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Lynne Truss admits early on in her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves that she is an ‘unattractive, know-all obsessive’ when it comes to punctuation (p. 5). She admits that the absence of a question mark in a charity-shop sign (‘Can you spare any old records’) and the missing apostrophe in the movie title Two Weeks Notice make her a bit crazy. She jokingly suggests forming a militant vigilante wing of the Apostrophe Protection Society (http://www.apostrophe.org.uk) to correct punctuation-gone-wrong in everyday society. However, despite Truss’s self-described ‘stickler’ nature (p. 6), the information presented in Eats, Shoots & Leaves is extremely valuable.
‘The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation’, Truss assures the reader, ‘the reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning’ (p. 6).Eats, Shoots and Leaves is not a book about grammar; it is about using punctuation effectively to convey proper meaning. As the book’s cover demonstrates, a failure to properly punctuate can lead to disastrous results. The cover shows a panda bear holding a smoking gun, showing that the unnecessary comma can completely change the meaning of the title.
Though Truss is a bit pedantic about the smaller nuances of punctuation, the information offered in the book is presented in a witty and relatable manner. Each chapter provides the reader with detailed explanations of how to properly (and improperly) use the wide array of punctuation. Truss delves into the history behind the evolution of punctuation, instead of merely explaining how it is used. For instance, in the chapter entitled ‘That’ll Do, Comma’, Truss traces the evolution of the comma as guide for actors in Ancient Greece to the modern usage of commas as ‘grammatical sheepdog ... organizing words into sensible groups and making them stay put’ (p. 79). Truss also discusses several, often forgotten, forms of punctuation. The chapter entitled ‘Airs and Graces,’ gives a detailed discussion on the proper use of colons and semi-colons, which are often under-utilized by writers the world over. While the proper use of apostrophes and commas demonstrates ‘confidence in yourself [as a writer] and respect for your reader’, Truss assures that the proper use of colons and semicolons ‘mark you out as a master of your craft’ (p. 106).
In Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Truss presents her knowledge on the use of punctuation in a way that is meant to inspire writers to communicate their point at a mastery level. Truss’s message is not simply one of exasperation at the everyday abuse of punctuation; although, her frustration is clear and prevalent throughout the book. Instead, Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a readable and entertaining way to perfect everyday writing and become a punctuation master. As Truss assures in her introduction, this book is one that ‘gives you permission to love punctuation’ (p. 33).
Do you find yourself having to look up ‘affect vs. effect’ every time you write an essay? Are you constantly confused whether you should use an apostrophe in ‘it’s’? Gooden’s book works like a dictionary with a twist. He lists commonly confused words alphabetically, defines their differences, gives examples, and provides some tips on how to avoid confusion. For every commonly confused pairing, Gooden gives examples from actual newspapers of the words being used correctly or incorrectly. He also adds an ‘embarrassment rating’ to help the reader determine which words are most important to remember.
Two of the most difficult words to tell apart are ‘affect’ and ‘effect’. The following is a summary of Gooden’s entry on these commonly confused words.
Affect: verb that means ‘to have an influence on’, ‘to make a difference to’
Peter’s drinking affected his health more than his personality. (found in the Independent)
Effect: verb that means ‘to bring about’, noun that means ‘impact’
They effected the most dramatic transformation almost overnight. (found in The Times)
The harmful effects of cigarette smoking are now well established.
Embarrassment rating: Confusing the two words has an embarrassment rating of 1.5 out of 3. Since it is so common to mix up the two words, nearly everyone does it at some point in their writing.
How to avoid confusion: The easiest way to tell the two words apart is to remember that if you are looking for a verb, you usually use ‘affect’ and if you want a noun, you typically use ‘effect’. It might also be helpful to remember that a verb is something you do (run, write, talk, etc.), and a noun is a person, place, or thing (dog, Galway, rock, etc.)
Another helpful entry shows the differences between ‘it’s’ and ‘its’. Since it’s easy to use the wrong form of the word in academic writing, here is a summary of Gooden’s explanation of their difference.
It’s: contracted form of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ (just like ‘don’t’ is the contracted form of ‘do not’)
It’s a warm day.
Its: possessive form of the pronoun ‘it’
The cat flicked its tail.
Embarrassment rating: 3 out of 3. There is an easy trick for remembering which word to use.
How to avoid confusion: If you’re unsure whether or not to use the apostrophe, try substituting ‘its’ for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ in the sentence. If it makes sense, then use the contracted form ‘it’s’. If not, then use the possessive ‘its’.
It’s (it is) cold outside.
The cat drank its (
it is) milk.
Who’s Whose is a convenient reference for anyone wanting to double check their academic writing. Even native speakers commonly use ‘perspective’ when they mean ‘prospective’ or ‘farther’ when they mean ‘further’. The one problem is that Who’s Whose does not tell the reader how to pronounce the words. While this may not be an issue for more commonly used words, it would be helpful to have a pronunciation guide for words like ‘pseudonym’ or ‘auger’, particularly for readers whose first language is not English.
The subtitle of Chris Hart's Doing Your Masters Dissertation does not appear on either the front cover or the spine of the book, and there is only one brief mention of the social sciences at the bottom of the back cover - thus it is not immediately clear that this book is specifically geared towards students in the social sciences. Still, a brief glance through the book shows that it would not only be a good book for social science students to take a look at, but also for students in other disciplines; a fair bit of Hart's advice and guidelines could be generalised to apply broadly for any dissertation.
Students may reach the postgraduate level and believe they know what they are doing in terms of research and academic work, and may therefore be hesitant to pick up a book like this. However, this book (and others like it) can provide a lot of good reminders even for those students, in addition to providing guidance for students who are not quite as confident about their academic writing. The text attempts to be accessible without being patronising - tempering its potential to be patronising with an acknowledgement that "it may seem a little patronizing in parts" (32), and including various charts and diagrams throughout the text to help illustrate Hart's points, making it easier for readers to process the information he provides.
Hart does not only address the actual writing of the dissertation; his book begins with the earliest stages of approaching a dissertation: choosing a course, and transitioning into one. He also offers advice about how to manage one's time and one's relationships, given that writing a dissertation is a substantial commitment.
One of the most pertinent points that Hart makes is that you do not start writing a dissertation only after having everything start to finish; you start writing when you do your research, and your text will go through multiple iterations before becoming part of your dissertation draft. He takes the reader through the entire process, beginning with a discussion of what the goal of a dissertation is, as well as what mistakes students make when choosing topics and what kinds of features help identify good topics. He then moves toward a discussion of the general structure of a dissertation (e.g., its various parts/chapters), and describes different types of dissertations a student can write.
Hart discusses what would be considered "the literature" for a postgraduate project and how to search and review said literature - as well as why doing so is important. He provides hints for how to search for relevant literature and explains how to analyse and review the literature you have found.
Hart's book is clearly geared towards the social sciences and, for students in those disciplines, there are helpful chapters and sections discussing methodologies, data collection, ethics and approaches to research. However, anyone writing a dissertation and looking for guidance can find this book helpful. Hart's book attempts to lay out very clearly the elements of a dissertation, as well as different ways of approaching both the research and the writing.
As helpful as this book can be, if you are looking specifically for a text to help you with the nuts and bolts of writing - things like grammar and mechanics - or with citations and constructing bibliographies, this will not be the one you should reach for.
Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers demonstrates that any student, regardless of discipline, can express herself and her opinion in an academic style once the fear of ‘wrongness’ or being corrected is removed. The book allows the reader to connect with Elbow on a personal level and to become comfortable with the idea of academic writing as a source of real communication and opinionated speech. Although Elbow’s book is vastly personal, it is informative and helpful to anyone who experiences difficulties with academic writing.
Elbow focuses on the importance of free writing. He looks at the impact of negative feedback on a student’s mind, arguing that the ‘correction, over correction, and fear of wrongness’ leave a student lost in a space where opinions can no longer flourish (23-4). He argues that, by contrast, ‘free writings help you by providing no feedback at all’ (4). As a writer, you should first and foremost clear your mind of any judgements and to allow yourself to think openly. It is through this motion of free writing exercises that Elbow promotes healthy growth instead of detrimental criticism of ideas.
From the process of free writing, Elbow moves into what he believes to be the writing process. He argues that when you begin writing, you do not know what you will end up with. This, he reckons, is the most important fact of writing that is often ignored and causes most writers-block or convoluted ideas.
Instead of a two-step transaction of meaning-into-language, think of writing as an organic, developmental process in which you start at the very beginning- before you know your meaning at all – and encourage your words to gradually change and evolve (15).
Though his work is transformative and extremely influential for someone uncomfortable with the writing process, it may seem elementary to those more comfortable. It is Elbow’s tangents and autobiographical slips that make the book so enlightening. This book has shaped my own methods of writing, and I find that in looking back through it I am still greatly influenced by the freeing aspect of journaling and exposing my own ideas without fear or need of justification.
Write Great Essays! offers practical advice on efficient strategies for reading, note-taking, avoiding unconscious plagiarism, and simplifying 'academic speak'.
Levin breaks down academic learning into three stages: selecting and copying, translating, and, finally, digesting or 'engaging' with the subject (12). In a bid to combat the fear of ‘monster reading lists’, he advises students to concentrate on essential reading and search for the most up-to-date sources (16). Students can manage their time by choosing one of Levin’s four reading strategies, namely, 'exploratory' (an overall summary of the text), 'dedicated' (digesting a book that is necessary for an exam), 'targeted' (looking for something specific), and 'compulsive' (whereby you become so engrossed in a book you cannot put it down) (20). Students are also urged to consider the following questions before they begin to read: What are the key terms of the topic? Does the essay title include a direct question or a statement? Does it ask you to discuss the subject, carry out a task or solve a problem? (46). Answering these questions helps to write a more focused essay.
Levin goes on to discuss the structure and layout of an essay and he explores the use of headings and sub-headings within the body of an assignment (page 74). He discusses writing style and the use of quotations (78). He encourages the use of formal terms and provides alternatives for colloquialisms (84). For example, he would replace the word 'things' with 'units', 'elements' or 'factors'.
Levin puts the ‘bewildering’ amount of different referencing styles into perspective by urging all students to keep a detailed list of their sources throughout the reading and writing processes (91). This will prevent unintentional plagiarism.
The book itself is quite short. This means that it is very readable and accessible. However, some areas, such as the use of quotations, are not fully developed. It is a good starting point for a student who is new to writing academic essays.
As part of the Student Friendly Guides series, Levin has also written Excellent Dissertations!, Successful Teamwork! and Perfect Presentations!
Available at Main Library Open Access (820 YOU) and University Bookshop.
Studying English Literature, by Tory Young, is designed for students who find the transition from a secondary school style of writing to an academic style challenging. It is also aimed at mature students who are new to academic writing
Young believes that one’s decision to study literature is typically based on a passion for reading, rather than writing, and especially not academic writing. This often leads to self-doubt. The textbook addresses this problem by offering practical advice on structuring essays, developing ideas, or formulating arguments. The book answers questions concerning word counts, plagiarism, the usage of the personal pronoun ‘I’, and the differences between the ‘Works Cited’ and ‘Bibliography’ sections, while providing specific examples of quotations and citations in the MLA style. The author disputes the popular notion of the comma as a ‘breathing space’ (125) and outlines the basic rules of punctuation. She also advises students who are terrified of long lists of secondary reading on how to choose relevant information by adopting the ‘skim reading’ technique. While the book offers guidance on initiating the writing process, it gives limited advice on improving it. As a textbook, however, it offers exactly the kind of practical instruction that any new student requires.
Young, Tory. Studying English Literature. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2008.
Available at Main Library Open Access (808.042 PEC)
Write it Right is a quick reference guide that answers basic questions on grammar, punctuation, and effective essay writing. This book is aimed at students new to undergraduate study or those wishing to reacquaint themselves with the fundamentals of academic writing.
The central message of Write It Right is that ‘essay writing should not resemble wandering into a maze with a vague hope that you will eventually emerge safely on the other side. The reason why it is so often like this is because most people do not have a method they can call upon in writing an essay’(107). Starting with the basics, the book goes through the mechanics of writing effective sentences, to forming an argument and structuring assignments. The section dealing with paragraph transitions contains particularly helpful advice on creating a sense of continuity throughout an essay. The book is written clearly and illustrates grammatical terms with simple examples.
However, the sections which look at extended writing essays and dissertations are vague and provide no substantial detail. Also, the effective use of quotation and paraphrasing is an issue that is completely neglected by Peck and Coyle.
Despite these shortcomings, it is a valuable book that provides quick and easy solutions to common writing problems.