The How/That Problem

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.” – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

We hear a lot about declining standards in education. I’ve only been teaching in higher education full time for three years, so I can’t comment from experience on this supposed decline. I’ve been impressed with my students – but then my current and previous positions have both been at Russell Group universities, where the students on my courses have needed very high A-Level grades to get in the door, so my experience is hardly likely to be typical. From what I’ve seen students could use a little more guidance when it comes to study skills, writing skills in particular. Yet this is primarily not a case of some failing before they get to university, rather the necessary transition to the new environment, a new way of working and academic expectations.

By half way through the first year, some students respond well to this change, which is always nice to see. Some can’t be bothered, which I simply don’t have time to worry about. But what does worry me is when students are held back in this transition by the bad habits they’ve picked up. For humanities students these are more often than not bad habits in writing, especially those of imprecise writing that inhibit our ability to express ourselves clearly. This isn’t much of a problem in everyday writing, when in emails and the like we make our point known largely by saying what people expect us to say. However, that’s not an option when a piece of writing is anonymous and in a pile with a hundred other versions. Academic writing must be clear or will easily be misread – something only exaggerated by the complexity of the issues tackled.

One particular problem of imprecise writing crops us perhaps more than any other in the scripts I mark: the improper use of ‘how’ in place of ‘that’. I see it so often that it must be a pretty common error, yet not one I’ve ever heard discussed without being the one to raise it. There’s no end to the advice on the confusion between ‘that’ and ‘which’, but nothing I know of on the confusion between ‘that’ and ‘how’. Both words have numerous usages, but this a specific confusion when a sentence is intended simply to state ‘that’ something is or was the case. Writing ‘how’ directs our attention instead to the way in which it happened, not simply that it did; yet nothing of that sort follows. This is an example of three things, each of which ought to be stamped out of academic writing.

The first is careless writing. For the first draft just get it down on the page, but then the process of rewriting should be about honing both the writing and ideas. As Orwell observed, the two are inescapably bound together. For this reason, not paying attention to the specific wording is a dereliction of duty in academic writing. It’s hard to care about a student’s work and progress if the distinct impression comes across that they don’t care themselves. This might sound obvious but it’s a shock to quite a few people upon arriving at university. You have to put in the effort if you want to do well – and that doesn’t just mean turning up, taking notes, reading and thinking about the topics. It also means taking care with the words used. I don’t really believe my students don’t know the difference in meaning between the words ‘how’ and ‘that’. It’s about not paying attention to the things we think are obvious.

The second is bringing conversational style into writing. Since noticing it in writing, I’ve been listening out for the how/that mix up in speech and hear it fairly regularly. It’s no real problem when we have many other ways to convey meaning, but in writing of course, meaning stands or falls by the words used – which makes the first point all the more important. It’s a little odd to be blogging about this, as blogging is a more conversational type of writing. In fact, most writing we do is largely conversational – whether it’s texting, emails, messages on social media or the old-fashioned hand-written note. Even most professional writing is somewhat conversational or informal. When I worked at the House of Lords I was surprised by the informality of writing for briefing papers compared to that which I was used to for university essays. It might be an oddity. It might be stubbornly old-fashioned. But the value of formality in academic writing, over and above precision or clarity, is that it makes it so much easier to take on the guise of the weighty scholar. In essence: fake it ’til you make it.

The third is a little different. One of the biggest problems in essay-writing is a mismatch between the point made and the evidence put forward. Sometimes one is missing altogether, and my History Essay Checklist suggests one way of making sure neither have been left out. But often the two simply don’t match. This is again something to be looking out for when proof-reading and revising. By carelessly mimicking the word choice of conversational style, the danger here is of accidentally claiming something your evidence doesn’t actually back up. The misuse frequently comes in the wrapping up after an example. Saying “…which shows how this happened”, when it only really shows that it did.

This may sound little nitpicking of the highest order. It’s not something I’d ever mark a student down for. But it does make a difference. It’s one of the little bad habits that combined blunt the most important tool we have for academic work: the words we use.

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