Issues of Correctness

Joseph Williams’ essay resonated with me more than any of the others for a few reasons. First, I taught one of his books in my class this semester—a shortened edition of his Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. I first read Style six years ago, and I still believe the words that opened that book: “It is good to write clearly, and anyone can.” But I also know that style rubs up against grammar and correctness on more levels than I’m comfortable with. Does a student need to master grammar before she can have a style? Is correctness objective, or does it float on the hot air coming from grammarians and linguists?

In “The Phenomology of Error,” Williams tries to understand why grammar errors arouse so much excitement. Error, he says, is hard to research because when we ask someone what they think about correctness, that person often responds with a desire to protect some standard of usage, to flaunt their knowledge of “the rules.” Even worse, by asking these respondents about correctness, we passively affirm that they know something about it. Williams says there is a dangerous tendency to believe these people because they ought to know. After all, if we cannot trust the experts, who can we trust?

William Zinsser provides an example of this in his book On Writing Well. Zinsser was one of 104 scholars asked to help decide which words should be included in The American Heritage Dictionary. Zinsser describes the panel’s difficulty in coming to any unanimous decision. More often, words like impact (as a noun) met with both vehement rejection and happy approval. These are the people who decide correctness on some levels, and they don’t even agree on what’s right because they are concerned with protecting some sense of the integrity of English. The rule makers enjoy this, I think. “It simply feels more authentic when we condemn error and enforce a rule,” Williams writes. “After all, what good is learning a rule of all we can do is obey it?” (Williams).

The lesson I take from Williams is that language is highly individualized. Everyone has a unique vocabulary, so we should not be surprised when our students use language uniquely. The problem with individuality in language is that it may not efficiently communicate ideas. This crops up again and again in composition theory. Whenever I read about a BW student who is unable to communicate his ideas, it is one of those cases where personalized language isn’t effectively communicating meaning.

Yet Hartwell shows that basic writers know how to communicate their ideas to others—in speech at least. Hartwell believes that students see writing as an intermediate step between thought and speech (Hartwell 224). When asked to read their writing to others, students naturally translate their ungrammatical writing into perfectly passable speech.

But this is not enough. Writing hinges on the author’s absence, not her presence to explain their word choices. So in an effort to get students to write clearly, compositionists teach students to use a “specialized discourse” and to appropriate the authority they need to take control of their writing (Bartholomae 644). Most importantly, Bartholomae says, students learn to emulate other styles around them. They are not creating new texts; they are learning from texts and discourses that already exist. As such, it is only a small step to requiring a knowledge of how that extant system works, i.e. its grammar.

This formal grammar is not theirs. It is an outside system that has confusing rules that may not click with the way the students already understand English. And if they break the rules, we pounce on them with gallons of red ink, bleeding on their papers as if the students had wounded us along with the language. The focus becomes form and correctness, and we tend to read student papers with an eye for error, not concepts. In so doing, those of us “in the know” remain the rulers of grammar and keep students where they belong: writing in the classroom instead of writing with the rest of us.

But “the rest of us,” Williams points out, break as many grammar rules as our students do, but this has been covered up with a Technicolor coat of style. Expert writers understand the rules and can therefore break them and bend them to their hearts’ content. When students have mastered the rules of grammar, then they can innovate and form their own styles (Lu 491) (Lu does not believe this, but her wording helps my point). As long as we use correctness as the key to higher education, we reinforce this power pattern.

So a unique style can only come about when students have mastered grammar … Grammar can only be mastered when students learn all the rules … The rules are more or less unnatural attempts to regulate a highly individualized system … One big subjective mess.

The damnable thing is this: we need a language to talk about writing if we are to teach it. Grammar provides that shared language. So long as we take writing instruction as a given, then students must know how to use grammar and talk about writing. I don’t think anyone can “master” grammar, and I don’t think mastery is a prerequisite for a clear style.

Nevertheless, I also think students need to “understand” grammar. There are enough basic terms and concepts to fill a small book—terms that span all of the proposed theories of English grammar—and these are the ones students must know. They need to know what nouns, verbs, predicates, and complete sentences are. As teachers, we need to point out the errors we notice; but we do not need to search for error. The grammatical goofs that stick out are the ones that hinder communication and need to be addressed. The others are folklore.

Joseph Williams deftly minimizes the subject of grammar in his book Style, assuming as I do that students should understand how their language works before attempting to write anything as complex as an academic essay. I do not believe that the rules are set in stone, but I do believe that students must know how to talk about their writing in at least rudimentary terms if they are to approach writing as a serious opportunity for discourse and not as simple homework.

Works Cited

  • Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford, 1985. 134-65.
  • Hartwell, Patrick. “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar.” College English 47.2 (1985): 105-27.
  • Lu, Min-Zhan. “Professing Multiculturalism: The Politics of Style in the Contact Zone.” College Composition and Communication 45.4 (1994): 442-58.
  • Williams, Joseph M. “The Phenomology of Error.” College Composition and Communication 32 (1981): 152-68.
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