Tag Archives: English for Specific Purposes

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.

The 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.


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.

Does essay writing help you succeed as a writer at work?

Today’s post is in honor of the National Day on Writing. U.S. students spend years writing essays. They believe they know how to write. (And also often believe that writing is meaningless.) What they do not know is that different rhetorical contexts (different goals, audiences, content) give rise to different ways of organizing and presenting information in effective written messages. That’s called genre awareness.

The situation means you shouldn’t be surprised that workplace novices write workplace documents as if they were some version of a five-paragraph essay. Many non-academics complain. Loudly. Here’s a small selection of such complaints. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

There is definitely evidence that such complaints should be interpreted carefully. (See The myth of job readiness? Written communication, employability, and the ‘skills gap’ in higher education.) That doesn’t mean students gain genre awareness before they enter the work force.

Let me share a story that makes my point. [A version appeared on Pros Write a couple of years ago.] Through some odd luck, Pat was enrolled in a university writing course at the same time she was working as an intern at a food manufacturing company. As part of her internship experience, Pat shadowed her manager-mentor on a safety inspection of the company’s Atlanta manufacturing facility. (I have to thank Ron Dulek for part of this story.) The day before her trip to the plant, Pat’s writing teacher asked the class to write a narrative essay. At the end of the trip, Pat’s mentor asked her to write up the results of the inspection in a compliance memo.  Poor Pat!

Pat decided her plant visit could supply the content for her essay assignment. She wrote the essay first because she was more confident about her ability to please her teacher than her mentor. At this point in her life, Pat had written dozens of essays but not one compliance report or memo. In fact, she had never even seen such documents. She began her essay like this:

On June 3, 2012, I conducted an audit at the Atlanta branch of Allgood, Inc., in regards to safety handling and compliance rules. I was escorted on a tour of the facility by B. A. McCoy, who has served as the Assistant Plant Manager for 17 years.

Once Pat finished her essay, she used it as the first draft of her compliance report. While she revised some of the essay’s content, she left the first few sentences the same.

Pat’s writing teacher assigned her a “B” on her essay. However, Pat’s mentor told her she would have to rewrite the report because it was not acceptable–especially the beginning, which should have stated clearly whether or not the plant was in compliance. Pat’s head almost exploded!  Imagine putting the conclusion first. (If you recognize this story, it’s because I’ve told it in many lectures and wrote about it in my co-authored workbook, Revising Professional Writing.)

Imagine how different Pat’s experience would have been if she had been asked to read even one brief workplace report during her 14 years of formal schooling. And what if a teacher had not only assigned the report as reading but had guided Pat in analyzing the difference in rhetorical contexts among the report, a narrative essay, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? And what if a teacher pointed out that the differences in content, organization, style, and mechanics among those three documents were the result of differences in genre? If all of that happened, Pat would have developed genre awareness. She would have received a rhetorical education that would lead to better workplace success!

Of course, when teachers spend time on genre awareness, they are not aiding students in their quest to ace the essay writing required for academic purposes. I mean the high stakes writing “tests” used to determine college or grad school admissions or scholarship offers. Shame on higher ed!

I salute all of those teachers who promote genre awareness just because it’s best for their students in the long run. Keep fighting the good fight. I’ll be standing beside you.

Plain language requires attention to the audience

In Part One of my attempt to explain how I understand plain language, I focused on the elements of a text that must be managed to create a plain language document. Anyone who has known me for long, however, could have predicted that I would talk about the rhetorical context of a high quality document in Part Two.  Here come my two cents on understanding plain language as an outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text.

Allow me to give a little background first. Following Aristotle, I like to use the rhetorical triangle.

  • The corner with text refers to the elements of content, organization, style, and mechanics that appear in writing and make up the document itself.
  • The corner with purpose refers to the goal or intent of the writer of the document
  • The corner with audience refers to the recipients of the document.

As I remind my students constantly, all three aspects of the rhetorical context must be considered in order to make judgments about communication quality. In other words, a document is successful only when it fulfills the writer’s purpose for the document’s readers. There’s no such thing as a successful document considered in isolation. Researchers interested in workplace document quality have recognized the limitations of text-focused definitions since at least 1989, when Karen Schriver published Evaluating text quality: The continuum from text-focused to reader-focused methods. (If you want to continue exploring research in this area, start with Dutch researchers like Leo Lentz, Henk Pander Maat, or Michael Steehouder.)

I used the revised email announcement shown below in Part One on defining plain language. And I claimed it was a move toward plain language compared with the original version.

However, the text is likely to fail for any of the following readers:

  • One who is not fluent in English.
  • One with visual impairment.
  • One who doesn’t care about pension plans.

Not surprisingly then, one way to define plain language is to focus on the effect or outcome a text has on its readers — rather than on the text itself.  As PLAIN (Plain Language Association InterNational) states, “Plain language is language understood by its audience.” And some folks prefer not to use the term “plain language” at all because of it implies the focus is on the language or text rather than on the reader.

So what are the desired outcomes of a plain language document on its audience? I suppose the most often mentioned is comprehension. It follows that a common prescription from those interested in better workplace writing is to address an audience as if they have less education than the writer or less expertise in the document topic.  Sometimes this is explained by referring to reading levels. In a 2004 report, William DuBay recommended writing to an general audience at the 7th grade level and lowering this to the 5th grade level when communicating about health, medicine, or safety.

Similarly, in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s A Plain English Handbook, Warren Buffett disclosed

When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.

By the way, that handbook is a terrific, concise guide for implementing plain language within the workplace.

While comprehension may be the king of audience outcomes, it is not the only desirable one. First off, the purpose of some documents requires more than understanding. This is true of any document that includes instructions. In my video tutorial based on Chapter 2: Analyzing Audience of Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I explain that the rhetorical context determines whether writers must address audience ability to understand a message or audience willingness to accept a message — or both. Audience outcomes related to willingness include:

  • usability: whether the audience can use the document to perform a task accurately
  • efficiency: whether the audience can get content quickly and easily
  • credibility: whether the audience believes the content of the document
  • selection: whether the audience selects the document to read

The bottom line: I understand plain language as the outcome of an audience’s interaction with a text, and the outcome includes but is not limited to comprehension. You may have noticed that I have said next to nothing about the third point of the rhetorical triangle. That means you can expect Part Three to address document writers and their purposes for writing.

Plain language requires attention to the writer’s organization

[This post should have appeared on October 13 to acknowledge International Plain Language Day.  More important, it should have appeared AFTER parts one and two.]

In the first two posts defining what I mean by “plain language,” I have focused on two points of the rhetorical triangle: textual elements like style and organization (Part One) and reader outcomes like comprehension and usability (Part Two). Now it’s time to tackle the third, the writer’s purpose.

This is arguably the aspect of rhetorical context that gets the least attention when it comes to workplace documents. This is logical. For academic writing — you know, the kind of writing done throughout nearly all formal education — the writer has often been promoted as the most important aspect of the rhetorical context.  Take, for instance, the concept of “writing to discover” from Peter Elbow. (Here’s a 2007 interview which will help you understand this perspective on writing.) I’ve written several posts about the unhappy consequences of students learning to write only for teachers (see this early one or this more recent one or my About page). One of the things teachers have in common as an audience of student documents is that they must support this writer-centered view. At least to some extent. I mean the student writer is the focus of a teacher’s professional responsibility.

The emphasis on the audience in workplace writing is critical for helping workplace amateurs focus on the rest of the rhetorical context and become pros. However, as a representative of his or her organization, the workplace writer and his or her purpose for a document is also critical.  Unlike academic writers, whose writing is self-centered, workplace writers must focus on both their audience and the organization they represent.

In my video-tutorial on purpose based on Chapter 1 in Revising Professional Writing (RPW), I categorize a professional’s reasons for writing based on the intended effect on the audience:

  • informing emphasizes tasks and the status quo
  • directing emphasizes tasks and action
  • consulting emphasizes relationships and action
  • valuing emphasizes relationships and the status quo

While these do a good job of describing the immediate aims of the writer’s document, they don’t adequately connect to the overarching organizational goals to which the document contributes.  I’m talking about THE bottom line — money. Whether for-profit or not, every successful organization seeks to maximize revenue and minimize costs. When workplace writers create documents, they affect their organization’s bottom line.

Not long ago, I wrote about selling plain language to your manager. (In fact, a comment on that post is why I started this series on defining plain language.) I argued that a business case for creating quality documents might be the key. Making a business case includes analysis of costs, including risks, and benefits.  Let’s consider a simple, hypothetical business case for creating the email announcement to employees about changes in pension plan contributions — the one referred to in Part One and Part Two. In the table below, I’ve calculated costs for creating both a lower quality and higher quality announcement based on the salary of those involved.


Low Quality Document

High Quality Document

1.       Reading time (100 employees’ 50K salary)


(10 minutes)


(5 minutes)

2.       Writing time (HR writer’s 50K salary)


(30 minutes)


(120 minutes)

3.       Reviewing time before delivery (HR manager salary 90K) (5 employees’ 50K salary)


(0 minutes)


(0 minutes)


(30 minutes)


(30 minutes)

4.       Answering questions after delivery (HR employees’ 50K salary)


(1440 minutes)


(480 minutes)




The lower quality announcement costs less before delivery but results in higher overall cost to the organization due to the greater time required for employees to read the email and for HR employees to answer questions about the email content after delivery. Note that I haven’t tried to calculate benefits related to things like employee satisfaction or compliance with federal requirements. Risk assessment is not my specialty. Nevertheless, those benefits could be converted into dollars for the writer’s organization.

My point with this simple example is that plain language is not only about the text and the audience. Or even the about the writer’s purpose for writing. It’s also about the organization’s goals. While I’ve talked about all three corners of the rhetorical context, there’s one more post coming on understanding plain language. I need to deal with the process involved in creating plain language documents.

Read. Then write.

One of the most important things any teacher or manager can do to help novices become pro writers is to discuss sample messages with them. Reading thoughtfully precedes writing successfully! The key to thoughtful reading is discussing the sample message in sufficient, relevant detail and connecting those details to future messages the writer will create.**

Here are the guidelines I’ve provided to those introducing novices to writing for workplace readers. They are more exhaustive than exemplary because I created them for an academic context. But you can adapt them for a discussion with any writer who is a novice with the message genre of interest. [Note: This is an updated post from a few years back.]


  • To read a workplace message critically (i.e., assess and explain its quality)
  • To practice analyzing the rhetorical context of workplace messages (i.e., relationship among message, writer, and audience)
  • To apply concepts from the workbook, Revising Professional Writing, and connect them to the grading rubrics we use

These goals are important to student success because the vast majority have little experience with workplace messages—especially with assessing their quality as a function of the rhetorical context.

For many decades now, nearly all language education in the US (from preschool through undergraduate) has focused on one text genre for reading (literature) and one text genre for writing (academic essays). The result is generations of adults who think reading is a puzzle-solving activity because the meaning is supposed to be “hidden,” while writing is supposed to impress an already knowledgeable audience (e.g., teachers). Adults, including our students, do not understand they have studied limited genres and that those genres didn’t teach them most of what they need to know about information development, organization, and style/tone for workplace messages.

Choosing a Sample Message

You must choose a message representing the genre of interest (i.e., sensitive letter, proposal, email announcement, etc.).  Students learn from discussion of any quality level of message samples (i.e., not mailable, mailable, or proud to mail). However, you must clearly identify the quality level of the message sample either before or after the activity.

Introducing the Activity

  1. Begin by announcing the discussion activity and the amount of time you have allotted for it. (It can be done in as little as 10 minutes.)
  2. Give directions for completing the activity. (This will be more important early in the semester or if you decide to use small group discussions.)
  3. Provide visuals as needed (the sample message, the relevant grading rubric, etc.) either as hard copy or as projections on the screen.

Asking the Right Questions (with video suggestions)

About the rhetorical context (Purpose; Audience):

  • Who is the writer? What is his/her organizational role?
  • What’s the bottom-line message?
  • Which of the four purposes (informing, directing, consulting, valuing) does the writer have for creating this message?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the writer (power difference, value difference, social distance)?
  • What is the relationship of the audience to the message (knowledge level, sensitivity)?

About the effectiveness of the content of the message for this rhetorical context (Informative Prose; Persuasive Prose; Graphics):

  • Does the writer provide enough and the right kind of information (defining, describing, giving examples, comparing/contrasting, classifying, using outside sources)?
  • Does the writer provide evidence and interpretation for any claims?
  • Does the writer use graphics to enhance comprehension, usability, or feelings?
  • Does the writer use graphics that meet the audience’s need (to see surface detail = photograph; to see percentages of a whole = pie chart; to see steps in a process = flow chart, etc.)?
  • Do graphics use accurate and consistent proportions? Do they include labels, titles, and captions? Does the writer integrate the graphic into the text?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the organization of content for this rhetorical context (Bottom Line; Paragraph Unity; Cohesion; Transitions):

  • Where is the bottom-line? Is this placement effective for the audience? Why?
  • What order is the content presented in? Is that order effective for the audience?
  • Do paragraphs have effective topic sentences? Are all sentences in each paragraph clearly related? Are paragraphs relatively short?
  • Do sentences or sections of the message have explicit transitions that guide the audience through the writer’s logic?
  • Does the writer organize to enhance efficiency for reading?

About the effectiveness and efficiency of the style for this rhetorical context (Conciseness; Voice; Parallelism; Word Choice; Tone):

  • Is the style appropriately concise?
  • Does the writer present parallel items in parallel form?
  • Is the style appropriately active or passive?
  • Is the word choice appropriate?
  • Is the level of formality appropriate?
  • Does the writer’s style achieve reader-orientation?
  • Is the level of directness appropriate?
  • Are presuppositions used only when the audience will agree with the writer?

About the visual impression of the message for this rhetorical context (Format):

  • Is the page layout (margins & other white space, line spacing, justification, color, etc.) effective?
  • Is typography (typeface, size, position, boldface, etc.) used consistently and for emphasis?
  • Are any groups of items presented in a list with characters or numbers to enumerate them?
  • Does the writer create a visual text that enhances efficiency for reading?

About the mechanics of the message for this rhetorical context (Punctuation; Agreement):

  • Is a written message effective and efficient or should the writer choose another medium?
  • Are there misspellings or typos that will distract the reader from the content of the message?
  • Are there sentence fragments, comma splices, or any other punctuation issues that are likely to distract the reader?
  • Are there any subject-verb disagreement issues that will be distracting?

Leading Discussion

When leading discussion, prompt students to provide answers to these questions and to link those answers to specific places in the sample message. This will not come naturally to most undergraduate students. For example, you may not be successful in getting good discussion about style by asking something general like “How effective is the style in this message?” Instead, students are likely to need more specific questions, such as “Do you think the style is concise?” Or even “Is the style of the first paragraph concise? Give me a specific example.” Obviously, you can lead the discussion most effectively when you have already analyzed the message on your own before the class meeting.

Providing the Take-away

  1. Summarize the main points, especially as the discussion applies to future writing assignments. (You can ask different groups to keep a list of main points for a specific area during the discussion.)
  2. Clearly tie these main points to the overall quality level of the message sample.


** My approach could be classified as genre-based writing pedagogy.  Ken Hyland used the following table to show that even elementary students can be taught to read — and then write — a range of genres. I dream of such a world–where students learn to communicate with an audience in writing. And where the five-paragraph essay is just a blurred memory. Sigh . . .

Related Research

Hyland, K. (2007). Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, pp. 148-63.

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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.


  • 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

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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.

The genre of responses to research article reviews

This post continues my series on research articles (RAs). This time I’m addressing the all-important response to RA reviews. Mastering this genre is critical for anyone whose job includes publication in peer-reviewed journals. (If you want a little background, see this post.) When resubmitting a revised RA for potential publication, the authors must include a response to the reviews received on their initial submission, along with the revised RA.

One key to developing a document in this genre is for authors to get past their emotional reaction. Anger and frustration are normal emotional responses to RA reviews. But, like all professionals, researchers have to move past those emotions to be successful. Although it’s a challenge for all researchers to learn how to create this genre, non-native English speakers have even greater challenges. They are the target of much of the research on writing RAs and related genres as well as a host of author support services (like Editage.).

As usual, my approach to describing a genre builds on the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) practice of describing a set of rhetorical moves, each of which can often be broken down into more detailed steps.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Responses to RA Reviews

A document people recognize as a typical response to reviewers includes at least five rhetorical moves: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) signaling attention to the review comments, (3) claiming positive results, (4) previewing content, and (5) responding to specific comments. One additional move appears to be optional: (6) claiming solidarity. The table below breaks down those rhetorical moves into more detailed steps and provides examples from four actual samples. (Identifying information has been removed; I’ve used pseudonyms rather than titles of actual publications.)


A Comparison of Textual Elements

Details for the pattern of textual elements found within the four responses to reviews are summarized below.

    Overall Usage Examples
Style Elements Tense Past (simple & perfect) = high 1.     We condensed the literature review . . .
2.     While avoidance was a key aspect . . .
3.     We have revised our paper . . .
4.     . . . we have gone to great lengths . . .
Present = mid to high 1.     This is an important point . . .
2.     We find the opposite result . . .
3.     There is adequate evidence to . . .
4.     We absolutely agree with . . .
5.     We provide more detail below . . .
Future = low No examples identified
  Passive Usage = mid 1.     This view is reinforced by B&S (2005) . . .
2.     . . . it should be mentioned . . .
3.     . . . participants were informed . . .1.     Below, we describe the changes . . .
2.     . . . we present cross-sectional regressions . . .
3.     . . . we actually had some data . . .
  Pronouns 1st person = high 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     We thank Reviewer A for the constructive comments . . .
3.     We agree and have removed most of this discussion . . .
2nd person = mid 1.     Below we have provided direct responses to the issues you raise . . .
2.     While your prior comments are focused on . . .
3.     As you say . . .
3rd person = low 1.     Participants were informed . . . they would receive . . .
2.     Discussions with managers . . . reveal that they typically ask . . .
3.     . . . outlined by you and the reviewers . . .
4.     As suggested by Reviewer B . . .
  Hedging Usage = high 1.     We feel the literature provides a clear . . .
2.     We hope that we were more clear . . .
3.     If we attempted to . . . it would have taken away from . . .
4.     . . . we have tried to better explain . . .
5.     For now, we have not delved deeply . . .
Organization Elements Headings Usage = high 1.     Editor Response Memo . . . Description of New Data . . . Responses to Reviewer A . . .
2.     RC1-1 [Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . AR1-1 [Author Response to Reviewer 1, Comment 1] . . . RC1-2 . . . AR1-2 . . .
Number or bullet lists Usage = low 1.     Responses to Reviewer A: (1) . . . (2) . . . (3) . . .
Page numbers or pointers Usage = high 1.     See new development on pp. 9-12 . . .
2.     . . . they are stated in the 1st full paragraph on p.5.
3.     We added such a table . . . (Table 2) . . .
4.     We have rewritten Section 2.5 . . .

Usage of some style elements seems obvious for the rhetorical purposes within this genre. For instance, the relative importance of past tense and first person pronouns means that authors spent considerable time reporting what they had done: Move 2 (signaling attention to review comments) and Move 5, Step 5c (describing specific revisions). As another example, use of hedges was high because authors qualified their claims–in typical academic style. Authors in this genre also have to be careful to achieve a polite tone when disagreeing with referee comments.

Other aspects of style are less obvious. For example, note that, despite the frequent use of first person, passive voice was fairly common. This is true not because authors are unwilling to refer directly to themselves but because passive is a key tool in creating cohesion.

The four samples of this genre used lots of headings but few lists to organize their content. (I’ve sometimes used tables to organize the steps in Move 5.) The samples also used a multitude of page numbers or other pointers to link their response to RA reviews clearly to their revised manuscript. This is a key feature of successful documents in this genre. Authors are more likely to succeed when they make it easy for editors and referees to find what they’re looking for.

Research Resources

I haven’t located any research directly related to this genre. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!


How to perform the role of “grammar checker” at work

From beauty by the geeks

Yesterday in “The big grammar quiz of 2014,” the UK’s Management Today published a terrific piece about grammar in workplace writing. Test yourself with their quiz. Then review your score with their key, which includes thoughtful and accurate explanations.

If you rely on Strunk and White’s classic, The Elements of Style, you will resist those explanations. But I remind readers to consider expert opinions from Geoff Pullum in the Chronicle of Higher Education in “50 years of stupid grammar advice” or the MIT lecture with Steven Pinker, “Communicating science and technology in the 21st century.”

If you’re still resisting, check out my post, “Do you know what you’re saying about grammar,” which expands on Jonathon Owen’s “12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar mistakes makes.” If you’re hungry for another quiz and more thoughtful explanations from an expert, head over to John McIntyre’s “A grammar quiz not for sissies.”

The message here is that helping people communicate in writing is difficult. But not because they haven’t learned a list of grammar rules. (Part of the problem is that there is no single list. To understand the scope of such rules, check out the HUGE project, a database of all English usage guides.) Helping writers is hard because effective language choices cannot be reduced to that kind of list.

Instead, the Management Today piece ends with 10 terrific tips for those whose unofficial role at work is “grammar checker.”

1) Always encourage [writers] to start by thinking about the specific audience: different readers have different needs and expectations.

2) Often, ‘grammar issues’ are actually about context. How formal does the document need to be?

3) Always seek permission to offer writing advice. Lessons remembered from schooldays are deeply ingrained and criticism may be taken personally.

4) Look stuff up – the internet is the biggest reference library in the world (www.oxforddictionaries.com is good for grammar and usage).

5) Help people understand that there often isn’t a ‘right answer’ in grammar; it’s an untidy field that needs judgement.

6) Businesses that write a lot will need a house style to help make decisions. The online Guardian and Economist style guides are a good starting point.

7) If a senior person has a pet grammar peeve, first find out whether it’s justified – it could be. If it isn’t, try to help them over it (although you may end up having to lump it).

8) Blogs and social media are helpful for keeping up with grammar usage issues –Lingua Franca is a good place to start.

9) Some people think it’s okay to be a ‘grammar Nazi’ but, as the term suggests, it’s very unkind to the recipient. Be sympathetic.

10) Don’t forget, older people will always huff a bit about the literacy of the next generation. ‘There is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter,’ William Langland once said – and he was born in 1332.

Thanks to the authors for offering solid advice: Andrew Ingram (Better Business Writing) and Tom Freeman (The Stroppy Editor). In the spirit of promoting those with good sense, here’s the one-minute video for Andrew’s company.

The genre of research article reviews

In order to respond to reviews of research articles (RAs) submitted for publication, researchers have to be astute readers of those reviews.  Plus, novice researchers are usually asked to write their own reviews of research during their doctoral studies–often beginning with papers (or abstracts) submitted to conferences. We developed a rhetorical move structure (see definition #2 of the about.com link) for describing the content+structure of journal submission reviews last spring in my doctoral seminar. I thought it was worth sharing as I get ready to lead that seminar for a new group of students.

I’ve written several posts about the genre of RAs. (If you need a brief introduction to what I mean by genre, read Pros have contextualized knowledge.) My approach to describing a genre builds on the ESP (English for Specific Purposes) body of work. Basically, a document people recognize as a particular genre will include a set of rhetorical moves, each of which can often be broken down into more detailed steps. You’ll see an example below. Or you can check out any of my posts filed under Crafting a Genre.

Brief Background on Journal Submission Review (for novices)

Peer review has been the cornerstone of research dissemination for at least a couple of hundred years. Here’s the reasoning. Research quality should be judged by experts (that is, peers) before it is published. The practice of peer review has been much criticized because of some truly abominable behavior by a small number of individuals. And there are ways to “publish” research without having it reviewed by peers. But there’s little to suggest traditional peer review will end any time in the near future. Publication of quality research is a core job requirement for university professors across the globe in every academic discipline (from accounting to zoology).

So how does peer review work? For anyone outside a university setting who is still reading, it’s important to understand that much of the journal publication process is completed by volunteers. Reviewers (also called “referees”) earn no money from their work on behalf of journals. Often editors of those journal also earn little to nothing. (They do sometimes get a small stipend from a professional organization that sponsors the journal or some release time from other duties from their employer.) And authors are not paid for work that is published; in some disciplines, they must actually pay a fee. So all of this labor is actually paid for by the employers of experts: mostly universities, with some stand-alone research labs or organizations. Once an RA is accepted for publication, there are paid staff in a publishing company who handle production and delivery of the journal in several issues per year.

Here’s how the peer review process happens. An author submits an RA to a journal. The journal’s editor reads the RA to determine whether it is appropriate to send it to referees. If the editor believes the RA is inappropriate, he or she sends a “desk rejection” letter to the author, and that’s the end of the process. If the editor believes the RA is potentially publishable, he or she chooses referees and invites two or more of them to review the submission. In many disciplines, the standard practice is called “double blind” review so that the identities of both author and referee are unknown to everyone except the editor. (In practice, the blindness isn’t always complete.)

Once referees return their reviews, the editor makes a publication decision and communicates it to the author. The editor’s letter will include the referees’ comments–either to help the author revise the RA for publication in the editor’s journal (that’s a revise & resubmit–R&R–decision) or in another journal (that’s a rejection decision). The likelihood of the editor sending a letter accepting an RA for publication as it was submitted is just about zero. The editor of the Quarterly Journal of Economics provided an interesting explanation of their specific process.

The review process involves occluded genres. That is, editor letters and referee reports are private rather than public artifacts. That makes it challenging to learn about them. Editors are the lynchpin. If you’re interested, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) produces ethical standards for journal editors.

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Editor R&R Letters

Although journal editors write several types of letters, my interest here is in the R&R letter because authors must use it as the basis for revising their RA before it can be resubmitted to the journal for potential publication. Basically, a document people recognize as an editor’s R&R letter includes five rhetorical moves: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) stating the publication decision, (3) justifying the decision, (4) providing directions for revision, and (5) maintaining goodwill. The table below breaks down those rhetorical moves into more detailed steps and provides examples from two actual editor letters. (Identifying information has been removed. Accounting Journal and Marketing Journal are pseudonyms rather than titles of actual publications.)

Rhetorical Moves (Structure + Content) in Referee Comments

Step 2b of the editor letter refers to the referees’ comments. Wise authors read these as carefully as the editor letter. Referee reports include at least three moves: (1) summarizing the submitted RA, (2) providing positive feedback, and (3) commenting on negative quality issues. Two previous studies of referee comments support a similar move structure. An optional fourth move involves maintaining goodwill. See the examples below, which were sent along with the editor letters above.


A Comparison of Textual Elements

The inclusion of organizational signals (headings and numbering or bullet lists) is more common in referee reports than in editor letters. Tone elements demonstrate that sensitivity to author feelings is different for editors than for reviewers, but some reviewers’ tone is more sensitive than others. Details are described below.

  Tone Elements Organizational Elements
Sub-genres Pronouns Hedging Directness
Presuppositions (reader truths) Headings Numbering or Bullets
Editor Letter 1st person (editor) = high
2nd person (author) = high
3rd person (reviewers) = mid
Moderate Moderate Minimal conflict Low Low
Referee Reports 1st person (reviewer) = high
2nd person (author) = low
3rd person (author) = high
Low to moderate Moderate to High Minimal to Some conflict Mid Mid

One tone comparison can be made with hedging the meaning of a claim. (Red text represents less sensitive and green more sensitive tone choices.) (1a) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “I feel that the paper has been reasonably well-written.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes more sensitively, “Considering her/his comments may enhance the insights . . .” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “Isn’t the finding then a mere confirmation?”, while another Marketing Journal reviewer writes more sensitively, “Some of the covariates that you use could be better used as grouping factors.”

Another comparison can be made with directness of a heavily weighted request: (1a) the Accounting Journal editor writes sensitively, “One way to address this latter issue, as Reviewer A notes, is to perform the test using only those…”; (1b) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “your discussion may address this line of thinking by discussing …” or “It would have been useful to have a dependent variable the explored the nature of the evidence sought…” but less sensitively, “The authors need to provide convincing arguments as to why this alternative explanation is not feasible.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes sensitively, “please concentrate on the following in the Revision …” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “I therefore strongly suggest that the authors specify …” while another Marketing Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “you may wish to suggest …” and “you can compare O&A and J&C more directly …”

A final comparison can be made with presupposition that involves conflict with the author: (1a) an Accounting Journal reviewer writes sensitively, “The only effect on the hypotheses would be to add …” but less sensitively, “The authors claim that all four criteria listed in the footnote can be found…” or “ The theoretical development … ignoring all the prior research demonstrating the unique nature of auditing” and “there is a valid counterargument.” (2a) the Marketing Journal editor writes sensitively, “If you decide to accept my invitation to revise and resubmit, …” (2b) a Marketing Journal reviewer writes less sensitively, “The manuscript claims to present three intriguing findings:” and “The authors should always report both measures of internal consistency reliability …”

It seems obvious that the anonymity of reviewers may influence their desire to manage author feelings.  Looks like an area ripe for research.

Research Sources

Disclaimer: The information in this post is based on limited data and does not offer conclusions based on published research.  (I just need to find time!)

Fortanet (2008). Evaluative language in peer review referee reports. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 7, pp. 27-37.

Gosden (2003). ‘Why not give us the full story?’: Functions of referees’ comments in peer reviews of scientific research papers. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 2, pp. 87-101.

Swales & Feak (1994). Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.