Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Using Hyphens, En-dashes, and Em-dashes

Many writers and a whole lot of readers do not know the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. This article explains when to use each one, and how to add each one using your keyboard.


The hyphen is used for joining words in various types of compound constructions. There are numerous examples including compound nouns, adjectives, and verbs. I will not delve into the specific rules of using hyphens in these situations. More importantly, once you have read the rules regarding en-dashes and em-dashes, you will at least know when not to use hyphens.

Similarly, hyphens are used to join some prefixes and suffixes to nouns, adjectives, or verbs.

Hyphens are also used for joining parts of a word that have been separated by a line break.

You can also use hyphens to indicate the spelling of a word. For example, "Any decent Scrabble player knows the letter h is spelled a-i-t-c-h."

When you want to emphasize clear enunciation, use the hyphen as well: "I said, 'be qui-et!'"

The hyphen key appears on the top row on your keyboard, to the right of the zero. It also appears in the upper right hand corner of the number pad.


Notice than the en-dash is slightly bigger than the hyphen. The en-dash is so named because it is supposedly the length of a letter n.

En-dashes are used to separate compound expressions. Many compound expressions are geographical areas. For example, the San Francisco–Bay Area.

You also use en-dashes to indicate a range of numbers. For example, when writing the years a person lived: Jim Morrison (1943–1971). Or, for a range of pages: "Read pages 5–12."

The easiest way to insert an en-dash is using the shortcut:

—Hold down the Alt key on your keyboard
—Type the numbers 0–1–5–0 on your keyboard's number pad (Num Lock key must be activated)
—Release the Alt key

The en-dash appears.

In Microsoft Word, you can also add an en-dash in this way: add a space after the word you want the en-dash to follow, press the hyphen key twice, and then continue typing. Microsoft Word will then convert the two hyphens to an en-dash. However, it is good practice to go back and delete the initial space that you added. Most style guides suggest that you put no space before or after an en-dash.


The em-dash is the longest of the three. The em-dash is so named because it is supposedly the length of the letter m.

Em-dashes are used mainly to set off explanations within sentences. Many writers will often use round brackets (parentheses) in these situations. Often, the two are interchangeable though some will argue that there are differences and nuances.

For example: He met with other cruciverbalists—lovers of crossword puzzles—every Sunday night.

Em-dashes can also be used in place of colons in titles. And they can be used in place of bullets in vertical lists.

To add an em-dash, press Alt + 0151 on your keyboard.

Or, in Microsoft Word, immediately after the word that you want the em-dash to follow, press the hyphen key twice, and then continue typing. Microsoft Word converts two hyphens to an em-dash. As with en-dashes, most style guides suggest that you put no space before or after an em-dash.


Hyphen -
En-dash –
Em-dash —

And those are the basics for using hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. Knowing how to use these correctly will set you apart from many writers.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Disputed Grammar: Subject and Verb Agreement

dust cloud fightIt's easy to get into a disagreement over grammar. There is a whole field of study dedicated to disputed grammar. So why does English grammar cause so many arguments? Because there is no final say when it comes to English grammar, the language is constantly changing, and there are many people who simply disagree on various points. The fact that there are now so many unreliable and incomplete sources online only adds to the confusion.

I recently found this website and at first liked the list dedicated to subject and verb agreement. However, when I came to rule number 13, I found it a bit lacking. Here's what rule 13 says:

Rule 13. Sometimes the pronoun who, that, or which is the subject of a verb in the middle of the sentence. The pronouns who, that, and which become singular or plural according to the noun directly in front of them. So, if that noun is singular, use a singular verb. If it is plural, use a plural verb.

Examples: Salma is the scientist who writes/write the reports.
The word in front of who is scientist, which is singular. Therefore, use the singular verb writes.
He is one of the men who does/do the work.
The word in front of who is men, which is plural. Therefore, use the plural verb do.

I agree with the rule to a point. However, it implies that in any situation in which a dependent clause starts with who, which, or that, the relative pronoun will always refer to the noun that comes directly before it. That simply isn't true.

My First E-mail

I sent an e-mail to the owner of the website, Jane Straus. Here's what I said in my e-mail:

Hello Jane,

I found your list of subject and verb agreement rules on your website very concise and helpful. Number 13 especially is one that is usually not included in such lists. However, I believe that the explanation in rule number 13 needs clarification.

I've never read such a strict interpretation of the rule. I've always seen it only in reference to the phrases "one of those people who" or "one of those things that" (or slight variations), which also happens to be the example you use. If that rule were to apply universally, then this sentence, which I found on the front page of a corporate website, would be correct:

"This is a collection of automated tools that enable developers to protect their application code against tampering, reverse engineering and automated attacks."

In fact, I believe that the above sentence is incorrect and "enable" should have an "s." Yet it has a dependent clause starting with "that." If we were to follow rule 13 in this case, then the sentence would be considered correct.

I find that the first sentence in rule 13 is quite vague and could lead to more confusion.

I would love to get some feedback from you on this.


Her Response

While Jane did not respond to me directly, her assistant did. Here's what she had to say:

Dear Ken,

Jane is unable to answer your query at this time. I have to say that I agree with her regarding its application to your example. I would use "enable," as well. The tools are the objects that enable the users, not the collection. I hope this helps you.

Best wishes,

My Response

I found her response completely unconvincing. So I quickly sent back a reply:


Thanks for your response. However, I'm still not convinced.

When a prepositional phrase comes between the subject of a sentence and the verb, the subject still determines whether the verb is singular or plural. The only exception that I've seen is the example Jane used. But I've never seen it applied so broadly as her rule implies and as you're suggesting.

You wouldn't say, "This is a collection that enable developers...."

Nor would you say, "The pile of clothes stink." (Though many people incorrectly do.)

I know the above example is not followed by a dependent clause, but I am trying to demonstrate the basic premise on which I am basing my belief.

The exception that Jane points out has been articulated elsewhere as:

"The phrases 'one of those who' and 'one of the things that' take plural verbs, as in 'The comma splice is one of those errors that always slip past me,' and 'One of the things that drive me nuts is subject-verb agreement.'"

It sounds right, and the explanation makes sense. Yet on Jane's website that rule is explained in a way that applies to so many other examples.

And the explanation that you provided just doesn't wash: "The tools are the objects that enable the users, not the collection."

If that were a valid explanation, then the noun in a prepositional phrase (which is the object of the preposition and not the subject of the sentence) would determine whether a verb is singular or plural in every case.

If there is a valid explanation for applying that rule so broadly, I would love to hear it.

I challenge you to find that rule anywhere else defined so broadly. I've only ever found it explained using the "one of those who" or "one of those things that" phrases (or with slight variations but the same basic construction).

Anyway, I hope you take these messages in the way that they are intended. I love language and grammar and all the related discussions.


Jane's Assistant Responds

I found the second response from Jane's assistant similarly inadequate:

Dear Ken,

I think you have your own answer embedded in your query: "The above example is not followed by a dependent clause." You are absolutely correct that in the typical case, the subject of a prepositional phrase, not the object, determines the verb's expression. The key distinction in your original example is the dependent clause.

I hope this helps.

Best wishes,

To Summarize

But she missed the point completely. Rule number 13 on Jane Straus's website is inadequate, and in fact, could lead to incorrect subject and verb agreement usage.

Now that I read the list more closely, I realize that there is no explicit rule to deal with prepositional phrases (except rule 9, which is another exception to the prepositional phrase rule).

Most people who have a decent grasp of grammar know the problems that prepositional phrases can cause for subject and verb agreement. I covered this point in one of my e-mails to Jane's assistant. To reiterate, when a prepositional phrase comes between the subject of a sentence and the verb, the noun in the prepositional phrase does not determine whether the verb is singular or plural. However, as with most "rules" in grammar, there are a few exceptions. Here is my best reading of the exception that I have been discussing here:

When the phrase "one of those people who" or "one of those things that" (or slight variations that follow the same construction) is followed by a dependent clause starting with who, that, or which, the relative pronoun can possibly refer to the noun that immediately precedes it (which is the noun in the prepositional phrase). In that case, the main verb in the sentence will agree with the noun that is part of the prepositional phrase.

(Note: the prepositional phrase within the phrase is "of those people" or "of those things.")

But that is not always the case.

For example, look at these two sentences:

1. He is one of the goalies who actually stops the puck on a regular basis.
2. He is one of the goalies who play on the team.

In the first sentence, the verb "stops" is clearly referring to "one". In the second, "play" clearly refers to the goalies.

So, the most important question to ask in a situation where one of the relevant phrases and the dependent clause with who, that, or which are present is: To which noun is the relative pronoun referring?

Do not adhere to some supposed rule that states that the relative pronoun in such cases always refers to the noun immediately preceding it, because it's not true. In fact, always (heh!) be wary of grammar rules that use the word "always," or "never." There is usually an exception to the rule.

And I'm fairly certain, as I stated earlier, that the sentence I found on the corporate website:

"This is a collection of automated tools that enable developers to protect their application code against tampering, reverse engineering and automated attacks."

is wrong, and "enable" should have an "s."

(Note:in the above sentence, the prepositional phrase is "of automated tools.")

Weigh In

However, I'm still open to interpretations that prove that I am wrong on this. I am constantly learning about grammar and the English language, and updating concepts that I thought I had down cold. When trying to untangle a grammar conundrum, I always ask myself two questions regarding a supposed rule:

Does the usage in the rule's relevant examples sound right?
Does the explanation that backs up the rule make sense?

So, let me know what you think. Who is right about this? Leave a comment or respond to the poll that I have added to the sidebar.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Technical Writing and the Slender Yellow Fruit Syndrome

smiling bananaI first read about the slender yellow fruit syndrome in the book Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner. The term refers to the over-the-top attempts by some writers to vary the language they use to identify something more than once in a sentence or passage. In general, using a variety of language is a good idea—especially in creative writing. Reading the same word repeatedly can get tiresome. That’s one reason we have pronouns.

However, some writers take this concept too far. When you have to refer to a banana twice in the same sentence, do it! It's not the end of the world. Calling a banana a "slender yellow fruit" for the sake of variation is absurd.

This is even more important in the world of technical writing. Technical writing should follow a clear, predictable pattern, and there should be no problem solving involved for the reader. One way to maintain clarity is to establish terms of reference early on in a document (or even state them explicitly in the introduction) and then stick to them. Shifting terminology is a guaranteed way to confuse readers.

This does not only apply to nouns, but other parts of speech as well. If you tell the reader to "select" the radio button on page one, do not then tell them to "enable" the radio button on page two.

An easy way to avoid shifting terminology is to write out a style sheet for the document on which you are working. You can refer to the style sheet when you are writing. And later, when you perform an edit on the document, you can devote a complete pass to each major term. The style sheet can (and should) contain more than just the important terms that you are going to use in your document. It should also include formatting issues such when to apply bolding, and the font style and size for headings.

A style sheet for each project can complement a company style guide, which in turn can complement a commercial style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. When you encounter a style or usage issue that is not in the style sheet, reference the company style guide. And, when you inevitably have a question concerning language that is not covered in the company style guide, check the manual.

If you are in a small organization, creating a style guide is a very wise time investment. The amount of effort that is spent writing the guide will be earned back in spades later on when time is saved during the editing process. And a document that adheres to a style guide will be more consistent and effective than one that does not.

So, vary your language in creative writing, but not to an absurd degree. And in technical writing, be very careful about ever straying from the terms of reference that you have established.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

TEFL Success Stories

student asleep in classThe sullen kid at the back of the class who doesn't want to be bothered. Keeps his head down. Develops a way to precisely mimic the movement of the student in front of him so he stays hidden. Fidgets uncomfortably in those rare instances when called upon. Looks to his giggling mates for support and then offers up an answer that has been whispered to him.

It creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved and may lead to less frequent intrusions from the teacher. That's the end result such neglected students hope for. And all too often teachers seem willing to go along with the classroom game of hide and...ignore.

The subject often comes up when talking to other foreign and Thai teachers. What to do with the individuals who supposedly "don't want to learn." It's a teacher's cliché that it's "better to focus on the ones who are interested."

No Student is a Lost Cause

After teaching at universities in Thailand for six years, I believe those forgotten students who seem satisfied to slip under the radar, avoid any classroom interaction and get out of Dodge with their final grade C, can in fact be reached. The role they play is out of habit, conditioning and long years of just getting by. In many ways the university English class provides the perfect setting.

Most faculties have at least one required English for special purposes class tailored for their undergrads. There is a false assumption on the part of many teachers that most students will have a modicum of English skills by the time they get to the post-secondary level. Together with increasing class sizes and the easy hits star pupils provide to a teacher's ego during a lesson, it becomes convenient to latch onto the chestnut about focusing on those who are eager to learn.

I've tried to disabuse myself of this default notion in a few different ways. It's not rocket surgery and it doesn't require grand innovative approaches like the ones seen in Dead Poets Society. It only takes a shift in thinking, an attempt to establish connections, and some encouragement for learners to change the roles they've grown accustomed to.

Giving Every Student an A

Years ago I read a self-help book whose name I've long since forgotten. There was one passage from the book that stayed with me and which I used successfully during my time as a teacher in Thailand. The author explained an exercise he called "giving everyone an A." No, this was not a how-to procedure on fabricating grades and becoming the most popular teacher in school!

grade A"Giving everyone an A" is an easy technique in cultivating empathy. It goes beyond simply "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" and operates on the premise that most people want to do well in life and contribute in a positive way. You can practice this idea by trying to create an understanding in your mind as to how students got to where they are in terms of behaviour and ability. It requires you to ponder and consider everything that brought a person to their station in life and accept that everyone has a different set of fears, obstacles, and aspirations to deal with.

Far from giving students a free pass, it doesn't require a teacher to become a soft touch or lower his or her expectations. In my experience, the benefits have come from the almost subconscious understanding from pupils that they are finally being recognized. Whether from a teacher's subtle change in body language or follow-up questions that try go beyond the first superficial response, they sense something is up and a different dynamic starts to develop. This in turn leads to a teacher becoming more approachable and the possibility that students may seek extra help or clarification during or after class.

Once a more comfortable relationship has been formed, it can be strengthened by encouraging weaker students to set short-term goals that will help them to deal with the often too-difficult (but required) course book that has them ready to throw in the towel. Alternative seating plans in class also allow you to eliminate the safe haven at the back of the room. Circle seating or small groups provide more chances for interaction and more opportunity to gauge improvement. Small but useful steps that lead to a situation where you may be able to create interest and make progress with weaker students.

Make it Relevant

Moo avoided eye contact in class, ducked out a few times every period and tried to remain as anonymous as possible. The anxiety he displayed when I tried to elicit responses in class told me that, in fact, he was concerned. Someone for whom the course material and final grade were meaningless would let everything slide without a care. But Moo was obviously tied up in knots because he didn't have even the essentials or confidence to comfortably respond.

Eddie heavy metalHe was as resistant as any student I've encountered when I attempted to build rapport and find common ground. It's at this point for many teachers that rationalizing away further efforts becomes so appealing. I kept looking for an opening and finally saw what had been there all along. The accoutrements of rebellion that are more an attempt for youngsters to fit in than to separate themselves from the crowd. Underneath his engineer's smock, he always wore a variation of a t-shirt with the clumsy and over-the-top images of death and horror that seem to go along with every generation's popular heavy metal bands.

I introduced the concept of CD reviews to Moo. While the subject matter was far removed from the chapter we were working on, the grammar and language function were easily transferable. From there, I suggested he focus on a day-in-the-life of a sound engineer when an assignment called for writing a job description. I even ended up making a CD of some older metal bands from before Moo was even born and gave it to him one day after class. These developments took place over the course of four or five weeks.

I like to think those few simple gestures gave Moo some inspiration and encouraged him to look beyond the dry subject matter at hand. Judging from his change in attitude and his increased effort, I believe it did help. While he ended up only receiving a C+, (yet so close to a B) I felt it was a C+ well earned. And yet, what if I hadn't made that extra effort?

His frustration would probably have increased and little learning would have taken place. I believe no student is a lost cause. However, time constraints and other concerns mean that even within that group of struggling students some will probably get more attention than others. But limited success on the part of one individual may serve as a model for others and spur them on to try harder as well. Even if Moo didn't go on to become fluent, perhaps he had a positive experience and will pass on the notion that English can be used for more than just getting through a required course.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

TEFL Reading Activities

TEFL readingDuring my EFL teaching career, I dreaded courses that focused on reading. They always presented more obstacles for me than courses that dealt with other language skills.

Perhaps I'm an exception, but I get the sense that reading classes can be some of the dreariest for EFL teachers.

Ideally, students should read an assigned article before coming to class. But that rarely works out with a group of unmotivated youngsters. It's tempting to hand out an article at the beginning of class and then say, "Here, read this," followed by a series of comprehension questions.

Inevitably, much of the class is then taken up by students reading the assigned article. However, there are numerous activities that you can use to spice up an EFL reading class and make it more enjoyable for the students and yourself.

A Simple Activity

One simple activity that I used with great effect was the impromptu quiz. Not a quiz in the traditional sense. The quiz is not announced before class nor does it count toward final marks.

Once students have finished the assigned reading, tell them to close their books (or turn over the page with the article). Then, separate the class into two teams. Now, ask questions related to the article that they have just finished reading. The teams should try to answer based on memory. For longer passages, you could allow them to search for the answers.

Award one point for a correct answer. Or, to make the quiz/game more interesting, allow each team to ask the other team questions. You can allow the teams to answer collectively, or cycle through each team and focus on individual students.

Very simple but guaranteed to make the class more interesting. You can use this activity two or three times with the same class in a semester without it becoming stale. At least some students will pay closer attention to the next reading assignment if they know there may be a quiz.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Discussion Boards and the EFL Teacher

bullhornWhat an odd piece by a columnist in the Korea Times online edition. A whopping 1300 words to come to the conclusion that foreigners teaching English in Korea vent on discussion boards because...they are treated like crap by their employers.

And then at the end of his meandering pontification, he congratulates himself on his little theory. All delivered with a mind-numbing Fog Index rating of close to 17.

No doubt there is truth to the stunning revelation that people don't take kindly to being treated badly. But there are also a few other factors at play here.

Sarcasm, Nastiness, A Good Insult Etc.

Sarcasm just doesn't play as well in many Asian countries as it does in the west. Huge generalization there, but I'll stand by it. Brits, Canadians, Americans, and people from numerous other English speaking countries find humour in a good sneering insult. Degrading people for laughs somehow comes easier to us. It's a type of humour that just doesn't jibe with the culture in many Asian countries.

So the supposed "bitterness" and negative attitudes observed by the Korea Times writer may not be indicative of true unhappiness. Some people simply enjoy the sport of ripping things. And what better fodder than the surreal foreign twilight zone in which you find yourself immersed?

As an example of this mindset, I recently watched an entire four seasons worth of a television show (Battlestar Galactiaca) just for the sheer joy of bashing and ridiculing one of the most horrid, melodramatic loads of tripe ever produced.


I've spent extended periods of time in various countries around the world over the past fifteen years. Venting is a way to deal with the indignities of living as an outsider in a foreign country. Don't get me wrong—living and working in different countries around the world is something I love doing. But despite the benefits, there is a certain kind of relief that only comes from getting together with other expats and unloading on your host country. I've experienced this everywhere I've travelled. It's just that nowadays, many of these venting sessions take place on discussion forums. Which brings us to the next point.

It's the Internet

The age of the internet is truly glorious. Never before in the history of the world have we seen the true, twisted (and wildly exaggerated) pathology of the human mind split open for all to see. There's nothing like the weirdness and exposed deviancy of online discussion boards. And that's half the fun. Discussion boards are kind of like alcohol. Some people can handle it and others can't.

The sheer entertainment value of those who go off the rails provides almost as much entertainment as those who engage in some highly intelligent and interesting discussion. But just like some wacko tanked up on a bottle of Thunderbird, is it an insight into a person's real character, or is it just an excuse to unload and have some mindless fun?

Conflict drives all types of writing, both fiction and non-fiction. And discussion forums are no exception. Some weary clown comes home from a day at the hagwon and blasts off a sneering thread bashing his employer. People pile on. It gets an exaggerated amount of attention. And that provides an outlet for another type of human behaviour. There's something that validates our own choices and existence in highlighting others' supposed unhappiness. Discussion forums provide an extreme and very entertaining outlet for this kind of interaction.

Like never before, we can latch onto whichever twisted tableau suits our fancy, use it to launch a half-baked theory, and then broadcast it to the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Book Review: Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Conner

Woe is I by Patricia T. O'ConnerThere is no better way to improve your grammar knowledge than to teach English. But regardless of how many years you teach, the fresh eyes of a student will always frame a question in a way that makes you recognize yet another exception to a grammar rule.

During my years as a teacher, I pored through countless books and searched hundreds of websites for concise explanations to various questions and conundrums. And I enjoyed every minute of it, if only for the fact that it increased my knowledge and hopefully made me a better teacher. But the presentation of the information in those books and on the websites was often dreary and pedantic.

Why can't a subject like English grammar be presented in a light-hearted and entertaining way? In such a way that makes it enjoyable to read and more memorable than dry-as-sawdust academic sounding crap?

In fact, it can. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O'Conner, proves that clever, concise writing, and logical and clear explanations result in a book that is enjoyable to read and effective as a grammar guide. Her approach to the subject also ensures that you are far more likely to reference this grammar book than any other on your shelf.

Woe is I is more effective than a Longman grammar book which contains reams of practice sheets. And all because of the writing style and use of succinct memory aids. Woe is I is not a comprehensive book that covers every possible grammar point and language function. Instead, it focuses on all the common problem areas that give even native speakers problems. Within that context, it does a thorough and convincing job.

Together with her engaging style, O'Conner offers up plausible reasons not just for grammar rules but for the reasons behind why certain aspects cause so many problems. For example, when musing on the confusion between the use of I and me, she writes: "We begin to feel subconsciously that I is somehow more genteel than me, even in cases where me is the right choice—for instance, after a preposition." On top of all that, she includes plenty of exceptions to the rules; something that is a must for a good grammar guide.

Writing Style

Light-hearted and humorous is the writing style here. The author makes a point of demonstrating the topic she is focusing on in the comments she makes in each section. For example, when explaining why it's completely acceptable to use prepositions at the end of sentences, she closes out by stating, "At any rate, this is a rule that modern grammarians have long tried to get out from under." But there is no possibility she can be accused of being too clever by half, however, as she often (unfortunately) telegraphs such plays on words for fear some people may not get it.

The book's intended audience is clearly Americans. O'Conner frequently mentions the British alternative regarding usage or spelling and then bats it aside with no further discussion. A few times she states that the American usage simply sounds better to her ears. Quite a shocker that—considering the fact that she is American. Any annoyance felt by Brits will be offset by the fact that she often provides the basic kind of information that should be known by the average 10 year-old.

For example, she clarifies the pronunciation of "nuclear" (think: George W.), and notes in parentheses that , "The vowels are a, e, i, o, u." Though at times you may feel the book has been dumbed down, these asides are simply reflective of the fact that many intelligent people in society are unaware of the language of grammar.

So, despite those examples, this book will appeal to readers who already consider themselves grammar experts as well as those who need far more work.

Great Content

The chapter on dangling modifiers was one of my favourites. It provides a simple and effective way to recognize and excise a problem that plagues many people's writing. The section on misused and misunderstood words is similarly interesting. I'd be willing to bet that most readers have a skewed understanding of at least one of the following words:
  • enervating
  • eclectic
  • fulsome
  • fortuitous
  • restive
She saves some of her best for last though. In the chapter entitled "The Living Dead" she deals with some disputed grammar topics. For years I have railed against the absurdity that says you should "never split an infinitive." I was happy to see that O'Conner agrees:

An infinitive is a verb in its simplest form, right out of the box. It can usually be recognized by the word to in front of it: Blackbeard helped him to escape. But the to isn't actually part of the infinitive and isn't always necessary: Blackbeard helped him escape. As a preposition, a word that positions other words, the to lets us know an infinitive is coming.

The truth is that the phrase "split infinitive" is misleading. Since to isn't really part of the infinitive, there's nothing to split.

She goes on to eviscerate worn out canards like the one that says you can't end sentences with prepositions. Does she have the final say on all these topics? Of course not. But if you agree with her on any of them, you'll have plenty of fresh ammunition next time you battle a grammar fiend as dreary and pedantic as yourself.

Of course, not everything hits the mark. Not surprisingly, my eyes glazed over while reading the nine pages dedicated to over-used clichés. Referencing usage by Shakespeare is a tactic used by many when arguing a point of grammar. O'Conner perfectly mocks this tradition early on in the book but then does it herself later on. These are minor quibbles, however.

This is a great little book and one that I'm sure I will reference many times in the future. Woe is I is entertaining, a great source of information, and proof beyond a doubt that grammar doesn't have to be dull.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Readability Formulas: The Fog Index

math formulaReadability formulas provide an easy way to tailor your writing for a particular audience. There are a handful of different formulas. The most common is probably the Fog Index. It is quite easy to calculate the Fog Index for an article.

To calculate the Fog Index:

1. Select at least 100 words that appear continuously (10–12 sentences is ideal) in an article.

2. Calculate the average sentence length in the group of sentences (now referred to as the “passage”). To calculate the average sentence length:

  • Count the total number of words in the passage.
  • Divide the total number of words in the passage by the number of sentences.
3. Count the number of words with three or more syllables in the passage.

Note: do not include proper nouns or words whose common suffixes (-es, -ed, -ing) bring the total number of syllables to three. If the root word contains three or more syllables, discount this rule.

4. Calculate the percentage of words in the passage that have three or more syllables. To calculate the percentage:
  • Divide the number of words with three or more syllables by the total number of words in the passage and multiply by one hundred.
5. Add the average sentence length (from step 2) and the percentage of three or more syllable words.

6. Multiply that number by 0.4

The result is the Fog Index rating for the passage.


Regarding the exceptions for words with three syllables or more, there are some sources that claim that compound words (closed and hyphenated) should also be excluded. Of course, this would apply only to compound words that are three or more syllables after being joined. If one of the words alone already exceeds three syllables, presumably the rule wouldn't apply.

I didn't include the rule here for the simple reason that the only reliable online Fog Index calculator that I am aware of does not exclude compound words.

Online Fog Index Calculator

That omission could be due to limitations on the computer script that calculates the Fog Index. Regardless, the Fog Index rating won't be affected too much either way.

Here's another online tool that calculates the Fog Index for entire websites or blogs:

Calculate Readability of Website

What Does the Fog Index Rating Mean?

So what does that magic number indicate?

The Fog Index rating supposedly indicates the number of years of formal education required to read a piece of writing. In theory, the higher the Fog Index rating, the more difficult a passage is to read. However, it is important to remember that a passage with a lower Fog Index will not only appeal to less educated readers. A Fog Index of between 7–8 is probably the most accessible to the widest audience.

Remember also that a passage may be more or less readable depending on how well written it is, regardless of the Fog Index. In other words, sometimes a passage with a higher Fog Index rating is more readable than a passage with a lower Fog Index rating.

So don't attach too much significance to the Fog Index. Simply get a feel for the kind of writing that is representative of different Fog Index ratings. One way to do that is to calculate the Fog Index for number of different articles that you have written. Another way is to calculate the Fog Index for books or magazines that you like to read.

Amazon's Text Stats

Amazon recently added a new feature to the books they sell online. It's called Text Stats, and one of its statistics is the Fog Index for each particular book. However, the feature is not available for all books.

To locate Text Stats for a book on Amazon.com:

1. Open Amazon.com in your computer's browser.

2. Select Books in the search menu.

Amazon search books

Enter Of Mice and Men in the search box.

4. Click the first title that appears.

5. Scroll down to Inside This Book.

Amazon Text Stats

6. Click Text Stats.

There you will see that the Fog Index for Of Mice and Men is listed at 4.9. A pretty accurate indication of years of schooling required in this case. I recall reading the book in grade five or six.

As mentioned, this feature is not available for every book on Amazon. When you do a search for a book, only the ones that have an Inside This Book graphic over the book may have the feature.

Benefits for Writers

lost in the fogThe Fog Index provides numerous benefits for writers. Most importantly, it allows you to shape and edit your writing for a particular audience.

Imagine that you are trying to pick up extra work by submitting articles to various publications. Simply calculate the Fog Index of some articles from recent editions of the magazines you are targeting. Tailor your writing so it is within the Fog Index of the kind of articles they publish.

I hope you can use the Fog Index to assist you as a writer. Remember, without clear, organized writing, readability formulas are of little use. However, if a document has a Fog Index rating over 12, it is safe to say that some readers will get lost in the fog.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

EFL Teaching: The Cardinal Sin

light bulb idea
Whenever a budding EFL teacher asks me for a bit of advice, I offer a simple, sure-fire way to improve their teaching skills:

Never, ever, ever check a student’s understanding of something you have taught them by saying, “Do you understand?” There are numerous variations to guarantee that you will never get an accurate answer as to whether a student comprehends.

“Is that clear?”

“Is everyone OK with that?”

“Can we move on now?”

All these questions ensure that, especially in a large class, a good portion of your students will be left confused. Some students no doubt do answer truthfully when asked this question. However, when a student doesn’t have a clue what is going on, they’re often not even sure that they don’t understand. More importantly, they are too embarrassed to admit that they are the only one in a class of students who isn’t nodding in the affirmative (many of whom also are in the dark).

This is an almost universal trait amongst teachers. I hear this every time I observe another teacher in action or return to the classroom as a student. I cringe when I hear myself falling into the same trap and recognize that I need to slow down and do some more work.

It’s easy to understand why teachers do this. It highlights one of the key reasons why teaching can be such a nebulous and evasive skill and why so few truly good teachers exist. It’s all about making assumptions and failing to grasp that concepts you take for granted may be alien to your students.

That most cringe-worthy of cop-outs always seems to come when a general sense of confusion permeates the classroom. The teacher usually recognizes the fact that their best laid plans have careened off the tracks. But instead of doing damage control, they extricate themselves from an embarrassing situation. They say, “Do you understand?” quickly look around, answer the question themselves and move on.

What is a better alternative for checking comprehension? There are a few options. Rephrasing or presenting an idea in a different way is almost always necessary. Recognizing that you haven’t set aside enough time for a particular language function or grammar point is helpful. Examples on the board, drilling, and calling on students can all be beneficial. If you like using activities, come to the classroom with more than one. If you feel the first activity hasn't connected, try out another one. Be willing to alter your lesson plans and concentrate on a problem area instead of rushing to make sure you are at the prescribed stage in the course time-line. Slow down and accept that developing a successful approach can take some serious time and effort.

Next time you hear yourself asking your students if they understand, recognize that it's almost certain that they don't. More importantly, know that your subconscious is telling you that you've got to ease up and make some changes.