Category Archives: writing problems

Write using positives to avoid confusion

Read the following sentence.

“But my neighbor refuted the idea that she could not disregard the least amount of dust.”

Did you need to read that more than once to figure out what it means?  The sentence contains several negative words which take more work to decipher than positive words.

student thinking about what to writeSentences like this one are common.  “A stay of execution has been denied.”  (Two negatives)  “That is not an insignificant barrier to success.”  (Two negatives, or three if you think of “barrier” as a negative)  “If seldom eaten, a candy bar is not injurious to our health.” (Three negatives)

As students, we are taught that a double negative equals a positive.  We are aware of “not,” “never,” and “no” as negatives.  But many other words with negative connotations can confuse listeners and readers.  Some are

Ain’t, although, any, avoid, barely, but, deny, doubt, few, hardly,  however, ignore, instead, least, little, neither, nobody, none, nothing, nowhere, rarely, refute, scarcely, seldom, and though.

Thousands of other negatives can be formed by adding the prefixes “dis-,” “‘il-,” “im-,” “in-,” “ir-,” and “un-” to words, as in disregard, illegal, immoderate, inverse, irrefutable and unlikely.

Adding to the confusion, in some languages and in some dialects of English, double negatives are acceptable to add emphasis.  But not in standard English.

So, if you want your readers to understand you at the first read, write using positives, not negatives.

By the way, that first sentence means that my neighbor said he or she could ignore a small amount of dust.

Should you name with different words?

Suppose you are writing about Mae babysitting.  Should you write:

Mae looked at the little boy.  This experienced babysitter wondered when she should put the child to bed.  The tired girl wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should the young woman do that?

Or should you write

Mae looked at the little boy.  She wondered when she should put the child to bed.  She wanted to bathe the child now, read him a book, and turn out his light in a half hour.  But should she do that?

Writing experts say to write the second way.  Why?

Normally, when we speak, at the second mention of a person, we substitute a pronoun for the person’s name.  If we use another way to describe or name the person, the reader thinks we are talking about a new person.  That is because we are so used to hearing a pronoun used as a second reference.

What does the first example add that the second doesn’t?  “Experienced babysitter,” “tired girl,” and “young woman.”  Do those descriptors add anything important to the meaning of the paragraph, namely, whether Mae should put the little boy to bed?  Not really.  Do they distract the reader from the real meaning of the paragraph?  Yes.

At second reference, use a pronoun.  At third reference, use a pronoun.  If other people are involved, especially another person of the same gender, use the persons’ names to avoid confusion.  Occasionally repeat the original person’s name to remind the reader who you are writing about, but most of the time, use pronouns for subsequent references.  If you must use a noun, use the most generic noun–girl, woman–at second or third reference.

Sometimes the simplest, least “clever” way is the best.

What is a weak thesis?

Many students don’t know the difference between a weak thesis and a strong thesis.  Here are some clues that show that an essay’s thesis is weak:

A thesis is weak if it is already known to be true, so there is nothing new to be explored.  For example,

  • Smoking is bad for human health.
  • Benjamin Franklin was an 18th century inventor.
  • The New England Patriots are a great football team.

A thesis is weak if it is a personal belief, not something to be investigated.  For example,

  • Summer is the best season.
  • Middle school is harder than elementary school.
  • Abraham Lincoln ranks number one among US Presidents.

The thesis is weak if it is too broad to be thoroughly investigated.

  • Hurricanes are dangerous storms.
  • Nancy drew books appeal to girls.
  • Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy.

The thesis is weak if it does not make a claim needing to be proven.  For example,

  • Dr. Seuss wrote popular children’s books.
  • Being a police officer is both good and bad.
  • In chess, each piece moves in particular ways.

The thesis is weak if it is not controversial, not a statement over which people can disagree.

  • Barak Obama was the 44th President of the US.
  • No human being has lived for 130 years.
  • Alex Fleming’s discovery of penicillin mold was one the greatest medical discoveries of the 20th century.

He? She? They?


A person from a nearby university was in the news lately.  This person’s name was given, but it is an androgynous name like Chris or Morgan which masks a person’s gender.  Later in the article this person was referred to as “they.” At first I thought “they” referred to several people, and I went back to reread the article’s beginning, thinking I had missed something.  But I hadn’t.  As I continued to read, I discovered that “they” is the pronoun this person preferred to be called.

Using “they” to refer to a known individual confuses me.  Using “they” to refer to a corporation, team or committee does not, although it seems grammatically wrong.  “The IRS sent me a letter.  They said I owe more taxes.”  When I work with students, I explain that the IRS is one government agency, so it should be referred to as “it” even though in informal speech many people refer to it as “they.”

What do you think about this?  Would you write about a particular individual and refer to that individual as “they”?

I have not faced this situation, yet it is only a matter of time since more and more people identify as gender neutral.  And then there are people who were born one gender but change their gender, like Bruce Jenner / Caitlyn Jenner.  What are our options if we want to be respectful yet accurate?

  • Refer to a person as “he” or “she” unless that person specifically asks us to use a different pronoun?
  • Guess which pronoun to use?
  • Ask an androgynous-looking or -sounding person which pronoun to use? Or is it up to the person to ask us to use a particular pronoun?
  • Call the person by a full name instead of using a pronoun?

Perhaps with time using “they” to refer to a specific individual (not an unknown person) will sound normal.  But at present it sounds wrong to my ear.  I would probably repeat the person’s name instead of replacing it with a pronoun as long as that was practicable.  But that might lead to some convoluted sentence structures.  In that case, I would probably use the pronoun the person prefers, explaining that to the reader.

A 21st century dilemma for sure.

 

 

The five-paragraph essay is an obstacle to learning

The five-paragraph essay is a form of convergent thought.  It encourages the writer to fit information into a formula:  an introduction stating a main idea and sometimes naming three supporting points; three body  paragraphs, one for each point; and a conclusion renaming the main idea and three points.

The five-paragraph essay discourages writers from exploring new ideas.  Instead, it encourages writers to stick with what they already know.

For example, a student writer might choose for an essay topic an uncontroversial idea, such as that smoking is bad for health.  The writer might choose as the three points 1) smoking destroys lungs, 2) smoking leads to diseases like lung cancer, and 3) smoking leads to facial wrinkles.  But what if the writer thinks, wait a minute, wrinkles aren’t a health problem.  The writer ponders, searching for a third reason why smoking is bad for health, and can’t think of one.  So the writer changes his topic completely to fit the five-paragraph format.

What if the writer had instead researched wrinkles to see if there is any connection to smoking and health?    The writer might have learned that wrinkles are a health concern.  He might have learned about research connecting wrinkles and smoking and health.  He might have learned some open-ended questions which scientists are striving to answer.  He might have learned.

The problem with the five-paragraph essay is that it encourages closed-minded thinking, not learning.  It encourages simplistic, not complex, thinking.  It encourages safety, not exploration of ideas.  It encourages fill-in-the-blanks, not critical thinking.

How to encourage primary school students to write better

If you are helping a student in kindergarten through second grade to learn how to write, you might want to check out Conferring with Young Writers  by K. Ackerman and J. McDonough.

ConferringWithYoungWritersThese primary grade teachers decided that they could have the most impact by changing the way they conference with student writers.  Here are some of their tips.

Establish trust with the student before trying anything else. How?  Let students see you writing and encountering problems.  Focus on the meaning of the child’s words and ignore sloppy spelling and punctuation.  Compliment students on their writing, focusing on particular things they do well.  Listen when the child talks about the writing process.  Get to know students as whole people first and as students and writers second.

Establish a routine for writing—a set time and place with pencils sharp, erasers in reach and plenty of paper.

Focus on one writing goal per lesson or unit. The goals should include choosing good ideas, structuring the writing appropriately, using conventions properly, sticking to one main point, writing in a natural voice, and providing details.  Teach those goals, model them, practice them and discuss with students how they can do them better.

Follow up on the points which they should have shown in their writing. The book shows several assessment tables, rubrics, and checklists which can be adapted by parents or classroom teachers.

Encourage students to choose their own writing topics and genres. Students will be more engaged and cooperative if they have choices.

Let students know it is not only okay but good if they talk to one another about the process of writing. Encourage them to read their writing aloud as they work.

Help students find good ideas to write about. Deciding on topics is one of the hardest things for some children.  Conferring with Young Writers offers several approaches to helping students identify what they might enjoy writing about.

Conferring with Young Writers offers a three page bibliography of books about teaching writing to children as well as an index.  At 144 pages, it is a quick but rich read for parents and teachers who don’t know how to begin teaching writing to primary grade students.  For more information, go to http://www.stenhouse.com.

Lockstep sentences, one after another, bore readers

What is a lockstep sentence?  Usually, it’s a sentence which begins with a subject (a noun or pronoun) and is followed by a predicate (a verb and a direct object, or a verb and a linked noun or adjective).  If there is a prepositional phrase, it comes at the end of the sentence.

Here is such a lockstep sentence pattern.

1  John watched the television news.  2  He saw an interesting discussion.  3  New York’s Congressman Newman debated Delaware’s Congressman Doe.  4  Congressman Newman took the conservative position and Congressman Doe took the liberal position.  5  “That’s a good discussion,” thought John.

Notice the sentence patterns:

1  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

2  subject, verb, direct object  (five words)

3  subject, verb, direct object     (eight words)

4  subject, verb, direct object, conjunction, subject, verb, direct object  (13 words)

5  subject, verb, predicate noun, verb, subject (six words)

These five sentences follow a lockstep pattern.  They all begin with a subject.  Two have adjectives before the simple subject, but all start with the complete subject.  Each subject is followed by a verb which is followed by a direct object in four cases and a predicate noun in the other case.  The longer sentence is actually two simple sentences following the same pattern, but connected with a conjunction to form a compound sentence.

In this case, the lockstep sentences contain few words, adding to their tedium.

A lockstep sentence pattern needn’t be this particular pattern, but it is a pattern which repeats over and over, sentence after sentence.

For some writers, the pattern is a single subject and a compound predicate.  “I ate dinner and took a walk.  The night was warm but humid.  I stood under a tree and waited for the rain to stop.  Then I went home and drank hot tea.”

For other writers, the pattern is an adverb to start the sentence followed by a subject and a predicate.  “Playfully, my dog licked my ankle.  Then she walked to her mat.  There she scratched herself.  However, she heard thunder in the distance.  Immediately, she returned to my side.”

For some writers, the pattern is a series of complex sentences with the subordinate clause always coming after the independent clause.  “I stopped the car because a blue light flashed ahead.  Soon cars parted as a fire engine passed.  Then an ambulance wailed while I checked my GPS.”

What can a writer do to avoid lockstep patterns?

First, analyze your own writing.  See if you consistently use a pattern.

Next, as your write, be aware of your tendency to use that pattern.  Look over your work, and if you notice that pattern, change the sentences.  If you usually begin with a subject followed by a verb, start some sentences with prepositional phrases, adverbs or gerund phrases.  If you usually begin with an adverb, cross out half of them, and then cross out half the rest.  If you write mostly short sentences, turn some of them into complicated simple sentences or complex sentences with double the words.

Lockstep sentence patterns are like familiar car routes.  We become so comfortable using them that we don’t explore new ways of expressing ourselves.  But we should to keep our writing fresh and our readers engaged.