Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The rules we live by

Recently, I was reading one of my students' journal entries in which she discussed how she struggled with some aspects of academic style. To my surprise, she mentioned a particular rule she had been advised on: never use apostrophes in academic writing. I'd never heard this one before; I'd heard some people advise students not to use contractions, but had never taken any notice of such advice myself. But - no apostrophes at all? This student had realised how crazy this rule was when she was advising another student and suddenly realised how removing possessive apostrophes made the writing less concise and more cumbersome. When I asked her how she came by this rule, and why she had adhered to it for so long, she shrugged and said she'd never questioned the advice because it came from a reputable source.

This made me think about other rules I've come across that students think are absolutes: never use the passive voice, never use pronouns (any pronouns??), always write in deductive paragraphs, always use a transition at the end of each paragraph, always insert a comma where you would breathe in a sentence...I could go on.

Some of these rules fit into my 'maybe' category: maybe it's best to avoid the passive voice unless there's a reason to use it? Maybe deductive paragraphs are going to lead to clearer writing so you might want to make them your first option? But some of these rules are just plain wrong: please don't insert a comma wherever you breathe in a sentence, please feel free to use pronouns, and please, oh please, use apostrophes (correctly, and not too colloquially) in academic writing!

But where do these ideas come from? Some of them, I'm sure, must be misunderstandings on the student's part: I'm almost sure the apostrophe and pronoun 'rules' fit into that category. A teacher might have said "be careful using contractions in academic writing" and somehow it translated into "avoid all apostrophes" in my student's mind. A teacher might have said "avoid personal pronouns in formal reports" and it turned into "avoid all pronouns in academic writing". But some of these ideas will have emerged out of teachers trying to make the rules easier for students to understand: there are so many rules about commas, for example, that a teacher might give up trying to explain and come up with this simple (but entirely wrong) rule. We want our students to write more clearly, so we come up with the deductive paragraph rule and somehow it sticks as an absolute.

In my last two blog posts I have discussed particular rules relating to grammar and punctuation, and both have led to interesting discussion in the comments about whether the rules are correct or whether they are simply my taste. What I have loved about these comments is that they have challenged any absolutes, discussed the changing nature of language (David, I'd love you to write a blog post about Henry Hitchings on Grammar Gang one day), and invited a consideration of the relationship between rules and taste (shibboleth is such a fine word, thanks Allen!).

But what this raises for me, as a teacher of writing is how do we teach these issues without resorting to teaching 'rules' that can be misinterpreted or converted into absolutes? How do we give students the flexibility to work with language and make judgements about usage, while still meeting the formal requirements of many of their teachers? I'm still thinking around these issues: do you have any views on this? Or have you come across any absolutes about writing that your students believe in?


LeSaint said...

I see some people who don't think critically about writing rules and style just clinging to some rules they were taught in school, first because they have never thought about the reasons behind the "rules" and second because they still have never figured out that well-written English can still utilize creative variance from the rules, which are usually just guidelines.

More or less, if you know the "rules" and understand what they're meant for, you can generally break some of them without creating poor work.

It makes me sad that so much of that is due to how writing is taught in elementary and high school. Rules, like "I before E" and "never start a sentence with a conjunction" are terribly oversimplified when they're taught. Then later in life, people see that those rules are only partially true and think they were given misinformation.

Perhaps worse, the reason for and function behind the "rules" is not really taught. A comprehensive understanding of why a sentence should generally not start with a conjunction, or the simple ways to determine whether "I before E" actually applies to a word or not, would allow students to think independently and creatively when writing and critiquing other people's work.

I don't know if those two educational failings are due to an underestimation of the students' ability to gain that deeper understanding, or a nearsighted underestimation of the real-world value of that knowledge.

Sadly, I suspect it's the latter, which is a failing on the school's part that spells failure for the students later.

Tony said...

My previous professor would tell me to keep the sentence as dry as possible in academic writing (science). I kind of know what he is trying to say, and I agree to some extent. But still my writing is not as dry or concise as my profs. Any comment on dryness for scientific writing?

Andrea Duff said...

Thank you both for your great comments - LeSaint and Tony.

I think LeSaint alludes to the fact that the teaching of English is over-simplified and distilled into a series of didactic rules. My personal belief is that confidence and maturity enable us to deviate from the didactic. This enhanced by the knowledge of genre, context and culture.

'Genre' links somewhat to Tony's point.

In scientific writing, florid descriptions and generalisations tend to cloud data and evidence. That is not to say the skilled writer can not make the writing interesting. However, precision (avoiding terms such as numerous; several; somewhat) is required in writing in the sciences.

As a learning adviser at the University of South Australia, the science or engineering writing genres often required headings, subheadings, precise numbering and a prescribed layout.

Paralell structure and logical markers such as 'firstly, secondly and thirdly' were the rules of the scientific genre.

Thank you very much for these comments.