From teaching to technical writing: getting started

The semester is finally over, so my free time is my own again! This summer I plan to fully devote my time and energy towards learning more about technical writing. I anticipate that I will be working towards this new goal for the next 3 – 6 months.

After I made my decision to make the switch to technical writing, I immediately began doing some research to find out what I need to do. Namely, I wanted to find out how I can transition from being a classroom teacher to a technical writer. I figure that I have the necessary writing skills (being a writing instructor and writing consultant), but I have never written documentation, user manuals, or white papers. Furthermore, my technical background is actually non-existent. The only technology I use on a regular basis is the LMS my school uses. I am vaguely familiar with HTML, but only for the basics.

I have been reading this book called Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers by Dr. Dawn Graham. It is a very good book and it provides some practical advice on how to make a career switch, whether someone is switching roles within their industry, or switching industries altogether.

One important point the text mentions is that career changers must consider whether or not their target career field requires additional education. I believe that I have the research and writing skills to become a technical writer, but I don’t have any formal experience in technical communication itself. So, I decided to sign up for the Certified Professional Technical Communicator training course offered by the Society for Technical Communication (STC).

It is an online course, and learners have access to the material for three months. Afterwards, there is a 50-question exam to take. Those who pass are considered certified technical communicators and are entered in a database managed by the STC.

There are three tiers to the program, and I am doing the first one: foundational. The goal of the program is to help learners understand and remember important aspects of technical communication. I took a practice exam before getting into the material and earned a 60%, which is technically a failing grade, but it means that I know a little bit about writing and design. Most of the questions on the test actually intersect with the material I teach my students!

Once final papers are done and grades submitted I plan to start the first module of the course, which is about project planning. From there, I’ll move on to project analysis. My hope is to be finished with the course by the end of the summer so I can take the exam before the semester starts. In the meantime, I need to figure out how to build a portfolio. In either case, I’m looking forward to learning something new.

Time for a career change: blending linguistics and technical writing

I’ve been working as an English instructor since finishing graduate school. Although I am an academic at heart, I’ve been itching to make a career change. I bounced around from idea to idea – curriculum developer? instructional designer? – before settling on a career path outside of academia that might work for me: technical writer.

I took an entry-level technical writing course in college and enjoyed it. By the end of the course I designed a feasibility study to examine the benefits/disadvantages of changing my campus’ bus system. Unfortunately, it was just an introductory course, so I didn’t have the opportunity to delve further in the world of technical writing.

After graduating with my BA, I tried to figure out where I was going next. Most websites that I saw detailed the numerous career paths for linguistics graduates, and they included technical writing, but I never quite figured out how to make that transition. Technical writing seems like a field where you need to have a set of specialized knowledge to design proposals, manuals, etc.

I plan to study to become a certified professional technical communicator through the Society of Technical Communication. My hope is to have a portfolio of writing samples ready to go by the time I sit the exam. The timing for this works out well, as I do not think I will be teaching this summer.

In either case, I look forward to figuring out how to blend linguistics and technical writing together!

Success! Drawing Trees in LaTex with tikz

It took me several long, long days, but at last, I have figured out a way to draw syntax trees in LaTex. Hallelujer.

A nice, simple tree – suitable for qtree. Source: me

I wound up having to move away from using the <code>qtree</code> package to draw my syntax trees in LaTex. In my opinion, it’s a great package to use for drawing simple trees, or for beginners (such as myself – I’m not trying to claim I’m an expert after two weeks of this).

But if you need to show movement in your trees – as in the example below – you might be better off using the tikz package in LaTex.

A bit more complex – showing case assignment. Source: “Drawing syntactic trees with tikz-qtree” by Andrew Murphy.

The syntax of the package is mostly similar to qtree. The learning curve comes when you need to show movement, drawing triangles, and adding labels to your trees. Thankfully, there are a lot of tutorials and videos out there to help you learn the basics.

The syntax for drawing a simple tree in tikz involves writing your trees in bracket notation. For example:

\Tree [.AuxP [.Aux' [.Aux ] [.AspP [.Asp' [.Asp ] [.VP ] ] ] ] ]

\Tree tells LaTex to begin drawing a tree with tikz. Each node is labelled (AuxP, Aux’, Aux, AspP, Asp’, Asp, and VP) and written after a dot (.). I learned the hard way that forgetting the dot can lead to seeing error messages in LaTex.

A tree showing how verbs get tense. Source: me

My trees aren’t perfect, which is hard for me to accept, because I’m a perfectionist at heart, but my trees show movement, so I consider that a win. Eventually, I’ll look up methods to center my trees, as they are left-aligned, and I’d rather have them centered (see right).

I hope to continue working on and revise this paper, and submit an abstract for an upcoming conference or two later this fall!

LaTex for Linguists

So, I’ve had this itch lately. An itch to look at my old research from graduate school and see what I could do with it. I dug up my papers, indecipherable notes, and powerpoint presentations from graduate school and decided that my research idea might be worth exploring again. The only problem I encountered was that I didn’t like the way my paper looked. It is focused on morpho-syntax in AAE, and as such, I need to include syntax trees in my essay. But they are out of place, out of alignment, and it throws off the structure of my paper. I wanted to find software that would produce nicer looking essays – something you might see in a refereed journal.

Enter LaTex. I’d heard of it before – my brother uses it for his math courses – but never tried it myself. I downloaded MacTex, which comes with TexShop, an editor and previewer for MacOS, and Tex Live Utility, which (if I’m figuring this out right) tells me what packages are installed (??? – still figuring this out).


I’ve been using it for a few days, and I like it so far, but there’s a learning curve re: the syntax of LaTex. First, there’s understanding the preamble, which is where you essentially set up the document size, fonts, the type of document itself, and any packages you want LaText to load.

\documentclass[a4paper, 12pt]{article}




Above, the type of document (article), font size (12pt), and two packages are loaded. The two packages mentioned in the preamble are {qtree} and {gb4e}. The former is used to draw trees in LaTex; the former is used for examples, like glosses.

Understanding the syntax of this software is tricky, but I am slowly getting the hang of it. Besides, I enjoy a challenge!

The Morpho-Syntax of Aspectual ‘Stay’ in AAVE

I originally wrote this paper for my graduate syntax course in 2015. Over the course of the next year I conducted further research on the morpho-syntactic properties of the ‘stay’ aspect marker in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE; also known as African-American English). This paper was presented the 2016 Language and Cultures Conference at Purdue University.


Tense and aspect is a prominent topic in the literature on African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Current research pays particular attention to several aspectual markers, namely habitual be, remote past BIN, and dən (Green 2002). But there is another aspectual marker, stay, that has not been analyzed to the same extent and it is our goal to remedy this need by providing a detailed morpho-syntactic characterization of aspectual stay and comparing it to AAVE’s other aspectual markers.

Aspect differs from tense in that it refers to duration, completion, or habitual occurrence (Green 2002). An aspectual marker like habitual be implies that an event usually or always happens. A sentence like, “She be knowing” can be taken to imply that the subject always knows the answer, or is very knowledgeable. BIN, a stressed form of been, implies that a
condition was true in the past, and it is still true (Labov 1998). Aspectual stay, as in “She stay paid” also has this property, implying that she is always paid, as opposed to being paid one time. Aspectual stay was initially observed in the speech of New York City residents (Spears 2000), and is very likely to exist in other parts of the country. Currently, adolescent AAVE speakers are increasing their usage of this marker, which denotes frequentative-iterative, habitual aspect (Spears 2000).

I argue that aspectual stay follows similar syntactic patterns as aspectual be. It precedes predicate nominals and adjectives (as in “He stay hungry” or “She stay a clown”) and a variety of other syntactic environments, including verb phrases (“She stay winning”). Although research
has provided ample support for the assertion that aspectual markers are supported by auxiliaries in negative constructions, “stay” is unique in that it resists “do-support” in negative declaratives, like “She don’t stay paid.” When presented with negative declaratives containing auxiliaries like
“do” and “have”, AAVE speakers judged the sentence as unacceptable. This raises the interesting issue of grammaticality vs. social acceptability in AAVE; while sentences like, “She don’t stay paid” and “She don’t stay making all that noise” were considered unacceptable, they do not necessarily violate its morpho-syntactic rules. Further study into the use of this aspectual marker may help us to gain a better understanding of the complex and ever-evolving aspect system in AAVE.


Green, L. (2002). African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.
Green, Lisa. (1998). Aspect and Predicate Phrases in AAVE. In S. Mufwene, J. Rickford, G. Bailey, & J. Baugh (Eds.), African-American English: Structure, History and Use. London: Routledge.
Labov, W. (1998). Co-Existent Systems in AAVE. In S. Mufwene, J. Rickford, G. Bailey, & J. Baugh (Eds.), African-American English: Structure, History, and Use (pp. 110-153). London, UK: Routledge.
Spears, A. (2000). Stressed stay: a new African-American English aspect marker. Talk presented at the Linguistic Society of America Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, January 2000.

A Case for abandoning the 10-page research paper

I am someone who enjoyed writing long research papers in college. When one of my professors in graduate school assigned me a 15-20 page research paper in my syntax course, I wasn’t nervous – I was thrilled.

But that’s me. My students may not feel the same way. In fact, many of them don’t (as I’ve found out), and it’s usually for one reason: they’re concerned about their ability to write about one topic for ten pages. Even though assignments for long papers are usually broken up into several smaller assignments, this fear still permeates the mind of many college students.

On top of that – I don’t like grading long papers. It’s tedious. And because students deserve feedback that is both helpful and constructive, you can’t breeze through them, either.

When designing my composition II course this semester, I tried to think of ways to circumvent the long, 10-page research paper, and came up with this (adapted/modified/basically stolen) from They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. Instead of having your students write one, long paper, have them write two: one that seeks to explain their issue, and another one that asks them to take a position on said issue. This is all assuming that you’re teaching a 16-week course.

Essay 1: Describing a larger conversation

The first paper students write is expository in nature. They are not making an argument – not yet. The goal is to research various perspectives about their chosen issue (e.g. universal healthcare in the United States). Essentially, what has been said about their topic? This is a good assignment to start with at the beginning of the semester. Here, you can introduce students to primary and secondary sources, teach them the basics of summary writing, and how to integrate quotations into their body paragraphs.

Essay 2: Joining a larger conversation

The second paper is argumentative in nature. Here, students must take a position on their chosen issue. Before delving into the essay, ask your students to write down some points of contention for their position and the opposition’s. You can introduce the concept of rebuttals/refutations, counterarguments, and argumentative writing strategies, including the rhetorical triangle.

Most 10-page research essay assignments would ask students to include a lengthy background section, anyway. At the end of the semester, students will have completed ten pages of writing, and gained further practice in expository writing, and learned how to craft a persuasive argument. Win-win, I think.

(And it means a little less grading in the long run.)