Say It Ain't So

June 21, 2002

Last spring, Lawrence Summers, Harvard's caped crusader for scholarly rigor, was quoted as saying, "I regret any faculty member leaving a conversation feeling they are not respected" (The Chronicle, April 26, 2002).

There are at least three problems with this sentence.

First, what Summers regrets, presumably, is not the existence of some unnamed faculty member; rather, the object of his regret is the faculty member's leaving a conversation feeling a certain way, and he should mark this by adding the apostrophe and s to "member." Second, it is unclear, at least as a matter of syntactical logic, what the relationship is between the conversation and the faculty member's feeling of not being respected. Given that "are not" is present tense and could refer to a condition in place before the time of the conversation, Summers could be expressing regret at his failure to raise the self-esteem of a faculty member who came to him seeking help. If he wanted to express regret at being the cause of a colleague's sense of injured merit, he should have said something like, "I regret any faculty member's leaving a conversation with me feeling that I have not treated him or her with the proper respect."

My use of the dreaded "him or her" (accusative case of the even more dreaded "he or she") gets us to the sentence's third problem: "faculty member" is singular, "they" is not. (Why not "they are not"? Because as a grammatical form rather than a word functioning in a syntax "they" is singular). In a short, 13-word sentence, the chief academic officer of the highest ranked university in the country, and therefore in the entire world, has committed three grammatical crimes, failure to mark the possessive case, failure to specify the temporal and causal relationships between the conversations he has and the effects he regrets, and failure to observe noun-pronoun agreement. What's going on here?

Well, actually everyone knows what's going on. The art of speaking and writing precisely and with attention to grammatical form is more and more a lost one. Just listen to National Public Radio for 15 minutes or read a section of The New York Times and you will be able to start your own collection of howlers, from the (now ubiquitous) confusion of "disinterested" and "uninterested" (which sometimes takes the form of a parallel confusion of "disinvite" and "uninvite," the latter not an English verb form); to the disastrous and often comical substitution of "enervate" for "energize"; to the attribution of reticence to persons who are merely reluctant; to participles with no subjects or too many; to errors of pomposity ("between you and I," dubbed by a former colleague the "Cornell nominative"); to pronouns without referents or as many referents as there are nouns in the previous five sentences; to singular subjects with plural verbs (and the reverse); to dependent clauses attached to nothing; to mismatched tenses attached to the same action; to logical redundancies like, "The reason is because ..." ( I'm afraid I've been guilty of that one myself); not to mention inelegant repetitions and errors of diction made by persons who seem to be writing a language they first encountered yesterday.

What has brought us to this sorry pass? Basically, two things. First the belief, devoutly held and endlessly rehearsed, that the purpose of writing is self-expression. The convenience of this belief, for those who profess it, is that they need never accept correction; for if it is their precious little selves they are expressing, the language of expression is answerable only to the internal judgment of those same selves, and any challenge from the outside can be met simply by saying, (as students often do) "I know what I mean," or, more precisely, "I know what I mean."

Students who say and believe this will never confront an important truth: Language has its own structure (not unchanging, to be sure, but fixed enough at any one moment to serve as both a constraint and a resource). If you do not submit yourself to the conventional meanings of words and to the grammatical forms that specify the relationships between the objects words refer to, the prose you produce will say something -- language, not you or I, means -- but it will not say what you wanted to say. That's only because your readers will not be inside your head where they might ask the self-seeking expression what it had in mind, but will instead be on the outside processing the formal patterns of your written language and reaching the conclusions dictated and generated by those patterns.

In fact, however, what I've just said is a bit misleading because it suggests that fully formed thoughts exist in some inner mental space and manage to make it into the outside world when they are clothed in the proper syntactical and lexical forms. But as everyone used to know before the cult of self-expression triumphed, the ability even to have certain kinds of thoughts depends on the prior ability to produce (and comprehend) certain kinds of sentences.

People don't think naturally in the future perfect or in parallel constructions or in the subjunctive mood; rather these grammatical alternatives are learned, and learned with them are the ways of thinking they make possible -- relating to one another on a time-line events or states of being that have not yet happened; lining up persons, objects, and actions in relationships of similarity and opposition; reasoning from contrary-to-fact assertions to assertions about what was or could be done in the past, present, or future.

These are complex mental actions, and students will be able to perform them only if their minds are stocked with the right grammatical furniture, with forms that have no specific content but make possible the organization of any content into temporal/spatial arrangements that suggest and make available modes of action in the world.

The organization of the world in ways that expand the possibilities of thought and action -- that, not self-expression, is the purpose of writing, and it is preeminently a social purpose. That is, it is a purpose not pursued alone but in conjunction with others to whom one writes (in speeches, essays, letters, memos, directives, proclamations, editorials, books) with the intention of imparting information, or clarifying issues, or establishing truths or bringing about changes or rousing armies or quieting conflicts, or any of the other ends one might work for in the public arena.

Writing then is, by and large, an act either of communication or persuasion, and to engage in it successfully, you have to do more than have something to say; you must be prepared to back it up, supply evidence, respond to objections, expose contradictions, parse the arguments of the opposition and so on. You must conceive yourself not as a lone voice singing in the shower, but as a participant in the multiple dialogues that are the vehicles of discursive and political life.

But you will not be able to participate effectively if you are content merely to have expressed your opinion. And this brings me to the second reason so many of our students are incapable of writing intelligible sentences or of linking one bad sentence to another in something that approximates an argument. They have been allowed to believe that their opinions -- formed by nothing, supported by even less -- are interesting. The belief that what you're supposed to do is express yourself goes hand in hand with the belief that whatever you happen to express is valuable and if you believe both these things you will not believe that there is any reason to worry about subject-verb agreement or pronouns without nouns or missing transitions or anything else.

In response to any question you just say the first thing that comes into your head, and in response to any challenge you just say, "That's my opinion" or "That's what I think," or "My view is as good as yours." No sentiments are more subversive of the possibility of productive classroom activity, and the instructor who hears them coming from the mouths of his or her students should immediately tell them, "Check your opinions, your ideas, your views at the door; they are not fungible currency here."

This announcement, which will, at the very least, deliver a salutary shock ("I can't believe she said that"), might possibly open up a space in which writing is taken seriously because it will have identified (by an act of elimination) the true nature of academic work, which is not the work of caressing the self and its effusions, but the work of applying the techniques of reflection, analysis, and critique to matters of general (not personal) concern.

But of course no action taken by a single instructor is likely to change very much in the absence of structural changes in the way writing and argument are taught. And here is where the administration comes in. Every dean should forthwith insist that all composition courses teach grammar and rhetoric and nothing else. No composition course should have a theme, especially not one the instructor is interested in. Ideas should be introduced not for their own sake, but for the sake of the syntactical and rhetorical points they help illustrate, and once they serve this purpose, they should be sent away. Content should be avoided like the plague it is, except for the deep and inexhaustible content that will reveal itself once the dynamics of language are regarded not as secondary, mechanical aids to thought, but as thought itself.

Of course everyone will resist you, from the students who believe that grammar is a form of tyranny presided over by the academic version of the police, to the instructors who will believe the same and wish not to be policemen, to the experts in composition who will believe that you are incredibly reactionary and desire only to turn back the clock. But persevere, for you will be in the right. And teach such a course yourself, which is what I am going to do next fall. I'll save a place for Larry S.

Stanley Fish, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, writes a monthly column for the Career Network on campus politics and academic careers. His most recent book is How Milton Works (Harvard University Press, 2001).