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.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Styling Culture (14)—Overly Colloquial Language

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture." 
[a] Clutter RF
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.

I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during the autumn and into the winter. 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 in the introduction to the series), 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 seem to be correcting 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.

14. Overly Colloquial Language
While I have often told students that they need not take formality to extremes in the writing of their essays, I have also made it clear that informality does not equal sloppiness. Writers have for centuries written very personal prose that remains beautifully constructed, even elegant. Rousseau, Thoreau, and even people whose names don’t end in “eau,” have created the kinds of sentences that DO NOT contain phrases such as these:
Phrase                  Comment 
a. lots of/a lot of     There are lots of better ways to convey this. “Many” is much clearer (find the right word).
b. pretty (much)     This is a weak phrase with almost no meaning, and is pretty much useless.
c. alright                 “All right” is alright in very informal writing, but usually...just drop it.
d. a couple of         “A few,” “several”—let your mind run. This phrase won’t work unless you’re just talkin’.
e. amongst             Just write “among," and use Standard American English in your writing.
f. as                        As I don’t think it is acceptable, don’t use this for “since,” or “because” (which are fine).
g. oftentimes          How about just writing “often?”  Never start a sentence with it, though (12p).
h. society thinks     What does that even mean?  Who is “society,” and how does it think?
i. quite a bit            Wordy, clunky, colloquial. Quite a bit of vague, cluttered writing is like this.
j.  their culture        Be precise with general terms such as this. You cannot “go to a culture,” for instance.
k. till                       Please use “until” till I let you know otherwise.
l. like                     “Such as” would be far more acceptable in cases like this.
m. (author) says     Authors usually write; unless you are quoting speech, avoid phrases such as “Hegel says.”
n. talked about       Writers do not “talk about” things (in their texts); they write them.
o. sort of (like)        Highly problematic. It is sort of like...vague.
p. kind of (like)       Equally problematic. It is kind of like...clunky.
q. kids                    If you are referring to children (not goats), please say so.
r. nowadays           One need not say “nowadays” or “this point in time” to refer to the present with precision.
s. you                     Do not refer to your audience as “you.”  Aim for a larger readership (even on a term paper).
t. awhile                 This is far too colloquial for academic writing.
u. thru                    Through.
v. those guys         The Mongols (for example) were not “those guys” fighting the Chinese in the Song dynasty.
w. practically         There is practically no place where this word enhances a sentence.
x. decent               This is not a very useful substitute for “good.”  There is a decent chance that I will reject it.
y. in lieu of             Know what lieu means (look it up). The phrase does not mean “in light of.”
x. plenty of            There are plenty of better ways to express this.
z. was all about     Genghis Khan wasn’t “all about” conquest. Try to be more specific. 
***  *** 
[b] Sloppy Zhou RF
Informality does not equal sloppiness. Think about that. Why, deep within our consciousness, do we have a little nugget of understanding that equates the two? We do, and it has woven its unkempt shirt tails into our prose. I want you to tuck in that shirt and tidy up. Here's the point, though. I want your prose nicely pressed, but you need not put on a tie (bow or otherwise). I want you to control your prose in ways that allow you to use an informal voice in your essays and much of your other writing. Do understand that the demands of formality do not go so far as to require stuffiness. These two misunderstandings have done more to harm writing than anything but...not reading and writing enough. Let's chant them, together.
                                    Informality does not equal sloppiness.
                                    Formality does not equal stuffiness.
If you can find a way to internalize these two principles, you will be a good writer. You will need to keep practicing (see yesterday's post), but you will "get it" in a way that will propel you toward success. The problem is that almost all inexperienced writers (by which I mean the vast majority of us) tend to read them the opposite way. We tend to think of informality as "email writing" or "social media posting," while scary things such as term papers and annual reports require jargon and distanced language. In short, most of us don't get the point of the lines above, and years of indoctrination in school and on the job have not helped matters.

I once heard a triathlon coach say one of the most prescient things I have ever heard. "Most people," he said, "get it all wrong while training. They go too hard on their easy days and not hard enough on the hard days." Perfect. We can turn those lines quite effectively toward writing issues, too. Think about it this way:

          Most people give too little attention to their "ordinary" writing and too much
          attention (and worry) to their "required" writing.

What I mean by that echoes yesterday's post. We need to learn to be excellent "informal" writers. Equally, we need to get over our fears (and pretensions) surrounding "formal" writing. There are differences, to be sure. The first-person voice (I, we) is certainly more muted in formal writing, and "conversational" language of the kind you will see in these blog posts ("You see," "Now, people...") need to be removed. It is a different kind of writing, of course, but not so different that writers need to tense up and search for phrases that they regard as "formal." That is when people start to throw in "whom" in places the word has rarely gone before. It sounds formal, so it must be good, er, sublime.
[d] Essay-ers RF

I have a solution, and we will conclude with it today. Start reading essays. No, I do not mean "articles" (newspaper, journal, or otherwise). Start reading essays. The dictionary definition of "essay" is commonly pointed out by writing teachers, but it never gets old, which is why I am mentioning it here. The basic idea of "assay/essay" is to make or give a try. It's very meaning is tied to experiment, practice. Reading more essays will help you to see precisely the way that skilled writers can be informal...yet not sloppy, wordy, clunky, or cluttered. I have a brief list of essayists worth reading, but you can find great examples in any work of essay collections (such as The Best American Essays of 2010) and books with similar titles. I am wary of mentioning too many names, but too few is equally problematic. Let me just say that you could do worse than reading E.B. White, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, and John McPhee.

And then there is Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). He "invented" the essay. You should buy his complete essays and read one of them before bed (or with breakfast) every day. No one has ever examined his life in prose as beautifully as Montaigne. If you have never heard of him, you are in for a life-changing experience. If you have, but have not read him, same thing. And if you have read The Essays (Les Essais), read them again. And again...
[e] Assay RF

...because there is one last thing for today. Start thinking of yourself as an essayist. It will change every bit of your writing, including your "formal" or "required" work. Once you start thinking of ways to communicate to real readers—conveying real, and powerful, thoughts and emotions along the way—you will never again be able to write the kind of colloquial, sloppy phrases that occupy the list above. It will change you forever, and you will become an e-mail and Facebook essayist, as well as a superior writer of "formal" prose. You see, Montaigne would have been a blogger, and he would have had a Facebook page (I have a hunch). It is simply that he would have been the best blogger and social media writer...ever.

Be like Michel, and just write it...over and over. Read more; write more. Repeat.
[f] Michel de Montaigne RF
Exaggerated and Inadvertently Pointed Language
These can be fun, but they still detract from good writing. I have literally torn my hair out and cried my eyes dry over the tons of exaggerated writing I read.

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