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!).

Paraphrasing cartoon

We are now settling in to our new home in Wilmington, Delaware, and they sent us a free copy of the News Journal last week to encourage us to subscribe. One of the cartoons — Tina’s Groove — was surprisingly relevant.

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=dictionary&iid=1643938″ src=”3/2/3/7/Miami_Schools_Teach_b363.jpg?adImageId=12975402&imageId=1643938″ width=”234″ height=”156″ /] A mother is saying to her daughter: “If you want to get a more comprehensive meaning of the word ‘plagiarism,’ look it up in this dictionary … and then look it up in this dictionary published two years later … almost word for word!”

This raises some interesting questions, which I can’t fully answer:

  1. Do lexicographers (dictionary writers/editors) ever get accused of plagiarism?
  2. How close can a definition be to one in another dictionary before it’s considered plagiarism?
  3. Are there examples of the phenomenon that Tina describes? — that is, identical (word for word) definitions in competing dictionaries?
  4. In other academic disciplines, can you be accused of plagiarizing the definition of a common term, or does this fall under the category of common knowledge? (A graduate student in Nursing at UNC once told me that there aren’t many ways to define osteoarthritis!)

I address some of these questions in my online videos on paraphrasing and plagiarism, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on these problems!

Videos on paraphrasing and avoiding plagiarism

My last major task before leaving UNC-Chapel Hill was to finish a series of video presentations on paraphrasing and plagiarism that I’ve been promising to make for months! They are finished, and you can watch them here.

I had already done a video on this topic last year, but after hearing some great sessions at TESOL in March, I wanted to revisit this important area for academic writers. In particular, the second-language writing interest section’s colloquium on plagiarism (handouts here) stressed the importance of teaching learners good use of sources and not just threatening them with the consequences of plagiarism.

So, that’s what I’ve tried to do in the video presentations. I start by discussing how to use sources — or rather, I give writers questions to ask about sources in their field — and then go on to show the language tricks and techniques that make for acceptable paraphrases and summaries. The series is written for ESL graduate students, but others might find it useful, too.

Please let me know what you think by leaving a comment!

Authors and authorship (and citation and plagiarism) in medical writing

The current issue of The Write Stuff (available as open access here) — the journal of the European Medical Writers Association — is all about the complex writing process for medical journals. A sample from the table of contents:

  • A contribution to the authorship debate: Can we trust definitions and declarations?
  • Authorship ethics in Asian cultures
  • Whose citations are they?

Add that to the summer reading list (below)!

Thanks to Mary Ellen Kearens on the TESOL Second-Language Writing IS listserv for this reference.

A professional plagiarism problem

One of my arguments for the importance of understanding plagiarism is that it is not just an academic obsession: in the “real” world, real writers can face scandal and even legal action if accused of plagiarism. Traci Gardner has this detailed summary of the latest such case over on NCTE’s InBox blog. I need to brush up my German and read the novel at the center of the controversy, Helen Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill. (If I’ve translated the blurb on amazon.de correctly, it’s a semi-autobiographical novel about excessive drugs, partying, and speech in Berlin. Excessive speech? Now I’m curious what Sprachexzesse really means …)

This reminds me of the most famous recent case in academia, in which Steven Ambrose, a well-known historian, was accused of plagiarizing from a book by Thomas Childers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (a Penn undergraduate wrote a nice article about this for the Penn’s alumni magazine). The situation here was more complex: the issue was whether Ambrose gave adequate credit to Childers — in the German novel, there are (apparently) entire pages lifted from other sources.

Regardless of the merits of the accusations and defenses in either case, you don’t want articles and blogs about plagiarism to be the first hits in a google search for your name! Another reason to teach and learn plagiarism well as early and often throughout every stage of higher education.

You can watch my video introduction to plagiarism and paraphrasing for ESL (mostly graduate) students here.