Category Archives: English Writing Instruction

Writing well takes study and practice.

Is it okay to use “I” in student writing?

Never use “I” in essays.

Never start a sentence with “because.”

Paragraphs must have at least five sentences.

Never start a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “so.”

“Were you taught these rules in school, as I was?  If so, it might surprise you that many teachers no longer enforce them or even support them.  Let’s look at one of these rules, “Never use I,” to see why the consensus is changing.

Using “I” can eliminate the passive voice.  Without “I,” you might need to use the passive voice (another no-no) as in “The essay was written by this writer.”  Isn’t “I wrote the essay” clearer? 

Using “I” can shorten your writing.  Concise writing is usually clearer and preferred.

Using “I” can eliminate awkward referrals to yourself.   I have read interviews by a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer who refers to himself in his books not as “I” but as “this interviewer” or “this writer.”  He seems to go out of his way not to use “I.”  He is trying to make himself inconspicuous in the text. Wouldn’t the word “I” do that better than “this interviewer”?

Using “I” can give your writing the authority of a witness, of a primary source.  If you are part of a group you are writing about, then you should be up-front about that.  Not using “I” can seem disingenuous. And if you were there to see and hear what happened, doesn’t that make your writing more believable?

However, writing “I think” is rarely justified.  If you are the writer, then obviously the thoughts are yours.  Since “I think” can sometimes mean “I am not absolutely sure,” using “I think” can undermine the strength of your writing. This is especially true if you add “I think” after making a statement. “Yes, officer, I saw the red car rear end the blue car. I think.”

Some teachers or editors follow the old rules religiously, so students should ask about using “I” before composing.  Or when appropriate, check a style book.  Use an up-to-date one though.  The rules of English, like all languages in use, change.

More on how to incorporate quotations into text

In my last blog, I discussed how to incorporate a simple direct quotation into a student text, using a hamburger visual.

Let’s try a more difficult quotation.

Suppose you are writing about hurricanes.   You are trying to explain how wind sheer prevents a hurricane from growing stronger.  You have found a good quote to explain what wind sheer does to a hurricane.

Start with your text in your own words:  “Wind sheer prevents a hurricane from growing stronger.”

Next (the top bun), you introduce who said the direct quote and why it is worth quoting:  “Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and director of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate at Columbia University, explains wind sheer as. . .”

Now (the hamburger), you write the quote:  “different winds at different altitudes were keeping it from standing upright.”

Uh oh.  A problem—actually two problems.  Your text concerns hurricanes in general, but Sobel is describing Hurricane Henri in particular.  You need to remove the word “it” (meaning a particular hurricane) and replace it with the word “hurricanes” (meaning hurricanes in general.)  Since you are changing the quote slightly, you need to indicate that by putting your substitution in brackets.  The revised quote becomes, “different winds at different altitudes were keeping [hurricanes] from standing upright.”

But a second problem remains.  The past tense helping verb “were” refers to Hurricane Henri, but your text concerns hurricanes in general.  For proper grammar, you could change the verb “were keeping” into the gerund “keeping.”  The revised quote becomes “different winds at different altitudes. . .keeping [hurricanes] from standing upright.”  You need the ellipses because the helping verb is omitted.

Last (the bottom bun), you explain why you think this quote is relevant to your text in your own words.  “Sobel’s explanation creates a visual image of winds tilting a storm’s clouds, making them less organized than in an upright storm.”

Now put it all together:

Wind sheer prevents a hurricane from growing stronger.  As Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist and director of the Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate at Columbia University, explains, wind sheer is “different winds at different altitudes. . .keeping [hurricanes] from standing upright.”  Sobel’s explanation creates a visual image of winds tilting a storm’s clouds, making them less organized than in an upright storm.

To recap:

  • To use a direct quotation, you must put it in context by identifying who made the direct quote and why it is relevant in the context you are using it.
  • The transition from your introductory information to the quotation must use correct grammar.
  • Sometimes words of the direct quote must be left out or changed slightly (for example, from singular to plural, from one verb tense to another, from one pronoun to another).
  • Any change in the direct quote must be shown either with ellipses or with brackets.
  • If several changes must be made, paraphrasing might be a better alternative.

How to incorporate direct quotations into text

Incorporating direct quotes into their own writing can be difficult for students.  They may not have read the kind of writing—academic, scientific—which routinely uses direct quotes, so they are unfamiliar with this type writing.  And they may not have been taught it explicitly—with lessons, examples, and practice.

If so, where should a teacher begin to teach how to incorporate quotations?

One way is with the image of a hamburger in a bun.  The hamburger stands for the direct quote, and the top and bottom buns stand for the “before” and “after” information that is also needed.

The top part of the bun is where you introduce the direct quote by explaining who the quote comes from and why the quote is worth quoting.  

For example, suppose you write about democracy, and you want to quote Abraham Lincoln’s definition.  You could introduce your quote by writing, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as. . .”

The hamburger part of the image is the direct quote itself: “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”  You don’t need to quote a whole sentence—just the part which meets your needs.  You might need to rewrite your introductory information to make it work grammatically with your quote.  You don’t introduce the quotation by saying, “It says,” or “Here it is,” or “The quote is.”

For example, you don’t say, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy.  He said, ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”  This example is not good because the writer does not transition into Lincoln’s quote.  A better way is, “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy.  He said democracy is ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’”  Even better is using the word “as” to replace “He said democracy is.”  One word instead of four.

The bottom part of the bun is your understanding of the quote and why you consider it relevant.  A good example is “This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

The finished quotation is “Abraham Lincoln defined democracy in his Gettysburg Address as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’  This definition is deceptively simple yet eloquent.”

To recap:

  • To use a direct quotation, you must put it in context by identifying who made the direct quote and why it is relevant in the context you are using it.
  • The transition from your introductory information to the quotation must use correct grammar.
  • Sometimes words of the direct quote must be left out or changed slightly (for example, from singular to plural, from one verb tense to another, from one pronoun to another).
  • Any change in the direct quote must be shown either with ellipses or with brackets.
  • If several changes must be made, paraphrasing might be a better alternative.

Recognize argumentative writing on the SAT by writing better arguments

In most of the reading selections of the SAT (except for the literature selections), the passages present arguments.  But most students don’t realize this.  And because they don’t realize this, they may miss a shift in the writing from information the writer doesn’t agree with to information the writer does agree with.  And that leads to missed answers on the SAT

For example, in one reading passage from The Official SAT Study Guide 2020 edition, three paragraphs—34 lines—discuss public transportation—the number of people using it, the long waits, the overcrowding, the squalidness of it.  Paragraph 4 begins with, “It doesn’t have to be like this.”  Aha!  A shift from presenting a problem to arguing for a solution.  The next 50 lines discuss the solution.

In the same test, another passage discusses how a scientist set up an experiment to learn how bird ancestors learned to fly.  His experiment was challenged immediately by a rancher familiar with bird behavior.  The rancher’s argument led the scientist to change his experiment.  As a result, the scientist gained two kinds of knowledge about bird behavior which upset longstanding theories.

In still another passage from the same test, Talleyrand, a French diplomat argues in 1792 that denying women equal rights brings “mutual happiness” to men and women, and to society as a whole.  A companion passage by Mary Wollstonecraft, a British novelist, responds negatively to Talleyrand’s argument point by point.

How to help students recognize arguments in their reading?  One way is to teach students to write argumentatively.  And how to do that?  According to Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, authors of They Say / I Say, use templates to teach students how to write logical argumentative responses.

Their most basic template is “They say, I say.”  This means to summarize what someone else says, and then to say your response.  For example, News commentators [They] criticize President Biden’s withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.  I say. . . or. . . With Covid 19 spreading like wildfire in Florida, the governor [They] says masks cannot be mandated for students.  However, I say. . .

One fundamental point of the authors of They Say / I Say is that essays are written not in a vacuum, but rather in response to an event, a challenge, or the opinions of others.  Middle grade students learning to write essays write in response to a teacher’s prompt.  High school students are encouraged to discover their own topics but within parameters set by their teachers.  College students respond to texts, lectures and current events.  Adults respond to the world around them or to new information / arguments in their fields of study.

I Say / They Say offers good writing templates for weaving direct quotes into writing, for stating why your point of view matters, for repeating key words and phrases, for objecting to, and for using transitions.

By knowing the words and the templates to create argumentative writing, students can better recognize the words and form of arguments of others—including those whose reading passages are included in the SAT.

Teaching kids to identify two kinds of run-ons

Not recognizing run-on sentences is a common problem among the middle school students I tutor.  Two categories of run-ons are the most common:  those using a comma instead of a period or semicolon to separate clauses, and those whose second clause starts with a pronoun.

EPSON MFP image

Run-ons which use a comma as the punctuation to separate the two clauses are sometimes called “comma splices.”  Here are a few examples:

  • August runs to his homeroom, no one wants to sit next to him.
  • Julian bullies August every day, Julian even starts the “plague.”
  • August forgives Jack later, Jack says “sorry” to him.

I have tried using sentence grammar to make students see that sentences like these are run-ons.  But that doesn’t work.  The most effective way I have found is to have the student say aloud the clause before the comma.  “Does that sound like a sentence?” I ask.  The student usually knows if it sounds like a sentence or if it sounds “funny.”  Then I have the student say aloud the second clause.  Again I ask if that sounds like a sentence.  We do this over and over.

Run-ons which begin the second clause with a pronoun are another kind I often see.  Some examples are

  • The meanest of all is Julian he puts mean notes in August’s locker.
  • Jack’s friends help them escape they become friends with August.
  • August runs away he has been betrayed by one of his friends.

I ask students who often write run-ons to look for pronouns in the middle of a sentence.  “Read aloud what comes before the pronoun.”  They do.  “Does it sound like a sentence.”  It does.  “Now read the part that starts with the pronoun.  Does it sound like a sentence?”  It does.

For students to identify run-ons this way, they must know what a pronoun is.  Sometimes one or two lessons on identifying pronouns must precede lessons on run-ons.

Students pay attention more when the examples come from their own writing or when the sentences contain their names or those of their friends.