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Language: A Moving Target

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I love to collect books about writing. Old ones, new ones. Books about technique, books about process.

My favorite among these is the writing memoir. An older example of this might be Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast. More recently there’s been Steven King’s On Writing. At the top of my list is Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway, with equal parts life narative and writing discussion.

One of the things that amazes me about writing in general, and language in particular, is how common usage drastically changes over time. Just the other day I was browsing through a book called Composition For College Students. Published in 1948 (fifth edition, first edition was in 1922), this book is just chock full of examples illustrating the huge differences between common usage now and ‘then’.

For example, in the section discussing usage of written outlines (OK, how many people out there actually wrote their outlines before begining their high school papers?) the author makes the point that it might make sense for the student to just sit and think about what he wants to say, even before commiting a sketch to paper:

    To the present writers it would seem best to dispense entirely with the help of pen and paper in the first stages of reflection on a subject, while one is struggling in general terms with the question “What is it I really want to say?” and while one is determing the main course of one’s thought.

Phew! All that third-person academi-speak has got me tired out. But style matters aside, that particular sentence isn’t so different from what you might find in a composition text today. But check out the next sentence, which completes the thought:

    Thoughts are easier to move about than their physical symbols, and unhappily the intense effort which thinking requires can be eluded by means of no mechanical device.

You’d have to dig into a modern semiotics text to find ripe verbiage like that. Does this mean that we’ve dumbed down our language (AIM-speak, anyone?) That’s not for me to answer. It’s just interesting to see how our usage of it has morphed over time.

(First posted on Mark Is Cranky)

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About Mark Saleski

  • bhw

    Jesus, how ironic is it that a book about writing is poorly written? I much prefer today’s more conversational style.

    The academic style traps most students. They try to mimic it because they think they’re supposed to write that way. It’s in all the books, so why not? And all they do is confuse themselves [and their readers], and it takes forever to get them to try writing more conversationally.

  • Ken Macrorie came up with the term, enfish, which is “the say-nothing, feel-nothing, word-wasting, pretentious language of the schools” (quoted here, indirectly from his book Searching Writing). Another site on engfish has a chapter from Macrorie’s book, Telling Writing, that further explores the concept (I share this chapter and several other chapters from the book with my composition students). On the site, Thoreau is quoted:

      A writer who does not speak out of a full experience uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as “humanitary,” which have a paralysis in their tails.

    Strunk would second that notion (The Elements of Style).

    In Reshaping English, by Bruce Pirie, a chapter analyzes the evolution of the essay and the creation of the “five-paragraph essay.” He points out that the five-paragraph structure makes no sense:

      I’m prepared to concede that people can express original and creative ideas in the hierarchical [five paragraph] essay, but my point is that they do so despite the form: there is nothing within the form that invites divergent thinking. . . . The five-paragraph essay doesn’t “teach structure” any more than a paint-by-numbers kit teaches design. (quoted in a review of the book)

    Pirie points out that the essay has had many uses and forms, but only in the schools does the five-paragraph essay occur. In schools, apparently, form doesn’t follow function. How absurd! But so many of my colleagues teach the five-paragraph model–some in such a restrictive, detailed fashion that students are told where their thesis is to be placed, what sentences are to be used at the beginnings of their body paragraphs, how many supporting details they must have for each point, and so on. Paint by numbers. But many have learned to write well in spite of this–thank goodness. Pirie places the invention of the five-paragraph essay to some time around 1900.

  • bhw

    “But so many of my colleagues teach the five-paragraph model–some in such a restrictive, detailed fashion that students are told where their thesis is to be placed, what sentences are to be used at the beginnings of their body paragraphs, how many supporting details they must have for each point, and so on.”

    The horror! The horror! My freshman English instructor taught the five-paragraph essay just like this! It was a horrible experience. Each essay had to have five paragraphs. Each paragraph had to have five supporting sentences. [I once had a paragraph with four sentences and got marked down for it. So on the revision, I took out the semi-colon and put in a period. Then I got full credit for the paragraph.] The topic sentence for each paragraph had to be first. Etc., etc.


    Our fabulous topics were things like “heroes.”

    To top it off, she gave A’s to the people who wrote melodramatic family stories. I figured that out a few weeks into the class because she’d have the people who got A’s read their papers aloud. So that’s what I started writing, and I started getting A’s.

  • bhw

    BTW, my favorite book on writing is Richard Lanham’s “Revising Prose.” He calls academic-speak The Official Style.

    From Amazon, re: Revising Prose:

    Addresses the specific stylistic patterns that characterize most bad writing and gives an eight-step revision method called The Paramedic Method to break those patterns and improve writing. Helps with writing tasks in business, government, and the university, where The Official Style is rampant, and provides an indispensable guide to revising in every writing context.

    For anyone interested in revising, specifically at the sentence level.

    The book is hilarious, too. He gives example after example of horrible “official style” and how it actually says nothing. Then he applies his paramedic method to “breathe life” back into the prose, removing weak verbs [forms of “to be”] and prepositions and then writing real gen-u-ine action verbs in their place.

    Then he gives you the “lard factor”: by comparing the word counts in the original text and the revised text, he calculates the lard factor, the percentage of unnecessary words in the original [the Official Style is always long and rambling].

    Great stuff.

  • Yikes, bhw. I’m thinking most of us have had similar experiences. Ouch! The truth is that five-paragraph essays with “paint-by-numbers” guidelines are easy to grade. You don’t even have to read them, really. Just look and see that everything is in place, and deduct points if it’s not. When you have 160 essays to grade, time-saving measures are tempting. But how can people who supposedly love English, love reading, and love writing condone such a bastardization of what good writing is all about? Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his or her wings–and another English teacher sells out under the pressure of heavy paper loads, high class sizes, low pay, unsupportive administrators, standardized tests and No Child Left Behind. I’m on the brink myself. It’s just that I hate cloning. I don’t want my students to be clones. I want them to be individuals.

    There is another angle on this write-by-numbers issue. We are forced to go against what we know and feel to be right and conform to what we know and feel to be senseless and unnatural. It is indoctrination. Cults make their initiates do meaningless, degrading tasks repetitively. It breaks down the will and make us more open to manipulation. We will be less likely to question. The examples of this type of indoctrination extend beyond the five-paragraph essay to grammar in general, to other facets of our educational system, to our society and to our government. The examples are endless. Have you ever had to stand in line for two hours only to find, when you get to the front of the line, that you were first supposed to have stood in another line and gotten this stamp or that signature. You tell the worker that you just stood in line for so long, and can’t he or she just stamp or sign it himself or herself? The answer is always “no.” Why do we have systems that do this so often to so many? Because when we are continually reminded that we are worthless, that we must do it the nonsensical, conformist way, that reason and logic have no place in our system, we become compliant and subservient to the system.

    Sorry to have rambled. I think George Carlin took over my mind for bit there. But I only have to look at the shocking numbers of students I see who are bright, talented and gifted–but who are apathetic and who get bad grades. They react to the senselessness of so many of their daily educational experiences. Sure, others conform. . . sell out. Who is better in the long run? Which case is better for America–the ideal America? I’m worried when I meet unquestioning students. They sometimes seem Stepfordy Wifish (my new favorite word–it’s a neologism–I feel so empowered).

    Nevertheless, I try to help the apathetic students find some motivation and reason away the senselessness. I try to make my class sensible. And I try to get them to question everything–without breaking down and giving up.

    To somehow get back to Mark’s post, I point to an essay that I am writing: “Grammar and the Subjugation of the Masses.” One thing I point out is the arbitrary nature of some of our grammar rules. I think it was Addison or Steele or maybe Tennyson who decided that we should not end sentences and clauses with prepositions–because that is the way it was in Latin, the “superior” language. This is so whimsical. What did he do it for?

    There is also a lot of variation from one writing guide to another (and from teacher to teacher). Should you leave a space on either side of a dash, or should you abut the dash right next to the letters of the words on either side of it? I have seen contradictory ideas in various guides. Then it is labeled an issue of style.

    Part of the problem is that we can’t control language. It evolves on it’s own, certainly influenced by our intentional meddling, but often independent of it, as well. This is why I doubt that the French will succeed in their war against the invasion of English words. If you look at the history of languages and how the evolve, then controlling a language seems an impossible task.

  • bhw

    The French can keep words off public signs, but they can’t keep people from speaking or writing them privately. So it becomes a fool’s errand to try to “protect” the language.

    As for the many problems with public shools, I’m with you. English teachers have a SHIT load of work and, as I wrote recently, should not be paid the same salary as gym teachers who happen to have the same number of years of experience and post-college credits. The unions just have to let teachers be paid by their workload, teaching excellence, and other factors, as well. And of course, the public funds need to increase to pay teachers better.

    I very much worry about my kids entering public school. They’re young now, and I see how naturally inquisitive they are and how they learn from every single thing they do. You really don’t have to structure it for them. But public schools have too many kids and too few teachers to let that natural, individual learning continue to prosper, and so suddenly everyone has to do the same work at the same time at the same pace. Just follow the directions and don’t get too creative. I’m seriously not looking forward to it, and that’s a shame, since I’m a writing instructor myself [lapsed for a few years, tho].

    “What did he do it for?”

    So that he’d have something to write about? 😉


    GREAT COLUMN! Language truly is a dynamic medium. (according to Laurie Anderson, it’s a virus, too. Now I know why that song was running through my head this morning, next thing you know, I will be thinking about plates of shrimp).

    We all have English composition horror stories, but they point to two important factors, the style of what writing vs. the mechanics of writing. If all novels were written in the style of an instruction manual, they’d hardly be worth reading. By the same token, a disjointed, disorganized, poorly worded, ungrammatical piece of writing is no pleasure to read no matter what it’s message is. Sure, if Mark Twain or Rudyard Kipling had written all their characters’ dialogue as if they spoke Oxford English, it would be less enjoyable to read. I also prefer that technical manuals not be written in the style of of James Joyce or Iceberg Slim.

    SIDENOTE: The US Army’s style guide (love the guns, hate the paperwork) contains the following statement: “The passive voice is not to be used”.

    AS for loanwords creeping into “pure” languages, it is a futile effort to stop, but it is interesting to watch. Here many Iraqis use English loanwords for technical terms and common appliances, but it is noteworthy that GI slang is slowly incorporating Iraqi Arabic.

  • i think part of the reason that academic-speak strikes a nerve with me is that last summer i watched a panel discussion (on CSPAN-2) with a bunch of book critics.

    i wish i could remember the names….but several of them were just incredible snotty: and the snottier (is that a word) they were, the more they would tend to use that third person stuff: “If one takes this into consideration as one reads a novel such as The Lovely Bones, one…..”

    blah, friggin’, blah!

  • JR

    You’d have to dig into a modern semiotics text to find ripe verbiage like that.

    Oh, I don’t know. Seems like I’ve seen some around here lately.

  • “…it is noteworthy that GI slang is slowly incorporating Iraqi Arabic.”

    I’d love to see some examples! Hint, hint.

  • There was an article by David Foster Wallace’s (1) article on usage in Harper’s. He used two approaches (since the world is divided into two people, those who divide the world into two people, and those who don’t). He writes about the struggle between prescriptive and descriptive writing:

    From one perspective, a certain irony attends the publication of any good new book on American usage. It is that the people who are going to be interested in such a book are also the people who are least going to need it, i.e., that offering counsel on the finer points of U.S. English is Preaching to the Choir. The relevant Choir here comprises that small percentage of American citizens who actually care about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs. The same sorts of people who watched Story of English on PBS (twice) and read W. Safire’s column with their half-caff every Sunday. The sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE–10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate. There are lots of epithets for people like this–Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT.(3) The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.

    Also recommended are Bill Bryson’s two books on the history of English in Britain and the Americas.

    As for trend in education to formula writing, some of that is covered in the book “The Social Life of Information” by Brown and Duguid where they have a chapter about education becoming credential validation institutions, just like a driver’s license.

    (1) What you didn’t think I’d mention DFW without a footnote?