Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Writing: A Basic Skill All Graduates Need

This is the fourth and last  in a series of blogs that I have written  in response to a request from Bob Clary, Webucator’s community manager. The series concerns professional and business competencies that recent grads need. The competencies that I am covering are ethics, job search, interpersonal skills, and writing. This blog concerns writing.

It is important to write well, and it is not too late to learn how. In 2013 CNBC reported that one of the chief reasons that firms reject job applicants is poor writing. CNBC adds: In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and write clearly.”  USA Today lists Siemens, UPS, BAE Systems, and Loyalty Factor as firms that emphasize writing skill when they hire recent grads. The USA Today article quotes the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (p. 147), which indicates that 97%  of executives believe that the ability to write clearly and persuasively is “absolutely essential” for a student to be ready for college and a career.  

Nevertheless, in 2003 the College Board’s National Commission on Writing published a report entitled The Neglected R: The Need for a Writing Revolution. The report notes that only about 25% of students at grades 4, 8, and 12 are at the proficient level of writing. That is, most high school grads “cannot produce writing at the high levels of skill, maturity, and sophistication required in a complex, modern economy.” Moreover, Jill Singleton Jackson finds in her 2003 doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas that a sample of master’s degree students does not write better than high school seniors.

Three steps are helpful to better writing:  (1) practice, (2) learning, and (3) observation.  The steps do not need to be followed in any order; rather, students and graduates should integrate practice with learning.     
Students can practice by writing at least two 200-word letters to editors or posts to blogs each week.  I comment on Forbes my favorite business publication, and I have my own blog at Having your own blog is an excellent way to practice writing if you post at least two 200-word posts each week.  
The second aspect of practice involves focusing on grammar. Look up grammatical issues online and in textbooks.  When you send a letter or post to a blog, try to perfect your grammar and syntax by referring to grammar books. That leads to learning.  Learn further by reading a few pages about grammar each week.  The Chicago Manual of Style, English Grammar for Dummies, Purdue's Online Writing Lab, and similar books and websites are excellent sources. 
The ambitious student might read a few pages from Strunk and White's classic Elements of Style each week.   The Chicago Manual of Style is available online for $35 for one year.  I also subscribe to the Unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Third, you should read every day. This site posts two lists of great novels (one from critics and one from readers).  Well-written business magazines such as Forbes are also useful reading. The point is to observe how good writers write. 
Common Writing Issues

I grade about 200 student papers per year.  The following are common writing issues with which students grapple.

A. In regards to

 In regards to is wrong.   The following are right:

With regard to,
In regard to,
As regards,

B. Semicolons
Several of my students have been grappling with semicolons. They are simple. They only do three things.  This essay is short and to the point.  Recall that independent clauses can stand as sentences.
Semicolons are used as follows:

(1) To join two independent clauses: I go to class; I learn grammar.

(2) To join lists in which commas are present in each item: To learn, I have traveled to Midwood, Brooklyn; Montevideo, Uruguay; and Los Angeles, California.

(3) To join complicated clauses that include commas: I love to study grammar, my favorite; to do my writing assignments; and to read Hayek's and Hazlitt's books.

C. "Would" and “could.”

Recently, about one third of my students has misused would or could in their papers. I wish that would and could were easy to use. Making them easier is their limited number of uses. If you commit the common uses of would to memory, you can limit yourself to those uses and so refine your English writing. If I were you, I would not overuse the word would.

Here are five common uses of would:

(1) As the past tense of "will": "You said that you would let me drive your Lamborghini today."

(2) To express a polite request: "I would like a Lamborghini please."

(3) To describe a repeated action in the past: "When I was a lad, I would walk nine miles to school each day. After school I would chop wood."

(4) To express an unreal situation: "Owning a Lamborghini would let me drive fast."

(5) To express an unreal conditional: "If I were a millionaire, I would own a Lamborghini."

Would is not used for statements of fact or general truth: "George Washington would be the first president" is incorrect. It is also incorrect to write "Under most human resource systems today pay equity would be permitted." 

"Would" is used for unreal situations; it is also used for situations that are conditioned upon unreal situations or unreal circumstances: I wouldn't do that if I were you.

These are related to the second and third conditional forms.

Zero or present real conditionals are statements of fact,  generality or law. They state what you usually do. They use the present tenseWhen I attend Professor Langbert's class, I sleep. 

First (real) present conditionals are statements of conditional fact.  They state the condition that makes a real future event possible and a future real event contingent on a present action: If I attend Professor Langbert's class, then I will sleep.

Second (unreal) present conditionals state an unreal or impossible condition to an unreal or impossible situation. They express the present, but the present condition is expressed with the past tense and the contingent event is expressed with would or could. In the second or unreal conditional you use would to express a situation that you don't think will happen: If I never attended Langbert's class, then I would never sleep.

Third conditionals describe an imaginary past and use the past perfect to express the imaginary past condition and would plus the present perfect to express the unreal past situation that would have resulted: If I had not enrolled in Langbert's class, then I would not have slept this semester.

 If you limit your uses of "would" to unreal situations and conditionals, then you will avoid a common writing error.

D.  Avoid unnecessary or extraneous words like very, extremely, totally, and really. Avoid using the first person (in my opinion).  Don’t insert phrases like  I think that… If you didn’t think it, you wouldn’t be writing it.

E.  Check that the verb tense in each paragraph does not change unless you have a specific reason.  

F. If necessary, check the verb tense that you are using against the discussion on English Page: .

G. Only words that require capitalization should be capitalized. Check your writing against the capitalization rules on .

H. Check your writing to make sure that restrictive phrases and clauses are not preceded or followed by commas and that non-restrictive phrases and clauses are preceded and followed by commas. To understand the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, read these websites: and  .

Non-restrictive clauses add a little information: George Washington, the first president, rode a white horse.

Restrictive clauses are central to the sentence's meaning: George Washington the first president rode a white horse, but during a parade white horses rode upon George Washington the bridge.

I. Do not use a comma to separate the subject of the sentence from the verb. Do not use a comma to separate a dependent or subordinate clause that ends a sentence unless it contrasts with or contradicts the meaning of the rest of the sentence or is nonrestrictive.    When you inject nonessential remarks into a sentence, enclose them in commas: , in his view, ; , as she remarked, . There should be commas before and after the nonessential or parenthetical remark.

J. Check your sentences for independent clauses, and if two or more are in a sentence, punctuate the linkage or linkages correctly.  An independent clause can be a sentence in its own right. If there is more than one independent clause, then there are four potential options for correct punctuation:

(1) Use a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction. The coordinating conjunctions are FAN BOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
(2)  Use a semicolon.
(3) Use a semicolon followed by a conjunctive adverb or adverbial phrase followed by a comma.
(4) Bite the bullet. Often, the best option is a shorter sentence. Consider breaking the separate independent clauses into separate sentences.

An Example of a run-on sentence, a sentence that lacks proper linkage of independent clauses, is as follows: 

Rudolph Valentino was a famous movie star, he broke box office records and he broke many hearts.

Four alternative potential corrective measures:

1) Rudolph Valentino was a famous movie star, for he broke box office records, and he broke many hearts.
(2)  Rudolph Valentino was a famous movie star; he broke box office records; he broke many hearts.
(3) Rudolph Valentino was a famous movie star; specifically, he broke box office records; also, he broke many hearts.
(4) Rudolph Valentino was a famous movie star. He broke box office records.  He broke many hearts.

As revised, all four are grammatically correct from a technical standpoint. Which is the most effective? I say (4). Yet, students insist on long sentences. One time, I broke one sentence, written by a senior, into six separate sentences.

 K. Compound words

Students grapple with writing compounds. For some compounds there is a single convention, and writing it differently from the convention can be viewed as incorrect writing. For other compounds there is disagreement, and you need to consult a style guide that you use consistently.  For example, mother-in-law is always hyphenated, racetrack is always closed, and post office is always open. Notice that the three ways to handle compound words are hyphenated (part-time), closed (keyboard), and open (real estate, middle class). In other cases the handling of prefixes and suffixes may be controversial, but you can consult a style guide and consistently use the style guide's approach.

In deciding which form to use, the first step is to consult a dictionary. This is true for words with prefixes and suffixes if the prefix or suffix is frequently used. For example, overeater is a closed compound word because says so (see:

I usually use the Unabridged Merriam-Webster Dictionary or, which is available for free on the Internet.  If the word is not in the dictionary, then you need to consult a style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) is a widely used style guide that is appropriate for business and academia. I subscribe to it for $35 per year and can access it online at . I also own the hard copy and, as well, several other style guides. A style guide commonly used in business schools is the American Psychological Association guide.

Happily, CMS's excellent hyphenation table is available for free online at shows how to handle words with prefixes and suffixes as well as many compounds. For example, a student may wish to write I am an overthinker. The Microsoft spell checker does not accept overthinker, but in the CMS list of words with prefixes it is evident that overthinker rather than over thinker or over-thinker is the right form. This is what the CMS hyphenation table shows:

Over   overmagnified, overshoes, overconscientious

 CMS consistently uses the prefix over with a closed form.

L. Compound Adjectives

If you are unsure of a compound's form, you should look it up in a dictionary, and if it is not in the dictionary, you should consult a style guide that you consistently use.  There is an additional issue: hyphenation of compound adjectives that precede nouns. Note that when compound adjectives follow nouns they are not hyphenated.

 There is a good discussion of compound adjectives at the Kent School of Law website.

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