top of page

Review: "They Say/I Say," by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

Let me begin with the audience for They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter Most in Academic Writing. You should add this book to your library if you:

  • are a high school student about to enter college looking for some preparatory summer reading (Alright, this is a small and somewhat unlikely constituency, but I applaud those of you for whom this is the case.)

  • are currently in college and have found it a challenge to figure out how to put what you’re thinking into words that meet the criteria set out by your professor

  • are a student or faculty member who sometimes struggles with word choice and sentence structure in your academic writing, because English is your second language

  • work with students from any of the above constituencies

That’s a lot of people. And according to the preface of the third edition, They Say/I Say has sold more than 1 million copies. Essentially, the book is rhetorical Mad Libs®. Now, some may consider this dismissive, but actually, I think it’s a wonderfully creative approach to the problem of finding one’s academic voice.

In my high school French class, we used a textbook called Nos Amis. And while my English classes focused on either grammar or literature because we were all presumed to be conversant in the lingua franca, Nos Amis offered brief dialogues that featured commonly spoken phrases as the entryway into the French language. I can still hear our attempts at mimicking the inflections and intonations of the recorded dialogue in language lab; how we paused then lurched across the now unruly landscape of our American accents with a kind of guttural gusto. Bonjour. Comment t’allez vous, anyone?

What co-authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein of the University of Illinois at Chicago remind us of is that the language of academia is, indeed, foreign to many. It is a new tongue that they’re required to master in order to navigate the unfamiliar world of the university. In order to address this need for relative fluency, if not mastery of academese, the authors have organized the book around the conversational premise of “they say” and “I say.”

The first section of the book addresses “they say,” or how to articulate what others argue about a given subject and incorporate it into one’s writing. It’s important to underscore that this is not at the level of the citation. Rather, it’s literally the phrasing used to express another’s opinion. For example, the supplied wording can be as simple as, “It is often said that__________.” Or, it can be as complex as, “In discussions of X, one controversial issue has been__________. On the one hand, __________ argues __________. On the other hand, ___________ contends ___________. …” You get the picture.

Part 2 of the book takes on what “I say,” or how to express one’s own opinion in relation to what others believe or argue about a given topic. Does one agree, disagree, agree with contingencies? And how does one express those different perspectives in writing? There’s a chapter on tactics and templates for addressing objections and another on answering the all-important “who cares” and “why” questions. And Part 3 offers chapters on the linguistic options available to help one piece together the larger parts of a paper into a cohesive whole, and how to revise your language in the revision process.

The final section of They Say/I Say looks at the language and rhetorical moves specific to a given discipline or genre. Writing about literature, for the sciences and social sciences, and for the digital world are all covered in this 3rd edition. There are also brief exercises at the conclusion of every chapter, and well-chosen readings and an appendix of templates at the end of the book.

Now, the Nos Amis critique, or rather the critique of the direct method of language acquisition, which is what it’s known as when it’s at home, is that it teaches students to parrot the language rather than understand it. And I admit I had some concerns that the approach advocated here might be too surface to be of real use. But the authors take this into account. They understand the importance of critical thinking and much of the book is really framed around the idea of helping students become better, more engaged and analytical readers. These are readers who not only understand what’s being said, but also have the linguistic and rhetorical tools to muster a sound response. It is a thoughtful and useful introductory text for the college- and college-bound student and a solid reference text for the ESL academic. C’est bon!

They Say/I Say: The Moves That Matter Most in Academic Writing

3rd edition (2014)

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein

W.W. Norton

Available both new and used at fine literary purveyors.

Featured Review
Tag Cloud
No tags yet.
bottom of page