Every Word Must Tell

Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo, Brazil
Languages Center

The Principles of Composition

I used to be all over a student’s piece of writing when it came to editing, correcting and simulating marks for proficiency tests scoring purposes. For about 15 years I have been working with English proficiency tests preparatory courses at a languages center at Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo – UFES – Brazil. As a non-native English teacher, I have always carried magnifying glasses so as to spot general errors, subject-verb agreement, misplaced commas and/or slips of the like.

Not much long ago, I realized that marking a piece of writing that is “unclear” to me involves more than just narrowing my feedback down to linguistic non-conformity. As my students and I share the same language background, my main challenge has always been twofold: keeping an eye on grammar rules and principles of composition in English, and cutting down to size the huge tangle of Portuguese ornate rhetoric that students almost automatically transfer onto their pieces. Yes, Portuguese prose tend to be long. And awareness raising is now included in my feedback. ‘It’s a tough world out there, folks, with test examiners scrutinizing your long and winding pieces,’ I keep telling them.

The Elements of Style¹ (1979), an oldie but a goodie, for example, touches on brevity:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” (Strunk & White, 1979, p. xiv).

Although more updated references on modern English usage should be assigned, the so-called “little book”, by Strunk and White, remains a classic summary of cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English. It has been my reference for as long as I can remember struggling to produce clear and concise pieces in my early college days.
I recently came across Ten Ways to Tackle Linguistic Bias (Savini, 2021), an article about linguistic prejudice on American campuses. The author prescribes ten concrete steps to create a learning environment that values diverse languages and dialects. As a faculty member herself, she argues that it is time for all to recognize, reveal and combat bias primarily against students, staff and faculty of color when it comes to their speaking or writing.

That does not specifically apply to the teaching context hurdles I go through, but I understand how most English writing centers around the world share similar approaches, and problems, as well. Undoubtedly, we are very much aware that we must teach students to write standard academic English, and we must mark them down if they do not meet those expectations, right? — otherwise, they will not succeed in the real world, and in my case, college applicants will not reach the minimum scores set by the international test standards they are being trained to take.

Despite the prescriptive nature of the references above, I used them for the different purposes they serve my work. I found the Ten Ways […] relevant to current times as well as groundbreaking in many ways, and a particular piece of advice out of the ten given by the author, “Provide students to write in their own voice” can be applied to what I have recently been doing in my classes, though in a slightly different manner.

I currently provide students a chance to write a piece in their own voices, in Portuguese, so I can listen more actively to the way a student communicates by writing. From that, we move on to the course syllabus, assignments and scoring simulation. At a certain point, I go back to those pieces in Portuguese as a reference of students’ own style, language usage, length of sentences, and
other elements of the like. As in a self-assessment approach, I try to raise students’ awareness first before magnifying their grammatical slips or marking their pieces low for non-conformity with standards. Contrasting rhetorical patterns of both languages works to everyone’s advantage and once students become aware of that it is much easier to negotiate conflicting structures.

Savini, C. Ten Ways to Tackle Linguistic Bias. Available at:
https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/01/27/how-professors-can-and-should-combat-linguistic-prejudice-their-classes-opinion, Accessed on March 22, 2021.

Strunk, J. & White, E. B. (1979). The Elements of Style. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co. Inc.


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