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.
What a week for language and rhetoric nerds like me. James Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee led to all sorts of interpretations. What did he say? What did he mean? Who's telling the truth?
But it's not really about who's telling the truth, unless the president ends up testifying under oath that he did not say those words. It's about how he meant what he said. We're constantly interpreting meaning that goes way beyond the words.
Hence one of my favorite sayings:
It’s not what you say. It’s what you mean
Several others have written great analyses of the exchange between the President and FBI Director, as James Comey reported it. One of my favorites so far is Anthony Lane’s essay in The New Yorker on the meaning of “I hope,” not least because he hands off to salivating professors of semantics (linguists who study meaning), who are primed for just such a question.
It’s professors of pragmatics I’d hand off to—experts in the ways cultural context shapes meaning. And professors of rhetoric—experts in the ways people use words to influence other people. Both fields of study can have a field day with this exchange.
What did he mean when he said . . . ?
Depends on the rhetorical context—who was talking to whom, in what setting, on what subject, for what purpose? And cultural norms—how do people in this culture usually get across such meanings?
That brings me to my other favorite piece so far—Nicole Serratore’s op-ed in The New York Times on “James Comey and the Predator in Chief.” She compares Comey’s situation and his responses to the situation of a woman “being harassed by her powerful, predatory boss.” The eerie similarities brought shivers—from Comey’s wondering if he should have been “stronger” to trying to resist the increasing pressure.
Who was talking to whom—a boss to his employee? Or a colleague to another colleague?
In what setting—an awkwardly intimate dinner that was supposed to have a group? Or a casual dinner between soon-to-be friends?
On what topic—an ongoing investigation? Or a personal worry?
For what purpose—to change the course of an investigation? Or to discuss current events?
It’s the participants who know best what the context was, and it’s the participants who best interpret the meaning of what was said. But we can apply our cultural knowledge of roles and relationships and how we talk with one another to make our own reasonable interpretation, to judge the meaning that’s most likely in that situation—that’s pragmatics.
Because we know it’s not what he said, it’s what he meant. And we interpret what he meant by understanding the whole situation, especially situations we’ve encountered before.
As we do all the time in our every day life:
Joe Blow: “Did you get the text I sent you?”
Susie Q: “Oh, sorry. Yes, I do want to go to Pat’s party.”
Why isn’t Susie’s response, “Yes, I did”?
Susie Q: “What time is it?”
Joe Blow: “You’re right, we’d better go!”
Why didn’t Joe tell Susie the time? How rude!!
Amy: “Are you cold?”
Amy’s spouse: [gets up and shuts the window]
It doesn’t take words to show you understand more than someone said.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Sometimes we show that we know what someone means with our silence.
We do this all day long—say one thing on the outside, but mean something apparently quite different on the inside. And the person we’re talking to knows that. And we both know what we mean.
Because we both know it’s what we mean, not what we say, that matters.
It helps if we know each other well and have been interpreting each other’s indirect meanings for years. With new acquaintances, it can be harder to get the nuances. Then we have to depend on the usual cultural meanings and on what we do know of the person.
Did Comey or the President think of all this?
Comey did testify that he started taking detailed notes because of the situation:
A combination of things. I think the circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with. Circumstances, first, I was alone with the president of the United States, or the president-elect, soon to be president. The subject matter I was talking about matters that touch on the FBI's core responsibility, and that relate to the president, president-elect personally, and then the nature of the person. I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meeting so I thought it important to document. That combination of things I had never experienced before, but had led me to believe I got to write it down and write it down in a very detailed way.
He was paying attention to who was speaking, in what setting, and on what topic. He was noticing the rhetorical situation.
And describing the meeting where the President asked the attorney general and others to leave the room, Comey was noticing the variation from the usual cultural conventions.
My impression was something big is about to happen. I need to remember every single word that is spoken, and again, I could be wrong, I'm 56 years old, I've been, seen a few things, my sense was the attorney general knew he shouldn't be leaving which was why he was leaving and I don't know Kushner well but I think he picked up on the same thing so I knew something was about to happen that I needed to pay very close attention to.
He’s “seen a few things” and knew from that experience how to interpret what was to come. What kind of conversation happens after asking everyone else to leave the room? We all know that.
In his article on the meanings of “I hope,” Anthony Lane also referenced the philosopher J. L. Austin’s ground-breaking How to Do Things with Words. Our words don’t just mean; they do.
Our words do things themselves. They perform actions.
“I promise . . .”
“I swear . . .”
“I vow . . .”
“I deny . . .”
“I apologize . . .”
Or we do thing with words, through words—asserting, arguing, informing, asking, answering, insulting, complimenting, taunting, recording, testifying, dodging, threatening, coercing, obstructing
Or wishing and hoping
It’s certainly possible to misunderstand one another’s meaning. We do that every day, too.We have to interpret not just the words but the situation, putting together who is speaking where and when and why and what does it all really mean?
Whether those actions through words add up to something Congress wants to do anything about is a different question.
The Washington Post published an analysis of the 3 major cable news networks and the captions used below their coverage of the live testimony. Each emphasized different statements, whether it was Comey's saying the president lied about the reasons for his firing or his saying the president was not under investigation. Different focus, and probably different interpretations of what it all added up to
But not different words. And not different contexts.
So it may come down not to what did he know and when did he know it, but rather what did he say and what did he mean by it
Because we all know how to do things with words, and we all understand what’s being done
And we all know that it’s not what we say but what we mean that counts.
Lordy, I do hope you understand me