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Archive for August, 2011

The Top Ten, Number Eleven?

“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

–Yogi Berra

One of the perils of listmaking is that, inevitably, as soon as the list is finished, you think of other things that should have been on it.  So, having completed our discussion of the Top Ten most common student writing problems, we need to address a few honorable mentions.

Compound Words

Anymore and any more–

In the quotation above, Yogi uses “anymore” correctly, as a “time” word:  in the past, folks went there, but not now.

The two words, “any more” are “amount” or “number” words:

“After his eleventh pancake, he said he couldn’t possibly eat any more.”

Over time and overtime-

Anybody who gets paid by the hour knows very well that “overtime” means  “work and/or pay for work above the normal.”

“Over time” is usually used to indicate gradual change:

“Over time, the 60s radicals became mainstream.”

Breakup and break up-

In this pair, one is a noun, the other a verb.

“She wanted to break up with him, but somehow the breakup never quite happened.”

There, Their, and They’re

This is one of those writing problems in which practically everybody knows what’s “right”, but keeps making the mistake anyway.

And their doesn’t seem to be any particular pattern to they’re misuse.  It’s almost as if there determined to use the wrong one.

Then for Than

This one seems to be gaining in popularity.  The way it usually works is that the writer uses “then” in a comparison:

“The CEO was more conservative then she should have been.”

“If your team is anything other then supportive, you have work to do.”

Both of these, of course, should be “than”.

Maybe this happens because we pronounce the two words more or less the same when we speak them.  Just a guess . . .

That’s Not What I Meant, At All!

Some of the most highly esteemed-though not necessarily highly paid-professionals in the publishing and advertising businesses are proofreaders.  And the best of them are adept not only at finding misspellings, typos, and unfortunate grammar, but also at discriminating between sometimes very slight shades of meaning, making sure that the writing conveys exactly what it is meant to convey.

Those proofreaders are necessary because even professional writers are not all that great at proofreading their own work.  Yet, as a student, that’s precisely what you must try your best to do.

It’s important enough that it ranks number ten on our list of writing problems.

Let’s jump right in . . .

“The communicability of the disease has an estimated attack rate of 90% in household contacts developing the disease after exposure.”

This sentence is confusing largely because it’s so abstract.  (Also, it’s not the communicability, but the disease itself that has an attack rate, right?)   How about:

“90% of people who are exposed to the disease at home contract it.”

Sometimes a laudable impulse to state things unequivocally results in our going a little too far, forgetting about reality.

“Belief in life after death not only guarantees success in the hereafter, but also makes this world full of peace and happiness by making individuals responsible and dutiful in their activities.”

A few “qualifiers” will do the trick here:

“Belief in life after death not only helps us aspire to success in the hereafter, but also has the potential to make this world full of peace and happiness by making individuals responsible and dutiful in their activities.”

Sometimes stating a fact all by itself leaves the reader asking lots of questions.


“In the late 1950s nurse educators were identified as having prestigious education titles.”

This is probably a factual statement.  But why is it important that they were “identified”?  And, by the way, was this all, some, or just a few nurse educators?  Was this big news or status quo?

Then, finally, there’s the ubiquitous “they”.

“My opinion is that the nation’s crime reports are as accurate as they can make them to be.”

We all use this locution in conversation all the time.  (“You know what they say . . . “)  But in academic writing, it’s always better to say just who you mean by “they”.

Again, proofreading to make sure that you have said exactly what you meant to say is very, very difficult work.  Reading aloud can help, as can having someone read your work-quietly to him or herself or out loud to you.

But the one tactic most likely to make a difference is taking some time away from your writing before you begin to proofread.  Whether it’s a couple of days, a day, or even an hour-whatever you can afford-time away will help enormously.


Sources of Credibility

I am not one of those who in expressing opinions

confine themselves to facts.

–Mark Twain

If we’re being honest, I suspect we’d all be guilty, along with Mr. Twain, of not necessarily basing our opinions solely on facts.  But in writing for college, it’s a good idea to do your best to do just that.

Why do research at all?   Besides the obvious (“My instructor told me to.”), the basic reason goes back to that core truth:  we write to be read.  And if our reader is to take us seriously, to pay attention to what we have to say, it’s our job as writers to demonstrate that we know what we’re talking about, that we are credible.

Especially in academe, credibility derives from displaying an awareness of what’s already been written on our topic.  That’s where the research comes in.

Using the results of that research in our writing is number nine on the Top Ten List of common writing problems.

So here are just a few things to keep in mind when using sources in your research papers:

Introduce the source. Let the reader know that what is coming up is by someone other than you.

In the passage below, for example, the writer is referring to Jim Collins’s valuable book, Good to Great.  But that book has not been mentioned in the paper previously.

“This is not always possible, however, as discussed in Collins’s book.  A leader must figure out how to get the right people on the bus, move people on or off the bus, and seat people in the right seats who are already on the bus.  The bus refers to the organization to which one belongs.”

The reference to Collins here needs to be introduced.  Something like:

“In Good to Great (2001), Jim Collins uses the metaphor of seats on the bus to describe the organizational challenge.  A leader must figure out how to get the right people on the bus, move people on or off the bus, and seat people in the right seats who are already on the bus (p. XX).  ”

Fit your sentence to the quote. Since you didn’t write it, you can’t alter the source, so make your sentence fit it.

(My sentence) What we can say for sure about consumerism and the environment is that,  (quoted passage) ” . . . buying more and more unnecessary things is damaging our planet and contributing to global warming” (Sato, R., 2007, p. 136).

Keep it short. Especially using quotes, include only as much from the original as you need to make your point.

But make sure that, in doing so, you quote accurately.  If, for example, you begin in mid sentence, or leave words out of a sentence, use an ellipsis ( . . . ) to indicate that there’s more in the original than you have quoted.

If you didn’t write it, you must cite it. Otherwise you will be guilty of plagiarism.

That goes for paraphrases too.  This can no doubt be a complicated business.  Here’s a link to the ASAP Writing Center website that can help a lot.  Check it out!

Let’s Agree to . . . Agree!

A consistent theme in the Wordworks series has been . . . consistency, how it makes it easier for our readers to understand what we write.  Indeed, it’s not too much to say that, though we can learn all sorts of grammatical dos and don’ts, what grammar really boils down to is being consistent.

It’s important to be consistent in lots of ways:  pick a tense (present or past) and stick with it; if a pronoun refers to a single person or thing, it ought to be singular; if you write a list, all of the items in the list should be the same kind of words (noun, verb, sentence, attribute, whatever).

But the problem that ranks number eight on the Top Ten list is consistency of Number between subject and verb, a.k.a. Subject/Verb Agreement.  (In grammar, there are only two “Numbers”:  one thing-singular-or more than one-plural.)

“The number of the subject determines the number of the verb*:  i.e, if the subject is singular, the verb has to be singular, too.

–This is true even when there are lots of words in between.

The real pleasure (subject) of college study–dealing with ideas, making friends, challenging beliefs–sticks (verb) with us long after we graduate.

–A construction that often throws us off is “one of”.

Stephen Hawking is one of the most important scientists who have (NOT “has”) ever lived.  (It’s the “scientists” who have lived.)

–On the other hand, “none” (meaning “not one”) pretty much always gets a singular verb.

None of the administrators has a clue.

None of the dogs was housebroken.

–A subject is plural when several things are joined with the word “and”.

A fool and his money are soon parted.

The novel and the movie that was made from it capture our hearts.

–But the subject remains singular when other items are added to it, using words such as “as well as”, “with”,  and “in addition to”.


The sailboat with all of its accoutrements fits in my tiny garage.

The President as well as the Secretary of State and the Speaker of the House is expected to address Congress.


* Strunk, Jr., W., & White, E. (2000). The Elements of Style (4th ed., pp. 9-10). New York, NY: Longman.