Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Toward a More Civil Union?

Image retrieved through Google Images and licensed through Creative Commons

In his recent op/ed piece for the New York Times, "Like, Degrading the Language? No Way," John McWhorter asserts, "A keystone of education is to foster awareness of, and respect for, diversities of opinion. Changes in language suggest that the general populace has become much more attuned to this kind of diversity. The increasingly wide and diverse circles of acquaintance Americans are likely to have may increase attention to a certain conversational civility."  To support this claim, he says that recent changes in American English are not to be feared or mourned, but rather to be celebrated as evidence of a more nuanced, sophisticated culture.  You can read McWhorter's article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/06/opinion/sunday/like-degrading-the-language-no-way.html?smid=fb-nytimes&WT.z_sma=OP_LDT_20140408&bicmp=AD&bicmlukp=WT.mc_id&bicmst=1388552400000&bicmet=1420088400000&_r=2.

What do you think? Are our recent turns of phrase a sign of a more enlightened society or are they signs of our downward spiral as so many suggest?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

10th Annual Illinois Emerging Writers Competition

Image retrieved through Google and licensed through Creative Commons.
Entries are now being accepted for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award and the Illinois Emerging Writers Competition. The contest, which is sponsored by the Illinois State Library and the Illinois Center for the Book, is open to residents of Illinois who are at least 18 years old.  More information about the contest, eligibility, and the entry fee can be found at illinoiscenterforthebook.org. Deadline for submissions is June 30, 2014.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Call for Submissions

DACC's literary anthology, Waiting for Rain, is now accepting submissions of poetry, fiction, and artwork for the 2014 edition.  You can send your submissions as a Word document to waitingforrain@dacc.edu or submit hard copies of your work to the submission boxes in Clock Tower.  One box is located outside CT210 and another is located in the DACC Library.

Submissions are also being taken for the 2014 Brosi Poetry Award.  First through third place submissions are published in Waiting for Rain. Cash prizes are also awarded.  First place wins $100, second wins $50, and third wins $25.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Writing in the Natural Sciences

Writing in the Natural Sciences

In this video from Hofstra University, several professors discuss how writing is important in their classrooms as well as their professional communities.  They also discuss what they expect from student writing and what they see as some problems students have in completing writing assignments for their classes.

Lab Reports and Scientific Papers: A Practical Reason for Understanding Rhetorical Situations

All images in this post are retrieved through Google Images and are licensed through Creative Commons.
One of the basic concepts that college undergrads encounter in their rhetoric and composition classes is the idea of the rhetorical situation and the need to be able to correctly assess different rhetorical situations and to adapt their writing to fit them.

Simply put, rhetoric is using language to educate, entertain, inform, or persuade. A rhetorical situation consists of the circumstances in which you find yourself writing.  Factors which usually comprise a rhetorical situation include the writer, the purpose, the audience, the topic, and the culture in which you write.

Although a paper you might write for a humanities class and a biology class have some similarities (clarity, a well-supported thesis, specific support, and good grammar, for example), there are some differences based the different rhetorical situations brought on by writing within different disciplines.  It's sometimes hard for students to understand why what one teacher wants in an assignment is not the same as what another one requires.  This sometimes seems arbitrary to them, but more often than not, it's related to differences in the rhetorical situations brought about by writing in different academic disciplines which are their own discourse communities with their own rules and expectations.  Understanding those differences will help you do better on your assignments in the hard sciences.

The first area to look at is how lab reports and scientific papers are structured.  Scientific writing follows a very specific format.

 Most lab reports and scientific papers are made up of the following parts: title page, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussions, and references.  The title page includes the name of the paper or experiment, the authors of the paper or students included in conducting the experiment, and the date.  The abstract summarizes the purpose, findings, and conclusions of the experiment whereas the introduction contains a statement of objectives and background information.  In the methods and materials section you should provide a list of the materials used and the procedures used for the experiment or study.  The results section contains the major findings of the study or experiment. You should include any calculations or data in this section.  Next, the discussions section is where you provide your interpretation or analysis of what you presented in the results section.  Finally, in the reference section you want to provide a full citation for any source material included in your paper or report.

The second area to look at would be writing conventions which differ among disciplines. The following list covers general criteria for scientific writing.
  • Be sure the title is concise and that it adequately describes the contents. It should be short, straight to the point, and very literal. 
  • Be sure you have used headings to label each section of your report or paper. 
  • Make sure the sections follow the order listed above.
  • Make sure the tone and style follow the general conventions for scientific writing.  As a rule, writing in the hard sciences is intended to be factual rather than entertaining.  Writers tend to avoid rhetorical devices that are used in the liberal arts and humanities such as descriptive language (not to be confused with  factual descriptions or observations), anecdotes, personal opinion, humor or dialogue.
  • Another contrast to the general conventions of writing for liberal arts and humanities is the use of passive voice in scientific writing.  Passive voice is the preferred construction over active voice.  In a sentence where active voice is being used, the subject performs the action indicated by the verb. For example, in the sentence, "I put solution X onto the lab slide, " the subject (I) is performing the action (put) indicated by the verb. Sometimes, when students don't really understand the problem, they try to correct it by using third person rather than first which leads to a sentence like this: "The student put solution X onto the lab slide." However, the subject (the student) is still performing the action indicated by the verb (put).  In passive voice, the subject does not perform the action.  Our sample sentence, when switched to passive voice, would then be written as follows:  "Solution X was put onto the lab slide." In this case, the subject of the sentence (solution x) isn't actually doing anything. Instead, the action is being performed on it.  Another clue that this is written in passive voice is the past tense linking verb "was" which is used with the action verb (put).
  • Past tense should be used in the methods and materials section.
  • Present tense is used when describing results and conclusions.
  • The procedure should be written in narrative format, in chronological order.
  • Sentences should be short and to the point. Facts should be expressed clearly and concisely.
  • Conventional scientific symbols and abbreviations should be used.
  • Any figures and tables should be correctly numbered and should be accompanied with an explanatory caption.  They should also be introduced in the text before they appear.
Of course these are general expectations.  If you have received instructions from your teacher which state something different, you should defer to his or her expectations.

More detailed information about best practices for writing in the sciences can be found here: Writing the Scientific Paper.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Closing Early 2/4/14

Due to the weather, we care closing early today.  If you wish to confirm we are open on
Wednesday before you come to campus, please call our number.  Our usual policy is that if DACC is holding classes, then we are open, but some of our staff live out of town and can't always get here.  Thanks.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Talk Grammar to Me or Twelve Ways to be More Endearing to Your Professors

All images in this post were retrieved through Google Images and are licensed for educational use through Creative Commons.

Okay, so we all trudge through passages like this on a daily basis.  We are even pretty good at it.  In fact, there is a whole meme industry that has run rampant on social media which exists solely to boost your ego by telling you how smart you are because you can make sense out of passages such as the one above (as well as being able to read backwards! Who knew?).  However, your instructors would appreciate it if you spent a little less time gauging your intellect through such venues and engaging your intellect in editing your drafts before you hand them in for a grade.  Below are twelve common problem areas when it comes to grammar as well as some tips for correcting them which have been peppered with little nuggets of humor along the way because who can't use a little more spice in their day? 

1. Missing Comma after an Introductory Element

When you use an introductory word, phrase, or clause to begin your sentence, you should use a comma after it to indicate a short pause.  You don't always need a comma if the element is very short, but it's never wrong to include it.

2.  Vague Pronoun Reference

Pronouns (words such as he, she, it they, who, that, and this) replace other words so that they don't have to be repeated.  The specific word or words they refer to should always be clear to your reader.

3. Missing Comma in a Compound Sentence

A compound sentence is one in which two or more sentences are joined by conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). You always place a comma before the conjunction.  However, you do not use a comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) when you have only a compound verb or subject.

The way to make sure you use correct punctuation for both of these situations is to cover up the conjunction with your finger. Now read what is on each side to see if it's a complete sentence by itself (subject, verb, and a complete thought is expressed).  If yes, use a comma; if not, then no comma is needed.

4. Wrong Word

This error can involve confusing words that sound alike or sound similar (they/their/they're or weather/whether), using a word with the wrong shade of meaning (saying someone is famous when they are infamous), or using a word that has a completely different meaning from the one you should be using.

5. Missing Comma or Commas with a Nonrestrictive Element

A nonrestrictive element is is word or phrase in your sentence that gives added color or meaning, but it's not essential for the reader to understand the meaning.  For example, I could write "When I was a child, my dog, Charlie, was my best friend." My dog's name isn't essential to understanding the meaning behind the sentence; it just gives more information to the reader.

A way to see if the word or phrase is what we call restrictive or non-restrictive, is to cover it up with your fingers and then read the sentence aloud.  If it still makes sense, then the word or phrase is nonrestrictive. If it is non-restrictive, then you use a comma or commas (depending upon where the word or phrase occurs) to set it off from the rest of the sentence.  In the example above, the word Charlie is a restrictive element.

However, if I write "My son Tom is in first grade, and my son Jared is in third grade," the boys' names are nonrestrictive elements in the sentence.  That is why I would not use commas to separate their names from the rest of the sentence.  To write, "My son is in the first grade and my son is in the third grade," would be confusing to the reader. They wouldn't know which son was in which grade.

6. Missing Verb Ending

We first learn language by listening to language.   We also tend to recreate what we hear as correct/standard grammar in our writing.  Because of both of these tendencies, it's easy to sometimes forget the correct ending (-s, -es, -d, or -ed) on a verb because they aren't pronounced clearly when spoken.

This happens frequently when a verb ending in -d or -ed is followed by a word which begins with the letter t. The d sound at the end of the verb blends into the t sound at the beginning of the next word. For example, the phrase "supposed to" sounds like "suppost to" which then becomes "suppose to" when we write it.

It often remains incorrect even when we try to proofread or edit our work, because guess what happens?  That's right! We read over the phrase and in our minds we hear "suppost to" which sounds correct. When you proofread, you have to be careful to make sure that verbs that should be in the past tense actually are written as if they are in the past tense, not just that it sounds as though they are.

Furthermore, if you have two or more verbs in a sentence and one of them ends with -s or -es, that means they all have to end with -s or -es.

7. Wrong or Missing Prepositions

Prepositions are words that help describe the relationship between other words in the sentence, usually through location or space (Before, at, on, under, and until are some examples.) Sometimes when we write, we use too many prepositions (using off of instead of simply writing off). Other times, we use a preposition that expresses the wrong relationship.

Someone may throw a ball to you. They might also throw one at you. To and at are both prepositions, and either would be technically correct in making a complete sentence; therefore, the question would be, which one really expresses the relationship you really intend to convey?

8. Comma Splice

Instructors often use the editorial notation CS on student drafts to indicate this error.  A comma splice means that you have two or more complete sentences in what you have indicated as one sentence.  In point number three, we discussed forgetting the comma when using a conjunction to join two sentences.  This error is sort of the reverse.  You have a comma, but no conjunction to go with it.  You can recapture a bit of your childhood and review conjunctions here: Conjunction Junction.

If you are editing to try eliminate comma splices in your draft, go through each sentence and look for where you have used commas.  Read what is on each side of the comma.  If it's a complete sentence (subject, verb, and a complete thought is expressed) then you have a comma splice.

The easiest way to correct the error might seem to be to place the correct conjunction after the comma. However, that isn't the only way to correct the problem.  You can also use a period where the comma is and split the sentence into more than one sentence.  You can also use a semi-colon where the comma is and a transitional expression.  Finally, you might find rewording the sentence is the way you want to go.  A good deal of you decision depends upon what relationship you want to create between the sentences, which sounds the best, and what other tactics you've already used to correct comma splices in other portions of your draft.  Here are how some examples of correcting a comma splice would look:

CS: My family always gets together to celebrate July 4th, we have a cookout and watch fireworks.

Possible Corrections:

My family always gets together to celebrate July 4th, and we have a cookout and watch fireworks.

(This is technically correct, but it is a bit wordy.)

My family always gets together to celebrate July 4th.  We have a cookout and watch fireworks.

(While technically correct, this may not be the best option if your writing is comprised mainly of  short, simple sentences.You want to work for "correctness" and variety in your writing.)

My family always gets together to celebrate July 4th; we have a cookout and watch fireworks.

(This example is correct and the flow of the writing is less choppy than in the example above because the pause indicated by the semi-colon is not as long.)

My family always celebrates July 4th by getting together to have a cookout and watch fireworks.

To celebrate July 4th, my family always gets together for a cookout and to watch the fireworks.

(Both of these examples show options for rewording the sentences into one that is more complex. Note how the wording directs the reader's attention to specific sections of the sentence.  In the first one, the fact that the family always gets together to celebrate the 4th of July is stressed as the important element to remember because that portion is still and independent clause. It would be a complete thought on it's own. In the second example, the focus is still on the fact that the family gets together, but the emphasis has shifted away from to celebrate the 4th of July and onto that they do it by having a cookout and watching fireworks.)

9. Missing or Misplaced Apostrophe

This happens most often when writers confuse a possessive noun with a plural one.

Okay, not that kind of possessive, but a noun that indicates possession or ownership such as "It was the raccoon's  dinner," as opposed to "There were raccoons eating dinner out of my backpack."

If a noun ends in -s but it is not also showing possession, then you don't need an apostrophe.

If a noun is singular (dog) or it is plural but doesn't end in -s (children), you need to add -'s to the end of the word to show possession.

The exception to this rule is the freaky it. With just about every other word in the English language, the -'s ending indicates possession and a simple -s ending with no apostrophe means it's a plural noun. We just said that, right? And then along comes the word it which doesn't feel the need to be constrained by such boring rules of grammar. Ugh.  Adding -s to it makes it possessive and adding -'s means you are using the contraction for the phrase it is.

If a plural noun ends in -s, then you add the apostrophe after the -s.

10. Sentence Fragment.

This error is often indicated by the notation "frag." on a student's draft.  A fragment is punctuated as if it were a whole sentence, but it is missing either a subject, a verb, or both. 

Fragments tend to happen because they occur logically before or after the sentence they should be a part of.  When we proofread our drafts, many of us do so by reading each page top to bottom and left to right, as we've been taught.  The problem with this when it comes to editing for fragments is that we automatically join the fragments to whatever sentence they belong with as we read.

In order to get a better grip on your fragment problem, if you have one, a stronger proofreading strategy would be to start at the bottom of the last page and look for the beginning of what you have indicated as the last sentence. Read it aloud. Is it really a complete sentence? If so, move on to the sentence right before that one and do the same thing.  If not, correct the sentence and then move on to the next.  Work your way backward through your draft until you are finished with the first sentence at the top of page one.

11. Missing Comma in a Series
If you have three or more items in a series, they should all be separated by a comma.  I know, I know. this convention isn't usually followed in journalism so you don't see it in magazine or newspaper articles--or usually on the internet (even in well written, credible pieces). However, in formal writing, you should still use a comma before the conjunction which precedes the last item in the series.

Vampire Weekend has a nice little ditty (uhm...a catchy tune or pop song) about Oxford commas and that perhaps some people are too involved in caring about unimportant things, like the Oxford comma.  However, commas which come at the end of the series of items are rather important as leaving them out can, and often does, inadvertently change the meaning of the sentence.

Besides, there's a whole Pinterest board devoted to them, so they have to be cool to use, right? What's not to love about that? Being cool and grammatically correct. Hmmm...not mutually exclusive. Okay.

12. Run-on Sentences (or the old R.O.)

In item eight above, we discussed comma splices.  Well, a run-on sentence is like a comma splice where you didn't even bother to stop and insert a comma (or any other punctuation).

In order to subvert your penchant for run-on sentences, read your draft backwards, as is suggested in the section above concerning fragments.  As you move work through each sentence, carefully look to see if there is more than one complete sentence between the capital letter and the end punctuation.  If there is, you can correct the error with the same tools you would use for a comma splice.  You can: use a comma and correct conjunction, use a semi-colon and transitional phrase if needed, break the sentence into two or more sentences, or reword it so you have one complex sentence.