Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Trade-Offs of Style

Many of the rules of grammar and style you learned from your high school English teachers are pointless and stupid – a point the folks at Language Log have made repeatedly. I don’t oppose all linguistic prescriptivism (see here and here), but there’s no doubt that many of the most common prescriptions are ridiculous. One example came to mind while I was grading some student essays. I noticed a significant fraction of students insisted on using constructions such as, “A regression analysis was performed…,” and “Conclusions were reached that….” Why not just say, “I performed a regression,” and “I conclude that…”? Because somewhere along the line, they had English teachers who told them never, ever to use the first person. As these examples show, following that admonition strictly means violating another English teachers’ admonition, which says never to use the passive voice.

Both prescriptions serve a legitimate goal. Students permitted to use the first person will often litter their writing with I’s, even where they’re totally unnecessary – e.g., “I found an article by John Smith arguing that…” instead of “John Smith argues that….” And students permitted to use the passive voice will use it to avoid stating who did what – e.g., “Mistakes were made” instead of “Administration officials made mistakes.” But it’s nearly impossible to follow both rules strictly without writing some incredibly awkward sentences, which is why both should be regarded as rules of thumb. I don’t recall a single one of my English teachers admitting that. I suspect the problem stems from one or more of the following: (1) Some English teachers don’t understand the rationales for the rules. (2) English teachers who understand the rationales don’t think students will understand them. (3) English teachers need hard-and-fast grading rules, lest their marks appear arbitrary. I’m sympathetic to this last reason, which is one reason I’m much happier grading math than writing. But if you’re going to teach English properly, there’s no avoiding the burden of subjectivity in grading.

Addendum: The previous sentence was supposed to be the last, but then I noticed it began with the word “but.” That’s another English-class no-no that I break without remorse. If I didn’t break it, a lot more of my sentences would be run-ons. See? Another trade-off. D’oh! That was a sentence fragment…

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