Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mythical Fussbudgetry

I started reading a new book the other day that had been recommended to me by a friend. It's Mindset (2008) by Carol S. Dweck, a widely respected psychologist and researcher at Stanford University. Although the subtitle of the book, The New Psychology of Success, gave me pause because it sounds a little self-helpy for my taste, Dweck relates interesting scientific research in accessible prose -- a writing skill I highly esteem.

However, a paragraph in Dweck's introduction also made me pause and left me frustrated

Here's the passage:
  • "A little note about grammar. I know it and I love it, but I haven't always followed it in this book. I start sentences with ands and buts. I end sentences with prepositions. I use the plural they in contexts that require the singular he or she. I've done this for informality and immediacy, and I hope the sticklers will forgive me" (x). 
Although I'm enjoying the book, I'm still trying to forgive her for writing that passage about "grammar."

Ironically enough, the first sentence of her paragraph begins with an intentional fragment or what could be considered an ellipsis. In her excellent book Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects (5th ed.), Martha Kolln describes the latter, which she calls a "stylistic variation" that "refers to a sentence in which a part is simply left out, or understood" (223). In Dweck's first sentence, we can assume "Here is" or "I have a" is phrase that has been left out of the fragment, "A little note about grammar."

The sticklers she's worrying about would fault her for writing a sentence fragment -- if they noticed it.

Besides that first sentence or intentional fragment or ellipsis or whatever (note the use of polysyndeton), let's take a closer look at the injunctions Dweck worries about because of the "sticklers" out there:
  • Myth 1: Don't Start Sentences with Ands or But
  • Myth 2: Don't End Sentences with Prepositions
  • Myth 3: Don't Use They as a Singular Pronoun

Myth 1: Don't Start Sentences with Ands or Buts
I never understood this misguided "rule" until I volunteered in my daughter's elementary school classroom. Imagine 24 second graders writing stories for their teacher and starting many of those sentences with ands and buts.

This injunction reminds me of the same advice we hear in the writing center when writers tell us they were told never to start sentences with a because. That directive is probably an unintended result of teachers trying to ward off sentence fragments.

I've had this "rule" used against me in various contexts -- when I was writing papers in college and even when I've published research. For me, it doesn't make much sense because writers can use those conjunctions for rhetorical effects. For example, think of a writer who describes many of the positive attributes of a political candidate but then ends the paragraph with this terse statement: "But he's not the right candidate for our district" or "But he's a crook."

Catherine Soanes on the blog of Oxford Dictionaries addresses this grammar myth/diktat in detail.

Likewise, here's further support for beginning sentences with ands and buts:

Myth 2: Don't End Sentences with Prepositions
Consider these sentences:
  • "Ending sentences with prepositions has never been a rule about which I've been concerned."
  • "Ending sentences with prepositions has never been a rule I've been concerned about."
The first sounds clunky, doesn't it?

Of course, one could argue the second sentence would sound much better with a front-loaded (subject-verb-object) active voice construction like "I've never been concerned about ending sentences with prepositions," but I'm not going to get into the often stated presumption that active voice is always better.

That might be for another post, one that focuses on how certain disciplinary discourses demand passive voice constructions. In addition, Doug has written about staying active before.
For myth-busting purposes, I first went to my faded copy (6th edition) of William Zinsser's On Writing Well for advice. He states, "The growing acceptance of the split infinitive, or of the preposition at the end of a sentence, proves that formal syntax can't hold the fort forever against a speaker's more comfortable way of getting the same thing said -- and shouldn't. I think a sentence is a fine thing to put a preposition at the end of" (42).

And here are some links to resources that support the practice of placing prepositions at the end of sentences:

I also highly recommend this video on the issue from one of the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Myth 3: Don't Use They as a Singular Pronoun
This myth is one I'm having a hard time giving up because it's been instilled in me through years upon years of formal schooling. And giving up one's beliefs is difficult.

However, to provide a historical context for this one, I suggest reading "All-Purpose Pronoun" by Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman from the New York Times. The authors relate how the use of "he" as the default singular pronoun started with Anne Fisher's A New Grammar in 1745 and has been reinforced ever since.

At the close of their article, they offer this conclusion: "It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural. But umbrage the grammarians took, and like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language."

Likewise, in "Is 'They' Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?", Mark Nichol works readers through the options writers have with pronouns and opines near the end of the article that "I am flummoxed by the controversy over it [the use of they as a singular pronoun] and by the resistance of many people to accept it. Singular 'they' has long been used in literature and in conversation, and though it still has an informal taint, it seems to me absurd to resist adopting it when it satisfies an aching need."

One of my favorite sites on grammatical matters, Grammar Girl, presents a solid and reasoned approach about how to contend with this myth. Her advice, which I'll quote at length, is this: "everyone who hires writers or assigns writing needs to have a style guide entry on this topic. Writers can waste a lot of time trying to decide what to do (especially in organizations where people collaborate on documents), and it is better to have one single style that some people don't agree with than to have different writers doing different things so that company documents are all willy-nilly."

And she also provides her "bottom line": "Rewrite your sentences to avoid the problem. If that's not possible, check to see if the people you are writing for have a style guide. If not, use "he or she" if you want to play it safe, or use 'they' if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself."

Like Grammar Girl, I also think they will eventually become acceptable as a singular pronoun because language can and does change. But I wonder how long it's going to take.

Will I be alive to see it become acceptable?

Will you?

Why not follow Mahatma Gandhi's advice about being "the change you want to see in the world" and make that change now?

The Upshot
Of course, audience awareness is the huge factor here. Grammar Girl addresses this concern in her advice about ending sentences with prepositions, "because of the prevalent myth that it’s wrong to end sentences with prepositions, there are times when you should avoid doing it even though it isn’t wrong. For example, when you’re writing a cover letter to a potential employer, don’t end a sentence with a preposition. The person reading the letter could see it as an error. I always recommend following the most conservative grammar rules in job applications. I’d rather be hired than lose out on an opportunity because my grammar was correct--but perceived as wrong."

The same can be said for using they as a singular pronoun.

If I were to advocate anything here, I would propose we eradicate the so-called rules about conjunctions not being able to start sentences (Myth 1) and prepositions not being able to end sentences (Myth 2) as long as people use such constructions within reason and for rhetorical effects (there might be the rub).

To me, the distressing aspect of the first two myths is that people in power -- whether high school teachers, college professors, human resource directors, employers, et al. -- are applying these diktats arbitrarily. They are passing on and reinforcing beliefs that are at best silly or at worst just pedagogically wrongheaded and aggravating.

Also, I'd like a formal ruling on using they as a singular pronoun, and I would prefer it be a positive ruling since wallowing through using he, she, s/he, his or her is just darn clunky.

Imagine if a decision were to made by an entity -- say a coalition of Oxford Dictionaries, the American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, NCTE, CCCC, WPA, MLA, APA, IEEE, Chicago Style, ASA, and others -- and the judgment was that they can serve as a first person singular pronoun?

On your local college's quadrangle, there would be students with bullhorns announcing, "Yes, we can now use they as a singular pronoun!" And crowds of students would cheer with hearty "Huzzahs!" Well, probably not. That's just a fantasy, but it's an overdue one.

But Grammar Girl's advice about audience/readers pulls me back to another passage in Dweck's book where she says, "You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They're powerful beliefs, but they're just something in your mind, and you can change your mind" (16).

These beliefs about conjunctions and prepositions lurch toward the picayune when you think about the big picture of what writing should do. Writing should make interesting/important points, marshal strong support, exemplify clarity, and be stylistically elegant, among other goals. Good writing should get the job done.

How often do those of us who are instructors not listen to students' ideas with an open mind because we're so focused on sentence-level concerns? Are we noticing errors because they disrupt our reading, or are we reading papers in an error-hunt mode?

Sure, sentence-level concerns are important, but they aren't the only concern. And getting angered by powerful myths about picayune matters might cloud your mind when reading students' papers. You can be seduced by mythical fussbudgetry.

When reading papers and responding to student writing, instructors have to make decisions about what's most important. Often we let established writers break some of the "rules" out there, such as split infinitives, fragments, and others.  Joseph Williams' fine article, "The Phenomenology of Error," demonstrates that much and more.

For advice about changing one's mindset and ideas for productive methods for responding to student writing, I offer these links:

I hope you find the post and the links helpful, and I hope you can stave off mythical fussbudgetry. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Embracing the Semicolon, Sort of

Back in February Ms. Kelly Franklin provided a fine post titled "Semicolons--Which Side Are You On?"

To follow up on her post about this misunderstood and often abused punctuation mark, I thought I'd pass along yesterday's Opinionator column in the New York Times by Ben Dolnick. Thanks to EIU Professor Emerita Linda Coleman for passing along this column.

In "Semicolons: A Love Story," Dolnick recounts his intellectual journey of finally embracing the semicolon. Because of his esteem for both Vonnegut (who Kelly references in her post) and Hemingway, for a long time he didn't use the punctuation mark.

But as he relates in the piece, "once I’d seen him [William James] using semicolons this way, their pleasing possibilities became irresistible. I’d been finding myself increasingly flummoxed by the difficulty of capturing even a rough approximation of thought on the page, and it seemed absurd to leave such a handy tool unused out of obscure loyalty."

I agree with Kelly's opinion that "one should use semicolons sparingly." However, Dolnick makes a good case for why and how a writer should use them. While Dolnick seems to dismiss the textbook definition of a semicolon functioning to create "a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences," the diction I'm focusing on is "too closely connected."

As a writing teacher, I'm fine with semicolons as long as writers use them purposefully; too often I see semicolons connecting sentences that have no reason to be so closely connected.

I'm a fan of using semicolons to connect two interrelated sentences that have relatively balanced clauses, such as the following quotations taken from one of my commonplace books:
  • "In Iraq, the luck get Kevlar; the rest get prayer beads." ~Naomi Klein, "Disaster Capitalism: The New Economy of Catastrophe"
  • "No man is exempt from saying silly things; the mischief is to say them deliberately." ~Michel de Montaigne
  • We need to rediscover and celebrate our place here; there is nowhere else for us to live." ~David Suzuki and Amanda McConnell, The Sacred Balance
  • "At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide." ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • "When I call to my my earliest impressions, I wonder whether the process ordinarily referred to as growing up is not actually a process of growing down; whether experience, so much touted among adults as the thing children lack, is not actually a progressive dilution of the essentials by the trivialities of living." ~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
  • "To live by the internal-combustion engine is to live on top of fire; a cyclone of explosions carries us along." ~Ian Frazier, "Route 3"
  • "Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed into selfishness." ~Alexis de Tocqueville

For me, Ms. Franklin's advice about using semicolons sparingly is warranted, and writers need to keep in mind why they're using them -- not just inserting them into their sentences willy nilly.