Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Last night, my university won a big basketball game to make them one of the top four teams in the US. Yes, KU is going to the Final Four.
Yay!! Yay!! Yay!!!
I have become a big fan of basketball from spending so many years at a basketball powerhouse (don’t ask about the prowess of our football team). Even as I know all the things wrong with college athletics and the inequities for the athletes, even as I know how much more attention and money should be directed toward academics, I love my [start noticing the pronouns that are popping out, not deliberately] KU basketball team, and I love the NCAA Tournament. I am indeed infected by at least a bit of March Madness.
So in my joy from the big win last night, I celebrate today all the traditions and rituals, the habits and practices, even the genres that we fans of a team share. I wrote before about my friend the big Kansas City Royals baseball fan, who is also a big KU basketball fan, and I've written about those pesky basketball brackets, which are busted for most people this year, too. Today I’m writing about how I experience the big game with my local fan crew.
Here we go, from preparing through the end:
Game day attire—team-labeled T-shirt and sweatshirt, jeans
Superstitions—gray shoes with pink shoelaces, Jayhawk earrings—but I forgot the earrings both of the last two games we won, so they’re out for the next game, too.
Food offering—I buy it at the local store rather than making it myself, which somewhat lowers the status of my offering, but my crew is a forgiving bunch
Beverage offering—wine or beer? Always a tough choice. Like food, dependent in part on time of day of the game, but my offerings are well-received
Watch party—this is the center of it all, of course, the house that welcomes us to share the experience of the game, filled with people who know and love basketball together, even if they don’t know each other outside this context
Greetings—“hello,” “hi,” handshakes, hugs, depending on how long we’ve been watching together
Pre-game chatter—“What’s your prediction?” “This team will be tough to beat” “How are you settling into your new house?” “How was your trip?” “How’s your mom doing?” [Notice work talk avoided even among colleagues, as much as possible] “Wish our center wasn’t injured” “Who made the corn salsa? It’s delicious!” “I’m feeling pretty good about this one” “Don’t say that! You’ll jinx us!” “Getting ready to tip off, everybody!”
Taking up Positions—There are those sturdy folk who sit still in the rows of chairs in front of the big screen, in their traditionally designated seats. There are those of us who stand in the back where we can move and pace and jump and cheer loudly and move closer then move farther back when things get too tense. If you position yourself just right, you can see just the action while a post and ledge block only the score and remaining time. There are one or two of us who leave the room, pacing the upstairs hallways and even stepping out on the porch if it’s all just too much. I know, we take our basketball pretty seriously.
Nervous eating—those of us in the back, near the food, pacing back and forth, back and forth, stopping to dip a chip or grab another wing or cookie far too often
Nervous drinking—same, just extending the pacing to behind the snack bar where the beer fridge and wine counter hold our many offerings
Cheers—“Let’s go, Hawks!” “Defense!” “Rebound!” “You can do it!” “Go Hawks!” “Yay!!” “Yeah!” “That’s the way!” [loud clapping of hands]
Groans—need I say more?
Half-time interlude—Whatever our original positions, we gather in the space near the food and drink, replenishing empty plates and glasses, grabbing another beer or soda, sharing impressions of the first half, praising great plays and the athletes who are hot, worrying about what’s ahead “Phew,” “I don’t know,” [shaking heads]. You might be able to tell we haven’t shared a lot of blow-outs this season.
Resume the position—People don’t generally change positions for the second half. We have our preferences. And who knows what might happen if we change the usual?! Superstitions rear up if someone has to leave early because of a sleepy child, or if someone new attends. That can be good or bad luck, depending on what then happens the rest of the game.
Louder cheering or Louder groans and silence, depending on what’s happening up on that screen, far far away where we can do nothing about it but witness
End of game—raucous cheers or quiet remarks; gathering back in the food space, high fives and hugs or muttered commentary and vows to get ‘em next game or next year. Last night [we won in overtime in an incredibly close and wonderful game] was full of “I can’t believe it!” “We did it!!” “We’re going to the Final Four!” “He was incredible!” “Can you believe that defense?”
Departure—fast or slow depending on the game outcome. Last night, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the cheering and laughter and delight in big plays
Post-game analysis—radio interviews in the car on the drive home, professional commentators on TV, radio, and online, our own analyses of what we saw, what went well, what went wrong, and, this time, excitement about the next game
Recovery—drinking lots of water, sitting (finally), waiting for the adrenaline to die down enough to go to bed (we get lots of televised night games)
That’s my local process of watching the big game.
Hey, we do what we can. Since we have absolutely no control over how the game goes when we’re playing away, when even our loudest cheering can’t be heard to give the players an extra shot of energy, all we can do is what has worked before.
All we can do is share the experience. That’s what works. Having a familiar crowd around you of friends and fellow fans, having a role to play—from bringing your usual food to sitting, standing, or pacing in your usual spot—and having the routine, our own game to play, since the game itself will be anything but routine.
And having fun. As someone who goes through a lot of tense agony during the game and is way too invested in whether they win or lose, I remind myself that it’s only a game and the players are kids, and I sometimes ask at the end of a game, especially one we lost, “Is this fun?”
Yeah. It’s fun
I'm off to a cabin in the woods.
May you have a pleasant, restful, or productive week--whatever you need most.
Edited for clarity: This photo is not of my cabin nor of my state park, which is much more modest, though I will be in woods near a state park and lake.
Yesterday, my partner read me a complaint from a friend about an email he’d received. The friend had gotten an email asking him to review his recent experience having his car serviced. Apparently, the email had begun, “Hi William.” (Names have been changed to protect the furious.) That form of address led to a rant on the company’s yelp review, including profanity. Something like:
“My name is ‘Dear Mr. Richardson,’ not ‘Hi William.’ Your service crew did an excellent job, but your marketing people can go f*** themselves.”
I am paraphrasing, but not by much. And the actual response was considerably longer. And he gave the service five stars anyway, so he was fair to the work.
That tale brought me to two interesting questions (well, interesting to me):
Why do people feel so strongly about forms of address?
What do the new forms of address in emails mean?
The first question has more to say about it than possible in this one blog post. I’ll just mention what I’m sure you already know, that people see forms of address as indicating degrees of respect or familiarity, distance or intimacy.
Since those forms of address matter to people (as they obviously did to that friend), the use of more informal greetings in emails matter.
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far away, the first emails traveled through the magical air from one distant computer to another. Since I lived long, long ago, I remember those early emails I received and sent, and the model for them was quite clear.
Emails were business letters, just sent through that stratosphere rather than the snail mail (the postal service didn’t gain that name for a while, though).
As business letters, the format and style were already clearly established, even written in handbooks and guides to professional correspondence.
Dear Mr./Ms. [Last Name]:
So the first emails I remember sending back and forth were for business purposes and we all used business formatting, including the formal greeting Dear Mr. Richardson. I would use someone’s first name only if I knew that individual personally—if the relationship had become more familiar and permitted the more familiar form of address.
But in this modern world of today (to quote a favorite academic paper opener), I rarely receive an email from a stranger that’s not addressed
Sometimes there will be a comma between the “Hi” and “Amy,” but my students tell me that drives them crazy, that the comma after the person’s name is all you need. Otherwise it “looks stupid” to have so many commas, like
I see their point, in spite of it violating an old rule about using commas to separate greetings from names.
For me—and apparently for “Mr. Richardson”—that greeting still feels overly familiar when it comes from a stranger. My mama taught me to address my elders with titles and last names (my friend’s mother was always Mrs. Buller), and I’m usually older than the strangers who address me like that. That followed formal etiquette in much of the United States at the time. And my professional mentors and teachers taught me to begin all letters with “Dear [appropriate form of address, with title].”
But I’m getting used to it, and it doesn’t bother me much, if at all, in emails anymore.
Why? Because genre.
Because the genre has changed.
Now there’s a whole other hornet’s nest in the question of whether email is a genre (almost surely not, since we use email to do so many different kinds of things, though the way the medium can shape the genre could be a topic for another post another day). But the genre of business letter or professional correspondence, generally, has changed with its move to email. More specific genres have changed on email, too—thank you letters and sales letters and customer service replies.
The change in greeting is just one sign of how these genres have changed with the move to email
All these formerly distant professional letters have become chummier.
Instead of the old way:
Dear Dr. Richardson [he is actually an MD]:
Instead he receives [my invented version, based on my own experiences with such letters]
Hi William [at least they didn’t drop to “Bill”],
OK, so I made up the example, but doesn’t it sound familiar? And familiar! The use of first names is just one of many ways the more familiar relationship shows up—use of contractions, shortened thanks, dropped subjects (not “We are looking forward”), lack of formal closure or full name in signing off, and, last but not least, use of exclamation points!!!
Although I’m having fun with these examples, I’m not at all a curmudgeon about these changes. I do not at all share Dr. Richardson’s objection.
We in the US have relaxed levels of formality in all sorts of ways—among businesses and customers, between teachers and students, and between children and their elders, to name a few biggies. But many of us were raised with different models, and change can be tough.
One little greeting can set off a tempest, but that little greeting just reflects changes happening, in genres, in digital forms of communicating, and in relationships. Not such a bad thing.
(A last note for the more cynical among you—yeah, as I was writing, I saw that companies especially are exploiting this American mythos, that we’re all equal. If only companies followed that belief when it came to wages and salaries. Did you SEE the first reports of the gap between a company’s CEO and the median wage of its employees??!! Almost prompts me to write another letter:
Let me tell you a thing or two . . .
This week, I am accusing myself and setting myself straight.
In last week’s blog post, I fell into the same trap I have pointed out to others—assuming that I know the “real” meaning of a word rather than listening for what it means to the people who use it;
In the past, I have complained about people trying to make words mean other than what the users say they mean—words like “truth” “fact” “alt-“ and all kinds of “sexual assault.”
My word was “essay.”
The original post started out innocently enough. I wondered why we don’t seem to have a word for all those pieces of scholarly writing we academics do that look a lot alike even when they’re published in different places. Here was my question from last week:
What do we call all those scholarly pieces of writing we do that appear in different forums? I write scholarly articles (published in scholarly journals), and my university's official credentials repository says that scholarly articles have to be separated from book chapters. But my book chapters appear in scholarly edited collections, and they look a lot like my scholarly articles published in scholarly journals. To me, my scholarly articles and scholarly chapters are the same kind of writing.
But that start maybe was not so innocent. I was probably wrong about the need for a name to combine scholarly articles and book chapters since they are, indeed, different kinds of writing, different genres.
Articles undergo a different kind of peer review (judging whether they are worthy to be published); they expect a different audience; they are accessible through different means; the academic hierarchy values them differently; they exist in different material form; even if, to me, the exigencies (reasons for writing them) seem pretty similar and the quality and qualities of the products seem the same.
So I fell into a trap from the start, and also one that I’ve pointed out to others: defining genres by their superficial similarity of features rather than distinguishing different social actions. They are indeed two different ways of doing things in the world, those scholarly articles and chapters in edited collections.
And then I fell into a second trap—ignoring what the people who use the genre call the genre.
The reason I’d gotten to thinking about the topic last week was because my co-editor and I were finishing up a project that was an edited collection of previously published . . . uh . . . pieces.
One of the reasons I'm thinking about this now is that I'm working on an edited collection, and the previously published pieces in it are referred to as "essays."
I was struggling to figure out what to call those pieces because I had become so aware of and self-conscious about genre labels. How can somebody like me who studies and preaches genres use genre labels without being deliberate about them? That’s what I ask others to do!
Then I went way off the tracks:
Now, I'm in English, and one of my colleagues used to be an expert on "the essay," and you can be sure this guy was not thinking about non-literary writing. "The Essay" used to be said with rarefied tones and a turned-up nose. But scholarly "pieces" often get called scholarly "essays." Not in the Montaigne sense of essay or any of those 18th-century essayists like Addison and Steele that I used to study and love or the contemporary literary essayists who do nature writing or travel essays.
Since when do I or “this guy” get to say who gets to use a word and for what? It’s true Aristotle didn’t write essays, as my co-editor said. But once his “piece” (see, I still don’t know what to call them) was re-published in our edited collection, it became one of our collected essays.
Because that’s what the people who edit, read, and publish these books call them—collected essays. Our whole book series even includes “essays” in its title. So like it or not, those suckers are essays.
My co-editor outed herself in the comment section of last week’s blog post and added her usual smart and helpful remarks. After describing why she thinks of her own scholarly pieces usually as “essays,” genuine “thought-pieces” in the original meaning of “essay,” she offers the key fact:
In spite of all that, it seems to be customary to call books that collect pieces by different authors “collected essays.” You would never describe a book like that as “collected chapters,” would you?
Nope, I wouldn’t.
It’s “customary.” Just as people get to say how their last names are pronounced, no matter what we might think is sensible, the people who use a genre get to call it what they want to.
And nobody has any business telling them they’re wrong. A critic might want to use a different term or a term differently for the critic’s own purposes, but for the purposes of popular use of words, the users know best.
Now some critics of all stripes can work themselves into quite a lot of bother by trying to distinguish words precisely. Another of my readers shared with me this gem from the prestigious Columbia Law Review, which has different submission links depending on whether you’re submitting an “article” or an “essay”:
I suppose those paragraphs might mean the people who read and write the Columbia Law Review might actually use these words this way and those distinctions have become “customary.” Somehow, my guess is that the editors are trying to make a distinction that doesn’t exist among their larger community. That’s why they need to explain it. My clues in those definitions are phrases like “similar to” but “tend to differ” in that they “often” with “some choosing to” while others choose instead to and the final clincher of “although they need not be.”
Well, that clears it up.
Of course, some uses do need words to be defined very precisely, and law is one of those. Maybe they just get into the habit of defining legal terms so precisely that they can’t stop themselves when it’s really not necessary. I can see the difference between the two types of submissions that they’re describing. In practice, their readers and writers probably do, too. It’s just that it’s much harder to define two kinds of writing than it is to use two kinds of writing.
But I began this post accusing myself, not others, and to that I return.
I made two big mistakes in last week’s post:
I guess that’s actually four mistakes, since each point includes two mistaken actions, but hey, I don’t need to beat myself over the head with it for it to get through to me. Or at least I hope not.
I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in this post, too, but I hope they’re more ones of oversimplifying than ignoring my own principles!
It’s tough, staying aware of words and genres and how they can influence us without our noticing; and still letting ourselves use those words and genres in customary ways, even after we notice.
Language is shared and social.
Genres are shared and social.
We don’t have to accept every word or genre as is. Words and genres can and do change, and we can try to influence those changes.
But we also live in the world—social worlds with conventional shared meanings that also help to define us as a community and help make us meaningful.
Even lawyers, and even academics.
Thanks to each of you who wrote me about or commented on last week’s post. Each of you helps to keep me honest and helps my thinking. And each of you makes my blog meaningful. Thank you.