kitchen table math, the sequel: David Foster Wallace on the seamy underbelly (and The Writing Revolution)

Sunday, September 30, 2012

David Foster Wallace on the seamy underbelly (and The Writing Revolution)

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modem dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption"and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries? That the oligarchic device of having a special "Distinguished Usage Panel of outstanding professional speakers and writers" is an attempted, compromise between the forces of egalitarianism and traditionalism in English, but that most linguistic liberals dismiss the Usage Panel as mere sham populism!

Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?
Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage by David Foster Wallace | Harper's Magazine | April 2001
I was talking to Ed about this last night: my answer is, No I did not know (until just a couple of months ago) that U.S. lexicography had a seamy underbelly, and I am semi-sorry to learn that it does.*

"Semi-sorry" because, in theory, I think discord and debate are good things in a democracy (and in a discipline). But "sorry" because I don't agree with the terms of the debate.

Scratch that. It's not that I don't agree with the terms of the debate. (The debate being: prescriptivist v. descriptivist.) It's that I don't relate to the terms of the debate. And I am a professional writer. I live by words (sentences and paragraphs, actually); I eat, breathe, and sleep words; I am an obsessive reader....

And I don't relate.

I don't care about prescriptivist, and I don't care about descriptivist. Not as battle stations in a shooting war. Not as anything, really. Where expository writing is concerned, I don't care about prescriptivist/descriptivist because prescriptivist/descriptivist is the wrong way to order the universe.

Which brings me back to the Atlantic piece:
The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

Hochman, 75, has chin-length blond hair and big features. Her voice, usually gentle, rises almost to a shout when she talks about poor writing instruction. “The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.”
I don't get this!

If a rule is really a rule, why would you break it?

Why would you write "a white small house" instead of "a small white house" just because you've mastered the rule that says size comes before color?

You wouldn't.

Good expository prose isn't fundamentally about breaking the rules. I'd put money on it Ms. Hochman doesn't encourage a lot of expository rule-breaking in her students; I'd also put money on it Ms. Hochman is friendlier to "1950s drill and kill" than she's willing to admit.** At least, I hope she is.

Poetry and fiction may depend importantly upon rule-breaking. (I don't know.) But expository writing does not.

So why do we chronically have to come back to solemn invocations of "1950s" drill and kill accompanied by the inevitable assurance that, Don't worry, students who are actually being taught to write will get to 'break the rules' later on?

Answer: we chronically have to come back to solemn invocations of 1950s drill and kill, and to assurances that students will get to break the rules later on, because the terms of the debate are wrong.

Expository writing is not properly understood as a tension between prescriptivism (following the rules) and descriptivism (ignoring the rules, breaking the rules, and/or believing that the rules are whatever everyone happens to be doing now, whether they're any good at doing what they're doing or not).

Expository writing is properly understood as a practice akin to tennis, or to music. The "rules," so-called, aren't rules at all; they are techniques. Time-honored techniques that exist because they work.

Take the rule about putting a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph. Putting a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph; having a topic sentence in the first place; writing in paragraphs at all: these are techniques for thinking, communicating, and persuading that were invented by humans and,  subsequently, imitated by other humans because they work. A topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph helps you communicate, helps you persuade, and probably helps you think as well.

In short, putting a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph is the most effective mode of expository paragraph writing we've come up with to date. If and when somebody else comes up with a better way to think, communicate, and persuade in writing, a new rule will be born, and the topic-sentence-at-the-beginning-of-a-paragraph rule will cease to exist.

Part 2. Writing instruction, in this country, is a rolling calamity.*** One reason why it's a rolling calamity, I'm convinced, is that people are fighting about the wrong thing. Good writing isn't about following the rules AND good writing isn't about breaking the rules, ignoring the rules, or not knowing any rules in the first place. Good writing isn't about rules.

Good writing is about technique.

Back to the topic sentence. The writers who invented the topic sentence didn't invent a rule. In fact, the writers who invented the topic sentence didn't invent the topic sentence. Not consciously. They didn't have a name for the new sentence they were using. (At least, I don't think they did.) They developed the topic sentence through trial and error, and when they saw how well it worked they used it more and more often until the topic sentence became an established and favored technique.

Other people - teachers? scholars? - observed what writers were doing, characterized it in formal terms, and gave it a name: topic sentence. That was the moment the topic sentence became a 'rule': the moment it was observed, described, and named. But it's not a rule in the prescriptivist/descriptivist sense of the word 'rule.' The Topic Sentence 'rule' is an empirical observation of the way actual writers actually write. Actual writers (tend to) put topic sentences at the beginning of their paragraphs.**** Hence the rule. The prescriptivist rule is a descriptivist description.

The proper goal of teaching expository writing in school, as every parent and taxpayer understands, is to teach effective expository writing, same as teaching tennis or how to play the piano. In tennis and piano, no one teaches "rules" they don't believe in -- no one teaches "rules" at all. Tennis instructors don't teach students a decent groundstroke while assuring parents and the broader public that: Don't worry, they can forget about their groundstroke down the line. A good tennis player never forgets about his groundstroke. A good tennis player practices his groundstroke and makes it better. Ditto good writers. A good writer doesn't forget about topic sentences once s/he knows how to write one. A good writer writes better topic sentences.

(Or, yes, maybe a good writer plays with the form. Maybe a good writer writes a two-part topic sentence using two sentences, not one, or maybe s/he divides a paragraph into 3 or 4 short, one-sentence paragraphs, with just the one topic sentence up at the top of the sequence. These are variations on a theme, serving the same purpose: effective communication, persuasion, and thought achieved via a topic sentence.)

Here is my frustration, reading an otherwise invaluable articles like Peg Tyre's The Writing Revolution.

I don't care what Lucy Calkins thinks about Judith Hochman.

I want to know what the people at Morningside think about Judith Hochman. I want to know what the people at Well-Trained Mind think. I want to know what Stanley Fish thinks.

I want to hear an argument and a debate between and among the practitioners of effective writing instruction that explicitly teaches effective writing.

And I don't want to hear another word about rules.

The rules aren't rules.

The rules are techniques.

* Ed did not know that prescriptivists and descriptivists exist until last night. Lucky him.
** I didn't notice any instances of creative rule-breaking in "The Writing Revolution."
*** Homage to Peggy Noonan.
**** I think it's possible the Topic Sentence rule is changing with the shift to shorter paragraphs. It's a possibility.

16 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I disagree with you on "That was the moment the topic sentence became a 'rule': the moment it was observed, described, and named. But it's not a rule in the prescriptivist/descriptivist sense of the word 'rule.' The Topic Sentence 'rule' is an empirical observation of the way actual writers actually write."

That is precisely what a descriptivist means by a "rule"—an empirically observed generalization of what good writers do. Your stance is almost purely descriptivist here, despite your earlier presciptivist comment "If a rule is really a rule, why would you break it?"

For that matter, the fight among lexicographers is not really a prescriptivist/descriptivist fight, but an argument about whose spelling to describe.

Incidentally, the "topic sentence rule" is a simplification of what good writers do. Sometimes the topic sentence comes at the end of a paragraph instead of the beginning, for example, when the author is trying to build up to a surprise ending. But that is a harder style to do well, so kids are taught the simplified "rule" which later on they can learn the exceptions to.

Catherine Johnson said...

Incidentally, the "topic sentence rule" is a simplification of what good writers do.

That's what I thought, but it turns out to be wrong!

I'll see if I can find the source again.

Somebody actually went out and looked at what real writers do and, lo and behold, real writers put topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs.

btw, all of the composition textbooks I've looked at (which isn't a huge number) say exactly what you say: real writers put topic sentences all over the place; the topic-sentence-at-the-beginning-of-the-paragraph is a simplification of what real writers do.

When I first started returned to teaching composition, that's what I told my students.

Then I discovered I was wrong.

Catherine Johnson said...

That is precisely what a descriptivist means by a "rule"—an empirically observed generalization of what good writers do.

Right.

Prescriptivists are also talking about rules in that sense.

Generally speaking.

Catherine Johnson said...

when the author is trying to build up to a surprise ending

Yes!

I think that's a terrific observation!

I'll maybe find time to talk about that in another post.

I sometimes ask my students what the meaning of "rules are made to be broken" is in the context of writing.

I think the meaning is that writers break "rules" to produce surprise.

(I'm sure there are probably other reasons, but that's the one that leaps out at me, and that's the reason I 'break rules.')

"Breaking rules" in this context means violating reader expectations.

Catherine Johnson said...

I will grant that my stance is pretty far to the descriptivist side.

Nevertheless, I follow rules ALL THE TIME, and I am keen to learn what the rules are.

That is why I reject the opposition. I am keenly, intensely interested in the rules.

Since returning to teaching I've discovered "end-focus," the "known-new" contract, and other arcana of writing and style I knew only at the most intuitive level and my new, conscious knowledge of these things is golden.

It's golden to the degree that the end-focus rule has actually tripped me up recently. I'll put too much weight on the rule, and I'll write a sentence that follows the end-focus rule but does not work in context.

Then I have to remind myself that end-focus isn't a 'rule'!

It's a reality.

And it's not a universal reality.

Katharine Beals said...

I found the Wallace article annoying for various reasons and had a letter published in response. Unfortunately, you have to be a subscriber to actually see what I wrote (I don't have a copy of my letter handy):

http://www.harpers.org/subjects/KatharineBeals

Jean said...

I like the change from rules to techniques. I agree that it's a better description.

I think Americans just don't like rules much! We think we shouldn't have to have them, sometimes. Maybe teachers are always hoping that they are bringing up a new Hemingway or something--I mean, I hate Hemingway, but he did break a lot of traditional rules about fiction and got famous that way.

Quite a few folks on the WTM boards got very excited about that Writing Revolution article, in a 'yes! their revolution mirrors what we classical ed folks already think!' way. I would love to see a reaction from SWB herself; that would be a very nice blog post from her.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Catherine,

When I say "break the rules," I mean something like use a semicolon after a FANBOYS preposition to break up a really long sentence, or place a comma after "and" to make a division between ideas clearer even though that "and" isn't followed by an independent clause. I mean that sometimes it's necessary to break the rules very selectively in order to make your writing *clearer*. There is a HUGE difference between breaking the rules deliberately to make a stylistic point (or, I guess, to surprise the reader) and breaking the rules because you're sloppy or simply haven't really mastered the rules. If you try to play with the rules before you've mastered the, though, well... that's how you end up with the sorts of things a lot of my students write.

Catherine Johnson said...

Katharine - can you post the letter!?

I'd love to read ---

Catherine Johnson said...

I like the change from rules to techniques.

You know what's also an extremely useful distinction?

The idea of 'canonical' forms. Some of the linguists I've been reading apply that term to SV, SVO, SVC sentences (& to the other 4 'canonical' sentences).

SV, SVO, SVC sentences are the base form of the sentence; they are the form we make longer, more complicated sentences out of. (At least, that's my understanding of the linguists I'm reading.)

The same principle applies to the various rules of good writing, I think.

The canonical topic sentence is a sentence placed at the beginning of the paragraph.

That does not mean that all paragraphs will have topic sentences, or that all topic sentences will be the first sentence in the paragraph.

I think that, in the case of topic sentences, you do see topic sentences placed at the top of a paragraph, for reasons having to do with the law school dictum: Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you've told them.

But the fact that there is a 'default topic sentence' does not mean that a writer who has successfully placed a topic sentence midway through a paragraph has broken a rule.

I personally - this may change as I read more linguistics, of course - I personally define a 'rule' as the grammar that makes some sentences 'impossible' in English.

I posted an example on English 109:

Home computers are now much cheaper.
Home computers now much are cheaper.

The grammatical rule that tells us "Home computers now much are cheaper" is not an option is different in kind from the 'rule' that tells us to place a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph.

Applying the word 'rule' to both situations blurs the distinction, I think.

Catherine Johnson said...

When I say "break the rules," I mean something like use a semicolon after a FANBOYS preposition to break up a really long sentence, or place a comma after "and" to make a division between ideas clearer even though that "and" isn't followed by an independent clause.

The thing is, though: use a semicolon after a FANBOYS to break up a really long sentence is also a rule! (It's a rule in the sense that you see this advice in numerous college writing center handouts & in some composition texts.)

Using a semicolon before a FANBOYS is a more advanced technique, I think --- more advanced, at least, in the sense that most people aren't going to get to the point of writing sentences long enough & complicated enough to need to do that.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think Americans just don't like rules much! We think we shouldn't have to have them, sometimes.

There's something like that, for sure!

I also relate all this back to the 60s, which more and more I see as a devastating 'disruption' in the history of American public education. (I could be wrong, obviously. I'm not a historian - )

It seems to me that the 60s 'Question Authority' belief really did produce a cadre of teachers and administrators who, by the 1980s, had advanced to positions of authority within public schools and schools of education.

The rules of grammar and the so-called rules of good writing lost authority then.

Today we have teachers, including me when I returned to the classroom, who don't know the rules because they were never taught the rules. Today's teachers don't have to be rebels - I'm certainly not - they just don't know grammar, rhetoric, linguistics, discourse analysis, stylistics, or....anything else about writing.

Writing instruction is a rolling calamity, for sure.

Catherine Johnson said...

The other thing with 'rules' that's interesting to me is...that we seem somehow naturally inclined to view techniques as rules.

That happens to me all the time.

As I've been working my way through the literature on grammar, linguistics, cohesion, and style, I'll learn something I didn't know, like the "known-new contract," and then I'll instantly think of it as a rule: as something I have to make sure I follow absolutely, regardless of context.

The books I read don't present the "known-new contract" as a 'rule' and yet I absorb it that way.

Not sure why.

I think, too, that the techniques of writing have usually been taught as rules, not techniques, which I believe is an intellectual error.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Catherine,

I think that we're actually making the same point, just using different language: good expository writing is about conveying ideas in a clear, logical, ordered manner so that a reader can follow them with minimal exertion. Writing that accomplishes those things makes use of a series of techniques/strategies designed to facilitate communication. It's actually not about rules for the sake of rules, even though it may seem that way to someone who's just encountering formal instruction. It is about making your writing say precisely what you want it to say, not some vague approximation of that accompanied by the assumption that the reader will just figure it out. It's about putting your reader rather than yourself first.

forty-two said...

The books I read don't present the "known-new contract" as a 'rule' and yet I absorb it that way

I wonder if that is related to the idea of new knowledge being inflexible at first - feels similar to me, anyway.

Catherine Johnson said...

forty-two - Interesting!