Sunday, October 27, 2013

Repetitio est Mater Studiorum

Repetition is the Mother of Learning. Repetition is the Mother of Learning. Repetition is the...

If you are among the rank and file of those educated in Catholic schools, it is probably safe to assume that you are familiar with the phrase Repetitio est Mater Studiorm, along with a (heavenly?) host of other Latin slogans (Ad Majorem Dei Glorium! Ave Maria! Salve Regina! Carpe Diem!). But whether or not you attended one, it's probably true that when you think of Catholic schools, you thinks of iron-clad rules enforced by iron-clad nuns. Or maybe you think of elderly priests smacking smart-talking boys. (Let the record show that this particular Catholic schoolboy was desperately well-behaved, never once talked back to any priests, and definitely never missed so many 8:00 am classes one semester during his senior year that his poor religion teacher thought he had been thrown out of school.) Basically, you might think about restrictions.

Repetitio est Mater Studiorm beautifully captures that stereotypically rigid Catholic world. As I type the phrase, I can hear hippies spinning in their graves. In a quick Google search, I saw several web sites that claimed repetition is the mother of brainwashing, not learning. That the only way to learn is through  a complete lack of constraints, through total and utter freedom. Whatever that means.

This is essentially the same issue that haunts writing centers and freshman composition classrooms: how much time should a teacher or tutor devote to "skills and drills"-style work on grammar and punctuation? The underlying problem is that many of the rules of English grammar and punctuation more or less need to be memorized, even by native English speakers. (Fun fact courtesy of Dr. Jad Smith: English has more irregular verbs than any other language.)

Let me be clear what I mean by "grammar and punctuation." I'm talking about comma splices, dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers, as well as the litany of other errors English professors love to circle in red pen. My point is that these types of errors are habits. We all have good and bad habits. And we all know that breaking bad habits takes a lot of time. And, from a pedagogical perspective, the time spent helping writers break bad lexical habits could be spent freeing student writers from all constraints and restrictions. (By the by, isn't freedom always a brainwasher's proclaimed goal? If I planned on brainwashing a group of people, it's not like I would come out and say that I wanted to brainwash them. I would say that I wanted to give them something. Something like the freedom to express themselves more fully.)

But here's another way to look at it.  Lynne Truss, whom I have already cited several times in the blog, equates good grammar with good manners. Both grammar and manners serve to aid human interactions, which are frequently fraught with complications.

Take, for example, a recent experience I had while waiting tables. I have worked as a waiter at a fancy Bosnian restaurant in St. Louis for about six months. In August, a young man who planned on running for public office (maybe alderman?) came into the restaurant for dinner. He met with the restaurant's owner because he needed the Bosnian community's support for his campaign. There are about 75,000 Bosnians in St. Louis, by the way, and the city would be in some seriously dire straights if the Bosnians had not emigrated to St. Louis en masse during and after the horrific war that occurred in the 1990s. The guy running for public office seemed nice enough. Unfortunately, when I watched him eat, he put his left elbow on the table, held his fork like it was a spear, leaned over his plate, and proceeded to shovel delicious Bosnian food into his mouth. It was like he had not eaten in days. I have never seen anything quite like it, and I used to teach at an all-boys middle school.

Shoveling food into your mouth is not a crime. And, function-wise, it totally works. It's not like your gastrointestinal system cares too much about table manners. Bad grammar, also, is not a crime. If the reader is still able to understand what you want to say, everything's gravy. Grammatical and punctuation mistakes often obscure a sentence's meaning, but generally do not make the sentence unintelligible.

However, here's the thing. Grammatical mistakes make the reader work a little harder. In some rare cases, grammatical mistakes will make the reader want to vomit and never ever support your campaign for public office.

This is why teaching the habits of good grammar and punctuation is very important, despite being both time-consuming and reminiscent of rote-learning at the hands of nuns packing wooden rulers. Like good manners, good grammar must be practiced for it to stick. And it is worth it. Perhaps no one told our potential alderman that it is totally rude to cram food into your mouth at the dinner table. Or, maybe, in whatever culture our potential alderman is from, inhaling one's food is a sign of respect. But, in the restaurant's kitchen, the owner did not wonder about our potential alderman's cultural background. Instead, the owner went on at length about how he would never support the campaign of someone who could not follow basic dining etiquette.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Adverbs: The Spanx of Lazy Verbs

I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang… There are subtleties which I cannot master at all, --they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me, --and this adverb plague is one of them.   ( Mark Twain's "Reply to a Boston Girl" in the Atlantic Monthly, June 1880)

In the past I have snickered at Mark Twain’s quick wit, but no quote has troubled me like the above indictment of adverbs.  Digging deeper, I was surprised to find that a number of respected writers and thinkers agree with Twain, including Stephen King, Graham Greene, and Theodore Roethke.   So, I wonder.  What is the big deal with adverbs?  How is it that an entire category of English words “mean absolutely nothing” to Twain? 

Let’s consider the simple verb-adverb pair of run quickly.  If run is our verb and quickly our modifying adverb, then we will make sprint the pair's alternative.  

When we think of the verb sprint, we gain access to a narrow but specific set of memories, which help it to produce evocative images.  Perhaps you recall a photo finish at a high school track meet or a midnight dash away from a toilet-papered residence. 

 Run, on the other hand, contains under its umbrella a multitude of acts of self-propulsion.  It is non-specific.  The adverb quickly is intended to narrow the many ways a person can run, to emphasize speed.  However, quickly, like many adverbs, describes only relative magnitude.  When I say relative magnitude, I mean that an ant travels quickly when compared to a slug, but not when compared to a rabbit.  So, even with an extra adverb, we are left with only a vague sense of what is going on.  How quickly, we wonder?

We begin to understand Twain’s frustration with this part of speech.   What is the point of adding an extra word if it doesn’t get your full meaning across?  This brings us to my peculiar assertion that adverbs are like thigh-squeezing, butt-molding Spanx.  The idea is that if you are going to go to the trouble of adding on adverbial modification garments, why not instead spend that time exercising your flabby verb, run, turning it into a toned sprint?

A note before you go forth and purge all adverbs from your lexicon:

Adverbs have a time and a place.  Mark Twain’s opinion is just that, an opinion.  It is undeniable that adverbs have been successfully implemented in a variety of contexts.  Consider the hilarious use of adverbs in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 during a conversation between the psychiatrist, Major Sanderson, and Captain Yossarian...

“You have deep-seated survival anxieties.  And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites.  Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”

Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help.  “I hate them consciously.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

Write Your Passions

This is the start of a series about the rules of good writing. In the weeks ahead, we'll discuss these rules, one general rule at a time.

The First Basic Principle: 

Writing is hard work. That much we already know, yes?  The rules can sometimes overwhelm us as we sit down to write. Happily, according to E. Shelley Reid, who wrote the essay "Ten Ways To Think About Writing,"  these rules can be reduced to basic principles. 

#1  Write what you know, are passionate about, are curious to find out about...

  • Writing what one knows, loves, or wants to know more about covers a lot of territory, doesn't it? Yet, we can do this even if we've been assigned a topic because there are multiple sides to every topic. We begin by choosing the side that most interests us. It's simply a matter of brainstorming to get at the angle from which to write. What's the importance of writing our passions?  When we're interested in a topic, we usually invest more time, more energy, and we care enough to write with that all important quality "voice," also known as tone. This makes for a better experience for the reader, who can tell if the writer is bored or disinterested. If we're bored as we write the paper, we can be sure that the reader will also be bored as s/he reads. 
  • What we think and feel ultimately influences the direction that the paper will take. Through writing, we become aware of our own biases. Routinely, many of us know what we think and feel only after the words land on the page. In good writing, we revise in order to temper those ideas. Our passion is necessary to write an interesting paper. However, passion and reason go hand-in-hand. Ultimately, passion must give way to reason. That's what academic writing is all about. We use both our hearts and our intellect to get at that all important point. 
  • We not only pay attention to our own voice, but also to the voices of opposing viewpoints. So research to discover the broader landscape of the topic under discussion.  When we research, we go looking for naysayers. If we think and feel one way, we purposely look for opinions that oppose our views because this balances out the paper. This is the place where reason leads us to scholarly investigation. Opposing viewpoints help us to be more credible writers by offering more than a one-sided paper. Readers tend to believe writers who offer opposing perspectives.
Thus papers, fueled by both passion and reason, written and revised, using good research, communicate with readers in meaningful ways. 
In the weeks ahead, we'll be adding more principles of good writing to this list, one tip at a time.

*Ten Ways To Think About Writing by E. Shelley Reid can be found at

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Ye Olde Historie of Quotations II

Two weeks ago, I published a post regarding a certain traumatic childhood experience. The sheer weight of that memory upon my consciousness encouraged, nay, forced me to explore the different punctuation systems between the United States and Great Britain, especially concerning quotation marks. The following is the battle's first volley.

First, we delve into the history. Interestingly, punctuation started in order to help people read out loud. Originally, punctuation marks informed the reader when to breathe. This helped to avoid the reader passing out and leaving his audience hopelessly uninformed. Here is a date that every person in the Western world should know by heart: 1452. What happened in 1452, you ask? Johannes Gutenberg began printing the Gutenberg Bible on his printing press, which promptly changed the course of history. All of a sudden, a lot more people were reading.

According to Lynne Truss in her fantastic book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, in 1566, just one hundred years after the Gutenberg Bible, Aldus the Younger "was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax" (78). A bold statement indeed. Instead of punctuation primarily informing the reader when to take a breath, like a rest in music, punctuation functioned to aid the reader in understanding the meaning of the sentence. Aldus the Younger was well-qualified to make such a claim. His father, Aldus the Elder, invented both the semicolon and italics, which means every English major in the world should have a serious crush on Aldus the Elder. Without him, however would we explicate our most complicated points?

If you don't believe me about the relationship between punctuation and understanding the meaning of a sentence, let's take a pretty common punctuation example. A teacher asked his class to punctuate the sentence "woman without her man is nothing." Half the class wrote "Woman: without her, man is nothing." The other half wrote, "Woman, without her man, is nothing."

Okay so anyway, back to quotation marks. According to M.B. Parkes in his book Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (which is a pretty long, complicated book for an introduction, although it does contain a lot of pretty pictures), the most ancient form of the quotation mark, which Parkes calls a "diple," looked like this > and indicated quotations from the Bible (27). Eventually, the mark shifted to the " we are familiar with today, and was placed in the text's margins somewhere close to the Scriptural citation. This system still confused people, because it was not always clear where citations started and ended. Thus, Parkes says, "Towards the end of the sixteenth century the comma-marks representing the diple were removed from the margins and set within the page measure" (58).

Hold on, we're not quite done. Somehow, diples started to indicate direct speech, not just Scripture. Although at first quotations were authoritative in nature, like quoting Martin Luther or Augustine in a theological treatise, eventually the diples were used to indicate a direct speech from any Joe Sixpack. However, some people employed italics in the same way. Diples and italics waged an epic battle over which one would signal quotations to the reader. By the end of the 18th century, diples had overwhelmingly won the day.

Some more questions to be answered in following posts: where the hell did "air quotes" come from? Why do the British occasionally use single inverted commas to indicate quotations? How did the different punctuation systems emerge?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Interview with Dr. Peter Liu

In an effort to encourage campus-wide conversation on writing, we have interviewed various faculty members on its importance in their various disciplines.  For the third installment of our interview series, I sat down to discuss the intersection of technology and writing with Dr. Peter Liu of the Graduate Studies in Technology department.  Dr. Liu had excellent insights on both technical writing and the challenges of writing in a second language.

Can you describe the role of writing in your field?

In general in technology we write a lot of reports.  In research there are a lot of required proposals.  Those are the two major, major applications.

What would you say is unique to technical writing?

My personal emphasis is accuracy.  The number two would be something I would call readability, because our purpose is to carry information so that other individuals receive the information and then take action.

What would you say characterizes successful writing?

If it is accurate then you have credibility.  People trust you.  Otherwise no one cares what you write.  As engineers you know we like to speak on behalf of the fact.

Would you mind sharing a personal struggle with writing?

The struggle actually happened when I was a student, because I had to write a big paper, a dissertation.  The main struggle is to choose different vocabulary.  For instance, we must paraphrase other people’s work, but we may not plagiarize.  We understand the ideas, but then if we want to express them in different ways, we must paraphrase.  But the vocabulary is not easy for us to choose.

What are some dangers of poor written communication in technical occupations?

Look at the consequence, the critical nature.  It could be the safety of our customers, of the public.  So that could be the consequence if we do not convey the message in a clear fashion.

What writing skills do you see as lacking in those entering college for technology-based studies?

I came to EIU twenty two years ago.  I was trained in China with my Masters degree, and then spent four years at Iowa State before I came here.  I came as a foreigner, and my native language was not English.  But what I observed was that I was shocked.  The writing skills of students— I should not say the students.  The writing skills of half of the students were not up to par. 

What do you say to the technology major who says, “I am out of high school.  I am in college.  I don’t have to worry about writing anymore”?

Twenty years ago when I started teaching here, there were undergraduate students, and I just had to encourage them this is important.  I have to say to them you may not want to be an (entry level) engineer all your life, so that so can make a bigger impact.  In order to do that, writing is an essential skill.

What roles might a humanities or English major play in a technology-oriented business?

As a university we always want to lead our next generation.  We want the younger generation to lead our society.  In order to do that the university formed CENCERE (Center for Clean Energy Research and Education).  It was an interdisciplinary effort across the entire campus.  As a result we formed a program called the Masters of Science in Sustainable Energy.  This new degree program is a collective effort from ten disciplines across the entire campus, including [the English] department.  EIU is more liberal arts focused, so our niche is not, say, providing bench scientists.  Our students are more well-rounded.  We know the technical aspects as well as the human side.  To be an effective leader or manager, they’ve got to have communication skills.