Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I’ve been asking everyone I’ve run into over the last few days what they’re doing for Memorial Day. The answers have been, almost unanimously, “Nothing.”
One friend said,
“I forgot it was Memorial Day.”
This is not a public shaming piece. If you look at media, you get a clear picture of Memorial Day as a day for BIG SALES! 50% OFF! But no one I asked said s/he was going shopping.
The headline in my local newspaper read,
“Cemeteries, campsites, pools gear up for Memorial Day”
Cemeteries get equal billing with campsites and pools. After all, Memorial Day weekend is the “unofficial start of summer,” as I see everywhere. The fact that Memorial Day was created to remember dead war veterans can get lost amid barbecues, weekend driving trips, and swimming pool openings.
Scroll down if you’re eager to see the one simple and quick thing you can do to recognize Memorial Day on Monday.
I find it interesting that some holidays stay focused and others drift away from their origins. Mother’s Day, which we just celebrated, is a holiday most people wouldn’t dare forget or ignore, lest they be accused of not loving their mother. (But see the complications I mention in my post on Mother’s Day cards.) But Labor Day, coming up, has mostly lost its celebration of those who labor and instead bookends Memorial Day as the unofficial end of summer.
For those outside the US--or many of us in the US--others have explained the origins of Memorial Day in Decoration Day, decorating the graves of fallen soldiers after the Civil War, and its expansion as Memorial Day to remembering veterans of all the wars after World War I. Many of those who decorate graves now place flowers on the graves of any ancestor, family member, or loved one.
My husband grew up in a small town, and he and his sister still have flowers placed on the graves of their parents every Memorial Day. I grew up in a small town far away from any of our relatives, and Memorial Day for us meant a backyard barbecue and swimming.
As I said, no public shaming here. We celebrate as we were raised, for the most part, and the media today bury American Legion ceremonies at cemeteries under swimming pool hours and department store ads. When I opened a newspaper’s video billed as “Veterans talk about meaning of Memorial Day,” I first had to close an ad for “50% off [unnamed newspaper] sale just for Memorial Day!”
Many have written more eloquently than I possibly could about the significance of Memorial Day and the importance of “celebrating” it properly (it’s hardly a day to celebrate, with recognition of those who died in wars). I was especially moved by Benjamin Sledge’s piece on Medium “The Gut-Wrenching Effect of Remembrance and Loss on Memorial Day.” (Unfortunately, this piece might be locked for readers who aren’t members of Medium.)
Another powerful but different testimony came in a brief message about the meaning of Memorial Day on pbs.org, with its quotations from Abraham Lincoln and its message that “there is immediacy in our sorrow; the wounds of war are new again.”
And its list of the number of dead from each war:
Fatalities from U.S. Wars and Conflicts
American Revolution (1775-1783). 4,435
War of 1812 (1812-1815). 2,260
Mexican War (1846-1848). 13,283
Civil War (1861-1865). 620,000
Spanish-American War (1898-1902) 385
World War I (1917-1918). 116,516
World War II (1941-1945). 405,399
Korean War (1950-1953). 36,574
Vietnam War (1964-1975). 58,220
Gulf War (1990-1991). 383
Afghanistan War (2001-present). 2,381
Iraq War (2003-2012). 4,500
As important as this holiday is for our nation, for recognizing the military dead--as significant as it could be to everyone, for remembering all of our dead loved ones--Memorial Day will probably remain a day for swimming pools, barbecues, or a few flags and flowers on graves. Or nothing.
If you want to memorialize Memorial Day in some way, you might join me in The National Moment of Remembrance, as established by an Act of Congress in 2000.
the one simple and quick thing you can do to recognize Memorial Day on Monday:
At 3 pm your time on Memorial Day, pause for just a minute of silence “to remember and honor those who have died in service to the nation.”
If you like, remember and honor all those who have died in wars in any nation.
Or remember and regret that so many men and women have been killed in war.
But Memorial Day has become one of those holidays that don’t mean much to most people, and I’m pretty confident that what most people do will win out over others saying what people should do.
Maybe if Hallmark and Blue Mountain started making and promoting Memorial Day greeting cards, we’d feel obligated to send a card to the veterans we know. Memorial Day could join the ranks of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
Maybe if the stores convinced us that we had to exchange gifts on Memorial Day—flags and flowers, for example—Memorial Day could join the ranks of Christmas.
Maybe if we gave out candy, like Halloween.
Or, most possible perhaps, maybe if we gathered the family for a big dinner, with each of us saying why we’re grateful, Memorial Day could join the ranks of Thanksgiving.
Maybe that’s what the family trips, barbecues, and even big shopping days are—celebrating that we can travel, join family and friends, and even shop.
So if we’re gathering together for a barbecue, or spending the day at the swimming pool, or even shopping with friends, maybe we could pause, just for a minute, at 3:00 and notice what we’re grateful for.
And then shop, swim, eat, and laugh with family and friends. Or do nothing!
Because we can.
Everywhere I look I see writing doing stuff. It thanks my mom on Mother’s Day, apologizes to a colleague, assigns tasks to my students, and on and on to just about anything that might need doing. Writing does stuff.
But lately the news has made me think about what writing does for our experience of the world. And I see three big ways writing interacts with experience:
I’m sure there are more ways to connect writing to experience, but let me explore these three. Any one of these could be a long post in itself, but here I’ll just go after some big sweeping perspectives on writing and our worlds. But it all begins with James Comey and his memos.
Writing records experience
Writing can keep a record of our experiences, can document what happens.
What got me thinking about this role for writing were James Comey’s memos about his meetings with President Trump before he was fired. While the president tweeted threats that there might be “tapes” of his conversations with the FBI Director, Comey revealed the memos he wrote after his meetings with the president. Those memos recorded a president asking the FBI Director for loyalty and pressuring him to drop an investigation into Michael Flynn, the national security advisor.
You don’t necessarily need to have it on tape if you have it in writing.
It’s a practice I’ve followed and recommended to others, even though the stakes for my written records have never been as high as protecting the nation. After a request from a higher-up for information or an important meeting, I write a memo to myself with the basic facts of what someone asked and what I did in response. Emailing it to myself gives me a date stamp. Of course, I also follow the sound business practice of emailing a memo of record to the person I met with if I want to record anything we agreed on in that meeting. “As we agreed when we met this afternoon, I will . . . and you will . . .“ It’s a way of turning oral agreements into written ones. I haven’t yet had to pull out those memos to defend my program, or myself, but I’ve used them to jog my memory when something comes up again.
I haven’t been subpoenaed yet, either, but Michael Flynn has—and that demonstrates the flip side of the written record. Writing also records what you might not want others to know. It seems the former national security advisor has refused to hand over emails “and other records” subpoenaed by the Senate Intelligence Committee in the investigation of potential Russian meddling with the US presidential election.
Writing records our experiences—and sometimes it can incriminate us.
Of course, diarists and journalists (both kinds) have long valued writing as a record of experience. Those written records of our daily experiences—those diaries and journals and newspaper accounts—can be reminders to our future selves of our pasts. They also can reveal to others what we might not want others to know. Ask all those who burned letters, diaries, and journals after the writer died so as not to tarnish their reputation (what a loss from the supposed friends of Lord Byron and husband of Sylvia Plath). Without Boswell’s diaries, Samuel Johnson would be much less human to me, but Johnson might have preferred it that way.
Writing records our experience, whether we like it or not.
(Digital recording of our every online move is the scariest new version of the written record, and one that highlights the significance of who’s doing the recording—us? Or someone else about us? If Sam Johnson objected to Boswell recording his every move, imagine his reaction to the digital trackers of his every click. Or for a less English major-y version, read Dave Eggers’ The Circle—no, don’t watch the movie; read the book! It’s much scarier.)
Writing changes experience
Another story I ran across this week revealed that writing about our experiences can change our experiences.
Following one of those chains from one online story to another to another, I ended up at a Well column from the New York Times in 2015, reporting on research from even earlier. But it grabbed me, because it told about how writing can not just record but actually change our experiences.
African-American students at Stanford University who were struggling academically were asked to write an essay or create a video about college for future students.
“The study found that the students who took part in the writing or video received better grades in the ensuing months than those in a control group.”
Married couples who were experiencing conflict were asked to write about their problems as if they were a neutral observer.
“Among 120 couples, those who explored their problems through writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who did not write about their problems.”
Writing can help heal emotionally (there are books and paid workshops on the topic now), whether the suffering is due to marital rifts, impostor syndrome, daily stress, or more traumatic life events. And writing to deal with personal issues and anxiety can help heal not just emotionally but physically, too.
Students at the University of Texas were asked to write for fifteen minutes a day, either about a superficial topic or an “important personal issue.”
“Afterward, the students who wrote about personal issues had fewer illnesses and visits to the student health center.”
Scientific American reports on a study in New Zealand of healthy older adults who needed a medical biopsy. Some were told to write for twenty minutes a day about daily activities, others to write about “upsetting events.” They all later had biopsies on their arms, and photographs tracked how well the arms healed.
“On the 11th day, 76 percent of the group that did expressive writing had fully healed as compared with 42 percent of the control group.”
Writing about distressing topics may work by reducing stress. Another study found such emotional writing reduced cortisol levels. Which may help improve sleep, which helps speed healing.
So just writing about what upsets us can change our experiences by reducing our stress and helping us to heal faster, stay healthier, get better grades, and be happier in our marriages. And leap tall buildings in a single bound.
It makes sense to me that writing can change our experience because it can change how we perceive our experiences. We tell ourselves stories about our experiences all day long—about our past, present, and future. “I shouldn’t have said that last night.” “I’m dressed all wrong for this party and everybody’s looking at me.” “I’m going to fail that test.” (At least, I don’t think that’s just me!)
But when we write those stories down, they lose some of their power. They’re on paper or on a screen instead of in our heads. And even better if we can write a different story—the version of our marital fight that an outsider would see, a view of college without our insecurities attached. Or write a successful outcome for that future fear; retell a past event with a different ending; make a mental note of the story about the present and follow it with a “Really?!? I think everyone in the room is looking at me right now?! C’mon, girl, get over yourself!” Or maybe that’s just me.
Whatever the reason behind it, the research is clear: writing about our experiences can change our experiences.
Writing Is Experience
Writing sometimes is the experience, and the experience of writing is enough.
I’m thinking about those times when writing becomes so absorbing that it’s the entire focus, the entire presence of the moment. Sometimes when I’m writing this blog, I get lost in the experience for hours without noticing. Sometimes I struggle with every word and wonder why I’m doing this thing, of course, but more often I find myself totally absorbed in the process, in the experience of writing. OK, maybe that’s not an experience everyone has, but it’s not just me.
That kind of writing might fit the meaning of “flow,” what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “the total involvement with life.” You can experience flow doing many things, but certainly for me writing is one of them. It’s not always writing a blog, even for me, but writing has the ability to involve us completely in the moment. Others might find the experience when writing a letter, a short story, a genealogy, a chain of text messages, or even a scholarly article. Writing can be the experience itself.
If you’re ready for a use of writing even more touchy-feely than flow, note that writing can be used for meditation. Written meditations use writing to focus attention on the present moment—the very definition of writing as experience. You’ll find lots of sites with written meditations online, including this one from the Mindfulness Meditation Institute that focuses on loving-kindness.
I separated out the three ways writing relates to our experience, but, as I wrote this piece, I started noticing that they all connect up, too. Writing about upsetting events simultaneously records and changes experience, and that kind of writing is surely an experience of writing itself.
And I described distinct kinds of writing that record, change, or are our experiences. Those kinds of writing—memos and diaries, emotional writing, written meditations—surely do illustrate the point most sharply, but that distinction, too, doesn’t hold, in the end.
In the end, writing always is experience. While we’re writing, whether it’s flowing or painful, meditative or exasperating, writing is what we’re experiencing while we’re writing.
And because writing always does stuff, I suspect writing is always changing our experience, even if no researcher is measuring the change.
And all writing records our experience in some way—what we’re thinking at the moment, or doing in the future, or trying to get someone else to do.
I suppose that means that this blog post records my experience, my thinking about this topic at this moment. It surely has changed my experience, since I think differently about this topic now than I did when I started out. And I struggled through this one a bit—not a lot of flow—but for hours it was my experience of the world.
Huh. Writing experience. Experiencing writing.
Who knew James Comey’s memos would be not just smart but inspirational?
Mother's Day cards
And why I struggle with them
Let me tell you a story about picking a Mother's Day card for my mom. I had planned to try a video story, taking you with me into my local Walgreen's to pick out this year's Mother's Day card, but I was too conspicuous and made the clerks nervous. I get it. For all they knew I was stealing Hallmark card ideas to make my own knock-offs.
Not a problem. My problem instead is trying to fit my unconventional mother--Mom--into the usual Mother's Day card genre. If you have a few minutes, click below to hear my unscripted tale of (much exaggerated) woe. (click here for a transcript of the audio)
A few years ago, I got curious about the proportion of cards with different views of motherhood, so I tracked and counted the Mother's Day cards on Hallmark's website, both paper and online (hey, I said I was curious, and I apparently had more time then than now).
Apparently, we are very serious about our mothers. About four-fifths of the Hallmark Mother's Day cards in 2014 were in the "loving" category, in contrast to "humorous," and showed lots of flowers. Mother's Day cards are, literally, flowery. You could order any one of 63 cards that were "Heartfelt" or "Sweet," but if you wanted "Funny" only 9 or "Lighthearted" only 11 to choose from. The online cards were a bit more casual and funny. Of the 32 e-cards Hallmark had on their site in 2014, I'd say 16 were heartfelt (usually with flowers), 13 humorous (often with cartoon characters) and 3 were pretty middling, like "have a relaxing day."
Although I didn't do a count of all the words in the cards (I didn't have THAT much time), I noted how commonly mothers were thanked for their caring, trust, patience, kindness, and, of course, love. Mom works hard in Mother's Day cards, cooking, cleaning, and even "wiping," as one card put it. Being a mother is a thankless job, the cards say repeatedly. But mothers even make the world better by rekindling joy, hope, and dreams.
No wonder I have a hard time finding a card for my mom (as told in my the audio recording above).
This year, I actually had better luck than usual. Most of the cards were to Mom. Someone looking for a card for "Mother" might actually have a harder time now. But even better there were cards that thanked Mom for being a role model (yes, those words!). One card's entire message, after "Happy Mother's Day" was "Celebrating a woman of strength and beauty. Celebrating you." Wow. That's different.
One beautiful card with laser-cut butterflies (fitting into the category heartfelt traditional almost flowery) had the message, "Happy Mother's Day to the woman who's taught me so much by her beautiful example. Happy Mother's Day, Mom." Of course, she could be an example of how to win beauty pageants or truss a chicken, but the card lets mom be a teacher and an example, rather than a selfless caregiver or housekeeper. Not that there's anything wrong with that, except for those of us whose mothers don't fit that motherhood model.
Oh, other cards still were the usual. Only 19 of the 242 paper cards available in store (according to Hallmark's website) were humorous, but 177 were considered "casual" and 63 "traditional." so things might be loosening up a little bit. Even the casual ones usually still have conventional content. One covered the front with wonderful words to describe mom--loving, supportive, wonderful, wise, patient, nurturing, amazing, generous, friend--and inside "Thanks for being you." Lots of them thanked mom for being a wonderful friend. Others thanked mom for the "countless things you do" for us. And mom still showed up as someone who "made the world a better place." Moms are pretty special creatures.
At least, moms are pretty special creatures in the eyes of Mother's Day cards. That special creature must be the image of mothers that we want to buy--literally. What makes them special might be changing, if my anecdotal history with Mother's Day cards holds up.
What doesn't seem to be changing is our dependence on Mother's Day cards to express our sentiments to mom on Mother's Day--a fact that really riled the woman who took credit for pushing Mother's Day as a holiday, Anna Jarvis. She objected mightily to Mother’s Day cards, reportedly complaining that, “A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.”
So if you're having trouble finding the right card, may I suggest you make your own? or shift genres and write a letter instead? or draw a picture, like you may have done when you were five! And be sure to include a flower in your drawing.
And if you're having trouble acknowledging the day at all--maybe because you didn't have the greatest mother, or maybe because your mother is gone, or maybe because your own desire to be a mother has gone unfulfilled--Mother's Day cards aren't going to do much for you. I found a card to a friend recognizing that she would be missing her mother today, and I found one to someone who had filled the gap that a mother would have filled and others to women who have been like a mother to them, without the biological origin.
But Mother's Day cards, like Mother's Day, show us what we think mothers should be, maybe what we wish mothers would be. Real people are always going to be more complicated than our wishes and dreams. That goes for mothers--and moms--too.
When I started exploring graduation as my topic for this week’s post, I had no idea how profound it would become.
Oh sure, graduation is a profound event in a student’s life in the US, so of course the topic would be significant. But I just started with a notion that it’s graduation time of year, and many of you in the US are probably involved in graduation or have family members or friends who are graduating. So I thought I’d see what genres made up graduation, and I stumbled into the question of what the difference is between “graduation” and “commencement.” The list of genres I came up with is interesting and they’ll show up below, but the differences behind those two words led me to a deeper exploration of this whole significant action.
So what is the difference between “graduation” and “commencement”? I see two intriguing differences, each a little different in what it says about graduation.
First there’s the simple but I think interesting distinction between the achievement and its celebration.
I found the same distinction popping up as I searched the web, and it’s really pretty simple. Here’s a typical but nicely concise one, from the website of Normandale Community College (don’t ask how I got to Normandale Community College. I was deep down the rabbit hole by that time):
Graduation is the completion of all degree requirements as recorded on the official transcript.
Commencement is the ceremony; graduation is actually getting the degree. That difference shows up in the graduation announcement and invitation—you announce your graduation, but you invite to the commencement ceremony. In fact, though, people also invite others to the student’s graduation, and by that they mean the ceremony of walking across the stage, flipping the tassel, or otherwise being treated as someone who has completed the process of graduating.
But that’s usually not the graduation. At most schools (at least in the US), the conferring of degrees doesn’t happen at commencement itself, but later. Oh, it’s true that Yale University confers degrees at commencement, with one person accepting the conferral for a group. And I missed my doctoral hooding ceremony at the University of Michigan because that ceremony actually conferred the Ph.D. and so you had to have all requirements completed by April 4, before I’d finished. (Still a little sorry about that, in case you can’t tell. The MA’s could be hooded before they’d finished, but not the PhD’s. So I missed it. Maybe I should have a ceremony for those of us who missed our commencement, sort of like the proms thrown by adults who missed their senior proms. Yeah, I missed prom, too.)
But back to graduation—Most school sites link “graduation” to a list of steps to take and forms to complete to ensure that you’ve completed all the requirements to graduate. As the Normandale site said, you may go through commencement ceremonies, but you don’t graduate until your transcript says so. And the transcript won’t say so until you complete the degree requirements and fill out a form.
I’m not sure most people realize that fact, which may be why so many schools emphasize the need to follow the steps and fill out the forms. “Graduation” has lots of official genres connected to it, like completion forms, degree requirements, transcripts, and, in the end, if you complete all those hoops and institutional genres, a diploma.
“Commencement” is where all the fun genres live, the ceremonial stuff, like commencement addresses or graduation speeches (I found both words connected to the formal speeches), commencement programs, lists of graduates, processionals, academic regalia (caps and gowns), and graduation songs, though I don’t know if that counts as a genre since there’s really only one official graduation song—“Pomp and Circumstance,” officially Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, by Edward Elgar. (That song is not so much fun anymore after you’ve played it, as I did in the high school band, for hours and hours as the large graduating class all walked across the stage to it, one by one.)
So graduation is the real event, the action that makes you or your child or your role model different, that turns you into a high school or college graduate. It’s not proceeding into a gymnasium or stadium or walking across a stage or flipping your tassel from right to left. It’s completing the requirements and the forms. It’s the label on your transcript.
But commencement still matters, and it matters in a way equally profound. The word itself points there—to commencing, beginning, the start of something.
Here’s the first meaning of “commencement” from the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED:
The action or process of commencing; beginning; time of beginning."
The second meaning in the OED names the commencement ceremony.
The first meaning of “graduation” is to divide into portions on a scale, like degrees of latitude and longitude, a meaning I could link metaphorically, but I’ll stick to the more direct definition. For our meaning of “graduation,” the OED offers a sixth definition:
The action of receiving or conferring a university degree, or a certificate of qualification from some recognized authority
Going back to the verb, the OED defines “graduate”:
“intr. To take a university degree. Also (U.S.): to complete a high school course and receive a diploma."
Graduation is the completion, the taking, the receiving, the conferring of a degree. It’s an act of completion. It’s something that has been done.
But commencement, commencement is the beginning, a process, commencing, the start of something. With graduation you’re done. With commencement you’re just beginning.
So the transcript and degree requirements and forms all document what a graduate has achieved. And the speeches, processionals, and programs and songs all celebrate what will commence next.
In fact, the commencement ceremony looks both backward and forward. Speeches praise students for what they’ve achieved and encourage them toward their next adventures. The University of Michigan offers a lofty definition that shows both:
“Commencement is a milestone—one of life’s landmark occasions, a time when graduates, family members, and friends gather to celebrate past and future.”
Past and future. Nostalgia for good times with friends and excitement about new friends and experiences to come. Honors and awards for the work just accomplished, and admission letters and scholarships—or job offers and salaries—for the work coming next. Graduation and commencement. One is hard work and achievement, completed in private and recorded in documents most people never see. The other is new challenges and opportunities, celebrated in public through pomp and circumstance.
The Elgar organization offers a reason Pomp and Circumstance is played at American commencements:
“The reason for the popularity of the march has to do with Elgar's ability to invent melodies that convey a complex of emotions. The tune manages to sound triumphant, but with an underlying quality of nostalgia, making it perfectly suited to a commencement that marks the beginning of one stage of life, but the end of another.”
Just in case you can take a little more—There’s even a grammar issue that connects to this moment of looking backward and forward at the same time. And I think it’s a bit profound, too.
Is it “graduated from college” or “graduated college”?
In 2014, NPR posted their “Grammar Hall of Shame,” I’m sorry to say, and number 9 of their top 10 “most misused word or phrase” involves graduation:
“Saying someone "graduated college" instead of "graduated from college." A college graduates a student, not the other way around. The "from" makes a big difference.”
Well, according to the OED, the transitive use of graduate, as in “A college graduates a student,” is archaic.
After objecting to this usage, Business Insider reports that they noticed two recent news stories with the awful “graduated college.” Um, if USA Today and even The Washington Post uses “graduated college,” I don’t think I’d sweat it anymore, or add it to the Grammar Hall of Shame.
My quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (a fun resource, if you don’t know it) found 23 instances of the verb form “graduate college” in both spoken, fiction, and news sources. That’s opposed to 203 instances of “graduate from college,” including the snootiest academic sources. So yes, “graduate from” seems more accepted than “graduate college,” but it sure seems to be acceptable in speech and newspapers.
But anyway . . .
Notice a subtle difference in meaning between “she graduated college” and “she graduated from college.”
To say she graduated college is to say she’s done, the action is over. She finished college. She graduated it.
To say she graduated from college implies something more to come. She graduated from college to something else. Compare “I moved from Lawrence” . . . to . . . where? “She went from shy to assertive.” “I took the lettuce from the fridge.” You may not have to say where that lettuce is headed next, but you know it’s headed somewhere now that you got it from the fridge. Maybe it’s headed toward great things, a great salad.
So “graduating from college” implies something more, having finished college, yes, but heading toward something else. From college to . . .
In this graduation time of year, I recognize the need for both graduation and commencement. The two words looking backward and forward. The two actions showing what has been done and what’s still to come.
Graduation from what was past
Commencement of the future
I probably knew that already, on some level. Graduation is a time of finishing one stage of life and moving on to the next. But how cool is it that our language represents that in so many ways, not just with an institutional distinction between the completed degree and the ceremony, but with different genres looking different directions, with different word associations and implications, maybe even a contested grammatical distinction.
And how cool is graduation! To all of you who are graduating this year, to all of you who are attending the commencement ceremony for someone else—whether college, high school, or even the relatively new graduation from middle school or even kindergarten!—and to all of you who remember what it was like, I’ve gathered the most relevant, most (in)appropriate graduation messages from across the intersphere:
All that hard work for a piece of paper? Congratulations on getting your piece of paper.
And no graduation wishes would be complete without Dr. Seuss, so my last wish for you graduates:
Graduate from the places you've been and commence with