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I’m bad at speaking English but it’s the only language I know

This is what Director Spike Jonze said when accepting his Golden Globe Award and it led me to think about to what extent native speakers can improve their English when we no longer participate in English language classes and perhaps feel we don’t quite have the time to sit down and focus on learning grammar and such like.

I have heard it said many times, but can’t find any evidence for it, that Margaret Thatcher got rid of the teaching of English language in schools in the 1980s and 1990s and that is why people of my age are bad at grammar. Although I have no recollection of studying English language even though I have a GCSE grade B in it  I am not sure I can blame Margaret Thatcher for all my problems and have decided to actively improve my English.
In the ‘How to write a thesis’ book I mentioned before, the author Rowena Murray gives readers this fun quiz, how many do you know?:
  1. What are the definite and indefinite articles?
  2. When and how do you use a semi-colon?
  3. What is a personal pronoun?
  4. What is ‘the antecedent’?
  5. What is subject–verb agreement?
  6. What are the essential elements of a sentence?
  7. Give examples of sentences using the passive and active voices.
  8. What is the difference in meaning between the two?
  9. Define ‘sentence boundaries’ and say why they are important.
  10. What is a topic sentence?

I am ashamed to say that I knew only four and she says if you know five or less, then you have a problem! I won’t give the answers here as it is important for everyone to do a bit of self-study, but I have to say that my mind was blown when I discovered what a topic sentence was and already I feel that I can improve my writing but will have to actively work on it and not rest on my native speaker laurels.

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In a previous post I said I would ask my supervisors the question: “What is the best and most useful way to show you what I have learned and read and have been thinking to move the project forward?”

We decided that I need to show them something in writing, so not just scrappy notes. One said that it is best to start writing from the beginning of the doctorate. But this always makes me think write what? I know nuffink so can’t write nuffink! But after a bit of a discussion I think I have finally got it. There are things I can write about. The ethics of the research, the dataset I am using, the ‘factual’ stuff about the historical context, the methodology.

We have decided that I will produce something every month for my supervisors to read. That way they can look at the content but also how I write to help me become an academic writer. Both my supervisors have a lovely clear writing style, so I am confident that we are all on the same wavelength about what we think a good academic writing style looks like which I think is important.

The book by Rowena Murray ‘Writing for Journal Articles’ (see her top 10 tips from the book on The Guardian website) was recommended to me by my supervisor. Although there are some useful things in there, the problem with some of the writing books I have been reading is that they are geared toward people who are knowledgeable on their subject and are perhaps writing about something that they have been researching for many years – they actually have something to write about and tend to focus on tackling the issue of finding time and space to write. But for a full-time student, this isn’t really an issue.

So instead I think I will buy Rowena Murray’s book ‘How to write a thesis’.

So I am feeling optimistic and excited about writing – learning by writing I should say – as at last Murray’s book about writing a thesis addresses the whole idea of what to write even if you don’t yet know what you are writing about. Yay!

© Annika Coughlin 2014

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