Is that a Word?

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Although I am the last person you’ll find speaking formal, or “proper,” English, I probably do spend more time thinking about grammar and punctuation than the average person. Even though I speak what is considered slang or conversational English, as someone with a background in English, I admit I sometimes notice other people’s mispronunciations. Interspersing slang or colloquialisms in our conversations is a matter of preference and personality. Using made-up words in writing or speech, however, is an error, and that’s different.  Read on to see if you’re guilty of using words that aren’t really words.

Common Errors

“He supposably ended their engagement.”

This is one of the most common errors I hear in speech, and it often transfers to writing because it’s so darn common. It’s an error because supposably is not, has never been, a word. It’s supposedly.

 

“I am quitting my job irregardless of the consequences.”

This might be the second most common error, after supposably. Irregardless is not a word either. It’s regardless, which means “irrespective” or “nevertheless.” It could have started from the related meaning to “irrespective,” but that’s a guess.

 

“For all intensive purposes, I think my political views are the same as yours.”

This use is so common in speech that it has worked its way into written English. But it’s still an error. The correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes,” which translates to “for all practical purposes.”

Interestingly, the origin comes from King Henry VIII in 1546. The first recorded use was in an Act of Parliament, which reads, “to all intents, constructions, and purposes.”

 

“I will do my upmost to help support the president.”

This one is a bit tricky. In this example, “upmost” is describing the degree or quality that this person hopes to support the president. It should say, “I will do my utmost to help support the president.

Though “upmost” is a word in British and some English dictionaries, it’s used as a shortened version of “uppermost,” an adjective meaning “highest” or “top,” as in, “We are on the upmost floor of the building.” However, according to many grammarians, this is an old, archaic word that is only now used when the writer actually means utmost.


Not So Common Errors

“I pulled out the letters from my chester drawers.”

I recently read a student’s narrative essay that described his room’s “chester drawers.” This is one of those errors that we translate from spoken to written word, though even saying “chester drawers” will raise eyebrows in certain circles. It’s chest of drawers, which makes a lot more sense.

 

“I was hired to type, file, answer phones, excetera.”

This is a word that worked its way in to written form from mispronounced speech. The correct use is et cetera, which is Latin for “and” (et) “the rest” (cetera). The abbreviated version – etc. – is often used in academic essays, but many instructors will request you to omit its use when possible. If you are writing out a list of 3 or 4 items and feel “etc.” is needed, it most likely isn’t. Just write out all the items instead.

 

“I have two expressos every morning.”

Okay, I admit I’ve pronounced it with an “x” forever, but I don’t drink it, so no barista has ever corrected me. However, I’ve seen it infiltrating writing, so we have to stop. It should be, “I have two espressos every morning.” Most people, like me, pronounce it with a hard “x” – EXpresso, but it should be an “s” – espresso. But I’ll bet you coffee aficionados knew that.

 

Final Thoughts

It’s shocking how quickly erroneous speech patterns can begin to creep into our written phrases. Even though we speak imperfectly, most serious writers agree on correct and preferred forms of a word. Carefully consider if your usage and spelling are correct before you turn in your final essay. You’ll undoubtably – I mean undoubtedly – have a better final paper!

 

Secrets to Effective Dialogue

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Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we discussed how to format written dialogue for your narrative essay. This week, we’ll look at the qualities of effective dialogue.

When composing a narrative essay, dialogue is an essential component for creating an engaging story. Without the spoken words, the reader can’t “hear” the characters (the real people who you are introducing to your audience) and get to know them. Simply summarizing what a character said isn’t as engaging or interesting as direct dialogue between characters.

When composing a narrative, you’ll most likely be re-creating conversations from the past. Don’t get too caught up in whether or not you recall exactly what was said. That is less important as how you portray the people in your narrative with their language, mannerisms, and other characteristics of their speech. When trying to decide exactly where and how to incorporate written dialogue, there are 3 essential questions to ask yourself before you begin:

  • Is it AUTHENTIC?

  • Is it ESSENTIAL?

  • Is it DOING MORE THAN ONE THING?

 Is it Authentic?

Authentic dialogue realistically portrays the person speaking. If it’s authentic, the spoken words will sound exactly like the person would sound in real life. This doesn’t mean you have to incorporate slang in every sentence, but it does mean that the diction, word choice, phrasing, and other stylistic choices can easily be attributed to the person who is speaking in the narrative. It shouldn’t be too formal or precise. Below is an exchange of dialogue between a son and his mother:

“Jason,” my mother asked, “what were your activities and pursuits at your elementary school today?”

“I had a full day of activities, Mother.  My teacher was quite stimulating, and recess was especially delightful,” I said.

Doesn’t quite sound right, does it? Most likely, an exchange between a mother and young son might sound something like this:

“How was school today?” mom asked.

“It was okay I guess.”

The first example obviously sounds stilted and formal, unlike how most families speak. The second example is more realistic. Some writers might choose to even use slang in their speech, such as “I dunno,” or “Kinda good,” but be very careful of overusing phonetic substitutes, as it becomes a bit tedious to read and runs the risk of characters sounding illiterate.

Is it ESSENTIAL?

“Hi Jim. How are you?” I asked.

“I’m fine. How are you?” Jim said.

“I’m fine,” I said.

BORING! An exchange like the example above is not essential to the narrative. It’s not really doing anything toward moving the narrative forward or showing any kind of characterization of the speakers. Compare this with the following exchange:

“Hi Jim,” I said.

“What wrong?” Jim asked, concerned.

“It’s my dad,” I said, breaking down.

In this exchange, the everyday-ness of the previous example is avoided. There may have very well been niceties exchanged, but in written dialogue, the writer must compress time and get to what’s essential. Here we get tension, we get emotion, and the narrative is propelled forward. Which leads us to essential element #3.

Is It Doing More Than One Thing?

Dialogue, whether in fiction or nonfiction, isn’t meant to simply allow characters to “speak.” If this is all it’s doing, then it isn’t doing enough.

Dialogue should draw a characterization. This means that the dialogue works to show traits of the person speaking, or the relationship between the speakers.  What they say, how they say it, and the tone they use provides the reader with lots of information they wouldn’t get otherwise.

The following excerpt is from Beloved by Toni Morrison, an expert at characterization through dialogue. Notice in this example that Morrison mostly avoids using phonetic spellings, but simply drops words to characterize the speakers:

“Something funny ‘bout that gal,” Paul D said, mostly to himself.

“Funny how?”

“Acts sick, sounds sick, but she don’t look sick. Good skin, bright eyes and strong as a bull.”

“She’s not strong. She can hardly walk without holding on to something.”

“That’s what I mean. Can’t walk, but I seen her pick up the rocker with one hand.”

“You didn’t.”

“Don’t tell me. Ask Denver. She was right there with her.”

In this exchange, Morrison avoids speaker tags, except in the first line to set up the exchange. This “he said, she said” can take away from an otherwise engaging exchange, and here, it isn’t necessary. Also notice that the two people speaking have distinctly different styles, so it’s easy to differentiate each speaker from the other.

Consider everything the following bit of dialogue is doing:

“What’s the capital of Spain?” Jerry asked, pausing over his crossword puzzle.

Susan looked up from her book and rolled her eyes. “Madrid, duh.”

“Why are you so sarcastic all the time?” Jerry slammed his pencil on table. He

looked like he was going to cry. “I don’t think I can take much more of this.”

Poor Jerry! You can cut the tension with a knife! What’s going to happen? Several things are happening with this dialogue-

  1. Characterizes speakers
  2. Shows relationship between characters
  3. Creates tension
  4. Moves narrative forward

When you’re writing dialogue for your narrative, consider why you are incorporating each exchange and know what your purpose is for including it. If it isn’t essential, leave it out.

There really are no secrets to writing effective dialogue, but knowing who your characters are and why you are incorporating every exchange will help you in determining what to leave in and what to take out. Avoid phony or forced speech, and use speaker tags thoughtfully. When you’re finished, read your essay aloud to “hear” what you’ve written. Try reading some essays or short stories to see how other writers do it. Follow these steps, and you’ll be writing dialogue like a pro!

Below is a brief reading list of some of the greatest writers of dialogue you might study.

“Hills Like White Elephants” – Ernest Hemingway.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” – Raymond Carver.

Anything by Elmore Leonard or John Steinbeck.

 

 

 

 

Dialogue 101: How to Format Narrative Dialogue

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When composing a narrative essay, you have to tell a story. In telling a story, it’s always more effective and engaging to tell the story in recreated scenes. In scenes, you’ll have people, and those people have to talk. Writing a scene where people talk to each other sounds simple, however, writing dialogue can be complicated. Do you include author tags, like he said/she said? If not, how can you tell who is speaking? If more than one person is speaking, how do you format the interchange between two people? How do you format the interchange between three or four people? What if you’re just talking to yourself? (I talk to myself all the time, but I wouldn’t want to put it in quotes!) Is talking to yourself considered dialogue? Are you confused yet?

Formatting with Speaker Tags

When beginning with the speaker tag:

John said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Note that in this example, a comma is placed after the speaker tag. The first word in the dialogue is treated like the beginning of a sentence, so the first word is capitalized. The quote is ended with a period which is placed inside the quotation marks.

When the quotation ends with speaker tag:

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said.

Here, use a capital letter to indicate the beginning of a sentence of the quotation. A comma is placed at the end of the quoted dialogue, inside the quotation mark, before the speaker tag. A period completes the sentence, but after the speaker tag.

When the dialogue tag is placed in the middle:

“I’ll call you,” John said, “tomorrow.”

In this example, a capital letter begins the quoted sentence. A comma is used inside the quotation mark preceding the speaker tag, and again after the tag, before the quotation mark that completes the quote. A lower case letter indicates the second part of the quotation is a continuation of the first part of the quotation.

When the speaker tag separates two complete quoted sentences:

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”

A capital letter indicates the beginning of the sentence, and a comma ends the quoted sentence before the speaker tag, followed by a period after the tag. The quoted sentence after the tag is again capitalized just as any sentence would be.

Note that the second part of the quote remains on the same line. This indicates that the same person is speaking. If a different person was speaking, the second piece of quoted material, “Have a nice day,” would go to a new line/paragraph.

Formatting Two (or more) Speakers

When two or more people are speaking, each line of dialogue must go to a new line or paragraph. It’s a new “paragraph” because each time a new person speaks, the line must be indented.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” John said. “Have a nice day.”

“But I thought you might stay,” Diane said.

“I can’t. I have to go.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” Diane’s daughter yelled from her bedroom.

Even though the lines are short, they each must begin on a new line. Note that two exchanges have no speaker tags. In this example, it is clear who is speaking, as each person’s name has been given previously, and the order of exchange established. Only drop the tags when it is clearly evident who the speaker is.

In the final quoted dialogue, notice that the quote ends with an exclamation point. The exclamation point (to indicate yelling) is placed inside the quotation mark, and no other punctuation is used until the end of the tag.

In this example, if the tag did not happen to include a proper name, you would not capitalize the first word, as in the following example:

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” her daughter yelled from her bedroom.

Even though the quote ended with an exclamation mark, the tag is not capitalized, as it is not a complete sentence. If it were a complete sentence, it would be capitalized, as in the example below:

“Mom! I need a drink of water!” The young daughter, tucked in her bed, never went to bed without at least one request for water.  

Also note in this example that the tag remains on the same line as the dialogue, as the “action” described in the speaker tag is related to the speaker who has been quoted on the same line.  If any action needs to be described of John or Diane, that action would be placed on a new line.

Final thoughts

Even though we’ve all spent a lifetime reading, until we actually have to write dialogue, we don’t often realize the intricacies involved. How do you decide where to place a dialogue tag? That’s often a stylistic choice, and not necessarily any hard and fast rule. I often incorporate the tag where it seems least intrusive. A speaker tag, when necessary, should be as “invisible” as possible so as not to detract from a smooth reading.

Next week, we’ll delve further into writing dialogue, and discuss the secrets to effective dialogue.

Research Tools: Google Scholar

(This article originally appeared as “The Research Paper” Sept. 2012)

Getting Started with Research

Your instructor has assigned a research paper which will require ten credible sources. You begin your search where everyone does – online. You Google your search term, “Lower Drinking Age,” to find over five million hits. You make it more specific: “Lower Drinking Age to 18,” and get 4 million hits. You pull out your assignment guidelines for some direction, and notice it states, “Ten credible sources, only 3 of which can be websites.”

You’re doomed.

You are at home or work and can’t get to the library. How can you ever find enough sources for your paper if you are not allowed to use all websites? And what does “credible” mean anyway?

Sound familiar?

Finding reliable sources is the single most time-consuming task of writing a research paper. It takes time and patience to locate effective sources that support your argument. So where to start?

Google Scholar

In the initial stages of gathering research, the internet can be a useful tool if used wisely. As you are just beginning to gather information, you want to cast a wide net to understand all the angles of your topic. One great online site to begin is Google Scholar.

Google Scholar can give you access to research across a wide range of disciplines. You’ll find all types of print and web sources: books, journal articles, court documents, dissertations, and even university websites, which are generally the most credible type of web-based source (should always be “edu”).

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If you search “Lower Drinking Age,” you’ll see a sidebar on the left that offers you a way to narrow the results by type, year, and relevance. On the right is a “My Citations,” link where you can track a researcher’s work (you have to have a Google account for this). The advantage of this tool is if you find a particular researcher who is publishing work in your topic of interest, you can find other relevant publications by the same author.

Once you find some intriguing articles, you can click on the link to read the abstract (description of the article). If you scan over to the right of the link, you may see links to the printed version in a PDF file with the full text. At the bottom of the annotated link, you’ll see a horizontal list of further help, including “Cited,” which shows many times the article has been cited; html, if this type of version is offered, other related articles (which is a good info to have for further research; other versions of the article (which may include more current research), and other types of information related to the article.

Advanced Search

Advanced Search

 

If you are on a campus computer, you may also see a link under the link that says, “find at MCC,” (or your local college or university). This means your campus will have that source in one of its libraries or have access to it.

 

 

Take some time in this stage to tweak your search terms and scan the research to find the perfect support for your paper. Take careful notes of the articles and authors you might to use, or if you are able, print out the full link so you’ll have it when you go back to read the full text later. Slowing down and taking these steps will save you time later.

 

 

 

Breaking Down the Narrative Essay Assignment

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One of the most common writing assignments in introductory English Composition classes is the narrative essay. Students are often very familiar with writing an academic essay, such as a classical argument, but when asked to compose a narrative story, many students are flummoxed. It’s true that narrative writing is a different kind of writing than academic prose, but it’s still writing. Once you understand the parts that make up the whole, composing a winning narrative will be a piece of cake. For our purposes, we’ll focus on a typical Comp I assignment for a short 4-6 page narrative essay.

The Event

Most writing assignments ask that you focus on a very small moment in time to make the essay manageable. Trying to write about your entire high school career, a four-year span of time, is too large to cover thoroughly in 4-6 pages. So pick a specific moment in time when something happened that affected you deeply or changed you in some way. As with any narrative, be it a book-length narrative or a short essay, the main character (in this case, you) should go through some kind of change or transformation. This should be a specific event that you can recall easily and describe effortlessly.

An example of a moment in time might be the championship football game when you missed the field goal in the final seconds. This remembered event might have taken a span of a just 2 or 3 hours, which is the time you would write about in your essay. Another moment in time might be related to family, such as the wedding of your sister when you realized she was leaving home, or when you realized you wanted to be a veterinarian after entering your pet rabbit in the fair, even though you didn’t win a blue ribbon.

Troubleshooting Topics

Many writing instructors try to steer students away from writing about births, deaths, or other very emotional experiences. These are often the first topics to come to mind, but they don’t always make the best narratives. Why? Because, one, we are often too emotionally close to the event to write about it objectively without getting overly sentimental, or to communicate anything other than joy or sorrow. And two, if your instructor requires peer reviews (your classmates will read your essay and offer constructive criticism), it may be extremely uncomfortable to hear feedback on your writing on a very emotional topic. When I teach the narrative essay, my guidelines actually say, please no births or deaths. Don’t judge me.

Also, don’t think the “event” has to be a big, grand experience. It can be something extremely simple, like the afternoon your grandma taught you how to make kolaches, or the year your family had Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Think small, but meaningful.

Figuring out the Main Purpose or Theme

Once you decide on a topic and before you begin writing, you’ll want to consider what the main purpose or theme of the essay is. Instructors often refer to this as the autobiographical significance.  Ask yourself, what is the point of this essay? What am I trying to say? If you are an ace with academic essays, think in terms of the thesis statement; what is the thesis of the narrative? (For more help with this, read this great essay from Brevity Magazine, “So What’s Your Point?”).

Figuring out your narrative’s purpose takes some thinking, and it’s not always so clear. Some writers believe you should first write the story, and the main purpose will organically come. Other writers feel they must have an idea what the main purpose is before they can even begin writing. Both are a means to the same end, and you’ll have to do what works best for you. Just note that instructors often ask that you know exactly what the main purpose or autobiographical significance is before you begin.

Introduction/Exposition

In the introduction, you’ll want to set up the story, and to do this, the reader will need to know the 5 Ws, or the Who? What? When? Where? Why? of the narrative.

Avoid the mistake of holding back essential info to surprise the reader. This isn’t a mystery; it’s a narrative essay, so the reader needs to know who the players are, where and when the setting takes place, what is happening, and why things are happening.

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The body, the majority of the narrative, will guide the reader through the event. This will include exposition or rising action when you are building tension in the story, or introducing a complication that sets you on a trajectory of sorts.


Climax

This is when the tension built in the exposition is at its height, when the conflict culminates in a peak of excitement, tragedy, or epiphany. This naturally leads to the resolution.

Resolution/Conclusion

In the conclusion, the reader should see the narrator has changed in some way. What lessons have you learned from this event? How has the event itself changed your way of thinking, or how you live your life? This is known as the autobiographical significance; the reader will come to understand the autobiographical significance. For specific ways to conclude, see our previous post on conclusions here.

Final Thoughts

Careful consideration of a manageable topic in the early stages is the first step in composing a winning narrative. Of course, you should always let your assignment directives guide you. And don’t think it’s going to be perfect in the first draft. Narrative essays take a few drafts to work out the kinks. Take your time and write on!

The Case of Capitalization

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Capitalization can be confounding to beginning writers. Some words are easy to remember, like proper names and places. But what about ages and time periods? Regions and geographical areas? And diseases – are all diseases capitalized, or just some, and what’s the difference?

The answer to some of these questions is it depends on the documentation style you are using. For our purposes here, we’ll refer to MLA style unless otherwise noted.

Titles in Names

When a proper name is preceded with a title, like judge or professor, the titles will be capitalized.

  • I took British Literature from Professor Kennedy.
  • We were married at the courthouse by Judge Baker.
  • Boys Town was started by Father Flanagan.

However, do not capitalize titles when they stand alone.

  • When I grow up, I hope to be a professor.
  • My uncle is a judge.

When referencing family names, only capitalize the relationship when they are part of the person’s title.

  • Her Aunt Cindy is a lawyer in New York.
  • Her aunt is an expert quilter.
  • My mother has a huge record collection.

 Time Periods

If the time period is referred to by a specific name, it is capitalized.

  • the Middle Ages
  • Paleozoic Era
  • the Dark Ages
  • Age of Enlightenment

When used as a descriptive, no capitalization is necessary.

  • The antebellum period
  • classical Greece
  • ancient Egypt

Locations

North, South, East, and West are capitalized when indicating geographical regions. Regions such as the Mid Atlantic, Silicon Valley, and Midwest are capitalized. Usually if “the” can go in front of the word, it is capitalized.

  • American West
  • Atlantic
  • The Northeast
  • The South

North, south, northwest, etc. are not capitalized when indicating a direction or used as an adjective.

  • The western United States
  • eastern Europe
  • southern France
  • She drove south through Atlanta.

Diseases

Diseases named after regions and people are capitalized. Ebola and West Nile are capitalized, as both are named from the regions where they originated (Ebola is a river in Zaire, and West Nile is a region in Uganda). Alzheimer’s disease, Asperger’s syndrome, and Down’s syndrome are named after the doctors who discovered the diseases. However, there are differences between style guides as to whether they are possessive. If in doubt, follow the style used in your field of study or your textbook.

Most disease names are not capitalized, as the names are derived from some hallmark of the condition, according to Grammar Girl. Diabetes, autism, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis would not be capitalized.

Final Thoughts

This is only the tip of the capitalization iceberg. Always refer to the style guide in your specific field, as many vary on their formatting. For instance, according to the Grammar Girl, the directional terms that describe people differ, depending on the style book. Associated Press, used for magazines and newspapers, prefers “Southerner,” whereas Chicago Manual of Style prefers “southerner.”

It’s most important to stay consistent, regardless of the style you use.

For more help with capitalization questions, visit The Grammar Book or Grammar Girl.

Due-Day Polishing: 6 things to do before you hand over the final draft

(This post originally appeared here in Nov. 2011)
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You’ve worked hard all quarter getting your essay in top form. You’ve outlined. You’ve taken pages of notes. You’ve peer-workshopped. Your instructor has given you feedback – and at least 100 handouts. You revised. And revised. And revised. Today the final draft is due – but is it really done?

Don’t be too quick to hand your essay over just yet. Here are a few last-minute editing tips to get your essay as perfect as it can be.

1. Did you use spell-checker? Good. But don’t trust it. Spell-checker is great if you have misspelled a word or used incorrect punctuation (sometimes). But spell-checker doesn’t work if you’ve used defiantly instead of definitely, or their instead of there, or a semi-colon instead of a colon, or – you get the picture. One quick way to find these errors is to go to the toolbar under “Edit”; click “Find,” then type in the words you have difficulty with. It will highlight them so you can confirm you’ve used these words correctly.

2.  Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Does each paragraph focus on just one topic, or are you all over the place? See where you were beginning with the paragraph, and see where you ended up; if you went down one road and ended up on a multi-lane interstate, refocus your thoughts so the paragraph communicates one topic or point.

3.  How is your sentence variety? Do you vary the length and style to create a nice rhythm, or are sentences short and choppy? Can short sentences be combined? Do you say the same thing but in five different ways? Sometimes we spend so much time on research or MLA as we’re composing our essays that we overlook something as simple as sentence variety that can be the difference between blah and the best essay evah!

4.  Read your essay aloud to really hear the words. Reading your essay aloud is the most important thing you can do to find those difficult errors that spell-check or your peer group doesn’t catch. Read slow and deliberately. If you’ve read your essay so many times it’s too familiar, try reading your essay backward. This will slow you down and give you a different perspective on the sentences.

5.  Do you feel like you know your essay by heart? Time to take a step back. If time allows, put the essay away for a day or two. Getting some distance from your essay will give you the opportunity to read it with a fresh set of eyes.

6.  Finally, let it go. You’ve done the best you can and there comes a time when we have to let our writing go and move on. If you know you’ve done your best to make your writing all it can be, then a grade often becomes secondary to that sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when it’s complete.

What are your due-day rituals? Do you have any last-minute tips you’d like to share?