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.

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