July 2011 -->

Walden University Writing Center

Where instructors and editors talk writing.

Book Review: Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Connor

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Jen Johnson
By Jen Johnson, Dissertation Editor

A confession: I like grammar rules. Not because I think they are easy to learn or even always logical (where’s the fun in that, after all?), but because in a world that is frequently confusing and sometimes chaotic, grammar rules offer a comforting source of consistency. Nouns always (or should always) agree with verbs. Pronouns such as everyone and everybody are always singular. The word it’s is always a contraction for it is, never a possessive (that would be its). As both a writer and a reader, I find that kind of linguistic constancy reassuring, lovely, even elegant.

But in spite of my affection for grammar rules, I have to admit that few authors on the subject manage to bring those rules to life in a lively, let alone memorable, way. Patricia O’Connor is one sparkling exception. In her book Woe Is I (first published in 1996 and expanded in 2003), O’Connor infuses chapters on such potentially dry subjects as pronouns and punctuation with humor and charm. In an especially entertaining chapter on clichés, for example, she encourages writers to be discerning about which well-worn phrases they allow to creep into their work; among her list of overused clichés is “agree to disagree,” which she dismisses by saying, “People never really agree to disagree. They just get tired of arguing” (p. 169). And to illustrate the concept of a dangler, O’Connor uses this chuckle-worthy example: “Born at the age of forty-three, the baby was a great comfort to Mrs. Wooster” (p. 160). O’Connor’s use of humor as a literary device, while great fun, also serves a more serious purpose; by first tickling the reader’s brain with these little feathers of wit, she succeeds in making the reader more receptive to the (blessedly clear and concise) grammar lesson that follows. After the Mrs. Wooster dangler, for example, O’Connor explains,

As the sentence is arranged, the baby—not his mother—was forty-three. (The opening phrase, born at the age of forty-three, is attached to the baby, so that’s what it describes.) Here’s one way to rearrange things: The baby, born when Mrs. Wooster was forty-three, was a great comfort to her. (p. 160)

And that, I would say, is about as painless a grammar lesson as one could ever hope for.

Adding to the appeal of Woe Is I is O’Connor’s voice. Her tone is accessible, even conversational, making me feel at times as if we were chatting about the nuances of grammar over a morning cup of coffee and a warm cinnamon roll. About the verb to wake, for example, she writes, “There are lots of ways to greet the morning—maybe more than we need. You can wake, or you can waken, or you can awake, or you can awaken. So rise and shine, already!” (p. 67). And O’Connor’s candor about her own grammatical hang-ups, such as not always using the verbs may and might correctly (p. 59), is refreshing, especially considering that she was once an editor at The New York Times Book Review. (See, even experts can make mistakes.)

Woe Is I is more than a guide to grammar, though. O’Connor winds down the book with chapters on grammar rules that have gone extinct, such as, “It’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition” (p. 183); how to write more effectively (applicable whether you’re writing a dissertation or a letter to a friend); and e-mail etiquette (including the use of abbreviations, such as LOL, and emoticons), each of which could prove useful to readers wanting to sharpen their command of English grammar in all its many applications.

One caveat for Walden readers: O’Connor and the editors of the APA manual are not always in perfect agreement, and where they differ, the APA manual wins (at least when it comes to writing academic work at Walden). For example, O’Connor instructs the reader to add ‘s “to form the plurals of all numbers” (p. 30), but this rule contradicts APA 4.37, which directs writers not to use an apostrophe in plurals of numbers (e.g., 1950s, not 1950’s). And while O’Connor lists among her dead rules, “Data is a plural noun and always takes a plural verb” (p. 184), any student who submits work to the Writing Center knows (or quickly learns) that this rule is in fact alive and well in APA land. Such distinctions aside, Woe Is I is a smart, witty, and, for the rule-weary, palatable guide to the sometimes quirky world of English grammar. And for the grammar lover, well, this book is pure delight.

O’Connor, P. T. (2003). Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

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Announcement: New Appointment Scheduling System

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On July 7, 2011, Walden University launched a new scheduling system for our student services, including the Writing Center. This new system will replace the Walden Interactive Reservation E-System (WIRE) that students have been using to make appointments with the Writing Center since 2008.

On July 7, students will reserve appointments for July 25 and on through the new Walden scheduling system by clicking on the “Schedule an Appointment” link on their myWalden Portal under the Academics tab. This new system will ensure university-wide access to online scheduling. Our current scheduling system, the WIRE, will not be available for appointments after July 24.

We hope that you find this new and improved service helpful in contributing to your student experience and success in your degree program at Walden University. If you have any technical questions about the new system, please contact the Student Support Team. You can reach Student Support by phone at 1-800-WaldenU; by e-mail at support@waldenu.edu; or through chat: Choose "Click Here to Chat" on the Support tab in your portal.

Please continue to direct writing questions for the tutors to writingsupport@waldenu.edu and for the editors to editor@waldenu.edu.

We look forward to working with you!

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Because You Practice It Wrong: Writing as Empowerment and How to Make It Fun

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By Kevin Schwandt, Dissertation Editor

Walden University’s resident writing guru Jeff Zuckerman recently related a wonderful story of music education. As a musicologist—a nutty disciplinary title (not just a Prince album) that essentially means I’m a musician who is trained to be a writer and, equally, a writer who is trained to understand music—I was prompted by Jeff’s tale to think about my own educational path, one steeped in both writing about musical thinking and thinking musically about writing. I’ve always thought that the two disciplines lived, uncomfortably, in different parts of my brain, but Jeff’s tale made me reflect more seriously on how the concept of practice can transcend disciplines.

One recent morning, Jeff—a pianist, as well as Walden’s resident writing sage—asked his talented drummer and music educator son to jam for a bit. Jeff expressed disappointment with his inability to match a particular rhythmic passage, to which his son, an educator at heart, asked what precisely he was struggling with. Jeff asked why he could keep trying to perform one passage over and over again and never get it right.

As a good music teacher, his son replied, “Because you practice it wrong.”

The repetition of ineffective actions is perhaps the most confounding, though common, aspect of skill development. We crave familiarity, even when we know we need something new. The act of writing almost perfectly reflects this fundamental truth of most people’s daily lives. Struggling writers tend to repeat patterns; developing and growing writers change them.

When I reflect upon the long history of my education, I remember one of my first piano teachers. She emphatically told me that my piano ability would be with me forever; no matter how old I grew, I would always have my pianistic skills. The abilities I was fostering would bring joy to my life. Partly because I was a very stubborn child and partly because her tendency to smack my hand with a pencil to indicate my fingering errors was irritating, I didn’t believe her.

The angry child in me wants to say she was wrong. Years later, I must grudgingly admit that she was right.

Now, working to help students improve their writing, I have learned that those piano lessons meant more than I thought. Few things in my life make me as happy as playing the piano. One of them is writing. In both cases, reaching a point where practice became joyful, not tedious, required critically engaging with what I was doing.

Regardless of the task, practice means more than repetition. Indeed, repetition can be detrimental. Practice requires careful examination of one’s actions as well as the results of those actions. That examination, coupled with the bravery to try new approaches, makes practice both fun and productive. In many religious traditions, the concept of practice is considered the essential companion to empowerment. That is not coincidental; self-aware, critically engaged practice is the essential foundation of growth, change, and improvement.

The writing process is a privilege that we as scholars need to recognize. I believe strongly that writing is a gift. Indeed, as I often remind students at residencies, many people do not have this gift; it is precious and should not be taken for granted. Walden students tend to be people who seek to do good in a world that doesn’t always produce good by itself, so this isn’t a new idea for them. Walden students often speak for those who are institutionally voiceless. Nevertheless, facing deadlines and program requirements can make people feel assaulted and exhausted. As scholars, we need to remember that we are among the most privileged of people; we have the time and energy to think big thoughts.

As scholars, we have an obligation to put those big thoughts into words; our privilege comes with the responsibility to share ideas. To that end, the articulation of ideas should be performed with the same passion that led to the ideas in the first place.

To maintain that passion, scholars’ writing needs to be as active as the higher level thinking they engage in daily. When you find yourself in a rut, when the words don’t come as easily as you’d like, do something different. Change your word order; try new verbs; see if you can say the same thing four different ways. When you feel that you can’t write something correctly, focus instead on practicing your writing creatively. Make it fun by not practicing it wrong.

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Citing an Author Throughout a Paragraph: Notes on a Tricky APA Shortcut

Amber Cook explains using the year in in-text citations.
By Amber Cook, Senior Writing Specialist

In both the fifth and sixth editions of the APA manual, there is a shortcut involved in citing the same author multiple times within a paragraph. It’s a rule that was so vexing to understand in the fifth edition that we tutors had a long e-mail thread with the subject line “The Great 208 Debate.” (Page 208 was the location of the rule. And yes, we are that dorky.) In the sixth edition (now on p. 174, or p. 71 in the latest Perrin Pocket Guide), the guideline is explained somewhat more clearly, but it still generates more questions than just about any other APA conundrum.

There are two parts to this rule: One applies to narrative citing (where the author is part of the sentence itself), and the other applies to parenthetical citing (where the author and year appear at the end of the sentence within parentheses).

1. Narrative Citing: 

When presenting the author’s name in the text of a sentence, the year only needs to appear the first time it shows up, and it can be omitted thereafter in other narrative citations in that same paragraph:

a. First time for narrative citation:

Cook (2010) asserted that a shortcut causing this much trouble may not be a shortcut after all.

b. Next narrative citation in the same paragraph:

Cook noted that, in spite of the frustrations it sometimes causes, APA is a pretty handy style guide.

2. Parenthetical Citing: 

Every time the author of a source appears within parentheses, there must also be a year within those parentheses. Unlike in rule # 1, the year will never be dropped from the parenthetical citation:

a. Like this:

APA often confounds writers, especially with citation shortcuts (Cook, 2010).

b. Never like this:

Citation may actually be simpler without such a rule (Cook).

The key here is that these two rules operate independently. The number of times a source is mentioned in parentheses (# 2 above) will not impact the decision to use the year in a narrative citation (# 1 above). See this example:

APA often confounds writers, especially with citation shortcuts (Cook, 2010). Cook (2010) asserted that a shortcut causing this much trouble may not be a shortcut after all. Citation may actually be simpler without such a rule (Cook, 2010). Cook noted that, in spite of the frustrations it sometimes causes, APA is a pretty handy style guide.

If you'd like to see more examples, check out our post on Three Key Points for Knowing When to Use the Year or Date in APA Citations and our website resource.

Some other things to keep in mind:

1. This rule only applies to the same work by the same author. If you have multiple works in that paragraph, the rules here apply to each source separately.

2. This rule only holds true within one paragraph at a time. Once you shift to a new paragraph, you’ll need to start over with the citation pattern described above.

3. If you are using multiple sources by the same author, you must always include the year to differentiate between the sources.

The good news: It doesn’t get much more complicated in the APA manual, so if you can get a handle on this, you’re in great shape for navigating the rest of the guide. We may even let you in on our next geeky e-mail thread about APA minutiae.

Other posts you might like:

Three Key Points for Knowing When to Use the Year or Date in APA Citations

Demystifying In-Text vs. Parenthetical Citations

APA Citations: The Method to the Madness

What's the Citation Frequency, Kenneth?

When to Use an Author Name in the Body of a Sentence and When to Keep It in the Parenthetical Citation


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Electronic Interaction With Research Made Easy

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Photograph of author
By Beth Oyler, Writing Consultant

Based on personal experience, my guess is that most students groan when they find out that the assigned readings for a class are a whopping 28 pages at least. It’s not so much that we don’t want to read the material, but that we like to print out articles so we can write in the margins, highlighting and circling important information and ideas and scribbling large question marks when confused (that one might be just me). Marking up an article in this way helps us better understand the material, as well as pick out the important bits weeks later.

Not being able to print out long articles is a bummer because we cannot interact with the assigned readings. What I have now realized, though, is that the recent version of Adobe’s PDF Reader has some handy new tools that allow us to do just about everything we would with a print version. Previously these types of tools were only available to those who bought Adobe Acrobat Pro. Now the free version, Adobe Reader X, includes these capabilities.

Highlighting. Highlighting is an important and useful tool to use as you read an article. Not only can you highlight the main ideas of the author, you can also highlight ideas or facts that will be important to you in your research. If you’ve ever read an article, set it aside, and then come back to it weeks later with the intent of using it in your paper, you know what I mean. You’ve already read the article but have forgotten where that great quote was or where the author mentioned her thesis. By highlighting this important information, you can easily skim the article and find what you need.

Annotations. Not only can you highlight important information, you can also write yourself notes about the highlighted information to help you in the future. Not only are you now able to remember that this was important stuff, you can remind yourself why. There’s no need to wonder why you highlighted a sentence; an annotation can tell you that you thought it would be great to use in your introduction.

Sticky Notes. Similar to annotations, you can also place sticky notes throughout a document (similar to Post-its). Instead of highlighting something, you might want to include a global note for yourself, something that isn’t attached to a specific sentence or paragraph but is placed within the document itself. These are great for summarizing an article, recording your reaction to a particular paragraph, or noting to yourself where information might be useful in your own paper. Or maybe you want to insert that big question mark I was mentioning earlier when things get confusing.

Color Coding. You can also change the shape and color of any of these tools by right clicking and selecting “Properties." You can then make whatever changes you’d like and choose “Make Properties Default” so that all further uses of that tool will follow these settings. This might be useful if you want to highlight all information for chapter 1 of your dissertation in green and all information for chapter 2 in pink. Of course, you can always use these options to make the article just a bit more colorful!

Use these tools in whatever combination and way you’d like—if circular sticky notes make you happier, go for it! Just make sure to take advantage of these options. Interacting with your research will help you to better understand the material, make connections between ideas, and use the research in the future. No need to make the excuse that you couldn’t print out an article; use that green highlighting to your heart’s content!

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