Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
A Different Definition of Genre
Genre is a conventional system of signs that allows for the creative communication of meaning.
Maybe it's the end of the academic semester, when I'm reflecting on what we've studied in our courses over a semester.
Or maybe it's because this time of the academic year is so full of graduate student exams, when I'm devising questions that allow students to show what they know while ranging widely over their readings.
Or maybe it's because I'm so swamped with work at this time of year. OK, maybe it's mostly that one.
Whatever the reason, I found myself returning to a blog post I had written two years ago but never published. Those were my early days, my days of trying to figure out what this blog writing is supposed to do and who might want to read what I write. I'd noticed some similarities between language and genre, and I started exploring the ways genre might be like language.
It's a little academic--well, maybe a lot academic--but I still find it interesting. So those of you willing to go highfalutin theoretical with me, even on a nice spring day, here are some earlier thoughts connecting genre as conventional, systematic, and creative, just like language
In Spring 2016, I was teaching two undergraduate courses —an advanced writing course I’ve called Writing with Confidence, and a survey of English language studies. The two suddenly converged for me one week in a surprising way. On the first day of class in Introduction to the English Language, I had explained the textbook’s definition of language:
“Human language is a conventional system of signs that allows for the creative communication of meaning”
(From page 8 of Anne Curzan and Michael Adams’ text How English Works: A Linguistic Introcution)
In class, I showed how English is systematic, conventional, and creative. So we looked at the systematic way we make new words plural—if we have one poozy, we will have two poozies—and the systematic way we combine sounds—English allows “brat” but not “bfat,” so we have to pronounce “bff” as [bee-eff-eff] not as [bff]. And of course we made sentences out of words, with English allowing “The boy and a girl ran in the house” or “The girl and the boy ran in a house” but not “In ran girl house the a boy the and” or even “The house ran in the girl and a boy” (as a student explained, “Houses don’t run.”)
But we also talked about the fact that this language system is conventional, not somehow inherently right or inherently meaningful. We could just as well make plurals by adding an –a, so one poozy two poozya. We could call our sneaker an oosh rather than a shoe.
And we spent a lot of time on how this conventional system enables us to communicate whatever meaning we want because of its creativity. We can create new words for new meanings (google, bae, bff) and new meanings for old words (mouse, cool, web). We can create sentences that go on forever—"I know that you know that we know that she knows that I know that he knows that you know that . . .”
So language is a conventional system of signs that allows for the creative communication of meaning.
But the next day I was prepping class for my advanced writing course, where we were starting to explore the concept of genre and how genres shape what we write, sometimes unawares and even when we’re trying to work against a genre. So I created a list of things to notice about genre from the readings on genre they did.
Thing to notice about contemporary rhetorical conceptions of genre:
And then it hit me. Flash. The definition of language fit genre, too.
Language is a conventional system of signs that allows for the creative communication of meaning.
Genre is a conventional system of signs that allows for the creative communication of meaning.
Let me try to work this out.
Genres, too, are conventional. Although they’re not arbitrary, the way language systems are, they take on certain forms because the groups that use them agree to interpret their meanings in the same ways. And different groups develop different systems out of their different shared cultures.
So academic research papers have to cite their sources in specific ways and give credit for each bit of information, conventional and appropriate for a group that depends on and highly values intellectual property. Tax accountants, though, include direct copying of the IRS Tax Codes and Regs without so much as a quotation mark (yes, I studied the writing of tax accountants, and I discovered they treated sources differently). Their assumption is that, within their group of readers and writers, everyone will recognize the source. No need to point it out. Like the use among some writers of quotations from Confucius and other known authorities. Who better than those wise ones to speak on a subject? And how insulting to point out a source that the reader surely knows.
Genres are conventional in their use and interpretation of signs.
Genres are systematic. They have elements (structures, styles, content) that combine in rule-governed ways.
This claim might be the one I’m most uncertain of. The elements of genres aren’t as clearly defined as the elements of a language. And they probably aren’t as systematic. Their “rules” are expectations, and violating the rules probably doesn’t make a text unacceptable. About genres, we probably wouldn’t say “Houses don’t run” (Horror stories don’t do that) but instead “Houses don’t usually run” (Horror stories don’t usually do that). But thinking about genres as systematic opens up ways of talking about the formal conventions of genres in new ways.
And Genres allow for the creative communication of meaning.
That’s an easy one for me. Genres help us make meaning. You know how to interpret a sales letter because you’ve seen them before. And I’ve argued lots of times before that genres also help writers be creative. Because they mark out what’s expected, writers can focus on the places where they can vary from what’s expected, can make decisions in places that aren’t spelled out, can adapt the genre to the particular, unique writing task. [Wow, this has gotten way academic]
The combination of conventional and creative, in language and in genres, also gives me a better way, maybe, of recognizing that genres do indeed constrain writers.
Their existence pushes people into particular ways of seeing the world and of acting in it. Here is maybe a way to distinguish genre from language, too. People can be more creative with genres than with language. Either people act wholly within a genre, as they do in speaking or writing in a language, and they use only the creativity allowed within that conventional system. Or they become conscious of the constraints of that system and those conventions, and they act creatively against them. You can’t do that in a language and still be understood (well, James Joyce can, but that's because genre). You wouldn’t be communicating meaning. But in a genre, you can. There are limits, but you can write in ways that violate the “rules” of a genre and still be understood. That’s a creative part of writing that goes beyond the creativity in language.
What do you think? Does it work to think of genres as systems? Does this connection of genre to a definition of language give you any helpful ways of thinking about genres? Or is this just another sign that my view of genres is influenced by my work in language as well?
I think those two-year-old thoughts still hold some interesting ideas, including helping to see how those conventional generic forms can matter (which I think I was writing about in my scholarly work at the time). But those connections also may help my thinking today, especially as I've been working more with the ways that people can use genres to resist or disrupt conventional expectations and still be meaningful. Language is generative--we can always say something that's probably never been said before.
Purple penguins can buy roast beef at the garage sale
And people will try to make sense of it, to make it meaningful (maybe the penguins are sports fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins? and someone is selling roast beef at a food truck there!)
Genres, too, are generative. We always do or say something in a genre that hasn't been said before. No two texts are identical. And however we might vary from those expected formal conventions, people will try to make sense of it, to make it meaningful.
So this exploration was fun for me two years ago, and I enjoyed returning to it today. I see the similarities still
But as a blog post? Phew. That's hard slogging. I hope I've learned a bit about making my blog more readable and fun as well as thoughtful. That balance remains tricky for me.
But hey, I continue to learn how to be creative within this genre, this conventional system of signs, for the creative communication of meaning. I'm just grateful to have you readers stick with me to the end of this post.
And maybe I now have one question prepared for one of the graduate exams this week:
How is genre like language? And how is it unlike language? Discuss
Image of Declaration document, dated July 4, 1776, from commons.wikimedia.org
On July 4th in the United States, we celebrate the Declaration of Independence (in fact, the date that the Continental Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration of Independence). Notice we celebrate “the” declaration, not “a” declaration, though the document actually calls it "A Declaration"
So what genre is a declaration?
A search on DuckDuckGo brings up these top results for the meaning of “declaration”
Declaration of independence
“An assertion by a defined territory that it is independent and constitutes a state.”
Declaration of war
“A formal act by which one nation goes to war against another.”
Declaration (Computer programming)
“In computer programming, a declaration specifies properties of an identifier: it declares what a word means.”
“In the sport of cricket, a declaration occurs when a captain declares his team’s innings closed”
“A binding adjudication of the rights or other legal relations of the parties which does not provide for or order enforcement.”
“There are several actions in poker called declaration, in which a player formally expresses his intent to take some action.”
Image of poker player from commons.wikimedia.org
So what IS a declaration?
Many scholars, including me, have declared (repetition intended) that a genre is whatever the users say is a genre. I might argue that if a user names something as a category, then it is a category. More complexly, if users share a term for symbolic actions, then that IS a genre.
If I check Wikipedia for music genres, I’ll find 45 named genres of African popular music, including Bongo Flava, Igbo highlife, and Mbalax. I find 27 genres of Blues, from African blues to West Coast blues. Under Electronic music, I find 21 genres, with so many subgenrs listed under each that I stopped counting.
Image of music genres from commons.wikimedia.org
And, of course, the multiplicity of genre labels goes beyond music to genres of literature, writing, movies, art, and more. Netflix has really enlarged the notion of movie genres with its exponentially increasing genres "you might like" based on your viewing history. (scary, as well as a complicated algorithm) According to finder.com, Netflix has 27,002 individual genres of movies. The categories of “genres” for Netflix is a topic for its own blog post in the future.
Which certainly leads to the question “What is a genre?” but July 4th is a holiday in the US, so I won’t burden myself with that blog post yet. I may have the courage to tackle it in the future, and I welcome your comments to help build such a post.
But back to what IS a declaration?
My interest in language intersects with my interest in genre with this topic. Words are often polysemous, often have multiple meanings. What is a run: a score in baseball, a thread tear in a stocking, a jog through the park? Genre labels, too, are often polysemous. Like the word “run” and so many words in English, the word “declaration” has multiple meanings in different contexts—in computer programming, law, cricket, and poker, as well as politics and American history. So there is no single category of symbolic action that is the genre of declaration. There must be different categories of action in each of these settings.
I need to narrow my genre from declaration to declarations of independence. Within politics and the meaning of declaring independence, I find some common situations, purposes, audiences, and messages.
So what IS a declaration of independence?
Some history sites give credit to the American Declaration of Independence as antecedent for many countries’ separations from dominating political entities, even if their founding documents aren’t necessarily called declarations of independence. There is a Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and it refers to the French declaration on the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Then there is The Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls conference of 1848, in which the self-evident truths are “that all men and women are created equal”
The question of what IS a declaration of independence might better be stated as what does a declaration of independence DO?
Declarations of independence assert a group’s separation from a dominating force. Their power lies in the uniqueness of each situation—the particular group being dominated, the particular unit from which separation is required—with the generic assertion that one group has the ability to declare separation, the recognized generic authority to assert the group’s right to its own power and authority.
Genres define what is permitted, what acts we can perform (in Carolyn Miller’s notable discussion). Yet each instance of the genre is adapted to the particular circumstances, the particular rhetorical situation. Declarations of independence make it conceivable to declare independence, for whatever particular group is in a situation that the group believes requires that action.
What’s in a name? The action that people perform.
What IS a declaration of independence? A declaration of independence.
Ah, each blog post leaves so much more to say, I write with hope and trust that these posts will build on one another as I tap away at one little piece at a time. But I declare nothing here, except perhaps as in cricket: I declare this blog post closed to me, but still open to your comments and additions.
Below Declaration of Sentiments read, from youtube.com