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...

  1. I can decide that the phrase “good writing” doesn't actually mean anything.
  2. 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.

– Eli

  1. 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
  2. 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
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