On Writing; Well...

A debate on style and quality.


March 4, 2014

Ironically, that most English of universities, Oxford, fuels the current conniption about American collegiate writing. Oxford educated lawyer and Rhodes Scholar turned journalist, Nick Kristof, accuses American academics of impotence in policy-making. American academic, Eric Bennett, accuses Rhodes Scholar Paul Engle, who felt rejected by Oxonian literary greats, of turning American fiction into the handmaiden of CIA cold war imperialism.  The Rhodes Trust accuses American applicants and their academic advisers of turning proofreading into plagiarism, and the American professoriate accuses The Rhodes Trust of a failure to understand the pedagogical process.

The English-speaking world has never agreed upon how our common language ought appear in written form. When I sat in Quentin Skinner’s rooms in Christ’s College, Cambridge (thinking him nearly as much a deity as the one for whom his college was named), he informed me that whilst in England, I would have to follow English conventions. My ‘z’s became ‘s’es; my ‘o’s coupled with ‘u’s; and the pluperfect tense and passive voice American undergraduate mentors obliterated from my prose began their return.  When I returned to the US for my Ph.D., I reversed the process yet again.  My English husband watched Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” episode and thereafter referred to me as “the passive voice Nazi.”

My English brother-in-law forwarded me an essay from another former British colony, India, that questioned the value of the comma. He became intrigued by differences in Anglo-American writing instruction following Steven Pinker’s attempt to defuse what Pinker dubbed “The False Fronts in the Language Wars.”  Pinker argues that linguistic rules exist to serve the purpose of expressing the author’s thought as intended.  Ham fisted editors change meaning to suit the rules.  Good editors help authors express their concepts more effectively in prose.  Lynne Truss devotes Eats, Shoots and Leaves to the necessity of punctuation for the accurate transfer of meaning.

My English in-law decided that American writing pedagogy must be excessively prescriptive in order to stir such controversy.  As an historian, I see an answer in an indirect quote from Oxford Don and Jane Austen scholar Kathryn Sutherland in the Telegraph’s piece on commas:

Austen’s style was heavily corrected for the print edition by her classically educated publisher William Gifford as a new fashion for grammatical rigour swept through late Georgian Britain....

American writing came to be while America remained part of Georgian Britain.  We co-opted the grammar of the Georgian period much as we co-opted apple pie as an American emblem.  Both began as British.  Critically, the British colonies and subsequent United States were and are populated by immigrants who learned English as a second or third or fourth language.  Anyone who has mastered a second language knows that you hold to the rules of grammar in your subsequent tongues with a ferocity never felt for the formalized language presentation first learned at your mother’s breast.  We need rules as a compass to help negotiate novel semantic terrain.  If American teachers and editors are more prescriptive than their Anglo counterparts, I am not surprised.

What, you may ask, does hide-bound use of commas have to do with the  Anglo-American cohort of Rhodes Scholars assault on American academic writing culture?  o me, the Rhodes from Kristof to Engle to the Trustees identified an effect, which they misunderstood as a cause.  The problem of American academic writing exists when academic terms of art appear in public policy statements.  Paul Krugman’s columns never depend upon the explication of advanced economic formulae, nor does Anthony Grafton expect his non-academic readers to follow detailed disambiguation of Latin translations.  Each public intellectual understands ways to make a meaning clear at the appropriate level of significance to an audience.  Each, however, can engage his fellow specialists in sparring using the internal terminology of their field:  they are multilingual.  When Kristof reads turgid prose, the author mistook the target audience and thus failed to present a clear meaning.  The causal fault exists in a failure to switch voice in a particular context, not an absence of desire or inability to engage the public sphere.   

Bennet asserts that Engle engaged in subterfuge and the eradication of options.  Fearful that American ideas had lost saliency, Engle thought the cause to be their literary form. Thus, Bennet argues, Engle pre-determined the meaning he wished to project from Iowa without declaring his intent.  Young writers like Bennet arrived and found themselves unwittingly unable to express their meanings outside the unstated, circumscribed options for expression. They could make statements, but statements could not be personal, which brings us to the new pledge demanded of Rhodes Scholarship nominees:

I attest that this essay is my own work and is wholly truthful. Neither it nor any earlier draft has been edited by anyone other than me, nor has anyone else reviewed it to provide me with suggestions to improve it. I understand that any such editing or review would disqualify my application.

The Rhodes Trust fears that American applicants’ “editors” have changed aspirant scholars’ meanings.  They adhere to my brother-in-law’s belief that American teachers prescribe what “good” writing looks like to a draconian degree.  Unethical editing (that which changes the author’s meaning) would result in poor writing by the Pinker test, because it fails to elicit the author’s intent: his or her personal statement.  The best writing and editing all serve the cause of bringing authorial meaning to its audience.  Ethical editors, teachers, and writers of whatever ilk seek this same goal.  When an editor adds an Oxford comma or insists upon the active voice to help a reader grasp the author’s intent, the action no more constitutes cheating than when a piano instructor moves a student’s fingers to reach the key that sounds the note she wished to play.  Sadly, to counter the effects of unethical editing, the Rhodes Trust felt the need to prohibit all editing.

The last few weeks, my Twitter and Facebook feed filled with irate screeds about the tempest in this highly literate teacup. While I disagree with the Oxonian-Americans’ conclusions about American academic prose, I understand their concern. The question remains whether we can find what Pinker would call a new accepted convention of editorial conduct.  Once the tempest settles and we take a soothing sip of tea, I think we can.


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