Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Wanted: A Simple Citation System

I was recently preparing a handout of useful resources to give out at a conference presentation, and was thinking about which citation style to use for the recommended reading. At this point it struck me that all the citation styles I’ve ever used are ridiculously complicated and confusing, and none of them take account of two simple facts:

  1. Almost every academic today has access to the Internet.
  2. Almost everything that is available in print is also either available online or catalogued online.

This means that when you cite a source in a paper, you don’t need to include all the information necessary to write to a bookseller or library requesting a copy. All you need is the information necessary to pick it out in an Internet search.

Let’s apply this principle to the kind of information that is normally included in a citation.

  1. The title is the most important thing. You might not want it in running text, but it needs to be there in your references page.
  2. The author is also pretty damned important. The only reason I wouldn’t make this #1 is that some texts don’t have named authors, in which case …
  3. Names of journals, newspapers, websites etc. are useful. For journals, the volume/number system is probably still useful, even if it’s an anachronism.
  4. DOIs and URLs can be useful but are usually not vital. It’s nice to have a clickable URL, but if it’s online, finding it will only take a few seconds. The one time a URL or some other unique indicator like a DOI is needed is when there are different versions of a text floating around the Internet, and it’s important to specify which one you are referring to. This will probably happen once or twice in your entire academic career.
  5. Dates are useful. This is particularly true in science and engineering. Aside from indicating how up-to-date information is, dates are sometimes  used as shorthand for titles. Dates are also useful to distinguish between editions which may have different page numbers (assuming there are page numbers at all). News articles should naturally have precise dates.
  6. Page numbers are not as important as people think. They are worth throwing in, but so much text now has no pages that they are not worth getting excited about. Specify pages if you want to, but don’t bother putting the page numbers of journal articles or book chapters in your references page.
  7. The publisher is not very important. If you really want to know who published something, google it.
  8. The place of publication is so laughably unimportant, it is amazing that citation formats still require it. I mean come on – do you really need to know that a book was published in Amsterdam? Are you going to go over to Amsterdam to ask them for a copy? Some citation styles even require a place of publication for an e-book, goddamit!
  9. The medium is not as important as people think. The MLA may think they’re being hip by requiring things like “Web” or “PDF” or even “Tweet” in a citation. They’re not. Text is text, whether it’s on paper or on Facebook. Most sources exist in both print and electronic forms. The only time the medium is important is if it is a non-text medium, like music or film.
  10. Authors and titles should appear as they do in the publication. The only exceptions are (a) referring to authors by surname first; (b) putting titles that are all in capitals into title case. Other than that, don’t mess with authors and titles. I’m talking to you, APA.
  11. The convention of using italics for complete works and quotation marks for parts of works is actually quite good. After all, there a difference between “I love Emma” and “I love Emma.”

This would leave us with the following.


LeGuin, Ursula. A Wizard of Earthsea. 1968.

Chapter in an edited book

Turner, Robin. “‘How do you know she’s a woman?’ Features, prototypes and category stress in Turkish kadın and kız.” In June Luchjenbroers (ed.) Cognitive Linguistics:  Investigations Across Languages, Fields, and Philosophical Boundaries. 2006.

(I really wrote that, BTW.)

Newspaper article

“Randy Romeo Russ in Russian Threesome” The Sun. 01 Apr. 2010.

Journal article

Kugelschreiber, Hans. “Counterfactuals in Bhutanese Cleft Sentences.” Journal of South Asian Sociolinguistics 24.2.


The Terminator (Film). 1984.

I could give a load of other examples, but I’m sure you get the idea. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a citation style like this? If you think so, make this go viral. Link to it, like it on Facebook, or better still come up with some ideas of your own, Maybe someday someone at the MLA, APA or whatever will say “Hey, that’s not a bad idea!”

Categories: Writing

Throughout History …

March 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Why is it that students love to start essays with phrases like “Throughout history …” or “From the beginning of history …”? Last week I gave a lesson on introductions where students had to guess which of the sentences I’d put up should go in the introduction of an essay, which should go in the body, and which should not go in the essay at all. One sentence was “From the beginning of history, people have always played games” (this was a hypothetical essay about games, by the way). At least half the students wanted to put this in the introduction and looked vaguely hurt when I told them that it shouldn’t go anywhere, in any essay because it is not a good idea in academic writing to inform the reader of the blatantly obvious. Unless you are some radical, ground-breaking historian, if what you are saying is true for the whole of history, it’s something we already know. After all, we’ve had the whole of history to get used to the idea.

A few days later, I had them in the lab writing the introduction of their essay, and while wandering round I prevented a handful of students from inserting the whole of history into their introductions (note that I have no gripe with qualified historical statements like “since the industrial revolution” or “throughout the twentieth century”). Now I am reading the drafts they produced and I am still finding sentences like “Throughout history, people have played many games.” Were these students asleep in the lesson? Did I fail to get the point across? Is there some lure of history that they simply find irresistible? Or, as I suspect, is this another of those cliches that are actually taught ? I haven’t yet seen this in a writing textbook, but it is so bad that it would not surprise me if I did.

Note: I was going to finish with a witty comment about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it, but then I found out that this is not what George Santayana actually said.

Categories: Writing


October 14, 2011 Leave a comment

The difficulty undergraduate students experience in constructing  titles is matched by their enthusiasm for them. In my ENG 101 courses, I tell students not to attempt titles but simply to copy the essay question or task, but many cannot resist the urge to display their title-generating skills; thus instead of “Under what circumstances do online actions have the same moral significance as their offline counterparts?” I get “Right and Wrong”. Sparse and eye-catching, this might make a good title for a Restoration comedy (though even then it would probably have continued “OR The Virgine and the Foppe, A Comedie in Three Acts“). In ENG 102, they have to write a term paper, so there’s no question to copy, and they have to write their own titles, meaning that I have to do something to show them the difference between the title of an academic paper and the title of a novel. It was fine as a title for Stephen King, but an academic paper needs something a bit more informative. (There again, Mr. King wouldn’t have sold many copies if he’d had titles like “Morphogenesis of clown-spider hybrids: an ethnomethodological approach to American small-town hysteria.”)

What I did today was to present them with a list of titles for the kind of papers I might expect to see in this course (which is all about social networks and virtual worlds, by the way) and say whether they were good, bad or indifferent.

  1. My term paper
  2. Portrayal of oriental cultures in online games: a comparison of Guild Wars and Age of Conan
  3. The Matrix has you
  4. “Welcome to the desert of the real”: Baudrillardian themes in The Matrix
  5. Gender-switching in online role-playing games
  6. Effects of social networks on teenagers
  7. Sex as symbolic exchange in Second Life
  8. Celebrity tweeting and viral advertising: social media as self- and brand-promotion
  9. Why you should keep your kids away from online games
  10. The Matrix vs Inception

After a few false starts they got the idea. One thing that came out immediately is that students didn’t realise how long academic titles can be; quite a few students rejected number 2 because it was “too long – more like a sentence than a title.” This was a good opportunity to teach what I call “the academic colon,” which is not indigestion caused by Cambridge banquets but a convenient way of splitting a title into digestible chunks. Frequently, as in example 4, it’s a way to have your cake and eat it, combining the attention-grabbing style of a novel or magazine article title with the serious-sounding detail that tells a potential reader “There is citable content here.” As I told my students, the hard part of academic publishing isn’t getting your work published (that just requires the patience to go through the submission process with enough journals) but getting people to read it once it’s published. With essays submitted for courses, the problem isn’t getting someone to read it (they’re paid to do that); it’s getting them to come out of their grading stupor and really pay attention, but I didn’t add that part.

Categories: Classroom, Writing

Customizing OpenOffice

I’ve just written a tutorial on how to customize OpenOffice for giving feedback on student writing by using templates, macros and autotext. This is a companion-piece to an article I’m writing on online feedback in general, but it works as a stand-alone guide. Needless to say it works for LibreOffice, and I imagine most of it is valid for Microsoft Word as well.

Categories: Software, Technology, Writing

The problem with short essays

January 6, 2011 Leave a comment

At the moment I am around half way through reading about ninety exam papers. As usual, students have to write an essay based on some texts they were given earlier, and as usual, assigning grades to these essays is a headache for all concerned. In particular, I find it hard to give grades for organisation, which is a problem given how teachers of academic writing obsess about essay organisation.

You would think that compared with the nebulosity of argument and the nit-picking of language, grading organisation would be a doddle, and when grading something like a term paper, it often is just a matter of skimming through and checking off points: “Has it got a thesis statement? Are there discernible sections in the body? Do paragraphs have one clear idea? Are sentences and paragraphs linked appropriately?” The problems come with the kind of micro essays students produce in exams. You can’t expect students to write more than a thousand words in two hours, and you would be unwise to look for more than about 800 words, especially when they are not native speakers and probably aren’t used to writing with pen and paper. (When I made students write an essay draft in class a few weeks ago, and told them they had to do it on paper, they looked at me in shock and disbelief.) This means that when it comes to paragraphing, students are in a double-bind. Paragraphs in academic papers can vary widely in length, but on the whole they tend to be around 300 words long. (One of these days I’ll do some serious word-crunching and come up with figures for different disciplines.) This means that in an 800-word essay, if you allow, say, 150 words each for a very short introduction and conclusion, all of your body could be contained in two paragraphs, or one at a pinch. This is the kind of thing that causes wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of writing teachers. On the other hand, if you stick to the laudable principle that one paragraph equals one idea, and you have enough ideas in there to develop your argument adequately, your paragraphs will be too short. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Incidentally, a similar problem applies to citation. We expect students to cite copiously, but how many citations can one reasonably get into an 800-word essay? A lot of teachers (I’m not sure why) tell students that they shouldn’t cite in their introduction or conclusion, so again we’re down to 500 words. If you have more than three or four citations in 500 words, there is a risk that your essay will be dismissed as a summary of the texts, but if you don’t do this, you may be accused of inadequate citation. (Experienced academic writers have a knack of sprinkling citations throughout their text like fairy dust, but first-year students are not up to this.)

When all of the above facts are taken into consideration (as my students love to say) it looks like we have two choices. Either we stop judging short exam essays by the rhetorical standards of proper academic papers, or we stop trying to assess academic writing by using short exam essays.

Categories: Writing

I think, therefore I am not sure.

December 16, 2010 1 comment

I have often discouraged students from  using “I think …” or “In my opinion …” as a way of introducing their ideas. The problem is not the use of the first person, which is now accepted in academic writing by anyone born after 1900. The problem isn’t even with those specific phrases as such, since a quick browse through some academic journals will pull up plenty of cases. The problem is that students tend to use them to introduce their main arguments, and this does not look good. It might work in some other genres, such as reports (I’m not sure because I haven’t studied these genres) but in academic writing, as I tell my students, “I think …” generally means “I think, but I’m not sure,” and “In my opinion …” generally means “This is only my opinion.” I say “generally” because different writers may put their own slant on these words, and some disciplines are so speculative that “I think” may be the strongest you can manage. But normally we see these phrases used for points made in passing, rather than for the thesis of the paper.

What I’d forgotten until now was that this is not yet another example of the weirdness of academic writing; it’s actually the way these words are used in everyday conversation as well. I’d ignored  this because I’d been brainwashed by reading so many essays where students had concluded triumphantly “I think cannabis should be legalized” or “In my opinion, Composition classes should be abolished,” as though their use of these phrases strengthened their points rather than weakening them. Next time the issue comes up in class, though, instead of talking about the conventions of academic discourse, I’ll just ask “Would you say to your boy- or girlfriend ‘I think I love you,’ or ‘In my opinion, you’re hot’?”

Categories: Classroom, Writing

I say “tomato”, you say “prescriptive”

October 28, 2010 Leave a comment

[To follow on from the poll on stupid writing rules, I thought I’d indulge myself by reprinting something I wrote on Live Journal last year.]

I have done my share of bashing prescriptivists. My book on how to write a term paper has a page complaining about “pseudo-rules” (or what Language Log’s Mark Liberman more entertainingly calls “Zombie rules”). When it comes to split infinitives, sentence-final prepositions or singular “they”, I’m up there with the best of the descriptivists. On the other hand, I often criticise people’s usage, usually on the grounds that I just happen not to like it, which shows that when push comes to shove, I can be as prescriptive as Strunk. Then there’s the fact that I teach English in a university, which means I’m paid to be prescriptive: a large and tedious part of my job is highlighting grammatical and stylistic infelicities in student essays.

Is this another case of my characteristic fence-sitting, or is it possible to be both a descriptive and a prescriptive linguist without committing “a savage hypocracy”? I would say, “Yes, you can too.” In fact, I would argue that descriptive linguistics implies prescriptive linguistics. Take, for example, those most descriptive of linguists, sociolinguists. Describing the language of a certain speech-community in minute detail is what they are happiest doing (which is why generativists always tended to look down on them). A sociolinguist might spend the better part of their life conducting a longitudinal survey of vowel-change in Asian communities in Yorkshire. You can’t get more descriptive than that, but ironically, what emerges at the end is a set of prescriptive rules for that speech community; they say, in effect, “If you want to talk like a Bradford-born Indian, this is how you do it.”

The same should be true of the rules we normally associate with prescriptive grammar—the kind of grammar we were taught in school, in other words. Someone should study the speech community the students are trying to enter (or that we are trying to force them to enter); in the case of university English courses, this would be the academic community. Then, having discovered what is acceptable or typical usage in that community as it actually exists in the twenty-first century, we could prescribe some rules for neophytes. Fortunately, this has already been done; because of their accessibility, academics are some of the most studied language-users around. After all, why risk getting mugged on the street while taping the conversations of crack-dealers when you can do corpus analysis of academic journals in the comfort of your own home?

With all this study of academic discourse, why is it that there is still a mismatch between what high school and university instructors teach and real English? A possibility is that academics themselves, as a speech community, are as removed from Standard English as are drug-dealers. In some cases, this is true; some academic disciplines have their own peculiar ways of writing and talking but this generally isn’t the kind of thing they teach in composition classes; in fact, anyone who taught a bunch of kids fresh out of high school to write like Theorists (with a capital “T”) should be shot. (See, I can be very prescriptive on occasion.) A more common problem among English instructors is that when trying to establish what is acceptable grammar and good style, they often only consult other English instructors. People teaching Composition 101 often get their ideas about writing from composition textbooks, and these are often written by people who have done the same, following a chain going back to the grammarians who invented those silly rules about not splitting infinitives. Of course, the ideal English essay has not remained preserved in nineteenth-century amber; rather, it has evolved, but in the odd kind of way that wildlife evolves in inaccessible places like Madagascar, so that the kind of essays you see on sites like bear as close a resemblance to any other kind of academic writing as a lemur does to a chimp.

Categories: Writing