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For 30-some years I’ve worked as a line editor of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles and professional reports. Much of what I edit is also reviewed by a professional fact checker, or else I check it as I go along. So, I get to see what’s incorrect in final drafts as well as what’s ungrammatical or infelicitous. The authors of virtually everything I work on have bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and often even Ph.D.’s, yet everyone goofs up in their writing sometimes. Allow me to share some common kinds of goofs. When I see them, it lowers my opinion of the writer. Hopefully we can motivate students by reminding them that these goofs reflect poorly on them in the eyes of prospective employers and other readers.

 

  • Professional fact checkers, in particular, know that writers are not always careful with factual details—that’s why checkers have jobs. Working alongside them, I’ve occasionally found startling differences between the manuscript the writer turned in and the galleys once the checkers have done their work. The memorable “oldest human settlement in North America,” for example, might become a ho-hum “long-inhabited place.” Often, a writer’s most compelling assertions are what need to be toned down. It is much easier to overstate one’s case than to present a nuanced truth that will lead readers to a similar conclusion. But if the truth is nuanced, so must be the writing about it.

 

  • Carelessness is also endemic in footnotes and endnotes, by the way. I’ve hardly ever fact-checked a piece with notes in which they all were accurate and consistently formatted. Notes in journal articles and reports that have multiple authors tend to be especially haphazard. Collaborators should agree in advance about what format to use, or assign one person at the editing stage to make the formats consistent, or both.

 

  • Inexperienced writers are prone to overcapitalizing. For instance, according to a graduate student’s self-description, he had worked at “a Startup that uses Artificial Intelligence.” The temptation to overcapitalize is especially strong with phrases that are often turned into acronyms—as “artificial intelligence” is with “AI.” But unless the thing is an official entity or officially designated kind of entity, there’s no reason to cap it. The NIH is the National Institutes of Health, a federal agency; a PCMH is a patient-centered medical home. The former phrase is a proper noun, while the latter is just jargon, or a so-called term of art. The reasons not to cap such things are that doing so ascribes undue importance, and in aggregate it can look forbidding and start to make English look like German.

 

  • My texting app is pretty good at distinguishing between “it’s” and “its”—but I can say that with confidence only because I know the difference. The more texts one writes, the more likely it becomes that one will have trouble deciding which form is correct in other writing. The English language didn’t make it any easier on us when it mandated that “the book’s cover” should have an apostrophe but “its cover” should not. All I can say is that good writers have been able to reliably distinguish between “its” and “it’s” for centuries. Its (just kidding!) not complicated.

 

  • Young professionals sometimes are unclear on when to hyphenate. They may hyphenate after “-ly” adverbs—as in “a strongly-voiced objection” and “a fully-fledged alternative—even though the rule against doing that would seem to be straightforward. Those phrases don’t misread without hyphens, so the hyphens serve no purpose. Young people also tend to multiply hyphens in phrases, writing things like “return-on-investment” and “an arrival on-time.” “On-time arrival” uses a hyphen so that “on-time” will be read as a unit. The need for that hyphen tempts people to write “arrival on-time”—and from there, I guess, “return-on-investment” isn’t much of a stretch. However, hyphens are much less often needed in modifiers that come after what they modify than in modifiers that come before. A “well-thought-out” argument is “well thought out.” Dictionaries, unfortunately, don’t reinforce this point. Merriam-Webster online says that “well-thought-out” is an adjective, defines it, and leaves it at that. Type “well thought out” into its search bar, and the site will hyphenate it for you and take you to that entry. As is usually the case, technological tools cannot take the place of good classroom instruction. If you don’t teach your students the difference, they may never find it out.

 

Some of these shortcomings have to do with fine points of writing, which won’t make or break, say, a résumé or a professional report the way sloppy thinking or shoddy research will. All the same, the problems I’ve described can for the most part be solved quickly, simply, and definitively. Getting things like these wrong signals a lack of mastery loud and clear—so it can’t hurt to teach your students to get them right.

 

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff@mac.com.

 

Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.

 

Credit:  Pixaby Image 1870721 by 3844328, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

As another semester begins, I offer praise for a "less is more" approach in the classroom. In particular, teaching fewer readings than you might usually assign, and teaching them slowly, can allow students to practice close reading and “close writing" in transformational ways. Think of it as "slow reading” and "slow writing” — which, let's face it, is how practiced readers and writers actually work.

 

I offer poet and essayist Claudia Rankine’s work as exemplary texts for this approach. Andrea Lunsford has blogged about Rankine’s edge-of-the-seat keynote at the 11th biennial meeting of the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference. Lunsford followed up with a post on teaching Rankine’s book-length poem, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). Both entries reminded me why my co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include Rankine in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. We chose Rankine’s essay, “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning,” as a text to slow-read on the topic of race in the U.S.

 

In this densely woven but accessibly brief essay, Rankine threads back and forth in history to provide a context for her incisive claim: “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black” (458). Rankine’s essay title comes from a friend, the mother of a black son, who captures this brutal truth: “The condition of black life is one of mourning” (458). Rankine stitches this observation to an almost identical lament in 1955, from Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted the mutilated body of her son, Emmett Till, be placed in public view: “Let people see what I see …. I believe that the whole United States is mourning with me” (460). As Rankine argues, “[Mamie Till Mobley’s] desire to make mourning enter our day-to-day world was a new kind of logic” (460). Imagine inviting students to read those sentences aloud, and to explore what it means to call this violence "a new kind of logic."

 

Perhaps because she is also a poet, the rhythm and economy of Rankine’s sentences beg us to slow down and ponder the word choices. What could happen if you give your students the space and time in class to consider (on paper, in pairs, in small groups, or in a large group) the implications for the following claim: “We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses into their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here” (459)? What insights might emerge as your students connect these words shimmering with feeling — with other reading in your course about the media, identity, education, or any number of topics we often teach in composition classes? Imagine returning to Rankine’s rich text as a touchstone, throughout your semester, to see what emerges in the context of other texts — a practice that can become a transformational tactic for lifelong readers.

 

Rankine’s poetic prose implores us to slow down. These thick and weighty words remind us how wrong-headed the advice is that novice close-readers often receive: “Read between the lines.” No. Instead, we should urge students: Read the lines. Read the words themselves, slowly. Read them aloud. Read them in the context of another writer's ideas, and then again in the context of yet another writer. Read them, certainly, in the context of their own lives, too. See how close reading  slow reading — invites a proliferation of interpretations. That challenge, and that pleasure, is the heart of our courses, and that takes time. Give yourself and your students that gift.