Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

  • Author: Edwin L. Battistella

W(h)ither the five-paragraph essay

I was surprised to learn from my students that many of them are still being taught to write the five-paragraph essay in high school. You know it: an introductory paragraph that begins with a hook and ends in a thesis statement.

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Where did the phrase “yeah no” come from?

I’ve noticed myself saying “yeah no.” The expression came up in a class one day, when I had asked students to bring in examples of language variation. One student suggested “yeah no” as an example of not-quite standard California English.

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How to do fact checking

The actor Cary Grant once said of acting that, “It takes 500 small details to add up to one favorable impression.” That’s true for writing as well—concrete details can paint a picture for a reader and establish credibility for a writer. Details can be tricky, however, and in the swirl of research and the dash of exposition, it is possible to get things wrong: dates, names, quotes, and facts.

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How to use the passive voice

Writing instructors and books often inveigh against the passive voice. My thrift-store copy of Strunk and White’s 1957 Element of Style says “Use the Active Voice,” explaining that it is “more direct and vigorous than the passive.” And George Orwell, in his 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language,” scolds us to “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

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The secrets of newspaper names

A few years ago, two colleagues of mine traveled around the country documenting what was going on in the newspaper industry, talking to editors, reporters, and publishers in all 50 states. Reading their book, Practicing Journalism: The Power and Purpose of the Fourth Estate, I was struck by the great passion of journalists and their commitment to public service.

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A fresh look at clichés

Recently a friend gave me a copy of It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Clichés by lexicographer Orin Hargraves. I was intrigued to read it because I had been wondering about clichés for some time.

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Is there a comma after BUT?

According to editors and grammarians, there is no comma after the word but at the beginning of a sentence. But it is something I see a lot in sentences like “But, there were too many of them to count” or “But, we were afraid the situation would get worse.”

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Hamburger semantics

The students in my class were arguing a question of semantics: is a hamburger a sandwich? One student noted that the menu designer at the restaurant where she worked couldn’t decide if a Chicken Burger should be listed under Hamburgers or Sandwiches.

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Where to put hyphens

After reading a draft of something by a colleague, I asked her how she decides when to use hyphens. She responded tartly: “Hyphens. You mean like in well-spoken, or half-assed? I’m not sure. I don’t care for them.” Personally, I’m a big fan of hyphens and sarcasm won’t deter me. Personally, I’m a big fan of hyphens and sarcasm won’t deter me.

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How to write a biography

This year I’ve been reading a lot of biographies and writing some short profile pieces. Both experiences have caused me to reflect back on a book-length biography I wrote a few years ago on the little-known educator Sherwin Cody. Writing a book-length biography was a new experience for me at the time. I learned a lot along the way. Here are a few tips based on my experience.

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Putting modifiers in their place

Sometimes I misplace things—my sunglasses, a book I’m reading, keys, my phone. Sometimes I misplace words in sentences too, leaving a clause or a phrase where it doesn’t belong. The result is what grammarians call misplaced or dangling modifiers. It’s a sentence fault that textbooks sometimes illustrate with over-the-top examples like these.

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The language of strategic planning

My university just completed a round of strategic planning, its periodic cycle of self-evaluation, redefinition, and goal setting. Many of my colleagues were excited about the opportunity to define the future. Others were somewhat jaded, seeing such plans as bookshelf documents to be endured until the next planning cycle. Still others were agnostics, happy to see us have a good strategic plan but determined not to let it get in their way.

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How to spot ambiguity

Not long ago, a colleague was setting up a meeting and suggested bringing along spouses to socialize after the business was done. Not getting a positive reply, she emailed: “I’m getting a lack of enthusiasm for boring spouses with our meeting.” A minute later, a second, clarifying email arrived indicating that she “meant boring as a verb not an adjective.” She had spotted the ambiguity in the first message.

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Beware the thesaurus

Someone recently asked me if I knew another word for entertaining. “What’s the context?” I replied, wondering if the writer was looking for an adjective like enjoyable or interesting or a gerund like wining and dining or possibly even a verb like pondering. “Use it in a sentence.” “Never mind,” she said, “I’ll just use the thesaurus button.” The what?

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What you can learn at a writing retreat

Recently I attended a writing retreat for faculty at my university. It was a three-day weekend break from email, grading and meetings. A dozen academic writers from a variety of disciplines gathered under the roof of a spacious rental home near a lake to talk about their projects, share strategies and concerns, and write for long stretches at a time.

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How to write a conclusion

Writing essays is complicated work, and writing the ending to an essay is often the hardest part of that work. Endings are tough for several reasons. You may be tired from writing–or tired of what you have written. You may feel that you have made your point sufficiently and that no more needs to be said or can possibly be said. However, the ending is your last chance to make an impression.

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