Total Drek

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Et tu grad students?

Recently I happened to be in an undergraduate statistics class and witnessed the following exchange, which I will attempt to reproduce verbatim:

Instructor: Okay, so we've reviewed how to calculate the multiple regression equation, have done a practice problem, and have gone over prediction and interpretation. Are there any questions?

Silence reigns.

Instructor: Everyone who is bored because this is really easy, look down at your desk.

The class looks down en masse.

Instructor: All right, then let's move on. Let's say I were to give you three variables with a little data from each...

Instructor writes out five values for three variables on the board.

Instructor: Then I told you to 'calculate the multiple regression equation using these data.' How would you go about it?

The class sits in silence. After a few moments, one brave student raises her hand.

Instructor: Yes?

Student: Isn't that impossible?

I can see the instructor's spirit die just a little.

Instructor: Hmmm. No. No, it's not impossible. In fact, you know all the equations you need to solve this problem. Anyone else?

The answer, as it turns out, is no.

Instructor: Okay. Well, let's think about this then...


Now, all that by itself was nearly enough to make me shriek and rend my hair. Still, I'm getting used to the undergrads and I can handle their little problems. Sadly, however, the coup de grace was yet to be delivered.

Today I've read three papers by graduate students. One is a dissertation chapter, one is a dissertation proposal and one is a master's paper. To all of these grad students, I can say only the following:

There are many places and situations in which it is appropriate to use the words "and" or "but." That said, when engaged in formal writing, the beginning of a sentence is never one of them.

I mean for crying out loud, people! Don't make me berate you like I did the undergrads. Don't think I won't do it!


As a side note: some might think it mean for me to criticize my fellow grad students. This is fair but, if you laughed at the story about the undergrads, you have no right to complain. I know we're all stressed but, really, some writing mistakes just make my head hurt.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

From the Chicago Manual of Style:

Beginning a sentence with a conjunction. There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but, or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice. Charles Allen Lloyd’s 1938 words fairly sum up the situation as it stands even today: “Next to the groundless notion that it is incorrect to end an English sentence with a preposition, perhaps the most wide-spread of the many false beliefs about the use of our language is the equally groundless notion that it is incorrect to begin one with ‘but’ or ‘and.’ As in the case of the superstition about the prepositional ending, no textbook supports it, but apparently about half of our teachers of English go out of their way to handicap their pupils by inculcating it. One cannot help wondering whether those who teach such a monstrous doctrine ever read any English themselves.”

Wednesday, May 02, 2007 9:41:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Well, never let it be said that I don't allow comments that make me look stupid.

You have an edition/page number for all of that, anonymous?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007 10:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Chicago Manual of Style may say that (I'd also like to see the citation). However, "correct" as it may be, I do believe that our "arbitrary" grammar rules can actually help make our writing better. I actually think that waiting to use "and" or "but" at the beginning of a sentence until you're a seasoned, expert writer, will probably help make your writing stronger in the long run. The problem with unseasoned writers using such words, is that they often still use them incorrectly. For example, using "and" to begin a sentence, without providing a complete subject and verb.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007 11:09:00 PM  

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