Shibboleths & White Shoes: 5 Lessons for Editors

This post is a response to comments from readers about my use of “insure” in Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it. I’m using this as a teaching moment for my technical editing students so it might be too long for others. Skip ahead if you just want to get to shibboleths or white shoes or the 5 lessons.

Insure vs. Ensure

On Twitter, one of my blog readers wrote,

I wonder, based on today’s heading, whether you ever make a distinction between insure and ensure.

This comment is similar to an author query by an editor. It’s a good query, in this case, because it can be interpreted as a simple question, and it’s carefully indirect if meant as a suggestion. After all, I didn’t enlist the reader to serve as my blog editor. And, even if I had, a good editor knows that ownership belongs with the author.

My immediate reaction to the query was to reflect on my usage: I use these two terms as synonyms and, for me, “ensure” is more conservative. I would use it in a context more formal than my blog. Later, I checked a couple of dictionaries to make sure my use of “insure” in the heading was standard. (The habit of looking things up is one sign of a good editor.)

My preferred dictionary, Merriam-Webster, as well as the Oxford Dictionary, lists multiple definitions for “insure.” The following ones are relevant to my headline choice:

  1. to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions (M-W)
  2. to secure or protect someone against (a possible contingency) (Oxford)
  3. as a synonym for “ensure” (Oxford)

Here’s what Oxford says about “insure” and “ensure.”

There is considerable overlap between the meaning and use of insure and ensure. In both British and US English the primary meaning of insure is the commercial sense of providing financial compensation in the event of damage to property; ensure is not used at all in this sense. For the more general senses, ensure is the more usual word, but insure is also sometimes used, particularly in US English, e.g. bail is posted to insure that the defendant appears for trial; the system is run to ensure that a good quality of service is maintained

I was surprised to read “ensure” is more common so I investigated a little more. The chart shows the ngram of usage for the two words in books over the past 200 years.

ngramThe use of “ensure” increased dramatically around 1950. I’m not sure how my own idiolect diverged from the norm except that I grew up surrounded by linguistically conservative speakers whose usage must have reflected the equivalency of the two terms. “Ensure” is definitely the more recent usage.

As a result of this investigation, I’ll be more discriminating in my use of “insure” in the future. More importantly, this reader’s comment gave me the chance to show my students that, even with almost 30 years of editing experience, I am still actively learning how to do my job better.

Shibboleths

Another reader’s comment on my use of “insure” was more like an edit than a query.

You may wish to change your headline to fix the misspelling: editors ENSURE content matches audience readiness

The phrasing “may wish” makes this an indirect suggestion. But the use of “fix” and “misspelling” clearly classify my word choice as an error, and that prompted me to revisit the topic of shibboleths.

As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

The second reader comment categorizes my use of “insure” instead of “ensure” as a shibboleth. My usage signals I’m an outsider. If I want to be an insider, I have to change my language. I’ve already said that, although two dictionaries support my choice of “insure,” my investigation will make me more discriminating in my use of that word in the future. This additional teaching moment concerns the presumption of my error–the judgment about my lack of proper etiquette.

This is where my beliefs probably diverge from those of the reader who made the comment. My training as a linguist means I don’t believe anyone’s language is wrong. Ever. But I know our language can be ineffective in meeting our goals. That belief underlies my career as a writer, editor, and a teacher or coach of writers and editors. Many, perhaps most, editors share the worldview of prescriptive grammar–that language choices can be wrong. For a more detailed discussion of prescriptive grammar within the context of professional writing/editing, see my earlier post about grammar rules. Here’s a summary.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. So did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette. And such breaches are simply wrong. Like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.

White Shoes

A condescending attitude based on arbitrary rules of etiquette continues and is pervasive among editors. A notable exception, editor Stan Carey writes,

Editors are prescriptive by definition, and many would happily call themselves prescriptivist. Outside of work too, some are linguistically conservative by nature, or rather habit. But this is not a necessity for the job, nor, to my mind, does it automatically confer advantage.

I agree a prescriptive attitude is no advantage. In fact, I would say it’s a disadvantage to an editor.

You may wonder how editors can do their work without telling authors they are wrong. Let me make two points.

The first point is that I do recognize most shibboleths. As an editor, I suggest how authors can alter their language in order to pass through the gate if it leads them toward their final destination. If I’m working on behalf of the author, I do not dictate those changes. If I work on behalf of the publisher, I do. But my directives are based on compliance with the chosen style guide–not on judgments of proper etiquette. And I offer suggestions only to people who have invited me to.

The second point is that editors whose attitude is descriptive distinguish between shibboleths that matter and zombie rules.  I know rules about ending a sentence with a preposition and using passive voice are the latter type. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

John E. McIntyre, editor at the Baltimore Sun, makes the same points in this video.

Some of us choose not to carry on the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day.  As a teacher, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices. I want them to understand what it means to choose white shoes on a whole range of occasions. There is no simple right vs. wrong. I want students to learn how to think about language, how it can be managed to achieve rhetorical aims. Then they will be educated enough to make their own informed choices about shoes or language.

As McIntyre says, we should be capable of “judgment rather than adherence to some set of shibboleths.”

5 Lessons for Editors

  1. Authors own their texts.
  2. No editor can ever stop looking things up.
  3. Editors must continue to improve their craft.
  4. Editing often requires choices among multiple, viable options.
  5. All good editorial suggestions are based on an understanding of a text’s rhetorical context.

Further Reading

For those of you who are interested in more thoughtful editing,  here are some of my favorite sources:

Here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Editors insure content matches audience readiness for it

My technical editing students are working on a developmental edit on some assembly instructions from Ikea. To help them make good recommendations, we’ve been discussing how to help content creators address the readers’ readiness for that content. Readiness is a concept borrowed from leadership research (the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership theory) to describe how able and willing an individual is to follow a leader. It’s not much of a leap to think about a writer as analogous to a leader. Both attempt to influence what others think or do./>
readiness

As the graphic shows, followers/readers have high readiness (R4) when they are both able and willing to think or do as the leader/writer wants. In contrast, they have lower readiness (R3) when they are able but unwilling. And so on. Diagnosing the ability and willingness of readers to think or do as a content creator wants is an essential task for editors.

To address audience ability, editors focus on recommendations for developing informative prose (or graphics). To address willingness, they focus on developing persuasive content. The videos below help editors think about these issues based on what my co-authors and I wrote in Chapters 3 and 4 of Revising Professional Writing, 4th edition.

For more detailed discussions of developing informative content, check out Insure Readers Understand Your Message with the Right Content.

For more on persuasive content, go to Persuade Readers with an Appeal to Logos.

I’m hoping to share some of my students efforts at developmental editing in a few weeks so stay tuned . . .

Related Readings

There are lots of posts here at Pros Write that deal with developing informative and persuasive content for the workplace. If you want to see some of the research behind my guidelines, check out the following sources:

Cialdini, R.B. (2001). Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review, 79(9), pp. 72-79.

Garrison, L. et al. (2012). Designing evidence-based disclosures: A case study of financial privacy notices. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Summer, pp. 204–234.

Gilsdorf, J.W. (1986). Executives’ and academics’ perceptions on the need for instruction in written persuasion. Journal of Business Communication, 23(4), pp. 55-68.

Halmari, H. & Virtanen, T. (Eds.) (2005). Persuasion Across Genres: A linguistic approach (Pragmatics & Beyond, New Series). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Hersey, P. & Blanchard, K.H. (1988). Management of Organization Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Holmes-Rovner, M.et al. (2005). Evidence-based patient choice: A prostate cancer decision aid in plain language. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making, 5(1), pp. 16.

Schiess, W. (2008). The Texas pattern jury charges plain-language project: The writing consultant’s view. Clarity, 60, pp. 23-27.

Sproat, E., et al. (2012). Aristotle’s Rhetorical Situation.  Purdue OWL. The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University.

Readers label you based on your style

I’m in Seattle at the Association for Business Communication conference. Erin Kane and I will present “Reader Perception of Workplace-Writer Attributes” this afternoon. (Our fellow researchers, Nicole Amare and Alan Manning couldn’t make the trip.)

We had more than 600 working adults in the US tell us

  1. whether they preferred the more plain or less plain version of 21 written passages
  2. what two labels described the writer of their preferred written passage
  3. what two labels described the writer of the written passage they did not prefer

Good news for those who promote a plain style in their teaching or consulting. People do think plain style is more appropriate in a routine workplace email. The plain passages were preferred 80% of the time (±3.17 at a 95% confidence level). While you might think this is obvious, we have found little research that clearly establishes the style we recommend is actually valued by workplace readers. Most existing evidence is anecdotal.

Good news for those who write in a plain style, too. For example, results for one pair of passages testing nominal usage are shown in the bar chart: 70% of our participants preferred the plainer style without nominals (“defines” over “definition”).Nominal

The writer of the plain passage was most commonly described as clear and straightforward. The writer of the passage that was NOT plain as inefficient. Telling writers that, based on empirical research, they will be labeled as “inefficient” by most workplace readers when they use nominals is qualitatively different that telling them they shouldn’t use nominals.

We have lots of interesting results to share. Some today. Some in future publications. Thanks to the ABC’s C.R. Anderson Research Fund for supporting our work.

Plain language requires attention to the text

To celebrate International Plain Language Day, I’m republishing a four-part series in which I defined “plain language” a couple of years ago. Part three was accidentally published last night. [sigh] Here’s part one.

Perhaps the most obvious way to define plain language is to focus on the words a writer chooses. For instance, a common proscription from those interested in better workplace writing is for writers to avoid jargon. Jargon is a word with a highly specialized or technical meaning. Like 401(k), an investment plan established by employers to which eligible employees may make salary contributions on a pre- or post-tax basis. (Read more on investopedia.) There are other aspects of style that might be implicated in plain language as described in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part IV of Revising Professional Writing (RPW):

But style alone cannot explain why the email announcement about employees’ pension plan I’ve included below fails as a plain language document.

Software tools can identify many aspects of style that might be revised to achieve more plain language in a document. However, revising to achieve more conciseness in the first sentence and to eliminate unneeded passive verb voice in the second sentence won’t be enough to convert the email announcement into plain language.  (I don’t think the original includes any jargon.)

Other textual elements like organization have to be considered in creating plain language documents.  For many documents, the bottom line message may be presented in effective style but be placed in the middle or at the end of the document, which means it’s buried. I’m not going to categorize any document with a buried bottom line as achieving plain language no matter how plain the style is!  The areas of organization that contribute most to the lack of plain language in the original email announcement are paragraph unity and format. The initial paragraph is quite long and is not tightly constrained to a single, manageable topic identified with a topic sentence at the beginning. In addition, the format of that initial paragraph in one big block of text does nothing to make it easy for readers to get the document’s message.

All of the aspects of organization that might be implicated in plain language appear in my five video tutorials based on chapters in Part III of RPW:

While I haven’t reviewed StyleWriter yet, in general, editing software tools are more effective at identifying style issues (which operate at the word- and sentence-level of text) than organization problems (which operate beyond the level of individual sentences).

Consider the revised email announcement, which exemplifies a move toward plain language.

One of the primary differences between this revised and the original versions of the document relate to content development, specifically to the use of a table to display the  example of how the new pension plan works. All of the aspects of content development that might be implicated in plain language appear in my three video tutorials based on chapters in Part II of RPW:

I could continue by talking about the influence of mechanics (e.g., Part V of RPW on punctuation, pronoun reference, etc.) on how plain the meaning of a document is. But the point is that a pro manages all elements of text, including organization and content, to achieve plain language — not just style. Many experts on plain language understand it as the result of all elements of the text: Joseph Kimble does so in his most recent book; Cheryl Stephens does on her website; and Beth Mazur did in her STC article more than a decade ago. Beware of those who understand plain language as writing style. They make pronouncements based on only a fraction of the elephant!

Remember. This is only part one of my definition. More on the importance of the rhetorical context beyond the text when defining plain language . . .

Check out the 4th Edition of Revising Professional Writing

rpw4_coverThe 4th edition of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences is now available It’s an affordable workbook at $39.95 USD, with over 400 revision and editing problems. Instructors get an answer key plus supplements here on Pros Write (e.g., sample documents, videos, etc.) supporting the principles in the book.

Each of the 21 chapters explains research-backed principles for revising or editing a single element (e.g., informative graphics, bottom line placement, conciseness, pronoun reference, etc.). The succinct explanatory text is followed by revision and editing problems that require increasing levels of expertise within each chapter.

Details:

  • Over 400 revision and editing problems covering rhetorical context, development, organization, style and tone, and mechanics.
  • Problems range from sentences and paragraphs to 11 full-length texts.
  • Examples from a variety of texts: memos, letters, résumés, proposals, instructions, definitions, and reports.
  • All revising and editing problems drawn from the actual writing of college students.
  • Self-contained chapters, allowing flexible use with other textbooks.
  • ISBN 978-0-9767180-6-2

Parlay Press provides exam copies:

Email: mail(at)parlaypress(dot)com
Toll-free fax: 888.301.3116

Your feedback is valued!

Choose active vs. passive voice strategically

schoolmarmNo grammatical construction raises the ire of writing “experts” like the passive. Geoff Pullum (a regular contributor to Lingua Franca at the Chronicle of Higher Education) provided two marvelous examples in a research paper titled “Fear and loathing of the English passive.”

The passive voice liquidates and buries the active individual, along with most of the awful truth. Our massed, scientific, and bureaucratic society is so addicted to it that you must constantly alert yourself against its drowsy, impersonal pomp.

and

A sentence written in passive voice is the shifty desperado who tries to win the gunfight by shooting the sheriff in the back, stealing his horse, and sneaking out of town.

Take a second to let those sink in. We are talking about sentence structure, aren’t we?

Pullum’s research article concluded by noting that advice to avoid passives is “bogus” and often provided by people who are “commonly hopeless at distinguishing passives from actives.” As I’ve written here before, any “expert” who focuses on limiting your stylistic choices should be ignored.  Real experts have many tools to accomplish their goals. It’s the same with expert writers. Language allows us multiple ways of saying the same thing for a reason. Every style is appropriate in some context–otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Now that I’ve acknowledged the vitriol surrounding passive voice, let’s move on to some guidance backed by research. Here are two versions of the same fictional news story from the Stroppy Editor:

  1. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a drug that cures AIDS. Clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS have shown it to work. Just three injections completely cured all 900 of them. The healthcare regulator is likely to approve the drug for clinical use within months.
  2. A drug that cures AIDS has been discovered by scientists at the University of Birmingham. It has been shown to work by clinical trials involving 900 people with AIDS. All 900 of them were completely cured by just three injections. The drug is likely to be approved by the healthcare regulator for clinical use within months.

Version 2 is superior if the writer’s goal is to convey a message to readers clearly and efficiently. Yet each of its four sentences is constructed in passive voice (i.e., …been discovered…been shown…were…cured…be approved…). Readers of Version 2 can’t miss the focus of the passage: a new drug.  Not so in Version 1, where all four sentences use active voice but focus on different things.

It turns out that passive voice is useful in some situations–like maintaining thematic flow. Active voice is useful in others–like establishing a personal style or tone. Your choice should be strategic. That means based on the rhetorical context: your purpose, your reader’s needs, and the content of your message.

Active/passive voice is explained in Chapter 13 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to distinguish between active and passive voice and then choose between them for strategic reasons. Here are some additional resources to help you master the choice:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if I can provide you with other resources.

Sample Document

Review the document below. It is based on one from Susan M. Heathfield for About.com on Human Resources, but it has been adapted specifically to show how pros use active and passive voice in workplace documents.

  • Writer: a hiring manager at a publishing company
  • Readers: an applicant for a sales manager position
  • Bottom line message: while the applicant was rejected for the management position, the company would like to interview her for a different position

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with strategically chosen active/passive voice.

Video Tutorial

The letter is included in this ~13-minute video about voice in workplace documents.

Related Readings

There are several posts here at Pros Write that deal with passive vs. active voice. Just enter “passive” in the search field near the top of this page. If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, you might begin with the following sources.

Kies, D. (1985). Some stylistic features of business and technical writing: The functions of passive voice, nominalization, and agency. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 15, 299-308.

Millar, N., Budgell, B. & Fuller, K. (2013) ‘Use the active voice whenever possible’: The impact of style guidelines in medical journals. Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 393–414.

Pullum, G.K. (2014). Fear and loathing of the English passive. Language and Communication, 37, 60-74.

Riley, K. (1991). Passive voice and the rhetorical role in scientific writing. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21, 239-257.

Another lesson on the bottom line

March 5 Weather

A quick story…I was working from home on slides for a presentation this afternoon. As I got ready to head to campus, my phone alerted me to a text message from a co-worker:

This state needs to invest in trucks. And salt. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow!

It took a minute, but I finally figured out the campus was closing because of winter weather. (AGAIN….sigh)

I thought it was odd that I hadn’t seen the customary email announcement.  Then I remembered I had just deleted an email about a “winter weather advisory.” I recovered it from my Trash folder and edited the bottom line placement as recommended by research–and (un)common sense.

Happy Thursday from Tuscaloosa, where we have icy roads today after 80 degree temperatures yesterday!

 

 

Shibboleths for National Grammar Day

For National Grammar Day, I’m posting a slightly edited version of “Shibboleths and entering the professions,” which appeared on Pros Write back in 2012. I wrote the original in response to the raised eyebrows after I posted  “Language choices can be unsuccessful — but never wrong.” For some readers, my belief that language can never be wrong contradicts with my belief that I can prepare students for writing successfully in the workplace. The apparent contradiction deserved an explanation. So this post is about grammar rules. (I’ll get to “shibboleths” in a minute.)

According to Parker and Riley (two contemporary linguists) in Grammar for Grammarians:

“grammar” is not a simple, unified subject. Rather, it is a cover term for at least four different, and sometimes mutually exclusive, conceptions of grammar: prescriptive, descriptive, generative, and contextual.

My university training as a linguist means I studied the latter three types of grammar rules. (I learned the prescriptive type in elementary school.) My role as a writing teacher means I often interact with people who assume I share the worldview of prescriptive grammar — that language can be wrong.  I don’t. Let me explain why not, borrowing from Parker and Riley’s chapter 2 on the prescriptive period.

Prescriptive grammar is the result of a movement in England between 1650 and 1800. Influenced by the chaotic political and social climate of the time, four literary giants (Dryden, Defoe, Swift & Johnson) tried to control the English language by forming a regulatory agency. Although the agency did not endure, Johnson’s authoritative dictionary did. And so did the men’s haughty conviction that breaking the rules for proper English (as arbitrarily defined by them) constitutes a breach in etiquette and is therefore wrong. (You know, like wearing white shoes after Labor Day.) Sadly, even highly educated people don’t know the history behind these vapid rules.

I’ll give you an example. Robert Lowth, who wrote the highly influential A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762, is the subject of the portrait in today’s post. He believed there had been a decline in writing standards and that his job was to remedy the decline by formulating a set of rules for proper behavior. One of his rules is called preposition-stranding:

Keep a preposition with its object.

For Lowth and his followers, this means “the party you went to” is wrong, while “the party to which you went” is right. Parker and Riley explain:

The rule apparently is based on the fact that in Latin (as in all Romance languages), prepositions always precede a noun phrase and thus never appear in sentence-final position.

So, you should ask, what is the relevance of Latin as a model for English? Well . . . there is no direct line of development from Latin to English. Rather English evolved from Germanic roots. (I’ve added red circles to the diagram from the 4th edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.) Also, English is structurally different from Latin, using few inflections and a basic verb-object order. Too, by Lowth’s time, Latin had been a dead language for more than a milleneum. (No one outside of a monastery spoke it after ~700 AD.)  The fact that a dead language doesn’t change, while a living one cannot stop changing was apparently lost on Lowth and his prescriptivist pals.

You should also definitely ask: what were Lowth’s credentials for creating rules for English usage? He served as Bishop of Oxford and was a professor of Hebrew poetry (in other words, The Old Testament). I willingly recognize Lowth’s expertise in reading Hebrew and Latin. He might also have been a good writer. (I can’t judge the performance of 18th century British scholars.) But I won’t grant him expertise over the language I use today. His rule about preposition placement convinces me he had little enough understanding of the language used during his own lifetime.

Because of my studies in English language, I know prescriptive rules like preposition-stranding are shibboleths. As John Fought explained in the PBS series, Do You Speak American?,

Language has always helped to signify who we are in society, sometimes serving as a basis for exclusion. A Bible story tells how a password, shibboleth, was chosen because the enemy didn’t use the sh sound.“Shibboleth” has since come to signify an emblem of belief or membership, an identifiable sign of those who must stay outside the gate.

If my students’ language signals they may not pass inside the gate where professionals reside, I never tell them they’re wrong. I do sometimes tell them their language will elicit negative attention from some workplace readers.  But only when they break prescriptive “rules” that count as shibboleths for professional membership. It’s my responsibility to know which rules matter. Because of my studies in writing and business communication, I know ending a sentence with a preposition isn’t one of them. There has been considerable research in this area over the past 30 years (see further readings below).

In a professional writing course, I always explain levels of formality (see my video on word choice) to everyone. I explain grammatical shibboleths to individual students whose usage signals they belong outside the gate: double negatives and subject-verb agreement are two prime examples. As needed, I explain a few other mechanical issues that serve as shibboleths: misspellings, sentence fragments, and comma splices (see my video on punctuation).

What is most sad to me is that so-called language experts (that means most English teachers, who study little, if anything, about language) perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated. But they were denied any real language education. They did not learn that English does not belong to those long-dead, reactionary, literary men of the 18th century who acted as the judges of etiquette based on their own tastes.

I choose not to continue the tradition of looking down on those who wear white shoes after Labor Day. And I choose not to promote the use of shibboleths to teach students how to enter their chosen professions.  To me, there is a critical difference between telling students their language is wrong and telling them their language is likely to be unsuccessful in certain situations because it will distract some readers and undermine their credibility. As an educator, I believe my job is to expand rather than restrict my students’ choices.

Further Reading

For those of you who want to see the evidence for yourself,  here are the major studies establishing the degree of negative attention generated by breaking various prescriptive rules:

  1. Hairston. (1981). Not All Errors Are Created Equal: Nonacademic Readers in the Professions Respond to Lapses in Usage. College English, 43, 794-806.
  2. Connors & Lunsford. (1988). Frequency of Formal Errors in Current College Writing, or Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research. College Composition and Communication, 39, 395-409.
  3. Leonard & Gilsdorf. (1990). Language in Change: Academics’ and Executives’ Perceptions of Usage Errors. Journal of Business Communication, 27, 137-158.
  4. Seshadri & Theye. (2000). Professionals and Professors: Substance or Style? Business Communication Quarterly, 64, 9-23.
  5. Beason. (2001). Ethos and Error: How Business People React to Errors. College Composition and Communication, 53, 33-64.
  6. Lunsford & Lunsford. (2008). Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.College Composition and Communication, 59, 781-806.

Create logical flow between sentences to promote accurate and efficient reading

I have argued that sentence variety is the enemy of efficiency. People read more accurately and efficiently when all the elements of a document are tightly connected. This includes the connection between consecutive sentences. I refer to this as cohesion (sometimes referred to as Functional Sentence Perspective by linguists).

My experience is that most adults are able to create cohesive prose at the sentence level without explicit instruction. But, for those without this skill, the problem is truly critical. Their readers struggle to read their prose and make comments about awkwardness, lack of logical “flow,” or–the most damning–the quality of the writer’s education. The kicker is that few writing teachers I’ve known understand how to help. Responding as a reader or editor is not the same as teaching.

Cohesion is briefly explained in Chapter 8 of Revising Professional Writing in Science and Technology, Business, and the Social Sciences (3rd edition). If you’re using that book in an academic setting, you’ll find many exercises in that chapter, requiring you to identify and fix problems with the logical flow of information. But here are some additional resources to help anyone master this critical skill:

  • a sample document, including both an original and revised version
  • a brief video tutorial
  • a list of research articles supporting my guidance

Enter feedback in the comments below if there’s something else you’d like to see.

Sample Document

Review a copy of the letter to a supplier. It was adapted by me based on a sample from ForestEthics (forestethics.org). The document was written within the following context:

  • Writer: the owner of an office supply store
  • Readers: representatives of the store’s suppliers of wood-based products
  • Bottom line message: the suppliers need to provide information about the sources of their products

Here’s a revised version of the letter, with more effective cohesion.

Video Tutorial

The letter to a supplier is included in this <12-minute video about cohesion in workplace documents.

For more on flow, check out this video from the writing center at the University of North Carolina.

Related Readings

There are not many posts here at Pros Write that deal with cohesion because it is relatively rare problem for adult native English speakers.  If you want to see the research supporting my guidance, check out the following sources.

Campbell (1995). Coherence, continuity, and cohesion: Theoretical foundations for document design. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Clark, H. H., & Haviland, S. E. (1977). Comprehension and the given-new contract. Discourse Production and Comprehension. Discourse Processes: Advances in Research and Theory1, 1-40.

Crossley, S. A., Allen, D., & McNamara, D. S. (2012). Text simplification and comprehensible input: A case for an intuitive approach. Language Teaching Research, 16(1), 89-108.

Kopple, W. J. V. (1982). Functional sentence perspective, composition, and reading. College composition and communication, 50-63.

More on word choice in evaluations of men and women

Today, I’m following up on a short post about the use of the word abrasive in performance reviews for women. Similar discussions of word choice in student evaluations of college professors have been a hot topic in the past week. See Is the Professor Bossy or Brilliant in the New York Times. Or in Inside Higher Ed yesterday:

A law dean last month urged students to stop commenting on female professors’ attire in reviews, noting that they don’t do so in the same way for men.

Professor Benjamin Schmidt provides an interactive chart for viewing the distribution of words used to describe male and female instructors in a range of disciplines based on reviews from RateMyProfessor.com. Use of abrasive, although relatively rare (e.g., appearing twice per million words for accounting instructors), still appears to be linked to gender. The chart plots its use in negative reviews. What’s up with students of criminal justice and political science?

abrasive negativeHere are the results for rude. Note that this word is far more commonly used (e.g., between 250 to 850 appearances per million in negative reviews). And it is clearly attributed more often to female than male instructors across nearly every discipline.

rude negative

I encourage you to do your own searches. And, for those who want to investigate Schmidt’s methodology, he explains details of the sample, etc. on his website

If the tool itself interests you, it’s called Bookworm. You can use it to explore lexical trends in texts collected by the developers or even in your own.