Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I'm coming to the end of another semester at my university, so I'm feeling very teacherly as well as writerly today. Since all of us write and are writers, I hope those of you who don't teach writing will find in this post a reminder of writing advice (good or bad) you may have gotten along the way.
So tell me:
Which of the sentences below is a good sentence?
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
[Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960]
“It was October 23, 2008.”
[Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, 2012]
“Why are there so many robots in fiction, but none in real life?”
[Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997]
“I am ten years old and I know every crack, bone and crevice in the crumbling sidewalk running up and down Randolph Street, my street.”
[Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, 2016]
“Too often, the word rhetoric implies empty words, manipulation, deception, or
persuasion at any cost.”
[Cheryl Glenn, The New Harbrace Guide, 2018]
“Not long ago we attended a talk at an academic conference where the speaker’s central claim seemed to be that a certain sociologist—call him Dr. X—had done very good work in a number of areas of the discipline.”
[Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say, 2017]
“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing . . . enjoying the jungle’s great joy . . . When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”
[Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! 1954]
“Written genres have been described in metaphors as seemingly contrary as straitjackets and playgrounds, tools and life forms, institutions and constellations.”
[Christine M. Tardy, Beyond Convention, 2016)
“One of the most central notions in this book is that of a formal system.”
[Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, 1979]
Each of these sentences is the first sentence (after prefaces and introductions) of a book sitting on a bookshelf in my study.
And each is a good sentence.
Of course, you say. They’re all written by professionals, published authors. So of course they’re good sentences. I'd be happy to write sentences like that.
Agreed. But, believe it or not, they contain some elements that some others have described as making bad sentences. Less readable. And even though they are all good sentences, these sentences differ from one another, in part because they come from different genres. You knew genre had to be in there, right?
My topic—and this list of sentences—is prompted by two things happening this week. One is that it’s the last week of teaching my undergraduate course on English Grammar, in which we analyze sentences and discuss rhetorical effects of different sentence structures. The second is an unfortunate column in The Washington Post that trashes writing teachers for not teaching students how to write good sentences.
I don’t want to join the mob of writing teachers commenting on his less-than-well-informed piece (and Doug Hesse has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education a knowledgeable summary of what writing teachers do that’s worth reading). But there’s no need, because his column and the textbook he's selling simply repeat what some others have written before him.
The little book Elements of Style written by Strunk & White is among the best known and widely shared. My personal favorite is Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, especially because their advice is based on research into how readers process sentences. These style guides and others advise writers to craft sentences that focus on agents and actions, so they share these bits of advice:
Williams and Bizup even offer a chart that matches advice to grammatical structures. They advise making the grammatical Subject an Agent, a doer of action, and matching it with the sentence’s Topic and Known Information. The Verb (or Predicate) then should be the Action and be New Information. So . . .
Grammarians study how sentences work. Those sentences also act rhetorically.
Well, Williams & Bizup and Strunk & White would all probably have written better example sentences, but mine roughly fit the rules.
But take a look again at the good sentences I offered at the beginning. All of them violate the advice for good sentences.
Check out all the “to be” verbs! The first four and the last sentence all use a form of “be” as their main verb. The first sentence, by Harper Lee, even goes on to use an informal passive—“got broken.”
Nate Silver starts with the empty opener “It was,” and Glenn’s textbook begins with lots of abstract nouns—“manipulation, deception, or persuasion.” But hers is a textbook, with a purpose of explaining abstract concepts and how to use them. So don’t abstract nouns make sense? The next sentence, by Graff and Birkenstein, begins another textbook, but is this one with agents and actions a better opening for a textbook? It’s longer than the others, too, and the advice usually suggests shorter sentences. And it contains a fair number of what some call “empty” words and could be made more concise.
And how ‘bout that Dr. Seuss, starting with all those opening adverbial prepositional phrases! He should just have written, “Horton heard a noise.”
OK, enough. There’s a long history of criticizing style advice by showing examples of professionals violating that advice, so I’m both in good company and don’t need to go on about it.
But there are a couple of points here.
There’s no one type of good sentence. No style prescriptions can apply to all or even most sentences. All sentences work—or don’t—in their contexts, for their meanings, along with other sentences.
I honestly did not go looking for sentences that would break these rules. It was the other way around. I pulled off my shelves books that I knew were written well and then picked the first sentence so I'd be consistent. They just happened to demonstrate the fallacy of prescriptive style advice, as though crafting sentences in one way would always make better sentences.
They also demonstrate that sentences differ in different genres. That part was deliberate. I pulled from my shelves novels, trade nonfiction, textbooks, scholarly books, autobiographies, and children’s books. I don’t think I can always tell which genre it is from the first sentence. That’s part of the point, too. Even though style varies from one genre to another, the genre doesn’t dictate a certain style. Oh, maybe you can tell the scholarly books, and certainly the children’s book—or can we just tell Dr. Seuss?
Writers write sentences. But they don’t write only sentences. They write whole texts, whole pieces of discourse, whole books. The vagueness and emptiness of Graff and Birkenstein’s opening sentence is part of the authors’ point, soon to be explained in the rest of the paragraph. Within that whole piece of writing, writers’ sentences fit their writer’s meanings, contexts, desired rhetorical effects.
That’s how we write ourselves. And that's what writing teachers should teach students. If I taught an entire writing course made up solely of crafting sentences, as the misguided columnist proposes, I wouldn’t be teaching writing. In the form he proposes, following those prescriptions for good sentences, the course wouldn’t even be teaching style or sentence craft. It would be teaching one type of sentence that writers use some of the time.
Why should we treat students as anything other than writers? Developing writers, but writers nonetheless.
Now is when I confess that I also like and teach many of the same principles of sentence crafting. I do sometimes find that the fix for one of my sentences can come from focusing on the verb or the topic. And I do like helping students learn about how readers process sentences cognitively, how sentence emphasis works, what the different effects are of passive and active voice, what relationships among parts the “to be” verbs establish, and that very short sentences "emphasize certainty and determination," as others have pointed out. I make students rewrite their own sentences in multiple ways, increase their syntactic repertoire and flexibility, and hone their perceptions of rhetorical effects.
That's a fancy way of saying I ask students to write lots of different sentences differently and see if they can figure out what they prefer and why—in the context of their own, whole piece of writing. We’ve been doing a lot of that here at the end of the grammar course.
But I rarely make significant improvement in something I'm writing just by revising sentences. So I also ask writing students to try out different points for their whole papers, to see and fulfill the promises they’ve made to their readers from the first paragraph, to shuffle paragraphs and sections around to discover different logical paths, and to listen well to responses from their peers and other readers. In other words, to think rhetorically about all elements of their texts.
And to think rhetorically about their sentences, to craft their sentences for the rhetorical effects they want.
And I ask them to do that in different genres, for different purposes, with different readers.
The students in my grammar class tell me that learning grammar is hard, and connecting grammatical form to rhetorical effects is complicated. Just like grammar, writing is complicated, and writing is hard. I know that from my own writing experience, and I respect students too much to pretend otherwise.
It would be nice if I could give students (or myself!) a magic formula and suddenly, in one semester, they would write well in all genres for all situations. But learning to write is less like reading a textbook and more like learning from Yoda, like learning how to control the force. It takes years of practice to control the force of writing. Learning a few tricks for sentence style gives you a few tricks, maybe how to pick up the light saber and even turn it on. But if that’s what you know, you’ll get killed in a real battle.
If concise, action-oriented sentences are what you know about writing, you’ll be lost when you really need to write something for real-world situations to achieve real goals. Good sentences are more than one type of sentence. And good writing is more than good sentences.
As Yoda says after battling one who knows only a saber trick, "Much to learn you still have."
I just got back from a wonderful trip to the University of Copenhagen, where I gave a talk and had great discussions with other people interested in genre and related stuff. Genres are everywhere and define our lives and work in ways we often don't notice
So I thought I’d share my trip with you, or at least parts of it, through a different kind of travelogue—as seen through genre-colored glasses:
Electronic airline tickets
Checked baggage tags
Going through security (yes, a genre process/ordeal, not a text)
Safety information placards
Movies (featured, action, comedy, drama, kids)
Music (blues, pop, classical, rock, country)
Baggage claim signs
Lost luggage panics
Found luggage reliefs
Ticket kiosk instructions
Direction signs (I know, I said it before, but you can never have too many direction signs)
Hotel information binders
Trip advisor reviews
Summaries of research presentations
Tour guide information
Scholarly presentation PowerPoint slides
Scholarly presentations PowerPoint slides
Greetings of friends
Stories of personal history
Good-nights and farewells
Directions from helpful strangers
Airline mobile apps
Checked baggage tags
Going through security
Polite conversations with strangers
Safety information placards
Exit door instructions
Drink menu and prices
Movies (featured, action, comedy, drama, kids)
Music (blues, pop, classical, rock, country)
Seat belt signs
Connecting flight lists
Stuck-in-slow-line looks among strangers
Airport train signs
Going through security
Safety information placards
Nutrition labels on snack bags
Seat belt signs
Baggage claim signs
Home phone messages
Bills, flyers, non-profit mailings
Receipts, receipts, receipts
So much to choose from this week. It’s tax day in the US, and those pesky tax forms have much to tell us—or at least me, who has demonstrated before that I can geek out about tax accounting and its genres. I might tackle that topic next week—or next year, around this same time.
Because it’s hard to resist the other big topic this week—apologies. Or rather, lack of apologies. Or just plain bad apologies.
First up is United CEO, Oscar Munoz. After security officers dragged a limp and eventually bleeding doctor from his seat on a United flight, United issued this “apology”:
"This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United," he said. "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers."
Oh, poor United employees. I’m sure Dr. Dao feels so bad for having upset you. But clearly you had no choice. You had to “re-accommodate” people, so what could you do? After all, United employees clearly come first—including United crew who need those seats and required re-accommodation.
Wow. That is an apology so bad it’s hard to unpack it all. According to psychologist Harriet Lerner’s criteria for a good apology (check out my first post on apologies for more), here’s what makes a good apology:
Munoz’s apology may have been sincere and genuine, but it wasn’t much of an apology to Dr. Dao or customers, but only to employees. Having to re-accommodate customers is a flat-out excuse and avoidance of responsibility. Hey, he had no choice. And you know it’s going to happen again, with a non-apology like that.
Munoz’s next bad step was sending an email to United employees blaming Dao for the problem, even though he had not been at all unruly before refusing to disembark to accommodate United employees. And Munoz said he stood “emphatically” behind the employees. No apology there, except perhaps for the poor United employees having to deal with Dr. Dao’s “defiance”—and the bad PR that the employees were surely dealing with after the video went viral.
So maybe he did better the next time around. Cuz you also know there’s going to have to be a next time.
Well, he finally got the hang of it—or somebody who understood good apologies finally told him what to say:
"The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
Let's check out the good apology criteria:
You’d almost think he’d read Lerner’s book.
Finally, well done. But well done too late. By this point, the impression is far too obvious that he doesn’t get it, that United culture and CEO cares more about employees than customers, and that any apology is probably more of a PR requirement than a genuine apology.
United stock plummets. #BoycottUnitedAirlines takes off on Twitter, along with a fun series of New United Airlines Mottos or Slogans, including
In my previous posts on apologies, besides laying out Lerner’s good advice on how to make a good apology, I looked at the apologies of such public figures at the time as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as my dentist’s office (well, maybe not such a public figure, but definitely a bad apology). But United’s apology is a different kind of fiasco. It’s public in an economic way. The brand United Airlines has been damaged significantly by the event and by Munoz’s bad handling of it. United stock has fallen.
Apologies from companies have some different rhetorical exigencies, to be fancy about it. The situation is different. Munoz isn’t apologizing for actions he took but for the actions of his employees (and not even only his employees in the end, since it seems to be security forces from the Chicago police who dragged Dr. Dao out). When he apologizes for the specific actions, he’s inevitably disapproving his employees’ actions, even if they followed company policy—a tough position for a boss. The commitment not to repeat is probably as much a commitment to avoid such public nightmares in the future as it is a commitment not to behave badly. The sincere and genuine regret might be more for the PR headache than any ethical regret for bad acts. To be fair to Munoz, of course, I don’t know his motives or what’s in his head. I just know he butchered the act of apologizing until the very end, when the badness of his first apology must have been staring him in the face—and threatening his job.
A good apology from the start wouldn’t have fixed everything for such a huge customer relations disaster, but it wouldn’t have made it worse.
Speaking of making it worse—this past week also brought Sean Spicer.
Spicer isn’t speaking for a corporation, like Munoz, but he is representing someone else, the President. Much as he tried to deny that after his huge gaffe this week.
At a press briefing, Spicer asserted that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons. When asked for clarification, he made it worse—well, not like Assad did, not on “innocent . . .into the middle of towns.” Whew. He almost said that Hitler didn’t use the chemicals on innocent people.
"I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference about the Holocaust and there is no comparison," he said. "For that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that."
And on Passover, even.
This press secretary gaffe and apology differs from Munoz’s apology for United. For one thing, Spicer is the one who acted badly, the one who should express sincere regret, the one who should promise not to let it happen again. And yet he does represent another brand, the president of the United States. Just as Munoz has to stand for United, Spicer stands for Trump. When Spicer acts badly, it reflects badly on the president.
It seems then that there’s another requirement for Spicer's apology—he has to take responsibility so fully that he disconnects himself from the person he represents. Where Munoz has to stand for all of United and cannot speak as an individual, Spicer has to stand away from the president and convince people he does speak only as an individual. Taking full responsibility for his actions becomes even more important than sincerity or even commitment not to do it again. When Spicer speaks he represents the president—until he makes a mistake, when he doesn’t. Presidents don’t make mistakes and don’t apologize. The humbling that apologies require is tough on everyone, even me. But humbling a powerful politician or a president—even tougher, challenging their very identity.
Apologies are always tricky, as Lerner’s work and the many examples that keep popping up demonstrate. Especially tricky here, I think, is to apologize in the public eye, to apologize for actions not your own, or to apologize for actions that are your own but that others are blamed for. After all, the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted any reference to Jew or Judaism. Observers see a pattern here.
So add another layer of complexity to the ongoing series on apologies. This week makes apologizing on my own behalf for my own actions to the people I’ve harmed seem relatively easy, and I’ve certainly messed that up more than a time or two. But at least I wasn’t humiliated in public and didn’t get somebody else in trouble. My stock did drop a bit, though, as it always does when someone issues a bad apology. I’m still working to recover, as are Sean Spicer and Oscar Munoz. And oh yeah, I didn’t lose my job over a bad apology. Spicer and Munoz? Yet to be seen.
Some bad actions can’t be repaired by regret. Sometimes an apology isn’t enough.
But let's finish with trying to see some humor in the bad apologies, through the satiric character Spicey’s bad attempt at an apology from Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. As s/he says about the Jews being sent to “concentration clubs” on trains, “Hey, at least they didn’t have to fly United.”
Last week, the AP Style Guide announced that it would advise using "they" for an individual if the person did not want to be identified as "he" or "she." In my blog, I explored the reasons we need that singular “they,” and I argued that we should just use “they” to refer to everybody, for reasons of equity and social justice. Why should someone be pointed out as different for not wanting to be labeled as “he” or “she”? Let’s all be “they”
"When Alex walks down the street, they can turn heads."
"Tell your brother to pick up their toys."
I want to follow up this week with a couple of issues I didn’t have space for last week.
Sure. Why not? Let's go all the way.
@icowrich raised the question on Twitter in response to my post:
OK, OK, this one might sound weird, too. If you’ve been trained to Standard English dialects, you’ve been taught subject-verb agreement. Singular nouns and pronouns take singular verbs; plural nouns and pronouns take plural verbs. So does singular “they,” referring to Alex or Amy, go with singular “is” and “was”? or with traditional plural “are” and “were”?
It’s an interesting issue, at least to @icowrich and me, worth exploring a little bit.
But I don’t want to bore you with a long grammar lesson or explanation of prescriptive rules versus descriptive rules or even the hegemonic power of Standard English. It’s tempting because I love all those topics, but I won’t do it to you. Not this time anyway.
Instead, let me just make some comparisons.
Mixing singular and plural is pretty common in most people’s speech and even writing:
“The analysis of all the results from five experiments support that claim.”
And one common expression mixing singular and plural even sounds a lot like “They is” (and is often pronounced that way):
“There’s two kinds of people in this world.”
“There’s lots of reasons we shouldn’t go to that party.”
So maybe it won’t sound so weird after all:
“Sam volunteers at the homeless shelter. They’s someone I really admire.”
Some varieties of English already match plural “they” with a singular verb:
“they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself” (Kanye West line in New Slaves)
“They is treatin’ us good.” (Dave Chappelle Terrorists on the Plane routine)
"They wasn't ready." (Bri BGC17 commenting on Oxygen Bad Girls Club experience)
So why not singular “they” with a singular verb?
“They wasn’t going to the party alone.”
Using singular verbs when we’re using “they” to refer to one person might not be so weird after all.
We have the same issue in some ways with singular “you.” Standard English varieties tend to use a plural verb even with singular “you.” So “you are a fine person,” not “you is a fine person.”
Except lots of varieties and lots of speakers do use “you is.”
Here’s a powerful one from Kathryn Stockett’s novel and then film of The Help
"You is smart, you is kind, you is important."
And an old classic, released in 1944 by Louis Jordan, “Is you is or is you ain’t my baby?”
(or maybe you'd recognize instead Chance the Rapper's echoing line in All Night "is you is or is you ain't got gas money")
According to my resident language historian, when “you” first began to be used as the singular more commonly than “thou,” many people commonly used singular verbs, “you was” and “you is.” Language authorities, snobs, and prescribers on the rise at around the same time labeled “you is” as wrong. But even the authority and dictionary writer Noah Webster defended the use of singular verbs with singular “you.” It makes sense.
Using singular verbs with singular "they" makes sense to me. But will that happen? Language change doesn’t always make sense in a conventional predictable way. If it did, we wouldn’t use “himself”:
My story, myself
Your story, yourself
Her story, herself
His story, hisself—oh no, wait, for some reason standard varieties prescribe “himself.” That doesn't follow the pattern
And we would use “amn’t”:
He is, isn’t he?
You are, aren’t you?
I am, amn’t I? –oh no, wait, standard varieties prescribe “aren’t I” and even proscribe "ain't I," which is closer to "amn't" in some ways. It's not predictable.
So language doesn’t always follow conventionally logical paths—either what we commonly say or what standard varieties prescribe. Language change isn't predictable.
If we did all start using “they” as the sole singular pronoun for people—no “he” or “she”—would we start using singular verbs, too? Maybe some would and some wouldn’t, depending on the complexities of who they are and where they are. I suspect that would be true for using "they" as the sole singular, too.
My guess is that it would vary by genre as well as by dialect, by the kind of writing and speaking going on. More formal and written genres tend to be more conservative, so the usual plural verb with “they” might stick around a long time in school themes and academic papers, in business writing and traditional journalism. But more informal spoken genres might change more quickly, maybe starting with varieties that already use plural “they is” or singular “you is.”
On the other hand, the push for gender-neutral pronouns has perhaps been strongest on college campuses and in civil rights organizations. Academics and feminists were first to push against using “he” as if it referred to everyone. So maybe using the singular “they” for everyone will spread as an issue of diversity and inclusion. And maybe using the singular verb to go along with it would come next.
If we did use singular verbs with singular “they,” it would help with ambiguity. Even though context usually makes most potentially ambiguous sentences clear, the singular verb might help you know which one I meant when I wrote,
“Alex and the dancers are all going to the party tonight, but they is going to be late.”
But language change isn’t predictable. Language changes slowly. It changes more quickly in some genres than others, in speech than in writing. And it changes when people use it differently, not when rulebooks prescribe it differently--probably not even when I declare it should be so.
So should we follow singular “they” with a singular verb? I'd vote for it. There’s precedent for both “they are” and “they is” in people's usage. There's conservative power behind the standard variety's plural "they are," but if the AP Style Guide can change to allowing singular "they," even conservators of tradition can adapt to changing times. Which one wins out depends in part on which one catches on.
I like the consistency of the singular pronoun bringing along its singular verb. Let’s go all the way with equity and inclusion. So sure, @icowrich, let's get that going.
We might start getting used to it by using it in spoken but important genres--maybe in a catchy and powerful message that would spread. So think about someone who matters to you and repeat after me:
They is smart.
They is kind.
They is important.
After all, even weirder verb combinations have gone viral in memes. If a cat can has cheezburger, a singular they can has one, too.
Edited: Chatting with my linguist friends Anne, Peter, and Jim gave me a new way to talk about this topic. The form of the verb "are" ("They are") might be plural, but in the context of a singular "they" the verb would have singular meaning, too. We do that with "you." You are a good friend, Sue. The "are" is singular just as the "you" is. So if we do start using "they" as the sole singular pronoun, we wouldn't have to change the form of the verb to make it singular. It would already be heard as singular.
We are creative and flexible in using language. What a wonderful thing!