McMaster UniveGeoff Normanrsity’s Professor Geoff Norman is a prominent figure in the Medical Education/Health Professions Education community. Along with co-authoring one of the most popular handbooks in Biostatistics, Norman is also a long-time editor for the Advance in Health Sciences Education journal.

In his journal’s most recent issue Norman offers up some tips on how to not get your paper published. I’ve highlighted my favourites–sound advice for academics and graduate students alike:

  1. Support your problem statement with the best available evidence (“Nice ideas finish last”)
    • Your paper must provide sufficient theoretical and empirical justification for why its problem statement is an important one.
  2. Conduct a thorough literature review early (“The world doesn’t need another mousetrap”)
    • Before beginning your study, ensure the same work has not been conducted before. If it has, ensure your problem statement and study design sufficiently expand past findings.
  3. Ensure data are consistent with the journal’s/disciplines expectations (“We don’t really care if your students loved the course”)
    • Norman reminds us that studies involving self-assessment as data are consistently uncorrelated with performance measures. (Eva and Regehr 2005)  While another journal may publish self-assessment data, Norman begs authors to consider whether their data is appropriate for journal/disciplinary conventions before submitting their manuscripts.
  4. Ask whether your findings are applicable in another context (“We are scientists, not inventors”)
    • In studies where a costly simulation device or complex intervention is designed, Norman warns authors not to presume that their findings should be of interest to a wider audience–taking special care when the research is aligned with an commercial interests (e.g., a device manufacturer)
  5. Ask whether your findings are interesting in another context (“The only people who care about education of pediatric gerontologists in Lower Volga are pediatric gerontologists in Lower Volga”)
    • Norman reminds us to think about an international audience for our work. It is incumbent on authors to figure out why researchers in different countries will care about their work.
  6. Disclose other venues in which your study has been published (“Salami slicing belongs in butcher shops”)
    • Salami slicing is the colloquial term for publishing the same study in multiple journals. While Norman admits that this is sometimes an appropriate practice, he reminds researchers to avoid self-plagiarism by writing the second study de novo rather than cutting and pasting swathes of text.
  7. Represent quantitative value with appropriate detail (“P values tell you whether it’s zero but little else”)
    • While a research team’s findings may be statistically significant, simply displaying an appropriate P value is insufficient. Norman reminds authors to include standard deviations, confidence intervals and effect sizes, best represented by good figures and graphs.
  8. Leave room for future research (“More research is always required”)
    • Avoid overstating the universal applicability of your results. Be specific about other research questions that remain to be answered in your work.

Leave your thoughts

What do you think? Am I missing anything obvious? Do you find the advice pedantic? I’d love to read your commends below.


Whether for essays or emails, I’ve always been the designated editor for my friends and family. But my favourite genre to edit has always been the resume. I think I enjoy editing resumes because they are such highly persuasive documents, hence the title of this blog post. But most of us have some very common misconceptions about resumes—and here I’m speaking from experience, not just as an editor.

I was turned down by six companies in a row before I was finally hired at a marketing company as part of the co-op program I enrolled in during grad school. With schoolwork mounting, I was very frustrated that six potential employers turned me down. So I booked an appointment with a co-op advisor, I attended a practice interview session, and I had my resume edited by a professional. Along the way, I asked a lot of questions and received a lot of helpful advice. I changed my resume to fit the advice of the experts and I was hired after my next interview. I realize now I wasn’t hired at those first six jobs because editorial hubris got the better of me. I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t realize the potential power of my resume.

What you’re probably doing right

Most of the resumes I edit have the header nearly perfect. Everyone understands that your name should be the central focus of your resume. Under their names, everyone understands that your contact information (street address, phone number, email address, and website) is also included in the header. (Don’t have a website? The least you can do is list your linkedin profile. Don’t have a linkedin profile? Go create a linkedin profile right now—and don’t forget to add me to your network.)

Everyone also understands the general structure of the resume. First you list your job objective, then you list your education (by the way, don’t list your high school education—it’s a given), next you list a summary of your qualifications, followed by work experience. This is the structure of a resume at its most general. But this structure on its own won’t lead to many recruitment calls.

What you’re probably doing wrong

The history lessonresume_stack

Misunderstanding a resume’s purpose is the first major resume misconception. When composing a resume, people tend to write a historical document. Their resume tells their education history, their employment history, and perhaps a bit of their personal history. But resumes aren’t historical documents; resumes are persuasive documents. The purpose of a resume isn’t to tell your life story. The purpose of a resume is to persuade a recruiter that you deserve an interview—and remember the recruiter has a stack of other resumes to choose from.

In order to earn you a job interview, your resume needs to focus on three main things: accomplishments, skills, and attributes. Every single sentence of your resume needs to be an accomplishment, an attribute, or a skill. If information isn’t an accomplishment, attribute, or skill, then it doesn’t belong in your resume.

Erase the irrelevant

Now the question is, can you distinguish irrelevant information from accomplishments, skills, and attributes? Try this quick test:

Which of these pieces of information are irrelevant?

  • Consulted with management daily to update website information
  • Provided outstanding guest service to hotel guests
  • Created weekly schedule for 63 employees

I guess it was a trick question: all three of these are irrelevant because they aren’t accomplishments, skills or attributes. While they each certainly provide relevant information about a job description, they’re nothing more than historical information about your past work. This information does not demonstrate what makes you special, what makes you necessary, or what makes you valuable.

Accomplishments, attributes, and skills

Your resume should at all times aim to detail unique actions and benefits that you offered your former organization. Here’s how I would reframe the above list to highlight accomplishments, skills, and attributes:

  • Created daily website update system to relay current information from management to clients
  • Consistently earned 5 out of 5 stars for outstanding guest services
  • Generated $1500 per week in additional revenue by eliminating unnecessary shifts.

For some reason, people reflect on their past work experience in generalities. But you need to be specific. Before writing your resume, sit down and make a list of all of the special things you did at your past jobs. At first you may find this exercise difficult, but the longer you think about it, the easier it gets. Were you ever recognized for a special achievement? Was one of your suggestions ever enacted upon? Were you promoted? Did you somehow save the company money (actual statistics and figures are VERY persuasive)? What skills did you use regularly or acquire?

Activities and Interests

Finally, for some reason nobody ever includes an “Activities and Interests” section in their resume. Yet three bullet points about your life outside of work can so much to set you apart from other applicants. Employers ARE interested in your experiences with music, drama, dance, sports, and any other type of collaborative enterprise that demonstrates teamwork, creativity, or coordination abilities. You might also want to tweak this section of your resume depending on the job for which you’re applying. For example: demonstrate an interest in technology if you’re applying for a job as a technical writer.

So, friends, will I edit your resume? With pleasure! But now that I’ve written this piece I’m sending you to read it first. I hope you’ll also read the other article I wrote on more general job hunting advice. Good luck in your search!

Metaphors pervade nearly every aspect of the English language and are fundamental to art, business, and human language. Therefore, I’ve decided to begin a three part series of posts about metaphors. The first part of this series will introduce the concept of metaphors; the second part will discuss metaphors in relation to marketing communications, and the third part will discuss metaphors in relation to cognitive science. Below you’ll find illustrative metaphors from poetry by Robert Burns and William Shakespeare, along with some quotes from Barack Obama’s inaugural address.

What are metaphors?

Metaphor is an ancient Greek term combining the prefix meta (meaning “beyond or over”) and the verb pherein (meaning “to carry”). Today we take metaphor, at its simplest, to mean “a comparison made by referring one thing to another” (silva rhetoricae). The word’s ancient Greek definition is a metaphor itself (it’s self-referential): a metaphor ‘carries’ the meaning of a word ‘beyond or over’ its referent; so the idea that a word can physically carry or move meaning is metaphorical in and of itself.

A more complex definition of metaphors is that they’re figures of speech in which a name, descriptive word, or phrase is grafted onto an object or action different from, but analogous to, the original name, descriptive word, or phrase.

What aren’t metaphors?

I think it’s important to distinguish metaphors from three similar figures of speech: metonymy, synecdoche, simile. (Note: I’ll be quoting some poetry below and you’ll notice slashes [/] within the lines. These indicate line breaks.)


duran duran A simile is a straightforward, explicit metaphor that often uses “like” or “as.” Any Duran Duran fans will recall their hit single “Hungry Like the Wolf.” This is a simile. Because they’re so obvious, similes are the weakest form of metaphors. In literary criticism, a bad writer would be considered one who relies heavily on similes to deliver metaphors. A good metaphor shouldn’t need the words “like” or “as” to draw a comparison. Of course this doesn’t mean that smiles have no poetic power. Take Robert Burns’ famous line “O, my love is like a red, red rose, / That is newly sprung in June” (from A Red, Red Rose). Although Burns relies on a simile to deliver the poem’s first line, he continues with eloquent, thoughtful rhymes like: red rose

“Till all the seas go dry, my Dear
And the rocks melt with the sun!
O I will love you still, my Dear
While the sands of life shall run.”


Metonymy is a metaphor where you refer to sometime by naming one of its parts or attributes—there is a relation between the two things; they are contiguous. In a discussion of politics we hear “Parliament passed the bill,” when watching CNN we hear “they’re tracking it in the blogosphere,” or when discussing war we hear “the pen is mightier than the sword.” These statements are all metonymic—Parliament is a reference to the Members of Parliament, the blogosphere is a reference to groups of online political writers, the pen represents the persuasive power of words, and the sword represents military power.


Synecdoche is a specific type of metonymy where a referent’s part stands in for the whole referent itself. A classic example of synecdoche is found in the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “It is my lady, O, it is my love!” says Romeo. “O, that she knew she were! / She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that? / Her eye discourses; I will answer it.” Romeo states that Juliet’s eye speaks to him, but the eye metonymically represents a part of Juliet’s beauty as a whole.

Okay, what are metaphors again? Inauguration

As opposed to simile, metonymy, and synecdoche (and numerous other figures of speech), metaphors allow  readers or listeners to draw meaning themselves. So, let’s look at a recent example from Barack Obama’s inaugural address:

“Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms.”

Obama doesn’t use a simile (ex. “Every so often the oath is taken amidst a political situation as brutal as a gathering storm”), metonymy (ex. “Every so often the oath is taken when the money has run out”), or synecdoche (ex. “Every so often the oath is taken while John Smith and Jane Doe are being laid off”). Obama uses a clear, eloquent metaphor that allows the audience to implicitly realize that “gathering clouds and raging storms” refers to the current US recession.

Dead metaphors

Dead metaphors are the most commonly used metaphors in the English language, so much so that they’ve become part of the language. What I mean here is that dead metaphors once were metaphors, but have become everyday words due to popular usage. Some dead metaphors are verbs like running for office, catching the game last night, fishing for complements, breaking the ice, or grasping a concept. Other dead metaphors are nouns like branches of government, seeds of doubt, or apple of my eye. Dead metaphors are similar to, but less complex than clichés—which are metaphorical truisms in the form of a complete sentence (like “kill two birds with one stone”). We use dead metaphors all the time without even realizing it; they’ve lost their original meanings and become entrenched in our language.


An extended metaphor, or conceit, sets up a primary metaphor with multiple metaphorical levels built into it. Shakespeare was the master of conceits; here’s one of his finest examples:



All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,

(As You Like It, 2.7)

The primary metaphor is the world as a “stage,” yet this metaphors has many implications: men and women are “players” (actors or actresses) who play “many parts” (social roles, careers) with entrances (“births”) and exits (“deaths”).

Thanks for your time and I’ll continue my discussion of metaphors in my next post when I talk about how they operate in marketing communications.

A lot of people ask me what exactly I do. Here’s an answer:

As a copywriter for an Integrated Communications company my main roles are writing, editing, and proofreading text, or copy, for print and multimedia (I’ve previously posted about editing and editing your own writing.) A copywriter’s job is to write clear, persuasive, original messaging, often with a limited word count. In marketing, copywriters are part of the Creative Department, and so I work closely with graphic designers, art directors, illustrators, other writers and a creative director to ensure a synthesis of visual and textual rhetoric in our materials. The Creative Department works closely with Account Services, the project, account and senior account managers who liaison with clients and vendors to initiate projects, handle client requests, relay information from to the Creative Department, and organize each project’s final production.


I divide my time writing for multiple projects throughout the course of a day, yet must ensure my copy matches each project’s style and tone. A copywriter isn’t simply told what to write by Account Services or clients; copywriting is a process of collaboration. I brainstorm concepts with members of the Creative and Account teams then, later, I’ll match my copy to the graphic designer’s visual layout and Account Service’s project description (a creative brief).

In copywriting, a first draft is never a final draft; it’s a process of revision.  There are both semantic and typographic restrictions that influence this revising process. For example, a client representative will suggest alternative wording or conceptual changes to a first draft; whereas a graphic designer may require copy to be shortened or lengthened depending on the layout. As a project progresses (from conceptual to design to production), its writer, designer, art director, account manager, and project manager sign a cover sheet to indicate a comprehensive review of the document. This is called “signing off”.

The goal of these early, internal revisions is to produce a draft that can be submitted to the client for their review. After this, the client will return the draft with another set of revisions. Client revisions can be challenging—often the subject of complaints that “they just don’t get it”. Good marketers don’t simply bend to their client’s will; we work closely with our clients to achieve a mutual vision. When this is achieved, we gain the marketing Holy Grail: client approval.


With client approval, a project can go into production (either print or digital), but first a final draft (a pre-flight) must be circulated internally to spot any errors. A pre-flight is then sent to the printer where a printer’s proof is made and returned for our approval—this is essentially a printer’s pre-flight. The copywriter’s task in this process is to proofread the pre-flight and, not long after, the printer’s proof. There’s a big difference between copyediting and proofreading: copyediting is revising the grammar, punctuation, word choice, tone, and coherence of the copy; proofreading is checking for visual or typographical anomalies, or easy to miss details like a copyright symbol or a “printed in Canada” footnote. The reason for this difference is that changes during the production stage of a project are time consuming and it’s expensive to change a printer’s proof.

Proofreading is an extremely important final step, and I’d like to share a relevant anecdote. At one point, I was the only writer at Punch. One of the Project Managers came to me to “sign off” on a calendar we were producing for our largest client—these calendars would go to over 30,000 of our client’s employees. As the copywriter, it was my responsibility to proofread and sign off on this final stage of the process—I had already written and revised the copy earlier that month.

“Did you have a chance to proofread the calendar?” She asked.

“Yes.” I replied.

“Did you have a chance to look at the printer’s proofs?” She asked.

“No. I looked at the pre-flights from yesterday and they were fine so I haven’t looked over the proofs.”

“Could you also take a look at the proofs please? This is a $17,000 print job and if there are any problems it would cost us a lot of money.”

It was then that I realized my signature was required before printing a $17,000 project. Not only that, but if there was a typo, grammatical error, or missing copyright symbol, my oversight would cost the company $17,000. The conversation ended with me heading over to comprehensively proofread this job as if my life depended on it. I’ve proofread every document that has crossed my desk just as thoroughly since, having realized the importance of copywriters in the marketing industry.

So there’s a little slice of my life for you. Any questions? Please leave a comment.


One of my best friends is a professional grant writer. He started out of university working as the manager of a small theatre company, from there he moved on to event planning and grant writing for a local non-profit organization, and from there he got a job as a grant editor at the Office of Research for a university. His grant writing skills secured him this university position and, more broadly, grant writing skills are a huge asset for anyone with an interest working in academia or the non-profit sector. Put it this way: a grant is monetary aid and grant writers have the ability to solicit that aid.


Before writing, a successful grant writer needs to do the right research and answer the right questions:

  • Which grants should you apply for?

Where are the guidelines for the grant?

What are the guidelines for these grants?

  • What types of projects will they fund?

When are applications do?

What are the application components?

  • What, according to each foundation, makes a successful grant?

Are there successful examples of funded grant proposals?

Is there anyone with whom one can discuss the criteria for successful applications?

A grant will be immediately dismissed if it breaches the guidelines set out by the funding body. This is why collecting successful examples of funded grants, reading those examples, and researching why they were successful is so important for grant writers. A successful grant writer will make contacts with funding bodies, ask for advice, make contacts, and network in order to write the best grant possible. Not every grant you write will be a success, in fact, most probably won’t. But don’t be discouraged. My friend the grant writer told me that most of what he learned about grant writing was the result of rejection. He would receive a rejection letter and then follow up with the funding body. They were always happy to answer his questions; like so many things in life, we learn from our mistakes. 


I’ve posted previously on writing an effective business profile, why self-editing is difficult, and how to effectively self-edit. But I’ll expand and refine some of those points in the context of grant writing. In terms of the audience, imagine that you’re a grant reviewer and you have to read through stacks of proposals to decide who will receive this grant. As that reviewer, you don’t have time for inefficient grant proposals. So, grant writers, get to the point! Be straight-forward, effective, and—based on your research—ensure that you’ve answered the key questions set out by the grant guidelines. Grants1

Similarly, and (again) based on your research, pay attention to the verbiage used in the granting agency’s guidelines. If the guidelines ask for a mission statement, a methodology, and a budget, don’t label your subheadings “Our Vision,” “How we’ll do it,” and “Where we’ll spend this money.” Remember that grant reviewer? She doesn’t have the time to read each grant proposal in depth. Grant reviewers are ostensibly scanning these proposals and making a yes pile and a no pile—grants in the yes pile earn a more thorough reading. Using the verbiage from the grant guidelines will immediately catch a reviewers attention, showing them, most importantly, that you’ve followed their guidelines.

A well-written proposal outlines ideas in a clear, linear, simple manner. So also ensure you’ve had your grant proposal proof-read by a few people so, although they’re not familiar with the guidelines, they can point out disjointed sentences or lapses in logic or reasoning.


Ethos is the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution. It’s your mission, your vision, and your values all rolled into one; it’s how you present yourself. You want to demonstrate a responsible, professional, and knowledgeable ethos to grant reviewers—why else would they give you money? So, aside from following the guidelines, demonstrate your research in your proposal. Show them that you’re aware of who they’ve given past grants to, who has worked on similar projects, how your project will sustain itself when grant funding runs out, and how you’ll prove the tangible and measurable benefits of your project.

Grants are monetary stipends and therefore require a budget. My friend the grant editor says that one of the biggest red flags for grant reviewers is when the budget doesn’t add up. If a grant applicant can’t even take the time to balance their budget, how can a granting agency trust them to achieve the goals set out by their proposal. Again, this is your ethos—if you present yourself as someone incapable of doing basic math, well . . . Yet, similarly, your budget needs to make sense. Sure, you can easily balance a budget; but are your projections realistic. So, for example, let’s say you’re proposing to build an computer laboratory for an underfunded local library. Your budget, although well balanced, explains that the lab will cost $500. A grant reviewer will see the fault in your logic right away, and question your research rigor (it would be the same if you proposed a $50,000 lab.)

Aside from demonstrating your attentiveness and research, your grant proposal still has to explain how you’re going to make a contribution to society. So demonstrate awareness of the major political, social, cultural, environmental, academic, or scientific issues that your grant proposal speaks to. You need to show that you’re solving an important problem, and doing so in a replicable, sustainable, effective manner. Therefore, your grant proposal should outline how you’ll disseminate your ideas, who you’ll work with, and what your strategy is for achieving these goals.

More InformationGrants4

Believe it or not, there are college programs available on just grant writing; but, as my friend would say, the best way to learn is to try it. Is there a local non-profit organization that you’re interested in helping. Approach them and ask if they’re looking for a grant writer. There are also a lot of resources online, and when you’re writing your early grants, the Internet will be an invaluable resource for researching the funding organization. Grants3

I’ve had three colleagues from my graduate program at school approach me asking if my company is hiring freelance writers right now. My company is fully staffed and we don’t have any freelance work, but I thought this was interesting enough for a post and today I’m going to share the freelance writing resource I gave to my friends and provide more for you to check out. For those who don’t know, freelance writing is contact writing for hire–it could be writing a magazine article, a blog post, a radio spot, or a chapter in a travel guide.

Freelance Writing Jobs:

Freelance Writing Jobs is by far the most popular resource for freelance writing jobs online—if you’re looking for a writer, you’re going to this site; if you’re looking for a writing job, you’re there too. As an aside, the history of Freelance Writing Jobs is a fantastic story of a “mommy blogger,” Deborah Ng, whose website’s popularity went from an individual blog to the most popular writing resource website online—Deb has her own staff now.

Another excellent resource for freelance writing jobs is John Hewitt’s blog—John is a writer and editor and his frequent posts also include great writing tips!

Other Writing Resources:

I glean most of what I know about professional writing from blogs I subscribe to. For information on living as a freelance writer, I enjoy reading Lorna and Tamara’s insightful and honest posts on Freelance Parent.

Professional writing coach, Joanna Young also frequently posts advice for professional writing on her blog, Confident Writing.

Several other excellent writers’ group blogs I keep up with are Write to Done, Copyblogger, and Renegade Writer.

Why am I telling you this? writing-2

The main reason I am telling you this is that I’m personally quite interested in starting a freelance business of my own once I’m finished grad school. Freelancing allows you the ability to work from home, work as often or as little as you want, and work for yourself. I’m not saying that freelance writing will be my full-time career—it won’t be. But I think it’s an excellent money for making a little extra money on the side.

Do you have what it takes to be a freelance writer?

Yes! You do. You don’t need a BA in English or Journalism to be a freelance writer. All you need to do is have an opinion, some expertise on ANY subject, and the ability to express those two things through writing. You’ll recall my earlier posts about the process of editing and how to properly self-edit, and if you take the time to practice your self editing you’ll fix your writing for freelance possibilities in no time—not to mention that freelance material has to go through an editor who will change the wording and correct the mistakes anyway. So, there is a freelance job out there if you love sports, food, travel, gadgets, movies, politics, medicine, gaming, networking, social media, or pretty much anything you’re passionate about. It’s not a cake-walk, you’ll have to put some effort into styling your writing and developing your opinion, but you can do it!

A quick review

In my last post, I discussed modals and how they’re used to make predictions about the future. More importantly, I consider modals as grammatical markers that indicate that a palliative care patient is discussing the legacy they’ll leave behind after they die. As promised, this post is about grammatical aspect: which is a grammatical marker that relates information about whether an event described by a verb is ongoing, has been completed, or is being repeated. Again, I’ll include the caveat that modality and aspect are my focus for my discourse analyses of end of life psychotherapeutic interventions between doctors and palliative care patients. By better understanding how patients use grammar at the end of life, I believe that we can better understand how they situate their stories in relation to themselves as dying patients, and the individuals they were before they were diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Primary auxiliaries

You’ll recall that auxiliary (‘helper’) verbs encode information about plausibility, and temporality into sentences. Modal auxiliaries are one kind of auxiliary verb, but the primary auxiliaries relate perfect aspect, progressive aspect, and passive voice (the last, as mentioned in my last post, I won’t be focusing on).

The perfect aspect or the perfect “have”

Unlike the verb “to have,” which means to possess, the perfect “have” introduces the perfect aspect into a sentence and is always followed by the past participle form of the next verb (Remember the mouse“might have been being eaten” by the owl.)

My research argues that, along with using modals to discuss legacy, dying patients’ narratives contain other grammatical markers that indicate a relation between the patients’ narratives of the past and their present situation—in other words, patients use aspect to relate the character they are now to the characters they were before terminal diagnosis. That being said, the perfect “have” has three different contracted forms: in the present tense ‘s (for has) and ‘ve (for have), and in the past tense ‘d (for had.)

So it’s important to note how patients use the perfect aspect. Below are amended examples taken from narratives where patients connect their pasts with their present using the present perfect aspect and the past perfect aspect:

Present perfect aspect

1) “Like I say, you’re busy and when you’ve got your health, you don’t stop and think. I’ve had many years with cancer, but when it became malignant, I was angry.”

2) “I hope I haven’t cried too much for you.”

3) “I’ve made lots of mistakes. Don’t we all?”

4) “I’ve lived a good life and I’ve had a wonderful life. Life is hard, but like everybody else, you just go through it.”

5) “I’ve always said that man upstairs, he’s got your number and when that number comes up, there’s nothing you can do.”

6) “I was sick when I was eight, and that’s continued all my life.”

Past perfect aspect [for this aspect, the auxiliary perfect “have” is in the past tense and distinguished by italics]

7) “You know my husband and I went to Malaysia and we’ve been to a number of other places. We’d planned when we were in Malaysia to go back and just drive around the islands. We’d planned to have many, many more trips . . . unfortunately we’re not able to now.

8 ) “Last year I wrote good bye letters to all of my family members. If I’d have left it even until now I think I wouldn’t have been able to write as clearly as I did. I can’t remember what I said in them, but I know that I was quite satisfied with what I’d written at the time.”

9) “We went to Spain once with another couple, though I certainly wouldn’t have done that if my wife hadn’t been alive.”

Language as timeline


How can I prove that the perfect tense indicates a relation between the present and the past? Using Reichenbach’s system of temporality in language (from Experience and prediction [1938]), we use language to relay three points of time that are relevant to a normal statement:

· Speech Time (S): the time the statement was spoken or written

· Reference Time (R): the time on which we focus

· Event Time (E):the time at which the event took place

If we imagine these points on a timeline, which tense and aspect are used depends on the relation between S,R, and E.

So let’s consider the following statement:

6) “I was sick when I was eight, and that’s continued all my life.”

In every case, we understand S to be the moment of the interview; R, the time on which we focus, is the patient’s lifespan since age six; and E, the time the event took place, began when the patient was six, but has continued to S (the time of the interview.) On a timeline, we can represent this relation as follows (where the dotted line represents that the time the event took place is the patient’s lifespan since age six.)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – S


Age six                                Time of interview

As you can see, the present perfect aspect creates a relation between the past and the present.


To contrast this, though, here’s an example of the less common past perfect aspect:

7) “We’d planned to have many, many more trips . . . unfortunately we’re not able to now.

We don’t have any set dates here, but we do know that at some point in the past plans were made to travel but were interrupted by a terminal illness. Again, S is the moment of the interview; yet this time R, the time on which we focus, is the implied interruption of “many, many, more [trips];” and E, is the past instance of planning those trips—pre-diagnosis.


Planning        Interruption        Time of interview

Perfect aspect is a way of indicating the relation between the focus point (R) and the time at which an event took place (E). Tense, on the other hand, is a way of indicating the relation between the focus point (R) and speech time (S): in the first sentence, R and S coincide and we get the present tense; in the second sentence, R precedes S and we get the past tense.

For an event that happened in the past, if we use the perfect aspect, we are focusing not on the time of the event, but on some later time, for instance “now” or “the moment of terminal diagnosis.” Hence, the perfect aspect is used when we want to indicate the importance of an event for what is going on now. And therefore, patients use the perfect aspect to connect moments from their past on a timeline between the moment of their terminal diagnosis (past perfect) or the present moment of the dignity interview (present perfect.)

Obviously we don’t need to draw timelines to situate every example; the contexts of patients’ narratives provide all of the information we need. Yet, I think this is a useful exercise for proving the relation between the past and present in dying patients’ narratives

The progressive aspect or the progressive “be”

In a similar vein, another primary auxiliary is the progressive “be” that follows modals and the perfect “have”—if they occur—and indicates that something is in progress. The progressive “be” is followed by a lexical verb in its –ing form—so, if “been” appears in a verb string but isn’t followed by a verb in its –ing form, then it isn’t the progressive “be.” In many cases, the progressive occurs in a verb string with the perfect “have” to further ensure that the listener is aware there is a direct relation between the narrative event and the patients’ current life:

1) “Well, you won’t believe this. I’ve been writing a biography of myself.”

But the progressive “be” doesn’t have to be used in a verb string with the perfect “have:”

2) “Palliative care wasn’t just offering me hope it was like ‘we’re gonna find that you have no pain anymore.’”

3) “One of the things when I became ill, was that I decided that I was not going to be angry anymore with anyone because it was a waste of time. It’s better to be nice to people than to be angry.”

I haven’t fully synthesized my argument about the progressive “be.” But I believe, pending a bit more research, that the progressive is a way of relating past events more directly to the present moment by implying that they are ongoing. This is powerfully important for differentiating statements made by palliative care patients–especially for psychotherapy–because this verb tense indicates that the sentiment is incomplete and therefore may require closure. If a therapist can use grammatical markers to determine statements that suggest a lack of closure, they can use these markers as focal points for discussion and therapeutic intervention.


I don’t have any major findings to report as of yet but I will publishing this research in a forthcoming academic article along with my research supervisor and a psychiatrist. As I’m sure you can imagine, this research dying rosecauses me to think about some of the most profound existential issues that we must all face: death, dying, and legacy. I find myself brought nearly to tears when I read these documents and this series of blog posts serves to functions: first, to share with you just what the hell I do when I tell you my second job is discourse analyses of end of life psychotherapeutic interventions between doctors and palliative care patients; but second, to invite you to understand the remarkable nature of palliative care as I see it. On this second point, have you ever thought of volunteering at a hospice or palliative care ward? Dying patients have stories to tell and they have a lot to teach us about life. After this research project, I think about it a lot–I’m just in grad school right now and can’t find the time. But I will someday . . . if I ever finish school.