For some inexplicable reason, perhaps to do with Woodstock, kaftans, free love and the rest, the education department in Australia decided to abandon the teaching of grammar in the late sixties and didn’t start again, as far as I can tell, until the mid 80s. I am the ultimate product of a 1970’s education, therefore I am profoundly grammar challenged.

type instructionsI was taught that commas were placed when you feel like taking a breath (mostly wrong) and semi colons were irrelevant (so wrong). Other parts of my language knowledge are thin and I still cannot name any part of a sentence with certainty. By the end of primary school my writing was lively and fun, but full of errors. My love of writing quickly died when my teachers tried to correct the problems in high school and it didn’t really come back until I started to blog.

Some teachers resisted this free wheelin’ trend of course and Mr Thesis Whisperer was lucky enough to have one. He is under instruction to correct me when I use bought instead of brought, then instead of than and so on. With his patient help I no longer embarrass myself at middle class dinner parties and in correspondence with the bank. I’m pleased to see fashions have changed and Thesis Whisperer Jnr, aged 11 and a half, has more technical grammar knowledge than I did at his age (and basic math knowledge for that matter).

Getting through two theses with a white knuckled grip on what little grammar I knew was a nightmare, but instructive. I had to re-learn, pretty much from scratch, many of the technicalities. My poor supervisors had to struggle with me and I thank them from the bottom of my grammar challenged heart.

There’s a saying that the worst students make the best teachers and this is probably why I am such a popular and in demand writing teacher today. I’m not a perfect writer, but I get by. My students quickly realise they can equal or exceed me with little effort. Sometimes imperfection is just what you need in a thesis writing role model – at least that’s what I tell myself.

My approach to teaching writing is deeply informed by my own struggles. I don’t try to teach the technicalities because I can’t. The grammar rules just don’t ‘stick’ as easily when you are an adult. So I developed tools for myself using advice I found in books. I share these tools with PhD students in my workshops and, over the years, their feedback has helped me improve them.

A couple of months ago my friend Margaret Kammel, who is a high school teacher and blogger, read my ebook and discovered some of my tools. She told me about the ‘blackline masters’ books that school teachers use. These are formatted A4 sheets with exercises and information for teachers to use in class. A lesson can be built around one or two of these A4 sheets. Margaret suggested I reformat some of my tools and put them online. I loved this idea and the Thesis Whisperer BLM series was born.

The first one I published was the Thesis Whisperer Verb Cheat Sheet (PDF). One of the major break throughs I had in my own academic writing was the realisation that verbs are judgy (which I know is not a word, but I like it – that 70’s attitude coming through I suppose). In your literature review a verb should describe what you think about the author, as well as what you think the author is doing. Why? I like to think it’s because academia is a passive aggressive, uptight, emotionally challenged culture. We rarely say what we think directly, we imply it in the way we use verbs.

For example, it’s more complimentary to say…

Inger argues that academia is a passive aggressive culture

… than to say…

Inger asserts that academia is a passive aggressive culture.

Look up the two definitions in the dictionary if you don’t believe me. An argument implies that there are reasons given to support a point of view, an assertion is a confident and forceful statement of opinion. Looking up verbs in the dictionary all the time is annoying, so the verb cheat sheet was born. I made it for myself a long time ago when I realised that my over reliance on a small set of verbs was making my writing boring. On the sheet I have classified my verbs in groups which, to me, express how I feel about the work I am referencing: “This work is awesome”, “I feel neutral”, “this work is poor”.

It’s important to emphasise that this is my personal/disciplinary verb taxonomy – it’s not automatically generalisable. Different disciplines have different conventions around verbs – science types tend to use many more neutral verbs for example. The idea of providing the BLM text as both a PDF and a webpage is that you can easily lift the text and alter it to suit yourself. I encourage you to make your own verb list tailored to your needs.

It would be wonderful, if you do this, if you would send me the revised list so I can add it as a variation. Share the love I say!

The verb list was inspired by the work of Barbara Kamler and Pat Thomson (of the ‘Patter’ blog – add it to your reading list right now people) who talk about the importance of creating a ‘credible persona’ in the text. They borrow and extend on the work of James Hyland, a linguist, who has published a set of resources for building ‘writerly stances’. Kamler and Thomson offer his classification scheme in five parts:

Hedges: words like possible, might, perhaps, believe etc
Emphatics: clearly, in fact, definitely, it is obvious.
Attitude markers: I agree, we prefer, unfortunately, hopefully etc, as well as puncuation: scare quotes, exclamation marks and so on.
Relational markers: where you address the audience directly, much like a narrative character in a Shakespeare play: “Where does this lead?”, “I you recall …”
Person markers: how you signal the author presence: I, we, our, my, mine etc.

Kamler and Thomson, and other writing teachers, show us that ‘authoritative writing’ can be produced by small, but strategic changes in the words you use to join up sentences (I’m sure there’s a technical term for this, but I’ve forgotten). I’m working through my store of writing text books to make more black line masters for you to use.

Students are sometimes told their text is not quite ‘right’ or ‘scholarly’ enough, but offered little concrete guidance to fix it. I suspect that’s because their supervisors are grammar challenged in the same way that I am. Many of us can write well, but can’t explain how we do it. I hope this BLM series will help if you have a supervisor like this.

Luckily many supervisors ARE skilled at grammar and helping students to write.  I’m finding my colleagues are a rich source of knowledge and inspiration for this BLM work. For example, I was inspired to make the Conjunctive Adverb conjurer by my friend Dr Scott Mayson. Of course, I had to look up what a conjunctive adverb was on wikipedia first!

So what about you? Do you have grammar problems like me? Or do you have resources to share – sites, worksheets or books which have helped? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

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