June 2009 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

"Grammar Queen" on the Grammar Scene

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By Erica Schatzlein, Writing Consultant.

I wish I knew everything about English grammar. In grad school, I loved my grammar classes. Making sentence diagrams feels like a game to me! (It’s OK, I call myself a nerd, too.) But there are times when I’ve forgotten the rules of a certain form. Or a student comes up with a question that just plain stumps me. Since I often work different hours than the other writing tutors, this always seems to happen when my colleagues aren’t around. (Yes, I’m the girl that answers your email at 8:30pm on a Friday night…)

So what do I do? For serious grammar questions, the APA manual provides little help. As the writing tutor, it’s not acceptable for me to respond, “Well, I really don’t remember. Can you come back tomorrow so Amber can tell you?” The truth is, we all need a little grammar help some days. I find typos in magazines and the newspaper. I’ve found typos in textbooks. I’ll bet you can even find a typo or two in this blog; they’re incredibly common. However, when you have a professor who is picky about grammar and APA, you don’t want them to be incredibly common in your paper, do you?

Here are some of the resources that I rely on for grammar questions. If you know what your problem is, there are numerous well-maintained resources on the web. For example, should you use insure or ensure in that sentence? Were your participants affected or effected? Sometimes I just go to Google and type in “affect v. effect.” Often, this will lead to university writing center pages that have examples and rules for proper usage. If you’re really lucky, you might even run across a quiz where you can practice the usage, like this one at the OWL at Purdue: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/interact/g_affecteffect.html. That might not help you get your KAM finished quicker, but it can be fun! (Fun for people like me, at least…)

In fact, the OWL at Purdue (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/) is one of my favorite writing sites. They not only have information on spelling and grammar but they also have APA information, help with transitions, hints for annotated bibliographies, and all sorts of sage advice.

The Guide to Grammar and Writing (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/index.htm) has drop-down menus for numerous issues, ranging from simple grammar questions to how to combat writer’s block. This site also features more fun quizzes J.

Every writer needs some resources in their back pocket. I’m happy to share a few of mine. Let me know if you find anything wonderful!

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To use or to utilize?

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by Amber Cook, Senior Writing Consultant
We've all done it. We look at our paper, worrying that it doesn't sound scholarly or academic enough, so we go through with a thesaurus function, changing the word person to individual or the word discussion to dialogue. We reread the new sentence with pride, patting ourselves on the back for our fancy-sounding sentence. What was just "The teacher asked the students to discuss the topic in groups" is now "The educator facilitated group interaction among the learners." It just sounds smarter, and we walk away feeling pretty macho.

The problem, of course, is that the fancier sentence says the same thing, but it says it with less clarity and more room for confusion. No one would question the meaning in the first sentence above, but the second sentence is a little baffling. What exactly does facilitate mean in this context? What kind of interaction are we talking about, exactly?

This is one of the tricks of learning to write academically. Many writers believe that the more advanced the vocabulary level, the better the paper. There is something to be said for using precise terminology, but that doesn't always mean using a bigger word.

In your field, you'll often use words with refined meanings to clarify a point. In my field of music, for instance, we use the word ethnomusicology to describe the study of music in the context of a culture. If I were writing a paper on the topic, it makes more sense for me to use that term as a shortcut:

I will approach this study of shape-note singing from an ethnomusicological perspective.

works better than

I will approach this study of shape-note singing from the perspective of this music in the context of its culture.

In this case, the bigger, more complex word acts as shorthand, allowing for a more concise and direct sentence.

The problem is learning how to use bigger words judiciously. If the word adds a shade of meaning that you need, go for it! If you say sob bitterly instead of cry, that's OK; the first emphasizes the depth of the sorrow, and there's good reason for the extra length. If you substitute the word utilize when you really mean the word use, however, you're not adding meaning--you're just adding syllables. The key is to know and understand the meaning of each word you are using, always using the fewest and most precise words to express your ideas. Remember that your goal is communication, so anything that acts as a barrier to your reader understanding your meaning does more harm than good.

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Context, Context, Context!

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by Brian Timmerman, Senior Writing Consultant

I find myself saying this a lot in paper responses, asking students (undergraduates, graduates, and PHD candidates) to please just give me a bit of info so that I can understand how one sentence (say, a Freud quote) relates to another one (say, some snarky Lacan one). What I get though, is usually something like this:

"The essential point is that one has a painful feeling of shame, and is anxious to hide one's nakedness, usually by means of locomotion, but is absolutely unable to do so" (Freud, 1911/2006, p. 33). Lacan (1944) claimed that "we realize, of course, the importance of these imaginary impregnations (Pragung) in those partializations of the symbolic alternative which give the symbolic chain its appearance" (p. 47).

Now unfortunately, I'm not really sure how those two comments are interrelated. In fact, technically speaking, I'm unaware of who even made that first comment since the author hasn't provided me with any commentary as to how I should read and interpret it. I'm left feeling like Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The point, of course, is that we need some context, some idea as to how you're bridging the gap between these two pieces of dialogue.

So...

The key to transitioning (if you're interested) is to really figure out how the quotation you're providing relates to the previous information. For instance, if I was talking about homelessness in the first sentence, my second sentence (with citation) should include some sort of acknowledgment of that first sentence. Something like this: This problem could be largely attributed to what Johnson (1999) called "a deficient welfare system" (p. 333). Does that make sense? Do you see how I've integrated the quote into my commentary? Do you see how I've provided context here?

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