Lessons from Midterms

by admin on October 12, 2011

Grading the 20+ take-home exams I inflicted on my students is finally done, and now it is time for some writing lessons, based on the most common errors I’ve found. Read and share.

1. Proper language – it appears most students do not know how to distinguish colloquial language from a formal, academic one. This is the inevitable result of too little reading (of books, that is). When a writer who has no clue what proper English is tries to produce it, we get some strange combinations whose author must have thought to be clever but that are really unintelligible.

Soon I will post a selection of such expressions and other gems from recent papers (past year) under Words to Avoid and Poor English.

2. A paragraph discusses one topic – for some reason, despite being among the basic rules of writing, all but one of my students had problems here, writing what visually looked like paragraphs but really were series of unrelated sentences. In the better “paragraphs,” the sentences were logically following each other, but had nothing to contribute to the essay’s argument. Maybe because there wasn’t one. And that takes me to the next point.

3. The first paragraph (of a short paper) defines where the essay is going – only 2 of the exams I read included such paragraphs. In all others, I had to guess what the argument would be, what issues would be discussed, and how the author proposed to answer the question.

4. Always prefer the specific over the general – inexperienced writers who are not so confident tend to describe events or make arguments in broad, sweeping terms. They seldom mention dates, places, people, and examples to support their broad statements. The result is a few pages of text that don’t say much.

5. Avoid clumsy expressions  – here I refer to filler words that one can almost always drop without changing the meaning of the sentence, or that one can with some maneuvering edit out to make a sentence clearer and more effective. I have a long list of these under Words to Avoid, and have posted an even longer list compiled by the New York Times here.

My three favorites that I absolutely refuse to accept in student papers are: in order to/for, the fact that, and in terms of.

6. Tenses do not change – in the middle of a sentence or an idea, that is. I’ve gotten used to students describing past events in the present; recently, switching between past and present (and sometimes even future!) for no apparent reason has been plaguing the writing of even the best students. See more on tenses under Grammar.

7. Some other minor but annoying points include:

a. However as an indicator of contradiction should not start a sentence. It best comes after a semicolon, and is followed by a comma. See more under Punctuation.

b. Repeating the same word in proximity (which I define as anything on the same page) is bad style. Sure, there are times when we have no choice. Some words really don’t have good synonyms, and professional terms cannot always be substituted. But how can one justify using important, period, modern, or growth five times in the same paragraph?

c. Passive voice – formal English prefers active voice (see more under Style). Using passive too much deprives one’s argument of essential information that can contribute to the clarity of the essay, such as who actually performed the action described.

d. Pronouns – for some reason, despite my ongoing efforts to fight this, students still use they or their for countries or people when it or he or she are called for.

OK, there are many more issues I could have mentioned, but I think I’ll stop here. I need to leave something for finals too, no?