How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders

How should introductory college writing be taught to today’s nonreaders? E. B. White said to “make the paragraph the unit of composition.” But the paragraph is made of sentences, so why not start with the sentence? Francis Christensen did, and his original Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 6 Essays for Teachers (1967), is today available as Notes Toward A New Rhetoric: 9 Essays for Teachers (3rd Ed., 2007).  A preview of his “A Generative Rhetoric of the Sentence” can be viewed here.

“The teacher of writing must be a judge of what is good and bad in writing,” Christensen said, but “from what sources do they say ‘Do this’ or Don’t do that?’”

Christensen used a descriptive rather than a prescriptive approach based on his “…close inductive study of contemporary American prose.” In part, his work was a response to the “many English teachers [who] abide by the prescriptions of the textbooks they were brought up on. This preference is one that I cannot understand,” he said, “since it means taking the word of the amateurs who hack out textbooks that talk about language (fools like me) as against the practice of professionals who live by their skill in using language.”

Christensen’s inductive study resulted in his new method because he realized that, for example, there existed “…no textbook whose treatment of grammar and syntax could cope with more than a small fraction of its [Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man] sentences, but I would venture the claim that there is not a sentence whose syntactic secrets could not be opened by the key fashioned in the first two essays [of his Notes Toward…].”

Christiansen’s descriptive method recognized that grammar knowledge does not necessarily result in good writing. But Christiansen’s descriptive method does not ignore grammar. He said, “…the rhetorical analysis rests squarely on grammar,” but that “it should surprise no one that no experiments…show any correlation between knowledge of grammar and the ability to write. One should not expect a correlation where no relation has been established and made the ground for instruction.”

But neither should that be used, he goes on, to argue “that the only way to learn to write is to read literature [because] what is true over a lifetime is not true of the fifteen weeks of a semester. In practice, this position throws the burden of learning to write on the student. It expects him to divine the elements of style that make literature what it is and apply the relevant ones to writing expository essays about literature – a divination of which the teachers themselves are incapable. If reading literature were the royal road that this argument takes it to be, English teachers would be our best writers and PMLA would year by year take all the prizes for nonfiction.”

But why shouldn’t students be made to take on “the burden of learning to write”? And why does Christensen make the assumption that English teachers are so well-read? They have that reputation, but how much reading, in the midst of a full load and stacks of student papers to get through, are they able to get done “over a lifetime”? Consider, for example, this typical Christensen observation, made from his inductive study: “…our faith in the subordinate clause and the complex sentence is misplaced…we should concentrate instead on the sentence modifiers, or free modifiers.” But how do we know that without making the same inductive study he made? Indeed, Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, in sum, while not at all ignoring grammar, recommends taking the inductive study into the classroom, reading literature to teach writing.

“Oh, teachers, are my lessons done? I cannot do another one.
They laughed and laughed, and said, ‘Well child,
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?’”

…from “Teachers,” by Leonard Cohen, 1967.


Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

Notes toward a New Rhetoric
Francis Christensen
College English
Vol. 25, No. 1 (Oct., 1963), pp. 7-18
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
Article Stable URL:

Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos

Few bloggers are as full of ethos as Stanley Fish – as he frequently reminds us. He’s lately been waxing on the teaching of writing. He’s simply trying to challenge his community.

We like that Fish recently invoked Francis Christensen’s generative rhetoric (though he doesn’t mention Erskine). And Fish didn’t trash E. B. White, though he did question our ability to annotate him meaningfully for the modern student who knows no terms, and he seems to have skipped over White’s dictum to “omit needless words.”

Stanley’s wrestling with the protean snake of the sentence strikes us as heroic, a last stand against the philistines who would text, twitter, and roll rather than read to the floor of the ocean, write cursively, on paper, and stroll.

Speaking of music: if one aspires to be a musician – classical, jazz, rock, zydeco – one listens; one listens to the music of the discipline. Why would it not be just so with one who aspires to be a writer? An aspiring writer should read, just as an aspiring musician listens.

Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down

To a neighborly inquiry, yes, we saw the vicious attack on the venerable E. B. White, first in the Chronicle, then, with several bystanders jumping on for a kick or two, in the Times. We first became aware of Pullum at Emdashes, where, we thought, Martin Schneider – omitting needless words – handled the matter clearly and concisely and to a close, but we like following links, so from Emdashes, we followed a link to Levi Stahl’s discussion; without explaining too much, he dismisses the academic Pullum to move on to a more tasteful topic, E. B. White’s letters.

We are aware of the shortcomings of Elements, having on our own often tried to tackle the issue of what’s correct when. Pullum posts his own follow-up, fed up with the commenters (we have added his blog to our feeds). In his follow-up, he heads off going to his book, but it seems fair to ask if not White then what. Pullum’s book is a descriptive grammar, so it “…will not…make recommendations about how you should speak or write” (p. 3). It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are disagreements and conflicting opinions. For example, and as we’ve pointed out, White said to write with nouns and verbs; Erskine said to write with modifiers. Of course, the answer is to write with words, and good luck choosing the right ones, putting them in the right order, and separating them with the right punctuation.

In the June 28, 2004 New Yorker, we enjoyed Menand’s dissing of Truss, and he helps explain why we prefer White to the standard grammar text. Menand (like White before him) writes as a generalist, not a specialist. Menand argues, and we agree, and we think that White also agreed, that the rules don’t really have much to do with effective writing. If they did, most academic writing would not be nearly so anemic. Pullum complains in his Chronicle piece that “Some of the recommendations are vapid, like ‘Be clear’ (how could one disagree?).” Yet much academic writing would improve if the writer would only make some attempt at following this obvious, White tenet. In Menand’s piece, titled “Bad Comma,” he has something more to say than corrections of Truss. We don’t find that Pullum has much more to say, at least not on the evidence of the two pieces we see here.

We’ll ask White to help us with a close, from the March 4, 1944, New Yorker: “A good deal depends on the aims of a publication. The more devious the motives of his employer, the more difficult for a writer to write as he pleases. As far as we have been able to discover, the keepers of this house have two aims: the first is to make money, the second is to make sense”; two aims that academic writers are not usually saddled with. 

None of which directly answers Pullum’s argument. Pullum has two points: one, that Elements is flawed; two, that the flaws have afflicted generations of students who as a result of their immersion in Elements cannot now write. Pullum provides support for his first point; his second is insupportable. There might be scores of students unable to write, but it doesn’t follow that it’s the fault of Elements. But what about our point that the argument is somehow embroiled in academic versus commercial ends, that Pullum’s secret thesis is the advancement of the purpose of his text – a poor advertisement if he wants to compete with the incredible ethos surrounding White, an ethos based not on Elements, but on his actual writing success. That point is irrelevant to Pullum’s argument. But we have two claims too: first, students can’t write because they’ve been taught writing from grammar handbooks and textbooks, wrong from the start; second, that the textbooks are unnecessarily academic and rarely involve the kinds of reading experience necessary for students to improve their writing skills (the textbook industry’s commercial success is driven in large part from forced new editions, captive student readers, and exorbitant pricing). 

At the same time, there are academic efforts that have made both money and sense: for example, Zinsser’s On Writing Well; Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams (whose “The Phenomenology of Error” is must reading for anyone seriously interested in this argument); and Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, by Francis Christensen. We never said Elements was the only book to read, just that it is a worthwhile book to read and carry. And we are grateful to Mr. Pullum for updating its errors – his analysis will add fuel to the discussion of the choices suggested in Elements.