Archive for the ‘English’ Category

(Note: The following is a handout I used to give in composition courses to first year university students. You are welcome to reformat and distribute it under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Basically, that means you it any way you like so long as you give me credit and let others use it under the same conditions)

A. “Chunk” (Paragraphs arranged by subject):

In the co-op, Judy is the practical one. Of the four people who share the house, she is the only one who is not visibly eccentric. She keeps regular hours, and sees that the bills are paid. If food is bought, or laundry is done, either she has done the work or bullied someone else into doing it. Periodically, she musters everyone else for a massive cleaning of the house. It is only her profession–writer–and her New Age interests that suggest how unusual she is.

By contrast, Saul, the household’s other original resident, is so eccentric that his friends think that he looks abnormal in ordinary clothes. His usual wear is either a faded red caftan or Scottish formal wear, complete with a sporran and skean dhu. Because of his light-sensitive eyes, he is usually awake while other people are asleep. He rarely leaves the house, and the ordinary business of living holds little interest for him. He never considers bills, and, although he will eat if food is available, will lives for several days at a time on nothing more than nerves and coffee. Only the area around his computer is clean; the rest of his living space has mounds that archaeologists would love to excavate. Even his hobbies are unusual: sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois. Unlike Judy, Saul seems incapable of functioning normally; he does not meet visitors in their world so much as invite them into his.

B. “Slice” (Paragraph arranged by Points of Comparison):

Although both Judy and Saul are old friends, they have little else in common. Saul is visibly eccentric; Judy is so ordinary that she is no more noticeable on the street than a lamp post. She is awake and starts work when their neighbors do, and she can handle such things as bills, laundry, shopping and cleaning–matters that are mysteries to Saul. She even knows how to organize the other household members. Saul, on the other hand, can barely organize himself. Except for his work station, he is surrounded by clutter. If his routine is more organized than Judy’s, the reason is only that he organizes only himself–and then only so that he can work, which is the most important thing in his life. His life is arranged to give him as much time to work as possible, so he pays no attention to ordinary matters like food. A night person, he may go for days at a time seeing nobody, never leaving the house, and surviving on coffee with the odd bit of leftovers. Even his hobbies, sword meditation and writing poetry in obscure languages like Gaelic and Iroquois, are private. He is so different from Judy that many people are surprised to learn that they have shared a house for over twenty years.

C. Analogy:

If the difference between eccentrics and ordinary people is the difference between night and day, then Judy is twilight and Saul is midnight.

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Whenever I come across a use of language that makes me cringe, I tell myself that the English language is robust and evolving, and can survive any number of hopeful monsters. I outlasted “not” being added to the end of every sentence, I keep reminding myself, and I can survive whatever other grotesque usage that slouches my way. But there are limits, and mine is “not appropriate” and its near-relative “inappropriate.”

You know what I’m referring to: flat, prim statements that something done, said – or even thought – is “not appropriate.” Typically, I regret to say, it is said by someone such as a unionist, feminist, or environmentalist, with whose basic ideas I agree, but with whose tactics (obviously) I find reprehensible. In fact, I can think of few phrases I disdain more.

What’s my problem with “not appropriate”? For one thing, it’s a euphemism. When someone says that something is “not appropriate,” what they really mean is that they dislike or disapprove of what they are condemning. But instead of saying what they mean, they hide behind a vague phrase. So, right away, they’re being dishonest.

However, unlike many euphemisms, “not appropriate” isn’t used to be discreet or to spare someone’s feelings. Instead, it’s one of the most basic invalid arguments imaginable: an appeal to an authority – in this case, the alleged standards of the community and the unspoken rules by which we live by. The implication is that the person who has done something “not appropriate” has transgressed in a way that no decent adult ever should.

I say “alleged standards” because, almost always, the transgression is not against existing community norms, but against what the speaker would like to be the community norms. My impression is that the speaker is hoping that, by assuming that these norms are already generally accepted, they can enforce their ethics as though everybody shared them.

I would find such tactics hard to tolerate in anyone, but, when standards I support are used in this way, I worry about the harm they can cause. I suspect that many people who might otherwise be persuaded to those standards will reject them simply because they resent the clumsy efforts at manipulation.

After all, when accused of being “not appropriate” or “inappropriate,” you are not supposed to stop and consider the merits of the standards being implied, or discuss what is happening. You are supposed to act on reflex, and shut up.

Those who go around condemning things as “not appropriate” are setting themselves up – almost always, completely unasked — as authorities about what is socially acceptable. The implication is that they know what is right and wrong, and those they address they do not.

Basically, they are offering themselves as the guardians of ethics and morality, demanding that others obey without any discussion. They are taking on the role of teachers and casting everyone else as dull students, playing parents to unsatisfactory children, or cops to the mob. They are usurping an authority to which they have no right – and, when they stoop to condemning even thoughts (or their interpretations of them) as “not appropriate,” they become downright creepy.

No matter how you parse the phrase, “not appropriate” is a fundamentally dishonest and authoritarian expression. The sole virtue of “not appropriate” (or “inappropriate”) is that its use signals that the speaker is so committed to intellectual fraud and authoritarianism that you can save yourself endless time and effort by walking away from them.

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“You’re an English major? You must be planning a career in fast food.” Comments like this haunted me from the moment I declared my major in university. But hearing the sentiment recently, I realized that it was far from accurate. The truth is, people who have a way with words can make a comfortable living in all sorts of ways, so long as they don’t limit their possibilities to the obvious.

The worst mistake that anybody with an English degree – or, in fact, any Arts degree – can make is to hang about on the fringes of academia, hoping for a tenure track position. Ever since my undergraduate days, I’ve been hearing about all the tenured positions that are going to become available as their current incumbents retire, but, between budget cuts and the increasing tendency to hire non-tenured staff or sessionals, the positions are unlikely to materialize. People who were hoping for those positions when I left academia over a decade ago are still waiting for those tenured positions. Meanwhile, they endure semester by semester contracts, last minute hires, and doing the same work as tenured faculty for half the money. That’s fine for a few years, but it’s no way to live in the long-term.

The same is true of editing piece work. Just like academia, the publishing industry depends on having a constant pool of cheap work-for-hire editors. You may be one of the lucky exceptions, but the odds are against you, no matter how talented. Those who run the industry are careful not to employ you so much that they become obliged to offer you benefits.

Instead of lingering in limbo, waiting for the academic or literary job you used to dreamed of, English majors should explore the possibilities in business. Not only is the power of self-expression in demand there, but the competition is far less fierce than in academia – partly because of the greater need, and partly because many English majors seem to consider that taking a job in business is beneath them. Often, too, they make the mistake of thinking that their writing skills are all they need, and are slow to learn the subject matter expertise they need to do the work properly.

But, if you can get beyond the idea that you are dirtying your hands and are willing to learn what you don’t know, then the jobs are there. As a technical writer, you need to write clearly and organize information for conciseness and accuracy; in many ways, the job is writing stripped to the basics. As a communications and marketing manager, writing news releases or blogs, you take on the responsibility of being the voice of the company. As a product manager, you decide how to present a product or line, and you’ll find your skills with textural analysis serve you well when you come to deal with end user license agreements and other legal documents. As an instructor, you are reprising your role as a teaching assistant while you were in grad school, the only difference being is that you are teaching software or policies and procedures, rather literature or criticism.

And these are only the most obvious career paths. Writing and teaching skills aren’t a bad foundation for going on to law school, for example. Best of all, the first thing you’ll notice when taking these positions if you’ve been vying for scraps of work around academia, your yearly income will increase by over fifty percent or more.

Admittedly, some of these positions aren’t on the express way to the top. Technical writers, for instance, may rise to supervise other technical writers at a large company, but they aren’t likely to become CEOs. But they can serve as entry positions, and, if you’re interested in climbing the corporation, you can always expand your skill set later on. Meanwhile, you can reasonably expect a salary that puts you solidly in the upper middle class, to say nothing of responsible and often rewarding work.

Really, the only thing holding you back with an English degree is your own lack of imagination or initiative. Just because those who prefer an education they should be getting at a technical college choose to belittle your liberal education is no reason for you to believe them.

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After I finished my bachelor’s degree, I spent several years as a part time clerk in a mall bookstore. I had been reduced to a state where I was fit for little else: Not only had I gone straight through from high school with the exception of one or two summers off, but I had taken a double major and married in the same period. I needed time to coast while I considered the next step, and to earn enough money to pay my share of the expenses in the mean time.

In my naivety, I thought an enthusiasm for books was a natural qualification for such a job. Add a good memory for books and titles glimpsed, and I seemed a natural. Probably the fact that the job was minimum wage should have tipped me off to reality, but I was as green with inexperience as a new branch in spring.

Looking back, I have to say that disillusion took a surprisingly long time to set in. Yet, gradually, and with growing horror, I realized that other employees were far more interested in their shreds of status than books, and that my affinity for books was dismissed at the same time that I fielded all sorts of questions from them. I was unworldly, they decided, and they were right, although not in the way they thought.

All the other employees and managers, I realized, considered books commodities, not as exciting diversions and intellectual stimulation. Their lack of university degrees might have tipped me off, I suppose, but show me the twentysomething man who doesn’t believe he knows how the world works.

But I endured as I recuperated, experiencing the change in my life as Sunday store openings became the norm, and the embarrassment of having the older sister of a school acquaintance arrive as manager. She never said anything, but I grew increasingly afraid that she would mention my lowly status, and whispers would start to circulate that I was a failure.

However, despite this background of discontent, what I mainly recall were the surreal moments of comedy that went with the job. Some of these were corporate, such as the constantly shipping of reduced items back and forth for sales until long after any profit could be recouped from them.

One book I remembered was entitled Les Femmes aux Cigarettes, a reprint of a French photo study from the 1920s by a photographer who found the then-novelty of women smoking irresistible; it started at forty-eight dollars soon after I took the job, and had been reduced to twenty-five cent by the time I left.

I remember, too, the buzz of cleaning and drill that surrounded the visit of the owner – an event that lasted perhaps two minutes as he strode to the back of the store, shook the district manager’s hand, and went out to lunch with him.

Then there was the time I considered applying for a full-time position. The manager took me aside and talked to me solemnly of the duties and responsibilities of working full-time – as though I hadn’t been doing everything the full-timers were doing anyway. Asked point blank if she was implying that I wasn’t responsible, she back-pedaled furiously, but, with such events in my past, no wonder my view of the corporate world is ironic and bemused at best.

But what I remember most vividly are the customers. Many would enter the store in early afternoon, wanting the book they had seen on Oprah that morning, and could not understand that I had been at the store since 9AM, let alone that I’m not an Oprah sort of person. My favorite in this category is the woman who came up to me and said, “I can’t remember the name or the title of the book, and it’s hard to explain what it’s about, but it was on some television show this morning, and had a green cover.” What I wanted to do was direct her to the green book section, but, wisely, I refrained.

Another time, one of the many mothers who used the children’s section as a cheaper version of mall daycare berated us because her son had wandered. We should have kept an eye on him, she kept saying.

Then there was the time I chased a young shoplifter out the door, through the mall, and halfway across the parking lot. I didn’t catch him – which was probably good, since I might have got into trouble with the law – and, to tell the truth, I didn’t much care if I did. For me, the incident was an unexpected moment of excitement in an otherwise monotonous day. But from the terrorized look on the shoplifter’s face as he looked over his shoulder, I doubt he felt the same way – although perhaps he went on to tell his own boasting version of the story.

And who can forget the hordes who arrived in the last few hours of Christmas Eve, overheated in their winter coats, furious about everything that had sold out, and about as full of Christmas cheer as a tax collector? One Christmas, I had just slumped against the door lock when a young male executive came bounding at the door.

“I have to get a gift for my wife,” he kept saying. “I have to!” His tie was askew, and he was more than a little drunk, and all I wanted was to go home and start my own Christmas. Safe on the other side of the glass, I muttered, “Keep this up, and you won’t have to worry about buying for your wife much longer,” and let a staffer take pity on him.

I think that these random encounters helped shaped the basis of my worldview: Things don’t make sense, I decided, and I would only get a headache if I insisted in looking for the logic.

But I had outgrown the job by the end of my first shift. I enjoy people, but not constantly, and I’m not a naturally servile or patient person. After two and a half years, I was looking for a way out. I started applying for any job remotely suitable, then hit on grad school. That fall, I applied for both the Communications and English Department at Simon Fraser University. The Communications Department would only take grad students in September, and I wasn’t waiting another eight months, so I became an English master’s candidate, sinking gratefully into the familiar world where ideas mattered and books were viewed as precious.

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I’ve thought of myself as an aspiring writer for so long that I took several years to realize that I had become a professional. The regular checks from Linux Journal and SourceForge should have tipped me off earlier, but somehow my situation seemed more a fantasy than a reality. My change of status only sunk in when I tried to describe what was happening to an acquaintance from school, and – more importantly – when a couple of people emailed me recently asking how they could break in to professional journalism.

The first time, I didn’t know what to say, but, the second time, I started to codify the differences between a professional and an amateur writer, based on my own experiences and observations:

Professionals don’t wait for inspiration before working
Often, of course, profesionals can’t wait for inspiration because they have deadlines. But, even more fundamentally, professionals have learned that word done when you’re inspired is not necessarily better than work done when you’re not in the mood. What’s far more important is to keep in practice by writing regularly.

Professionals don’t obsess over grammar
Naturally, professional writer care about clarity and precision. But grammar is only one of the means to those ends. I’ve yet to meet a practicing writer who doesn’t cheerfully break any rule in the textbook if they can write more effectively by doing so.

Professionals submit work in readable form
Remember the story of great writers who submit work full of spelling and presentation errors and written on the back of napkins and paper bags? Some of them are true – but very few. And even in those cases that are true, the writers are often handicapping themselves by creating a reputation as difficult.

For anyone else, ignoring the advantages of a clean presentation that follows the publishers’ style guides is career suicide. The less work that editors need to do in order to make your work ready for publication, the more likely they are to accept it – assuming, of course, that it is at least minimally competent. It takes very unique content to make an editor accept the extra work required to correct poor presentation.

Anyway, you don’t want mistakes to distract from what you say. Think of the editors to whom you submit work as people with Adult Attention Deffict Disorder. Anything you can do to ensure that they’re not distracted from your content is only going to help you.

Professionals meet deadlines
At Linux.com, the editors regularly accept story pitches from amateurs. Yet a surprising number – maybe as many as two-thirds – never return with the finished story. For editors who constantly need content, writers who do what they promise when they promise are rare assets. In fact, writers who finish what they start are so valuable that editors may prefer them to people who write better stories but are more erratic.

Professionals accept editing (mostly)
Edit amateurs, and you are likely to get protests. They’ve usually worked long and hard to produce their writing, so they’ve become fiercely attached to the results. Professionals don’t like editing any better than amateurs, but they’ve learned to accept it. They know that publications may have style guides that differ from their personal preferences, and that writing may have to be edited to fit a given space. They’ve learned, too, that a trustworthy editor can make them look better, or at least keep them from making mistakes in public. Professonals may complain if an editior changes the sense of what they’re saying – but then they will try to respond calmly. Those who do otherwise rarely last in the ranks of professionals.

Professionals take the work seriously, not themselves
For amateurs, writing is tangled up with their sense of who they like to be. Accepted professionals, by contrast, don’t have anything to prove. They know that their work is going to be uneven, and that they’re going to make mistakes sometimes. Having done the best they could under the circumstances, they know enough to let the work go. They still find praise gratifying or abuse deflating, but they realize that their work is not them.

Professionals write
At some point or other, anyone who has hung around amateur writers has been cornered by someone willing to talk at great length about their plans for some great work. My own worst experience was a house guest who kept wanting me to read her fan fiction when the kindest comment I could muster was, “Oh. Typed, I see.”

By contrast, few professionals will give more than a sentence or two about their current work. Some are afraid that talking will replace writing – and, considering the example of amateurs, they might be right. However, the basic reason that professionals don’t talk about works in progress is that they are too busy planning or working. Writers, by definition, save their efforts for writing.

You may notice that I only talk about work habits and say nothing about the differences between how amateurs and professional use language. The reason for this omission is not that I’m a crass commercialist, but that there is little to say.

Many amateurs show that they have a love of language and some skill in using it, yet they never become professionals. Conversely, I know several professionals who have no more than basic competence in the way they use language. So, I conclude that talent alone does not distinguish the professional from the amateur.

Instead, the difference is your willlingness to work and your attitude towards the way things are done. Amateurs are unwilling or unable to adjust, so their love of language remains a part-time interest. Professionals work and adjust, and are rewarded by being able to do what they love for a living. In the end, the difference comes down to attitude rather than talent.

That suggestion is both good new and bad news to amateurs. On the one hand, it suggests that you don’t need to be special — or not very — to become professional. On the other hand, it does sugges that you need discipline and flexibility — and those may be even rarer than talent.

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Today, I received an email praising my recent article about the Kamloops School District’s conversion to free software, but taking me to task for alleged grammatical errors. On the Linux.com IRC channel, suggestions about how to respond ranged from “Bite me!” to “I don’t see your name on my cheque, so why should I care?” (the response I eventually chose when I got a second email from the same person) I was more amused than peeved by the brief exchange, but as I rode the exercise bike this afternoon, I started thinking about the grammar neurosis that grips the English-speaking world.

When someone becomes obsessed with grammar, they are worrying more about rules than about effective use of language. Of all the dozens of writers I’ve known, none worried about grammar beyond the basics necessary for clarity. If clarity was best served by an ungrammatical phrase, none of them hesitated to use it.

By contrast, I can think of only two English writers who could be described as grammarians: John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, neither of whom are considered major writers today. Yet Dryden frequently took Shakespeare to task for his poor grammar. So, whatever the concern with grammar is about, it isn’t about writing well — despite what generations of school children have been told.

Of course, learning rules is easier than learning how to write. Since we don’t even have the technical vocabulary for discussing writing properly, teaching someone to write even competently is usually difficult and slow. But rules are as clearly defined as writing is not. That makes them easy to learn, and even easier to test.

People tend to obsess about grammar for the same reason that a person I know once learned all about jazz: not because they have much appreciation for the subject, but because they want an expertise in an obscure subject so that they can assert their superiority over the rest of the world. In today’s case, this sense of superiority led my correspondent to contact a complete stranger and correct them on points that were debatable at best. Even if she had been correct, that’s as rude as accosting someone on the street with your fashion advice. Anything that causes such impoliteness, I insist, is dubious for that reason alone.

In Canada, another reason for becoming a grammarian is the idea that spelling like “honour” and “centre” are somehow expressions of national pride. To me, that seems a very shaky base for any sense of cultural identity. Besides, if Shakespeare could spell his name several different ways, why should other writers care about the spelling conventions that editors use in their published work? You might as well worry about the paper or the computer monitor that your work will appear on.

However, more than anything else, the self-appointed guardians of grammar fail to understand what their subject represents. Any language is constantly evolving, so how can it have any firm set of rules? The most you can do is what linguists do, which is to provide a snapshot of how a language is used in a particular place and time. And, although that is what grammarians are doing, most of them are unaware of the fact. What they present as eternal truths are, for the most part, the rules of language as they were used by the educated elite a few decades ago. The elite has the power to make this snapshot the official version of the language, but, for all their efforts, they are unable to do more than slow the natural evolution of language. They are trying to do the impossible, and they don’t realize it.

That is not to say that grammarians do no harm. In fact, if, like me, you had ever watched the agony of first year university students as they try to put their thoughts down on paper, you would soon realize that they do a good deal of harm. Not only do the grammarians in our schools emphasize a relatively minor aspect of writing, but, in the process, they instill such a fear of making a mistake that most students are almost paralyzed when asked to express themselves.

As a result, the average graduate of our school system struggles with even the simplest bits of communication, and loses a potential sense of aesthetic pleasure. Far from educating people, the grammarians convince most of us that education is something that we can never have, and that we are hopelessly ignorant.

Then, just to make sure that we never recover, they leave us completely misdirected and focused on a meaningless goal, so that we can only stumble free of the limitations with which they have blinkered us with patience or luck.

In fact, so early and deeply is the grammar neurosis embedded in our minds that the average person, faced with what I have said here will instantly leap to the defence of grammar. They will mishear, insisting that these observations mean that I am calling for the abolition of all rules. Unable to conceive that any alternative could exist, let alone what that alternative might be, most will simple retreat into their neurosis.

Yet the alternative is very simple. Just as Nelson once said, “No officer can go very far wrong who lays his ship alongside an enemy,” no would-be writers can go very far wrong if they forget about grammar when they sit down and focus on saying what they mean. It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that. And the real tragedy is that, in the reign of the grammar police, most of us forget it.

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