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Writing it right: Getting back to basics

The time has come. I am committing words to Word and beginning the official drafting of my thesis. The main aim of my thesis is to present, in writing, an original piece of research. In my case, I have been tracing the social connections of professionals in an emerging organisation in order to explore their knowledge practices. For six months, I have followed engineers and the objects of their practice in a renewable energy organisation, gathering transcribed interviews, jotting down observations and writing-up descriptions.  As I draw all of this written data together to start my thesis writing, I am reminded of one of Latour’s[1] (2005) questions: what are we actually doing when we trace these social connections?

In answer to his own query, he states that we trace social connections by writing down accounts. But what is an ‘account’? Latour maintains that an account is a text, written on paper that is read by a (normally small!) number of people. He contends that this writing of a textual account should not be sniffed at as:

the simple act of recording anything on paper is already an immense transformation that requires as much skill and just as much artifice as painting a landscape or setting up some elaborate biochemical reaction.  No scholar should find humiliating the task of sticking to description. This is, on the contrary, the highest and rarest achievement. p. 136-7

Although Latour admits that the social scientist should not be concerned with ‘good style’ when writing their account, as we are rarely likely to achieve the skill of a poet or a playwright, I can’t help but think differently as a PhD student. When it comes to submitting your thesis you know the examiner’s critical gaze is judging not only how ‘good’ the account is in tracing the social connections but also the accuracy of the grammar, the exactness of the punctuation marks and how successfully the style engages the reader.

At this stage in your education, it is assumed by many (both supervisors and students) that the main capacity required to draft this staggering tome – one’s dexterity of the English language – is finely honed and primed for use at a moment’s notice. Passive or active verb structure turmoil, semi colon or colon anxiety, and second person pronoun confusion should be the least of the student’s worries at this point. Shouldn’t  learning the rules of grammar and punctuation belong to the English classes of our early school years?

Yet I have noticed that friends and colleagues seem to have had different experiences of learning grammar and punctuation at school. Then, when we come to actually writing one of the most important documents of our careers, we seem to have varying levels of understanding as to what constitutes ‘correct’ grammar and punctuation[2]. If we take to heart Latour’s counsel, ‘that good sociology has to be well written; if not the social doesn’t appear through it’ (p.124), I feel there is a need to ensure PhD students are equipped with the basic rules of grammar and punctuation during their PhD journey – and this level of training should not be sniffed at either. After all, in qualitative work, the written word and the ‘thick description’ is the essence of your thesis. This grammatical top-up can be as simple and effective as a couple of day-workshops. For example, at Stirling we have the option of attending workshops focused on writing for each particular year of our PhD (an external trainer at Grammatology runs these for us). These are by far the most useful training days I have been on as a PhD student. And I can now go forth on my academic journey having learnt that you never start a sentence with a conjunction…


[1] Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York: Oxford University Press

[2] I know I am still learning how to be grammatically ‘correct’ in my writing, but I like to think I have an awareness of when a sentence ‘looks’ and ‘sounds’ right. I can thank my 5th grade English teacher for this – Ms B. had a penchant for endless grammatical workbook exercises.

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