Dad and his Grandma

My dad has been an English teacher for almost 40 years. Not a research-driven, theoretical professor, but a hands-on teacher who has dedicated his life to encouraging young people to read, to think, and to express their thoughts clearly. And to edit.

My dad gave me my love of reading. He introduced me to crime fiction. He taught me that it’s ok to stop reading a crap book. He showed me how to choose a book by reading a random page in the middle–not the first page. He showed me the joy of browsing in indie bookstores.

My dad illustrated for me the value of newspapers, and the importance of understanding differing points of view. He also instilled in me an appreciation and respect for technology, starting with typewriters.

When I read Brad Parks’ fantastic article, “A Slip of the Tongue,” in Sunday’s New York Post, I immediately sent it to Dad. I knew that he would agree with much of it and disagree with some of it, just like I did.

Me and Dad, circa 1973

I am admittedly biased, but his response was both thoughtful and insightful. It made me proud to be his daughter. And so I’m sharing it here.

Here’s what he said:

Brad is right that grammar “rules” are not cast in stone. In fact, they are more in the nature of conventions than laws. The problem with  Brad’s article is that he is confusing informal writing with formal, academic writing. He was being taught how to write academic papers to prepare him for college. That kind of writing has many conventions which are expected, and those who do not follow those conventions are, often, not taken as seriously as more conventional writers are and are at risk of being misunderstood.

Elmore Leonard, a writer I greatly admire, said in an interview that he ignores grammar “rules” whenever he needs to, and Cormac McCarthy, an important literary writer, confusingly left out nearly all the punctuation in his Border Trilogy. Journalism too has conventions which sometimes violate the conventions employed in academic writing.

The purpose of the conventions in academic writing is to encourage precision and to avoid potential ambiguity. Unfortunately, that kind of writing can be dull and lackluster. Some of it is as dense as concrete and just as colorless.

Brad is wrong about the rules prohibiting split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage 3d edition, the bible of English grammar, now allows both.

Brad is right that grammar changes along with the people who use it, and dictionaries often make adjustments to reflect the changes; so many of the “rules” Brad might object to are no longer “rules.”

Strunk and White, while outdated (it has been revised since White’s death), is worthwhile because it takes the stuffiness out of grammar. It is quite possible for a teacher to recommend the book simply as a beginning for understanding how written language may be composed.

Writing can and often does reflect the way people speak, but more importantly, academic writing is intended to represent how they think. In that setting, writing is a visual representation of thought, and if it is not clear to the reader, the writer’s thinking might be hazy or important information may be missed or confused by the reader, which is why some understanding of how to compose thoughts in an unambiguous form which will be understood by the majority of readers is important. The only way to do that effectively is to rely on mutually agreed upon conventions.  If, for example, we all agreed to abandon punctuation as McCarthy did, confusion would reign.

Every day I read student writing so tangled that the meaning is buried in an unmarked grave, and yet that writing often represents how they speak.  My job is to help them to understand how to reveal what they are thinking by using the conventions of academic writing.