Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

Forward to Navigation

Academic Suicide

Posted: Mar 12, 2014 16:03;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 06:03


The so-called “college paper” has been a debated topic practically since its initial inception. A recent class statement brought the debate to the forefront of my mind. Professor O’Donnell stated, in a tone of bemusement, that his students tend to perform better on the blog assignments than on their actual papers. It does seem odd that a discrepancy exists between two writing exercises. However, the answer formed almost immediately within my thoughts and has expanded through the discussion of prescriptive rules versus descriptive. The reason students are so terrible at writing the “college paper” boils down to differences between prescriptive rules and descriptive rules. With that I commit myself to academic suicide by breaking the general guidelines and prescriptive rules of academic writing and adhering only to grammatical prescriptive rules and a more formal dialect to explain the phenomenon of why students are incapable of writing the traditional North American college paper.

In terms of grammar, students are already limited in the way that they can communicate their ideas in a paper by having to adopt a more prescriptive based, formal dialect. I am NOT arguing that students can get by in the world, and more specifically their university career, without an academic and more formal dialect. Just like the young student with only a formal, prescriptive dialect who is beaten up on the schoolyard for not having a more descriptive based dialect that allows him or her to fit in (Wallace 51), the university student will be figuratively beaten up in the classroom if they do not possess a formal, more prescriptive based dialect. It is necessary for university students (and anyone who wants to be successful in the English-speaking world) to adopt a second (or third or fourth) dialect that allows them to fit into their surroundings. There are various situations in which prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily than descriptive rules and vice versa.

Professors, however, ignorant of the fact that students are already restricted by a dialect that may not be second nature, impede the ability for students to effectively communicate their ideas further by creating their own set of stylistic prescriptive rules. In the Humanities (and Sciences) it is a major faux pas to use first person pronouns. The only time ‘I’ may be acceptable in a paper is when it is used to clarify the student’s argument from a secondary source. ‘Helpful’ topic ideas only serve as an agent of restriction, tightening the figurative noose around students’ ideas. There are few things more disheartening in the post-secondary experience than completing an essay that has veered so far from the original topic that it almost seems pointless to hand it in. Whether well-written or not, whether ideas have been communicated appropriately and interestingly in an academic dialogue does not matter to professors who set guidelines. The paper that succeeds in communicating ideas may receive a lower grade if it does not meet the guidelines. Professors need to realize that the more prescriptive rules they place on their papers, the worse students’ papers will be. The more rules, the more confining the box that students need to fit their ideas into. This is why students perform so much better on blogs. A blog has no rules aside from one: it must be “within shouting distance of the course” (O’Donnell). Students are therefore free to express themselves and communicate the ideas that they find interesting in compelling and captivating ways. After reading several blogs, despite the lack of rules, it becomes evident that there is a second, unwritten rule that comes naturally to almost all university students: they use a more prescriptive based, formal dialect than what their typical descriptive dialect would permit.

Another guideline or prescriptive rule set out by professors is the limitation of secondary sources to scholarly articles. Although it is understandable that the use of websites like ‘Wikipedia’ should be maintained to a minimum, it is another guideline that prevents the development of strong, relevant ideas that support the argument. With social media permeating our everyday lives, professors need to accept changing times. Why should a student be restricted from using blog posts of highly educated people in respectable positions? Why does a professor’s journal article garner more merit than a post on their blog site? It shouldn’t; and even one of the ‘scholarly articles’ cited for this paper (Steven Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”) can be found in a blog. Clearly this prescriptive rule of how research material for papers ought to be gathered is about as outdated as the grammatical prescriptive rules that, as Steven Pinker points out, are based on Latin and 18th-Century fads (20).

The problem, however, is the fact that prescriptive rules are extremely difficult to abolish. They have become so engrained into our minds that we don’t challenge them. This fear of driving change is also perpetuated by “the worry that readers will think [the author] is ignorant of the rules” (Pinker 20). As a result we limit our thoughts and ideas and force them into tiny, prescriptive boxes. We avoid engaging in a dangerous game of Russian Roulette with our grades by playing it safe and coughing up redundant, highly repetitive, excruciatingly painful to read, and bluntly put, shit. The failure of the college paper is not due to the students, as Rebecca Shuman so strongly states in her blog post “The End of the College Essay”, but that of the professors who are not willing to wake up to the 21st Century and rethink their own set of restrictive, prescriptive rules.

I personally used to love writing. I enjoyed it. I didn’t even mind writing essays. And I wrote good ones. Over 50% of my class failed the first essay in my English 1900 course. I received a grade over 90% and embarrassingly had to tell the girl beside me who had received an abysmal 4% that I had done very well and leave it at that. Somewhere along the way, however, something changed. Professors implemented more guidelines and maybe even my own standards rose. Whatever the cause, the outcome is the same, I no longer feel capable of writing essays. How can I when students are repeatedly informed that they do not know how to write essays and are incapable of producing good ones? I am now so replete with anxiety concerning whether or not my essay will be long enough (or too long), if it will sound academic enough, and whether it will actually relate to the topic, that I have become immobilized. I do half-assed, last minute essay writing to avoid the stress of completing something that I may be simultaneously proud and doubtful of because it is well-written but does not fit into a professor’s prescriptive rules. I would rather accept a lower grade on something that I slapped together the night before it was due than have hard work torn apart by a “SNOOT” professor (Wallace “Tense Present”).

The reason students are incapable of writing college papers is not because of some kind of innate inability nor is it because students do not possess an academic dialect. The students are not to blame for their poor attempts at the “college paper”; it is the professors who need to realize the defeating, restricting effects of their prescriptive rules who are to blame. Just like the machine that is capable of duplicating human language in Pinker’s “Grammar Puss”, students are given a number of prescriptive rules to follow and just like the machine, we sit there, immobilized, unable to communicate our ideas (19). Prescriptive rules should be relied on more heavily when it comes to the college paper and academic writing, but without descriptive rules students, like the machine, don’t know how to say what they want to say. Perhaps if allowed to break the rules, students could actually write the infamous “college paper”.

Works Consulted

O’Donnell, Dan. English 2810. 8 Jan. 2014
Pinker, Steven. “GRAMMAR PUSS. (Cover Story).” New Republic 210.5 (1994): 19-26. Business Source Complete. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.
Schuman, Rebecca. “The End of the College Essay.” Web log post. Slate. 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Jan. 2014
Wallace, David Foster. “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage.” Harper’s Magazine 04 2001: 39-58. ProQuest. Web. 14 Jan. 2014


Grammar and identity: Prestige, gender, and sexual orientation

Posted: Feb 02, 2014 14:02;
Last Modified: Feb 02, 2014 14:02


A number of student in my grammar class have written essays about relative prestige in terms of grammar.

The Wikipedia has a very good entry on linguistic prestige (their linguistic entries are generally very good).

Particularly interesting for many, might be the section on gender and prestige. This section discusses what has become a rule of thumb in socio-linguistics, that men tend to speak a variety that is lower than their actual social class (i.e. is perceived by the speech community as being characteristic of a lower class) whereas women either speak at their social class level or above it.

The usual view is that men are the marked group in this (i.e. that is to say the reason for the difference is that men are doing something, rather than women). What it is thought is going on is that for men, the use of a lower class variety is a form of “covert prestige,” that is to say acquiring prestige in a counter-intuitive way by asserting a lack of prestige (sort of like a false humility or humble brag). In the case of men, this shows up in that they often claim to speak a lower dialect than they actually do.

There are some really neat studies of this. One recent one, cited by the Wikipedia, looks at Fraternity Brothers use of [n] rather than [ŋ] in words ending in – ing (most English speakers consider “dropping your g’s” in this context—that is to say using [n] rather than [ŋ] to be less prestigious).

Whether women speak a more prestigious dialect than their actual class or not is more of a subject of debate. Again the Wikipedia has some interesting references.

The foundational study in all this is William Labov’s famous study of “New York Shop Girls” and their use of /r/. New York city (and New England more generally) is a non-rhotic dialect area (meaning they drop the /r/ in words like Harvard or yard (broadly /havəd/ instead of /harvərd/ and /jad/ instead of /jard/) Since the second World War, however, rhotic pronunciation has been considered more prestigious. What Labov did was spend a day going round different department stores asking the sales clerks questions for which the answer was “the fourth floor.” His theory was that sales clerks in a higher end store (like Saks) would tend to be more rhotic (that is to say more likely to pronounce the /r/ in fourth) than those working in a lower end department store like Kleins. And that those in a mid-range store (like Macy’s) would be between the two in frequency.

The answer was exactly what he thought it would be:

the employees at Saks pronounced r most often, Macy’s employees pronounced r less often, and at S. Klein, seventy-nine percent of the respondents said no r at all. Another trend Labov noticed was that at all three of the stores, but Macy’s in particular, when prompted to say “fourth floor” a second time, employees were much more likely to pronounce the r (Wikipedia).

Finally, on a some what orthogonal note, there’s this study: Sexuality in Context: Variation and the Sociolinguistic Perception of Identity, Language in Society 36.4 (2007): 533-554.

This article illustrates the use of an empirical method for examining the perceptual identification of gayness in male speakers. It demonstrates how, by digitally manipulating the speech of isolated individuals, it is possible to obtain reliable evidence that pitch range and sibilant duration may act as indexical of a gay male identity. Further scrutiny of this result, however, illustrates that linguistic indexicality is not as straightforward as it originally appears. Subsequent analyses of the data highlight the ways in which the perceptual evaluation of sexuality is a highly contingent process, dependent upon a variety of sociolinguistic factors. An envelope of variation in listeners’ affective judgments of a speaker is shown to exist, and it is argued that research on the perception of identity must go beyond identification of salient features, and also consider when and why these features are not salient.


Why doesn't anybody ever tell you this stuff? On the origins of the masculine and feminine pronouns.

Posted: Feb 01, 2014 20:02;
Last Modified: Feb 01, 2014 20:02


I just discovered the most amazing posting about pronouns in the American Bibliopolist.

There are many perfectnesses in this work. But the best, by far, must be his excursus on the origins of he and she:

It would be a fortunate thing for us if there were any fossil remains of language. We could then discover in the rock of the earliest words made use of, many of which are necessarily buried in oblivion, and so arrive at some conclusion respecting the invention of our masculine pronoun he. It is supposable, and, indeed, only supposable, that it first found utterance through the lips of a woman, an event something like the dropping of pearls from the lips of the girl in the fairy tale. The Scotch woman always speaks of her husband as he. In the days of courtship her maiden timidly prevented her particularizing him. Besides, what need had she to specify the one who was all the world to her? He must assuredly have been the only masculine pronoun in her vocabulary. Notwithstanding these auspicious circumstances, he has had some difficulty in holding his own till the present. In some writings of the 16th century a simple a was substituted. However, this crisis was safely passed, and the form of the word is the same now as at first.

Upon this great event, this bestowal of a general name upon man, a solemn assembly of bachelors was convened to return, if possible, the compliment. Many admirable suggestions were advanced, and at last a happy thought occured to one of the most liberal, that as woman is man’s equal, her title should be the same except the prefix of a line symbolic of grace and beauty. Taking the most perfectly curved letter of the alphabet to convey this idea, the feminine pronoun was produced. Woman having a name, station soon followed, and station brought possession, and possession made her an object of desire. But as her nature was not supposed to stoop to avarice, and she was more to be sought than one to seek, possessive and objective were the same for her, with the addition of the letter which originally distinguished her from man.

So there you have it: the masculine pronoun as phallic worship, with some resulting performance anxiety creating unpleasantness in the 16th century; the feminine nominative pronoun as a kind of linguistic Coca Cola bottle; and her that dares not speak its name, giving women an aliba when they are accused of avarice.

It’s so neat, it could almost be an evolutionary psychology of language!


Morphology and destiny: On words for snow and Sapir-Whorf

Posted: Jan 28, 2014 11:01;
Last Modified: Jan 28, 2014 12:01


We had a lot of fun in my grammar class yesterday.

We were beginning a unit on morphology. The night before class, I had carefully prepared lecture notes on my tablet (I’m using a new textbook this year and taking the opportunity to revise all my lesson plans).

For reasons known only to my tablet, however, the notes I prepared were gone when I showed up in class yesterday morning , meaning that I had to wing it after all. Since my goal for the lecture was to derive a typology of English morphology from my students innate grammatical knowledge, I decided simply to write a bunch of different types of words on the board and see where things took us: dog, books, do, does, revert, convert, I’ll, we’d, and… undoifications.

Turned out this last was an inspired choice. One student clapped every time we managed to put one of the sub-forms into a meaningful sentence and the student blogs are full ideas stoked by the example: one student went home and impressed his or her parents with the newly acquired ability to break the word down and demonstrate how its component morphemes worked; another said that while it hadn’t entirely convinced her she should become an English major, it was at least evidence she should stay in the class.

A third mentioned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and the (admittedly) extremely interesting idea that a language’s grammatical and semantic categories might influence how a native speaker of a language thinks.

This gave me the opportunity to bring out one of my favorite articles on this subject, Geoffrey K. Pullum’s “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 7 (1989): 275-281 (The article is also available in Pullum’s Book by the same name and as a self-archived posting on his University website).

The “Vocubulary Hoax” is the claim—still very often repeated—that “Eskimos” have many more words for snow than speakers of other languages such as English. And that this large vocabulary allows them to have conceptual categories in relation to snow that speakers of other languages cannot easily share (I use the term “Eskimo” here rather than Innuit, because, as Pullum shows, the claim has nothing to do with the actual Innuit: it is really about our perceptions of “the other”).

As Pullum shows (based on work by Laura Martin), the origins of this claim lie in the introduction to Franz Boas’s 1911 Handbook of American Indian Languages (oddly misidentified in Pullum as the Handbook of American Indians, which would be a completely different thing), where he discusses how there is no consistency in the phonological or morphological representation of concepts among languages:

It seems important at this point in our considerations to emphasize the fact that the groups of ideas expressed by specific phonetic groups show very material differences in different languages, and do not conform by any means to the same principles of classification. To take again the example of English, we find that the idea of WATER is expressed in a great variety of forms; one term serves to express water as a LIQUID; another one, water in the form of a large expanse (LAKE); others, water running in a large body or in a small body (RIVER and BROOK)); still other terms express water in the form of RAIN, DEW, WAVE, and FOAM. It is perfectly conceivable that this variety of ideas, each of which is expressed by a single independent term in English, might be expressed in other languages by derivations from the same term.

Another example of the same kind, the words for SNOW in Eskimo, may be given. Here we find one word, aput, expressing SNOW ON THE GROUND; another one, quana, FALLING SNOW; a third one, PIQSIRPOQ, DRIFTING SNOW; and a fourth one, quimuqsuq, A SNOWDRIFT. (25-26)

The point he seems to be trying to make is the one Saussure was making at almost the same time in his course on General Linguistics about the arbitrary nature of language (Boas: “Thus it happens that each language, from the point of view of another language, may be entirely arbitrary in its classifications,” p. 26). What he was not trying to say is that language determines consciousness or controls perception. Indeed, in the final sections of his introduction, Boas, who is quite concerned with such questions about “the primitive mind,” considers and dismisses the idea:

First of all, it may be well to discuss the relation between language and thought. It has been claimed that the consciseness and clearness of thought of a people depend to a great extent on their language… It seems very very questionable in how far the restriction of the use of certain grammatical forms can really be conceived of as a hindrance in the formulation of generalized ideas…. (64).

It does not seem likely, therefore, that there is any direct relation between the culture of a tribe and the language they speak, except in so far as the form of the language will be moulded by the state of culture, but not in so far as a certain state of culture is conditioned by morphological traits of the language (67).

In other words, in his passage on English and “Eskimo” words for water and snow respectively, Boas’s point is simply that languages form words for related concepts in one of two arbitrary ways: by creating a series of words based on a common root or, as in these two cases, using completely different roots to express closely related ideas. While he does think that the semantic range of words available to a language will be derived in part from the culture and environment in which its speakers find themselves (we’d hardly expect a language to have words for things or situations its speakers have never come into contacts with), he does not think that this condition is deterministic. As he argues, his own fieldwork suggests that speakers of a given language are perfectly able to grasp and discuss new concepts and experiences when these are presented to them, regardless of the syntax and morphology of their languages (see in particular pp. 64-67).

Ironically, according to Pullum, Whorf formulated his idea that language does dictate understanding in part in response to Boas’ example of Innuit snow vocabulary—even though Boas is, in a certain sense, bringing it forward as a way of anticipating and disproving the argument. His point is not that the Innuit have more words for snow than English speakers do; as Pullum points out, English Speakers have words for many of these and other types of snow: snow, snowfall, snow drift, powder, slush, crud, blizzard) and it seems highly unlikely that the Innuit have ever been amazed at the fact that English speakers have different words for big and small rivers.


Dolphin Language

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 13:01


The textbook I am using in my grammar class, The Linguistic Structure of Modern English, suggests that humans are unique in that they are the only species known to show abstract language use in the wild (they do mention the example of chimpanzees that have been trained to use sign language).

Very recent research, however, provides a potential counter example: Dolphin names. It has long been known that dolphins communicate with each other verbally. And since the 1960s, researchers have believed that individual dolphins use a “signature whistle” to identify themselves that is recognised by others in their population. What is new, however, is the evidence that dolphins use the signature whistles of other dolphins to refer to them—that is to say, recognise a particular whistle sequence as being symbolic of a particular individual dolphin, distinct from themselves.

This use of arbitrary signals to refer to a specific object, if true, would invalidate the claims in Brinton and Brinton that the symbolic use of language is unique to humans. It would also represent quite a discovery about dolphins. Until now, dolphin “language,” like that of other animals, has for the most part been understood to be indexical rather than symbolic. As one researcher put it:

Deciphering “dolphin speak” is also tricky because their language is so dependent on what they’re doing, whether they’re playing, fighting, or going after tasty fish. It’s no different for humans. Think about when you raise a hand to say hello. Under other circumstances, the same gesture can mean good-bye, stop, or that something costs five bucks. It’s the same for dolphins. During fights, for example, dolphins clap their jaws to say “back off!” But they jaw clap while playing, too, as if to show who’s king of the underwater playground.

“I have not found one particular dolphin behavior that means the same thing every time you see it,” says Dudzinski. “If you like mysteries and detective work, then this is the job for you.” And who knows—maybe someday you’ll get a phone call from a dolphin.

If this new research is correct, however, dolphin “names” would represent an exception: calling an individual dolphin’s signal whistle would appear to mean the same thing—and have the same arbitrary referent—in each case.


Teaching prescriptive grammar hurts student writing

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 14:01;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03


_Update: Actually, the chart I was really thinking of can be found here.

The other day in my grammar class, I mentioned an article that reviewed years’ worth of controlled studies into methods of composition structure. The article I was thinking about was George Hillocks, Jr., “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies,” American Journal of Education 93.1 (1984): 133–170.

The table I was thinking of in class is from page 157:

I’d overstated this conclusion a little: while teaching grammar was indeed the only thing people did that made student writing worse, I was wrong when I said it had a greater effect in absolute terms than any other method.

On the more general question of whether teaching grammar is effective, here is Hillock’s conclusion:

Grammar.-The study of traditional school grammer (i.e., the definition of parts of speech, the parsing of sentences, etc.) has no effect on raising the quality of student writing. Every other focus of instruction examined in this review is stronger. Taught in certain ways, grammar and mechanics instruction has a deleterious effect on student writing. In some studies a heavy emphasis on mechanics and usage (e.g., marking every error) results in significant losses in overall quality. School boards, administrators, and teachers who impose the systematic study of traditional school grammar on their students over lengthy periods of time in the name of teaching writing do them a gross disservice that should not be tolerated by anyone concerned with the effective teaching of good writing. Teachers concerned with teaching standard usage and typographical conventions should teach them in the context of real writing problems (160).

Although you need to be careful, because the results are not alway independent, this conclusion has been reached time and time again in different contexts over at least the last forty years. One relatively recent study from an English context is: Dominic Wyse, “Grammar. For Writing? A Critical Review of Empirical Evidence,” British Journal of Educational Studies 49.4 (2001): 411–427.


English 2810a: English Grammar (Spring 2014)

Posted: Dec 25, 2013 16:12;
Last Modified: Aug 23, 2014 19:08


Note: This is a draft syllabus and is subject to revision before the last day of the add/drop period.

English 2810 Grammar is a technical course in the form and structure of the English language. Our focus will be descriptive rather than prescriptive. Students will learn how the language works in actual practice rather than how people think it ought to be spoken or written.

In addition to its intrinsic interest, the study of descriptive grammar can be useful for anybody interested in working with the English language, as it provides a framework and set of terms for understanding how the language works.


Times and location

Office and Office Hours

My office is room B810B. My telephone numbers, a map, and other contact information is available on my Contact page.

My office hours are TBA. In the meantime, feel free to set an appointment

Detailed description

This course is described in the calendar as follows.

The basic structures of English: word classes, sentence elements and basic aspects of syntax and morphology. Primary emphasis on descriptive grammar, though some attention will be paid to prescriptive approaches (Course description, University Calendar).

In other words, this is a course on how English is spoken and written in a variety of contemporary contexts (descriptive grammar), rather than, primarily, a course on how we are expected to write in, for example, university essays (prescriptive grammar). We will be looking at how words are formed (morphology), and how they are used in phrases, clauses, and sentences (syntax). We will be considering examples of standard, formal, “correct” English (though we will also be learning why this term is something of a misnomer), but also informal, regional, and slang variants. The goal is to learn how the language is put together.

This is a technical course that will require weekly exercises and regular attendance. The textbook is very difficult and complex. Regular attendance in class will be required. Students often report that the course is difficult but very rewarding to those who put in the requisite effort.

Learning goals

By the end of the course students should have a broad understanding of English syntax and morphology. The should be able to identify various types of linguistic structures including word classes, morphological affixes, and various types of phrases, clauses, and sentences. They should also be able to explain various common features of English grammar.

While teaching “correct” style (i.e. the standard way of writing or speaking in formal situations) is not a primary goal of the course, students who take this class will study some instances of such style and be able to explain such rules in linguistic terms.

Some attention will also be paid to linguistics in education.



These texts will be supplemented with required readings from the Internet.


The following assessment is tentatively planned for this course:

Category Percentage
Weekly blog 20%
Discussion leadership 5%
First essay 10%
Second essay 20%
Two content reviews 25%
Final exam 20%


Student will be expected to keep a weekly blog.

A discussion of how blogs are used in my classes, with information on how they are graded and what is expected from you can be found here.

For this course, the blogs should be predominantly about English or language more generally (e.g. its structure, use, history), the course, or the exercises, lecture, and textbooks. While an occasional entry on something else is permitted, most entries should be arguably have something to do with language or this course. As always, we will alert students who are straying from this topic regularly should any problems arise.


There are two essays in this course:

All essays are to be handed in via Turnitin (instructions for how to sign up).

See the schedule below for due dates.

Content Reviews and Final Exam.

There will be two content reviews and one final exam. Each review will be cumulative.

All content reviews are to be written on Moodle in the Testing Centre. Here are instructions on how to sign up for Moodle


The following policies will be followed in all my classes unless otherwise announced. You are expected to be familiar with the policies reproduced here and in the more general section on my website. These additional web pages are to be considered part of this syllabus for the purposes of this course. Failure to conform to any of these policies may result in your grade being lowered.

Grade scale

The University of Lethbridge keeps track of student performance using a letter and grade point system (See section 4 of the University Calendar). Instructors assign students a letter grade at the end of each course (the University does not issue or record mid-term grades). These letter grades are converted to a numerical value (a Grade Point) for assessing overall academic performance (a Grade Point Average or GPA). The University does not record percentage-type grades and does not have a fixed scale for conversion from percentage scores to letter grades and grade points. Each instructor is responsible for determining their own methodology for determining students’ final letter grade.

In my classes, I use the following letter-grade to percentage correspondences:

  Excellent Good Satisfactory Poor Minimal pass Failing
Letter A+ A A- B+ B B- C+ C C- D+ D F
Percent range 100-94 93-90 89-86 85-82 81-78 77-74 73-70 69-66 65-62 61-58 57-50 49-0
Conventional value 100 92 88 84 80 76 72 68 64 60 56 49-0
Grade point 4.0 3.7 3.3 3.0 2.7 2.3 2.0 1.7 1.3 1.0 0

How your grade is determined depends on the type of work being assessed. Tests of specific skills or knowledge (such as identification questions in literature classes, or fact-oriented tests in my grammar and language classes) are usually assigned a numeric score which is easily converted to a percentage. Essays, presentations, and other performance-oriented tests are usually graded by letter. I convert letter grades to percentages by taking the median value in each grade-range, and rounding up to the nearest whole percent. The only exceptions are A+ (which is converted to 100%), and F (which is converted to an arbitrary percentage between 0% and 49% based on my estimation of the work’s quality). These scores can be found in the conventional value row of the above table.

In marking work I try to keep the University’s official description of these grades in mind (a description can be found in the University Calendar, Part IV.3.a). If you get an A it means your work is excellent; a B means your work is good; a C means it is satisfactory; a D that it is barely acceptable (minimal pass); and an F that it is failing to meet University-level standards.

I have prepared rubrics for most types of qualitative assignments (assignments that do not expect the student simply to provide a correct factual answer). These can be found in my Academic Policies section:

Submitting Work

Tests, Exams, and Quizzes

Tests and Exams will be written in the University’s Testing Centre on Moodle. Quizzes may be presented on Moodle.

Essays and Reports

Essays and reports will normally be collected using Turnitin. Information on our account (URL, ID number, and Password) will be made available in our class space on Moodle:


This course uses plagiarism detection software. Any plagiarism will be treated very seriously: you can expect to receive a grade of 0 on the assignment as well as other penalties depending on the seriousness of the offence. In most cases, the penalty for plagiarism is an F on the course.


Week Date Topic Reading Blog
1 Mon. 6/1 No class
Wed. 8/1 Syllabus    
Fri. 10/1 What is “Grammar”
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 1
2 Mon. 13/1 Prescriptive vs. Descriptive
  • Pinker
  • Wallace
Blogs due: Last names A-G
Wed. 15/1 No class: Instructor absence Blogs due: Last names H-N
Thur. 16/1 Essay 1 (Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar) DRAFT due by midnight
Fri. 17/1 Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Draft discussion   Blogs due: Last names O-Z
3 Sun. 19/1 Essay 1 (Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Grammar) final copy due by midnight
Mon. 20/1 The Sounds of English
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 2
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 3
Blogs due: Last names A-G
Wed. 22/1     Blogs due: Last names H-N
Fri. 24/1     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
4 Mon. 27/1 Morphology
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 4
Blogs due: Last names A-G
Wed. 29/1     Blogs due: Last names H-N
Fri. 31/1     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
5 Mon. 3/2 Word Classes
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 5
Blogs due: Last names A-G
Wed. 5/2     Blogs due: Last names H-N
Fri. 7/2     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
6 Mon. 10/2     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Wed. 12/2     Blogs due: Last names A-G
Fri. 14/2     Blogs due: Last names H-N
No class: Reading week (18/2-22/2)
7 Content Review 1 (Mon. 24/2-Sun. 2/3)
Mon. 24/2

Phrase Structure and Complementation

  • What is complementation?
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 7
Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Wed. 26/2
  • Noun Phrases (NP), Adjective Phrases (AP), Adverb Phrases (AdvP)
  Blogs due: Last names A-G
Fri. 28/2     Blogs due: Last names H-N
8 Mon. 3/3
  • Preposition Phrases (PP)
  • Introduction to Verb Phrases (VP) and simple sentences
  Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Wed. 5/3
  • The Sentence
  Blogs due: Last names A-G
Fri. 7/3     Blogs due: Last names H-N
9 Mon. 10/3 Adverbials, auxiliaries, and sentence types
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 8
Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Wed. 12/3     Blogs due: Last names A-G
Fri. 14/3     Blogs due: Last names H-N
10 Mon. 17/3 No class: Family day Blogs due: Last names H-N
Wed. 19/3     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Fri. 21/3     Blogs due: Last names A-G
11 Content Review 2 (Mon. 24/3-Sun. 30/3)
Mon. 24/3 Finite and non-finite clauses
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 9
Blogs due: Last names H-N
Wed. 26/3     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Fri. 28/3     Blogs due: Last names A-G
12 Mon. 31/3     Blogs due: Last names H-N
Wed. 2/4     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Fri. 4/4     Blogs due: Last names A-G
13 Mon. 7/4 Conclusion and praxis
  • Brinton & Brinton Ch. 12
Blogs due: Last names H-N
Wed. 9/4     Blogs due: Last names O-Z
Fri. 11/4     Blogs due: Last names A-G
14 Mon. 14/4     Blogs due: Last names H-N
Essay 2 due
Wed. 16/4 Study period (no class)
Fri. 18/4 Study period (no class)
15 Final Exam Period 22/4-30/4

Back to content

Search my site


Current teaching

Recent changes to this site


anglo-saxon studies, caedmon, citation, citation practice, citations, composition, computers, digital humanities, digital pedagogy, exercises, grammar, history, moodle, old english, pedagogy, research, student employees, students, study tips, teaching, tips, tutorials, unessay, universities, university of lethbridge

See all...

Follow me on Twitter

At the dpod blog