Tag Archives: Descriptivism

Style Conventions and Graduate Student Writing

I recently wrote a post about the tension between expressiveness and adherence to form in academic writing. By adherence to form, I meant following established genre conventions. But there is another level of adherence to form that I didn’t consider in that post: adherence to a particular form of grammatical correctness. As everyone knows, grammatical correctness is much more complex than it might initially seem. There are so many ‘rules’ that are actually apocryphal or at least highly contested by language experts. That awareness, however, can actually complicate my attempts to teach academic writing to graduate students. Graduate students are—in so many ways—standing in an odd space between student and professional. As students-aspiring-to-be-professionals, graduate students must face a unique challenge as they try to develop their academic writing skill while avoiding confrontation with the linguistic bugaboos of their audience.

My dilemma is that my own inclination towards descriptivism isn’t necessarily relevant to my teaching. There is a crucial difference between how I wish people thought and how I suggest people write given how people actually think. In other words, as much as I dislike a grammar hammer approach, I do think that graduate students ought to avoid aggravating their readers. For most graduate students, assuming a critical reader is a good idea. Even if our future reader has only one bête noire and is quite liberal about other usage matters, we generally can’t know that in advance. Split infinitives are an easy example. Despite there being no good reason to avoid them, I often suggest that students do so. In the first place, I do think that there is often a genuine benefit to thinking about modifiers placement: there is often a better place for the modifier or even a better way to word the sentence overall. But there are some split infinitives that are absolutely fine and yet I still suggest rewording to avoid aggravating those who believe this to be a real and important rule. My general practice is to make students aware of traditional ‘rules’ and to emphasize that people who care about those rules often care a lot.

Let’s consider a trickier example. How do you feel about using ‘they’ or ‘their’ or ‘them’ with grammatically singular antecedents? Is it acceptable to say, “Everyone should be able to eat their favourite treats over the holidays”? ‘Everyone’ is grammatically singular (so should be replaced by ‘he’ or ‘she’), but actually points to a group of individuals of indeterminate gender. Although many think of the singular ‘they’ as a recent response to our desire for gender neutrality, this usage is actually quite venerable. This post by Geoffrey Pullum does an excellent job arguing for the value of this usage and, more generally, for the value of basing our linguistic decisions on evidence rather than dogma. The Motivated Grammar blog has a comprehensive post explaining all the ways that a singular ‘they’ is acceptable. Despite the manifest good sense of these arguments, I feel that it is my job to point out to graduate students that some will take an ‘everyone/their’ pairing as evidence that they are unable to write correct English.

A closely related issue that frequently affects me in this blog is the need for an appropriate pronoun for a generic singular. I often write a version of the following sentence: “When a student brings me their writing …”. I intuitively write the sentence that way every time, before changing it to “When students bring me their writing …”. I never seem to use the plural form of ‘student’ the first time, presumably because I am thinking of a generic student. Students don’t come to my office en masse, they come one at a time. When I talk about those meetings, I naturally gravitate towards a generic singular: not a particular student, but a singular instance of student. The plural is grammatically correct and solves the gender neutrality problem yet feels inaccurate.

In this instance, I am simultaneously drawn in two directions: on the one hand, I feel that I should be liberal with the singular ‘they’ because I think it is acceptable, useful, and inevitable. Maybe I should be using it to hasten (in a very small way) its widespread acceptance. On the other hand, it isn’t particularly accepted at the moment and I don’t want my stylistic choices here on the blog to mislead. I feel it is my responsibility—despite my interest in descriptivism and my own faith in its wisdom—to remind students that their audience may have a decidedly prescriptivist bent. Those self-styled traditionalists seem to live on a razor’s edge, always ready to be driven around the bend by relatively benign stylistic choices or instances of neglect. Nobody wants a grant application or thesis proposal to antagonize its intended audience. Effective prose is prose that is well received by its audience. Without being able to call ahead and ask our potential readership how they feel about split infinitives, we have to make up our own minds, using all the information available to us and probably erring on the side of caution. (Erin Brenner has a great post on making sure that our ‘careful usage’ is still informed by all the available sources. Being cautious isn’t the same thing as being superstitious—you need to look things up! I also recommend this lovely post from Lucy Ferriss in which she describes how she is relinquishing the role of linguistic gatekeeper as she marks her students’ writing.)

Overall, I want to balance my own distaste for heavy-handed linguistic fundamentalism with a need to provide students with a good sense of current style conventions. But even as I think about that balance, I have to allow how disinclined I am towards the disparagement of other people’s writing. Someone recently sent me to the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, and as much as I tried to be amused, I found myself increasingly annoyed. Of course, quotation marks should ‘not’ be used for emphasis: doing so will lead to unintentional hilarity and that is never the effect graduate students should aspire to. (Or it will make people think you are writing for Zagat; if you want to see that tendency manifest in the most amusing fashion, try this old Shouts & Murmurs piece by Noah Baumbach.) But most of these utterances actually make their meaning quite clear. So I’ll end with a tentative conclusion: graduate student writers should be attentive to conservative writing conventions to avoid making stylistic choices that might aggravate their audience. But nobody should make a habit of deriding language that has made its point. “Fresh” meat may sound deeply unappetizing to a discerning reader, but we do know what is meant. “To boldly go” makes its point unambiguously. “If you love somebody, set them free” is perfect. Be cautious in your academic writing, but still strive for joy in language rather than fear of error.

I wish you all a very happy and productive holiday break! Explorations of Style will be back in mid-January.

Commas and Relative Clauses

Our task for today is to understand how we punctuate relative clauses. In the simplest terms, a relative clause is a clause that begins with a relative pronoun (which,  that, who, whom, whose). Let’s begin by looking at this example of a sentence with a relative clause:

CNCP patients, whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed, start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

This sentence—taken directly from student writing—is not incorrect as written, but it doesn’t say what the author intended. Here is what the author meant to say:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The difference? The second version of the sentence shows that it is about a subgroup of CNCP patients ‘whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed’. There are many CNCP patients in the world and only some of them suffer in this manner. The first version says that all CNCP patients have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. Because of the commas, we have to read the relative clause as supplementary information about all CNCP patients. Technically, our first sentence could be reworded as follows:

CNCP patients [all of them] have complaints of pain that are not adequately addressed. CNCP patients start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

Rewording the sentence in this way reflects the fact that the original sentence portrayed the relative clause as supplementary. But the author’s intention was not to provide extra information about this group of patients; instead, the author wanted to define a particular group of patients under discussion. The lack of commas in our revised version indicate that the information following the relative pronoun is integral to the antecedent noun:

CNCP patients whose complaints of pain are not adequately addressed start to display aberrant drug-related behaviours that are mistaken for addiction.

The bolding emphasizes the integration of the relative clause. This integration is conveyed to the reader by the absence of commas. When we do use commas, we are telling the reader that we are providing supplementary information.

I chose this example because it is easy to see—even without being familiar with the subject matter—that the punctuation in the original sentence was probably misleading. One of the great difficulties in explaining how to punctuate relative clauses is that context matters. I always tell students to take whatever I have said about punctuating relative clauses home with them: only in applying those principles to their own sentences—sentences that they themselves fully grasp—will they come to understand whether a relative clause is integral or supplementary.

If you are familiar with this topic, you will notice that I am not using the traditional terminology (restrictive and nonrestrictive) or the usual variants (defining and non-defining, essential and inessential, identifying and non-identifying). It is possible, of course, to explain what is meant by these terms, but I have never found the common terminology to be particularly intuitive. More recently, I have noticed people using the terms integral relative clause and supplementary relative clause. I find these terms to be more intuitive, which is why I have started to use them in my classroom teaching. I would be interested to know if anyone has thoughts about whether this different terminology is helpful or just confusing.

Now let’s look at some more examples to reinforce the distinction between integral and supplementary relative clauses.

There are many narratives that can be used to illuminate the psychological concept of extraversion.

The relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘narratives’. The sentence isn’t just telling us that there are many narratives. It is telling us that there are many narratives that can be used in a particular fashion.

The philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty will set the tone for the proceedings at the conference.

This sentence is telling us what will set the tone for this conference. And it isn’t just any philosophical approach: it is the philosophical approach that is articulated by Rorty. Again, the relative clause is integral to the meaning of ‘philosophical approach’. Now let’s look at some examples of supplementary relative clauses:

Given the educational conditions in Malawi, which is located in eastern Africa, creative teacher training programs are essential.

Using transactional memory, which requires special hardware or software support, will address the problems associated with using locks.

Theorists argue that gender equity, which is defined here in economic terms, is a crucial component in any attempt to address the global AIDS crisis.

In each of these cases, the antecedent of the relative clauses is completely sufficient without the relative clause. A country is a useful example since it is easy to see that you don’t need any additional information to know what is meant by Malawi. Its location within its continent is obviously supplementary information. Likewise, ‘transactional memory’ is a fully defined term: the fact that it requires special hardware or software support is extra information. Take that information away and the term itself is just as informative. In the third example, even though the supplementary relative clause claims to be defining ‘gender equity’, it is doing so in a supplementary way. The sentence is telling us that gender equity is crucial and it is also clarifying what gender equity means in this context.

Here is a final example, one that gives three different versions of the same sentence:

The articles, which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s, show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles that stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The articles which stem from the 1970s and the early 1980s show Lefort intent on persuading the reading public about the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc.

The first two sentences follow the pattern I have been discussing. I chose this example because it shows how easily ambiguity can arise when we’re not clear about the punctuation we need. The first sentence is discussing a group of articles and using its relative clause to give us extra information about when they were written. The second sentence, on the other hand, is using its relative clause to identify a particular subset of articles. The implication of the first sentence is that all the articles were written in the 70s and early 80s. The implication of the second sentence is that there is a broader group of articles (presumably spanning a broader time frame); the author is drawing your attention to a subset of that broader group. Needless to say, it is important for the author to clarify which is meant. In my own experience, the decision about how to punctuate relative clauses often helps me to clarify my own meaning. Similarly, in discussing this issue with students, it often emerges that they aren’t quite sure what they were hoping to convey through their punctuation choices.

But what of the third sentence? Is it the same as the second sentence or is it different? In other words, is it okay to use ‘which’ to introduce an integral relative clause? Yes, it is. But while I would love to leave it at that, I feel I should say something about how I view this issue. The good news is that we have already covered the important part: you must signal your intention to your reader through your use of commas. If the information is integral, skip the commas; if, on the other hand, the information is supplementary, show that with your use of commas. Simple enough. But you do need to choose a relative pronoun and, for many, that decision raises a certain anxiety. When I ask students about their habits in this regard, I get a range of replies (often involving something a high school English teacher once said): guessing and then feeling bad; turn taking (first ‘which’, then ‘that’); using ‘which’ because it is more formal; never thinking about it. For a fairly typical prescriptive discussion, see this post from APA Style. For a more nuanced, historical view, try Stan Carey’s excellent post on this topic (as usual, Carey also provides a very helpful roundup of what others have said about this issue).

Given the general uncertainty this topic engenders, what should we do? My own preference—and that is all it is, a preference—is to use ‘that’ without commas and ‘which’ with commas. The first part of this practice is unexceptionable: nobody uses ‘that’ to introduce supplementary information. It is the second part that causes heartache. Look at this simple table:

integral supplementary
that YES NO
which ?? YES

My preference is to replace those two question marks with a ‘NO’. Not, to repeat, because I think this use of ‘which’ is wrong, but only because I like the clarity and simplicity of reserving ‘which’ and ‘that’ for different uses. I start with the important question—do I need commas or not?—and then use that as the basis for my decision about what relative pronoun to use. I explain this to students in just these terms: once they have sorted out the important issue of how to punctuate, they are free to choose their relative pronouns however they wish. But I do stress that this distinction is often treated in more absolute terms in advice on scientific writing. Whether or not this is true across the board, I do suggest that students preparing scientific papers consider reserving ‘which’ for instances in which they are using commas to convey supplementarity. For me it all comes down to this principle: if our audience might find a particular usage to be ambiguous—even if we know that it is perfectly acceptable—it can make sense to avoid that usage.

There is much more that could be said, but this post is already far longer than a blog post should be! If there is anything that you see as needing further explanation or elaboration, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

This post is the fourth in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions. The second dealt with non-standard commas and punctuating for length. The third dealt with the importance of knowing when you need a pair of commas.

Weekly Links: Language Sticklers

Last week, I posted a link to a brief discussion in The New Yorker about the inclusion of abbreviations (OMG), symbols (♥), and slang (muffin top) in the OED. I included it originally because I was amused at the predictable outrage.* But as I thought about it more, I began to feel that there was an important point to be made about usage and writing. Not only is the outrage based on a misunderstanding of the proper role of a dictionary, it also overlooks the importance of context for writing decisions. The dictionary doesn’t tell us what words are suitable in our writing; the inclusion of annoying usage in a dictionary has no real role to play in our usage decisions for formal writing. We have to decide what language is appropriate for our purposes and our audience, and our ability to make those decisions comes from having a sound grasp of the specific context in which we write.

This brief consideration of language outrage brings me to an post from the New York Times’ Schott’s Vocab blog by Robert Lane Greene. Drawing on his book You Are What You Speak, Greene discusses what language sticklers get wrong. I particularly liked his consideration of what he calls ‘declinism': the view that language was better yesterday and will be worse tomorrow. His most interesting point concerns the role of mass literacy: “So a bigger proportion of Americans than ever before write sometimes, or even frequently, maybe daily…. A century ago, a nation of 310 million engaged with the written word on a daily basis was unthinkable. Now its uneven results are taken as proof by some that language skills are in decline. That is far from obvious.” Here is a review of Greene’s book, also from the New York Times. In this review, Geoffrey Nunberg provides an amusing summary of Greene’s critique of modern ‘declinism': “We’ve passed from the thoughtful homilies of Fowler to the pithy dictums of Strunk and White to the operatic curmudgeonry of modern sticklers like Lynne Truss, whose gasps of horror at the sight of a misplaced apostrophe are a campy cover for self-congratulation.” I agree, and I love the irony of the sentiment: The written word may not be in decline, but the quality of the jeremiads is definitely slipping.

* I was also reminded about an article by Ben Yagoda that I discussed in an earlier post; Yagoda observes that student writers don’t generally use slang in their writing, preferring instead to use the vaguely elevated language that he calls ‘clunk’. The inclusion of slang in a reputable dictionary isn’t likely to cause an outcropping of informal academic writing. Novice writers may need help managing formality in their writing, but not because they are confused between their academic writing and their social media writing.

Weekly Links: Grammar Day, Fowler Revisited, Googlization

Happy National Grammar Day, everyone! Needless to say, it is always grammar day around here, but I am glad all of you get to join in the fun once a year. If you click the link, you’ll find grammar day e-cards, a theme song, a recipe for the grammartini, an exposé of common grammar myths, and even merchandise!

From The New Criterion, here is a review of Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition. In the review, Barton Swaim discusses a reprint of Fowler’s first edition as a way of revisiting the ongoing debate between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Swaim argues, in effect, that prescriptivism is both inevitable and way more fun. We will always, in his view, go looking for expert opinion about our writing decisions. And those expert opinions will be more stimulating than the bland descriptivist work of academic linguists. I have no trouble with the view that prescriptivism is more entertaining and often more immediately satisfying. However, what Swaim’s highly dismissive account of descriptivism fails to take into account is the possibility that persistent exposure to descriptivism might actually change the way we approach questions of usage. That is, a dominant descriptivist view might discourage our belief that all educated writers should use language in only one way and that all deviance from that way is deficiency. It may be unsatisfying to be told that a particular usage will be acceptable to some readers and unacceptable to others, but that may be all we, as writers, can hope for: a sound description of current practice to help us make up our own minds.

From Inside Higher Ed, here is a review of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s book The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry). The review includes an interview with Vaidhyanathan, who offers a clear-eyed case that Google’s ubiquity is significant. If everyone gets their information via Google, it matters how Google’s search standards are constructed. Despite its title, the book is clearly less a condemnation of Google, more a call for greater public conservancy of the wealth of human knowledge; Vaidhyanathan is urging us to have a serious discussion about the responsibilities and risks of the digital scholarship era.