Language/Writing Tip 17

Spot the howler in this sentence:

“I have learned few things over the years,” said my dad, with a wistful and knowing look.

Here, “few things” is a synonym for “I have learned virtually nothing…”

Sometimes a missing article does make a big difference:

“I have learned A FEW THINGS over the years,” said my dad, with a wistful and knowing look.

Another example:

“I know few things about cars” means: “You don’t want me touching your engine.”

“I know a few things about cars” means: “You can’t fool me – I’m not buying your second-hand lemon.”

The rest of the tips are available at:

Calls Events

Reminder: Doctoral Sessions at the ESSE Conference

Applications to take part in the Doctoral Sessions at the ESSE Conference must be sent no later than 28 February 2014. Young scholars who are writing their PhD theses in English Studies and are at least in the second year of their studies at the time of ESSE Conference in Košice may apply to make a brief presentation of their work-in-progress at one of three doctoral sessions in the fields of English Language, Literatures in English, and Cultural and Area Studies. Note that PhD students attending the doctoral sessions may attend the full ESSE Conference at a reduced fee. Presentation at a doctoral session is not incompatible with participating in and presenting at other seminars at the Conference. More information on the ESSE Conference website:

Tips Various

Language/Writing Tip 16

Don’t start two sentences in a row with the same word.

An example:

“Yet despite his frustrations, he never established his own institution, even though his reputation would have allowed him to do so.
Yet since the 1990s, American education has been increasingly characterized by market-driven mentality.”

Go easy on “I” and “This” in the first sentence position:

Too much “I”:

“I will look at J.D. Salinger’s work in this diploma thesis. I will examine his life, along with the major experiences he had. I will then consider…”

Too much “this”:

“This diploma thesis looks at J.D. Salinger’s work. This body of writing will be examined with regard to his life. This approach…”

(This tips ignores stylistic and rhetorical repetition – such as that used in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.)

More here:



Language/Writing Tip 15

Want to make your writing splendidly dull? No problem. Just repeat words, preferably vague ones:

“The good thing about the novel is that it’s a good read.”

Less obviously:

“Something that we might consider is that some things are not anything special.”

For those into soap-box style rhetoric, near repetition through figura etymologica can add comedy:

“They poisoned him with poison.”

In this poisonous (ouch) example there is little doubt that the repetition is intentional. “Poison,” after all, is not a filler-word like “good” or “thing” or “dude.”

The longer your sentence, the greater the danger of unintentional repetition:

“Within the context of 21st-century considerations of how we are to configure varying and competing perspectives on the individual qua individual, it is crucial that we bear in mind the contemporary context.”

Admittedly, not many would follow that sentence to its sorry end. Still, the second “context” is grotesquely redundant.



Language/Writing Tip 14

The phrase “puts it nicely” or “shows nicely” can sound patronizing and, sometimes, downright grotesque.

1) Patronizing.

“Shakespeare puts it nicely when he has Hamlet say, ‘To be or not to be…'”

Well done, Bard!

(The problem here seems to be a combination of weak praise – since “nice” is the minimum of praise – and the seeming circularity – since writing an entire essay on Shakespeare implies that you have found many nice phrases.)

2) Grotesque.

“Shakespeare puts it nicely when he has Cornwall say to Gloucester, ‘See’t shalt thou never’ and ‘Upon these eyes of thine I’ll set my foot.'”

There isn’t much that’s “nice” about blinding Gloucester.

(By the way, when you come across “nice” in older texts, try to determine the contemporary meaning. The adjective has had more lives than Madonna. At one time, “You look nice!” meant “You look foolish!”)


Language/Writing Tip 13

Here are some mistakes that make you look very bad.

1) forgetting commas around appositional phrases:

“The book, as we have seen is long.”
“The last time I, dressed in green in red attended a party…”
“Stanko and Janko, the well-known gangsters both forget where they had parked.”

“The book, as we have seen, is long.”
“The last time I, dressed in green in red, attended a party…”
“Stanko and Janko, the well-known gangsters, both forgot where they had parked.”

2) Know the difference between “first” as a dubious synonym for the adverb “firstly” and “__ first”

“First person to set foot on the moon…” is embarrassing.

Less embarrassing but still wrong:

“There are three ways to eat a chocolate eclair. First…”

No. It has to be “THE first” because you mean “The first way…”

3) Not “a bit snotty way” but:

a) “a bit of a snotty way”
b) [more elegant-sounding and formal: “a somewhat snotty way”



Language/Writing Tip 12

A rule of thumb for using the phrase “let alone”: it generally follows a negative. Three examples from a online book-search for “let alone consider”

a) “NOBODY can be conscious of, let alone consider, all aspects…”
b) “But it is already an advantage with respect to interpretive economy NOT TO HAVE TO CONSIDER the possibility of having here case of type 3 of CS, let alone consider the adjectival meaning…”
c) “There is such a chaos of contentious, INCONSISTENT, UNRELATED elements in the field that it is impossible to make sense of it, let alone consider it to be scientific.”

Compare these distortions of Dr. Seuss’s “Green Eggs and Ham”:

“I would not, could not, in the rain.
Not in the dark. [LET ALONE] on a train…”

BIZARRE (after Sam tries the eggs and ham):

“And I will eat them in the rain.
And in the dark. [LET ALONE] on a train…”

Of course, you can also use “let alone” to signal a contrast or intensification of (negative) possibilities, as in these two examples:

a) “In a postmodern era of exponential change, how can we take stability seriously, LET ALONE consider it a virtue?”
b) “The embodiment of ugliness belonging to one person was too overwhelming to separate, LET ALONE consider that it was coming from a father who would do anything for his family.”

Synonyms for “let alone” include “much less” and “still less” and “gee, golly, I don’t even want to…”


Language/Writing Tip 11

1) Here’s a nifty construction that, for whatever reason, is underused:

“She was among the first to research…”

Students almost always opt for:

“She was among the first WHO RESEARCHED…”

2) Watch out for this type of methodological circularity:

“By comparing the two novels, I will establish what the differences are.”

“By comparing implies a process,” but how else can one find “differences”?

Less grandiose-sounding but more understandable:

“I compared the two novels and found many differences.”

More here:

Tips Various

Language/Writing Tip 10

When mentioning time, note the difference between “only at” and “not until”:

“I can meet you only at four” does not mean “I can’t meet you until four.”

If you want to emphasize tardiness, use “not until”:

1) “He only got there at noon.” (neutral)
2) “He did not get there until noon.” (lazy!)


Language/Writing Tip 9

A few things to avoid in academic writing:

1) Do not italicize the comma after a list of titles – that is, italicize only the novel title, not the comma that follows. This is a minor point, but it takes forever for the lowly proofreader to correct.

2) Try not to advertise private companies: if you can avoid Amazon (and refer perhaps to Worldcat), Google (and say “an internet search”), etc., do so.

Such avoidance is, of course, often unavoidable, but keep it in mind.

3) The Oxford comma. If you use it, use it consistently: “ham, eggs, and coffee” on page 4 should not be “ham, eggs and coffee” on page 10 (especially if the same terms are repeated verbatim).

4) Discursive and substantive footnotes and endnotes. Keep ’em short.

(I will add some examples over the next few days.)