Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Parallel structure with verbs: keeping track of forms

Image by Charlotte May from Pexels

 

In theory, parallel structure is a relatively easy concept to master: it simply refers to the fact that items in a list, as well as constructions on either side of a conjunction such as and or but, should be kept in the same format (all nouns or all verbs).

In very simple sentences, e.g., I went to bed late but woke up early, this rule is generally quite simple to apply.

When sentences are long and contain a lot of information, however, things get a bit trickier. Keeping forms parallel requires the writer to keep track of and understand how words and phrases in different parts of a sentence relate to one another.

One very common issue involves the use of main verbs after modal verbs such as canshould, or might. As anyone who speaks English at a reasonably high level knows, main verbs are never conjugated in this construction, e.g., one would say it might work, not it might works. But when the two verbs are separated, there’s a common tendency forget about the first one and to stick an -s on the second.

This is an issue that appears in the writing of both native and non-native English speakers, but it’s particularly rampant in IELTS essays. It may also be tested in GMAT Sentence Corrections. (more…)

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Social media and the great global English-grammar misinformation machine

Image from Andrea Piacquadio, www.pexels.com

 

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with social media. Given what I do and the nature of my audience, it’s pretty much a necessary evil, albeit one I dip in and out of depending on the demands of my other projects. For the past month or so, I’ve had a bit more free time than I’ve had in a while, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should make an attempt to revive my long-neglected Instagram account (a decision of which the algorithm unfortunately does not seem to approve). Having recently taken some steps into the world of English-language proficiency exams, I got curious and decided to explore the social-media ESL world. If nothing else, it was certainly an eye-opening experience.

I don’t have a clear sense of what proportion of my readership is made up of students living outside the United States, although my sense is that most of them attend either international schools or English-immersion programs and speak the language at a very high level. Based on some of the messages I’ve received, however, I’m aware that this is not the case for everyone.

For that reason, and because the internet has basically swallowed real life whole, I feel obligated to offer this warning: to anyone attempting to use social media to supplement their study for English proficiency exams (TOEFL or IELTS), please be extraordinary careful about whom you follow and take advice from. And if you are a tutor who works internationally, please make sure your students understand the difference between “Instagram English” and “school English.” To describe the linguistic misinformation out there as “mind-boggling” is an understatement. (more…)

New 2021 APUSH books from Larry Krieger: “Fast Review” and “Doing the DBQ”

New 2021 APUSH books from Larry Krieger: “Fast Review” and “Doing the DBQ”

Larry Krieger, my friend, colleague, and APUSH master extraordinaire, has just released two new guides for the 2021 AP US History Exam.

The Insider’s Fast Review  is a general overview of the exam content, boiled down to the absolute essentials:

The Insider’s Fast Review is an efficient review based upon the AP US History Course and Exam Description (CED) book and authentic APUSH questions and answers. It is an EFFECTIVE review of the key historic developments and patterns in all 9 required time periods. The Fast Review is designed to live up to its title. It provides you with a carefully organized presentation of the key developments, trends, and patterns you must know to achieve a high score on your APUSH 2021 exam. There are no fun facts and trivial topics. Everything in Fast Review is taken from the CED and APUSH questions and answers. (more…)

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

Articles with “few”, “majority”, and “number”

When I was putting together my IELTS grammar guide, I read dozens of practice essays, primarily by students who had scored in Band 6 on previous exams. It quickly became apparent that many test-takers were struggling with similar grammatical concepts, and one of the most common ones involved the use of articles with a specific group of “quantity” words.

On one hand, this is entirely understandable: a(n) and the are notoriously tricky for people whose native languages do not use articles the way English does, and it is often not fully clear to them why these words even need to be used at all. As a result, they may not realize how omitting them can change the meaning of certain statements and/or make their English seem unnatural.

In everyday life, this is unlikely to seriously impede communication; however, in terms of the IELTS—and particularly IELTS Writing—it can create real problems. Phrases involving words like majority and number are relevant to most IELTS Task essay questions (Task 2 as well as Task 1 Academic Training) and may need to be used multiple times within a given response. Furthermore, these terms are frequently used in introductions, and errors there can subtly influence a reader’s impression of an entire essay—a poor first impression can be hard to counteract.

So that said, here is what you need to know. (more…)

“Can” vs. “could”:  simple present vs. conditional

“Can” vs. “could”: simple present vs. conditional

Over the past several months, I’ve read an enormous number of essays written by non-native English speakers, and in addition to the expected difficulties, I’ve noticed a handful of recurring issues that rarely get addressed — I suspect because most native English speakers don’t realize that the particular concepts in question can get confused in those particular ways.

One of the most common of these issues is the confusion between the simple present and the conditional, and more specifically between can and could.

Errors involving these forms are often fairly subtle; they’re not absolutely wrong in the same black-and-white way as errors involving, say, confusion between the present perfect and the simple past (e.g., I have graduated from university last year rather than I graduated from university last year), and I think that’s also why they tend to get missed. Using could correctly is often more about implication and context than adhering to a clear-cut rule, which is why even very advanced speakers may still struggle with it. (more…)

10 reasons you might be in stuck in Band 6 in IELTS Writing

10 reasons you might be in stuck in Band 6 in IELTS Writing

If you’re studying for the IELTS, you’re probably aware that obtaining a high score in Writing tends to be more difficult than obtaining a high score in Listening, Reading, or Speaking. In fact, it is common for Writing scores to be lower than the others by a full band, sometimes more. The statistics kept by the British Council indicate that this pattern holds true across countries and native languages, including English.

In many cases, candidates score in the 8-9 range without too much trouble in Listening and Reading, and often above 7 in Speaking, but then find themselves stuck—sometimes repeatedly—at 6 or 6.5 in Writing.

This is not entirely surprising. Expressing oneself in a foreign language generally is more challenging than understanding one, and unlike in speaking, tone of voice and facial expressions cannot be used to convey or support written meaning—if a person doesn’t say precisely what they mean, the reader will become confused. (more…)

Download corrected pages 294, 298 from the Critical Reader, 3rd & 4th Eds.

Download corrected pages 294, 298 from the Critical Reader, 3rd & 4th Eds.

A sharp-eyed reader recently called to our attention a mistake involving switched names in the questions and explanations accompanying the Booker T. Washington/W.E.B. DuBois paired passages that appear on p. 293.

We were under the impression that the errors had been fixed a very long time ago, and we’re still trying to figure out how they made it through so many rounds of checking without anyone noticing, but please know that the pages have now finally been corrected.

If you already have the 3rd or 4th Edition of The Critical Reader, you can download them here (also available on the Errata page):

p. 294

p. 298

We apologize for the inconvenience.

Why is it so hard to earn a Band 7 score in IELTS Writing? Fatigue might play a role

Why is it so hard to earn a Band 7 score in IELTS Writing? Fatigue might play a role

Photo by Andy Barbour from Pexels

 

In all the discussions of why IELTS Writing scores are routinely lower than scores for Listening, Reading and Speaking, there is one very important factor that is virtually never mentioned: the placement of the Writing Test within the structure of the overall exam.

I suspect that this relationship is not entirely a coincidence and that, on the contrary, it may play a hidden role in some candidates’ difficulty to achieve their goal in that portion of the exam. Just how large of a role is impossible to say. But it seems plausible to assume that it may sometimes act as a “tip” factor that, when combined with the myriad other factors that make IELTS Writing so challenging (for starters, the need to juggle grammar, vocabulary, syntax, tone, and content), results in just enough errors to push candidates’ scores to the next half-band down—often, I would imagine, from 7.0 to 6.5. (more…)

New Breaking the Code reading-instruction workshop scheduled for 5/15-16/21

New Breaking the Code reading-instruction workshop scheduled for 5/15-16/21

If you’re a tutor who regularly encounters students with reading problems and would like to have more tools to help them, Breaking the Code, the reading-instruction group I co-founded, will be holding a workshop on Saturday-Sunday 2-4:30pm, May 15-16, 2021 (via Zoom).

We’ll be covering a variety of exercises designed to strengthen letter-sound understanding and to improve speed, accuracy, and fluency. These are tools that can be used with students of any age, not just beginning readers, and that can go a long way toward remediating high-school aged students who habitually guess, switch, misread, insert, or omit words.

If you are interested in participating, please email us a brief description of your background and interest at breakingthecodeallways@gmail.com.

 

New! IELTS® grammar and vocabulary materials

New! IELTS® grammar and vocabulary materials

Attention international students: if you are planning to sit for the IELTS, I have created a new page covering 25 of the top grammar concepts necessary for success on the Writing portion of the exam. While you will not of course be directly tested on them, you will absolutely be expected to integrate many of them into your Task 1 and Task 2 essays. And if you want to have a shot at a Band 7 score or higher… you need to have a pretty solid grasp of them.

This material is also available as a free PDF download. If you’d like the super-condensed version, I’ve also posted a two-page “cheat sheet” (free as well). (more…)

Now Available: The Critical Reader AP® English Literature and Composition Guide

Now Available: The Critical Reader AP® English Literature and Composition Guide

I am happy to announce that The Critical Reader AP® English Literature and Composition Guide is now available on Amazon.

The book is aligned with the redesigned (2020) Course Description, including the updated 6-point essay rubric, and covers the multiple-choice reading as well as the three essays. It also features many passages drawn from the same works, or by the same authors, as texts that have appeared on previously administered exams.

Includes:

-A complete chapter on each major concept tested

-Numerous sample questions covering both poetry and prose, and accompanied by detailed explanations

-Nine sample student essays (three for each question type), with in-depth scoring analyses

“So” vs. “so that” – when to use a comma

“So” vs. “so that” – when to use a comma

The question of when to use a comma with so vs. so that vs. so…that isn’t normally tested on any standardized test I’m familiar with, but I’ve noticed a lot of confusion about it in various people’s writing recently, and so I wanted to address it here.

Essentially, the issue is that while all three constructions involve the word so, they’re actually three different types of conjunctions, and that in turn affects how they are punctuated.

So… (pun intended), here goes:

 

1) So by itself – synonym for therefore

 

So is a coordinating (FANBOYS) conjunction that serves to connect two independent clauses (complete sentences). Like the other FANBOYS conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or & yet), so must follow a comma when it is used this way.

 

Incorrect: The skin is located at the interface between our body and the outside world so its cells can respond to many different kinds of stimuli.

Correct: The skin is located at the interface between our body and the outside world, so its cells can respond to many different kinds of stimuli. (more…)

Who really benefits from test-optional policies?

Who really benefits from test-optional policies?

Over the past few weeks, the test-optional dominos have continued to fall, with Harvard grudgingly deciding to consider applications from students who have faced exceptional obstacles in taking the SAT or ACT, and Princeton even more grudgingly following suit. As of now, the Ivies seem pretty clear about the fact that these are one-year policies only, and that applicants applying in the fall of 2021 and beyond will be expected to take the tests as usual.

At other other selective colleges, however, this year’s policies are part of a multi-year test-optional trial period, and so I think it’s worth taking a hard look at the implications of these policies in a non-Covid context, and to ask who really benefits from them. (more…)

Publish with The Critical Reader

Publish with The Critical Reader

If you’re looking to publish a test-prep or subject-specific study guide, or if you just have a great idea for a general education-related book, The Critical Reader may be able to bring your work to market.

We’re looking to expand our book offerings and are currently seeking manuscript submissions in the humanities and social sciences, with particular interest in the following areas:

  • AP® Exams, especially Human Geography, Government and Politics, Psychology, Spanish Language and Culture, and World History
  • English as a Second Language, including TOEFL® and IELTS® preparation
  • SHSAT
  • SSAT®/ISEE®
  • Phonics-based reading instruction

Other subjects will also be considered, though, so this should not be treated as an exhaustive list.

As an established player within our market, we are able to offer a traditional publishing model: you don’t pay us—we pay you. We can also offer support throughout the publication process, including editing, formatting, and cover design.

Please click here for submission guidelines.

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

So it’s official: The University of California—the country’s largest public university system, serving several hundred thousand students—has voted to phase out standardized testing.

The SAT and ACT will be optional for freshman applicants for applicants in 2021 and 2022; for 2023-4, test scores will be used only for out-of-state-students and to determine scholarship awards; and will be eliminated completely in 2025. If a new, UC-created exam is not ready by that point, then no exam will be considered.

This is obviously a major shakeup in the testing industry, although not a completely unforeseen one. Historically, there has been tension between the University of California and the College Board, with discussions of abandoning the SAT dating back to the early 1990s. More recently, there has been considerable speculation about whether the UCs would continue to require the SAT or ACT essay. Since last winter, however, additional pushback against the use of standardized testing has ramped up. (more…)

SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

SAT vs. ACT reading: 5 key differences

I was recently invited to do an interview about SAT vs. ACT Reading on the “Tests and the Rest” podcast, which is run by test-prep experts Amy Seeley and Mike Bergin and covers a wide range of issues related to standardized testing and college admissions. (This is actually the second time they’ve had me on; my previous interview, in which I discussed SAT vs. ACT grammar, can be found here. I’m not sure when the new interview will air but will post something when it does.)

I had a great time chatting with Amy and Mike, and as I looked at my notes, the thought popped into my mind that in all my years of running this blog, I had somehow neglected to devote a post to that particular topic. It also occurred to me that perhaps I’d actually done such a post and simply forgotten about, but when I went back and checked, it turned out that I had in fact never devoted an entire post to that particular topic. So I’m putting it up now. (more…)

2020 condensed AP® Guides for online exams now available

2020 condensed AP® Guides for online exams now available

Update, 4/29:

The electronic version of my AP® English Language and Literature guide is now available on Amazon.

Update: 

My and Larry Krieger’s mini-guides for the condensed 2020 online AP tests are now available!

Because of a technical issue that resulted in the print version of Larry’s book being delayed on Amazon by nearly a week, Larry asked me to post the entire book as a free PDF download on this site. Click here to access it (do not add to cart; scroll down and click on the link in the description).

If you would like to order a print copy, the book is now available on Amazon as well.

Unfortunately, Larry realized that he would not have enough to time to complete the AP Psychology guide and decided to let that project go.

For logistical reasons, I decided to combine the English Language and English Literature sections into a single print book which, as of 4/25, is available only on Amazon.

I’m currently in the process of trying to get the manuscript formatted so I can make the book available in electronic form. I’m hoping that will happen by mid-week.

I’m also currently trying to determine whether The Critical Reader will be able to stock the book as well, given delayed shipping times.

I’ll post an update as soon as I have more information.

Important announcement regarding 2020 AP exams (test questions; new, condensed guides)

In the past few days, the College Board has released important information regarding the 2020 AP exam schedule.

Tests will consist of free-response questions only; last approximately 45 minutes each; and be administered online from May 11-22nd, with additional makeup dates in June. 

After some discussion with my SAT vocabulary book co-author and APUSH expert extraordinaire Larry Krieger, I’m happy to announce that we’ve decided to release condensed (approximately 50-page) AP guides that specifically target the 2020 online exams. We’ll aim to make them available within the next 2-3 weeks, sooner if possible. 

Our current plan is as follows: I will be covering the AP English Language and Literature exams, and Larry will be handling APUSH.  (more…)