Monday, May 23, 2011

Three things on English you should read

 This replaces an earlier blog post that for some reason did not get published with the Gerald Grow material at the end.

Three successive blog posts by John McIntyre, "resident drudge" (formal title "night content production manager" - gotta love corp-speak) at the Baltimore Sun and longtime friend through the American Copy Editors Society.

First is his "I almost give up" monologue on trying to teach lay vs. lie. Indeed, this one, by the end of the decade, will probably be in the dead-distinction bin.

Second is his excellent essay that again tackles the gulf between descriptivists and prescriptivists, built around his reading of Robert Lane Greene's You Are What You Speak.* Makes me want to get the book and tell the rest of the world to go away while I devour it.

Mr. Greene would have you think of language not a box, with sharp borders and clearly defined “correct” rules inside, but as a cloud, fluid, shifting, and unavoidably messy. Rather like reality.

In my case, abandoning hard-shell prescriptivism has been liberating. No longer responsible for regulating other people’s speech and signage, I can be a snob about things that don’t really matter much (bourbon and martinis) while employing prescriptivism where it is legitimate, in editing. Editors uphold the (admittedly arbitrary) standards of their publications, making judgments on the basis of subject, context, and audience rather than an inflexible set of Rules, and respecting the variety and originality of the language.

Finally, there is his excellent commentary on that long decried subject - teaching of high school English - built on a Salon article by Kim Brooks, Death to high school English.

I have no particular advice to give to high school English teachers, who are trapped. Save this. If you do give advice on grammar and usage, stop giving bad advice and promulgating zombie rules. If you have a student who shows promise, don’t steer her toward Strunk and White; recommend Joseph Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

If you are a student, ill-served by a defective education and ambitious to become an accomplished writer, I do have some advice.

Item: You are going to have to do this on your own. Even if you were lucky enough to have a few good teachers, you must make yourself a writer.

Item: Start reading, and stop reading crap. Identify prose stylists whose clarity and effectiveness you admire. Examine them closely. Try to imitate their diction, their syntax, their cadences, their metaphors. John McPhee’s books may impress, and the other New Yorker writers are worth attention. But find the writers who speak to you, in newspapers, magazine, books, and online.

Item: Get yourself informed about language. You need to understand the tools in your toolbox. Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and other manuals will help you to achieve greater precision.

Item: Write, and revise. Writing is a craft you learn by doing the work. When you have a first draft, put it aside. Come back to it a few hours later, or better, the next day. Manage your embarrassment at how shoddy it is and get to work at tightening it, sharpening the focus, selecting more effective words.

Item: Get advice. Find an outlet other than your private journal. Blog if you have to. Better still, get paid for it. Seek responses from your readers. Find someone whose taste and judgment you trust, and ask him or her to be frank about your work. Your mother may want to frame your every scribble, but you need someone who will tell you what you need to hear to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public.

Item: Settle in for the long term. The headline on this post is one of my favorite lines from Chaucer, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” The life so short, the craft so long to learn. So get at it.

There is not much more to be said, but I  also recommend an earlier article (2006 - PDF) by Gerald Grow that has an excellent review of the various forces at work in teaching English and grammar and the tug of war that this poses for journalism teachers:

By contrast, journalism in any given year is dominated by the prescriptive grammar that governs practitioners at that time — embodied in stylebooks and specific reference works. To journalism teachers, it is fine for students to develop a broad, relativistic understanding of the changing nature of

language, and for English teachers to teach this. But our students also have to master the standard grammar of the time — however arbitrary some of it may be — and many things about grammar are arbitrary.

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