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!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.*
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
"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!”I don't get this!
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.”
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?
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.