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Student Examples with Teacher Comments
Metaphor, Simile, and Personification

During my Advanced Composition class, students share their work. Teacher and student feedback follows. Comments are in italics.

Simile: After living in Izmir, living in Istanbul was like going onto a highway after travelling on a country road.

The simile is logical in that a highway is full of speedy, fast moving objects and so the city itself has that feeling of everything coming at you too quickly.

Metaphor: My folks told me that my future will be a potholed road.

Originally we had “a tough road” but we replaced “tough” with “potholed” as it gives the impression of rough, possibly harmful events on this road.

Personification: At that time, he looked gloomier than a cloud.

A gloomy day is a dark day. Darkness is commonly associated in metaphor with depression and bad luck and so on. "Gloomy" is a human emotion, thus this metaphor is properly called a personification.

April 21, 2002

Reading Poetry

Last week, I outlined my sources and reasons for reading short stories. No less important, poetry needs my attention, if not daily at least weekly.

These days, I'm working on a poem to honour my parents' 50th Wedding Anniversary. For inspiration, I look to the work of my favourite poets.

Some of my favourite poets:

Wislawa Szymborska (Nobel prize winner)
Read her poem "Possibilities" and then click on "biography" to learn more. 

Michael Ondaatje
An interview with Ondaatje

Al Purdy

Lorna Crozier
Two poems by Lorna Crozier

Poetry Daily
A great Web site for a "daily poem" and much much more.

April 14, 2002

Reading Short Stories

A good short story is a rare and wonderful thing. Although I read many, only a few approach greatness. But, I keep trying, since the best short stories give me critical insights and an irreplaceable feeling of completeness.

Reading is always connected to writing. What we have read in the past, what we are reading in the present, gives us more experience than one life could possible contain on its own. 

Each week, I read the story published in The New Yorker Magazine. One of the most difficult publications in the world to have a story accepted in, the magazine publishes great fiction. 

Every month, I read the new story published in The Atlantic. Better yet, I can print and read many stories going back to November of 1995 at their recent fiction Web page.

Whatever you decide to do, I consider regular reading of short stories as an essential element of the professional development of any writer. Read on!
April 7, 2002

KISS: Keep it Simple

“If you would be pungent, be brief. For it is with words as with sunbeams: The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.” — Robert Southey

Need I say more? April 1, 2002

Primary versus Secondary Sources
Which to Use?

When writing essays, especially essays about a piece of fiction, a student needs to know the difference between a primary and a secondary source.

Simply put, a primary source is the work of literature (fiction or nonfiction) itself. A secondary source is any comment made by another writer on the primary source.

Although one might assume that a criticism or comment made in a secondary source will be a powerful tool in an essay, and that quoting such sources will help in attaining a high mark, this is the wrong approach.

Referring to the primary source and making a comment of one's own is a better way to attract the attention and praise of your teachers and professors.

As a teacher of high school literature, I can often detect when students are passing on second hand comments, or the common truths of a work of literature. When I see some fresh or unusual point made by a student, that's when my desire to raise a student's mark becomes strong! March 25, 2002

What's a "Controlling" Idea?

A good writer makes sure that topic sentences (and theses) contain clear "controlling" ideas. But, what exactly is a "controlling" idea?

A "controlling" idea is an idea that makes a reader ask a question. Any time a topic sentence has a good "controlling" idea, the reader will have his or her curiosity raised. 

In effect, the reader will say (in the mind) questions such as How? or In what way? or What does that mean?

Examples of good "controlling" idea topic sentences:

It is difficult to read English for someone who has used Farsi. (Why is it difficult? How is it difficult?)

Yesterday, I had an unusual experience on the bus. (What experience did you have? Why was it unusual?)

Example of a topic sentence with NO "controlling" idea:

Last year, my wife and I went to visit Banff, Alberta. (A fact, but I have no questions to ask you; if you had said, "had fun in Banff," then I would have questions for you! 

March 18, 2002

Keep a Style Manual by Your Side

Where does Brad turn for the definitive answer on abbreviations, punctuations, or Canadian usage?

To The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing,  published by the Department of the Secretary of State of Canada. 

Whatever you do, make sure you have a manual whenever you write some important text. The style guide will help with memos, reports, and formats for resumes, too.

Purchasing information for The Canadian Style.

March 10, 2002

Comparison/Contrast Sentence Examples
(Student and Teacher)

Writing sentences of comparison or contrast can be tricky. Recently, students in the Advanced Composition class practiced using a number of different types. Teacher comments are in italics.

Student Examples:

Chinese save money to buy a house or car, even if it takes a lifetime. In contrast, Canadians like to buy houses and cars or even a 2 000 dollar television on credit.

In the above example, the student first establishes the facts about Chinese (from Mainland China). Then, using a contrast transition ("in contrast") the student contrasts the Canadian (and American!) way of behaving.

Canadians like to spend much time enjoying nature; similarly, Romanians find in nature the most peaceful and healthy place.

In this example, the student first establishes the Canadian behaviour. Then, she uses a semicolon followed by a comparison transition ("similarly") to introduce the similarity to our own nation's people.

Teacher Example:

When the X Files was filmed in Vancouver, the star, David Duchovny, went each day for a coffee at Starbucks. Unlike what he would have experienced in America, however, in Canada he was able to quietly read his newspaper and drink his coffee, undisturbed.

This time, the teacher first establishes a fact about David Duchovny. Then, he uses the contrast transition "unlike" to introduce an implied fact (Duchovny would have been bothered by fans in a Starbucks in America.) followed by a fact about Canada and Canadians—we tend to leave famous people alone in public!

March 3, 2002

Student (and Teacher)
Examples of the Semicolon

One way that semicolons are used is to separate closely related independent clauses. Recently, students in the Advanced Composition class gave them a try. Teacher comments are in italics.

Student Examples:

I spent all the money that I had to invest in my business; however, it’s better than dreaming all my life about having a business.

The sentence is clearly calling for a semicolon. The ideas contrast and are related, so the construction is suitable.

He can ski, but doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle; I can ride a bicycle, but don’t know how to ski.

This is a humorous sentence, because it plays with ideas in opposition and doesn’t take itself too seriously. However, the semicolon is perfect in this case to draw our attention to the contrast between the two individuals.

Teacher Example:

The weekend was idyllic; it’s end, however, was not.

Note here that this construction slows the reader and emphasizes that something bad would be described in the sentences to follow. The sentence could also be written: "The idyllic weekend ended badly." or "The weekend was idyllic, but it's end was not." Can you think of another way?

February 24, 2002

Adding Detail after the Object
(the handy appositive phrase)

Adding detail to a sentence is essential in good writing. One good way is to use an appositive phrase at the END of your sentences. 

An appositive phrase is defined as "a word or phrase that identifies in different words a preceding noun or pronoun." Appositives are always preceded by a comma, but do not make a full sentence, only a phrase.

For example: (Appositive is in bold; Noun identified underlined.)

"My friend loved his new red car, a 2002 Mazda Miata." Note how the word "car" is the same as "2002 Mazda Miata." 

"I wondered whether she would like the Valentine's Day flowers, the gorgeous red roses in a hand-cut crystal vase."

"She wouldn't even talk to me, the apologetic man who had forgotten our anniversary.

February 17, 2002

Where do I Begin?

Many beginning writers want to begin at the beginning and end at the ending.

A perfectly reasonable desire, isn't it?

The problem comes, however, when your heart wants to begin at the ending and end at the beginning.

What to do?

Write the words that come out, first. Later, decide on where these words will go in your writing.

Good luck!

February 10, 2002

Persuasion or Propaganda?

These days, we are exposed to persuasion daily, from the television advertising we see through to the editorial comments in our newspapers.

Since the goal of any persuasion is generally to move us, the readers or viewers, to action or to, at the least, a change of our thinking, we must be careful in our evaluation.

To be effective, persuasion must be supported by evidence, the facts and examples the reader expects as support for an argument. In particular, for opinions that are not widespread or common, persuasion must use strong, verifiable evidence.

If not, and particularly if the writer or broadcaster presents persuasion without any contrary views, then we name this propaganda (one-sided persuasion that speaks to those who already agree).

Take a hard look whenever you are asked to change your opinion. Have you been persuaded by evidence? Or, have you had your own biases confirmed? 

February 3, 2002

Commas with Adjectives: The "And" Test

Did you know that you can check for a required adjective when using two (or more) before a noun?

To do so, rewrite to see if an "and" is required.

For example: "My friend is a lonesome, depressed person." Rewrite as, "My friend is a person who is lonesome and depressed." Note that one cannot write the second sentence without the "and."

Sometimes, common nouns include an adjective. Examples of this are "income tax" or "filing cabinet." With these noun/adjective combinations a comma is not required when adding another adjective.

For example: "My old filing cabinet has a broken drawer."

January 27, 2002

Strunk and White: The Elements of Style

A slim book of 85 pages, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White holds a wealth of information. Buy it.

Until you do, however, you can read the first edition online. The sample below gives some excellent advice on dividing subjects into paragraphs, including reports done for school assignments.

Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic

January 20, 2002

Some thoughts on Plagiary

I was struck by the statement of a Professor at Simon Fraser University, my Alma Mater, on the subject of the recent plagiary scandal there. 

She said (I paraphrase here) that she was most upset that students who cheated in this way had not done the assignments she had carefully designed so they could learn. It was a betrayal of all her work, an indication that, to these students, marks were more important than scholarship.

I also heard comments from the public like, "They were business students, so what do you expect!" To me, it is even more shocking if the students were business majors, not less.

Although infrequent, I have dealt with plagiary as a teacher throughout my career. It is most uncomfortable, for both teacher and student, when cheating must be confronted.

Should you wish to know more about plagiary, see my Weekly Feature on Plagiary for more concrete information. In the meantime, I feel ashamed that my university's good name has been sullied by a cheating scandal and hope that all you who read my tips avoid the temptation!

January 13, 2002

Student Essay Problems (and Solutions)

Restating the thesis is often not done or poorly done by students. Remember that the first sentence of the conclusion is RESERVED for the restated thesis.

Paraphrasing is the essential skill for this kind of writing. Two ways used in our worksheets for restatement of the thesis: 

use a different form (from a noun to adjective for example) of the same word OR

change the word order of the sentence.

Three BIG problems with conclusions: the first is NO restatement; second, the restatement is a new idea or different; third, the conclusion itself contains NEW ideas. (By the way, I forgot to tell you these ideas)

Make sure to carefully write your conclusion, checking for proper form BEFORE handing it in!

Three BIG problems with introductions: THESIS is placed in the first sentence in the paragraph (as in a regular, body paragraph); second, the THESIS is in more than one sentence; third, student tries to say TOO MUCH in the introduction (the introduction is as long or even longer than the body paragraphs that follow).

Make sure your thesis is the final sentence and that the main ideas are contained in ONE sentence. 

Save your details and examples for the body of the essay.

January 6, 2002

Resolve to Improve Your Writing

Resolve to improve your writing for the New Year! The old year, 2001, is almost over, so take some time to write down some ways that you will change in order to make your writing better.

I have some suggested resolutions for you to choose from.

Begin a journal, writing down a page or two of your life's events every day. Make sure to buy a fine quality book, since your words, one day, may be used to write your biography!

Write paragraphs of description after every important outing. Yesterday, for example, I went with my family to Spanish Banks (a gorgeous beach in Vancouver). The air was crisp, the sand, partly frozen. Across the water, the city of North Vancouver was shrouded in sea mist. The sky was a brilliant, mid-winter blue . . . .

Free write for 20 minutes every day. To free write, take a pen and paper, sit down, and write, without stopping. What to write? Write everything and anything that comes into your mind. 

Revise a favourite piece of writing from a week, a month, a year ago. Look at it with new, more mature eyes. Make it even better than it was before. 

Read good writing, every day. A short story can be as refreshing as a shower, sometimes, and takes only 20 to 30 minutes of your time.

Make your own, personal, resolution. Good luck and have a safe and happy New Year's!

December 30, 2001

New Rules for Marking Writing at the PALC

This past week, your teachers met to discuss the recent certificate tests, especially the student writing. Since good writing skills are exceedingly important for successful study at our higher levels, we worked hard to make sure our tests would be fairly administered.

A number of concerns were raised by the teachers, the most serious being what to do if a student writes a composition (essay or paragraph) off topic. 

There were two ways students appeared to go off the assigned topic: one way was when the student had clearly misunderstood the given topic; the other was when the student had a "pre-prepared" idea of their writing and seemed to have "memorized" key sentences.

All of us noted essays and paragraphs that, for example, outlined the difficulties of learning the English language. The problem was that no topic given on the tests required such a response from the students! It became clear to us that students may have used the topic before and then tried to make it "fit" to the given topic.

Another serious concern was that teachers felt that a few students appear to have shared the assigned topics with friends who were writing later that day. 

In such cases, teachers found differences between their students "normal" writing ability and mismatches between writing in, for example, the body of an essay and its introduction and conclusion. 

In some cases, information given in an essay far exceeded the required number of words and was in more detail than an in-class essay would normally be (all of us have sketchy memories for facts, unfortunately!).

As a result, teachers have agreed that, in order to mark fairly all of our students, we will adopt the following rules for the next certificate tests in June.

New Rules for Marking of Compositions

1. Writing "off topic" will be awarded a DNP (did not pass).

2. All writing topics will be on a separate sheet and given out at random (for example, five students come to get a topic; each topic sheet received will contain different topics)

3. At level's 4 and above, students must pass writing before taking grammar and reading tests. If the student does not pass writing, the other parts of the test will not be written.

4. To emphasize the importance of writing (and reading), marks will be weighted as follows: writing (40%); reading (40%); grammar (20%).

December 23, 2001

Feedback on Marking Test Essays

Marking forty student test essays was interesting for me this term. The application of our new essay marking system will certainly bring great benefits to PALC students. 

Many of you passed the English 10 level this term. I look forward to working with you at the credit course level next term. Those of you who have not yet passed, pay special attention to my comments below.

Each student receives feedback on four key areas of their writing: use of conventions; formal structure; sentence style; meaningful ideas and content. 

Make sure you pay special attention to your score in each area. Each of the four counts for 25 marks from the 100 total. If you score, for example, a 9/25 in conventions, then it is time to get out your Language Exercises (A-H) and get to work on exercises!

Remember, you are not allowed to keep your tests, so be sure to write down your scores. See last week's writing tip for general information on the exact meaning of the terms, conventions, form, style, and meaning.

As a general comment, I found many of the best essays were also the most personal. By "personal," I mean that the writer conveyed unique information in a concise way that reflected his or her own life experiences. Thus, these students wrote better essays that better reflected their our own thinking.

I greatly enjoyed reading all the essays and longer compositions this term. For those of you who shared the more personal details of your lives, I thank you. Each night, after marking many essays, my head was pleasantly filled with your experiences and unique ideas.

Good luck to all of you next term, and have a safe and enjoyable holiday.

December 16, 2001

How Teachers Mark Your Compositions

To mark your composition, teachers will look at four areas: Conventions, Form, Style, and Meaning. Each of these is worth 25% of your total score on any composition. 

The teachers assign a mark for each area in the same order as given above (C, F, S, M). You will see these marks on your test paper when you come to the review day on December 18.

Briefly, the four areas are defined as follows:

Conventions: These are the basic parts of your writing: the spelling, punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure. Teachers look for the number of errors made and, more importantly, to see if these errors make it hard to understand your writing. (Go to our Quiz Page for practice)

Form: This is the order of your writing and how easy it is to follow your ideas. In an essay, for example, teachers examine how well your introduction, body, and conclusion work together and how logical your order of ideas is inside each paragraph. (See class notes with tips for good essays)

Style: Here, your sentence variety and knowledge of idiom and vocabulary are very important. How fluent is your language? Are your sentences precise? To excel, a student needs a good repertoire of sentence types, along with a strong vocabulary. (View the Advanced Composition Worksheet Archive)

Meaning: Teachers look here for signs of your developing voice in writing. The more individual (meaning your ideas are specific to your own experience and you have conveyed them well) the better. Are your ideas convincing? Are they mature? Originality counts here. Remember the rule: Show, Don't Tell! (Worksheet on Show, Don't Tell)

December 9, 2001

Commas versus Dashes for Emphasis

Recently, students at the PALC had a lively discussion about commas versus dashes (thanks Jennifer!). To set the record straight, here are some important pointers.

First, use of the dash as a replacement for a simple appositive is a bit heavy handed. For example:

He, my English teacher, is giving a writing tip. (Correct)
He—my English teacher—is giving a writing tip. (Unnecessarily strong emphasis on the phrase in appositive)

However, we can use the comma itself to provide emphasis (where a comma is not usually required, for example).

We require a letter from the social worker on ministry letterhead stating that you are allowed to go to school. (correctly punctuated)

We require a letter from the social worker, on ministry letterhead, stating that you are allowed to go to school. (commas added for emphasis [it must be letterhead]; remember to add two commas!).

Reserve the dash for use as an informal colon or as a major break in the flow of your sentence. See the tip on dashes. Also, the parenthesis can be used for major breaks. See the tip on parenthesis. See the worksheet, Making the Dash Work for You.

December 2, 2001

Finding Information on the Paragraph
(Certificate Test Preparation)

Many students at Levels 3A, 3B, 3C and 4A and 4B will need to write a good quality paragraph during the certificate tests. 

It is especially important as teachers want students to have good writing skills before advancing to higher levels (which, of course, they hope all of you do!).

Here are some of the resources available at the PALC Web site to help you with the paragraph:

Tazim's Weekly Feature: Writing Paragraphs

Brad's Teacher Writing: Writing a Good Paragraph

Louise's Paragraph Checklist

Brad's Sample Descriptive Paragraph

Eight Student Sample Paragraphs (An Important Person) (Includes teacher comments for each)

Student Tips for Writing Good Paragraphs

November 25, 2001

Finding PALC Sample Essays
(Certificate Test Preparation)

Beginning November 29, students will begin to write their Certificate Tests. To find our many sample essays, follow the links below.

Sample Essays:
These essays were written in class and demonstrate the correct form for a test essay. (Level 5 and English 10)

"A Fat Nation" and "Some Unattractive Entertainment"

"The Advantages of a House" and "The 'Why' of Crime"

"Hints for a Perfect Vacation"

"Solving School Cheating" and "Cheating in School" (Two drafts of the same essay)

"A Fit Lifestyle" and "On Getting Older" (incomplete draft)

"Talking about My Generation"

"A Summer Lesson" and "Learning to Teach"
See also: Revision of these two essays.

November 18, 2001

Is Your Present Perfect Perfect?

Many times, I have noticed that my students have a less than perfect understanding of the present perfect tense. Review the following to improve your understanding of this important tense.

1. Use present perfect to express your action or emotion that began in the past but continues to now (and will likely continue into the future)

I have lived in Vancouver for twenty years.
I have always enjoyed eating chocolate. 

2. Use with "just" or "already" when the action only recently finished.

I have already picked up my corrected essay.
I have just returned from the school. (note that, in writing, we would often use the past perfect if we describe actions such as these)

3. Use for an action that happened in the past at no definite time. If the time is definite, use simple past.

I have gotten my driver's licence. (last week)
The teacher has corrected my essay. (earlier that day)

November 11, 2001

Student Examples—The Dash

Below, find examples of Advanced Composition student sentences demonstrating correct uses of the dash. Remember that the dash is an informal mark of punctuation, one that can substitute for commas and colons. Also, it can replace parentheses.

This morning, I had a feeling that it was going to be a hectic day—what happened was even worse.

This dash definitely "points" at what follows and emphasizes it.

My [too] short long weekend had to begin as usual—without unexpected events—but, that early morning my clock didn't buzz.

We could add "too" in front of "short," but it's still a good piece of humour. Also, the use of the verb "buzz" is an example of onomatopoeia, or a word that sounds like the sound itself.

Some weeks—when my husband works on the day shift—I am in a real hurry at three p.m.. My husband will be home soon and the apartment looks like a battlefield—dishes in the sink, books and newspapers everywhere, my empty coffee cup on the table.

In this case, the first sentence could have used commas, but the dashes make for a stronger interruption. The second dash acts as the informal colon, and the explanation of "battlefield" follows.

November 4, 2001

Making Your Writing Specific

Recently the Advanced Composition classes wrote a description of a place—either a favourite or a disliked one. Using specific words brought their descriptions to life.

Student Examples

The daytime is good, but, at night, there are no lights on the streets, a lot of mosquitoes, the whoop of baboons and the roar of the lions. 

When you are making a contrast, remember to use those little words like "but" to make it clear to your reader. In this example we changed "animal noises" to include the sounds of baboons and lions. Note how much more interesting it is to know the specific, African, animals. [teacher comment]

That is the messiest room in my house. When I open the door, I could see their dirty underwear, filthy socks, and stinky shoes were thrown everywhere.

When a simple word will communicate your message, choose it. Do not seek fancy synonyms unless the word is not communicating your message. We changed "clothes" to "dirty underwear, filthy socks, and stinky shoes" and have used parallel structure in our list. [teacher comment]

October 28, 2001

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