writers assume that their goal should be to personalize the material as much as possible, to sound creative and elegant in the manner that associate with “high” scholarship.  Often, the remedy is to ask the writer for a “plain English” translation of their ideas.

Commas used everywhere or nowhere.  I am not talking here about the occasional miscue of a misplaced comma, and I am not talking about my lifelong support for the “Oxford comma,” which is regarded by some writers as inessential.  What I’m talking about here is a systematic inability to use commas correctly.  I often find that, at some point, the student was chastised for his/her use of commas, and now the student either avoids commas completely or else throws in commas everywhere, hoping some of those commas land in the right places.  For tutors who are not themselves sure about where commas go (which is an understandable issue), note that you can still observe that the writer is avoiding commas or overusing commas, even if you have trouble explaining the grammatical issues.

No awareness of the distinction between plural and possessive.  This is just plain annoying:  “The heroes actions demonstrate his character.”  One hero (“hero’s”)?  Several heroes, possessive (“The heroes’ actions demonstrate their character”)?  What are you trying to say here?

No attention to verb tense.  Also just plain annoying:  “Tom enters the room and sees Jerry.  Jerry tried to run away, but he slipped and fell, so Tom hits him with a mallet and then escapes before anyone had seen him.”  Either write the whole thing in past tense or write the whole thing in present tense.  Because students in my academic field must so often write descriptions of actions, such as describing the actions of characters in a film or summarizing the steps involved in a religious ritual, I see this problem a lot.

Section headers used as transitions.  I love section headers as a tool for helping the reader intuit the organizational logic of your work.  But by themselves, section headers don’t actually transition a reader from one idea to another idea in a way that connects those two ideas.  Use a section header and transition sentences.

Sentence fragments produced by years of SMS texting.  We’ve all produced incomplete sentences and seen the dreaded “FRAG” comment in the margin of our work.  Contemporary first year students are, however, even more likely to produce sentence fragments in my experience.  SMS texting allows for and even encourages the expression of partial thoughts on the presumption that the reader is “clued into” the context that makes their partial thought complete.  This is especially the case with “meme culture,” where a single image and accompanying text is used as a shorthand for a host of thoughts and feelings that are condensed, almost poetically, down to something that can be sent via text with a few thumb swipes.

Using 50 words to say what can be expressed in only 10.  Students often write themselves into an idea, wandering through a ton of words in order to arrive at a useful concept.  The revision process should involve rigorous editing to tighten the work.

Essid’s Addendum: “Hand Grenade” quotations bedevil first-year work. Students drop in a quotation without introducing it or linking it to other claims made by follow-up analysis. -10 again and a week to fix it. It amazes me how many neglect to get it done in a week, losing a full letter grade in the process.

Image source: “The Stair Method” by Sage Ross at Flickr.

Words of the Week! Reign, Rein, Rain

QE II coronationQueen Elizebeth II’s long reign just ended. She took the reins of power in 1953, on a day of rain.

Sounds simple? No. They all sound the same.

As with other homonyms I have featured here, such as weather and whether, these words get tangled up in student prose. I take points off but give my writers a week to earn them back by showing they have learned the difference. No easy mnemonic exists, as it does for here and hear (“hear as an ear in it”). So here (not hear) we all need memorization and use in print, as though we were English-Language Learners.

We encounter our words often via metaphor: Reign of Terror, rein in your enthusiasm. We take a horse by the reins, though as the OED shows us in the etymology of the word with Middle English origins, this strip of leather going to the horse’s mouth was once spelled “reign.”

So does a monarch reign by taking the reins of the population, metaphorically, and leading them? Not so much in these days of nearly universal constitutional monarchies, but we begin to see how the words could be confused! Reign shares a different Middle-English Origin (regn vs. reen), according the OED. In those ancient words, we can hear the difference. Not so now. “Reign” has multiple senses that include the realm of a monarch as well as the period of time the monarch rules.

How to get students to stop confusing them? I have no idea. Sorry to rain on your parades, but -10 points and one week to read this post, kids!

Please send us words and metaphors useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image of Queen Elizabeth II’s Gold State Coach: note footman beside the horses’ reins, at the start of her reign, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Postulate

Screen Cap I just used this word, as a verb, in class as I noted how we work with student writers. We first look for patterns of error, postulate why, then ask writers why they repeat a certain error. This method, pioneered by scholar and teacher David Bartholomae at Pittsburgh, goes by the name “error analysis.”

For once, I got a high-falutin’ term correct. The OED notes both verb and noun forms of our word. In my case, I hit the  nail squarely: “posit or assume.”  Many other definitions occur here, from ecclesiastical to legal. Mostly the word came up during my education in sciences or philosophy. To employ it sounds less partial than “question” and less puffy than “hypothesize.” That last word triggers a near-but-not-absolute pet peeve of mine against too many -ize words.  That said, I prefer the verb “postulate” or even “hypothesize” to “suppose” (making a less precise claim) or “claim” (less certain of the outcome or reason).

These nuances make philologists get up in the morning.

As a noun, “postulate” has an interesting way of being at odds with itself, and this difficulty may come from the field of study employing it. Our term can mean both “An unfounded or disputable unproved assumption; a hypothesis, a stipulation, an unproven theory” or “A proposition or assumption taken to be self-evident or obvious; an axiom” (emphasis added). Oh my.

So tell me how your academic field uses this clever little word. While you are at it, I need your words and metaphors for this blog.

Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Screen cap from Thomas Dolby’s definitive postulate about New-Wave Music, “She Blinded Me With Science.”

Metaphor of the Month! Pollyanna

Pollyanna DollToday I told my class that while I’ve been called “bumptious” (irritating and conceited, and a former word of the week) I’ve never been called a Pollyanna.

Who was this person? The OED has her as the brainchild of American children’s author Eleanor Hodgman Porter (1868–1920). Pollyanna was a relentlessly and often naively cheerful character. I’d call that sort of person “perky,” and they irritate me to no end, being a bit of a grump (I was chosen to be Scrooge in our 6th Grade Christmas play).

The OED has our word not appearing very often in modern speech, and that’s a pity. Students may encounter our metaphor in the contexts of Political Science, Leadership, History, Journalism, or Literature on our campus.  I don’t know anyone who reads Porter’s works these days, but we have Pollyannas aplenty. From the OED, a 2003 example: “Although the authors conclude that ecological sustainability is slowly gaining ground, they are no pollyannas.”

Read a fine piece from Atlantic Monthly, “How We All Become Pollyannas (and Why We Should Be Glad About It)” for a nuanced look at the fictional character. She turns out not as irritating as we might believe, though Ruth Graham does note how “When she gasps in rapture upon being sent to her room to read a pamphlet about houseflies and hygiene, it’s impossible not to roll your eyes.” Despite that moment, Pollyanna fought off gloom by working to be happy.

That’s a good lesson for everyone. Now all you Pollyannas, Negative Nellies (and Neds), Bumptious Bobs, and other malcontents or perky folk, I need your words and metaphors for this blog.

Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

“Large Vinyl Pollyanna Doll” courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Bombast

thesaurus picture

This word came up in class today. We discussed what academic writing is not, and my students noted that mere opinion and an “extreme tone” disqualify work from serious consideration.

So I dropped a “bombastic bomb” on them. Yet this week’s term has nothing to do with explosives. As “bumbast” or “bombaste,” in the 16th Century the term meant the “soft down of the cotton plant,” and could also mean earplugs made of cotton. I’d suppose, from the OED entry, that one plugged one’s ears to avoid hearing a bombastic speaker who employed the current meaning, “Inflated or turgid language; high-sounding language on a trivial or commonplace subject.”

Has this word fallen out of favor? Or simply settled into a settled definition? The latest OED usage dates back 172 years.

If “bombast” proves new to you, as a word in any case, consider some synonyms from a wonderful 1943 book I just found in my favorite used bookstore, Charlottesville Virginia’s Blue Whale Books. The American Thesaurus of Slang, by  lexicographers Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark (such names!) set forth an exhaustive listing of terms not considered formal. It’s a trove of lost words. Several book dealers online list a second edition of 1964; I highly recommend a copy.

Berrey and Van Den Bark give us dozens of great terms, from “Barnumize, bloviate, flash the gab, crack one’s jaw, swallow the dictionary, talk highfalutin’.”

None are very formal, save “bloviate,” which captures saying a lot of large words without saying much of anything. The suggested term “polysyllabic profundity” fails there, since bombast proves as fluffy as cotton. “Pompous prolixity” gets closer still to the empty nature of bombast. Unlike “bullshit,” bombast may be true, but the terms used are overly pompous.

What other terms capture a bombastic method of writing and speaking? Let me know. Meanwhile, thanks to several of you who recently sent me words and metaphors I will soon feature here. They are always welcome. Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Thesaurus image by the author.

Word of the Week! Pernicious

Sloth in treeAfter “propinquity” last time, I found myself using another p-word. This one could be from Edith Wharton’s novels, but I used it long before I read anything by her. In fact, I think I acquired it early in my undergrad career at Virginia.

It’s not uncommon for students to pick up words that make them sound more academic, but our word serves a number of purposes really well. The term has Latin roots but its nearest ancestors are “Anglo-Norman pernicious and Middle French pernicieux,” as the OED tells us. Their definition notes an early relation to illness, too. You may have heard a doctor speak of a particularly pernicious infection.

And yet. I have this pernicious habit in late summer of NOT wanting to go back to work. Do you? Yet as soon as classes begin (and my procrastination ebbs) I really begin to enjoy myself on campus again. In that sense, pernicious means harmful or destructive. I harm my sleep habits, my mood, my schedule by delaying the inevitable (that syllabus will be ready any minute now).

Are there other things near  you that are pernicious? I do not think weeds are that, even ones like Poison Ivy. Being pernicious requires agency. For some weeds that are both invasive and difficult to eradicate, I’ve heard “Noxious,” another word I adore.

What pernicious habits do you have (keep replies safe for work, please!). And do you have words or metaphors for this blog?

Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Sloth in tree courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Propinquity

The Mount, Wharton BedroomDo any fiction writers employ sentences like this today?

“Her glance, making a swift circuit of the room, dwelt for an appreciable instant on the intimate propinquity of an armchair and sofa-corner; then she turned her back to the door.”

Perhaps, if we have the attention-spans to find them.

The example comes form Edith Wharton’s The Reef, a novel I’d never studied in Graduate School, where I first encountered her fiction.  “Intimate propinquity,” along with formal, multi-syllabic terms like “importune” and “discomfit” mark her voice. Wharton was a creature of what scholars call “Old New York,” specifically its gentry. Words such as those I associate with her no longer trip off the tongues of anyone I know, yet they merit study, still.

In short, our word means nearness, be it physical or temporal. As I worked my way into a plot simultaneously predictable and tumultuous (another Wharton word!), I kept returning to this week’s word. I hung on how precisely it revealed the scene of a pivotal conversation between former lovers whose secret always stands of the verge of being revealed.

I am not sure when my reading tastes veered from fiction to history, but it happened gradually. An exception for me remains writers like Wharton, who possessed a towering ability to get into the heads of people of her time, illustrating in detail their moral beliefs, fears, prejudices, and dreams. I consider her books time-travel devices of a sort her contemporary H.G. Wells could not have imagined, with his Steampunk contraption and the resultant Morlocks and Eloi. I love that tale, too.

Right. This is not a blog post about favorite authors but their words.

Yet one cannot be separated from the other. Wharton’s words educated me. I tell my students that they will never grow a vocabulary without reading writers from different eras and perspectives.

Besides, I find it fun to eavesdrop on people from the Edwardian Era. When we read such talented writers, we feel the propinquity of their time, and the people of the fiction spring to life again, well dressed actors staging for us a play that ended a long, long time ago.

Happy reading. Summer may be ending on campus, but reading never ends.

Do you have a word or metaphor you’ve met in your reading? Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Apologies to Wharton for a Creative-Commons peek into her bedroom at The Mount, from Wikipedia. How importunate we moderns are!

Word of the Week! Scrofulous

Some background here, ye corky-armed poltroons: I be playin’ a game with some academic friends that involves pirate ships and sailing. It’s great fun: one can design a ship, navy or pirate, and learn to tack, raise and lower sails, fire cannon with several types of shot, and (of course) be sunk down to Davy Jones’ locker.

Sea-faring has a rich vocabulary, some of which in time entered academic parlance and common use (“against the wind” comes to mind).

Likewise, nicknames with adjectives yield some excellent (cannon) fodder for this blog.

Recently several of us, between battles on the virtual sea, devised alliterative pirate names.

“Pestilential Pete” proved a fine one. “Scurvy” gets overused and can be easily solved by citrus on a ship (hence, the clever English who figured this out got called Limeys).

But what about “Scrofulous Sam”?  That was my pick. It’s not because our pirate suffers from the lymphatic disease called Scrofula, though that is the origin of our word this week, as the OED shows us. Nay, Matey, belay that thought!

Sam would more likely (he is a pirate) to suffer from a moral depravity. As the OED entry notes, Sam would be “morally corrupt.” Never confuse the word with “scruffy,” of similar antiquity but denoting physical shabbiness.

While first usage of this week’s term dates back to the 17th Century, it was only in the Victorian era that we see a first-use metaphorically, in relation to morals. An 1889 example shows how the term appears in print, and readers today are likely to encounter it in Victorian literature like this:

“Holywell-street was re-named ‘Booksellers’-row’ because of its scrofulous reputation.”

A nasty word, but formal-sounding at this distance in time, as is “pestilential” or even “barbarous.” Drawing-room dialogue in Downton Abbey, the characters never fearing the eruption of pirates, plague-victims, or Visigoths during tea hour.

At least until the next sequel. Avast!

Be thou lubber or old salt, a tar or a pantaloon, scrofulous or saintly, this blog be keepin’ a weather-eye out for new words and metaphors! Sam will take your messages in a bottle at jessid-at-richmond-dot-edu

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Flag image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Word of the Week! Neoliberal

Take off your Left/Right/Center political caps, for a moment. Let’s see what “neoliberal” means and when it appeared. It proves a term bigger than politics, if equally disturbing.

This is (to me) a new word, noted by the OED for its first use in 1898. I find the history of how the term got used, and changed over time, fascinating.

Broadly speaking neoliberalism means “various modified or revived forms of traditional liberalism, typically based on belief in free market capitalism and the rights of the individual.”

In my field of writing studies, however, our word has enjoyed much recent usage, to describe how American colleges and universities appear to be more driven today than ever by market pressures. In the crush, the pursuit of knowledge gets put  into a distant second place, if that. Students become consumers and what we produce? A commodity. See our image above, courtesy of IJClark at Flickr.

Over the years I’ve heard Bill Clinton described as the first  modern neoliberal Progressive, and my favorite print publication, Atlantic Monthly, gets derided as neoliberal. It seems that our word only gets employed, by academics anyhow, in a pejorative sense.  Neoliberals get accused of favoring deregulation, weakening unions, harming the environment. I still find the word slippery, used in a haphazard fashion, as do the terms “technocratic” and “neoconservative,” both of which I should explore later.

I’d suggest that students use it carefully to describe a proponent of free markets, de-regulation, and individual rights, with neoliberalism employed as the philosophy.

But the term defies our current (and reductive, even silly) descriptors of conservative and liberal in US life.

Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Metaphor of the Month! Horse Latitudes

Sopranino cover imageEvery summer, I read something nautical. I’m a mountain and not a water person, but sailing and ships really interest me. The closest I get is from my fishing kayak (and this has been a good fishing year for me). Four years have passed (!) since I did my last nautical metaphor, doldrum.

Part of my interest in ships and sailing involves the riches of vocabulary they bring us. In several books I encountered our rather antique metaphor, another of those terms I’d love to see used more commonly again. As the OED informs us, the term refers to a “belt of calms and light airs which borders the northern edge of the N.E. trade-winds.”  Usually the term simply indicates the literal area, even in our time of steam-ships.

The origin of the term remains unknown to the OED editors. The tales of sailors lightening their load by throwing effigies or actual horses overboard seems a stretch to this landlubber, given the animals’ value. Eating them when becalmed and starving? Possibly, according to a writer at Medium.

Metaphorically, our term suits June and early July well for academics. We are deep in our summer projects, and campus is silent of most student noise. Sometimes we have little bursts of activity; the winds pick up, so to speak. In that area of calm between steady winds, Facilities repairs and builds, plans for the year are laid down. It’s my favorite time of year, even though most summer weeks I work from home.

This summer’s read? Sopranino by Patrick Ellam and Colin Mudie. They designed and sailed the world’s smallest ship–a 19′ sailboat rated for ocean travel–across the Atlantic. It’s a great story told in a light, yes, breezy style from a simpler time than ours. They do run into several sudden calms off South America, in the horse latitudes. They also get robbed in Jamaica, but being charmers, content the crooks with a few dollars. The books remains out of print but old copies are easy to find.

As Summer skims along like a fast racing yacht, I’ll post your entries. Do you have a word or metaphor for this blog?  Send them to me by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image from the 2011 edition.