5 things my English teachers failed to teach me

5 things my English teachers failed to teach me

I was a B student in my high school English classes. But even if I’d been a star, I doubt I would have emerged from high school as a strong writer. Looking back, I see five things my English teachers failed to teach me about writing.

1. It’s OK to give away your main points in your introduction

My English teachers taught me about the importance of building an argument. They got that right.

However, they put so much emphasis on the argument that they overlooked the importance of a strong introduction.

I’m a big believer in giving away your conclusion in your introduction. When you tell your readers your main points in the beginning, you prepare your readers to seek and absorb the supporting evidence. I believe that you make them more receptive to your argument.

2. Wordiness is not a virtue

My high school English teachers failed to curb my long-winded sentences. I wish they had. It has taken me years to make my writing more concise.

People’s attention spans are short. In fact, they’re even shorter now that people do much of their reading on tiny phone screens, instead of printed materials like when I was in high school.

Shorter is better in terms of overall length, as well as the length of paragraphs, sentences, and even words.

3. “Which” and “that” are different

When I opened my Ph.D. dissertation to a random page, I found the following sentence misusing “which.”

Perhaps it was this accomplishment which led Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo to say of Goto, during the summer of 1932, “he smells of the Minseito, but as an agriculture minister he is splendid, serious, and able to accomplish his work.”

The “which” in that sentence should be “that.” For an explanation, see “Which vs. that: Which is right?

And, yikes, the example also illustrates how I was unaware of lesson #2.

4. Don’t use “pride capitals”

True confession: my Ph.D. thesis advisor put a lot of effort into breaking me of the habit of “pride capitals,” a lesson I failed to learn in high school or college.

While I correctly used capitals in my example above referring to Finance Minister Takahashi Korekiyo, I probably referred elsewhere to Takahashi, the Finance Minister. That’s wrong.

5. Don’t leave two spaces after periods

To be fair, two spaces after periods was the standard back in my high school days. But times have changed. Today, one space after a period is standard, although somewhat controversial.

What did YOUR English teachers fail to teach you?

I’m curious. What do you wish your English teachers had taught you?

Let’s be fair to my English teachers

I think my high school English teachers did a decent job, given the curriculum and expectations of their time. I don’t think my English teachers failed overall.

They taught me well enough that I wrote reports that earned As in Advanced Placement Social Studies. My writing got me into college, where I took no more English classes. So, I must credit my high school English teachers with giving me writing skills good enough to get me into graduate school at Harvard.

2 replies
  1. Eric Menn
    Eric Menn says:

    Terrific stuff, as always Susan.

    Your first point reminded me of a perhaps apocryphal story about IBM’s instructions to their writers and presenters: Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them. Then stop.

    Re your question about English teachers who failed—I’d rather celebrate the high school English teacher (freshman year) who gave us 10(!) new words a day to look up and use in a written sentence. It was 50 percent of our grade and I’ll always be grateful.

Comments are closed.