Vol. 4. No. 3 R-5 May 2000
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Writing Clearly: An Editing Guide (second edition)
Janet Lane and Ellen Lange (1999)
Boston: Heinle & Heinle
Pp. xxiii + 294 + glossary
ISBN 0-8384-0949-0 (paper)
US $29.95

Although there has been a trend back toward legitimizing formal teaching of grammar, much second-language writing research indicates that explicit, analytical instruction in grammar using drills and exercises without any discourse context is not always effective in getting students to write standard academic English [1]. Moreover, grammar per se does not address rhetorical issues such as how to support assertions, organization of points in an essay, achieving academic writing style, or revising for clarity. No doubt with these facts in mind, the authors of this text have attempted to provide "an ESL composition textbook designed to help high intermediate and advanced ESL students become aware of common ESL language problems in their writing" (p. viii), and to lead students toward self-correction of their own writing, first through controlled exercises and then through editing of their own writing. As the preface states, "The focus of [the textbook] is error analysis rather than a comprehensive study of grammar" (p. viii).

The text is divided into three major sections: Global Errors, Local Errors, and Beyond Grammar: Other Ways to Make Writing Clear. The first section, Global Errors (pp. 1-180), covers, in separate chapters, verb tenses; verb forms; modals; conditional sentences; passive voice; relative, adverbial, and noun clauses; sentence structure; word order; and connecting words. The last three parts of each chapter in this first section consist of practice exercises (between three and eight separate exercises), writing topics, and a special section keyed to a short news video from the CNN cable network, including brief information on the video topic with questions to keep in mind while viewing it and a writing topic to be done after viewing. The two sections of each chapter that precede these exercises are the heart of the chapter; they consist of several pages of analysis of typical problems with the particular grammar topic, followed by several more pages (including copious boxes and charts) which look a lot like chapters from a traditional grammar textbook. In fact, taken together, these initial parts of each chapter in the first section of the book constitute a grammar text that covers the nine global errors mentioned above. Sandwiched between the expository section defining the error discussed in the chapter and the explicitly grammatical section that follows are several isolated sentences that exhibit the error in question. These sentences form a pretest, designed to get students to use whatever knowledge they already have about English syntax and usage to edit the sentences. They are encouraged to make "grammar journal entries" by answering questions in a personal journal and then checking their writing to look for errors. [-1-] The authors do not tell us what to do if all the students pass the pretest, but one would assume that in that case we should skip the several pages of exposition and charts that follow and move on to the next problem area. The answers to the pretest questions, by the way, are given in an appendix. For example, we are given the following: "I cannot find my favorite pen. I must leave it at home" (p. 52). According to the answer page, the student is supposed to correct this to the following: "I cannot find my favorite pen. I must have left it at home" (p. 291). But is this the only possible correction? In fact, out of context the original sentences could be construed as meaning that the speaker is at home and cannot find his or her pen and thus resolves to bring it home and leave it there in the future. Such unexpected interpretations of isolated sentences are familiar to anyone who has done such exercises with second language students.

The second section, Local Errors (pp. 181-263), has the same organization as the first section, including the end-of-chapter writing exercise based on the CNN video. Again, the first two parts of each chapter are analysis and exposition of grammar points, followed by exercises. The grammar points covered are subject-verb agreement, article use, singular-plural noun use, word choice, word forms, and prepositions. Some of the exercises are isolated sentences with errors that must be identified, such as using the plural form of a verb with a singular subject, and others are in the form of a paragraph of unified discourse on, for example, the impact of technology on society. These paragraphs contain blanks where the student must fill in verb forms on the basis of a base form in parentheses. A third type of exercise is something more like real editing, where a paragraph about, for example, the income tax in the United States, is printed with errors of noun-verb agreement. The students are to cross out the incorrect verb and write in the correct form. Finally, there are exercises (which students are encouraged to do with a classmate) that require the students to find a piece of authentic text such as a newspaper or magazine article, and underline, for example, all the verbs in the present tense, noting whether they are singular or plural.

The rest of the book consists of a section called Beyond Grammar: Other Ways to Make Writing Clear (pp. 265-289), followed by two appendixes, one listing steps to follow in composition and one of additional editing exercises that contain a variety of errors. This third section contains exposition and exercises on such topics as avoiding unclear and non-idiomatic sentences and phrases, expanding vocabulary, achieving academic writing style, improving flow of ideas, and revising for clarity. The exposition here is relatively concise and has a clearly normative tone. For instance: "In academic and professional writing, the reader should not have to guess at meaning" (p. 269). The exercises consist, again, of isolated sentences with errors, obscurities, non-idiomatic usage, and so forth, and of paragraphs, identified as authentic student writing, which have been edited so that only one specific type of error remains in each paragraph. Students must analyze these paragraphs to find the rhetorical features discussed in the chapter. [-2-]

The authors have determined that the fifteen chapters of this text will fit easily into a one-semester syllabus if the book is used as the primary or sole textbook for a writing course meeting five hours a week (p. x). In the Preface to the Teacher, options for using the text are discussed: use as the sole text, use as a component of a writing course where other writing assignments are given besides those in this book, or use "as supplementary material for ESL writers enrolled in a composition course geared toward native speakers of English" (p. ix). There is a glossary of grammatical terminology listing such terms as active voice, countable noun, indirect question, and so forth. There is also a fairly long Preface to the Student, giving general advice on using the instructor's feedback effectively and strategies for working on errors. This is followed by two pages of grading symbols, such as vt to indicate incorrect verb tense, for example. There are 28 symbols listed in this chart, including symbols to flag global, local, and other errors. This last category includes such symbols as the familiar frag (sentence fragment) and such notations as the frequently perplexing unclear. Also in the introduction is an "error awareness sheet," a grid on which one can total up with check marks in boxes all of the various types of errors marked on a composition (classified again as global, local, and other) to get a picture of the writer's main problem areas. This is followed by a "sample paper" marked up with many of the symbols listed on the grid. Following this is a filled-in grid for the sample paper. The grid and sample paper are useful for student orientation and can help students realize clearly what needs to be worked on in their own writing. The large number of symbols, however, is not practical, and notations such as unclear are neither symbols nor specific enough to help the student revise. Oddly, the symbol for words incorrectly capitalized is lc, but the symbol for words which need to be capitalized is cap, not uc. Why not just one symbol, such as cap, to prompt the student to change whatever is written to the alternative?

In general, I like the idea of this book, and my experience as a teacher has demonstrated the need for such editing materials. Presenting the fifteen most common ESL errors for editing practice is a useful alternative to the traditional grammar text. At the high intermediate and advanced level, second language writing errors do tend to fall into a limited number of categories. The 15 types of errors covered in this book are those which writing teachers encounter day in and day out, semester after semester. So this book is well-conceived on that count. But is it really necessary to present students with almost 300 pages of text to be covered in one semester, assuming one hopes to improve their writing in all these areas? Or is it reasonable to ask students to buy this book if only certain chapters will be covered during the semester? Moreover, if the book is to be a supplement to a reader or other materials used to prompt student writing, can we expect students to read so much analysis of errors and do so many different exercises in addition to writing and revising drafts of other assigned essays? It might be a better strategy to give students interesting, well-written essays to read both as models and as the basis for writing prompts, have them write a draft, select common errors, and then hand out copies of problematic student text (anonymously) for peer editing. There is no question that exercises based on the writing of the students in the class are always more immediately interesting to them than made-up, error-laden essays and indifferent prose on American social issues that may or may not engage the student reader. [-3-]

Given such reservations about this kind of textbook--in the main, its overabundance of material for reading and exercises--it can still be recommended as a supplement to other course work in composition provided that the instructor takes the time to select from it judiciously. If this book is used in an intensive English class this abundance of material may be more suitable, but for a typical university ESL class, which may meet only three hours a week, there is simply too much material here.

The companion CNN video and a teacher's manual, both of which are keyed to this text, were unavailable for review. The authors describe the instructor's manual as including "additional information on how to use the units in the text" (p. xiii). It also has a comprehensive answer key to all the exercises in the textbook, transcripts of the video segments, and advice on how to "effectively and efficiently respond to ESL writing in terms of both content and sentences" (p. xiii).

End Note

[1] See Ellis (1994, pp. 611-663) for a good discussion of the issues and the literature on the relationship of formal instruction and language acquisition.


Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George L. Greaney
Hofstra University

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