Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
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.