Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Some Gnarly Grammar “Rules”

Catching up on my reading this summer, I recently finished Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, is not only the author of several previous bestsellers on language; he’s also the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel. So I believe we can regard his judgments on usage questions as sound.

Overall, his goal is to try to dispel the negativity that has come to surround “grammatical correctness” and to debunk many correctness myths. He distinguishes between “purists” (folks who naively believe that grammatical rules are like the Ten Commandments) and “experts on usage,” like himself, who understand that language and the rules that govern its use change over time.

Here’s what he had to say about the following issues that have caused me some confusion or consternation, and perhaps you as well:

–Questionable adverbs

We all know that modifiers of verbs need to take the adverb form . . . but is that always true?

The answer is no. Sometimes an adjective and adverb can have the same form, as in “a fast car”/”drive fast” or “a hard ball”/”hit the ball hard.” Pinker would also be fine with “drive safe,” “go slow,” “she sure fooled me,” “he spelled my name wrong,” and “the moon is shining bright,” since using the -ly form of these modifiers could seem “prissy.”

–Starting sentences with coordinate conjunctions

Pinker’s theory here is that grammar teachers of yore forbade starting sentences with “and” or “but” as a way to help students avoid fragments starting with these words. But that’s not a good reason to perpetuate the “rule,” in his view. He starts many sentences in this book with “and” or “but,” in fact, and sees nothing wrong with the practice as long as it seems stylistically appropriate.

–“Between you and I”

Pinker goes to great lengths to explain, on linguistic grounds, why this phrase is not grammatically wrong. But he concludes, still, that writers should avoid the expression, as it’s jarring to educated readers. Thank you.

–“Can” vs. “may”

Perhaps predictably, Pinker puts to rest the old rule that “can” should be used to refer to the feasibility of an action and “may” should be used to give permission to do the action. In his view, “the two words may (or can) be used more or less interchangeably” in the latter situation. (Pinker similarly skewer’s the distinction between “shall” and “will,” arguing that, except in a very few circumstances,” the former sounds “prissy.”)

–Dangling modifiers

Pinker asserts that “a thoughtlessly placed dangler can confuse the reader or slow her down,” invite “ludicrous misinterpretation,” and get the writer judged as “slovenly.” That said, he points out that, technically, the mistake is “not one of ungrammaticality but of ambiguity,” so his call would be to leave alone any unobtrusive danglers (as in “considering the hour, it is surprising that he arrived at all” or “looking at the subject dispassionately, what evidence is there for this theory?”).

–Use of possessives with gerunds

I’ve had students ask me if they need to use the possessive form of a noun or pronoun before a gerund (an -ing phrase acting as a noun), and I didn’t have a well-thought-out response. The answer, according to Pinker, is that the practice is based on spurious linguistic thinking—but that it has caught on enough to be appropriately applied, when possible, in formal writing. Hence, “I approve of Sheila taking the job” is fine in ordinary talk and writing, but “I approve of Sheila’s taking the job” would be the better version for formal writing.

He also advises that long and complicated agents are best left unmarked (as in this sentence: “I was annoyed by the people in line being served first,” not “people in line’s”), whereas simpler ones work well in the possessive form (as in “I appreciate your coming over to help”). I’m surprised, though, that, according to Pinker, the majority of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel was ok with “I can understand him not wanting to go.” Ugh. I think I’ll keep recommending the possessive form in such cases, especially in more formal speaking and writing. (Perhaps, if pressed, the panel would agree with me.)

–Conditionals (if-then statements)

I’m guessing that your students, like mine, have all but lost the ability to use the conditional tense correctly. Pinker’s distinction between “open conditionals” and “remote conditionals” might help us help them.

Here’s an “open conditional”: “If you leave now, you will get there on time.” It refers to an actual possibility for action. The “remote conditional” refers to a remote or hypothetical possibility, as in “If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard.” The formula for this kind of sentence is to use the past tense in the “if” clause” and “would” or some other kind of auxiliary verb in the “then” clause.

–Use of “like,” “as,” and “such as”

Only after I left graduate school did I become aware that using “like” instead of “as” to introduce a dependent clause, as in “The committee conducted a comprehensive survey like we did,” was considered incorrect. But Pinker largely debunks this “rule,” which he calls “the product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance,” since “like” can be a subordinating conjunction as well as a preposition. He narrowly grants, however, that “as” is the favored term in cases when the situation is formal. As with many of the issues he discusses, the educated ear must make the final call on this one.

“A related superstition,” he says, is that one must write “Many technical terms, such as [not like] cloning and DNA, have become familiar to laypeople.” False, he says—though, once again, the formality of the situation can make “like” sound inappropriate.

–Use of “than” and “as”

So which is right: “Rose is smarter than he” or Rose is smarter than him”? “He could not surf as well as she” or “He could not surf as well as her”? Here again, the difference is one of style, not grammar; the first versions “are more suited to formal language,” the latter “to writing that is closer to speech.”

Speaking of “than,” is it ok these days to say “different than the rest” instead of “different from the rest”? You can tell that Pinker is essentially fine with that—but the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, by a slim majority, still stands by “from.”

Pinker also discusses split infinitives, prepositions at ends of sentences, who vs. whom, which vs. that, and issues relating to expressions of quantity, quality, and degree (e.g., is it ok to say “between the three of us”? “very unique”?). There are no surprises here. Essentially, as with the previous examples, he grants the importance of understanding what educated people prefer while also crusading against  “hypercorrectness.” Same with using “they” occasionally to refer to a singular antecedent (e.g., “anybody”). His short, spotty section on punctuation continues in the same vein, with the need for clarity and common sense winning out over excess rule-following.

After the long section on grammatical issues comes a section on diction. This section is especially interesting and useful in that it contains a 20-page table assessing various expressions (e.g., using aggravate to mean “annoy” or raise instead of rear) in terms of what purists think about them, how people commonly use them, and what he thinks. His solution for some of these disputes, here and in other places in the book, is simple: “Look it up” (in a respected, current dictionary).

I’m glad I read this book, but it’s not the kind of book you can take excerpts from to hand out to your class. The finer linguistic arguments get tiresome, and, as someone who grew up doing regular sentence diagramming, I find Pinker’s tree diagrams (the kind linguists use) not worth the effort it would take to understand them (he exhibits a bit of audience blindness here, as he seems to think these diagrams are a snap for laypeople to follow).

But I hope this post will help you feel more knowledgeable and confident when helping your students write well. You can also share with them the book’s central point about correctness: It is a constantly changing concept that depends, at any given moment, on widespread usage, not on the judgment of an anointed committee of grammar police. Yet the prevailing conventions should be heeded. As Pinker says, “Style still matters”; it “ensures that writers will get their message across,” it “earns trust,” and it “adds beauty to the world” in the form of pleasing use of language. I’m with him.

(Bad) Examples to Use on the First Day of Class

So you may have two questions:

  1. Why are you writing about the first day of class when the school year just ended? Answer: It’s never too early to collect great stuff to use in the next school year!
  2. Where have you guys been?! Your last post was in January! Answer: Sadly, yes–that was our last post. Then various calamities, in the form of burdensome administrative tasks and health problems, hit. But we have emerged victorious and, like many of you, are happy to have the summer to recover, rethink, and recharge.

The first day of class is a great time to start sensitizing students to the importance of clear, successful business communication, so over the summer, watch your in-box, social-media feeds, and mailbox (and listen up during meetings and other encounters) for real examples that can make the point.

Here’s one I’m going to use. It was in an email message that I recently received from an environmental-protection organization. Though the message was, in general, well written, the first paragraph had a major problem. I’m sure you can find it (the boldface type was in the original):

“With graduation commencements happening at colleges all across the country, many of your students are probably still wondering, ‘What comes next?’ That’s why I wanted to let you know that we will be officially closing applications for the Green Corps Class of 2018 on Friday, May 26th.”

Wait . . . is this a good-news or bad-news message?! Despite the negative wording of the emphasized sentence, the intended message–that there’s still time for students to apply for a job with Green Corps–is actually good. Ask your students how they’d rewrite the problem sentence to emphasize this good news. I’ll be they can do it–and bolster their self-confidence and decision-making skill in the process.

Another problematic message I received not long ago was the “teaser” on the envelope of a fundraising letter. It read “IMPORTANT RENEWAL NOTICE” and then “IMMEDIATE RESPONSE REQUESTED,” followed by this question, in bold red type: “Have We Done Something Wrong?

The teaser did get me to open the envelope, whose contents revealed that the sender was Habitat for Humanity. Though this is an organization that I feel positively toward (and have supported), I found the envelope’s screaming (typographically speaking) announcement and its whiny, guilt-inducing question very off-putting. Thankfully, the letter itself talked about helping families, without further efforts to make the reader feel bad–but by then I’d already determined not to support whatever organization had sent me this message.

It’d be very interesting, I think, to share this story with our classes (minus my particular reaction to the message) and see what they’d have to say about the text on the envelope. I’m betting that somebody will say it was unwise not to reveal up front that the message was from Habitat, since the organization, as a popular and respected nonprofit, should have traded more on their “cred.”  I’m hoping they’ll also find fault with the shouted “RENEWAL NOTICE” message. And of course, I’m hoping that they’ll regard the emotional-blackmail ploy used by the question as dangerous. (Yes, it may get people to open the envelope . . . but would any letter be able to counteract the negative reactions generated, at least for some people, by the question? Plus, how would the reader know if the organization had “done something wrong?” Or what should he/she do if he/she believes that the answer is “yes”? It’s a negatively worded invitation for feedback that goes nowhere.)

We know many of you also collect examples of communication gaffes. Please share these, as well as good examples that catch your attention. They’re a great way, maybe the best way, to “keep it real” in the bcomm classroom.

A New Year and a New Start

January is usually a time for resolutions, and it’s already February—but really, a good idea, the inspiration to do something different or better, or the opportunity to take a new path can happen any time of the year.

For my part, I try to do something new or different at least once a semester in one of my classes. I know…I know…. Our classes are full and overloaded, and we seem to continually add to our curriculum without ever taking anything out. Who has the time to do something new with so much already to be done?

But our students know when our material isn’t fresh or when we are not at our most energetic. If you are looking for an opportunity to recharge and refresh, why not consider the following?

Join the Association for Business Communication

Have your students participate in the annual writing contest. Read the newsletter. Join a committee. So many opportunities….

Attend an Association for Business Communication regional conference or international conference

Network, learn what your colleagues are doing in their classes, present your latest project, or just socialize with like-minded researchers and professionals. Did I mention that the annual conference in October is in Dublin? (That’s Ireland, not Ohio.)

Try a new teaching tool, such as Socrative

It’s an interactive app that lets students and you immediately assess student understanding in class. Plus, your students can use their phones or computers for purposes actually related to your course.

Introduce a new game

Are you teaching teamwork, conflict resolution, or negotiation? Try “Divide the Loot.” Students are given a set of conditions and then must work in teams to divide a pot of money equitably. Or try “Hanabi,” a card game where team members have to collaborate to create a winning fireworks display. Or try “You’ve Been Sentenced,” a board game that can help students understand parts of speech and sentence structure.

Find a real client

There’s nothing like a real client to get students interested and invested in a writing assignment. Many companies, both nonprofit and for profit, will welcome students’ research about a communication issue in their workplace.

This is a short list. Of course, trying all of these ideas at once might be overwhelming, but if you are looking for something new, why not try one or two?

If you have ideas to share, please do. We would be excited to hear what you are doing in your classes to keep your material fresh, current, and engaging.

Protecting Yourself and Your Students from Copyright Infringement

I recently attended a seminar led by Mark Konecny, Scholarly Communications Strategist with the University of Cincinnati Libraries. His topic: How instructors and students can avoid copyright infringement and the hassles and cost that come with it.

The first important thing I learned: It is very easy now for companies to find anyone who is using their material (ads, data, words, tables, photos, videos) without their permission. The reason is that numerous web crawlers are available whose sole purpose is to trawl the web for images and other material that is being illegally used. Mark told of a bar in Machu Picchu that had had a picture of Mickey Mouse on its wall for decades. Recently, though, the bar owner was approached by a copyright attorney, ordered to take down the image, and slapped with a steep fine. If you are using others’ media without their permission, they will find you and take you down!

The next important thing I learned: Material that is being borrowed for education purposes and is “inward facing”—that is, not pointed out toward the public—requires much less permission-seeking that material that is “outward facing.”

Using Others’ Material in Inward-Facing Educational Media

The Educational Fair Use Guidelines (first created in 1976) and the T.E.A.C.H. Act (Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002) spell out the circumstances in which material borrowed for the classroom—whether face-to-face or virtual–can be used without permission. When considering copyright infringement cases related to teaching, judges will consider these four factors:

  • The purpose and character of your use. If the material is being used within/for the classroom, you should cite the origin of the material to avoid plagiarism, though that won’t be a sufficient safeguard against being charged for copyright infringement. To be safe on those grounds, you need to be able to demonstrate that you are making educational use of the material by integrating it into your teaching lesson, which is viewed as “transforming” the work from a piece of property into a means of teaching. (So, for example, you could include a clip from a movie or an ad in your bcomm class if you analyze it, draw a lesson from it, make a point with it, or otherwise incorporate it into a course topic or assignment.)
  • The nature of the copyrighted work. The key factors here are whether the work is factual or artistic/creative/fictional and whether it has been published or not. Factual works have looser restrictions because their contents are considered beneficial to the public. Published works also have looser restrictions than unpublished work because the author of unpublished work needs greater protection from theft of the material. But you should not be casual about using any copyrighted work.
  • The amount and substantiality of the portion taken. There are no hard and fast rules here, but the general idea is that you’re better off copying less than more. For example, you might include a few pages or visuals from a publication but not a whole chapter. That said, if you post a pdf of an article or chapter on your school’s course management system (e.g., Blackboard) and your school’s library has already paid for your access to this material, you should be on fairly safe ground. Certainly you will also be on safe ground if you include links to whole books in your library’s e-brary. On the other hand, if you print out hard copies for your students and charge them for the copying cost, that would probably be too commercial for a judge’s taste.
  • the effect of the use upon the potential market. In no way should your use of others’ material rob them of the just rewards for their work. Do not share with students any material that they would otherwise need to pay for. If you want to show a movie or part of a movie in your class, for example, it’s best to buy the DVD yourself and show it. Next best is inserting a link to the clip in your course assignment or PowerPoint slide. Not as good is streaming the movie, and not good is downloading the movie for free and showing this copy to your class. Same for music. As The T.E.A.C.H. Act says, all copies used must be lawfully made copies. And those copies need to have a specific, short life.

These same guidelines apply to your students if they are incorporating others’ material into their assignments and sharing them with others in the class. If, on the other hand, their work will be made public in any way, in the form of posters, videos, websites, brochures, or other outward-facing media, the guidelines get much more strict.

Using Others’ Material in Outward-Facing Media

When access to other’s materials is not limited to those being used in a course, the borrowing game becomes much more dangerous. Here, one must rigorously honor copyright notices and request permission to use any borrowed material that is not considered to be in the public domain.

For example, if you or your students use Google Images to find the perfect image for a presentation, poster, brochure, or website, you must go to the source of the image and try to get permission. The rights holder will probably specify the way he/she wants the source to be credited.

Same with graphs from eMarketer, blog posts from Forbes, copyrighted music, and other material you might want to use in an educational but outward-facing way.

Sometimes these sources will say no; sometimes they will say yes; sometimes they will say yes but with restrictions and/or payment.

Finding Permission-Free Photos, Videos, and Other Materials

Some publishers of media that you may want to use will allow you to use it with minimal or no permission.

Some examples:

  • YouTube says that you can put “the occasional YouTube video in your blog to comment on it or show your readers a video that you like, even if you have general-purpose ads somewhere on your blog.” (If you’re creating a YouTube video that uses copyrighted material, though, you must get the owner’s permission to avoid the risk of getting a take-down notice.) To find music that it’s ok to use without permission in your video, read about the YouTube Audio Library.

 

  • Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that, in their words, gives “everyone from individual creators to large companies and institutions a simple, standardized way to grant copyright permissions to their creative work. The combination of our tools and our users is . . . a pool of content that can be copied, distributed, edited, remixed, and built upon, all within the boundaries of copyright law.” Content creators on Wikipedia, Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, and other platforms are given the option of licensing works with CC licenses, and many other creators simply go to CC and upload work that they are fine with sharing. The creators select what kind of licensing they want to have govern the re-use of the work and, as long the re-user meets the terms of the license for the photo or he/she wants to use, the re-use is fair. Some copyright holders, like Shutterstock, will charge you a (usually small) fee to download/use an image; others will allow free use, even commercial use, if the sources is attributed, while others forbid commercial use; and others will say “free for commercial use; no attribution required.”

 

  • Unsplash offers a wide range of photos that are “licensed under Creative Commons Zero which means you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer.” (Thanks to Heather Smith for telling me about this resource.)

 

  • Morguefile is “a community-based free photo site, and all photos found in the Morguefile archive are free for you to download and re-use in your work, be it commercial or not.” (Thanks again, Heather.)

 

  • Pixabay offers images and videos that have been “released free of copyrights under Creative Commons CC0. You may download, modify, distribute, and use them royalty free for anything you like, even in commercial applications. Attribution is not required.” (Yet again, thank you, Heather.)

 

The Bottom Line

With copyright-infringement crawlers now searching the web for infringements, you and your students must take the ownership of materials seriously. Universities are required by law to post copyright guidelines, like these from my school. If there is any chance that your intended use of the material may incur a take-down notice (and possibly a heavy fine), consult with knowledgeable personnel at your school. (See Paula’s post “Classroom Resources: Copyright Law” for additional online guides.)

An Assignment Idea: Advising the Safe Use of–or Forbidding–Ear Buds

ipod-dark-photo-files-9-1242761I’ve been struck this fall, more than ever, by how pervasive ear buds are on campus and how oblivious many students are when wearing them. I’ve seen students step out into oncoming emergency vehicles, fail to see cars that are turning into them, and otherwise jeopardize themselves and others because of their inability to hear (and, sometimes, see—since, often, they’re looking at their phones as well).

I figure we can turn this situation into a teaching moment! Here are a couple of ideas for assignments built around the issue.

  • Have students, perhaps in groups, research the dangers of earbuds (and ear buds + cell phones) to find compelling data they could use in a safety message to students at their school. Then have them write that message. Have them discuss and choose whom the message should come from: head of safety and security, president of the student body, head of student affairs, the university president? The challenge of this assignment is that your students are probably not inclined to read or heed a message like this themselves. But that’s the beauty of it, too: They’re in a perfect position to figure out what it would take to overcome their readers’ likely objections. Tell them that when they’ve found data/arguments that would persuade them to change their own behavior, they’re onto something.
  • I found, with a little bit of Internet searching, that some workplaces forbid the use of earbuds on the job. Have your students, perhaps in groups, research this issue to find out why. Then create, or have them create, a scenario in which, playing some role in the company, they need to write the employees to state and defend the company’s ear-bud policy.

Either of these assignments will involve conducting research, evaluating evidence, persuading a reluctant audience, and writing clear guidelines. You can have great discussions around all these facets of the task. Let’s hope it also results in safer behavior on the part of our students! (How cool would it be to send the message to the director of campus safety and figure out a way to have it actually sent out? It could happen!)

If you’ve got an idea for a good informative or persuasive message assignment to use this fall, please share it!

A BComm Consciousness-Raising Activity

I received an email message yesterday that I forwarded to a new graduate teaching assistant as a good message to discuss with her students as they begin their Writing for Business course. What makes it especially promising discussion material, I think, is that the message is neither good nor bad, or it’s both, or, depending on the reader, it could be one or the other. So it provides a wide open space for students to weigh in with their judgments and the reasons behind them.

The message was a no-reply message from Jack@anyandalltextbooks.com (a fictitious version of the real name), and its subject line was “Can I swing by Wednesday, Professor?” The first words of the message were the line “I’ll be on campus!,” centered and in big, bold, italic letters.

Then came the following:

Hi Professor,
My name is Jack and I’m part of a start-up whose entire purpose is to help students afford to get a college education. You probably recognize me, as I work with many faculty at the University of Cincinnati who have that as a priority. I’m a local!

I DO work with textbooks, but this is totally different from the other book buyers you’ve had drop by your office. I have a huge database that allows me to buy books from as far back as the 1950’s. Faculty members appreciate that I can help them de-clutter their offices while putting textbooks back in the hands of students that could use them.

Types of books I can send to a student:
–  Old editions
–  New editions
–  Instructor (and annotated) copies

Let me know if you’d like to see if you have any books a student could use! I’ll be on campus this Wednesday.

Feel free to respond or even call/text if you would like me to come by quickly. My cell number is 555-523-5523 [not the real number].

Kind regards,
Jack

I know some faculty choose to hang on to all of their books and never sell—if that’s you, I’m so sorry for reaching out! I’m just trying as hard as I can to help students. Click the Unsubscribe button below and I’ll make sure I don’t email you again.

Below that were a large graphic I couldn’t interpret (something like a pink lopsided donut), Jack’s (still with no last name given) address, and an unsubscribe link.

Here are just a few of the many questions you could ask about this message:

–What do you think of the writer’s using just his first name? What might be good about it? What might be bad?

–What do you think about the inclusion of the tagline at the top and the graphic at the bottom? Does this enhance or detract from the message’s persuasive appeal?

–What kind of persona/ethos is the writer trying to project here? Is it effective, in your view?

–What kind of relationship is he trying to establish with the reader? Does he succeed? Is it appropriate?

–What features of this message might tempt a professor to sell his/her textbooks to this person? What might lead a professor to reject the request in the message?

–If you were revising the message, what parts would you leave the same? What parts would you revise and why?

This activity can help sensitize students to the importance of adapting to the audience, creating an effective ethos, and building credibility. If used during the persuasive-message unit of the course, it can help students think about what makes appeals persuasive. But however you use it, it will get students analyzing, thinking, and using their judgment, and realizing that they need well-thought-out reasons for the decisions they’ll make as communicators. Helping them create this habit of mind is probably the most valuable legacy we can leave them with.

We hope your term is off to a great start!

Empathy Training: It’s Not Just for Millennials

Happy summer, everyone! We hope you’re relaxing, recharging, and collecting cool ideas for teaching bcomm in the fall.

An article just “came across my desk” (in an email from the Association for Talent Development) that I thought was relevant to us. I wrote earlier
about the fact that Millennials, because of the era in which they grew up, have difficulty putting themselves in other people’s shoes, especially people who are not like them.

Looks like they’re not the only ones who could use some empathy training. As the article points out, upper-level managers can also become more effective if they pause to think about things from their employees’ perspectives.

As we know, understanding others and meeting them where they are is a key–if not the key–to effective business communication. So helping our students be more empathetic is not just a way to make them more considerate and ethical (though it is that); it’s a critical part of their development as successful communicators. Exposing them to different kinds of audiences, encouraging their imagination of others’ circumstances, even having them role play–anything we can do to help them stretch their ability to empathize is all to the good.

While we’re speaking of execs . . . , check out this list of what they’re reading these days, according to McKinsey & Company. What’s striking to me is that most of these highly successful businesspeople aren’t just focused on business books. They’re reading history, fiction, biography, and other material that broadens their knowledge and helps them understand others better.

Let’s encourage our students to do likewise!