Those Pesky Numbers

When we write an essay or story, we usually assume we’re working only with words. However, numbers have a way of creeping into our writing, much like they do in everyday life. Whether it’s dimensions or dollar signs, writers need to know how to format numbers. When do you use numerals as opposed to words? Unfortunately, this can sometimes be tricky.

There are actually two main rules for numbers; you can choose which one works best for you. According to the Chicago Manuel of Style, you can either spell out all single-digit numbers under 10 or you can spell out all numbers under 100. I usually spell out numbers under 10 because it’s what I’m used to, but either one is correct as long as you remain consistent. You can’t use both rules in one paper.

Although these are good rules of thumb, they only apply to nice, simple numbers. Always put decimals in numerals; for the love of God, always put decimals in numerals. No one wants to read “seven point three hundred forty-two thousandths.” Have pity on your readers and use 7.342.

Another thing to keep in mind is to always spell out “hundred,” “thousand,” “million,” etc. The number in front follows the original rule. For instance, you would write “nine thousand” and “247 million.”

There are three more rules to follow with numbers:

• Always spell out a number if it’s the first word in a sentence.
• Always put years in numerals.
• Always spell out numbers in dialogue.

Simple, right? These are the general guidelines to follow for numbers. However, if you run into a difficult case, the Chicago Manuel of Style will most likely have the answer. If you’re one of those people pursuing a career in science, math, or any other field that spends a lot of time dealing with numbers, you may have to write papers that are almost exclusively figures and equations. In that case, the APA manual might be more helpful. It gives very specific instructions for how to format large amounts of complicated numbers.

In general, these rules are a pretty good starting place for a great paper. Well, not necessarily a great paper but one that uses numbers correctly. The rest of your grade depends on you.

The Art of Writing

When I first started college, I was frustrated by the fact that I was required to take so many “basic” courses—algebra, American history, and especially English. Like most incoming freshman, I had taken four years of these subjects in high school. I wanted to expand my knowledge, not just sit through a semester-long recap of what I’d already learned in high school.

English in particular frustrated me. I knew how to write; I could already put my thoughts on paper in a way that made sense. So why did I have to learn about nouns, verbs, sentences, and essays? But early in my first semester, I discovered something interesting. College writing is very different than high school English; it’s an art form.

How we learn to write in high school is sort of science-based. We learn to put words in noun-verb-object order. We plug in commas according to specific rules that we memorize; we structure essays in introduction-body-conclusion order. Like math, we write according to equations. This word + this word + this punctuation = this meaning. Think about it:

It + is + true +period = This is a fact.

Is + it + true + question mark = I’m not sure if this is a fact.

It’s like we have a list of formulas that we follow for each type of sentence or essay. We just plug words into these formulas.

College writing takes a whole new approach. It goes beyond simply making sense to teach you how to make things appealing for readers. Like regular art (painting, drawing, etc.), writing is about creating pictures, using words in such a way that other people can visualize what you write about. This type of writing is also comparable to music. Sound is very important; something can be grammatically correct but still not sound quite right or capture readers’ attention. Compare these sentences:

Eighty-seven years ago, the leaders of the United States formed a country in North America.

Fourscore and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation.

Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of art in writing, and college English will help you appreciate this as well.

In a way, writing can be compared to cooking. When I was in high school, I could successfully make Ramen noodles, mac and cheese, or a box cake about 80 percent of the time. The other twenty percent typically involved smoke alarms; I’m not the world’s best cook. Most of us can prepare basic meals, but on shows like MasterChef, contestants use more sophisticated ingredients and tools to make amazing three-course meals. Consider high school English like cooking mac and cheese and Ramen noodles; you learn the basic techniques of writing. College is where it becomes an art form, where you learn new techniques that make your writing more professional and sophisticated.

I’m proud to report that as my writing skills have developed, so have my cooking skills. I’m not a Gordon Ramsay or a Bobby Flay, but I cook a full meal when guests come to visit. Similarly, you may not become a Hemingway or a Faulkner, but the techniques you learn in college English will help you write a great résumé, lesson plan, sales report, or email entitled “Why I Deserve a Raise.”

Good News for Grammar!

Over the past several decades, there has been much discussion and debate among English teachers and linguists over singular, third person pronouns. Although “he,” “she,” and “you” are easy to use, confusion arises when a pronoun could refer to either a man or woman. Consider the following sentences:

A professor is held responsible for the academic performance of __?__ students.
A police officer should always keep __?__ safety in mind.

Years ago, writers just used “he.” At that time, professional jobs were held by men with only a few exceptions. Following the feminist movement, it became common for women to go into professional fields. This proved to be great for society but confusing for writers. Solutions to this problem include alternating between male and female pronouns or using the popular “he or she.” Unfortunately, using this phrase can cause a piece of writing to sound clunky.

When speaking, almost no one uses “he or she.” Instead, most people use “they” as a singular pronoun, such as in the following sentence: “If a person has a car accident while talking on the phone, it’s their own fault.” Since writing is more formal than speaking, though, “they” has generally only been considered acceptable as a plural pronoun.

Recently, though, singular “they” has become more and more accepted in academic writing. Earlier this year, it became even more acceptable as it was named Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. Although this doesn’t guarantee complete acceptance by all grammarians and professors, it does indicate that singular “they” is on its way toward becoming academically correct in spite of objections from staunch prescriptive grammarians. This would provide a great way for writers to acknowledge more than one gender without making their prose sound awkward.

Keep in mind that some of the competition for Word of the Year included “on fleek” and “Netflix and chill,” so this may not propel “they” into complete academic acceptance just yet, but it is a step closer. Perhaps one day soon, singular “they” will be listed in a new edition of Webster’s dictionary.

For more information, see the following article from the Washington Post: Washington Post: Word of the Year

Ten Things Writing Lab Tutors Wish You Knew (#10 Will Amaze You!)

When you first come to the Writing Lab, it can be a scary thing. You’re not sure what to expect, you don’t know if a tutor can help, and you’re really not sure what to do or say. Tutors have the same emotions during their first few tutoring sessions. A tutoring session usually involves both the tutor and the student trying to understand the other person and learn what he or she hopes to get from the session. Therefore, it may be useful to get some insight into a Writing Lab tutor’s thoughts.

1. We understand how stressful college is. Every tutor in the Writing Lab has either been a college student or is currently taking classes. We know what it’s like to juggle classes, jobs, and family responsibilities. We know how hard you’ve worked on your paper, and we also know it may be hard to make the time to come in for a tutoring session. Therefore, we’ll do our best to help you.

2. We may obsess over minor issues in your paper. If we find an unusual grammatical issue in your paper, we may spend a few minutes trying to figure out how to correctly punctuate or capitalize it. You may consider it a minor issue in the scheme of things, but we want your paper to be correct. Also, we love a grammatical challenge.

3. We hate having to tell someone their paper’s totally wrong. We know how hard you’ve worked on your paper, so we hate having to tell you that your paper’s on the wrong track. Usually, something is salvageable, but we feel less guilty letting you know it needs redone that we would letting you fail.

4. The rules may seem odd, but they’re ironclad and necessary. Yes, we know it’s frustrating to always have to have a print copy or to not be able to have an essay test reviewed without the instructor’s permission. But the tutor’s hands are tied on these things, and there are reasons for them. For instance, looking at a paper on a laptop takes twice as long as a print copy, so it would decrease the number of students we could help. Also, if we help on a test, we run the risk of being accused of helping someone cheat, even though we aren’t. In this case, it’s better safe than sorry.

5. We can tell when you’re just here because you’re required to come. If you just throw your paper on the table in front of us and say, “Fix it,” we can assume you don’t want to be here. We also assume that you probably won’t make most of the changes we suggest, but we’ll still help as much as we can. If you don’t make the changes, it’s your grade.

6. We’re not perfect. As hard as it is to believe, we can’t catch every missed comma or incorrect capitalization. We’re only human, not grammar-checking machines. We’ll do our best to help you try to catch all of the big-picture issues, but sometimes we may miss something. That’s why it’s a good idea to read back over your paper after incorporating the tutor’s suggestions.

7. Professors have different grading standards. Professors’ expectations vary quite a bit, so if you just bring in a paper without any guidelines, we can only give general advice. It’s helpful if you bring a prompt so we know what the paper requires. Also, don’t ask us to tell you what grade we would give the paper; we won’t tell you. Since professors grade so differently, our opinion may be quite different from theirs.

8. We know the Writing Lab location is inconvenient. Like you, we hate that we’re so far from a computer lab. Most of us park by Grauel, so it’s a long walk for us too. However, the walk across campus to see us will be worth it.

9. Coming in right before the deadline drives us crazy. If you bring a paper to the Writing Lab at 10:30 and it’s due at 11:00, there’s only so much help we can give. We can make some minor changes and discuss a few small issues, but you have no time to fix any major issues. Also, if you bring in a paper at 8:50, we will still have to close the Writing Lab at 9:00, so we won’t be able to get much done. It’s best to make sure that you bring in a paper early so you will have enough time to make the necessary changes.

10. Few things make us as happy as seeing our students succeed. We enjoy helping students improve their papers, and we love seeing a paper grow from a rough draft to a polished final draft. When students tell us that they got a good grade on a paper we helped them with, we feel like we’ve accomplished something. We know you put in the vast majority of the work, but we love being able to help you become a better writer and we’re proud of your success.