From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Styling Culture—Introduction

In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.
[a] Free  RF
I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during August and September. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained below), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always correct people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter. 

They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.

Styling Culture
Of School Marms and Language Mavens, Sociolinguists, Neurobiologists, Cultural Conventions, and Economic Forces (or: Why Have a Style Sheet When Language is Forever Changing…and, By the Way, Isn’t It A Bit Elitist, After All?)

I often receive veiled criticism in the form of questions about my style sheet. One of the most popular invokes Steven Pinker’s discussion of “language mavens” in his otherwise fine book The Language Instinct. I strongly recommend that you read it, and that you pay particular attention to his last two chapters, which I shall discuss here. “How dare you,” the questions seem to imply, “perpetuate an outmoded and elitist set of grammatical rules in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are arbitrary and that language is always changing?”  Let me be clear. I am in utter agreement with Pinker about sociolinguistics and the neurobiological roots of language—especially speech. Moreover, I feel that “school marms” (for me, the term is gender neutral) and “language mavens” are pains-in-the-nether-regions, and that there is no defensible set of “rules” in speech (other than those a normal brain can produce) that should be taught as the core of the English language. All speech is transformative, and writing, too, should always carry the possibility of change. Few examples are better than those found in Shakespeare’s plays, which might well have received a B- from the mavens and marms. Imagine the violence that could be done to some of the greatest lines in English literature by scurrilous wielders of the red pen.
[b] "Corrected"  RL
You see, grammar is culture.
[c] Precision  RF
My own training has centered upon East Asian languages and cultures, and I teach whole courses on the way that language truly “works” in context (including the way that banners flutter in front of businesses in Japan, advertising ランチ—something that sounds like “raunchy” but refers to “lunch”). And this is where it gets interesting, because Pinker and others are speaking and writing about…speech. Well of course speech is transformative and ever changing. Just walk into any place of business and order “raunchy.” Or turn on the radio or television and listen to…anything. Speech weaves and spins, pivots and passes, beyond any “rules” or “guidelines” that ever could be created. Even misstatements carve new linguistic paths, as Tom Brokaw did in a news report on NBC in the mid-1980s, when he described a person who fell “prostate” to the ground. We shift and shape language with every utterance as we play on words (feudal, futile; sorted, sordid), make mistakes (prostate, prostrate; idol, idle), and try to convey the “feel” for the world in which we live (“April is the cruelest month”; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”). Speech is not a problem (we’ll get to writing in a minute). It is living language, and I agree with Steven Pinker in his criticisms of “mavens” who tsk, tsk over speech “errors.” There will still be people “judging” us over speech (they never go away), but that is another matter for another time.

You see, grammar is culture.
[d] Possession  RF

If you read the last few pages of The Language Instinct’s penultimate chapter carefully, you will see that even Professor Pinker must relent when it comes to writing. In fact, the entire chapter is disingenuous in its trashing of straw (people). He treats “mavens” as pointless and silly critics with little better to do than to criticize others. While he is certainly correct in noting the pettiness of many critics, even Pinker cannot deny that there are powerful cultural and economic pressures that will not go away, no matter how many neurobiological arguments he might throw forth. From the time I began to write longer essays in high school, I heard plenty of Pinker-like people who assured me that “mavens,” professors, and literary agents who worried about “rules” were no-life-losers not even worthy of our attention. They were idiots, and I was told to ignore them.

You see, grammar is culture.

This advice was disastrous. Sure, it made me feel better for a short period of time, but it gave way to despair when I ran into the next professor or agent who (as I was assured by the Pinker-types) was petty and ignorant. The problem is that they marked papers in red, gave grades, and made judgments about whether my work was worthy of publication—sometimes for money (this was a shocking concept for someone who had originally thought of writing as a creative hobby, not a way of earning a living). They might have been narrow little “mavens,” but they had influence. I came to resent bitterly the Pinker-types who told me not to worry. They were the problem, I concluded. The forces of linguistic oppression were waiting to punish me, and Pinker-types just told me to laugh it off. It wasn’t funny. I wanted grades, or publication…or money. I wanted someone to tell me how to avoid the snakes in the grass just waiting to mock, “correct,” or send rejection slips. The Pinker-style “good-guys” sat on their desks and acted like we were equals, but they were nowhere to be found when I took their advice and was burned.

You see, grammar is culture.
[e] Two bee or knot 2b  RF
It was only later that I learned that many of the “good guys” didn’t even follow their own advice. They wrote carefully and accurately, and followed almost all of the conventions of Standard Written English that you have encountered in this style sheet. It was like being left on the front lines of the language wars while the generals enjoyed tea and buttered toast in their tents. I have never forgiven them. I will not abandon you in the same way, even if it means emphasizing several guidelines that often seem like “rules.” I resented the Pinker-types who acted like buddies until the moment I needed them to help. I didn’t need to feel good about myself; I needed to learn how the business worked. I regret that no one taught me precisely the cultural (the “mavens”) and economic (the publishing industry) reasons for knowing the conventions of English usage. I had to learn them on my own, in fragments, as this teacher or that editor critiqued my work. My style sheet is a response to that confusion. It is an introduction to those powerful cultural and economic conventions that every publisher in the English-speaking world assumes. Pinker’s weakness is that he seems unable to understand that culture and convention also exert powerful forces, even if many of us recognize—applauding him all the way—that such things as “unsplit” infinitives and the “proper” use of “hopefully” have nothing to do with normal brain activity.

You see, grammar is culture.

The style sheet criticism that I occasionally receive is particularly painful, since I spend many hours of class time explaining that convention actually matters in human culture—even against my much more powerful urge to teach the way that we “really” use language. The latter is, after all, a topic that dominates my research and teaching. Pinker and others need to be challenged on this matter, since their linguistic demagoguery ultimately weakens what could have been a fine argument. He ignores the fact that human cultures have a series of conventions that delimit the neurological possibilities of language creation. It is not just English “mavens.”  Why, I might ask Professor Pinker, do teachers of Chinese state that there is one correct way to write the character for “horse” ()?  Why, indeed, do teachers of Japanese say that there is one correct way (it is different) to write the same character?  Why do they often add (this is common) that they can tell if it was written “correctly” or “incorrectly”?  It happens every day in Chinese and Japanese classrooms all across the world. Pinker seems to forget that culture matters. The brain is a foundation, but there is more.

You see, grammar is culture.
[f] Positive  RF

Another set of examples should make the point abundantly clear. “They” want to hurt you. I have a colleague who knows the English language well. She teaches its fine points, its history, and its nuances. She has utter contempt for those who are obsessed with rules, and has a special dose of venom for idiots, as she calls them, who worry about things such as split infinitives. Yet I have another colleague who once interrupted a story (my story, which made the experience particularly wretched). It was a Revere-like tale about midnight mountain biking in a poison-ivy filled copse in central Maine, and it held the entire audience spellbound, just waiting for the itchy dénouement. Before I could reach it, she interrupted and said “I think you split the infinitive in your last sentence.” Story undermined; the knobby tires of my tale deflated, and it was all about the infinitive and an assertion of grammatical authority.

You see, grammar is culture.

But there is more. I have another colleague, a graduate professor, who judges students (and comments openly on their intellectual capabilities) if they make “mistakes” such as splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions. He once interrupted class to say to a student “that must be the way they taught you to talk down there”—referring to the student’s upbringing in the American southwest. Beyond bad manners, these examples show the utter perversity and power that grammatical issues hold for some people. We can mock then as “marms” or “mavens,” but they often wield influence—and can make at least our academic lives difficult. My empathy lies with the colleague who deplores obsession over silly “rules.”  Yet even she does her students a disservice if she does not prepare them for the grammatical monsters lurking everywhere—especially in academia, where such obsessions are multiplied. In short, ignoring the “rules”—not bothering to learn the cultural power they hold and their potential economic sway (several of the examples above have the potential to do more than to ruin a good story)—is not an option for people who are serious about connecting with an audience and making points in the world.

You see, grammar is culture.
[g] Going  RF
Let me be clear one last time: my style sheet focuses upon the conventions of English writing in the United States. They are cultural constructions, yet almost every member of the publishing industry assumes a familiarity with them (even if there are occasional disagreements over a detail here or there). It is part of a power configuration that has consequences for everyone who studies in school (grades) or attempts to publish her work (money). It isn’t all bleakness, though. Every rule (read: convention) can be “broken” to beautiful effect. I am of the school of thought, however, that believes that one should know what one is doing to achieve that effect, and that the compounding of unwitting errors rarely results in good writing. Practice the fundamentals in your academic writing, then have fun bending the “rules” to your rhetorical purpose. A good rule of thumb would be to note to yourself that you are “breaking convention” and to be able to say precisely why you are doing so. Repeat the following on weekdays (preferably at sunrise):

I am not too cool to study grammar, yet I am free to use my native tongue 
in ways that my predecessors had not envisioned. I should, however, know 
              why I am doing so.

Or something like that.

Revise, revise, revise

1 comment:

  1. Dear Rob,

    Many thanks for another illuminating post.
    I had never looked at grammar as culture.

    Here is an astonishing documentary mentioning the usage of grammar to cure patients with aphasia.,dayPeriod=evening.html