Understanding Language Register

January 2, 2018

A few years ago I wrote a post on language register. It has become one of the most popular and often viewed posts on my blog. It is a long and fairly involved post, so for those who like their information in bite-sized pieces, here is a quick synopsis for you in the form of an infographic:

Language ReGISTER

It is important to understand the differences between registers so you can use language that is appropriate for a particular situation. If your register is too high, you may come across as being snobby, pretentious or arrogant. If your register is too low, you can come across as being inappropriately informal or too friendly.

It is not only English language learners who need to understand the difference between registers, but native speakers do too. One of the things I have observed in my work as a professor is that students sometimes write in a register that is too casual. Sometimes students do this because they do not want to come across as “stuffy” or pretentious. But casual writing in academic and professional papers can backfire. Writing that is overly casual is often not considered professional or terribly credible by the reader. It is important for students, professionals, scientists and academics to know the formal register for writing papers, theses and reports.

Here’s a free .pdf of this infographic that you can use for your own research or teaching purposes: Language Register (.pdf).

Check out these related posts:

Teaching formal and informal language register to native speakers of English http://wp.me/pNAh3-jV

Language Register and Why It Matters (Or: Why You Can’t Write An Academic Paper in Gangsta Slang) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1pr

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This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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Reading aloud as a strategy to improve your writing

December 1, 2017

iStock-woman at laptopOne strategy to improve the quality of your writing is to read it aloud. I’ve been doing this for years.

According to the Writing Center at University of California at Chapel Hill, reading out loud means your brain gets information in a different way. You can literally hear your errors! You can find awkward constructions or sentences that are too long, for example. You can also find words that are repeated or just do not sound right.

When I read aloud I will often print out a copy of my work first. That allows me to make quick edits and notes on the page as I go. If something sounds off, I pause, make a note on my paper, then carry on reading the work aloud.

Sometimes when I recommend this strategy to my students, they tell me they feel silly reading their own work out loud. They don’t want others in their work place or household to think they are being pretentious or too eccentric. If this is the case, go find a quiet place where you can be alone.

Another important factor is to give yourself enough time to read aloud, especially if your paper is long. You may find that you prefer to read one section at a time, taking a break in between. It can also be helpful to have a glass of water nearby.

I recommend to each of you that as you revise your term paper, thesis, report or whatever you are writing at the moment that read your own work out loud (just like I did with this blog post). You’ll be surprised how much better the final product is.

References

The Writing Center at University of California at Chapel Hill. (n.d.). Reading aloud.   Retrieved from https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/reading-aloud/

Writing Center at John Carroll University. (n.d.). Why We Ask to Read The Paper Aloud.   Retrieved from https://jcuwritingcenter.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/why-we-ask-to-read-the-paper-aloud/

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This blog has had over 1.7 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


What’s the difference between a manuscript and an article?

May 8, 2017

One of the questions students in a graduate course I teach called “Writing Educational Research” is: What is the difference between a manuscript and an article?

The simplest way to understand it is this:

Manuscript = Written paper pre-publication

Article = Written paper that has been published

Now, scholars love to debate and I’m quite sure that there are academics out there who would delight in a robust debate on this topic. I agree that my definition may be simplistic. My purpose here is not to be reductionist, but rather to demystify the publication process for graduate students and novice researchers.

What's the difference between a manuscript and an aritcle

Examples of manuscripts include:

  • Drafts
  • Writing-in-progress
  • Work submitted to a publisher that is under review or not yet published
  • Term papers or elements of your thesis that you are crafting for submission to a journal.

The term “article” usually refers to work published in:

  • Newsletters
  • Professional publications
  • Edited journals
  • Peer-reviewed scholarly or scientific journals

If you are looking at publishing your work in the proceedings of a conference, refer to it as a manuscript until the proceedings have been released.

There can be a delay between when your work is accepted for publication and when it actually appears in print. During this phase, you can call your work a “pre-publication article” or an “article in press”. At this point, you can call it an article because it has been accepted for publication.

Graduate students and novice researchers and scholars present themselves as uninformed and inexperienced when they run around referring to term papers and drafts of their work as “articles”, when the work has not yet been published. You will present yourself as more humble and knowledgeable about the publication process when you refer to your own work as a manuscript when it is in the pre-publication phase.

Related posts:

Readings for Writing Educational Research (EDER 603.23) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1OJ

12 Phrases to Avoid in Your Academic Research Papers http://wp.me/pNAh3-1JX

Active vs. passive voice — How to tell the difference http://wp.me/pNAh3-1HX

Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

How many sources do you need in a literature review?  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hu

What’s the difference between a citation and a reference? http://wp.me/pNAh3-1F9

Why “as cited in” should be avoided in academic writing  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1BH

10 Great writing resources for grad students – http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Bc

How to create a research paper outline: 5 great resources http://wp.me/pNAh3-1y6

Template for a 10-page graduate research paper in social sciences http://wp.me/pNAh3-1s2

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This blog has had over 1.7 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


12 Phrases to Avoid in Your Academic Research Papers

January 18, 2016
Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of patrisyu at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Over and over again I see these phrases in research papers. Every single time I ask students to consider an alternative. Here are a dozen phrases to eliminate in your academic writing and why:

#1: I hope that…

#2:  I believe that…

#3: I feel that…

#4: In my opinion…

Research is not concerned with what we feel, believe or hope. It is also not concerned with our opinions. Research is about posing a substantive question that merits an in-depth investigation and  providing credible evidence to address that question. These phrases may work in reflection papers or journals, but less so in research writing. Omit these touchy-feely phrases and focus on the business of providing evidence to support your discussion.

#5: Clearly…

#6: As you can clearly see…

#7: As this clearly demonstrates…

This can come across as defensive. It may seem like you are implying the reader is an idiot if he or she do not agree with you. Even if you feel that way, refrain from letting the reader know, as it will undoubtedly annoy him or her.

#8: As stated previously…

#9: As I have already mentioned / pointed out/ stated…

#10: As already noted in a previous section of this paper…

These phrases can sound condescending. I have yet to see a case where these phrases (and the remainder of the sentence that follows) add anything useful to the discussion. Keep your writing precise and pithy. Avoid repeating yourself.

#11: The only conclusion is…

#12 The only logical conclusion is…

This can sound arrogant, defensive or both. The underlying message is that anyone who disagrees with you is an imbecile. It makes it sound like you flat out reject the possibility that there could possibly be any other conclusion, which is rarely (if ever) a good idea in research. (Remember the Copernican Revolution.)

Instead of using phrases like these that can make you sound arrogant or defensive (even when that is not your intention), focus instead on writing in a pragmatic and straightforward way that lets the evidence speak for itself.

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Update: August, 2017 – This blog has had over 1.6 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Active vs. passive voice — How to tell the difference

March 19, 2014

My students have been struggling with using active voice in their writing. For some reason, they have learned along the way that passive voice sounds more “grown up” or academic.

This may have been true at one time, but in the 21st century, using active voice in academic research writing is not only appropriate, it is preferable, at least if you follow APA Style (6th edition, p. 77). 

Students who never learned grammar struggle to identify the difference between passive and active voice.

One way to figure out if it is passive or active voice is to ask “Who dunnit?” In passive voice, it is a mystery. We never know who did the action.

In active voice, there’s no mystery. The person, people, animal(s) or things that did the action are always identifiable.

For example:

Example #1: “The man was murdered.”

Question: By whom? (“Who dunnit”?)

Answer: We have no idea. (Mystery).

Voice: Passive.

Compare this to:

Example #2: “Professor Moriarty murdered the man.”

Question: Who dunnit?”

Answer: Professor Moriarty. (No mystery here. The sentence makes it clear.)

Voice: Active.

Sometimes, using the passive voice can be construed as sounding snotty or superior. An example would be, “If you would clean up your messy desk, it would be appreciated.”

Who would appreciate it, exactly?

When I hear the passive voice used in this way, it drives me up the wall. If I don’t know who’s going to appreciate the effort I would go to, what motivation do I have to invest my time and energy into cleaning up the desk?

A kinder, gentler way to say the same thing is, “I would really appreciate it if you would clean up your desk. We have company coming over and I know they’re going to want a tour of the house. Would take a few minutes to tidy up your work area, please?”

Suddenly, I feel motivated to clean the desk. I know who appreciates it and I know why I am being asked. Let the tidying begin!

An example I see frequently from students is, “It is appreciated”, or some variation thereof. An example is, “Dear Dr. Eaton, if you would read over my draft and give me some feedback, it would be greatly appreciated.”

Sounds a bit snotty, don’t you think?

I am often tempted to reply, “Who would appreciate it, exactly?”

In case you’re wondering, I have never actually replied in this way. I simply agree to review their draft. I understand that what they really mean when they use the passive voice in this way is “I appreciate it” or “I would appreciate it.” I can see they are trying to be polite and professional and that matters. But really, if you appreciate something, you can just say it!

Using the active voice makes your meaning clear. You are communicating in a more straight forward way and you sound more confident.

When you use the active voice, your reader appreciates it very much.

Reference:

Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (2010).  (Sixth ed.). Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association.

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This blog has had over 1.6 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


How many sources do you need in a literature review?

February 19, 2014

Students often ask me how many sources they need in their literature review. The short answer is, “It depends.” It depends on your topic, the nature of your research project, your level of scholarship, and a number of other factors.

An article from Canberra University (http://www.canberra.edu.au/studyskills/writing/literature) suggests:

  • Undergraduate review: 5-20 titles depending on level
  • Honours dissertation: 20+ titles
  • Master’s thesis: 40+ titles
  • Doctoral thesis: 50+ titles

Another strategy I learned somewhere along the way that I now share with my students is this:

If your literature review is one section of a larger research paper, thesis or dissertation

 Minimum number of sources = number of pages in the body of your entire paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A paper that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) needs at least 10 sources in its literature review. 

A thesis of 100 pages (in the body) includes at least 100 sources.

If your literature review is a stand-alone document

Minimum number of sources =  3 times the number of pages in the body of your paper (exclusive of title page, abstract, appendices and references)

Example: A stand-alone literature review that has 10 pages of content (the body of the paper) should examine at least 30 sources.

These are not hard and fast rules by any means. Also, it is worth mentioning that as students and scholars who care about the quality of our work, we want to aim to raise the bar, not simply meet a minimum suggested standard. What these guidelines are suggesting is that you don’t aim for any less. If you do, your search for relevant literature in your field may be incomplete and you need to keep digging. Of course, your sources have to be relevant to your topic, too.

Not every scholar or academic supervisor would agree with the guidelines I offer here, criticizing them as being too reductionist or simplistic. My point isn’t to offer a black and white rule or open theoretical debate for which there can be no clear solution, but rather to offer a straight forward and practical answer to a question that academics often respond to in an ambiguous way, leaving students frustrated, exasperated and anxious about how to go conduct their literature review. 

When in doubt, talk with your own instructor or supervisor, asking them what their expectations are. (Don’t be surprised though, if you get an answer that is vague, like, “It depends…”)

Remember: Aim for quality over quality… and to do a quality literature review, you need to have a substantive quantity of sources.

Here are some of my favourite resources to help you write your literature review:

University of Toronto – http://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review

U Conn – http://classguides.lib.uconn.edu/content.php?pid=239974&sid=1980274

University of Leicester –  http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/literature-review

Queensland Univeristy of Technology – http://www.citewrite.qut.edu.au/write/litreview.jsp

Birmingham City University – http://library.bcu.ac.uk/learner/writingguides/1.04.htm

Related posts: Why APA formatting matters http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hc

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This post had had over 52,000 views since I wrote it. Why not share it?: How many sources do you need in a literature review?  http://wp.me/pNAh3-1Hu

Update:  November 2017 – This blog has had over 1.7 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Why APA formatting matters

January 15, 2014

Imagine you are buying a new home. You tour around a number of properties. You see one that is messy, distasteful and uninviting. The sales agent says, “Oh, don’t worry, the foundation is strong!” The trained eye may be able to see beyond the bad presentation, but it takes a lot of mental energy to get past it.

Now imagine you are taken into a home that is clean, neat and perfectly staged. You immediately feel welcome. You are instantly engaged psychologically and emotionally. You want to see more.

APA formatting is to research papers what presenting a clean, neat and well presented home is to selling a property.

Your prof may be able to look past a messy presentation, but it takes more mental energy. You want to be able to say, “Oh, but the foundation of the work is just fine!”  and you want that be enough.

Well, it’s not enough. It sends a message that you don’t care about presentation. You send a message that you don’t give a flying leap that your work is less appealing to read. You may be brilliant, but if the essence of what you show to others messy and disorganized,  it’s less inviting to enter your world and spend time there. Sometimes, students insist that APA formatting inhibits their creativity or individuality. My reply to that is, fine, go be as bizarre and unique as you like in your own writing space — your blog, your journal or whatever.

There’s an element of persuasion involved in writing a research paper. I won’t say sales, because that will undoubtedly offend some of you. But let’s face it. You are trying to “pitch” your ideas. Follow standard practices for presentation and your work is likely to be accepted a whole lot faster than if you insist on doing it your own way. When you are writing a research paper you are trying to persuade someone to read it, like it and possibly judge its value (e.g. accept it for publication or award a grade for it). 

Sometimes I find that drawing comparisons between reality TV and academia helps students make sense the expectations of life in higher education. Over the past few months, I’ve been watching Income Property. I don’t own any income properties and I probably never will, but I find the show fascinating. I see patterns in how projects are completed so they consistently meet the objectives.

Host Scott McGillivray helps home owners turn unfinished or unacceptable suites into beautiful rental properties. He and his crew completely renovate the space. They focus on doing excellent quality construction, electrical and plumbing work that is up to code. The work is inspected and they get feedback from city officials and inspectors before they start working on the finishes.

To me, that’s the the content of research. It needs to be solid, high quality and done well. Getting feedback along the way is important, too.

Once they get the necessary approvals that the job has been done right, they move on to the finishes. They pay attention to the details and ensure the look of the place is consistent with sound design principles that are timeless and impressive. After watching a few episodes of Income Property I noticed that they use very similar approaches for each project.

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/670220That’s the presentation of the work. The design principles are outlined by APA, MLA or whatever style guide you use. The format is timeless and paying attention to the details makes it impressive. They follow presentation design principles systematically. Each project is unique, yet they follow standards in a consistent way. It’s almost like there’s a template and yet, every project is individual.

McGillivray consistently points out that doing the construction work properly is non-negotiable. Just like doing high quality research is non-negotiable.

But what gets people to say, “Wow, this is impressive!” are the finishes. Following accepted practices for presentation (which might be interior design for a house, or formatting for a paper) and paying attention to the details are what makes you stand out and be impressive.

For an exemplary end product you need both: quality construction and beautiful finishes. If you have only done only one or the other, you are being sloppy. To do the job right, you need solid construction and a beautiful presentation.

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This blog has had over 1.6 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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