Archive for the ‘Grammar’ Category

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar, Uncategorized on November 24, 2009 at 3:48 am


Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be talking about some specific punctuation rules for research papers. Last week, we talked about how to use punctuation with quotation marks. This week, we’ll talk about how to use punctuation when citing sources within your paper.

In-text citations is the official name for what happens when you cite sources within your papers. In-text citations are the references you use after a quotation or paraphrase from your research. In MLA citations (for English and other humanities classes), you’ll include the author’s surname and the page number in parentheses, like this (Obama 46). Here’s what an in-text citation would look like after a direct quotation and after a paraphrase:

Direct Quote: “I don’t waste time thinking about things more than once” (Allen 22).

Paraphrase (when you put it in your own words): It’s not efficient to think about things repeatedly (Allen 22).

We’ll talk more about how to quote and paraphrase in future posts, but for now, I want you to look at the punctuation. Notice how, in both the quotation and the paraphrase, the period at the end of the sentence doesn’t come until after the citation is finished. The idea is that, when you cite a source, the citation is part of the sentence. Also, it looks neater, doesn’t it? Try it next time you’re citing sources for a paper.


I’m sorry I missed my post last Thursday! I owe you all an apology. The truth is that the end of the quarter is just as busy for teachers as it is for you. We’re grading papers, planning classes, getting all the assignments ready to explain to you. I’ve also been working on something for our website, though. I’d like to start offering more tools to help you as students, and I’ve been busy at work, preparing the details for you. I’ll unleash the full plan in my Thanksgiving post on Thursday. In the meantime, thank you for being so patient with me!


Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on November 16, 2009 at 10:23 pm


Over the next couple of Mondays, I thought we might talk about some specific punctuation rules for research papers. First, let’s talk about how to use punctuation with quotation marks. If you learned British English, you might be a bit confused about how we punctuate quotations in the US. In British English, you have to think about the sentence as a whole, and you use punctuation differently, depending on the quotation’s role in the sentence. In the US, it’s a bit simpler. The punctuation for a quotation goes, 99% of the time, inside the quotation marks, like this:

Dylan Thomas said, “Someone’s boring me. I think it’s me.”

In this example, the period at the end of the quotation goes inside the quotation marks. There’s also a comma after the word “said,” where the quotation is introduced. Here’s an example that’s flipped, with the tag (the part of the sentence that identifies the speaker) at the end:

“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal,” Albert Camus said.

Notice that there’s a comma instead of the period at the end of the quotation — and also that it goes inside the quotation marks. Pretty easy, right? Here’s an example with a quotation that’s broken into two parts:

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” George Price once said, “but hasn’t the fine line between sanity and madness gotten finer?”

The first part of the quotation has a comma afterward. Then we have another comma after “said” and finally, the question mark (still inside the quotation marks) to end the sentence. In this instance, the quotation is all in one sentence. What happens, though, if the quotation is broken into two — but it’s also made up of two complete sentences? Take a look:

“Interestingly, according to modern astronomers, space is finite,” Woody Allen said. “This is a very comforting thought– particularly for people who can never remember where they have left things.”

Can you see the difference in how this is punctuated? There’s still the comma at the end of the first quotation, but there’s a period after the word “said.” This is because the sentence is complete at this point, and the following part of the quotation is also a complete sentence, so it can stand on its own.

Next week, we’ll talk about what to do with quotations when you also have APA or MLA citations to add. Happy punctuating!

Read the rest of this entry »

An End to Proofreading (once and for all)

In Grammar on November 12, 2009 at 10:19 am

Photo by Bichuas (E. Carton) -- Thank you!

The trick with working on grammar is not to get a good proofreader who can catch every single mistake. It’s not to go over your paper 57 times until you’ve caught each punctuation mark that’s out of place. I’m going to say something that’s going to sound shocking, especially coming from an English teacher. Learning grammar is not about learning perfection. It’s about establishing good grammatical habits.

Let me tell you about the one time I took a dance class. I’m not a very tall lady, and I thought taking a ballet class would help me get good posture — and maybe even help me make the most of all 5 feet of my height. I found an adult beginner’s ballet class in town, and I signed up. The first day, I arrived in class, ready to soak up the knowledge and learn how to move gracefully. When I arrived, though, it was clear that the other “beginners” weren’t quite as beginner as I was. They had all the cool gear: the fancy ballet shoes with ribbons, those special little skirts that dancers wear on TV. My shorts and T-shirt looked a bit silly in comparison. Once we started dancing, it was obvious. I had no natural talent for this stuff. While the other students gracefully moved about on the floor, I jerked left and right, just trying to figure out how everyone else knew which direction to go. The teacher quickly learned who I was, and she started giving me lots of advice, all at once: “Kathryn, don’t forget to point your toe. Keep your arms relaxed and open. Keep your leg straight. Don’t bite your lip. Smile, Kathryn!” Of course, once I started trying to follow her directions, things got worse. While I tried to smile and point my toe, I ended up going in the wrong direction and falling down. Not a good start!

The problem was that I was concentrating on too many things at once, so I could never really focus on any of them.

This happens all the time when students try to improve grammar. You’ll be working on getting your verbs in the right form, figuring out articles and prepositions while trying to adjust your sentence structure and improve vocabulary. When you try to work on all of these tasks at once, you end up remembering nothing, and your habits don’t change. This means that, every time you write a paper, you have to go through drafts and drafts of revisions for your grammar — every single time. It’s exhausting!

The solution is to focus on one grammatical problem (strategically chosen), and work on learning how to improve this one thing. Read the rest of this entry »

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on November 10, 2009 at 12:00 am


Last week, we talked about the first use of the semicolon. This week, we’ll talk about a second (and more common) use for a semicolon. A semicolon can create a legal run-on sentence. A run-on sentence is when you have more than one sentence punctuated as if it were one. Sometimes, though, you really do want that run-on, because you want to emphasize that the ideas in each sentence are closely related. In this case, the semicolon can come to your rescue. Here’s an example:

I sold my car last June; now I ride my bike everywhere.
He dropped the class the second week; I can see why.

In each of these instances, you have what could be two full sentences on either side of the semicolon. That’s exactly what you want. There is one catch with using a semicolon this way, though. The ideas in the two sentences that you’re joining must be closely related. If they’re not, you’ve misused the  semicolon.

One great trick about semicolons is that you can use them at the last minute too. If you’ve printed your paper and are just about ready to hand it in but notice a run-on sentence, you can often just create a semicolon with a black pen and fix it right then and there. Very handy.


I spent the weekend working on my own reading and writing. In the classroom, I’m often telling my students to read lots and write regularly. It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t do the same in my own life, would it?

Right now, I’m reading an amazing book about goats. I know. It’s a strange topic. The author, Brad Kessler, talks about his experiences moving from the city to the country to live a quieter life — with goats. Kessler is one of my all-time favorite authors, and his writing (even — or especially — about goats) is beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable. Here’s a link to information about the book, if you’re curious: Goat Song, by Brad Kessler.

I’m reading this book on my iPod, using the Amazon Kindle app. More and more books are available digitally this year — and it’s downright convenient to be able to carry Goat Song in my pocket or my purse. I can read while in line at the grocery store, while waiting for a bus, or while waiting for a meeting to begin.

How do you read? Let me know in the comments!

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on November 3, 2009 at 12:50 am

stack of books ONE WAY TO USE A SEMICOLON ;

One of the most misused forms of punctuation is the semicolon (;). For some reason, students love to use the semicolon. They’re cute, and they seem so sophisticated. I think because so many students see semicolons as cool, they’re often misused. Students use them instead of commas, instead of colons, or at odd places in a sentence. Really, there are only two uses for semicolons. Below, I’ll describe the first. We’ll talk about the second use for a semicolon next week.

The only time that you absolutely must use a semicolon is when you have a list of things AND when the things in your list have commas within them. Usually, when we write a list, we separate items in the list with commas:

I went to the store and bought a flashlight, a bicycle helmet, fancy shoes, and a stick of gum.

What happens, though, when the things in your list have commas in them?

I have been to New York, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Madison, Wisconsin, Atlanta, Georgia, Seoul, Korea, and San Francisco, California.

It gets confusing, doesn’t it? The solution is the semicolon. Here’s how we’d fix that last sentence:

I have been to New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; Atlanta, Georgia; Seoul, Korea; and San Francisco, California.

Voila! The list is organized.


This week, I’m settling in to do some serious paper-grading. I made the mistake of having major papers due in each of my classes the same week (silly me!), so I have quite a stack of papers to get back to students. It’s no small thing, to comment on a student’s paper: to be fair and challenge each student to grow as a writer, while also being kind, respectful, and considerate of the student as a writer and a human being.

As I’m commenting on papers, I know that writing is a very personal thing. When you write for a class, you’re putting your ideas on the page and waiting for your teacher to grade what you come up with. That’s a risky endeavor, and many students have been discouraged enough by an English teacher’s critical comments to give up writing altogether. At the same time, it’s important to be challenged to grow as a writer (I never want to stop growing myself). It’s a weighty job, this commenting on papers. No matter how many times I do it, I feel a tremendous responsibility.  Here I go, diving into the stack…

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on October 27, 2009 at 4:55 am

stack of books SPELLING

Spanish is my second language. I grew up in the middle of the country, and there weren’t many native speakers of Spanish, so as I learned Spanish, I learned from my American (English-speaking) teacher and from textbooks. I read in Spanish. I wrote in Spanish. I struggled in Spanish! Although we spoke and listened to Spanish in class, I never really heard Spanish. I learned mostly through reading and writing. The result is that while my grasp of Spanish grammar was okay, my ability to speak and listen to Spanish never really developed. If you learned English in similar circumstances, you might struggle with the courage to speak and understand spoken English.

Sometimes, though, language learners learn first by speaking and listening to English. Students who learn this way often speak and listen clearly and have a strong instinctive sense of grammar, like a native speaker would. If the speaking and listening isn’t combined with exposure to written, English, though, there can be challenges with spelling. Often, students who learn English only through speech will sound words out. This makes a lot of sense. The problem is that much of written English and spelling doesn’t make sense.

If spelling is a big challenge for you, the solution is to listen and read along as someone reads out loud. This way, you’ll be able to put together the sounds of the words with the spelling. Thankfully, there are tools that can help with this. You can get audiobooks (either downloaded from a website like Audible.com or through your local library, for free). Get an unabridged version of the audiobook — and also get a written copy. When you read, listen to the book at the same time. This will help train your eyes and ears to work together.


This week, I taught a little workshop at my school on study skills. I talked with students about keeping a calendar, staying organized, beating procrastination, and using strategies when reading tough material. Study skills are one of my favorite topics to talk about with students, because it deals with the phyical realities of everyday life. I love learning about where and how students study (with friends? in a library?), and I love hearing about how students keep information close at hand for classes. These details, I think, can have a pretty big effect on the workload you’re able to tackle, your stress levels, and the quality of your work.


Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on October 20, 2009 at 6:47 am

stack of books


As I’m writing this, my desk is covered in eraser dust. A thick dictionary sits in front of the computer, and two red pens are somewhere  in here, probably under a stack of papers. I’ve been proofreading.

I worked a freelance proofreading job this weekend, helping to prepare a magazine for print. As a proofreader, I had to bust out the red pen (something I never use when commenting on student papers), read oh-so-carefully, and look for anything I could that was out of place. I had to be picky. I had to be tough with grammar. I had to catch all mistakes. Here’s how I handled the project:

  • I worked in a quiet room, a place without any interruptions
  • I worked at my own pace and gave myself plenty of time for breaks. When my eyes went a little buggy, when I got tired, or when I saw myself losing my concentration, I would take a rest for at least 15 minutes. Proofreading does not work well when you’re sleepy or unfocused.
  • When I had a doubt about spelling, rules of formatting, or punctuation, I stopped and researched to find the answer. I kept a dictionary, a formatting guide, and the internet handy to look up anything I needed (no Facebook breaks were allowed!).
  • I proofed each page 2-3 times. It’s amazing how your mind can focus on different things with each reading.

At the end of a weekend of careful reading, I have to say that it can be satisfying to check all the commas and to catch all the misplaced modifiers. It’s the same kind of feeling I get when I clean a closet, organize bookshelves, or tidy stacks of papers. Still, I know that proofreading is often one of the most frustrating parts of writing for students.

Here are a few ideas to help:

  • Try reading your paper out loud. Reading out loud forces you to slow down, and you’ll often notice mistakes that you might otherwise miss.
  • Have a friend read your paper out loud with you. If your friend stumbles on a sentence, there might be something that you want to edit.
  • Look at each sentence separately. Read the rest of this entry »

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on October 12, 2009 at 6:58 pm

stack of books GRAMMAR: SYNTAX

Syntax is English-teacher lingo for sentence structure — how you put your sentences together. Each language has its own rules for syntax. In English, for example, we put the adjective before the noun. I might talk about a green bicycle. In Spanish, the adjective comes after the noun: bicicleta verde (bicycle green). Sometimes, differences that you’ll notice in syntax from your native language to English are relatively small (like the adjective-noun order above). Other times, using your native structure with English could prevent your listener from understanding what you’re trying to say. Sentence structure is important. You could argue that it structures the way we think, so sentences that follow an unfamiliar structure can be difficult to decode. If your native language has a syntax that’s very different from English, you’ll want to look carefully at the ways that English sentences are constructed.

As with any grammar challenge, I want to encourage you not to focus on memorizing the rules of English sentence structure — but to build these rules as habits. When it comes to sentence structure, this means reading and listening to English as much as possible. Our goal is not to get you to be able to recite the definition of a subordinate clause or participial phrase — but to use them naturally, without having to think too much about it. The way to do this is through lots of reading and listening.

If you’d like to understand the basic structure of English language first — or if you’re a particularly visual learner, you might take a look at how people diagram sentences. Basically, sentence diagramming is something English teachers used to teach in every American classroom thirty years ago (American kids don’t learn it in school anymore). When you want to see how a sentence is put together in English, looking at a diagram can help. You can find some very basic sentence diagrams here — and if you’re interested, you can see how people have diagrammed President Obama’s (much more complicated) sentences here.


Our fall quarter began this week, and the halls at my school were full of new students. I love the start of a new quarter. For teachers, this new beginning means preparing a syllabus and learning the names of new students. Read the rest of this entry »

Monday Grammar & Teacher Journal

In Grammar on October 5, 2009 at 10:00 am

stack of books GRAMMAR: VERB TENSES

Last week, we talked about the importance of subject/verb agreement, when it comes to grammar. Another aspect of verbs that you’ll want to notice is the verb tense. Tenses are one way to show the passage of time in English. Some languages (like French) have lots of tenses, while others don’t. From what I hear from my students, English has lots of tenses!

  • simple past
  • progressive past
  • past perfect
  • simple present
  • progressive present
  • present perfect
  • simple future
  • progressive future
  • future perfect

There’s a tense for talking about the past (I ate lunch), a tense for talking about the past of the past (I had eaten lunch) and a one for talking about the process in the past (I was eating lunch). There’s even a tense that describes an event that, at some point in the future, will have already happened and will then be past (will have eaten lunch). Complicated, isn’t it? The people who helped develop the English language must have really cared about time.

If you think too much about tenses, you’re bound to drive yourself crazy. “Am I in the past of the past?” you might ask yourself. “Maybe this is really the continuing past or just plain old, regular past.” The more you ponder the nature of time, the further you’re likely to get from knowing the best tense to use. As long as you’re speaking English relatively comfortably, it’s best to just go with your gut.

Once you’ve settled on the past or present in your writing, keep your verbs in that time frame as long as possible. If he ATE an apple, then he probable WENT to work afterward and SAW a parade going down the street. We stay in past tense as long as possible.


This week is the first week of the fall quarter for me, so I’m back to school, with a fresh stack of syllabi, new pencils, and that fall excitement about the start of a new school year. I work with The Bridge Program at Antioch, and this week is the first for a new group of Bridge students as well. I’m gathering new student orientation materials, maps of the school, and school supplies for everyone. Read the rest of this entry »

Monday Grammar/ Teacher Journal

In Grammar on September 28, 2009 at 10:00 am

stack of books


Often, the first grammatical issue for international students is the issue of verbs. Not all grammatical problems are created equal. Usually, the first grammar issue on the list of most English teachers is subject/verb agreement. If your verbs don’t agree with your subjects, your teachers will notice. The first step is to learn about the verb forms and subject agreement. Usually, when students come to my classes, that’s already done, but if you’re still unsure of how to decide, crack those grammar books and do a bit of a review.

The second step is to get your ear to hear the right verbs. This is the most important step. Even if you understand how to choose the right verb, it’s easy to accidentally slip in your writing and pick the wrong one. The goal is not to have to think about the complexities of subject/verb agreement but to be able to pick what sounds best. You can train your brain to do this. It’s just a matter of getting yourself to hear the right verbs.

One of my mentors, who also teaches English, taught me a trick that can help you with this. As you’re reading textbooks, articles, and other things for class, go through and underline the verbs in a paragraph or two. Then, try reading those paragraphs out loud to yourself — but read every underlined verb louder than the rest of what you read. Here’s how it might look:

Verbs *ARE* important parts of speech in writing, and *USING* the correct verb in you speech and writing *WILL HELP* quite a bit in your classes. Teachers *PAY* special attention to verbs in sentences, so you *WILL WANT* to use the correct verbs.

It won’t happen overnight, but if you practice this type of reading regularly, your ear will begin to hear the correct verb in your sentences. That’s what we want! Once your ear hears the right verb, you won’t have to think about verb forms so much. You’ll just know what sounds right. Then, you can tackle another grammatical problem. Read the rest of this entry »