08.19.2012 Oooooooh, Modifiers!0

A modifier is a word or a group of words that affects the meaning of another part of the sentence. They can describe, limit, qualify, and provide additional information. When the modifier is in the right spot, the sentence effectively and correctly communicates the writer’s intended meaning. When it’s in the wrong spot, confusion often abounds. Let’s have an example, courtesy of Maroon 5 and their song “Payphone.” (Hey, that should be two words, not one, and I’m sure Adam Levine has a cellie.) In any case, as he laments the end of his relationship, he sings, “But even the sun sets in paradise.”

So what’s the problem? It’s with the word “even,” which is acting as a modifier here. Placed where it is, it makes the sentence mean, “All kinds of things set in paradise, including the sun.” But that doesn’t make any sense. What other things might be setting in paradise? Jello, maybe?

To make the lyric clear and correct, we need to move the modifier: “But the sun sets even in paradise.” There. See the difference? Now the sentence means, “The sun sets in the Midwest, in Europe, in India, all over the world, even paradise, where you might expect the sun to shine around the clock, being paradise and all.” In this revised sentence, the setting sun is a metaphor for the end of the relationship, which is of course what the songwriters intended with this lyric in the first place.

Let’s look at another example to drive home the point. We’ll start with the sentence “Fritz ate the donut” and add the modifier “only” in various places in the sentence; you’ll see how the meaning changes:

Only Fritz ate the donut. (No one else ate it.)
Fritz only ate the donut. (He didn’t do anything else to it.)
Fritz ate only the donut. (He didn’t eat anything else.)
Fritz ate the only donut. (There were no other donuts. Fritz, that selfish bastard, ate the lone donut.)

This is really just the tip of the modifier iceberg. For now, just remember that the modifier should be placed right next to whatever it is supposed to be modifying. And Adam Levine should be placed right next to me.

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07.18.2012 My Kingdom for an Indeterminate Singular Pronoun0

Everyone needs to pick up their toys.

If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve never seen anybody so crazy about their cat.

When somebody has a question, they should raise their hand.

Guess what? All these sentences are technically grammatically incorrect according to Standard American English. Can you spot the problem? It’s that the words “everyone,” “anyone,” “anybody,” and “somebody” are singular, and the pronouns used in each sentence are all plural. There’s so much to be frustrated about here, we don’t even know where to begin.

These messed-up singular subjects are as good a place as any to start. Words like “everyone” and “everybody” certainly sound plural, don’t they? Too bad for us, but they’re not. It’s easier to understand this if you insert the word “single,” making them “every single one” and “every single body.” You can do the same for the others: “any single one,” “any single body,” and so on, though these are easier to recognize as singular in the first place, since they don’t seem to be referring to large numbers of people.

So, now that you accept these subjects as singular, you understand that they need singular, not plural, pronouns to refer to them. “They,” “their,” and “them” are plural, which makes the sentences incorrect. Which pronouns should we use instead, then? Our only choice, if we want to retain the original sentence structure, is to use the clunky and overly-formal sounding “he or she” or appropriate variation:

Everyone needs to pick up his or her toys.

If anyone calls, tell him or her I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve never seen anyone so crazy about his or her cat.

When somebody has a question, he or she should raise his or her hand.

Of course, these “correct” sentences are cringe-worthy, especially that last one. To avoid sounding like a Victorian schoolmarm, you could rewrite the sentences to dispose of the problem altogether. This involves changing the subject to one that’s plural:

All the kids need to pick up their toys.

If people call, tell them I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve seen folks who are crazy about their cats, but this takes the cake.

When students have questions, they should raise their hands.

So that fixes the problem and satisfies grammar sticklers. However, what your English teacher probably didn’t tell you is that the use of singular “they” has a long and respectable history, dating from the 14th century and used by Jane Austen and Chaucer, among many other celebrated writers. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that grammarians, following Latin grammar rules, decided to frown upon it. And so we are stuck with an arbitrary rule forbidding the use of singular “they.” We would encourage you to go ahead and use singular “they,” “their” and “them” all you want, but you may run into a difficult grader or a cranky recipient of your business memo. Suddenly, you’re viewed as incompetent, in the area of grammar, anyway. So to be safe, we advise sticking to the rule in your writing and professional communication, and reserving singular “they” for everyday conversation and informal writing.

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07.03.2012 The Basics of Academic Writing, Part Four0

We’re back from an excellent vacation in the northeast. Office Cat now wants to relocate to Boston. We’re in the triple digits here at home, and his coat is luxurious but unforgiving in this heat.

Today we carry on with our academic writing series. We’ve described how to summarize and evaluate; now it’s time to explain that most dreaded of terms—analysis. Students have an automatic groan reflex triggered by this word and any of its variations, but really, it’s not that bad. Like anything else, you just have to understand and practice.

When you analyze something, you’re breaking it down into its distinct parts in order to more fully understand it as a whole. Like summary and evaluation, this is something we do every day. Let’s say you just ate a ham sandwich. You’re marveling at the amazing deliciousness of this ham sandwich. You seriously can’t get over how good this sandwich is, and you want to know *why* it’s so good. To determine the answer, analyze the sandwich. Break it down into its parts and see how those parts relate to each other.

After speaking with the owner of the deli, you learn that the bread is fresh, baked just this morning by artisan bakers. The ham is hickory-smoked, pasture-raised Surryano. The mustard is handmade in batches using heirloom seeds.

This is analysis. You’re investigating each element of the sandwich in order to determine how they come together successfully. It’s the same basic process for academic analysis. If your assignment is to analyze “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, you’ll break it down into its parts, in this case, the elements of fiction. So, you can choose to discuss plot, tone, characterization, setting, and so on, and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the story works as a whole.

It’s important to remember that analysis isn’t just the “what,” it’s the “why.” It’s not enough to describe the components of the sandwich; you have to explain why they complement each other and combine to produce such awe-inspiring yum. You could say that the sweet nuttiness of the bread contrasts nicely with the delicate saltiness of the ham, or that the crisp freshness of the lettuce provides a nice textural surprise to the whole. For the story, you could say that carnival setting presents a backdrop against which the unexpected could happen, or that the description of the underground catacombs mirrors the darkness in the narrator’s heart. For analysis, you always want to ask yourself, What are the features of X? How does part (a) relate to part (b)? What are the connections among elements?

Next up, synthesis! Hang tight, the wait shouldn’t be too long.

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06.07.2012 A Somewhat Controlled Rant0

From time to time, we check craigslist and the freelance jobs boards to see if there are any writing needs we can cover. Some of these postings do recognize the value of quality writing and pay accordingly, but way too many offer shamefully low wages; we’re talking .01 cent per word and even lower.

We assume there are people who accept these insulting jobs, but we’re very curious to see the writing that they produce. In order to make even enough money to keep these cheap writers in Ramen noodles, they need to churn out content so quickly, there’s no time for fact-checking, revising, or proofreading, let alone pride of craft. It’s difficult to see how they would want to work particularly diligently or carefully for someone who views their efforts with such disregard.

Writing is a skill, not a magic trick. Good writers don’t just pull quality content out of their ears. They conduct research, pay attention to the client’s requirements, revise at least once, check for typos, and so on. Yes, the craft of writing is accessible to most anyone who wants to put in the time and effort to learn how to do it well, but that doesn’t mean that clients should hire just “anyone.” It’s a mistake to assume that pitiful wages will result in quality work, in any industry. Would you offer someone $1 to cut your hair? Rewire your house? Babysit your children? It’s hard to understand why so many employers are content to pay virtually nothing to a writer whom they expect to properly represent them or their organization.

Many of the writers who accept these pitiful assignments are located overseas, and spend most of their time spinning old copy with awkward phrasing and poor grammar. This is in no way a dig at people who do not speak English as their first language; we respect the time and dedication it takes to learn another language, and English in particular is so tricky that even many native speakers have difficulty with some of the rules. It's just that if clients are interested in polished, original writing that meets their specifications, paying beneath the poverty line is not the way to go. As a general rule, you get what you pay for.

If you’re a good writer with experience writing in diverse areas and a strong command of the language, please don’t settle for these miserable gigs. We know it can be hard out there for a freelancer, but there are employers and clients who recognize your worth, and are willing to pay for your high-quality writing and the peace of mind that their needs will actually be met. Stay strong!

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06.01.2012 The Basics of Academic Writing, Part Three0

We know you’ve been on the absolute edge of your seat waiting for the next installment of our academic writing series. Well, here it is! We’ll discuss evaluation today, and explain its importance in critical thinking and writing.

The basic concept of evaluation is clear enough, as it’s something we do every day. You evaluate when you decide whether there’s enough money in the bank to stop at your favorite place for lunch, whether it’s warm enough to wear your new t-shirt, whether you want to spend $10 and two hours at the movie theater, whether your significant other will be irreparably angry if you skip that family dinner, and so on. Thus, evaluation is the process of examining something, developing an opinion, and coming to a conclusion.

You arrive at your judgment based on a set of criteria. If you are debating between buying a new book in hardcover or waiting for the paperback, you’re basing this decision on a set of criteria you’ve established. One criterion might be how much you have enjoyed this author’s writing in the past. If you’ve read and loved everything she’s every written, you are more likely to purchase the book. If you’ve never heard of the author before, you are probably less likely. What are some other criteria you might use in this evaluation? Things like your total disposable income, whether you have a library card, amount of free time available for reading, reviews by literary critics, internet buzz, and recommendations from friends are all things you might consider.

You will be asked to employ evaluation regularly in your college writing. You may be required to write a critical review or an analytical response to a book, article, short story, film, class discussion, or guest lecture, for example. For this, you would need to first establish a set of criteria on which you’re basing your opinion. You’ll need to think about these criteria carefully. The action movie “The Expendables” may not be deemed particularly valuable if your criteria include strong writing and acting. However, if your discussion is on American pop culture and its influence on the movie-going public, you may come to a different conclusion about this movie. Similarly, if your guest lecturer spoke in a monotone and never looked up from his notes, he would not be evaluated very highly on the basis of entertaining and engaging the audience. But if the content he delivered shed new light on an old problem, or proposed an exciting new theory, he could be evaluated positively on the whole, based on criteria that concern the speaker’s contribution to his field.

You’ll also use evaluation in straightforward argumentative writing. If you’re arguing a claim such as “The Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to bear arms,” you’ll need to evaluate the arguments for and against this issue, and choose the strongest to support your claim. You’ll need to further evaluate the sources you’re using, to make sure the arguments are solid and that the writers are credible. That process is a whole ‘nother discussion we’ll cover later.

To help you with academic evaluation, you might want to start consciously thinking of the criteria you use in your day-to-day, ordinary evaluations. Ask yourself, “What is my basis for choosing jeans over a suit today?” The answers should be pretty easy to figure out, so no brain stretching there. But developing a habit of paying attention to evaluative criteria will help you when you’re called on to think and write critically.

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05.23.2012 The Basics of Academic Writing, Part Two0

In our previous academic post, we offered a definition of academic writing and introduced its four basic parts: summary, evaluation, analysis, and synthesis. Today’s post should help you understand how and when to use a summary in an academic paper.

The type of paper you’re writing will determine what kind of summary you need. If the assignment is a literary analysis, you’ll need to provide a brief summary of the story or book you’re analyzing. This summary most often appears in the introductory paragraph of your essay and mentions the work’s title, author, and main plot points. Keep the summary to no more than four or five sentences; there is no need to go into extensive detail here. Instead, cover only the most important points, making sure everything is in your own words. You would compose the same type of summary for a film or TV analysis. Place your thesis statement at the end of the summary.

You can do something similar for a paper in history or political science as well. If you’re discussing a particular battle of the Civil War, you can open with a short summary of the events and highlights of the battle, then state your thesis. A paper on election reform might begin with a summary of the 2000 Bush-Gore election controversy. A summary isn’t going to work every time for every paper, of course, but it’s actually a pretty easy option to pull out of your tool belt when you can.

You’ll need a different kind of summary for something like an argument or position paper. Depending on the topic, you could offer a summary of the positions for and against the issue, or sketch a historical overview of the topic. Again, this isn’t going to work for every paper; many issues are far too complex to summarize briefly this way. But for a topic like social media, which has a fairly short history, a summary could work.

In addition to providing necessary background information to your reader, a strong summary shows that you thoroughly understand your topic. This instills confidence in your audience and adds to your credibility as a writer. If you’re interested in developing your writing skills, learning how to craft a good summary is the best and easiest place to start.

Next up, evaluation! The good times are really rolling now, huh?

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05.20.2012 The Basics of Academic Writing, Part One0

On one hand, academic writing can seem fairly straightforward, because much of it involves communicating your opinions and interpretations of an issue or text. You are used to offering opinions on a daily basis, after all. What you may not be used to, however, is framing those opinions within a critical context and supporting them with reasons and evidence. In academic writing, it is not enough to simply state your views; you must explain your reasons for believing them. This kind of critical thinking is the cornerstone of academic writing.

In their book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing*, authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein ask you to imagine arriving at a party that has been going on for quite some time. When you get there, you see several people steeped in conversation and debate. What do you do? Do you barge right in and offer your views, then head for the bar? You might, but you wouldn’t be regarded with much seriousness. It makes more sense to sit quietly and listen for a while, think about what you already know about the topic, then politely advance your opinion and the evidence that supports it.

Any topic in academic writing should be thought of this way—as an ongoing conversation to which much has been contributed before you, and to which much will be contributed after you. So it’s important to show that you are knowledgeable about what previous scholars have written on the various arguments supporting each position. Otherwise, you come across as the drunken ignorant boor of the party, and no one wants that.

This analogy should help you understand how to approach academic writing. Now all that’s left is a knowledge of how to actually do it! We will address the four parts of academic writing—summary, evaluation, analysis, and synthesis—in upcoming posts. You are no doubt on the edge of your seat.

*We know book titles should be italicized. We're blaming Drupal for the lack of italics here.

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05.18.2012 Why Businesses Should Blog0

When considering the multitude of work required to run a business, sitting down each day to compose a blog probably doesn’t rank high on your list of bottom-line-enhancing tasks. The research is clear, however: regular blogging generates significant leads and sales for businesses of all sizes, and it’s best to jump on this train while many of your competitors are lounging around the station like it’s 2005.

Why do blogs work so well as a marketing tool? For one, creating relevant, informative content helps portray you as an expert and enhances the overall credibility of your business. It shows that you know your stuff and that you stay current on developments in your field, and you thus come across as more knowledgeable than a competitor with a static (blogless) site.

In the same vein, blogs allow you to communicate directly with your customers. If you run a restaurant catering to locavores, for example, you can use blog posts to discuss the various farmers and ranchers you buy from. Or you could post photos of your kitchen staff hard at work on a veggie quiche. These types of entries speak directly to your demographic, and can also interest potential customers who hadn’t thought about the issue until coming across your site. Responding to any comments on your posts further personalizes your business. You can also include an “Ask the Expert” feature, allowing customers to initiate interaction with you.

Blogs are also an inexpensive advertising tool. While it’s definitely a bad idea to use your blog as simply a series of promotions, you can use it to mention special offers, discounts, or contests. When compared to the cost of traditional print advertising, you can see how the savings would quickly add up.

Most important, regular blogging increases your search engine ranking, which is key for all businesses, and online businesses in particular. Crawlers look for fresh content and keywords, both of which are naturally incorporated in your blog posts.

If you aren’t already convinced that blogging is crucial for your business, we’ll let the numbers do the talking. Businesses that blog regularly have 55% more visitors to their sites, and generate 88% more leads than businesses that don’t blog (Hubspot Inbound Marketing Report, 2011).

If you’re sold on blogging but want to outsource the actual writing, ask about our rates for blog posts. You’ll get polished, relevant content and personalized service at a reasonable cost. Sorry for the shameless self-promotion, but hey, blogs can be used as advertising tools, remember? :)

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05.15.2012 Fun With Synonyms0

Yet another reason writing can be difficult is the challenge involved in choosing just the right word. Suppose you want to describe someone who is above her ideal weight. Is that person plump? Heavy? Flabby? Chunky? Fat, obese, huge, big, bigger, corpulent? Chubby, fleshy, portly, solid, hefty? Zaftig? Rubenesque, voluptuous, full-figured, curvy? You can immediately see that many of these words convey different ideas; some differences are slight, and some are significant. Because your job as a writer is to deliver information as accurately as possible, it’s important to choose terms that paint the picture you are trying to create.

A thesaurus is helpful here, of course, with a warning: don’t choose a word you aren’t already comfortable using. If you choose one you don’t know just because it sounds impressive, you could end up confusing the reader with a word that does not at all communicate your intended meaning.

If you’re creating your document in MS Word, you could also try the handy thesaurus feature. Let’s say you want to describe your large housecat as “stout,” but you decide that doesn’t properly depict what you’re going for. You can place the cursor in the middle of the word “stout” and hit Shift+F7, and a list of synonyms will pop up. You can further choose any one of those synonyms to look up, resulting in even more options. Using this method, you might finally settle on “rotund,” which you think perfectly captures your cat’s combination of remarkable size and stately presence. The same caution applies here; only choose a word you already know well. Remember, you’re looking for just the right word, not an obscure or “smart” one.

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05.09.2012 Me, Myself, and I0

Why are so many people using “myself” in ways they shouldn’t be? Some examples are, “Call either Marcy or myself if you need anything,” “Bring the document to myself or my secretary when you’re finished,” or “My family and myself will be coming with you.”

This unfortunate usage might be a result of the impulse to sound more impressive in writing. However, these writers end up coming across as trying too hard, as many readers will recognize that this usage is incorrect. If you’re guilty of this, you should feel deep, deep shame at your pomposity.

Just kidding. Still, you should stop doing this and join the fight for clear, direct writing. If you’re unsure of the proper pronoun to use, try this trick: remove everyone else in the sentence to test whether you need “me,” “my,” and so on. In the examples above, removing the other actors in the sentences makes it clear that they should read, “Call me if you need anything,” “Bring the document to me,” and “I will be coming with you.” Neat, huh?

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