PokerPulse Gambler's ESL GUIDE -- Errors and Expectations

Discover the pattern of your errors, get a dictionary and find out how it works, memorize four short spelling rules and focus on VERBS. More on the four lessons most useful to ESL students contained in this classic guide to basic college-entry English.

Errors and Expectations:
A Guide for the Teacher of Basic Writing
By Mina P. Shaugnessy


In more recent years, Shaughnessy’s work has been criticized for a variety of reasons: categorizing only the errors of finished products (rather than the errors of each draft) and focusing so completely on error, among others. In spite of such criticism, Errors and Expectations continues to be regarded as a groundbreaking work and is generally referred to as the definitive text in basic writing. -- Wikipedia

Sounds like a corker!

It is! Read our review, a couple of key excerpts and our own brief summary of the book's best grammar advice.

About the book

About Alice
By Calvin Trillin



Around the time Alice and I met, the coverage of American racism finally burst out of its regional boundaries; Northern universities were beginning to look into what they were doing to educate minority students who were, by conventional measurements, not qualified for admission. Alice got involved in a small program of that sort at Hofstra, and in 1967 whe moved to City College to teach in a program called SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge), which employed remedial courses and tutoring and counseling stipends as a way to integrate underprepared students. A friend of hers at Hofstra, Mina Shaughnessy, went to City with her, and for the next dozen years they were allies in the intense struggle over the role that a place like the City University of New York should play in what was sometimes known as remedial education.

From the start, some senior professors had been muttering about the decline of standards. As academic jobs began to dry up, some younger faculty members - people who had looked forward to a life of dropping graceful apercus about "The Waste Land" to enthralled students on ivy-covered campuses - were dispirited or even enraged at finding themselves instead in gritty urban universities, correcting seemingly endless errors in grammar and syntax. Alice and Mina, who were there because they wanted to be, had a completely different response. It was encapsulated in the title of a speech with which Mina, then a start in a field that hadn't been expected to produce any stars, electrified an annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, in 1975: "Diving In." Instead of throwing up her hands in despair at all the errors her students made, Mina had analyzed four thousand essays, found patterns of errors that could be addressed, and explained all this, in a tone of optimism and commitment and absolute confidence, in a book calledErrors and Expectations. In later years, when Alice was producing programs for educational television, she'd occasionally take an unusual teaching job - at Phoenix House, the drug-treatment program, for a while, and for one semester at Sing Sing - and she always took it for granted that people who wanted to learn could be taught, no matter what their background.
(-- pgs. 34-36) (More on the book at the Ultimate High-Stakes Gamble)

PokerPulse review:


This book is an embarrassingly eloquent shaming lecture for any purveyors of education who either fail or refuse to teach basic grammar whenever the need to do so makes itself as painfully obvious as it was when this book was written in 1977, although, frankly, we wonder if many English teachers in North America would understand it anymore. Long gone are the days of grammar lessons in which students were taught to underline the subject of each sentence (nouns) with a squiggly line, the predicate (verbs) with a straight line and either a direct object(follows a preposition, such as to, with, from, etc.) with a double line or an indirect object (when predicate is a passive verb) with both a straight and a squiggly line. As a result, this would probably be a challenging book for many English-speaking high school and university students. Advanced ESL students, however, will very likely understand the methodology of parsing sentences and phrases, although as the author indicates in the Introduction:

"Despite such advances, the territory I am calling basic writing (and that others might call remedial or developmental writing) is still very much of a frontier, unmapped, except for a scattering of impressionistic articles and a few blazed trails that individual teachers propose through their texts. And like the settlers of other frontiers, the teachers who by choice or assignment are heading to this pedagogical West are certain to be carrying many things they will not be needing, that will clog their journey as they get further on. So too they will discover the need of other things they do not have and will need to fabricate by mother wit out of whatever is at hand.

This book is intended to be a guide to that kind of teacher, and it is certain to have the shortcomings of other frontier maps, with doubtless a few rivers in the wrong place and some trails that end nowhere. Still, it is also certain to prepare the inexperienced teacher for some of the difficulties he is likely to encounter and even provide him with a better inventory of necessary supplies than he likely to draw up on his own." (footnote omitted) (-- p. 4)

All that's changed since publication in '77, in our view, is the prevalence of error-filled writing among North American students probably the result of so many missed grammar lessons.

Most useful lessons:

1. Seek a pattern to your errors.


... I have reached the persuasion that underlies this book - namely, that BW (Basic Writing) students write the way they do, not because they are slow or non-verbal, indifferent to or incapable of academic escellence, but because they are beginners and must, like all beginners, learn by making mistakes. These they make aplenty and for such a variety of reasons that the inexperienced teacher is almost certain to see nothing but a chaos of error when he first encounters their papers. Yet a closer look will reveal very little that is random or ";illogical"; in what they have written. And the keys to their development as writers often lie hidden in the very features of their writing that English teachers have been trained to brush aside with a marginal code letter or a scribbled injunction to "Proofread!"; (Introduction, p. 5)

2. Get a dictionary and find out how it works.

Ask a librarian or someone equally enlightened and non-judgmental. Learning to use this important reference tool as a spelling guide is neither simple nor basic. To wit:


Doubt is the most useful spelling aid - not, of course, the generalized debilitating doubt that convinces students they can't spell anything but rather an informed doubt that prods them to question the way they have spelled particular words or sounds. Experienced writers have been trained to doubt at the right places and then to turn to the dictionary; inexperienced writers not only doubt in unproductive ways but are intimidated by the dictionary. Like the other ";simple"; skills that many students acquire early in school, the skill of dictionary-using is not as simple as it seems. It requires, for one thing, a nimbleness with the alphabet and an awareness of spelling options that BW students often lack at the outset. (footnote omitted) Then there are the various codes (for pronunication and etymology, grammatical class, inflection, and levels of usage) that worry the reader until he learns how to read them. (emphasis added) Once understood, however, the dictionary can become a continuing source of insight into spelling, not only because it lists correct forms but because it presents words in ways that illuminate spelling rules and patterns, breaking them into syllables, indicating stress, and marking the pronunciation of vowels (a, e, i, o, u and y as in etymology). The dictionary remains, in short, the most useful single book the apprentice speller can own, and the habit of using it, the most important aid to spelling - nmore portable, lasting, and quiet than teachers. (From the chapter, Spelling, at p. 185)

More on selecting a dictionary.

3. Memorize these four spelling rules:


1. i before e
except after c
or when sounded like a
as in neighbor and weigh
This rule works only where the student's confusion is between ie and ei. For other spellings of the e sound, the rule is not useful (reach, extreme, etc.). Also, the rule does not apply to nouns that form their plurals by changing the y to i and adding - es (democracies).

2. Is there an unpronounced e at the end of the word? Does the suffix begin with a vowel? If YES to both questions, drop the e. Another rule can be attached to this that covers the main exceptions, namely that when the "silent" e is preceded by c or g and the suffix begins with a, o, or u, the e remains. However, the student can usually discover the phenemic principle that underlies the rule simply by seeling lists of words that retain the diacritic e - manageable, peaceable, etc.

3. Does the word end in a consonant + y? Change the y to i and add the suffix. Exception: Keep the y when suffix is -ing, possessive 's, or a proper name.

4. Rule for doubling final consonant (given above).

... While it is true that a student's pronunciation will often cause him to misspell, it is also true that the way he pronounces a word - whether, for example, he stresses a syllable or not (as in sick/classic) or whether he uses a short vowel or a long vowel (as in bit/bite) - will often give him a clue to its spelling. (Ibid., p. 178)

The view from the cheap seats:

Much of the book, in our view, can be boiled down to two basic cautions:

1. Parallelism.

Think balance. What you do to the subject, you must also do to the predicate and to the indirect/direct object (Who is screwing whom?). Grammar is the slave of logic, which after all is the point of communication.

Many a girl has lost her chemise at the racetrack


everyone is glad when the turf accountant settles in her favor next race.

Another example of parallelism is the maxim, Commas like shoes come in twos.

The girl, who was wearing strange dark glasses over her eyes to conceal their depths, slammed her cards down hard on the table before calling the bet.

Need more examples? Write to We're happy to take questions, too.

2. Forget nouns (person, place, thing) and adjectives (mere modifiers) - focus on VERBS (action words).

Most of us can learn the names of things in just about any language fairly quickly. The advanced communicator is distinguished by the wide and colorful assortment of VERBS at his disposal, which s/he has learned to conjungate in three time frames -YESTERDAY, TODAY and TOMORROW.

Yesterday, I clicked 'AGREE!' to the prompt asking if I wanted to learn the rules of poker at PartyPoker - Getting Started.

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The quickest way to amass a well-rounded working list of verbs is to study poetry! Because it's shorter than fiction, it's more accessible, and the poet's skill in condensing images by selecting and applying the most evocative verbs is the stuff of legend. For a considered list of quick picks, visit PokerPulse Gambler's Guide to Poetry.


BONUS Tip! Ignore the seductive mysteries of the semi-colon.

Periods work to separate clauses just as well if not better, although semi-colons do help separate long, complicated lists in writing - usually lists that involving naming an item and describing it between commas.

four tables, which must be round and covered in green baise;

four sets of unmarked cards, which prevents cheating;

four large, black ash trays, preferably with beer or pub advertisements, simply to give the room an air of the Wild West poker saloon;


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