“You Can’t Write Writing”

We hear instructors across the curriculum bemoaning sloppy grammar. This apparent neglect of grammar is like the outbreak of some sort of flu, symptoms of the contagion appearing in papers everywhere. But our friends across the curriculum have the correct antidote: everyone should correct grammar when reading papers. But any diagnosis of unclear writing should consider more than grammar.  

Wendell Johnson, in “You Can’t Write Writing,” argued that English teachers had not been effective teachers of writing because they had emphasized grammar over purposeful writing. He opened with a quote from the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, “Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to? …What Mr. Darrow was contending can be summarized in the statement that the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to.’ ” 

Johnson, president of the International Society for General Semantics in the mid 1940’s, argued that English teachers had done a poor job of teaching writing skills, evidenced by the fact that he was forced in his job to teach students with sixteen years of grammar experience (i.e. graduate students) “how to write clear and meaningful and adequately organized English.” Johnson did not believe teaching grammar produced good writers: “In fact, it appears that the teachers of English teach English so poorly largely because they teach grammar so well. They seem to confuse or identify the teaching of grammar with the teaching of writing.” This in an era when students presumably read more, yet: “These students exemplify the simple fact that although one may have learned how to write with mechanical correctness, one may still have to learn how to write with significance and validity.” 

Johnson cited three reasons why English teachers failed to teach effective writing: they did not teach by example; they did not teach “writing-about-something-for-someone”; and they considered that writing, an art, could not be taught. But Johnson’s students committed few grammatical errors. “First of all, it is to be made clear that grammatical errors are not particularly serious.” The English teachers had done a good job teaching grammar; nevertheless, Johnson’s graduate students were unable to write clearly. In our time, we must contend with bad grammar, unclear writing, and a public that undervalues reading. 

We have argued that a good writer is first a good reader, and that a good reader is a good proofreader, constantly editing for clarity, conciseness, and purpose. All writing should be purposeful and aimed at a target audience. One learns writing while writing, and probably in no other way. What kind of paper can we expect from a student who neither reads nor writes? We have seen that bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, and that bad thinking is often a consequence of a lack of reading experience. 

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of standing in a small group and being asked by some lost motorist for directions. Someone in the group probably stepped up enthusiastically to offer simple if confused directions. Another may have interrupted with a reasoned opinion of the best route. Someone else may have entered with a third opposing viewpoint, suggesting yet a better route. What was the problem: the map, the roads, the destination, personal driving experience, the blank response from the increasingly frustrated driver? And of course, at the bottom of the hill, the car turned left when everyone had at least agreed on the need to turn right. It may sometimes feel to students that they are like lost travelers, making wrong turns at every corner, misunderstanding seemingly contradictory directions, uncertain which way to turn next. 

“You Can’t Write Writing” was anthologized in “The Use and Misuse of Language”: Selected Essays from ETC: A Review of General Semantics, edited by S. I. Hayakawa. Harper and Brothers, 1962.


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