Archive for the ‘language’ Category

Do you trust your spell-checker?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Something that I have always tried to instill in my students is a healthy skepticism of the abilities of the spell-checker. Having a button that will catch most spelling mistakes in a document is a wonderful thing. It saves time and improves accuracy, both of which are good. But it is far from infallible, and far from perfect.

For example, it will not differentiate ‘their’ from ‘there’ or from ‘they’re’. It will not be able to tell a ‘councillor’ from a ‘counsellor’. It will not be able to tell you that Jack Kerouac was ‘on the road’, not ‘on the rode’. Similarly, it will not tell you that you wrote ‘dog’ when you meant to write ‘god’, which can make for interesting theological discussions. There are many, many examples of such words that sound alike but have completely different meanings, or which are one misplaced keystroke away. If you are lazy with your proof-reading, it is very easy for these errors to slip through into your written work. Even the New York Times is not immune from making such errors.

So how can you avoid these mistakes?

  • Most importantly: proof-read your work carefully. By this I do not mean simply skimming over an essay before it is submitted. I mean taking whatever time is necessary to carefully and methodically read through your essay:
    • Go word by word. When we read, our eyes naturally skim, taking in several words at once. Try to avoid this when proof-reading, focusing instead on each and every word.
    • Many people find it helpful to use some kind of marker (finger, pen, whatever – it doesn’t matter) that moves along under the words as you read. This will help prevent your eyes from jumping ahead
    • Remember that you are focusing on accuracy here, not speed – do not try to proof-read in record time!
  • When proof-reading make sure that you are armed with the necessary tools and information:
    • As suggested here, you should always have at least a couple of good reference works handy when writing such as a good dictionary and a guide to English usage.
    • That way, if you are unsure whether you mean to write ’eminent’ or ‘imminent’, you can quickly find out
  • If your word processor has a grammar-check feature, use it.
    • Grammar-checks will catch some, but nowhere near all such errors.
    • Grammar-checks can also be deeply annoying, finding errors where there are none, so use it as a tool, but do not let it re-write your essay
    • Incidentally I lost a little faith in grammar checkers when one told me that a chapter from my PhD thesis was written at a grade 7 level. That was not encouraging.
  • Have someone else proof-read your work
    • There is often no substitute for fresh eyes
    • If you have written, edited, re-written, proof-read, re-edited, etc., your essay, you will miss mistakes. Having someone look at your work with fresh eyes will usually catch mistakes that you have seen and ignored multiple times. Don’t feel bad about this – it happens all the time and is one of the reasons why authors work with editors
    • If you do not want a friend or family member to see your writing, offers a proofreading service.

To sum up:

  • Be aware that all writers make mistakes – to borrow a line from the Blues Brothers, this includes me, you, them, everybody.
  • Before submitting an essay, take the time needed to carefully proof-read it
  • Arm yourself with the tools necessary to answer questions about spelling, meaning, and usage of words
  • Give your grammar-checker a shot. It may help, it may not
  • Have someone proof-read your work for you. If you want a professional opinion, can help.

Save the Words Update

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

I am extasiated to be able to tell you that the Save the Words site is once again active. It disappeared for a while there, rendering us all nequient in our quest to save perantique and interesting words from fading away. Now that this utible site was returned from its latibule, get out there and start saving those words!

Historiaster how-to

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Although I have adopted the word historiaster, I want to help you to avoid becoming an historiaster yourself. In this spirit, here are some things that historiasters do:

  • Plagiarize! There is no better way to be thought of as ‘a contemptible historian’ than to steal others’ words and ideas. Plagiarism is theft and there is simply no excuse for doing it. Take a look at your school’s course calendar. It probably has a section in the policies chapter that outlines your school’s policies and procedures regarding academic dishonesty, cheating, and plagiarism etc. Read this section. Then read it again. It is important, so make sure that you understand it fully. If you do not, talk to your prof about it.
    Schools, colleges and universities take these things very seriously, and they are right to do so. Penalties for plagiarism can range from a reduced mark on your assignment to a failing mark in your class, to suspension or expulsion from your school. I cannot stress this enough: do not plagiarize. If you do, you deserve whatever penalty is imposed by your school.
  • Be lazy! There are many ways to be lazy when writing an essay, and they will all hurt you in the long run. For example, you can simply use the first sources that come to mind without evaluating them or spending the time required to find good sources. The most obvious example of this is Wikipedia. These days, the first place that many people go for information is Wikipedia. Students are particularly prone to this kind of laziness! Wikipedia is in many ways a wonderful idea, and it is slowly getting to be more reliable. But the fact remains that anyone can edit Wikipedia entries. This means that you never really know what the source of the article’s information is, what the biases of the editors are, or whether the entry is entirely bunk. You may even find out the hard way that your prof has edited entries on your topic just to see if you use Wikipedia blindly. Trust me – I know that this has happened!
    But Wikipedia is not the only online culprit. One of my students made use of this page as a source for a medieval history essay. While it may well be an excellent source of information on “metaphysics” and “science” (and messages from other realms!), it is certainly not a reliable source for an essay on medieval Europe! This particular student Googled something to do with his topic, grabbed the first website that he found, made extensive use of the “information” contained on the site, and failed his essay. Incidentally, his essay also made reference to this game. While it is an outstanding game, it is completely unsuitable as a source for an essay! Here is a hint: unless you are writing an essay about video games, you should not make use of video games as historical sources!
    You can also be lazy by not taking the time to carefully edit or proofread your essay. If you want a professional to proofread and error check your essay, can help you. But at the very least, proofread your essay, pay attention to the language that you have used, and check your footnotes carefully. This all takes time, and it all takes effort. But like anything that requires hard work, the end result will be worth it.
  • Be sloppy! This is not unrelated to the point above re laziness. If your language is sloppy, your essay will be poor. If your arguments and analysis are sloppy, your essay will be poor. If you do not follow your prof’s instructions regarding formatting, font size, spacing, etc., your essay will be poor.
    Don’t simply trust the spell-checker in your word processor. For example, if you type “its” instead of “it’s” or “their” instead of “there”, it will not recognize the mistake.
    To cut down on spelling mistakes, and improper use of words (ie. “their” instead of “there”, “council” instead of “counsel” etc.) there is really no substitute for a couple of good reference books sitting within easy reach of your desk. Two to consider are:
    The Concise Oxford English Dictionary

    A Guide to English Usage
    You don’t need these specific volumes, but a good dictionary and a dictionary of usage are essential tools for anyone who values accuracy of language. Yes, there are online dictionaries available, but they do not offer the depth of information available ina  good printed edition and, even more importantly, they do not offer the possibility of browsing for the perfect word!
  • Be inconsistent! I have already touched on the importance of being consistent in your use of the past tense when writing history. There are other facets of language where consistency can be a problem. For example, what kind of English are you using? Canadian? British? American? Unless your prof says otherwise (and this is something worth checking with him or her), it usually does not matter which version of English spelling and usage you adopt. But it will look terrible if your spelling flips randomly between “color” and “colour”. The point here is that you should be consistent. Consistent in your use of tense. Consistent in your spelling. Consistent in your formatting, and so on.

So there you are. If you are intent on becoming an historiaster, then by all means plagiarize, be lazy, be sloppy and be inconsistent. If you aspire to being something other than contemptible, then do all that you can to avoid these things!

Apostrophe’s and plural’s

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

Much like the question of its and it’s, the use and abuse of apostrophes is one of the many things that can deeply irritate your prof. There are many ways in which apostrophes are used incorrectly, and they all are annoying to people who care about language. Your prof is most likely one such person, so avoiding this mistake is one of the ways that you can avoid putting him or her into a very bad mood. And of course it is one of the many ways that you can make yourself into a better writer.

Put simply, apostrophes do not make the plural.

In other words: “soldier’s” is the possessive form of “soldier”, not the plural. It means “of the soldier” or “belonging to the soldier”, not “more than one soldier”.

This sentence: “There were thirty soldiers in the field.” makes perfectly good sense while this one: “There were thirty soldier’s in the field.” makes no sense whatsoever. In the second sentence, the word soldier’s is not a noun, rather it offers a description of something that is absent. Thirty soldier’s what were left in the field? What the second sentence really means is “There were thirty belonging to a soldier in the field.”

It is easy to see why this has become such a common error in essays as we are surrounded by messages that include this mistake. Retailers are particularly guilty of this! How many times have you seen signs advertising prices for “iPod’s”, “shirt’s”, “orange’s”, or “used car’s”? These are all incorrect, and to pedantic people like yours truly, they tend to cause a kind of simmering anger and frustration. You do not want the person marking your essay to be in such a mood!

Key points:

  • adding ‘s to the end of a word does NOT make it plural!
  • adding ‘s to the end of a word indicates the possessive form of the word

Don’t be an historiaster!

Saturday, January 31st, 2009 is the proud new daddy of a very old word. Today I welcomed “historiaster” to the family, adopting it as part of an Oxford University Press campaign to Save the Words.

Every year lexicographers (the folks who study words and who compile dictionaries) make decisions about what words to include in dictionaries and what words to drop from dictionaries. In part this is based upon use. If a word is in common use, it will remain in the dictionary. If it falls from use, it may be dropped. Once a word has been dropped form the dictionary, it will become even more obscure in daily use, and eventually it will effectively cease to be a part of our language at all.

This is a sad state of affairs as words matter. Every word brings with it its own capsule of meaning, context, and nuance. As we lose words, we lose these meanings, we are unable to perfectly fit vocabulary to context, and we are unable to express ourselves in as subtle, nuanced and precise a manner as we might like.

This is where Save the Words comes in. By encouraging people to adopt an endangered word, making a commitment to use it as often as possible in their daily lives, they hope to keep the word in use, preventing its ultimate disappearance from the dictionary. And so has adopted “historiaster”. I will be working on a new mission statement that will include it, and of course I will use it as often as possible here on the blog and in my daily life. So please remember when you are reading these pages: pay attention to your language, and do not be an historiaster!

(historiaster = “contemptible historian”)

Save the Words [via Lifehacker]

historiaster: certificate of adoption

historiaster: certificate of adoption

Precision of language and why it matters

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

As I mentioned in an earlier post, precision of language in academic writing matters. Paying careful attention to the precise meaning of your words is one of the ways that you can quickly improve your writing. First, some examples:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.
  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

None of these statements are incorrect, but at the same time none of them should be included in an essay. How long is ‘a long time’? How many people constitute ‘a lot of people’? What about ‘many people’ or ‘a lot of things’?

Remember that you are trying to convey your ideas and analysis as clearly as possible to your prof. By using vague terms such as the examples above, you are undermining this goal, and your mark will suffer as a result.

But what happens when exact, precise details are not available? This is a fact of life for historians. Believe it or not, we simply do not know everything about everything. For example while it is easy to be precise about the length of Elizabeth’s reign or the number of Edison’s inventions, no one can say how many people died as a result of the Black Death, nor can anyone say for certain how many Africans were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade. But you can still be a precise as possible.  Whatever you do, don’t make stuff up!! Remember that academic research is evidence-based. If there is good reliable evidence for your topic – excellent! Offer thanks to the deity of your choice, study your evidence, write your essay, and await the excellent mark that your work will no doubt deserve. When evidence is lacking or when there is disagreement on a topic, say that this is the case and examine what details are known. Trust me when I say that this:

  • The exact number of people killed by the Black Death is unknown, but recent estimates suggest that 30%-50% of Europe’s population perished in the epidemic. [Include a footnote here showing where you found these ‘recent estimates’. This is essential. You can also take this a step further and use the footnote to comment on the estimates, the methodology used to come up with these estimates, etc.]

is much better than this:

  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.

Similarly, this:

  • While no one knows exactly how many Africans were enslaved by the Atlantic slave trade, recent research puts the number between 9 and 13 million. [Again, use a footnote as above]

Is much better than this:

  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

And for instances where concrete information is available:

  • Elizabeth I reigned as queen of England from 17 November 1558 to 24 March 1603.
  • Thomas Edison held no fewer than 1,093 U.S. patents.

Are far better than:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.

This is one of the many examples of how simple changes can quickly improve your writing. Remember that your words are the tools that you are using to build your essay. If you choose them wisely and carefully, you will be able to convey your ideas much more effectively, and if you communicate your ideas more effectively, your essays and your marks will improve.

Key Points:

  • do not use vague, meaningless language
  • be careful when choosing your words and make sure their precise meaning is appropriate
  • when possible, give explicit details, facts, and figures
  • when this is not possible, say that it is not possible, explain why it is not possible, and give your best evidence-based estimate

Why contractions are not cool

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Another aspect of writing that has the dubious honour of being included in my own personal list of pet peeves is the use of contractions.

Remember that when writing an academic essay, thesis, article, or book, your audience will be an academic one. Academics are peculiar people whose personal quirks and idiosyncrasies should be understood if you want to excel at university. They are also highly literate people who have spent a great deal of time reading the works of experts in their field and who in turn have produced extremely precise and articulate publications of their own. Because of this, academics tend to have very high standards when it comes to the use and precision of language.

While most profs do not expect undergraduate students to produce publishable essays, although it is wonderful when that happens, you must once again remember the golden rule of academic writing: do not annoy the person marking your essay. If your audience, ie. your prof, is expecting precise, correct, and formal use of language, you should strive to provide her or him with just that: precise, correct and formal language.

One of the many ways to do this is to avoid the use of contractions.

What are contractions? A contraction is simply a shortened form of one or more words. Some examples of contractions are:

Contractions are a common feature of modern English. Why, then, should they be avoided in academic writing?

Contractions are informal. Academic writing is formal. Using contractions will detract from the impression of precise, correct and formal language that you should be trying to convey with your essay. Writin’ sentences that don’t live up to the high standards set by your prof ain’t gonna impress anyone. However, writing sentences that do not fail to live up to the high standards set by your prof are not going to fail to impress anyone.

Most importantly, your reader will be expecting your essay to be written using formal expressions. In the interest of keeping your prof happy, you should strive to use correct, precise and formal language. A simple way to contribute to this goal is to eliminate contractions from your essays.

its vs. it’s

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

This is one of the most common mistakes that profs encounter when marking essays. It is also one of the most annoying mistakes and definitely has the potential to make the person marking your essay very cranky indeed. You do not want that, so pay attention!

The distinction between its and it’s is very simple. One is the possessive form of ‘it’ and the other is a contraction of the words “it is”.

“its” = possessive form of “it”. For example: “The dog chases its tail.”

“it’s” = a contraction of the words “it is”. For example: “It’s very cold outside today.”

You can file this one under pet peeves. It may seem like a minor distinction, but you should know that little things like this can make a big difference to your mark.

Getting tense about the past

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

I want to begin the language section of this site with a common problem that seems to confuse students, deeply annoy professors, and thereby cause much consternation and loss of marks: the past tense. This is an easy problem to fix, and it only requires awareness of one of the most basic facts about the writing of history. Always remember that you are writing about people, events, ideas, etc., from the past.

If one writes that “Susan goes to the store” or “Susan is going to the store” the meaning is very clear. At this particular moment – i.e. the present – Susan is in the process of going to the store. If one writes “Susan went to the store” the meaning is equally clear. At some point in the past, Susan made a journey to a store.

When you are writing history, always remember that you are writing about the past. To describe past events in the present tense simply makes no sense. Here are three examples from essays that my own students have written:

  1. In 1066 William the Conqueror invades England, removes the native aristocracy, and takes the throne.
  2. The tunnel collapses and Brunel is sent to hospital to recover for a long time.
  3. Many accused witches are denounced by their own friends and neighbors because they are scared that they too will be caught up in the investigation.
None of these statements are acceptable as part of a history essay, and not because of any factual errors. What we as historians are trying to do is to understand the past in its own context, not pretend that past events are happening in the present. To say that these events that occurred between 180 and 942 years ago are happening now is not only stylistically poor, it is also inaccurate, and accuracy is important in all academic writing.

The use of present tense in these sentences should be edited to place these events in their proper historical context:

  1. In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded England, removed the native aristocracy, and took the throne.
  2. The tunnel collapsed and Brunel was sent to hospital to recover for a long time. [note that the use of vague phrases such as ‘…a long time’ is also a bad idea! I will return to this topic later]
  3. Many accused witches were denounced by their own friends and neighbors because they were scared that they too would be caught up in the investigation.
This is an opportunity to admit that the movie Braveheart did in fact do at least one thing right. During the introduction, the narrator says:
The King of Scotland had died without a son, and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward the Longshanks, claimed the throne for himself. Scotland’s nobles fought him, and fought each other, over the crown. So Longshanks invited them to talks of truce. No weapons, one page only.
The fact that absolutely nothing in this paragraph is historically correct for Scotland in the year 1280 does not change the fact that the writers did get at least one thing right in this film. They used the past tense.
Incidentally, broadcasters are also guilty of the sin of incorrect tense. I am a long-time loyal CBC listener, but have on occasion cringed as their news reports used the present tense to report on past events. A journalist friend of mine once explained that this is done to make events seem more current, and more dynamic. Don’t fall into this trap! This is simply not acceptable in a history essay.

It is also important to be consistent. Don’t use the past tense properly in one part of your essay only to backslide into using the present tense incorrectly in another part. There are many aspects of historical (and other) writing that demand consistancy. Other examples are spelling, style, and documentation. All of these aspects of your writing can be improved through careful proofreading and editing, and this page will deal with each of them in due time.

Key points regarding tense:

  • remember that you are describing the past, and choose your tense accordingly.
  • be consistent
  • Allow yourself time to proofread your essay. An even better idea is to ask someone else that you trust to also proofread it for you. A fresh set of eyes can often catch mistakes, typos etc, that an author will miss.
  • Allow yourself time to edit your essay. Finding mistakes in an essay is great, but it will only help you if there is time to fix the mistakes!
Any questions? PLease feel free to send me an email by clicking here.


Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Whether writing about Pericles, the impact of the Black Death, Hitler’s rise to power, or MacKenzie King’s chats with his dead mother, historians have one thing in common: they communicate their ideas, analysis, and opinions by making effective use of language.

This is an obvious point, but it is worth remembering when it comes time to write your own history essay. Language is key to good historical writing. Remember always that the purpose of an essay is to communicate your ideas. You can write the prettiest, most perfectly formatted essay with complete references and a bibliography to die for, but if you fail to communicate your ideas effectively, then your essay itself fails in its purpose.

It is to help you in this aspect of your writing that the language category exists on this blog. I will regularly post articles relating to language, grammar, style, and usage. These posts will be written with students of history in mind, but anyone who writes in English should also find them useful.