In which I rant about the study of English
So, I had my first classes today – a math class (Ordinary Differential Equations) and the first-year English Composition class. The math class was awesome. The English class wasn't.
Before I go on, let me make it clear that I'm not picking on this class or this professor in particular; I'll be naming specific things from this class, but I'm mainly doing that in order to talk about a general attitude about the study of English composition.
Item 1: What Is Good Writing?
First, the professor said that good prose was “a lot less subjective than you think”. That's a laughable claim, for two reasons. First, it assumes that everyone in the class has the same thoughts about good prose being subjective. And that's a diversity issue. Among the students, there is probably a wide variety of different opinions on how subjective “good prose” really is, and the professor will never know those opinions, because ze didn't wait and ask people's opinions. Instead, ze told them what they thought – and in our society, what student would have spoken up to correct the professor?
Of course, the bigger point is that, well, “good prose” really is incredibly subjective.
But first, I'm going to jump back to the smaller point. Because I think the smaller point really does show why people might think that “good prose” isn't subjective. Because if you believe that everybody thinks in the same way, then you will believe that the same prose is good for everyone. And so it privileges one way of thinking over all the others. An attitude that privileges “normal” thinking is a form of neurelitism.
Now, let me tell you how subjective prose is!
But first, let me tell you why it makes any sense to talk about that in the first place. Because I actually have two options here: Either...
- I can decide that the phrase “good writing” doesn't actually mean anything.
- I can decide that “good writing” does mean something, and then talk about what it means.
I've heard a lot of people say things like “I don't know how to explain what good writing is, but I know it when I see it”. There's nothing wrong with a person using that definition for zemself, but it makes it impossible to have a detailed discussion about good writing. Sometimes that's all you can do, because sometimes your ideas just aren't well-formed enough to talk about. But here, it'd be nice to have a definition we can work with.
Guess what? I do have a definition we can work with!
Definition: Good writing is writing that is effective for some purpose. Writing that someone enjoys is good writing. Writing that changes how someone thinks is good writing. If I'm trying to sell pizza, writing that convinces people to buy pizza is good writing, and so on.
There, I defined it! Now, is this subjective?
Heck yes! If I write a super formal essay to give to a nine-year-old history student, my audience will probably find it boring, and hence I will have failed as a writer. If I write an essay full of modern slang and show it to a college professor, it'll probably be outside the professor's comfort zone, and hence I will have failed as a writer. And if I write an essay that's super formal when my audience is people who use modern slang all the time, it'll be less familiar to them, so the essay full of slang would have been a better essay, and it would have been better in a very important way.
The institution of Prestigious-University-English doesn't agree with me. It thinks that there's one specific style of English that's more important than the others. And that's bad, because when you privilege one style of English over the others, you also privilege one group of people over the others. If “grammatically correct” English is the dominant form of the language used, that marginalizes anyone who can't (or won't) read that style easily. It's sort of like going to a bilingual community and saying that English is correct and Spanish is incorrect. Sure, an English class is going to teach English and not Spanish, and that's not a problem. But, if it teaches that “English is how you're supposed to write, and Spanish is unnecessary”, then that is a problem. And that's exactly what the college is doing by requiring an English Composition (i.e. Formal English Composition) class, while not requiring an Informal English Composition class.1
Item 2: What are the rules, and why?
My English professor has an opinion about what the rules of English grammar are. I happen to disagree with zem on a variety of points.
One, there's no such thing as formal rules of English grammar. The meaning of language is defined by how people use it and how people understand it. It's not defined by how someone else says it's supposed to be used or understood. General guidelines help people understand each other, but when it comes to hard-and-fast rules, there just aren't any. Trying to assign rules is called prescriptivism, because you're prescribing what the rules should be, rather than watching how they develop on their own. Saying what the rules/guidelines seem to be, by observing how the language is actually used, is called descriptivism. I am a descriptivist, and I dislike prescriptivism (as you've probably figured out already!).
Take this blog, for instance. It's full of grammatical “errors”. Of course, they're not actually errors, since most of them are intentional. Some of them are just me being casual, like when I begin a sentence with “So, ...”. Those ones are informal grammar, not incorrect grammar. How do I know it's correct? Simple: Because that's how people use it, and usage defines the rules!
Some of my other “errors” are there for bigger reasons. For instance, I bet most English professors wouldn't consider “ze” to be proper English. Or they think that you should always put punctuation inside a quotation mark. That's “grammatically correct”, but logically incorrect, because you're not quoting the punctuation and so logically it shouldn't be inside the quote marks. That's kind of obvious. The only reason to do it the other way is because the other way is conventional. I don't mind if other people follow the convention, but I don't see any real reason for following it, since doing it this way is just as easy to understand.
That makes me a revisionist – I don't just observe the evolution of language and try to copy it, I intentionally push the language to evolve, by using words and grammar that I think make the language work better. English is hardly a perfect language. If you're not willing to change the language, the language will limit what you can say. When we add words and phrases like “ze”, “lateral thinking”, “lol”, and so forth (just to give a few recent inventions), we're not commiting errors that make bad writing – we're improving the language, making our writting better than ever before!
My professor gave the usual line of “You need to know the rules in order to break them... Great writers know the rules, and they sometimes break the rules, but they do it for a reason”. This statement has some merit; after all, most of the “rules of grammar” are actually good ideas, and I think it's useful to follow most of them. (The thing I don't agree with is if someone tries to enforce the rules). On the other hand, it just isn't true as a fact. A lot of historical “great writers” didn't respect, and sometimes didn't even know, the “rules”. Here's a quote from Joan Didion, whom lots of English-professor-type people consider a great writer:
Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power.
This quote is wonderful! (And I also happen to think that Joan Didion's writing is great in general.) Because that's the way grammar really works – I mean, I'm an abstract mathematician, and I love formalizing things, but even I don't read text in a purely formal way. People read text in an intuitive way, and so the way to be really good at constructing sentences is to be really good at that intuition. And there are lots of different ways to learn that intuition. Some people can learn it by studying and understanding formal rules, but other people learn it by immersing themself in the everyday use of the language. Nobody becomes fluent in a foreign language by studying the formal rules, so why should we expect a person to become excellent in zir own language by doing that?
Item 3: Where do we go from here?
My professor gave a few examples of where you need to be able to write formal English: Applications for graduate school. Job applications. College classes (which give you grades, and grades basically only affect your applications to graduate schools and jobs).
You know what those have in common?
They're all zero-sum games. If you get the scholarship, someone else loses the scholarship. If you get the job, someone else doesn't get the job. And most jobs don't actually require formal writing. Some public-relations jobs require writing, but that writing should be a lot less formal. Jobs in the sciences require a lot of writing, but – despite some overlap – science writing is very different than the “formal English” that they teach in English departments. In short – as I've been saying for this whole post – writing should be done for a purpose. And when you teach writing, you should teach how to best use the tools of writing to achieve a purpose, rather than teaching how to best fit within the mold given to you by centuries of prescriptivists.2
This might be a little silly, but I'm going to use this blog as an example again. This blog is here to express ideas. I write this blog because I have lots of cool ideas and I want other people to benefit from them. Since I don't want to exclude anyone, I try to use the most neutral, accessible language that I can. Sometimes that's hard, because my ideas are complicated, and so I sometimes need to use complicated language. And sometimes I need to use a specific term, like “zero-sum game”. (It's important to use that phrase because there's no other concise term for the concept.) And sometimes I just don't come up with the right way to say something, and I end up writing an awkward sentence instead. But the point is – when I fail, it's because I fail at my intended purpose. When I succeed, it's because I fulfilled my intended purpose.
Both of those things are related to the grammar and style that English classes teach, but the purpose must come first, and the style must come second.
- There are some things that are important in both formal and informal English, and we'll presumably be learning some of those things in this class, too. So far, though, it's only been about the formal stuff. back
- Did you notice that this sentence split two infinitives? I hope you didn't, because noticing that would be distracting, which is bad, but it's also mainly your own fault for being oversensitive to innocent grammar. I happen to think that it works best the way I wrote it. Because if I un-split the infinitive, I get “how best to...” and that's hard to read, because people are familiar with seeing the phrase “how to”, and the “best” confuses it. I didn't make that choice because I was conscious of the “don't split infinitives” rule and was breaking it for a reason; I did it because I was ignoring the rule, because the rule is pointless and stupid. back
more interesting comments from me later (hopefully). too tired now!
My sense is that “to best fit” does not really split an infinitive. Rather, it creates a new verb “best fit”, which is not split when used in the infinitive form.
The reason we have the split infinitive rule is because English is derived from a bunch of other languages where an infinitive is a single word. If you thoughtlessly copy the grammatical principles of those languages, splitting infinitives looks like a weakness of English. But it's not: It's a strength of English! When I say “to best use”, it's completely unambiguous that “best” modifies “use”, while any other order has potential ambiguities – and not only that, since the infinitive phrase stands as a unit, I've created a whole new phrase to refer to the concept of using something best, without having to use any extra words to explain that concept! Look at this example:
“How best to” and “how to best” are slightly different, though. Your sentence as written feels better to me than when I hypothetically shove the bests one word to the left, I think because “how to best” fits better into your writing style, and the emphasis is slightly changed; the bests are stuck to the verbs instead of to the “how to” phrase, which means each of the two uses has more individual character instead of being more uniform.
^^^ And this is the kind of shit I think about all the time, given half an excuse.
I'm sorry, I was getting an error and was not able to see that the comment had gone through. I suppose I should have checked.
Writing is all about reaching your intended audience. But there are some cultural biases there. In online forums, people quickly learn that forms of writing that look uneducated (rampant spelling errors, blatant structural problems in sentences) cause readers to dismiss what is being said. “Chatspeak” (the abbreviated words that are commonly used in text messages and IM) is trickier; in some online contexts it's the norm, in others it is frowned on.
College courses should make more clear what their cultural biases are and who they are teaching you to write for. The most common type of course is some form of expository writing; that one teaches you to write non-fiction for college papers and mainstream magazines. Science writing is another kettle of fish, and there you have to unlearn some of the standard expository writing stuff. (Scientific papers are very disengaged emotionally, usually written in the third person, and use passive voice extensively.) Writing fiction is yet another branch, but most students who aren't actually English majors will never take a class on that.
If a college writing course is mandatory, it's not sufficient for the professor to say “Okay, I know other forms of writing are equally valid, but this course is about this particular form”, although it would certainly be a refreshing difference from the professors I've met. The fact that the course is mandatory is a bias on the part of the institution, which contributes to a pattern of resistance that denies people access to the intellectual and social resources of the college if they don't happen to have the skills/abilities/resources to fit the prescribed mold.
If we recognize that our cultural biases are making us give a piece of writing less credit than it deserves, shouldn't we use that knowledge to teach ourselves to give it the proper amount of credit, rather than to tell other people how to write?
As to the “quotes and punctuation” thing, the British standard isn't computer-sciency-elegant either. The computer-sciency-elegant way is for the quotes and everything inside them to function as a single unit – so if there's punctuation inside the quotes, that punctuation has no effect on the structure outside the quote, and if you want to quote someone as having used punctuation, it must appear inside the quote. So some situations necessitate putting punctuation both inside and outside the quote, as in:
That's also why my website draws these little boxes around quoted things: It emphasizes the fact that each quote is a group unto itself, which makes it easier to read, at least for someone who processes information the way I do.
I agree that students of literature and language should be exposed to more writing styles in their education, perhaps even including a course on the cultural biases of language. But for the student of history or philosophy or music, the “standard English” class is probably enough. The engineering or science student will need some training in the peculiar way of writing that those fields use.
When I look at Eli's definition, though, it occurs to me that the Philosophy professor will likely be less comfortable with anything but 'formal' English. This means that anything else is less effective at communicating ideas (or getting grades, if that's the goal), and thus less good. Perhaps instead of being upset that the school requires 'formal' English, I should be sad that none of the relevant professors speak any of the other, more expressive, languages.
Rereading the above, I retract the suggestion that professors are unable to speak other languages. I have yet to meet a professor who communicated verbally in 'formal' English, or even tried. This probably means that they'd understand other types in writing, but dismiss them as wrong, which seems to fit with Eli's bias claim.
Pragmatically, I suppose the best way to function in an environment where all your superiors speak a different language is to learn that language and use it to function in that environment. Ideally, though, there wouldn't be a language used in education and few other places and there definitely shouldn't be an enforced opinion that any other form is inferior.
It's true that lots of people have that bias, and that an individual might want to study formal English in order to navigate other people's biases more easily; I have no objection to that. Having it as a requirement is yucky, though.
From a more practical perspective... As an “introductory course” that functions as a prerequisite? If a student enters college without the ability to express ideas clearly through writing, that's unfortunate, but these English Composition classes are a little more than a band-aid for that. When your students have a wide variety of different levels of formal-English skill, and you dump them all into the same class, the professors have to compromise between the needs of all their different students, which makes the class inefficient for all of them.
I'm fine with many forms of English that are not 'formal' English. I use different forms in different contexts. One type, however, strikes me as an indicator of lesser intelligence - just like most of what I write would be considered if it were in a college course. Is this the same bias? If I have had negative experiences with all the people I've encountered who use “ne” where I"d use “any” and “ur” where I'd use “your” or “you're”, and I then form a judgement about someone I've just met who used it, is that the same bias?
It feels entirely reasonable that I do that, but rationally I'm not sure it is.
less-important sidenote: While “someone else loses get the scholarship.” might not be wrong, it was likely unintentional and could confuse readers.
The most benign thing is this: Your bias will make it harder for you to recognize when a chatspeak-speaker turns out to be intelligent.
A nastier thing is if you tell other people to use standard English instead of chatspeak. Doing that makes your community more elitist/cliquish; it says “If you want to participate here, you have to follow our customs instead of your own”. And if you say “it makes you look less intelligent”, you're just reifying your own biases, since the only reason it makes people look less intelligent is that a lot of intelligent people are elitist enough to reject it in this way.
Also: Thank you for catching a typo! I have fixed it.