Posts Tagged ‘usage’

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.

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

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.

Profs’ pet peeves

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Believe it or not, teachers and professors are actually human beings. As such, they too are subject to personal biases, annoyances and pet peeves.

Should this affect your writing? In a perfect world, probably not. In a perfect world we would all be completely free to express our ideas in whatever way we chose. This is not the case in academia!

When writing academic essays, theses, articles or books, there are certain restrictions and conventions that must be followed. There are good reasons that lay behind these restrictions and conventions. They have evolved over decades of use, and must be respected if you are to succeed in your classes.

The first thing you should acknowledge is that these formal restrictions will be placed on your research and writing. But those are topics for other days. What I want to bring to your attention today are some of the less formal, much more personal things that can negatively affect your grades: your profs’ pet peeves.

To begin, I will list just a few of the many things that have deeply annoyed me about students’ essays:

There are many others! One of these issues is universally unacceptable, while the others are sylistic and linguistic errors that simply annoy me. As a student, one of your goals should be not to annoy the person marking your work. This does not mean that you should bow without question to any unreasonable demands placed on you by your profs. It does mean that you should take the initiative and discover what you can about your prof, and what he or she is expecting from your essay.

I always addressed these issues directly and openly with my students in an essay guide distributed at the beginning of the course. If a student wanted to know what kinds of things should be avoided in an essay in one of my classes, they simply had to read their essay guide.

If your prof has given you an essay guide, read it! Such things take a great deal of extra time and effort to produce. As a result, your prof will expect you to have read it, and to have followed the guidelines that it contains. If you do not follow its guidelines, your mark will suffer and it may suffer badly! But don’t just give it a once-over. Read it actively. By this I mean that as you are reading it, ask yourself whether you really understand it. Is there anything that does not make sense? Is there contradictory advice or instructions?

If there is anything that you do not understand, talk to your prof. If he or she is unwilling to fully explain what is expected in an essay, then he or she is not doing his or her job. Once you have fully understood the essay guide, then follow its instructions closely. If your prof wants you to use the Arial font, but you like Times, use Arial. If your prof wants you to double-space your essay but you really, really think it looks better single-spaced, double space it! Remeber the golden rule: do not annoy the person marking your work!

If such a guide has not been provided, your first step should be to talk to your prof. Be specific in your questions:

  • Do you want page numbers? Where should I place them?
  • Does it matter what font I use?
  • Are there any lunguistic or stylistic guidelines you want me to follow?
  • How long should the essay be? [many profs hate this question: an essay should be as long as it needs to be. But ask it. Some profs have very specific requirements when it comes to word count, # of pages, etc.]
  • What kind of sources am I expected to use?
  • How many sources am I expected to use

and so on…

Your second step should then be to talk to other students who have taken classes from that particular prof. They should have received feedback on their essays, and may be able to pass this information on to you.

Ask questions. Be informed. Discover all you can about the prof and her/his demands, likes, dislikes, etc. Find out what you can about your prof’s expectations, and then produce work that satisfies these expectations. Do this, and you will receive a better mark.

Key points:

  • if your prof or teacher has given you an essay guide, read it, understand it, and follow its instructions.
  • if no such guide is available talk to your prof
  • talk to other students
  • don’t go into an essay blind: ask lots of questions, inform yourself, then incorporate this information into your writing

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.