Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Apostrophe -- its use and abuse

Garner's Usage Tip of the Day

The Apostrophe ['].

This punctuation mark does three things:

First, it often indicates the possessive case {Wright's treatise}.

Second, it frequently marks the omission of one or more elements and the contracting of the remaining elements into a word (or figure) -- e.g.: "never" into "ne'er"; "will not" into "won't"; "1997" into "'97."

Third, it is sometimes used to mark the plural of an acronym, number, or letter -- e.g.: "CPA's" (now more usually "CPAs"), "1990's" (now more usually "1990s"), and "p's and q's" (still with apostrophes because of the single letters).

Two contradictory trends -- both bad -- are at work with apostrophes.

First, careless writers want to form plurals with wayward apostrophes -- e.g.: "The bishop's [read 'bishops'] of the United Methodist Church have issued an urgent appeal for funds to assist the victims of flooding in the Midwest." Monte Marshall, "Special Offering for Flood Relief," United Methodist Rep., 3 Sept. 1993.

The same problem occurs in third-person-singular verbs: In the early 1990s, a sign at an Austin service station read, "Joe say's: It's time to winterize your car." And a distressing number of signs on mailboxes and entryways are printed, e.g., "The Smith's" [read "The Smiths"].

The second unfortunate trend is to drop necessary apostrophes: there is a tendency to write "the hotels many shops" or "Martins Pub." The only possible cure is increased literacy.

Finally, U.S. place names drop possessive and associative apostrophes by government policy. So, what was once Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, became Harpers Ferry.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt charged the U.S. Board on Geographic Names with standardizing place names. One resulting policy is that each name become a "fixed label" so that, under this questionable rationale, "[t]he need to imply possession or association no longer exists."

Contracting apostrophes {Lake O' the Pines} and surname apostrophes {O'Bannon Mill} remain.

Monday, July 18, 2011

How to get perfect sixes on the SAT essay

The SAT essay is scored by two readers, each of whom grades on a scale from 1 to 6. So you're aiming for two sixes -- boxcars in dice-throwing terminology.

In the story below, Tamar Lewin of The New York Times shows that you don't need to be perfect, or even have perfect spelling, to get a 6. To read the story and see several sample essays, click here.

One kid got a 6 even though he quoted from the musical Cats, which might earn an automatic 1 from some graders. Another did such a good job discussing Elie Wiesel's Night that the graders forgave his misspelling of "hindrance."

West High School English teacher Shannon Jackson, who grades AP essays, says that, indeed, graders are supposed to think of the esays as drafts, because of course that's what they are. So you truly can get a perfect 6 without being perfect.

Scoring The Essay Question
Perfect’s New Profile, Warts and All
Published: September 3, 2006

WHEN it comes to the SAT, perfect is now a whole lot harder. But take heart if you favor cursive over printing, the third person over the first, and more over less. You may have an edge.
More than 1,000 students got a perfect 1600 last year, when the college-admissions test consisted of the time-honored two 800-point sections, verbal and math.

But now that the test has been revamped and expanded to nearly four hours, with a new writing section that includes an essay, the average scores have dropped by seven points — and only 238 students received the new perfect score of 2400.

Technically, even perfect isn’t necessarily perfect. Students can get the top score even if they miss a few questions.

“We actually don’t know how many got a perfect perfect,” said Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for the College Board.

What the College Board does know is that the top scorers comprised 131 boys and 107 girls, or just 0.017 percent of the almost 1.5 million college-bound seniors who took the test.
It seems to be the writing test that has made the number of perfects plummet. While the math and reading sections each had more than 8,000 top scores, only 4,102 students were rated perfect on the writing test, the only part of the exam where girls outscored boys.

Most of the writing test — and three-quarters of the writing score — consists of multiple-choice questions on grammar and usage. But most of the anxiety among high school students centers on the 25-minute essay, graded on a scale of one to six by at least two readers, who spend about three minutes on each essay. Their two scores are added. And, the College Board said, the reason so few students won top marks on the writing section is that so few — less than one percent — got sixes from both readers, for that perfect 12.

The SAT Scoring Guide says an essay gets a six if it “effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue,” “demonstrates outstanding critical thinking,” “is well organized and clearly focused,” and “exhibits skillful use of language.” Grading is holistic, with no points off for spelling errors or small linguistic flaws.

Last week, when the board released 20 top-scoring essays, all on the topic of whether memories are a help or a hindrance, it was impossible not to notice that many were — what’s the right word? — awkward:

“Memory is often the deciding factor between humans and animals,” one started.
“It is a commonly cited and often clich├ęd adage that people learn from their mistakes,” wrote another.

“We reason only with information, that is, reason is the mortar that arranges & connects pieces of information into the palace of understanding,” said a third.

Ed Hardin, who helped develop the writing test for the College Board, has an explanation: “Someone has to get a six,” he said. “Student writing, over all, is not very strong, which is the reason we added the writing test to the SAT. We hope they’ll get better.

After analyzing the results, the board had these insights for the next crop of SAT-takers:

  • Eighty-four percent of the essays took up more than one page, and longer essays were more likely to get a high score than shorter ones. (Two pages is the limit.)

  • Most essays were printed, but those written in cursive got slightly higher scores.

  • About half the essays were written in the first person, but those that did not use the first person got slightly higher scores.
“You can certainly write a first-person essay and get a six, but it’s also true that a lot of very low-performing students write first person,” Mr. Hardin said. “What we tried to show, in releasing these top-scoring essays, is that lots of different things can work. You can select any style, any approach that you think suits your strengths as a writer.”

And on the essay, at least, it’s possible to get a six without coming anywhere near perfect.

WHAT PRACTICE MADE? Misspellings are no “hinderance” to a perfect score on the SAT essay. Scorers looked for “clear and consistent mastery” in areas like critical thinking. They found it, apparently, in these essays, whose opening words are shown. Students were asked, “Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?”

Friday, July 15, 2011

How to structure the SAT essay

As mentioned in the post below, the essay section of the SAT presents an opportunity to excel for those who are prepared.

Below are tips from St. Albans School math teacher Linda DeBord. In her SAT-prep program, students compose two to five essays under test conditions, which Mrs. DeBord then assesses and scores.

"Learning to outline and write an essay under pressure was invaluable," said one student. "The corrected essays were also helpful, as we learned from our mistakes."

Of course a student should briefly outline the essay before writing. "In the brief 25 minutes, the up-front planning is critical," says Mrs. DeBord, "but the students need to keep a careful eye on the time.

"I suggest that in the opening paragraph, after they state their thesis, they should mention two examples they will use. The examples should be clear in their relationship in supporting the thesis.

"The conclusion should restate, in an interesting way (if possible), the thesis and then re-tie in the examples."

So, the structure of the essay goes pretty much --

  1. State thesis

  2. Preview two supporting examples

  3. Elaborate thesis

  4. Flesh out examples

  5. Conclusion
    a) restate thesis (interesting way)
    b) re-tie in the examples

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Outlining in a hurry on the SAT essay

This is the first of several Grammar Tips of the Day about the SAT essay.

One key to success is knowing how to sketch out a brief outline.

This skill, always important on essay tests, is especially highlighted by the essay section of the SAT: In just 25 minutes, kids have to plan their time, think through their arguments and put them on paper. Many test-takers interviewed on TV said they didn't finish in the allotted time.

Harbrace Section 33e: Choose an appropriate method or combination of methods for arranging ideas offers some good tips on listing ideas, outlining and writing essays.

The trick with the new SAT is in doing all this swiftly and effectively. (And, of course, as in all things, penmanship counts!)

In those opening moments, the essayist must consider the topic and map out a course of action---making a list of ideas to touch on and a conclusion to be heading toward.

This is the time to take a deep breath, look at this list, amend as appropriate, and plan those minutes. If there are five minutes to go and you're halfway through your outline (this happens) you must make the remaining points quickly and get to that conclusion.

Of course, the best keys to success are a) knowing what you want to say, b) practicing saying them in alloted periods of time, and c) feigning confidence, so the kids all around you panic. :-)

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Self-depreciating" and other common malapropisms

From today's West Side Shopper-News, page C-2:

"[Former UT and NFL linebacker Mike] Stratton spoke with self-depreciating humor . . . "

Many people confuse the term "self-deprecating" with the malapropism "self-depreciating," which might more properly apply to a piece of self-aware farm machinery.

Malapropisms, or malaprops (both are correct) are the misapplications of words, usually humorous, specifically, the use of words sounding somewhat like the ones intended but ludicrously wrong in their contexts. The words come from a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in a 1775 R.B. Sheridan comedy.

We all hope that magazine articles are filled with interesting "antidotes" (should be "anecdotes").

A recent story in the Knoxville News Sentinel referred to a coach at an Southeastern Conference meeting making the only "descending" (should be "dissenting") vote against merging basketball divisions.

We often hear TV announcers refer to "lacksadaisical" play on defense. The word "lackadaisical" comes from "lackaday," an alteration and shortening of the archaic interjection "alack the day!" used to express regret.

Of course we all get "flustrated" with the officiating -- something between flustered and frustrated -- but in the end it's always a "mute" point. (It should be "moot" [deprived of practical relevance; no longer at issue], not "mute" [unable to speak].)

Lackaday! It all makes us yearn for the days of the St. Louis Cardinal pitcher and radio announcer Dizzy Dean, who once described a base runner, having "slud" into a base, as standing there "cool and confidential." [Linguistics professors like to point out that "slud" was the correct form of the past tense just a few hundred years ago.]

Yogi-isms are apparently-nonsensical-but-often-sagacious malapropisms created by longtime Yankee catcher and manager Yogi Berra, who once received an honorarium check for a speech made out to "Bearer" and asked of his host, "You've known me all these years and still don't know how to spell my name?"

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How to write the perfect college application essay

Here is good advice from the Boston College admissions office website:

First of all, let us debunk the myth. There is no such thing as a perfect essay. There, we've said it.

Now you can clear your mind of the anxiety that typically accompanies students as you sit down to write.

Instead, you can focus on using the essay as a tool to let the Committee on Admission learn more about you as an individual.

Many of us feel that in the fall of your senior year, the college essay is the only portion of your application remaining on which you can still have a significant influence.

Granted, you will need to continue working hard in your classes, but you have already met people who will speak highly of you in a recommendation, you have already been involved in various extra-curricular activities, and you have likely completed your standardized examinations. The one remaining portion is the college essay.

We realize how hectic your senior year is, but take advantage of this opportunity.

The best essays that we read are ones that tell us not only about a specific event, mentor, excursion, or accomplishment, but also tell us how the writer has been affected by their experiences. For example, a typical essay might inform the reader of a trip to France that the student took the previous summer. It might focus on the challenges faced in getting to their destination, the French culture, or even the people that the student met.

The better essay, however, takes it to the next level. It makes the experience personal. The student might choose to explain what surprised, frustrated, or inspired them about the trip. The student might choose to focus on how they now view the world a little bit differently after this newfound international perspective.

Another common example is students' essays on a person who influenced their lives. Frequently, we read essays about applicants' grandparents, for example. Many essays simply focus on the attributes that a grandmother has that make her special to the applicant. They may focus on the challenges that a grandmother has overcome or the successes she has enjoyed. They leave the reader knowing that the student loves his grandmother, but not knowing anything more about the student.

The better essay, however, might also focus on the way the writer has attempted to emulate these admired qualities. The student might choose to share how learning of his grandmother's life experiences has helped him better understand the world. This allows us to learn more about the student and what makes the student special.

As you can see, in both of these examples, the first essay simply tells us of an experience, but the second essay shows us more about the individual. We walk away from it knowing a bit more about the qualities the applicant possesses and how he or she might fit into our campus community.

We hope that you will not view the college essay as a roadblock between you and your college choice, but as a unique opportunity to be in the driver's seat in the college process. Let your qualities, characteristics, and personality shine through.

Best wishes as you begin your journey,

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Email Tip: Use Your Subject Line Effectively

When sending an email, the subject line is one of the most important parts of your message – yet the one many people spend the least time on.

With so many emails in everyone’s Inbox, many messages are unopened long after they’ve been received – or never opened in some cases.

The ideal subject line provides two things:
1) Enough information to make a recipient want to open the email,
2) Key information in case the message becomes buried under a dozen other emails.

Yet the subject line should be relatively short.

Here are some tips on crafting effective subject lines:

  • If possible, summarize the content of an email. For example, a subject line such as “What time is good for our staff meeting?” tells the recipient more than just one that reads “Meeting.”

  • When replying, avoid “Re: Re:-itis” by changing your subject line to reflect your answer. For example, “1 pm is better for me” is more helpful to recipients than “Re: Meeting” or “Re: Re: Meeting.”

  • If you’re announcing an event, try to include the date, time and place in the subject line. This helps everyone refer to the key points later. Note: Use hyphens instead of back slashes in numerical dates. For example, “Staff meeting Thurs. 6-24, 1 pm, WT7 Rm 325” is more helpful and informative than just “Staff Meeting.”

Friday, July 1, 2011

Invigorate your prose: find hidden verbs

From A Plain English Handbook, put out by the Securities and Exchange Commission to encourage Wall Street denizens to make their stock and bond offerings halfway intelligible to the public:

Find Hidden Verbs
Does a sentence use any form of the verbs "to be," "to have," or another weak verb, with a noun that could be turned into a strong verb? In the sentences below, the strong verb lies hidden in a nominalization, a noun derived from a verb that usually ends in -tion. As you change nouns to verbs, your writing becomes more vigorous and less abstract.

before after
We made an application... We applied...
We made an determination... We determined...
We will make an distribution... We will distribute...

We will provide appropriate information to shareholders concerning ....

We will inform shareholders about ...

We will have no stock ownership of the company.

We will own no company stock..

There is the possibility of prior Board approval of these investments.

The Board might approve these investments in advance.