Good English for a global audience

Most people say good English means using:

  • Correct grammar.
  • Correct punctuation.
  • Correct usage.
  • Correct spelling (of words in written work).

However, most people would be hard-pressed to identify precisely which rules of grammar, punctuation, and usage must be followed in writing and speaking or which words must be spelled correctly for the writing to be "good English."

Many times correctness is more a matter of appropriateness than of compliance with a grammar rules: If the audience readily understands the message and are not offended by the language in which it is presented, that message is correct enough.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, it is hard to know what is appropriate.

Many times an audience is global rather than local.

Many times writers/speakers do not know who their audience is.

Many audiences do not know how to access—or do not have access to—references to help them interpret non-standard language such as abbreviations, idioms, and jargon.

In a global economy, our students will have to work with many people who will not understand the breezy, informal, idiomatic, and often sloppy language use that characterizes American culture.

Living in a global society, we must hold ourselves and our students to a higher standard of correctness, much closer to textbook rules, than we might have demanded in their speech and writing 10 years ago.

Fortunately, we do not have to teach (or know) all the rules for comma placement. We do need to know and teach those rules that, if violated, are most likely to impede communication of a message.

Research into the writing people do reveals a high concentration of a very few errors. (See Connors and Lunsford, Lunsford and Lunsford, for example.) Most writers’ repeated errors are violations of rules taught in elementary school, such as confusing its and it’s or failing to mark the boundaries of a sentence with a capital letter and closing punctuation.

We must teach those few rules thoroughly, until they are as much a part of our students’ mental processes as their elbows are parts of their bodies.

Bottom line: To equip students to live in a global society, we can teach fewer rules of "good English" but must teach those few far more thoroughly than ever before.

© 2008 Linda G. Aragoni This information previously appeared at Ezine Articles.

Parallel structure repair needed

I read the help wanted ads in the local free distribution newspaper every week.

I’m not looking for a job.

I’m looking for a laugh that I can turn into an informal writing prompt.

Here’s an ad that, alas, is not laugh-out-loud funny, but it does contain a sentence that will make a good writing prompt about parallel structure. The sentence is marked with a blue box.

Help-wanted ad includes paragraph with parallel structure problems.
Read the paragraph within the blue box.

To help students sort that out, have them rewrite the paragraph with the qualifications as a bulleted list, like this:

The right candidate must have:

  • proven track record of sales performance
  • solid work ethic
  • detail oriented
  • know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment

Once the sentence is laid out in visual list format, students will see the structural problems that previously may just have “sounded funny” to them.

The first two items in the sentence/list are noun phrases, but detail oriented is not a noun phrase nor is know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment.

Inserting an article at the beginning of each item in the list may suggest a way to make the items structurally parallel.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • a detail oriented
  • a know how to handle a customer in a fast paced environment

The item might be corrected by (a) revising the third element in the list and (b) putting a hyphen between know and how, thus turning it into a noun, like this.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • an orientation to detail
  • know-how for  delivering customer service in a fast paced environment.

That’s not too bad, but a correction that shortens the last element might be better.

The right candidate must have:

  • a proven track record of sales performance
  • a solid work ethic
  • an orientation to detail
  • customer service know-how for a fast paced environment.

With the items arranged so they are structurally parallel, it’s easier to see if the individual items convey idea the writer intended.

For example, is the company looking for someone who knows how to provide customer service in a fast-paced environment or someone who has experience delivering customer service?

Converting a sentence containing a list of items to a bulleted  list is a simple trick for a spotting a parallelism problem and figuring out a solution.

Try it yourself.

If it works for you,  teach it to your students.

Reading Pairs Repair Written Grammar

one person reads aloud from a paper written by the listener
You can use native English speakers’ ability to hear errors to help them identify potential grammar problem areas in their writing, such as run-together sentences.

Using students to give feedback about their writing is a powerful way to develop students’ skills while reducing your workload.

Simple two-step process

1. With students working in pairs, the author reads his/her work aloud while the other listens.

Why it helps: Slowing down to read aloud may be enough for the author to spot grammatical errors that the author doesn’t see when reading silently.

2. For a second check, the listener reads the work aloud to its author.

Why it helps: The person who didn’t write the paper is far more likely to read sentences as written instead of the way the author intended.

Why it helps: Hearing the paper read by someone else is more likely to reveal to the writer problems he/she corrected mentally but still needs to correct on paper.

During the second reading, students may want to stop at the end of every paragraph, or more often, to see if either questions something that they read. A penciled question mark in the margin (or highlighting on the computer screen) is all that is necessary to help the author remember to check that sentence later.

Tips for trying the technique

Although most strategies I recommend are geared toward teaching teens and adults, this activity can be done with students as young as fourth or fifth grade.

For the activity to work, students need to be fairly well matched in respect to their reading and writing skills.

Also, the reading order is important. The author gets the chance to identify needed changes before the partner can note them. If the listener has reading difficulties, reading second lets him anticipate words s/he will see in the reading.

Read aloud pairs is not a peer editing activity per se. The point is to get the author to focus on the words s/he put on the page.


Comments? Questions? Let’s hear from you.

This post appeared in Writing Points for May, 2011, ©2011 Linda G. Aragoni