September 2011 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

The Politically Correct Pronoun and Why It Doesn't Always Work

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By Brian Timmerman, Manager of Writing Tutoring Services

Sure, it’s the 21st century. I get it: Being sensitive to gender is important. But honestly, if I see one more singular their or they used to avoid even addressing gender in a sentence, I’m going to take your computer away from you.

If you’re unclear, let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about. These types of faux pas are usually found in broad, sweeping social claims.

For instance, someone might say, “A good doctor knows when to listen to his patient.” This construction assumes that all doctors are male, which is obviously faulty.

So you, a reasonable human being who wants to avoid bias, write, “A good doctor knows when to listen to their patient.”

Me?: Well, I’m crying in a fetal position, wondering how my 95-year-old grandmother, a retired English teacher, failed America.

Now, grammatically speaking, you’re wrong. The pronoun must always match the subject in number. In this example, your subject (doctor) is singular, and your pronoun (their) is plural, resulting in a mismatch. In the end, the politically incorrect person wins.

Another one:

Someone else might say, “In America, anyone can purchase a firearm so long as he does not have a criminal record.”

So you write, “In America, anyone can purchase a firearm so long as they do not have a criminal record.”

Me: I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

Again, you’re trying not to be a misogynist, which is commendable, but in the process you’ve constructed a weak sentence.

Now, my guess is that you’re thinking of a quick and easy solution here: Why don’t you just replace the his with a his or her and the they with a he or she? Problem solved, right? Well, not so fast. His or her and he or she should be used rarely per, you guessed it, APA. Instead, revise the subject to fit the plural pronoun:

Good doctors (plural) know when to listen to their (plural) patients.

Or

In America, citizens (plural) can purchase a firearm so long as they (plural) do not have a criminal record.

So there you are. I’ll end my rant. And you can keep your computer.

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There Is an "I" in Academic Writing

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By Annie Pezalla, Dissertation Editor

Many students who see us in the Writing Center worry about using first person in their writing. They’ve been trained into “I-less-ness” through their previous classes or in their work with other instructors who have told them that using "I" will make their paper sound weak or subjective. Instead of writing, for example, that “I conducted interviews with participants,” students are told to write, “interviews were conducted with participants”—thereby removing the "I" from the phrase. And they’ve had good reason to practice this stance. Scholarly writing is generally about emphasizing the findings from empirical research, not the person (or people) who conducted the analyses or discovered those findings. Less emphasis, then, has traditionally been given to the "I" in scholarly writing.

But times they are a-changin’. There’s been a growing movement in social science research for greater transparency in our actions as researchers. This movement has been tied to a thing called the “observer effect,” which speaks to the power of our actions on the research findings we generate. This movement has also been linked to the importance of owning our actions for ethical reasons. This stance makes a lot of sense. I mean, is it really honest to act like “interviews were conducted” by some invisible being? Are we being ethical if we fail to disclose our actions in recruiting, interacting with, and compensating participants? Not really.

To present your research in the most transparent way, Walden University and the 6th edition of the APA manual (p. 69) recommend the use of first person in scholarly writing: I collected the data, I conducted analyses, I sought Institutional Review Board approval, and so on. First person voice usually provides the most concise and precise way of describing research processes, findings, and implications. It’s a lot more precise, for example, to write that “I scheduled a meeting with each consenting participant to discuss the study,” rather than “Meetings were scheduled with each consenting participant to discuss the study.” The latter phrase is convoluted, and leaves the reader wondering, “Who scheduled the meetings?” and “Who discussed the study?” The use of first person can limit those questions.

Of course, it should be said that first person should be used wisely. "I" should not appear in every sentence of your manuscript. “I did this” and “I did that” can sound forced and narcissistic. “I” should also not be used to express an opinion about the worth of other scholars' findings (e.g., “I thought this study was boring”). Instead, “I” should only appear in places where anthropomorphic writing might appear (e.g., instead of writing, “This chapter will explain…” write “In this chapter, I will explain…”) and where your presence is as equally important as is the content you are presenting (e.g., when describing the potential impact of your presence on the collection and interpretation of your findings). In any other context of your paper—such as when you are presenting the findings from past literature—“I-less-ness” should generally be practiced.

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Six APA Manual Musts

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By Jamie Patterson, Dissertation Editor

There are fewer and fewer of us in the world who carried, loved, and knew the APA Manual fifth edition. You might recognize it on your shelf: red, black, and neglected. When the APA publication committee shifted to the sixth edition (blue, bright, and lovely), it made several changes. In addition to saying adios to the student section (the section that provided the loophole for single-spaced block quotes and reference lists), mention of how to format with a typewriter, and all-caps headings, the sixth edition is really quite readable.

Seriously.

Although it is absolutely possible to sit down and read the sixth edition cover to cover—particularly the early chapters—I realize that most writers sure don’t do this. So as someone who spends at least 8 hours a day with the book in hand, let me point you toward some of the more often visited pages. Even if you just read these few pages, you’ll start to understand the manual a bit more and it might actually be useful to you.

First, let me start by suggesting using the Internet for reference list entries. They’re all in the book (pp. 198-224), but you can also Google an entry or check out our website. Rely on the manual for these issues:

1. Heading levels: p. 62
2. When to use past tense: p. 78
3. Comma use: pp. 88-89
4. How to use hyphens: pp. 99-100
5. When to use a numeral and when to spell out a number: pp. 111-114
6. In-text citations: p. 177

So pull out your book and mark these six little spots. If you can master these elements, your writing will be polished and that much more ready for final review and publication.

One last piece of advice is to pay extremely close attention to APA p. 191 on DOIs. This might not be the most intuitive portion of the manual, so check out our webpage on the topic and let me loosely interpret: If you retrieve an article from a database, you must (absolutely must) show how you accessed the article by including a DOI or the URL for the journal or database. As a dissertation editor, I’ve seen documents at form and style that were in need of this access information for all entries. If you can collect the DOI for each article as you write, this will be the single most important time-saving step you make.

That, and becoming familiar with sixth edition, of course.

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Tools to Streamline Revision

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By Matt Smith, Writing Consultant

In my previous blog post, I focused on software that can help you generate, record, and organize your ideas during the prewriting phase of a writing project, whether you’re working on a short personal essay or a massive scholarly paper. Those programs can be incredibly helpful as you create your early drafts, but using them when you’re tweaking your final drafts—refining your language to make it more concise, for example, or making sure that each topic or subtopic in your paper has its own paragraph—is a bit like swinging an ax instead of tapping a chisel: Some tools are meant for felling and chopping, while some are meant for shaping and sculpting. In this post, I’ll focus on some tools that can help you polish your text in the final stages of the writing process.

The most indispensable of these finishing tools is also probably the least exciting—Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker (discussed more in-depth here). Grammar and spelling (often simply called mechanics), while minor compared to big-picture concerns like organization and tone, have a powerful effect on your readers overall, and correcting mechanical issues is usually one of the easiest and most noticeable improvements you can make in revision. (Think of them as the fasteners that hold your paper together: One or two loose nails or missing screws won’t do much harm, but if too many are misused or absent, you’ll have a pile of assorted lumber instead of a wall, a bookshelf, or a cabinet.) Be careful, however, not to rely on this function too heavily—the exact meaning, after all, is tricky for even the smartest program to discern, and Word will occasionally misread your writing.

Speaking of built-in Word features, you can also use the Find/Replace function (press Control + F to open it) during revision to make your writing more concise. In early drafts, many writers—myself included, shamefully—tend to use two or even three words, usually adjectives, when they only need one to convey their meaning. While searching for all of these redundant words manually would test the patience of a monk, they’re most often connected by the conjunction and, so you can usually find a phrase with redundant words, such as examine and inspect the theories of Vygotsky, by searching for and and eliminating the extra words (in this case, by deleting and inspect).

Concision, of course, operates alongside diction (also called word choice), another important element of writing style, and diction’s effect on your readers is subtle but significant. While always and often may seem to have similar enough meanings for casual conversation (the grocery store is always out of my favorite peanut butter isn’t too far off from the grocery store is often out of my favorite peanut butter), in scholarly writing the difference between always and often can determine whether your research findings are lauded as revolutionary in your field or dismissed as misleading hyperbole. Luckily, you can use Wordle to eliminate overused words that could be easily misinterpreted (such as always). When you upload your text to Wordle, it creates a word cloud, or an arrangement of the words that appear most often in your writing scaled according to their frequency—that is, the most-used words are larger, while the less-used ones are smaller. If any of the larger words have especially strong or broad meanings, you can use the Find/Replace feature in Word to find them and replace them with more descriptive, nuanced words. Wordle can also help you vary your use of phrases that are repetitive but otherwise harmless. For example, you might not realize, during the drafting of your paper, that you’ve used the phrase Department of Health and Human Services 27 times in your seven-page paper until you see it in a Wordle cloud in a 64-point font.

While the issues I’ve covered so far are all vital qualities of writing that you need to consider when you revise your work, occasionally you’ll want to make major structural readjustments to your paper’s organization instead of focusing on these comparatively minor issues of style. Even if you begin your paper with a detailed outline built on crystalline logic, some measure of chaos inevitably creeps in as you write. For example, it may have taken you three paragraphs to adequately address a topic when you thought it would take only two, or you might have had far less material to include in a section than you initially planned. The result is often a paper full of interesting, thoughtful, yet disorganized ideas. At the Writing Center, we often recommend that students use a technique called reverse outlining to address their papers’ organization as they revise. As the name implies, reverse outlining consists of going through your paper and noting the topic of each paragraph, usually on a note card or Post-it; reorganizing these topics into an outline that makes clear, logical sense; and applying this new structure to your paper.

Reverse outlining can be a bit time-consuming, but there are a few software tools to make it faster and simpler. The word-processing and project-management program Scrivener has the most innovative implementation of this feature currently available. Scrivener’s Corkboard allows you to rearrange note cards on a virtual corkboard, and each note card represents a particular portion of your text. For example, if you move the note card titled “Impact of Piaget’s theories on contemporary psychology” so that it comes after the card titled “Introduction of Piaget,” Scrivener will actually move the text of the “Impact of Piaget’s theories…” section so that it comes after the text of the “Introduction…” section. Of course, you’ll still need to make minor adjustments to your text, such as tweaking your transitions, but this can save you a great deal of time overall in revision. (Note: Scrivener is currently only available on Macs, though there is a Windows version in development.) You can also use programs like PNotes or Word’s Outline View feature to reverse-outline your paper, though you’ll need to rearrange the text in your document manually.

Though these tools are by no means exhaustive—they can only supplement good writing practices and skills, not replace them—they can be a huge help as you enter the final stages of producing a finished discussion post, reflection paper, KAM, or dissertation. Revision is, quite literally, the process of seeing your writing again, and if nothing else these tools can help you to see, and refine, aspects of your work that weren’t yet apparent in your earlier drafts.

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