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#98 Grappling with grammar

I hope that students in my Statistical Communication course make less grammar mistakes after taking my course then they would of beforehand.

Whoops, let me try that again: I hope that students in my Statistical Communication course make less fewer grammar mistakes after taking my course then than they would of have beforehand. 

I beg you’re your indulgence as I ignore statistics and it’s its teaching in this post, instead turning my attention to grammer grammar.  If these opening sentences do not appeal to you, than then their they’re there is little chance that you will enjoy this post, so I suggest that you read no farther further.  On the other hand, if this paragraph peaks peaks piques your curiosity, then please take a peak pique peek at the rest of this post.  I hope that its it’s worth the time that your you’re investing, with the pique peek peak of you’re your enjoyment still to come.


I thought about trying to develop an informative and fun in-class grammar activity that my Statistical Communication students could engage in during a live zoom session.  But* I decided to make this an asynchronous activity instead.  I asked the students to read through the grammatical advice provided here.  Then I gave them an online, auto-graded quiz that I hope prompted them to think through some grammar issues.  For each quiz question, students filled in blanks to complete sentences correctly, selecting from two or more options presented for each blank.  My goals in writing these sentences were to:

  • keep them brief,
  • use contexts involving data or statistics,
  • address many grammatical issues,
  • use a total of ten sentences, and
  • amuse myself.

* One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is that once you have learned rules of grammar, you’re welcome to break them when you have a good reason.  I have come to like starting an occasional sentence with But.

I know that I succeeded with the last two goals in this list.  I think I achieved some success with the second and third goals.  My favorite sentences are the last two, because they achieve the first goal with considerable economy of words.  In case you’d like to take this quiz for yourself, I will mix up the order of the options, and I present correct answers at the end of this post.


Without farther further adieu ado, hear here is are the quiz questions:

Select the appropriate words to fill in the blanks to make the sentence grammatically correct:

1. The experimenters will [blank1] five subjects to each treatment, which is not [blank2].  Options for blank1: alot, allot, a lot.  Options for blank2: alot, allot, a lot.

2. They should [blank3] found that the treatment group has a smaller infection rate [blank4] the control group.  Options for blank3: of, have.  Options for blank 4: then, than.

3. My topic generates [blank5] interest than other professor’s topics, so [blank6] students enroll in my course.  Options for blank5: less, fewer.  Options for blank6: less, fewer.

4. About the outlier, [blank7] important to investigate [blank8] [blank9] on the analysis.  Options for blank7: it’s, its.  Options for blank8: it’s, its.  Options for blank9: affect, effect.

5. You earned a [blank10] from your teacher for including a graph to [blank11] your verbal description.  Options for blank10: complement, compliment.  Options for blank11: complement, compliment.

6. Your data [blank12] my interest, so let me [blank13] at your histogram to see where the [blank14] occurs in the distribution.  Options for blank12: peak, peek, pique.  Options for blank13: peak, peek, pique.  Options for blank14: peak, peek, pique.

7. Now that you and your colleagues have gathered extensive data about political donations, [blank15] going to analyze [blank16] data about [blank17] contributed to [blank18]?  Options for blank15: who’s, whose.  Options for blank16: who’s, whose.  Options for blank17: who, whom.  Options for blank18: who, whom. 

8. [Blank19] professor [blank20] taught regression analysis demonstrated many techniques [blank21] are [blank22] useful.  Options for Blank19: Your, You’re.  Options for blank20: that, who.  Options for blank21: that, who.  Options for blank22: vary, very.

9. [Blank23] analyzing [blank24] data over [blank25] with [blank26] laptops.  Options for Blank23: Their, There, They’re.  Options for blank24: their, there, they’re.  Options for blank25: their, there, they’re.  Options for blank26: their, there, they’re.

10. [Blank27] analyzing [blank28] data [blank29] [blank30].  Options for Blank27: Your, You’re.  Options for blank28: your, you’re.  Options for blank29: vary, very.  Options for blank30: good, well.


Are you ready to see the correct answers?  Here are the complete sentences, with correct choices in italics:

  1. The experimenters will allot five subjects to each treatment, which is not a lot.
  2. They should have found that the treatment group has a smaller infection rate than the control group.
  3. My topic generates less interest than other professors’ topics, so fewer students enroll in my course.
  4. About the outlier, it’s important to investigate its effect on the analysis.
  5. You earned a compliment from your teacher for including a graph to complement your verbal description.
  6. Your data pique my interest, so let me peek at your histogram to see where the peak occurs in the distribution. 
  7. Now that you and your colleagues have gathered extensive data about political donations, who’s going to analyze whose data about who contributed to whom
  8. Your professor who taught regression analysis demonstrated many techniques that are very useful. 
  9. They’re analyzing their data over there with their laptops.
  10. You’re analyzing your data very well.

You may have noticed that I treated the word data as plural in sentence #6.  I feel strongly about this, and I found a blog post (here) saying that APA style guidelines agree.  I also found a dissenting opinion (here) that “most English speakers treat it as a singular mass noun” and that my opinion that data is plural “is based on a misunderstanding of how English develops.”

What about the court of public opinion?  The good folks at fivethirtyeight.com have discussed and studied this issue.  They found that their twitter followers voted in favor of “data is” rather than “data are” by a margin of 1,279 to 615 (here).  In a more extensive survey (here), they found the same preference by a margin of 79% to 21%. 

That survey also addressed an even more important grammatical issue: use of the Oxford comma.  Survey participants were asked to give their opinion about which sentence is more grammatically correct:

  • It’s important for a person to be honest, kind and loyal.
  • It’s important for a person to be honest, kind, and loyal.

The survey results were that 57% of respondents favored the second sentence, with the Oxford comma*, and 43% preferred the second sentence.  Fivethirtyeight also reported that those who rated their own use of grammar highly tended to prefer the Oxford comma to a greater degree than those who had a lower opinion of their own grammar, as shown in this graph:

* My strong preference is for the Oxford comma.  I found simply typing the first version, without the Oxford comma, to be a traumatic experience.


I enjoy thinking about these kinds of grammar issues, but then I majored in English as well as Mathematics in college.  Some of the books on my shelf beside me right now include 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing* (by Gary Provost), On Writing (by Stephen King), The Sense of Style (by Steve Pinker), and Several Short Sentences about Writing (by Verlyn Klinkenburg), along with Factfulness (by Hans Rosling) and Enlightenment Now** (also by Steven Pinker).

* My favorite piece of advice from this book can be found here.

** See posts #33 and #34, titled Reveal human progress, here and here, for more about these books.

One benefit of teaching a course called Statistical Communication is that I can justify spending some time thinking about, and writing questions about, issues of grammar that appeal to me.  I am curious to know what my students think about this activity and quiz.  I told them that I consider this fun, but I’m not confident that many of them agree.  What do you think – whose who’s with me?

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rani Fischer #

    Hee, hee. . . Your you’re the best!

    R ________________________________

    Like

    May 17, 2021
  2. Jane Taylor #

    Bravo! I, too, majored in English prior to majoring in mathematics and I think your quiz is brilliant and quite entertaining.

    Like

    May 24, 2021

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