Graduate Writing Sessions at TESOL 2012

If you’re in the great city of Philadelphia for TESOL 2012, please join me for two presentations on teaching graduate writing:

  • Making Grammar Choices in Advanced Academic Writing (introducing my new textbook, Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers from the University of Michigan Press). Thursday, 4pm, room 118B.
  • Preparing for Excellence: Strategies for Teaching Graduate Writing with Chris Feak, Grace Canseco, and Jennifer Greer. Friday, 10am, Marriot Independence Ballroom I.

Handouts, PowerPoints, and bibliographies available here.

Graduate Writing Panel at CCCC

UPDATED 3/25/12:  Steve Simpson, Anne Zanzucchi, Christine Feak, and I closed down the Conference on College Composition and Communication (literally, we were the last session!) with our panel, Preparing and Supporting Graduate Student Writers across the Curriculum. In our session, we talked about a dissertation boot camp, joint construction in the language classroom,  the use of peer review with native and non-native speakers, and the benefits of genre-based pedagogy as we considered how our universities can help all graduate students turn from novice writers into proficient writers and may even expert writers.

Our handouts and PowerPoints are available here.

Comments, responses, and questions are welcomed! You can reply to this post, and I’ll be sure to share your feedback with the other speakers. You can also send me a private message.

Happy Valentine-apostrophe-s Day

I noticed that one of the most popular posts on the blog this week is our protracted discussion of the apostrophe in Fathers’/Father’s Day (continued here) because tomorrow is … drum roll, please …Valentine’s Day.

And this apostrophe isn’t controversial at all, thankfully. This pseudo-holiday is named for Saint Valentine (the History Channel has a very nice page on the unfortunate lover), and since the day belongs to him, grammatically it’s a straightforward possessive. So, stick the apostrophe before the -s and worry about more important things. Like giving your English teacher chocolate.

Of course, I could muddy the waters by reminding you that there is a countable common noun “valentine” (the card that you might send/receive), and thus a plural noun “valentines,” so if the day were actually re-named for the cards … well, never mind. If you hit on this page looking for the correct spelling, I doubt very much you’ll appreciate that line of thought.

Which reminds me to send a public v/Valentine to my lovely wife. Who said I’m not a romantic?

The Teaching-Learning Cycle

I spoke today at Penn-TESOL-East’s fall conference on the beautiful campus of Penn State-Abington. My presentation was titled “Discovering Writing with the Teaching-Learning Cycle” and it followed on from my earlier campaigns “beyond the five-paragraph essay.”

>> Here are my materials:  PowerPoint slides and handout

I was running against the clock, so I wasn’t able to do justice to this powerful technique for teaching writing. Continue reading “The Teaching-Learning Cycle”

Conferences coming up…

I’ll be presenting at these conferences in the coming months. Stop by and say hallo!

Q: Skills for Success 5 Reading/Writing is out now!

I just received my sparkling new copy of Q: Skills for Success, Reading Writing 5 (Advanced), the textbook I wrote with Scott Douglas for Oxford University Press. You can read a sample unit on OUP’s global website (Unit 2: What is lost when a language disappears? — one of the units I wrote!). You need to register for Oxford’s Teachers Club first (free).

Our book is written for advanced-level students to help develop critical reading and writing skills along with grammar and vocabulary. We used authentic texts from a wide range of sources and academic disciplines — from linguistics to business to communications to recycling to a whole short story by the great Nick Hornby (“Small Country”). Students also get access to Q Online Practice, which has at least one practice activity for every skill in every unit in the book (about 100 extra exercises). We’ve also written the teacher’s book, and that has answers, tips, alternative assignments (in case you don’t like ours!), and rubrics. Update 11/20/11: The Teacher’s Handbook with Test Generator is now available from your OUP rep (I haven’t seen it yet in print!).

A great deal of planning, writing, and re-writing has gone into the book (Scott and I have been working on this project for over 3 years!), and we hope you like using it! Every reading, every exercise, and every skill box has been looked at by many pairs of eyes (not all of which saw the same thing!) in an exhaustive — and at times, exhausting — process. In the writing assignments, we encourage students to write three drafts of their essays. In our case, we wrote far more than that! Leafing through my copy, I’m very pleased with the product and grateful to the editors who finally got our manuscript into a printable state.

Contact your friendly local Oxford rep for an exam copy! Feedback is most welcome.

Nigel Caplan & Scott Roy Douglas, Q: Skills for Success Reading and Writing 5 Student Book Pack (includes Q Online Practice). New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-19-475642-6. (Available at

Fun facts about modal verbs!

… because there can be nothing more fun than a modal verb, right?

In doing research for my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate student writers, I came across these interesting nuggets about the frequency of modal verbs, which I thought I’d share:

  • The most common modal verb overall in academic writing is can (I suspect because it has so many meanings!)
  • The most common modal verb for hedging (showing uncertainty or deference) is may
  • Both can and could are frequently used with passive infinitive verbs
  • Fewer than 5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a perfect infinitive (might have done)
  • Just over 0.5% of modal verbs in academic writing are followed by a progressive infinitive (may be growing)
  • Help isn’t technically a modal, but it’s an awfully interesting verb because it can sometimes be followed by a to-infinitive (help to make) and sometimes by a bare infinitive (help make). I suspected that the shorter form (help make) should be more common in academic writing because academic writers tend to reduce the number of function words (little “grammar” words like prepositions) to increase the lexical density (number of content words per sentence). And my data supports that: only 16% of clauses with help are followed by the to-infinitive. Unfortunately, that turns out to be the highest proportion of all the registers in the Corpus of Contemporary American English, so actually academic writing is more likely to use to than spoken or other written registers, but still far more likely not to bother. Oh well, the advice still stands: the shortest form is usually the best. On which note …

Stay tuned for more tips on writing and more information about my new grammar textbook for graduate and research writers.

(All statistics are based on my searches of the Corpus of Contemporary American English.)

The Father’s/Fathers’ Day Apostrophe Debate Continues

In honor of yesterday’s celebration of fellow fathers, I am reposting a link to the post I wrote last year about the puzzling apostrophe in Father’s Day. Or is it Fathers’ day? This page is the most visited on my blog with over 200 hits this week alone (a record for me!), and has sparked a lively set of comments. Do add yours!

For the record, I spent a wonderful Father’s Day (my preference) playing with my son at the shore (not the “beach” or the “coast,” by the way in these parts) and I am now busy revising my new grammar textbook, due out some time next year. More blog posts coming soon, I hope.

Not … until

My class stumped me today with a GMAT sentence correction question involving not … until. I ended up delving into the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and here is my tentative explanation:

Until marks the “endpoint” of an action or state, and it can be a preposition or conjunction:

(1) I played the piano until I was 12 years ago.
(=I stopped playing the piano when I was 12; you don’t know when I started.

(2) The cafeteria is open until 6pm.
(=The cafeteria closes at 6pm.)

It is not easy to move until 6pm to the  front of sentence (2) (?”from 6pm, the cafeteria is open”) because until 6pm completes the meaning of is open, and so has to come after it. To put it another way, until 6pm is an adverbial expression of time that modifies “is open”, not the entire sentence, so it needs to come after the verb.

However, when the clause is negative, the meaning is more complex. Here is the example from CGEL:

(3) I didn’t notice my error until later.
(=I only noticed my error later)

There is no positive version of this sentence (*”I noticed my error until later” is ungrammatical). The adverbial until later tells us “how long this negative state of affairs lasted.” That is, not … until tells us when something started happening. You can’t move it to the start of the sentence because is modifies the verb, by telling us when the negative (didn’t notice) stopped being true.

So, in the class example from the GMAT practice book (I’m paraphrasing):

(4) Scholars did not begin to study Native American poetry until 1900.
(=Scholars began studying Native American poetry in 1900.)

Since the adverbial (since 1900) is part of the verb “did not begin”, it cannot simply be moved to the start of the sentence. (On the other hand, we can say: After 1900, scholars began studying poetry because “after 1900” modifies the entire clause.)

However, it is possible to move any element to the front using an it cleft. The negative (not) needs to move with until because they create the meaning of a starting point together:

(5) It was not until 1900 that scholars began studying …

Please post questions or other examples!

Reference: Huddleston & Pullum, Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002).