Category Archives: College writing

“That” or “Which”? What Would You Choose?

Buble quote speech on cloud space for text

A New Yorker editor writing in the Times Literary Supplement debates a grammar textbook writer! Loads of fun. I personally think the “which” in the sentence under scrutiny should be “that.” It clearly refers to the “sourness” and “relentlessness,” and yes, these are appositives, and yes, the point following “which” is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Do you agree?

Aren’t words a hoot?

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How Much “Grammar” Do You Really Need?

Put Your Editing Nightmares to Bed!

Across the online landscape for writers, there’s a lot of anxiety about producing that error-free query, synopsis, or draft. With reason—the first letter in “professional” is “p” for “perfect.” There’s no wiggle room on this one, is there? It’s got to be capital-R Right.Sad Editing!

As someone who taught college writing for 25 years and as a published novelist, I’ve been on the front lines of the effort to spread “good grammar.” The fact is, the whole question of what’s Right is more complicated than you think.

In the next few posts, I’m going to make an argument that we don’t need to obsess quite as much as we do. In fact, there are some “grammar rules” we can even trash!

Yes, You Have to be Able to Edit Your Work. . . .

I’m not for one minute telling you that your command of English syntax and usage is not important. It’s vital. But writers can all too easily get bogged down on trivia and even on myths (“OMG! I ended a sentence with a preposition! :-0”). One common cause of writer’s block is thinking that every comma is radioactive, ready to explode and destroy the known universe if mishandled. So for us writers, a little bit of a reality check is a good thing!

Today’s topic: What is good grammar? Answer: Depends on whom you ask.

(Yep, whom you ask. Why? Because it’s the object of the verb “ask.” Eeek! Relax. Nine times out of ten, “who” would be just fine in that line. Hang around; later I’ll explain why.)

Linguists, people who study how languages work, generally agree on three things: Continue reading

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Comma Power

I have been thinking about the inordinate power of commas.

I had an intuitive understanding of this power from my manipulation of my own prose as a fiction writer. But I credit Martha Kolln’s textbook, Rhetorical Grammar, for making concrete, as an object of explicit study, what my instinctive ear told me. I never succeeded in passing on to many students a real, self-conscious understanding of how vital such a simple little mark can be to communicating precisely what we want readers to hear: there never seemed to be enough time to think much about style in the classes I taught. But if I had it to do over again, I would indulge myself by finding that time. I’ve worked hard not to be the natural Grammar Curmudgeon I am, but by golly, punctuation is a tool! We’ve all seen those fun exercises where simply moving a few little marks around completely changes meaning (a simple example is “Woman without her man is nothing,” which, with just a few tweaks, comes to mean its opposite). But punctuation also controls rhythm and emphasis, and in this regard, the comma’s a tough little drill sergeant, lining up every word in its place.

So: some disquisitions on commas. Rather, on what I think is going on with commas, with thanks for Kolln for systematizing these observations for me.

Today, emphasis. Read this sentence aloud:

There is in fact a reason for what happened.

Now add the commas in the most obvious places, around the “interrupter,” which grammar books tell us commas should, actually, set off:

There is, in fact, a reason for what happened.

To my ear, and Kolln substantiates this, the commas change the intonation and emphasis. In the second sentence, as in all uses of commas in this way, the emphasis is cast on the words before the commas. So the sentence now reads

There IS, in FACT, . . .

So we get increased attention to the “facticity” of what’s being claimed. The meaning hasn’t particularly changed, but the way we hear it has. We get a beat on the FACT of this utterance.

But that’s not all that happens. The commas break up the flow of the sentence, I would assert, in ways that reinforce meter. In this case, it’s our old favorite, iambic pentameter, the most ubiquitous meter for English speakers (Shakespeare’s meter). And that not only asks us to hit “is” and “fact” with extra emphasis, but also “REAson.” So that the sentence reads,

There IS, in FACT, a REAson for what happened.

This effect is, in part, due to what Kolln calls the “it cleft,” which I’ll investigate in a later post. But the commas hammer home the shift to emphasis on “REAson,” telling readers that this reason is going to be the focus of the ensuing follow-up.

I want to look more in upcoming posts at the comma’s power to break up sentences and direct utterance as words transfer from page to mind. For now, do you have examples of how commas control words in your own writing? Decisions you’ve made about how to re-organize sentences to take advantage of this little power tool?

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The Answer is 42

Having had the benefit of a nice road trip during which I was able to contemplate the issue I’ve been exploring in the last few posts—the virtues or lack thereof of letting learners figure things out for themselves—I’ve arrived at an unexpected conclusion. The answer to the question of whether this is the ideal pedagogical method, for teaching writing or many other things, is—drum roll—42!

No, seriously, the definitive answer is yes and no. Or, put differently, it depends. Or: on one hand, on the other. Or possibly: sometimes.

A quick recap: I’ve always wanted to learn programming. Told that Python was useful and accessible, I bought a $35 book. Within hours, I was just barely resisting the urge to hurl the book at the stupidly blinking computer screen. The author adopted the “throw them in and they’ll teach themselves to swim (or not)” school at its most extreme. He provided readers with code they were to dutifully copy, producing a simple game called “Find the Wumpus.” I copied, I played, I found the Wumpus. But throughout, I had to puzzle out for myself what different commands meant—for that matter, even how to write and run a command, which was one of the numerous things this author assumed I already knew how to do!

I showed this book to a mathematician friend adept at programming. He told me to go to Louisville and throw it off the Big 4 Bridge. “This is completely wrong. The way to teach programming is to provide short bits of code that illustrate specific commands and functions. Get another book.”

I already had, being a Very Smart Girl. I bought two on my Kindle. I perused the first one. Within just a few screens, I knew what operators were, and what some major ones did. I knew what functions were. (I already pretty much knew what variables were.) I knew the difference between a number and a string! (It’s just a matter of punctuation. If it’s inside quote marks, it’s “text” and it’s a “string,” Ain’t that cool?)

And yet.

I learned how to tell the computer to add 2 and 3 and get 5. I learned how to convert the price of an Apple computer into euros using functions. I learned how many spaces I could insert before a decimal.

No doubt there are people out there who need to do these things. Who want to do them. It was unclear to me why I would want to do them.

Here’s the upshot. The Find-the-Wumpus game, maddening though it was, Continue reading

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Maybe Just a Tiny Bit More Rant. . . .

And some thoughts on what it means for writing.

Last time, I wrote about the tendency of the author of my beginning Python book (computer programming) to leave out what seemed to me simple yet rather foundational instructions for the beginners he was supposedly addressing, my implication being that he failed to understand his readers’ needs, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his text. I wanted to take the experience of trying to follow his directions toward a discussion of why (in my experience) many writers, including writers of fiction, seem to actively resent being asked to explain themselves to readers.

But I have a new gripe after working through Chapter 2. (I suppose I’ll have to take a vow not to collapse into a rant after every chapter! I do plan to buy another book to supplement this one, so if you were thinking of suggesting that. . . .)

In this chapter he gives you lots of steps. He gives you whole programs to copy into your text editor (characteristically without explaining that it’s in the text editor that you’ll find that rather essential “run” command!).

But along with these whole-cloth programs, does he tell you what you just did, why you did it, and how it worked?

You have probably intuited that no, he does not.

Nor does he define terms as consistently as he would have you believe. “Because the player enters a string instead of a number—” Excuse me. I most certainly entered a number. I assume he doesn’t mean we’re doing some version of string theory here.

He implies—actually more than implies—that he’s operating under the theory that readers will learn best by doing and then by figuring out the “grammar” of this language on their own as they go along. I think he’ll eventually tell me some of the stuff I want so much to know. In the Find-the-Wumpus game he has me coding, in “raw­_input(“>”),” what in the world is that little caret for? In “for i in cave_numbers” when you’re setting up caves that the player can see from a given cave, where did that “i” come from? Is it some arbitrary identifier? I could pick “s” or “m” just as easily? Maybe I should try the substitution and see what happens. But why not tell me instead of just dropping an unexplained item into the program for me to copy? Am I really better off figuring such things out on my own? Continue reading

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Digression Again: Struggling with Writing

I’ve been researching how people learn to write and what can stand in their way. My interest in this topic stems, first, from my own experiences as a college writing teacher (with a PhD in “composition studies”), and second, a book project I’m working on for college students facing their first college writing class, whether as recent high-school graduates or returning adults.

A lot of research indicates that, as with many other cognitive functions, early experiences matter. This seems to be particularly true for writing. After all, writing is not “natural.” No one is “hard-wired” to do it, as we all seem to be for speech. Neuroscientist Stanislaus Dehaene explains current theory suggesting that our brains must redirect neural pathways “designed” for other functions into the unnatural and unevolved task of connecting visual images with the sounds that then translate into the words we’re familiar with. The earlier we recognize that these visual stimuli are important components of our environments and have meaning, the more likely this process will occur when our brains are most plastic, most ready to manage this redirection. Intuitively it makes sense that people who had the richest literacy experiences from the earliest ages will have the most time to hone this use of their brains.

It’s also clear that writing makes huge demands on our cognitive resources. I’m reading research that indicates that even such tasks as typing, when they’re not largely automatic, steal working memory and cognitive energy from the higher-order processes that go into more complex writing tasks. And when we’re dealing with multiple tasks with high cognitive load, like accessing new, complex material, something has to give.

So my conundrum: Do I tell potential readers of my book on college writing that if they missed out in those early years, they’re doomed?

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Digression: What is “College Writing”?

In the course of a project I’ve been working on, a book for people about to take their first college writing course, I’ve been doing some reading to locate the personal experiences I’m drawing on in the continuing conversation among college writing professionals about what a college writing course or major ought to be and do. One source I’ve found usefully provocative is What is “College-Level” Writing?, edited by Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg, both community college professors. High-school and college teachers, students and administrators have contributed.

No Definition for College Writing?

I wonder how surprised most readers would be to learn that the collection begins with the premise that there’s no agreed-upon definition for “college-level” writing. Contributors do seem to resist the idea that writing is de facto “college level” because it is written in college. But many also resist the idea that there should be some set of specific criteria that student writers have to meet if their writing is to be acceptable college work. The perceived danger is that locking college writing to “standards” will drive it the same way “standards” have driven high-school writing: toward shallow and reductive formulas that privilege being able to follow a set of steps over thoughtful analysis of a topic. (George Hillocks’ The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, is a lucid exploration of the effects of various rubrics and standards on how teachers teach and how students write.) The writers in this volume tend to agree that college writing should be more flexible, more responsive to the different writing situations students in college will encounter.

So What Is College Writing. . . . ?

And this view of the difference between college and high-school writing points to a consistent thread of consensus among the contributors (and among my colleagues, with whom I shared many discussions of our program and the kinds of writing it was producing). What made me want to insert this post into my narrative of my own struggles was an essay close to the end of the book. By Chris Kearns, then an assistant dean of student services at the University of Minnesota, this essay advocates for what I would consider an absolutely essential component of successful college writing, Kearns writes:

[C]ollege writing proper begins whenever an undergraduate takes the first consequential step from self to other on the grounds of care for one’s audience. This is best done by opening oneself to the fact that meaning does not belong to the writer; it unfolds in the shared space of acknowledgment between the reader and the writer. (350)

This is remarkably in tune with my favorite quotation about writing that I’ve published in these posts at least twice, the quote from the reading historian Alberto Manguel that “[a]ll writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” This idea, Kearns points out, runs counter to the romanticized view that the self-regarding individual is the font of expressive genius. Kearns contends, rightly I think, that we cannot imagine this unfolding of meaning between reader and writer as a linear process of following steps or using the right toolset, and, moreover, it is difficult to explain as a concrete process, which is a possible reason so many college students find that magic something that their college teachers “are looking for” so amorphous and elusive.

Kearns points out that this process requires writers to inhabit three consciousnesses: that of writer, reader, and a third “critical reader” who experiences both perspectives and engages with the tensioned interplay between them. Kearns calls this process “recursive,” by which I interpret him to mean that one begins with an idea or a point, which then blooms in the space in which it is offered, is molded by the critical reader, and then returns, changed. This process repeats as long as a piece of writing is still attached to us intellectually and emotionally, even if it has left our hands.

This is about college writing, but I think it is about all writing that means to do more than sit in a drawer. Readers are the most surprising people. They never give you back what you think you gave them. And when you get back their gift, you–even if you resist–are what has changed.

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