When students don’t look up…

…at what they’ve just written, and at the squiggly lines that word processors generate under questionable word choices and grammatical errors, this is an example of what you get:


(From a recent student paper.)

Actually, most of my recent students have been good about proofreading. Examples like this one stand out to me partly because they aren’t that common, but partly, also, because I don’t understand why they happen at all.  That is, I can’t imagine what it takes to turn something in without (a) noticing these markings, and/or (b) caring to address them.

We’re still a long way from routine, sentence-level revisions!

Waxing sententious about sentences

With enthusiasts like Doug Lemov, the sentence is finally, after years of neglect, regaining its due. And this due is long overdue. After all, the sentence is the minimal unit of thought. It derives from Latin sententia, meaning “opinion” (and shares its root with “sententious”). As Catherine has cited J.S. Mill as saying, “the structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.” And, as I noted in my last post, it’s the smallest unit of prose that lends itself to multiple revisions.

Typically, sentence-revision enthusiasts have focused on syntax errors, word choice, and introductory phrases like “although” or “in desperation.” But Catherine and I would like to take this further—or, rather, we’d like to take a step back to consider the bigger picture. We’d like to move beyond errors and word choice to word order. And, in considering word order, we’d like to move beyond isolated sentences to sentences within texts.

What are the various word order options? Which ordering maximizes how well a sentence fits into its host paragraph and connects to what immediately precedes or follows it? What are the various options for taking apart and recombining the sentences in a text—even while making minimal changes to content? Which of these options maximizes clarity, flow, and sense of purpose?

We find that choices about word order and sentence combining can have an enormous impact, not just on how clearly the writer’s ideas come across and flow together, but on how interested and engaged the reader is. I’ll repeat here a rewrite I did of a passage from my son’s world history textbook.

The original:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. However this region was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. His forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes, yet whenever he left the country, disorder returned. Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy. His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him. He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.

In 1176, the foot soldiers of the Lombard League faced Frederick’s army of mounted knights at the Battle of Legnano. In an astonishing victory, the Italian foot soldiers used crossbows to defeat feudal knights for the first time in history. In 1177, Frederick made peace with the pope and returned to Germany. His defeat, though, had undermined his authority with the German princes. After he drowned in 1190, his empire fell to pieces.

My rewrite:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. This region, however, was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. So long as Frederick remained in these territories, his forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes who ruled there. But whenever he left, disorder returned.

Frederick left the country frequently. His destination was Italy, where, like Otto, he repeatedly invaded the rich cities. But his brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants and the Pope to unite against him (in an alliance called the Lombard League).

In 1176, at the Battle of Legnano, Frederick’s army of mounted knights faced the Lombard League’s foot soldiers. In an astonishing, unprecedented victory, crossbow-wielding foot soldiers defeated knights on horseback. Frederick made peace the next year with the pope and returned to Germany. But his defeat had undermined his authority with the German princes and, with his death in 1190 (a drowning), his empire fell to pieces.

Often, what looks like an issue about content is actually one of word order and sentence combining. In my rewrite above, for example, I barely changed any words, let alone any content.

Or consider that bugaboo of so many student papers: the issue of unclear connections or significance. Time and again, as a student, I’d receive papers back with comments like “how is this significant?” “how does this connect to your thesis?”. Time and again, as an instructor, I’d find myself writing these same comments in the margins of my students’ papers. Without thinking it through carefully, I’d generally assume, whether as a student or as an instructor, that the way to address these questions about significance or relevance was to add more content. And yet often this approach would end up bogging down the paper—and putting it over the word limit. Only recently did I start considering a much under-appreciated alternative: simply change the word order and the divisions between sentences.

Here’s a hypothetical example from a Great Gatsby paper. First, the original, with teacher comments in brackets:

Tom Buchanan’s “sturdy” body, “hard” mouth and “great pack of muscle” contrast with the “rippling and fluttering” dresses of Daisy and her friend, who look if they’d just taken “a short flight around the house.” But Tom enters and shuts the windows. [What is the significance of this statement? It sounds too much like plot summary?] This foreshadows the ultimately lethal effects of Tom’s brute force, because we see how the levity is squelched: the breeze “died out” and Daisy and her friend “ballooned slowly to the floor.” [How does Tom closing a window foreshadow lethal effects?]

And now a rewrite that mostly just re-orders the words in the last two sentences:

Tom Buchanan’s “sturdy” body, “hard” mouth and “great pack of muscle” contrast with the “rippling and fluttering” dresses of Daisy and her friend, who look if they’d just taken “a short flight around the house.” But that levity is squelched when Tom enters the room and shuts the windows. In a foreshadowing of the ultimately lethal effects of Tom’s brute force, the breeze “died out” and Daisy and her friend “ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Everyone, everywhere—from the Common Core to the College Board—is touting higher-level communication skills. But few people are touting what we suspect is the most promising starting point for written communication: not “critical thinking”, not group collaboration, not open-ended reflections about open-ended prompts, not Gallery Walk or Chalk Talk, but—yes, indeed, the very thing we’re in the middle of right now–the lowly sentence.

In order to teach students to write well, it requires that you get them to revise their sentences

Jostling me out of my grading groove this weekend was this item–another candidate for my collection of student sentences:

In order to be a successful advocate, it requires that you be extremely persistent.

I blogged about this type of sentence earlier: a moderately heavy modifier (“in order to…”) leads up to a maximally light subject (“it”). These elements, to my ears, beg to be tightened. The “it” cries out for elimination; the modifier, for incorporation into the main clause:

Being a successful advocate requires that you be extremely persistent.

(Or, taking it a step further: Being a successful advocate requires extreme persistence).

I’ve attributed the increase in such loose, wordy sentences, in part, to a decrease in how much students revise their papers. That’s not the full story—not everyone hears these sentences as excessively loose or wordy.  A student might re-read a paper full of them and not feel the slightest urge to revise anything.

But I’ve got other reasons for thinking that students aren’t casting their eyes back upwards—or leftwards–at what they’ve written. Consider the squiggly red lines that word processors generate under questionable word choices and grammatical errors. Even if students don’t notice the garbling of a sentence that begins one way and ends another, wouldn’t they at least notice a squiggly red line?

I certainly notice the red squiggles (and the green ones and the blue ones): they leap out to me as I marvel at why they’re still there. OK, it’s possible that students do notice the squiggles, and perhaps address some of them, but that they don’t care or don’t know how to fix all of them. For some reason, however, I prefer to think that their eyes simply never look back; that, as the spoken and written modes continue to merge (think text messaging), writers become like speakers in only worrying about what’s next. The past is over; there’s no sense in going back. If you have any corrections, make like Microsoft with its patches and simply tack them on to the end of what you’ve already said.

All the more reason—assuming we don’t want a complete merger between speech and writing–for teachers to step in and make students revise—and revise repeatedly. Doug Lemov has posted a great piece on this: he discusses both the virtues of assigning students frequent, multiple revisions, and the impracticality of teachers constantly reading and giving feedback on dozens of full-length papers. His solution? Focus on the sentence—the smallest unit of prose that lends itself to multiple revisions, and have students–guided by feedback–revise given sentences over and over.

I’m guessing that such practice would foster, among other things, refined ears for looseness and wordiness. And with that, a gradual reduction in “In order to X, it requires that..”, “In X’s book, it discusses…”, “From doing Y, it seems that…”, “For those people who do A, they also do B”—and a whole extended family of similar sentences that have sometimes offered me a perversely welcome distraction from grading.


À plus tard !

I’ve entered a slightly obsessive state …. writing, rewriting, writing, rewriting, writing, rewriting … I am stuck in a freaking loop.

I don’t like loops.

Anyway, long story short, I haven’t read comments.


I also haven’t read my email, or figured out how to use Anki cards with my Fluent Forever pronunciation trainers.

My Duolingo project, on the other hand (thank you, Doug), is proceeding apace, although I’ve recently discovered it is possible to get locked out of the app due to lack of “health.”

Which I don’t understand, health.

Back to the writing-rewriting business, it’s funny how college composition textbooks never mention that aspect of writing. According to every text I’ve consulted, the writing process has 6 stages:

  • Brainstorming
  • Freewriting
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Copy editing
  • “Publishing”

Where is Stuck-in-a-loop?

Here’s my two cents.

I don’t think real writers ever free-write.1 Ever, ever, ever, ever.

I certainly don’t. I haven’t free-written a word in my life.

Real writers obsessively write and rewrite the same passage for hours on end. Hours, days, months.

Sometimes years. One of Ed’s colleagues at UCLA took 20 years to write his book. His closest friend here at NYU may have taken longer than that.

They were both really good books, too.

1. Apologies to any real writers who do free write. Also, honesty compels me to add that I’m pretty sure “every text I’ve ever consulted” is probably an exaggeration.

Getting over my word-count mania

One of the best writing instructors I ever had gave some advice that, for many years, I took too much to heart. “Wordy,” “repetitive,” “you can reduce this passage by a third”—these were among Mr. C’s most frequent comments in the margins of our English papers. My takeaway: the number one priority in revising your work is to cut out as many words as possible.

To this day, I continue to cut. And even when I’m forced into virtual clear-cutting—say when my first draft is several hundred words over the limit—I’ve generally found what survives to be much improved: denser with active verbs and precise nouns, freer of fillers like “it” and hedges like “seems”.

At the same time, I’ve realized that one can take this too far. Does it really improve things to replace “on top of” with “atop,” or “the fact that X happened” with “that X happened”? Sometimes reducing words reduces accessibility. Mr. C. had noted that “the fact that” is, to use his words, “wordy, repetitive, and often a lie.” But “I enjoyed that the Eagles won the Super Bowl” sounds stilted, and “That the Eagles won the Super Bowl meant I didn’t have to teach yesterday” is just begging for “the fact”!

The fact is… that “the fact that” can greatly enhance readability.

So can fillers like “it.” Compare “that the Eagles won the Super Bowl thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors” with “it thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors that the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”

Hedges, too, can be crucial. Even those that seem to add no actual content—like “clearly,” “obviously,” and “apparently”—often hedge the existing content in significant ways. Consider the “obviously” in:

Obviously, the U.S. is not a company, but a similar model can still work.

Without this “obviously”, the writer would appear to think it necessary to tell her readers that the United States isn’t a company. “Obviously,” acknowledging their awareness, allows her to state an obvious premise without insulting anyone’s intelligence.

Or consider the “clear” in this review of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem:

The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s)…

“Clear,” besides granting that the Alan Moore/Alma Warren connection may be obvious to the reader, casts the word-play idea as a judgment of the reviewer rather than as an explicit intention of the author.

Finally, consider the “apparently” below (from a recent CBS/San Francisco report on a robbery at a Walnut Creek Tanning Salon):

But apparently that wasn’t enough, because he then demanded that she also give him every bit of loose change in the register.

“Apparently,” too, adds little semantic content. But it distances the writer from the judgment that “that” wasn’t enough, attributing it instead to the robber. The irony that results makes those four extra syllabus totally worthwhile.

Not as much rules about grammar now

A couple of excerpts from an essay J recently submitted for English 101:

At that time, people didn’t think that smoking was as bad, and therefore a lot of people have smoked and there weren’t as much rules about smoking in the building or restaurants or bar, and even hospitals.

Speaking of people drinking alcohol, there was some prohibition from 1920 to 1933, but it seemed like picture was taken after the prohibition ended, but before the prohibition ended, there were some organized crimes, like going to a secret bar and drink alcohol.

The professor loved it, particularly appreciating its “informal tone.” I loved it: J wrote it all by himself, without any help or edits from us. J’s grandparents loved it, too. None of us can stop marveling at how far he’s come, from barely putting two-three words together at age 6, to, after years of computerized grammar training, writing college-level English essays.

Right—college-level English essays. And there’s the rub.

“I trust the teacher will give him some feedback on grammar and punctuation,” my mother wondered.

Well, no.

In fact, at this point in my experience with the education world, I would have been surprised if there had been any such feedback. In the ed world, after all, it’s all about false choices and fake freedoms: open-ended communication as opposed to the confines of grammar; encouraging students to express themselves as opposed to stifling their creativity. No matter that, once in the real world, well-formed sentences suddenly matter: whether you’re writing a cover letter, a memo, or even a routine, job-related email message. Outside of English class, clumsy, error-filled sentences not only make you look careless and stupid, but also close off opportunities.

In fairness to the professor, I should note that (1) many of J’s sentences contained no errors; (2) the course is an online Blackboard course. (Normally online classes aren’t open to full-time undergrads: permission to take English online is the one accommodation that the disability office has made regarding J’s difficulty working in groups in English class—group work, naturally, having long been the norm in the brick-and-mortar versions of English 101).

This online English, as a Blackboard class, lacks functionality for marking up papers. Blackboard makes it convenient to submit papers, grades, and general comments, but (at least in the versions I’ve used) not to insert comments within student work. The best you can do is cut and paste entire passages into the “comments” window and then make edits (or cut and paste somewhere else, make edits, and then re-paste into comments). This procedure (though I’ve often resorted to it) is unwieldy. And it’s unwieldy not just for the person making the edits, but also for the student—who may or may not bother to do all the scrolling up and down that it takes to process all that’s been cut, pasted, and edited.

It wouldn’t be that hard for Blackboard developers to make inline edits as convenient as everything else is. But for this to happen, a lot more people would have to care.

Blogging out some thoughts around preposition agreement

Just as subjects and verbs can agree (“he walks”) or disagree (“he walk”), so, too, with verbs and prepositions. For example, we “bring up” a topic; we don’t “bring of” a topic; we “speak of” someone”; not “up” someone. Arbitrary though preposition agreement is, it matters. As with verb agreement, errors be hard on the ears.

How hard depends on what your ears have gotten used to. For decades now, “different than” has been edging out “different from”, and “based off of,” “based on.” Then there’s the gradual displacement of “about” by “around”—as in “issues around.”

The latter, I believe, is part of a larger, older trend that begin with the spatial meanings of certain prepositions. People used to look about the room; now they only look around the room. They also used to see things before them: now they only see things in front of them. For decades, the meanings of “about” and “before” have been shifting away from the concrete and spatial, narrowing towards the more abstract and temporal.

But now even the abstract meaning of “about” is in jeopardy, what with issues around identity and discussions around immigration. Meanwhile, “around” is broadening into some sort of all-purpose preposition, with people doing work around special education and the like.

Other recent examples of preposition displacement—or is it examples around preposition displacement?–include jargon: ”follow-on” for “follow-up” (“follow-on questions”), and the superfluous “out” of “share out” and “tweet out.” When I hear these, I also hear the faint echoes of consultants and commentators coining new phrases for old concepts.

Beyond the trendy, there the sloppy—the stuff that abounds, for example, in student papers:

  • There are different elements to the question.
  • She was the subject to an investigation.
  • He felt shame towards what he did.
  • It was made in bronze.

These seem like the byproducts of mental interference from (or is it mental interference around?) similar phrases in which the verbs and prepositions do agree:

  • There are different sides to the story.
  • She was subjected to an investigation.
  • He had feelings towards someone.
  • It was cast in bronze.

Then there’s plain old weird:

  • Another key criterion that distinguishes Asperger’s Syndrome to autism is…

Or the weirdly inverted:

  • She attributes the child’s multiple supports to his academic success.

I’m guessing that many of these errors would be evident to their authors, and readily corrected by them, if only they would carefully re-read and revise. But might today’s preposition disagreement also reflect a more general decline in attention to the details of sentences—not just in writing, but in reading?