The rules of writing: making sure that tail does not wag the dog.

I had been curious after the email outcry of a UK universities learning enhancement and support manager, and wanted to track down the original article. Here is what began as a short comment on it (full article here) but turned into a bit of a reflection on my attitude towards the rules of writing.

The article hinges on an idea rules of writing can often be viewed as descriptive, rather than prescriptive rules. That is, they exist to describe the conventions that govern our use of written language, not to dictate them. It is a view that I happen to agree with, and one that always seems particularly applicable to our work with student writers. Our clients, by and large, consist not of people who wish to master the art of writing, but who wish to use writing as a tool to master some other discipline. Effective use of language to communicate clearly and eloquently no more requires mastery of written English than effective self defense requires mastery of Tai Chi. It simply requires an awareness of the principles and, most importantly, and ability to understand them in relation to the desired goal.

It the goal that is most often the missing component in students who come to me with so called grammar problems. They will ask me “is it correct to put a comma there?”, where what they should be asking is “what is the effect of putting a comma there?”. It is with this second question that I most often respond. Rather than get bogged down in correct usage, I always find it far more productive to keep sight of what my client is trying to achieve in their sentence, paragraph or essay. If a rule is entirely novel, we may begin by consulting a concise grammar book. But after that, my sessions on correct grammar become more of an experiment than a lecture. I will ask a client to read their sentence aloud with varying usages of the comma or arrangements of word.

“What if you split that into two sentences? How does that sound?”.

Sometimes I do it the other way around.

“Say it to me as you would like it to sound. Ok, now lets write it that way.”

Sometimes I will simply tell them my understanding of a sentence. If I have understood correctly and clearly, then most of the time the writing has done its job. The key is that I remain focused on the goal of the writing, namely, to communicate ideas clearly, concisely and eloquaintly, in that order. I encourage clients to experiment with different ways of writing a clause, to read it back regularly, and consider the most effective way to communicate clearly with the audience.

Pinker’s point throughout his article is not to throw away the rulebook, but rather to use the rules as tools to achieve these goals. Perhaps his description of some rules of writing as “superstitions” is taking this idea a little to far. Paying them as little heed as we do ghosts in old houses would most likely affect the clarity of our writing, as readers are also aware of conventions and use them as a map and compass to navigate our prose.

However, it is worth treating the rules of writing are tools to improve our clarity and maintain consistency so as to appeal to the widest audience. Regarding them as some bloodthirsty deity that must be appeased, as seems to be the approach of Pinker’s critic, is neither productive nor empowering for student writers. It is alienating and elitist, and how one with such an attitude can be entrusted to manage support and enhance learning for student writers is beyond me. In his slander of Michael Rosen, Pinker’s critic certainly has no right to speak about “damage that could be done”.

At the heart of Pinker’s article is the desire to breakdown barriers to writing and to make it widely accessible, the same goal as should be shared by university study skills centers. In our writing center we have this attitude, and I hope this description of my approach helps others to do that. Read the full article by Pinker if you can, I would be interested to know peoples views on it. Perhaps his book is one worth investing in. Perhaps we already have it. I am not in the mentors room right now but I will check next time I am there.

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