Category Archives: revising weak verbs

Replacing weak or overused verbs with strong, specific ones.

Words to eliminate from your writing

Yesterday I helped a third grader revise her writing.  After the third time “so” appeared as a sentence opener, she recognized the repetition and went back to the beginning, crossing out that word.  “I use too many so’s,” she said without prompting from me.

We all have words like “so” in our writing.  What are some words you should be wary of overusing, or using at all?

Very.  Your writing is stronger without “very.”  Mark Twain suggested substituting “damn” when you write “very.” He said, if you need “damn,” use it, but if not, don’t use “very.”  “Very” is intended to strengthen the verb it modifies, but in fact, the verb is stronger without this modifier.

Really and almost all adverbs which end in –ly.  Think of these adverbs as crutches holding up the verbs they modify.  Take away the crutches and strengthen the verbs.

Then.  When we write about events happening in sequence, we might need to use “then” to keep the ordering clear to us.  But readers know you are telling events in chronological order.  They don’t need “then.”  So eliminate the “thens” when you are done.

Just.  So.  LikeRather.  Actually.  Figure out which words you overuse and eliminate them.

Words which mean “said.”  Use “said” if you need to identify who is speaking, but skip its synonyms unless you want the reader to focus on how something is said.  “Hollered,” “whispered,” and “choked” focus the reader on the way something is said.  Usually you want to focus on the meaning of words, not on how they are said.

Said.  Most of the time it’s obvious who is speaking, and “said” isn’t needed.  (But sometimes it is.)

Start and Begin.  Everything starts or begins.  Unless you are focusing on the beginning of something, skip these words.

Up, down.  He fell down.  Can he fall up?  She reached up into the overhead luggage compartment.  Can she reach down into such a compartment?

That.  When “that” introduces a dependent clause, it might not be needed.  Read what you’ve written with and without “that.”  If it reads fine without, take out “that.”

Famous forensic linguist cases

The publication of an anonymously written op-ed piece in The New York Times in early September brought to mind the idea of a “forensic linguist” or word detective. The term “forensic linguist” was coined in the late 1960s, though the work of word detectives goes back many years.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.In the US, the first crime solved by forensic linguists happened in 1927.   A girl was kidnapped in upstate New York.  Her family, the McClure family, received a ransom note addressed to the girl’s uncle, Duncan McLure, the only member of the family to spell his name McLure.  Yet the ransom note was addressed to Duncan McLure.  Police thought it odd that the kidnapper would know that the uncle spelled his name differently from the rest of the family.  They figured he was in on the kidnapping.  Sure enough, the uncle eventually confessed.

The case of the Unabomber was solved in 1995 with the help of a forensic linguist.  A man dubbed the “Unabomber” was wanted by the FBI for a series of bombings which killed three people and injured more than a dozen over many years.  This unidentified terrorist wrote a “manifesto” explaining his beliefs and promised to stop the killings if the manifesto were published.  It was.  One reader thought he recognized the writing style in the manifesto as the same style as of his reclusive brother.  An FBI profiler, James Fitzgerald, studied the manifesto, comparing the words and writing style with other known writings by the man’s brother.  The FBI brought the linguistic findings to a federal court which granted a search warrant for the recluse’s cabin.  Information in the cabin corroborated the suspicion that the recluse was the Unabomber.   Theodore Kaczinski was arrested and imprisoned, ending a 17-year hunt.

1996 was an election year with President Bill Clinton running for a second term as President.  A new novel told the inside story of a southern Presidential contender from the perspective of a campaign insider.  Its author, “Anonymous,” rocketed to the top of the best seller list.   The hunt was on for the author’s identity.  A Vassar College English professor, Donald Foster, used the skills of a forensic linguist to narrow down the possible writers.  Foster tallied word frequency in the controversial novel.  By comparing the result with word frequency in the writings of likely authors, Foster correctly identified the anonymous author as Joe Klein, a news magazine columnist.  At first Klein denied it, but later comparisons of portions of the hand-written manuscript with other handwritten work by Klein proved him to be the author, and he eventually admitted authorship.

Another example of forensic linguistics was in finding the author of a 2013 critically acclaimed novel, The Cuckoo’s CallingThe Sunday Times of London’s art editor suspected that Robert Gilbraith, listed as the author, might be a pen name of J. K. Rowling.  The Times hired a forensic linguist, Patrick Juola, to investigate.  Juola searched by computer for data related to adjacent words, to the most commonly used words, and to the use of long and short words, among other searches.   This gave him a “fingerprint” of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.   He did the same kind of search of The Casual Vacancy, a known book by Rowling, and of the final Harry Potter book.  Then he compared that data with similar searches of books by three other female novelists.  The results showed that Rowling was highly likely to be the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.  With all this evidence, Rowling confessed that she was indeed the author.

Will the identity of the anonymous op-ed writer be known soon?  If the original writing wasn’t edited much, then most likely the author will become known. The computer analysis of J. K. Rowling’s writing took only a half hour.  Plug in the right information, and a match will show.

But if the writer purposely disguised his or her usual style, the task becomes harder.  And if that disguised style was heavily edited, the task becomes harder still.  And if the author denies authorship (and many of those suspected to be the author already have),  then the author may go unknown for years, even decades, as did Woodward and Bernstein’s Deep Throat informant during the Watergate investigation in the 1970s.

For forensic linguists, it’s easier to eliminate suspects than it is to prove authorship.

 

 

 

Forensic linguists, a new kind of Sherlock Holmes

An anonymously written New York Times op-ed piece critical of the Trump White House was published on Wednesday. The author claims to be a senior official in the Trump White House.

Since then, a slew of senior officials have denied authorship. This raises the question: Can the identity of the anonymous writer be learned from an examination of his or her writing?

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.According to some forensic linguists—highly trained writing detectives—yes, the writer will eventually be outed.

What will forensic linguists be studying to identify the author? Some details might include:

  • The frequency with which particular words are used.
  • The average word and sentence length.
  • The average number of syllables per word.
  • The frequency with which articles (a, an, and the) are used.
  • The number of unique words.
  • Repetition of unusual words or variations on well-known sayings.
  • Regional or generational use of certain words.
  • Repeated errors such as in spelling, in use of apostrophes, or in grammar.
  • Sentence patterns.

Many crimes have been solved using the analysis of forensic linguists. But these specialists have erred too. They say it is easier to eliminate a suspected writer than to identify one.

No doubt forensic linguists are already busy comparing the anonymously written op-ed piece to known writings by senior White House officials.

Next: Some we’ll-known situations in which forensic linguists have proven authorship.

Citing evidence, paraphrasing and quoting

When students are expected to cite evidence from readings, beginning in late elementary grades, the problem of when and how to use paraphrasing and direct quotes arises, as well as how to combine the two seamlessly.

Let’s start with a story everyone knows, “The Three Little Pigs.”  Suppose the version of the story being analyzed says,

The wolf walked up to the door of the first little pig.  The wolf saw that the house was made of straw.  Silly little pig, thought the wolf.  I’ll have you for my dinner today.  So the wolf knocked on the door and said, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” 

Now suppose the student has taken the position that the wolf is a polite creature.  The student needs to cite information from the article proving this point.

What I have observed is that most students equate the word “cite” with “use direct quotes.”  To do that, students might quote the whole paragraph as their citation.  (I see this all the time.)  But that is not a good way to cite.

One good way is to cite by paraphrasing without ever using direct quotes.  For example, to prove the wolf is polite, the student could write,

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in.  In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

But suppose the student wants to quote the words, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” because they are so identified with the classic wording of the story.  The student could have written most of the same citation as above, changing it this way.

The wolf didn’t run to the door of the little pig living in the house of straw, but as the story says, he walked.  Also, the wolf knocked at the door and asked in a normal tone of voice to be let in, saying, “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” In other words, the wolf behaved politely.

This too is a citation.

However, what I see is that students directly quote two or three sentences or a whole paragraph without connecting the quote to their own grammar.  Both the students’ ideas and the direct quote stand alone in a paragraph with no transition from one to the other, and no attempt to shorten the quote to only a few key words.  If there is a transition from their own words to the direct quote it is stilted or confusing.

Students need much practice paraphrasing without using direct quotes, and paraphrasing plus using direct quotes.  This can be done using single paragraphs from fairy tales, songs, or news stories until students are comfortable with this kind of writing.

Summer is a great time to improve your writing!

Lots of activities shut down for June, July, and August, opening your schedule to study with experts and learn how to solve some particular writing problems–even your fear of writing.

One place you might start is at your public library.  When I visited Orlando last week, I picked up an Orange County Library System magazine, where I found five summer writing opportunities offered by that library system:

Write a novel this summer—A published author teaches “character development, plot, creating conflict, point of view, dialog, setting [and] voice.”

Writing backstory in fiction—An author-editor teaches you how to include cultural nuances and family histories “without losing the flow of the story they’re telling.”

World-building for fantasy—Another author shows how to create “believable and compelling worlds for your characters.”

First page workshop—A literary agent shows how “to polish your first page until it shines.”

Story development—A screenwriter / author explores how to come up with a good story idea.

I looked up the NYC library online, and I found it offers 19 classes on how to write during this summer, available at various branches.

My own public library system, in Gwinnett County, GA, offers several writing opportunities in June.

Memoir writing workshop–A published author shows how.

Writer’s Group–Walk-in advice from a group of writers to one another.

Writer’s workshop–A  writer of young adult fiction gives feedback for the first five pages of your book-in-progress.

Poetry writing–“Learn the essentials of expressing yourself through writing and performance.”

But libraries aren’t the only good places to flex your writing muscles.  So are your local bookstores.  The Barnes & Noble near my house has a Tuesday evening writers’ group open to everyone.  Bring copies of your latest effort, read it aloud, and learn from the feedback of published writers and wannabes.

If you’re not sure where to find writing opportunities in your community, ask your public librarian.  Librarians are trained to find almost everything.

Summer is a great time to improve your writing!

What if teachers write along with students?

Many times when I ask students to respond to short answer questions, to write summaries or even to write essays, I write too.  This “me too” approach has advantages.

I can test whether the assignment is doable. Recently I gave my fifth grade students a reading passage with a follow-up question requiring that the students supply two details from the passage to answer the question.  I could easily find one detail, but two?  The students had problems too.  Together we discussed this problem and figured out how to write an answer.  I recognized that their frustration was genuine, acknowledged that, and worked as a partner to solve the writing problem.  Sometimes I chuck the assignment altogether and give a different one.

If I suspect students might be struggling with a particular aspect of the writing—how to start, for example—I can offer several possibilities, and I can read my possibilities aloud, asking for students for advice as to which one I should choose. We can discuss the merits of each.  Or a student could say, “Here’s how I did it,” and read her solution aloud.  I am seen as more of a collaborator than a know-it-all teacher.  For some students, this can make me more approachable when they struggle with writing problems.  When I was in high school, I was assigned homework which would take two hours nightly in just one subject. By my doing the writing assignment with my students, I can judge how much time the assignment takes, and break the assignment into parts.

Students can listen to my vocabulary and sentence openings. They can listen for sentences of various lengths.  They can decide whether my “hook” hooks and whether my conclusion picks up on the introduction.  They can see how I use transitions, dialog, details and examples.  They can see how I incorporate the writing concepts which we talk about all the time.  And all this I do on a piece of writing which they are working on.  I give them a model which they can aspire to.

Of course, with some students my time is better spent discussing each sentence as they write it, making reminders as they go along, and praising attempts which flop.

But sometimes my example speaks louder than words.

College writing is moving into high school

I am working with a high school sophomore who is writing an argumentative research paper, the kind of research paper I was required to write in college.

His teacher identified the type of information required for each paragraph in a handout.  It includes a hook leading into an introduction leading into a thesis, using a funnel effect to taper to the thesis.  The thesis must have several elements, all of which must be backed with data in the body.

The body must have at least three sections of data supporting the thesis, plus a counter argument which must be debunked.  The conclusion should not merely repeat the thesis but in some other way support the ideas of the essay.

This essay is due not for an A.P. course but for a regular sophomore English class.

With another high school sophomore, I worked on a Toulmin essay.  This kind of essay has a rigid structure for each body paragraph.  First comes a position statement or thesis; second, a claim or example supporting the position; third, data cited to support the claim; fourth, a warrant or a clarification of the connection between the claim and the data; fifth, a counterclaim which rebuts the thesis; and last, a rebuttal with data to destroy the counterclaim.

With another high school freshman I worked on a response to a news article using the SAOQ method:  summarize the article in a few sentences; analyze the main idea or some aspect of the article; offer your opinion on the ideas in the article, using logical arguments to back your opinion; and offer three discussion questions of a probing nature to show you have pondered the article.

These assignments call on higher level thinking skills:  analyzing information; researching, using and citing appropriate data; recognizing truth from stereotypes or “fake news”; recognizing valid counterclaims; evaluating ideas; and synthesizing information into new literary forms.

In short, these writing assignments require critical thinking, the kind of thinking the Common Core Standards advocate.  No matter what you may think of the Common Core Standards, they are putting pressure on schools to develop students who can think.  In the three schools where my three students study, the schools and the students are meeting the challenge.