The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Suggest: as confidently as you dare

In ELT, we like to put things in neat categories. We categorize modal verbs, for example, as being used to express ability or obligation or advice, even though, in real life, the way we use different forms is much messier and more ambiguous – just try writing an activity that practises modals without stepping outside the boundaries you’ve set for yourself!

It makes sense though, both to teachers and learners, to at least start off with these slightly artificial groupings to help them get to grips with what would otherwise be a rather daunting, abstract mess. When I’m teaching, even at lower levels, I make sure that I stress the slightly artificial nature of these sort of ‘rules’, treating them instead as useful guidelines that speakers can, and often do, break. I sometimes worry when I’m writing materials though that the woolliness I try to build in (with carefully placed oftens, usuallys and typicallys) gets missed.

Recently, I’ve been looking at reporting verbs in academic writing and doing battle with a verb that’s especially difficult to pin down.

Some time ago, a colleague passed on the following query:  “I run a course of academic writing for PhDs and last Friday we had this discussion about the word "suggest". I mentioned it is not a really strong verb, it is not really negative or completely weak but not "one of the strongest" either. And the students from the area of Biology and Biochemistry strongly disapproved saying that it is almost a synonym to "prove" in their fields since there is nothing really that certain. So, I tried to say that there is nothing wrong with that verb but they will hardly get a Nobel Prize for "suggesting things". What do you think?”

Suggest is sometimes pigeon-holed in EAP materials as being a ‘tentative’ reporting verb, but on closer inspection, the situation, unsurprisingly, is more complex. Part of the issue boils down to two different uses which revolve around the subject of the verb:

Person + suggests = put forward
This is used, especially in a literature review, to report ideas, theories, etc. put forward by different people. In some cases, it may be that the idea was originally put forward indirectly, rather than explicitly stated, perhaps talking about possible implications – here suggest is indeed slightly tentative and is more synonymous with imply.  But I think it can also be used more neutrally to mean “this is what x said/wrote”. For the academic writer, it can just be a synonym of put forward or propose, chosen for the sake of variety rather than nuances about confidence or tentativeness. Here are a couple of examples (from the BAWE corpus of student academic writing, both from the biological sciences)

Parsons (1991) suggested that Drosophila species have a role as indicators of habitat change due to their close association with the rainforest habitat in which they live. [not especially tentative?]

Rose et al (1998) suggested that PAR-1 may be the only protein required for establishing polarity, however later evidence contradicts the theory … [more tentative or is that actually shown by the may be?]

Evidence + suggests = indicates
This is used in reporting data, evidence or results of research. In this case, the verb in itself is slightly tentative in that it stops short of saying demonstrates or proves. Here those biology students are probably right in that it’s used in contexts where evidence or results can’t be declared 100% conclusive; because of the nature of the research, the size of the sample, how generalizable the study is, etc. The writer though can show their degree of confidence by modifying the verb; seems to suggest (more tentative), clearly/strongly suggests (as confident as you can be).

The evidence above strongly suggests that organelles were arisen from the endosymbiotic uptake of free-living bacteria by eukaryotic host cells.

The data would seem to suggest that the lowest levels of net radiation also coincided with the lowest wind speeds of the trial.

Interestingly, the breakdown by discipline on the BAWE corpus of students using suggest works out as below (most frequent users first):
1 Archaeology
2 Linguistics
3 Psychology
4 Tourism
5 Biological Sciences
6 Business
These feel to me like disciplines where much has to be inferred, where evidence may be anecdotal or needs interpretation. The hard sciences (Physics, Maths, Chemistry, Computer Science) on the other hand, with their focus on more quantitative data, came down the bottom of the list.

It’s the kind of thing I find fascinating and I’m sure there’s enough material in there for a whole PhD thesis, but as a materials writer, the question is … how do I fit all that into a neat little usage note only a couple of lines long?!

Footnote: I’ve used the BAWE corpus here partly because I think it provides a useful model for student (rather than expert) writing and also partly because it’s open source. I checked the discipline breakdown of ‘suggest’ usage against another (commercial) academic corpus though and it came out with broadly similar results, similar disciplines near the top (and bottom) albeit in a slightly different order.

BAWE corpus  available at: https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/ 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why input is as important as output for ELT writers

A recent post by Johanna Stirling on the new MaWSIG blog (A fresh start?) got me thinking about the importance of taking a step back occasionally when you’re writing ELT materials.

As a freelancer writer, you only get paid for what you produce, your output; for the material you write or edit or whatever. Especially when your schedule gets busy, that can easily turn into a production line of 'churning out' material with little time to stop and think, for gathering input and reflecting on it. Most fee-based writing projects don’t allow any time for general background research (at least not on the part of the writer) or thinking time – you’re lucky if the fee covers the hours you put in actually committing stuff to the page.

Of course, you try to go to conferences and events to keep up with the latest trends and ideas – if you can speak on behalf of a publisher, you can sometimes get part of your expenses paid and after all, it’s good for networking too. I do bits of teaching and teacher training to keep in  touch with classroom practice. And nowadays it’s easier to keep up with what’s being written too – clicking through from social media links to conveniently short blog posts and the like.

That’s all great for keeping up-to-date and building up your general knowledge of your area, but how often do you get the chance to really focus in on what’s directly relevant to a particular project?

I read Johanna’s post right after a day at my desk writing the first sample unit for a new project. The project had been in the pipeline for a while and I’d been generally mulling over the syllabus and format and audience, etc., probably soaking up relevant ‘input’ from various sources along the way. But when it came down to writing that all-important first page of text, I found myself doing it on a day when I was feeling a bit tired and below par, with lots of other work commitments to juggle, emails about different things popping into my inbox, a rather fiddly template to battle with … you get the idea. And as a result, I realize that what I put down on the page was no more than a rather uninspired rehash of stuff I’d done before … really not a great start :(

Johanna's post made me realize that what I needed was to gather my thoughts, to get some input, to reflect on it and only then get down to actually writing. 

As luck would have it, on Thursday of last week I was presenting the opening session for an online EAP event. As I was on first, I could easily have ‘done my turn’, then switched off and got on with some other ‘paid work’. Instead though, I tuned into almost all the presentations that followed over the next couple of days. Not all of what the various presenters had to say was relevant to me (either to this project or to my work generally), but they were fascinating, they generated lots of food for thought and just got my brain whirring in a more creative way. 

Also serendipitously, I’d recently been asked to review a draft of a methodology book, which is directly relevant to my current project. Rather stupidly, I hadn’t linked up the two before, but it turns out that reading through the material to review was great for getting my creative/intellectual juices flowing too.

Now, a week on from that rubbish first draft, I think I’m more ready to go back and start again. 'Thinking before you write' may seem like common sense, but in the freelance world of financial and time pressures, it can be all too easy to get focused on the output and forget the importance of targeted input. Now I’ve just got to get this stuff written by next week’s deadline …

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Making EAP more accessible

I recently came across the abstract for a talk at an EAP event (a BALEAP PIM; a professional issues meeting, so a chance for UK-based EAP teachers to get together) via Twitter. It was on a topic that I’m interested in, so I clicked through to read it. It was quite long (294 words for a 30-min talk), but I persevered. On first reading, I have to say, I couldn’t really understand what it was about at all. It took me three or four readings to get to grips with it, and even then, I only really got the gist. The problem? It was written in such an impenetrable academic style that even as someone who’s been involved in EAP for a while, I found it hard going. I won’t name names and to be fair to the writer, they had aimed it appropriately at their (rather niche) audience.

I asked myself though how accessible this kind of thing would be to the newbie EAP teacher or the teacher who only does a bit of EAP teaching (perhaps on one of the many pre-sessionals that take on masses of ELT professionals every summer). And if we stretch the net further (albeit hypothetically as this event was taking place in the UK), how accessible would it be to the average EAP teacher globally who is likely to be a non-native speaker, working in a non-anglophone country, at a university that has decided to switch to English-medium instruction and has brought in English teachers who were probably training in general ELT, most likely in state secondary schools and who’ve had almost no training to introduce them to teaching English in an academic context? (Apologies for that sentence, but I hope you get the point!)

So when I was putting together the outline (not an ‘abstract’) for my session at this week’s online EAP event organized by the University of Sheffield, I thought very carefully about my wording. Here’s what I came up with:

Global EAP: what does it mean to you?

With increasing numbers of universities across the world switching to English medium instruction, the demand for EAP is set to grow. But what does EAP mean in different contexts? Are we all talking about the same thing?

In this session, I’ll share my own experiences of meeting teachers of English at university level from across the world and discuss the differences I’ve come across in terms of students, teachers and institutions. I’d also like to hear from you about what EAP means in your own context. 

We’ll finish off by considering the implications of these differences for the future of EAP resources, teacher training and professional development.

The whole thing is written using words from the Oxford 3000™ - a list of 3000 common words that a good intermediate learner of English might expect to know. The only exception is the acronym EAP itself – but I figured that as it was already in the title of the event, I could probably get away with it! 

If you’d like to tune in and join in the discussion, it’s a completely free event and open to all. My session will be on Thursday 15th January at 11.00 GMT. Go to the event website for more information and to find links to all the sessions.

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