Adverbs in academic writing

My mind wandered to the question of frequent adverbs in academic writing today, especially for hedging and boosting (that is, making your claim stronger or weaker). A quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that some adverbs are considerably more frequent in academic writing that spoken English. For example:

  • perhaps (255 instances per million words vs 189)
  • clearly (177 vs 144)
  • presumably (27 vs 13)
  • significantly (203 vs 12) — probably because of the technical meaning of statistical significance
  • somewhat (76 vs 46)
  • theoretically (14 vs 4)

On the other hand, some adverbs are rather less frequent than in spoken English:

  • of course (143 instances per million in academic writing vs 414 in speaking)
  • obviously (42 vs 199)
  • maybe (31 vs 400)

That last word was more surprising: my guess is that writers use the modal verb  form (may + be) rather than the adverbial (maybe). It’s not surprising that academic writers use more tentative adverbs and fewer definitive ones, although it is interesting that words like of course, obviously, always, and never do occur with some frequency in the corpus. In Eli Hinkel’s study of undergraduate students’ texts, she found relatively little use of always, never, and ever in native-speakers’ writing, suggesting perhaps that these words are reserved for published experts who can more confidently assert that something always or never happens, or that it is obvious.

I’ll be posting more tricks of the academic writing trade like this in the coming months as I work on my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate students. Stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath)!

Bizarre searches

One of the advantages of using WordPress for this blog is the detailed stats page, which shows me how many people read the blog and how you get here. Many hits come from searches on Google and other search engines, but I suspect some surfers have got a bit lost. Here are some of my favorite searches, with annotations, of course:

  • essay my former instructor  (I hope it wasn’t me)
  • nigel pronunciation (that’s “ni” as in night, and “gel” and “angel”, with the stress on the first syllable, please)
  • pronunciation of neigel (fail)
  • just alive
  • alive oder living englisch (ja!)
  • english grammar+day off
  • cursing at a teacher (one of my students?)
  • teacher should avoid boring classes (ditto)
  • a sorry to your teacher – essay (you get the picture)
  • foreign film where teacher has to discipline two children, swearing
  • i need an essay now
  • i need a 5 paragraph essay now
  • write an essay role of teacher to print
  • five paragraph essay teacher (definitely shouldn’t like to my site!)
  • daddy speak teacher
  • funny passive verbs (rotfl)
  • 5 paragraph essay content (contradiction in terms)
  • the meaning of caught in the heavy rain

Of course, writing this post pretty much guarantees more of these hits in the future. So, for those of you look to plagiarize a five-paragraph essay about the qualities of English teachers, or if you want information on foreign movies about foul-mouthed child-abusers, or if you’re wondering whether English is a dead language, or if you just need a weather report … feel free to keep clicking.

Happy searching.

The Google corpus

A story on NPR this afternoon made the incredibly slow drive home from Newark in the snow a little more bearable: “Google Books Tracks Cultural Change with Words.” As part of the Google Books project to take over the world … sorry, digitize all books ever written, Google has released an “n-gram viewer“. This is basically a way to search Google’s book collection as a corpus and track trends over time. Both the report and the website are very interesting — although I was amused to note that none of the experts quoted is a linguist (no-one at NPR thought linguists might have something to contribute to a story about, err, words).

So, I thought I’d run a parenting question through the site: apparently my toddler has magically turned into a preschooler (and not a pre-schooler) since he turned 3 last month. I’m not quite sure how that happened, since he definitely still toddles, and he has been and will continue to be pre-school for some time.

According to this graph, toddler has been around since at least the early 20th century, although its use took off in the 70s. Preschooler only emerged at that time, and its use appears to be waning. Of course, this corpus only contains books, which represent a very limited subset of language use. A very cursory glance at the sample concordance lines confirms my suspicion that preschooler is a much-loved term for parenting books — after all, if you’ve already bought the book on pregnancy, the book on newborns, and the book on toddlers, you’re clearly going to be in the market for a book about the next stage … oh, let’s call ’em preschoolers.

At least I have a new way to while away those long snowy evenings during winter break in Delaware.

(And if you too are the parent of a preschool toddling infant baby, check out Barefoot Books — as sold by the other parent of said three year old.)

Penn-TESOL-East 2010 Fall Conference

I just got back from the Penn-TESOL-East 2010 Fall conference on the beautiful campus of Penn State-Abington, where I presented the latest version of my anti-5-paragraph-essay crusade: “Real Writers Don’t Do It in Five Paragraphs: Content-First Approaches to Academic Writing.” That’s what happens if you don’t give a word limit for presentation titles!

You can view and download my PowerPoint slides and handouts from this page. (Yes, those would be the PowerPoint slides I couldn’t show because my laptop died.) If you were there, I hope you enjoyed this demonstration of the dangers of using technology in conference presentations. Where are my OHP pens …?

Feel free to leave a comment about the session or the materials!

On chunks and language learning

Ben Zimmer has a great column in today’s New York Times about chunking. A chunk is a fixed piece of language that frequently occurs in particular contexts to fulfill the same function. Zimmer gives examples like “make yourself at home” as well as Halliday’s classic observation that we drink “strong tea” but get caught in a “heavy rain” (and never “heavy tea” and “strong rain”).

In academic writing, chunking (or collocations, or fixed expressions) is essential for proficiency. In the last week, I’ve been teaching phrases like “yield reliable results”, “pose a threat to” and “raise an issue.” And it’s hard to imagine empirical research papers without clauses like “the results are statistically significant.”

There are several interesting implications of this phenomenon. Obviously, as Zimmer notes, language needs to be taught in chunks not as individual vocabulary items, and it is not even necessary to understand the grammatical structure of the chunk in order to use it, which further supports Halliday’s contention that grammar and vocabulary are just different ways of analyzing the same text. I remember learning the form “Je voudrais …” to make a polite request in my first year of French, long before I understood that this was a conditional verb.

But even more interesting is the somewhat philosophical conclusion that we are not romantic creators of language, but rather proficient users of linguistic formulae (Swales and Feak make a similar point in Academic Writing for Graduate Students). This has important consequences for the way we view plagiarism. We teach students to paraphrase source texts “in their own words,” but we know that the notion of “your own words” is a myth. Sophisticated writers also know that some phrases are in the “public domain” and are available to be re-used. Ultimately, there is a gray area between idiomatic writing and plagiarism, which we need to recognize when we teach the important skills of paraphrase and summary writing.

For my take on this topic, check out the three-part video presentation I made an UNC (you can also just read the PowerPoint slides!).

The subjunctive is (just) alive and living in London

A colleague asked me the other day about the use of the subjunctive in British English. The subjunctive mood is a fairly infrequent feature of American English that finds its way into advanced grammar books and classes. It is used following certain verbs and adjectives that express demands or suggestions, for example:

  • We demand that taxes be lowered
  • The teacher recommended that she study harder.
  • It is essential that the class finish on time.

In the (projected) noun clauses, the verb in the subjunctive mood appears in its base form (like an infinitive without to). This means the subjunctive is only actually visible after third person singular subjects in certain tenses, as well as all passive verbs (be lowered). In other contexts, the subjunctive looks exactly like the indicative (the “normal” mood), so you could use the subjunctive without ever realizing it.

Most grammar books point to an interesting difference between British and American English here: British English no longer uses the subjunctive in this structure. Typically, students are told to use should instead:

  • We recommend that everyone should drink more water.

The question was whether should is always used, especially when the core meaning of this modal verb conflicts with the meaning of the main (introductory) clause. That is, can you require (=insist) that someone should (=ought to, but not essential) do something?

I’ve been playing with the BYU interface to the  British National Corpus to answer this, and the results are a little surprising. These searches were limited to the written section of the BNC. Continue reading “The subjunctive is (just) alive and living in London”

Sexism and parenting

In the past few years, I’ve occasionally griped about sexism in the parenting industry — companies that assume only mothers look after children while fathers are stuck in the 1950s. But, this piece of junk mail (and I really mean junk) for Parenting magazine takes the biscuit/cake:

Yes, that’s right, the letter is addressed “for Mr. Nigel Caplan only” while the magazine is advertised as “the resource for moms with young kids.”

How offensive! Fathers are parents, too.

I have returned the letter in the pre-paid envelope with a message to this effect. It’s tiring to see products and store flyers that only show mothers with young children, and irritating to see toy boxes with lists of reasons “why moms like this”, but to receive a personalized invitation that implies I do not/cannot/should not take care of my own son is insulting and inaccurate.

So, dads, it’s time for us to burn our swaddling cloths in the street and demand equality!

Happy Father’s Day. Or Fathers’ Day?

Update: Six years after posting, this remains the most popular entry on my blog, largely because once a year it starts to get hundreds of hits for about 3 days! I’m refreshing the content this year and removing some dubious Google search data (June 2016).  Also refreshed June 2019 with new corpus searches.

My then two-year-old son gave me this great father’s day card in 2010 (I think mummy helped …), but the wording on the front got me wondering about a small grammar point: is it Father’s Day or Fathers’ Day? (That is, the day for daddy, or for all fathers?)

Pronunciation doesn’t help (the apostrophe is seen by very rarely heard) and even using quotation marks on Google doesn’t distinguish between the two positions of the apostrophe.

So, I went to the source of it all: Hallmark, the greetings card company that has become an eponym for named days (Hallmark holidays). And sure enough, their standard phrasing is Father’s Day, which hasn’t changed since 2010 when I first looked.

But on the other side, there’s a Robin Williams movie from 1997 called Fathers’ Day.

A quick search reveals a lot of advice about the position of the apostrophe in this phrase — apostrophes are a common source of obsession for grammar pedants. Here’s the note from a fairly reliable site:

A number of American Holidays have possessive forms, and are peculiarly inconsistent. “Mother’s Day” and “Father’s Day” are easy enough, one parent at a time, and “Parents’ Day” is nicely pluralized, as is “Presidents’ Day” which celebrates the birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln. “All Souls’ Day (Halloween),” of course, takes a plural possessive. “Veterans Day” is plural but not possessive, for historical reasons shrouded in mystery. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has no possessive. “New Year’s Day,” “St. Valentine’s Day,” St. Patrick’s Day,” and “April Fool’s Day” all have their singular possessive form, and so, while we’re at it, does “Season’s Greetings.” Note that “Daylight Saving Time” is neither possessive nor plural.

Corpus searches appear to confirm this advice: both the Corpus on Contemporary American English and the massive iWeb corpus return very few results for fathers’ day. So, it’s Father’s Day, right?

I’m not sure it is this simple, though. In French, today is la fête des pères (Fathers’ Day), presumably because while a person may have only one father, it is all dads who are being fêted today.

Plus, more importantly, the assumption of “one parent at a time” falls somewhere between outdated and discriminatory: with divorce and remarriage widespread (thus, the day of dads and stepdads), marriage equality the law of several lands (thus, the day of two to four dads), and growing sensitivity to gender fluidity (thus, transparent dad), I now feel that the most inclusive solution is to take out a marker and a bottle of Wite-Out (Tippex for fellow Brits) and change Father’s to Fathers’ Day. Of course, if your father is not a grammar teacher, you can probably skip the apostrophe altogether, a luxury my own kids don’t have.

So, however you write it, happy holiday to my dad and all dads out there!

(And if you read this far, a shameless plug that the second edition of my book Grammar Choices for Graduate and Professional Writers includes a new section with everything you ever wanted to know about apostrophes in academic writing.)

More on Tweets and language

AP is running a fun story today about Twitter in Japan, which taught me that the verb Tweet (which I’ve written about here) is translated as mumble in Japanese. Here’s the quote of the day:

“It’s telling that Twitter was translated as ‘mumbling’ in Japanese,” he [a Japanese media analyst] said. “They love the idea of talking to themselves.”

That’s not a trend I’ve ever noticed when teaching Japanese students — any truth in it? It is striking that mumbling is a private act, so even if twitter.jp users are not exactly talking to themselves, they are at least talking quietly and unobtrusively. Compare that to the English “tweet” and “twittering,” which suggests to me a rather louder, more irritating sound.

The report goes on:

Ending Japanese sentences with “nah-woo” — an adaptation of “now” in English — is hip, showing off the speaker’s versatility in pseudo-English Twitter-speak.

(Here‘s a detailed blog posting about this neologism.) It’s not surprising to me that technology has caused new words to come into Japanese, or any language, but I’m curious that the Japanese have calqued (to use the technical word) an English adverb, rather than a noun or verb. For example, German borrowed der Computer, and even French has l’Internet (attempts to translate the word literally using webs and nets never caught on). So, I would have expected the word Twitter (or even Tweet) to crop up — although wouldn’t those words both be very hard to fit into Japanese phonology? And doesn’t Japanese already have a word that expresses the English now? Does its (apparently) word-final restriction mean anything?

Japanese linguists, please help out!