Lost for words? Try Google define.

My masters thesis deadline is less than a month away and so I am in full writing mode. All stops are out and I need efficient access to the choicest vocabulary to describe a year of hard research.

Lot’s of clients I see are in the same boat and for years I have been referring them to a handy Google trick called “define”, as well as using it a lot myself.

It’s a really simple case of opening a Google search bar and typing “define” followed by your word of choice. What you get is box containing a series of definitions, example sentences, and, best of all, synonyms.


What makes this better than a dictionary you ask? In a word: Efficiency, and that is exactly what you need when in mid-flow writing up your work.  If you want to use a word and be sure of it’s meaning, a quick Google define search is much faster than looking it up in a dictionary, and much clearer on the page, which is appreciated on a library graveyard shift.

But the clickable synonyms are also great for getting out of tighter knots; beating repetition for example. Consider:

“Managing the team was a complicated task, complicated further by the complicated social politics between members.”

A quick google search later and we have:

“Managing the team was a tricky task, complicated further by the intricate social politics between members.”


It can also be fun to consider some of the more exotic suggestions, depending on how extravagant you are feeling.

Another handy use is when paraphrasing information from source material. As well as changing the word order you can change some of the key words themselves to alternatives with similar meaning. Just Google the word in question and you have an arsenal of alternatives at your disposal so you can really make the phrasing your own.

Lastly, for me this feature really comes into it’s own when you have the tip-of-the-tongue dilemma: you know what you want to say, but can’t quite find the word you need.Here the clickable synonyms are really useful, allowing hot and cold experimentation with words until you find what you are looking for. For example:

“It was set to be a long night in the library, but she was determined to …oh, what’s that word again? Continue? Sort of but not quite.”

*Googles define continue*

Synonyms include: sustain; persist; commence

“Persist? Warmer, but not quite.”

*Clicks persist. Google automatically searches define persist.*

Synonyms include: endure, persevere…

“PERSEVERE! That’s it.”

“It was set to be a long night in the library, but she was determined to persevere.”

Such a process would take much longer using a Thesaurus. Google define allows you to juggle a whole bunch of words and try on multiple until you get a good fit.

So there. A handy tool that you may like to use or recommend. Have a play with it.



Taking ownership of your sources

I have spent my morning working through the essay of a student that I am meant to see this afternoon. She is concerned with style. Among the many things that struck me, one pattern struck me when I tried to think about how I would have written it differently. All the information was well organised, but the delivery lacked authority. I began to think carefully about the mechanics of the language she was using, and how they compared with writing that does assert itself, of which journals in all subjects are rich. An interesting revelation hit me that I realize is common to many students I have encountered.

Incorporation of source material (referencing) is a big deal in academia: We strive to reference to give our writing context and authority, but mainly (let’s not be coy) because we dread any accusation of academic dishonesty. We reference in self-defence.

This I find can be reflected in the tone of the writing, as the writer attributes ideas explicitly to the author of the source. For me this makes the argument sound slightly more passive, thus weakening its resolve.

A simple sciency example:

“Frank et al. (2005) find that Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role: Their experiment showed that declines in cod are correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes.”

With minimal changes to the wording and the placement of the reference, it is possible to take more ownership of the idea without any dishonesty. Thus…

“Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role as declines in cod are found to be correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes (Frank et al., 2005).”

The information is all there, and still attributed to the original author. With the reference in place there is no reason not to present the idea with the authority you would your own, making a punchier, assertive sentence.

Here is an extended version of the sentence:

“Frank et al. (2005) find that Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role: Their experiment showed that declines in cod are correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes. Frank et al. (2005) also found that through trophic cascade effects this led to an increased numbers of herbivorous zoo plankton and lower levels of phytoplankton in the water. Further, Casini et al. (2012), who find that the natural introduction of cod into the Gulf of St Riga had a significant positive effect on water clarity.”

Here the same reference is used twice, even though the focus has not shifted from it. I find this can sound a little clumsy and can be avoided through clever placement of a connecting word:

“Atlantic cod have an important ecosystem role as declines in cod are found to be correlated with an increase in benthic invertebrates and other pelagic fishes (Frank et al., 2005). This led to trophic cascade effects causing an increased numbers of herbivorous zoo plankton and lower levels of phytoplankton in the water. Further, the natural introduction of cod into the Gulf of St Riga was found to have a significant positive effect on water clarity (Casini et al., 2012).”

The phrase “this led” refers back to the previous sentence, and thus the previous reference, to there is no need to interrupt flow by introducing it again. When incorporating a new reference the same is achieved here by referencing at the end, again taking more ownership of what is being presented.

The benefits of this thinking really become clear when packing in multiple sources of information into a single, sweeping sentence:

“Wide geographic ranges are common to numerous marine fishes including cod (Richardson, 2010), hake (Smith et al., 2003), herring (Peterson et al., 2004; Smith and Jones, 2006) and various species of flatfish (Hope 1999; Richardson, 2010; Parker, 2014). Several factors are thought to play important roles in such wide distributions including temperature (Smith, 2005) and salinity (Jones, 2004), although oceanographic currents are widely thought to be most important (Jones, 2012; Hope, 2003; but see Smith, 2003).”

Here, rapid fire citation allows us to write a few short but well referenced summary sentences in a manner that would not be possible if we included accreditation to each study. Note also the use of “but see” at the end, a hand way of noting a contradicting view without getting sidetracked.

I am not suggesting that any of the exemplified approaches is wrong, indeed they are all perfectly acceptable. But so many students seem afraid to be flexible with their referencing, when doing so can add texture and flow to your writing and show a formidable command of the information at your disposal.

And if you are still worried about presenting the ideas as your own, think of it this way. The author wrote the paper, but you are the one who read it, critically reviewed it, synthesised it with other papers  and presented it as part of your own coherent argument. So give yourself some credit.


The rules of writing: making sure that tail does not wag the dog.

I had been curious after the email outcry of a UK universities learning enhancement and support manager, and wanted to track down the original article. Here is what began as a short comment on it (full article here) but turned into a bit of a reflection on my attitude towards the rules of writing.

The article hinges on an idea rules of writing can often be viewed as descriptive, rather than prescriptive rules. That is, they exist to describe the conventions that govern our use of written language, not to dictate them. It is a view that I happen to agree with, and one that always seems particularly applicable to our work with student writers. Our clients, by and large, consist not of people who wish to master the art of writing, but who wish to use writing as a tool to master some other discipline. Effective use of language to communicate clearly and eloquently no more requires mastery of written English than effective self defense requires mastery of Tai Chi. It simply requires an awareness of the principles and, most importantly, and ability to understand them in relation to the desired goal.

It the goal that is most often the missing component in students who come to me with so called grammar problems. They will ask me “is it correct to put a comma there?”, where what they should be asking is “what is the effect of putting a comma there?”. It is with this second question that I most often respond. Rather than get bogged down in correct usage, I always find it far more productive to keep sight of what my client is trying to achieve in their sentence, paragraph or essay. If a rule is entirely novel, we may begin by consulting a concise grammar book. But after that, my sessions on correct grammar become more of an experiment than a lecture. I will ask a client to read their sentence aloud with varying usages of the comma or arrangements of word.

“What if you split that into two sentences? How does that sound?”.

Sometimes I do it the other way around.

“Say it to me as you would like it to sound. Ok, now lets write it that way.”

Sometimes I will simply tell them my understanding of a sentence. If I have understood correctly and clearly, then most of the time the writing has done its job. The key is that I remain focused on the goal of the writing, namely, to communicate ideas clearly, concisely and eloquaintly, in that order. I encourage clients to experiment with different ways of writing a clause, to read it back regularly, and consider the most effective way to communicate clearly with the audience.

Pinker’s point throughout his article is not to throw away the rulebook, but rather to use the rules as tools to achieve these goals. Perhaps his description of some rules of writing as “superstitions” is taking this idea a little to far. Paying them as little heed as we do ghosts in old houses would most likely affect the clarity of our writing, as readers are also aware of conventions and use them as a map and compass to navigate our prose.

However, it is worth treating the rules of writing are tools to improve our clarity and maintain consistency so as to appeal to the widest audience. Regarding them as some bloodthirsty deity that must be appeased, as seems to be the approach of Pinker’s critic, is neither productive nor empowering for student writers. It is alienating and elitist, and how one with such an attitude can be entrusted to manage support and enhance learning for student writers is beyond me. In his slander of Michael Rosen, Pinker’s critic certainly has no right to speak about “damage that could be done”.

At the heart of Pinker’s article is the desire to breakdown barriers to writing and to make it widely accessible, the same goal as should be shared by university study skills centers. In our writing center we have this attitude, and I hope this description of my approach helps others to do that. Read the full article by Pinker if you can, I would be interested to know peoples views on it. Perhaps his book is one worth investing in. Perhaps we already have it. I am not in the mentors room right now but I will check next time I am there.