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Write This Way

Live and Learn | December 10th, 2015

I’m seeing red. It’s no coincidence this is the color of ink generations of teachers have used when correcting papers. I may not be an English teacher, but the slow, torturous suffering of the written word is enough to make me bristle. My note in the margin, “which is used for dependent clauses and does not begin a new sentence,” written in jaunty purple ink just doesn’t express the necessary gravitas.

Perhaps I’m being nitpicky. If lyrics from the preset channels on my teenager’s car radio are any indication, my language sensibilities went extinct with the dinosaurs. Perhaps I should embrace the linguistic diversity of our ever-evolving lexicon? Was Geoffrey Pullman right in his English Todayarticle calling the Strunk and White’s classic “Elements of Style” an “error-stuffed, time-wasting, unkillable zombie of a book”? I have been in academia for more than 30 years so my view from the top of the Ivory Tower might be cloudy. Does anyone really care about grammar anymore, or am I just keeping Bic in business?

Of course students are concerned with getting the skills that get them the jobs, particularly those jobs in emerging areas such as technology, business and global affairs. But higher education is more than just job training; no matter what the major, the emphasis is on developing skills like critical thinking, communicating and problem solving. These so-called soft skills are in demand in the workplace every bit as much as the technical skills. According to a recent report at CNBC.com, “Communication skills ranked as the most or second-most desired baseline skill in all industries … Organizational skills and writing abilities were also in high demand across the board”.

When it comes to writing, students are often frustrated by what is the “right” way to write? It seems that each professor wants something different: short answers, long essays, abstracts, lab reports or term papers, and the forms are almost as endless as the citations styles (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.). And just when you’ve figured out how to write for one professor, the class ends and you have to learn a new form for another class, like you’re writing some kind of discourse decathlon. A childhood spent with a handful of years in “grammar” school is not enough to master the linguistic vicissitudes of the college classroom, or the “real world” for that matter. Pioneering novelist Gertrude Stein recognized that “writing for the normal person is too complicated an activity to be indulged in automatically.”

But practicing a variety of written forms is the key to mastering function, and the function of language is communication. Being able to express yourself and communicate ideas across a wide range of disciplines, audiences and styles is key. And of course this is why skilled writing is such a valued commodity, in and out of academia. Learning the rules of successful and effective writing goes well beyond diagramming sentences. MIT linguist turned activist Noam Chomsky says that language, “for all it’s open endedness, it’s not a free for all, it obeys rules and patterns.”

OK, so if you’re Gertrude Stein you can be forgiven for bending the rules. But even her famously nonsensical quote, “There is no there there,” is grammatically correct (she didn’t write, “Their is no there they’re”). Adherence to the rules of grammar even allows us to make some sense of the very strange poem in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” that begins, “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” Elbow deep in red ink-stained term papers, I can sympathize with Alice. And when the grammacide is more than I can take, I turn to the classics. Wasn’t it Keats who wrote:

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, O Grammarly.com! O Online Writing Lab!

Who say’st unto you, replace that period with a comma,

For a dependent clause is not a sentence.

That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

[Editor’s note: Dr. Nawrot is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Child Development Lab at MSUM. She earned a Masters degree and a Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley, and has been working on her M.r.s. and M.o.M. degrees for over 20 years.]

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