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Lying About Writing

202750507_448f2d6ca0[1] (2)A long time ago in a university far, far away (which I will not name), the English Literature department added a page of grammar and usage advice to its undergraduate writing guide. That page, still reprinted every year, contains a well-known list of “common errors” stated as self-violating maxims (with droll intent). I will not repeat all of these tongue-in-cheek ukases, but here are a dozen samples:

1 Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2 Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3 And do not start a sentence with a conjunction.
4 It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5 Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
6 No sentence fragments.
7 Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used.
8 Don’t use no double negatives.
9 One should never generalize.
10 Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit when its not needed.
11 Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
12 Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary.

 

I have space for only five brief remarks about this limp yet toxic slab of writing advice.

First, the list is plagiarized. Elsewhere the undergraduate handbook warns students sternly against unattributed theft of text, yet here is an English department straightforwardly plagiarizing a famous column by William Safire. Talk about setting a bad example!

Second, some of the advice offered is pointless. It is true that present-tense verbs in Standard English (and be in the simple past) must, as maxim 1 implies, agree with their subjects: Most birds fly and This bird flies are grammatical; *Most birds flies and *This bird fly are not. (I prefix an asterisk to an italicized sentence to mark it as ungrammatical in Standard English.) But what kind of English major needs to be told this? Accidental verb-agreement failures are not that frequent, and there is no controversy about whether they are mistakes. Why waste time telling students things that nobody doubts? Is this trivial observation the sort of advice about grammar and style that a great university should offer its literature students?

Third, some of the maxims have nothing to do with “common errors” in written Standard English: “Don’t use no double negatives” (8) is simply a reminder that the nonstandard dialects that allow multiple marking of negation are deprecated. But we do not need to warn college English majors against writing essays in arbitrary vernaculars. They know that “I can’t get no satisfaction,” in the song, means “I am unable to obtain satisfaction” (rather than “I am unable to avoid satisfaction”); but they also know enough not to write “Hamlet can’t make no decision about killing his uncle” in a term paper. Give students some credit: They are sociolinguistically more sophisticated than most of their professors.

Fourth, while a few of the rules (like the spelling observation implicit in 10) hint at definite facts about written Standard English, others are just vague style recommendations inadvisably ossified into rigid edicts. Why assert the falsehood that there is only one correct style of written English, one from which parentheticals (5), verbless clauses (6), negated auxiliary verbs (7), and general statements (9) are entirely absent? Whether to use such devices should be a judgment call. Written English so far has never been constrained to completely eschew them. Why institute such a strange policy for students, instead of offering grown-up style advice with depth and seriousness?

Finally—and this is perhaps the most serious point—some of the silly mottos relate to myths about English, believed only by uninformed usage pontificators and those whom they manage to intimidate. Anyone who thinks well-written English prose lacks stranded prepositions (2), sentence-initial and (3), split infinitives (4), etc., is an ignoramus. Any attentive reader of fiction or nonfiction can see that it is not so. Yet at least one student in the department under discussion actually had a grade lowered on a paper because of a split infinitive.

This is outright unethical: lying to students about English usage and punishing them for not writing as if they believed the lies. The page referred to is a sorry excuse for university English-department guidance about writing: a plagiarized jokey jumble of useless truisms, dialect snobbery, rigidified style dogmata, and vulgar misconceptions.

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