Page 4 of 4

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.

Emily Post’s Rhetorical Garden: A Field of Claims, Evidence, and Warrants

It’s too bad Emily Post was not a literary critic, for she was a whiz at rhetoric.

This is as close as she comes to lit-crit, but who can disagree? “There is no better way to cultivate taste in words, than by constantly reading the best English. None of the words and expressions which are taboo in good society will be found in books of proved literary standing. But it must not be forgotten that there can be a vast difference between literary standing and popularity, and that many of the ‘best sellers’ have no literary merit whatsoever” (chap. 8, para. 7).

Unfortunately, she does not give away the titles in her library, but her assumptions can be deadly: “It is difficult to explain why well-bred people avoid certain words and expressions that are admitted by etymology and grammar. So it must be merely stated that they have and undoubtedly always will avoid them. Moreover, this choice of expression is not set forth in any printed guide or book on English, though it is followed in all literature” (chap. 8, para 1).

If you are looking for an exercise to practice identifying claims, evidence, and warrants (and who is not?), take a look at Emily Post’s original Etiquette (1922). Get ready to frolic in a field of assumptions.

“Every house has an outward appearance to be made as presentable as possible, an interior continually to be set in order, and incessantly to be cleaned. And for those that dwell within it there are meals to be prepared and served; linen to be laundered and mended; personal garments to be brushed and pressed; and perhaps children to be cared for. There is also a door-bell to be answered in which manners as well as appearance come into play” (chap. 12, para. 1). And don’t we know it?

“But the ‘mansion’ of bastard architecture and crude paint, with its brass indifferently clean, with coarse lace behind the plate glass of its golden-oak door, and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation’” (chap 12, para 4). We’ve a rule in our place that offending mustaches must be swept clean by eleven every morning (save Saturday).

“Who does not dislike a ‘boneless’ hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere. What woman does not wince at the viselike grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily paralyzes every finger?” (chap. 3, para. 14).

It becomes increasingly clear why Emily Post did not go into literary criticism. As George Bernard Shaw said, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, study etiquette, or rhetoric, or grammar, or some such thing.” And Emily’s Etiquette is a work of fiction, and she is a stunning, literary star. Had she placed her cartoonish characters into any kind of plot, she could have been as good as P. G. Wodehouse.

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.

Distance of First Person Plural

For some time we’ve been thinking of addressing the blog’s use of the first person plural. Are we a group blog, or command central for some multiple personality? Are we looking for safety in number?

At St. Anthony’s in the early sixties we lined up outdoors in front of our classrooms following recess, shortest in the front to tallest in the rear, boys stage left, girls stage right. Reverend Mother called out “Distance: 1, 2, 3.” On 1, we placed our left hand, extending our arm, on the left shoulder of the student in front of us; on 2, we extended our right arm, the line pressing backward and up the hill as we distanced ourselves from each other, so the tallest in the back became taller still, and a kind of order overcame and stilled the playground. The unruly mob dissipated; the shouts on the street diminished. And on 3 we dropped our arms to our sides and stood silently at attention, individuals now, each responsible for I. We disappeared from view. Deviations deserved detention; no one wanted to be a you. All was still, until a whistle blew, and we marched into the classrooms.

Readers familiar with The New Yorker may recall the editorial “we” of the early “Notes and Comment” section of that magazine, to which E. B. White often contributed, writing, against his intuition, in the first person plural, the required editorial voice of the section. White apparently thought the practice silly; nevertheless, we recommend you try writing in the first person plural as a writing exercise.

You might enjoy the distance of the joke, a kind of detachment that comes from not taking yourself too seriously, though some suggest that’s just non-committal. You can get trapped in we, and that’s not good. But losing yourself in we might make for a good writing experience, might even improve your writing. The assumption that most academic writing of course should stay out of it altogether, whence the “one” of the formal academic style, as in “one wonders what this is all about,” ignores the results – often directionless and unfriendly prose. One wonders who this one is too, and if there might be a more clear and concise way to identify oneself and one’s view. It’s a question of distance.

“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.


Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Louis Menand, in his review of Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” suspects “the whole thing might be a hoax.” (New Yorker, June 28, 2004.) Menand corrects with comments Truss’s misuse of commas: “Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases,” and elsewhere, while he also finds nonrestrictive clauses missing commas. That’s not all he finds wrong (the controlling error in Truss’s book, in Menand’s view, is that she repeatedly violates the very rules she claims hold value), and so he asks, reasonably, “Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?” Menand’s answer is that Truss’s true topic is not punctuation but declining literacy skills and values. Menand’s true topic is that mastery of punctuation and grammar rules doesn’t necessarily produce style, what he calls “voice”: “There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm, euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singular-any of these can enliven prose without giving it a voice. You can set the stage as elaborately as you like, but either the phantom appears or it doesn’t.”

The problem is that most readers either don’t recognize errors or ignore them if they do recognize them, or they recognize errors and do respond to them but their response is rendered useless by the fact that the general reader can’t discern a difference between the passage with the error and the same passage with the error corrected – so no one seems to be the wiser or not for the error recognized and its correction inserted. We either get the joke or we don’t, and if we don’t, it’s not the same experience having it explained to us. For a discussion of reader response to rules violated we should read Joseph M. Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error.” Williams, like Menand, also makes use of writers violating their own rules, and not just writers like Truss, but the venerable E. B. White, whose “Elements of Style” is a classic now in its fourth edition, and the practical George Orwell: “…I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay (“Politics and the English Language”) without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.”

“It don’t matter,” you  might be saying, “I amn’t one of those. Just give me a few rules I can understand and apply to get me through the long night of this paper” (if you happen to be writing one) or “these papers” (if you happen to be correcting a stack).

Williams did not argue for a rejection of rules. At the same time, he did not think the presence of a rule in a handbook requires us to honor it. Perhaps we should spend more time not correcting errors but commenting on what’s right in a paper (a student’s paper or students peer reviewing). But we might still have the same problem – Williams deliberately inserted about 100 errors into his original paper, so that he could ask his readers if they on a first reading noticed any of them. If a majority of readers, he reasoned, recognized the same errors on a first “non-reflexive” reading, those errors would be the ones we should all read for first: “In short, if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find. But if we could read those student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors.”

If we expect to learn to write by learning the rules… – but if we don’t know the rules, and we still managed to write something effective or even with Menand’s “voice,” how did we do it?

For more of Williams’s ideas see his “Clarity and Grace or Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” and the U Chicago writing site. There is a useful list of “articles on error analysis” at the IUB campus writing program site.

Menand, Louis. (2004, June 28). Bad comma. New Yorker.

Williams, Joseph. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32.