Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The rules we live by

Recently, I was reading one of my students' journal entries in which she discussed how she struggled with some aspects of academic style. To my surprise, she mentioned a particular rule she had been advised on: never use apostrophes in academic writing. I'd never heard this one before; I'd heard some people advise students not to use contractions, but had never taken any notice of such advice myself. But - no apostrophes at all? This student had realised how crazy this rule was when she was advising another student and suddenly realised how removing possessive apostrophes made the writing less concise and more cumbersome. When I asked her how she came by this rule, and why she had adhered to it for so long, she shrugged and said she'd never questioned the advice because it came from a reputable source.

This made me think about other rules I've come across that students think are absolutes: never use the passive voice, never use pronouns (any pronouns??), always write in deductive paragraphs, always use a transition at the end of each paragraph, always insert a comma where you would breathe in a sentence...I could go on.

Some of these rules fit into my 'maybe' category: maybe it's best to avoid the passive voice unless there's a reason to use it? Maybe deductive paragraphs are going to lead to clearer writing so you might want to make them your first option? But some of these rules are just plain wrong: please don't insert a comma wherever you breathe in a sentence, please feel free to use pronouns, and please, oh please, use apostrophes (correctly, and not too colloquially) in academic writing!

But where do these ideas come from? Some of them, I'm sure, must be misunderstandings on the student's part: I'm almost sure the apostrophe and pronoun 'rules' fit into that category. A teacher might have said "be careful using contractions in academic writing" and somehow it translated into "avoid all apostrophes" in my student's mind. A teacher might have said "avoid personal pronouns in formal reports" and it turned into "avoid all pronouns in academic writing". But some of these ideas will have emerged out of teachers trying to make the rules easier for students to understand: there are so many rules about commas, for example, that a teacher might give up trying to explain and come up with this simple (but entirely wrong) rule. We want our students to write more clearly, so we come up with the deductive paragraph rule and somehow it sticks as an absolute.

In my last two blog posts I have discussed particular rules relating to grammar and punctuation, and both have led to interesting discussion in the comments about whether the rules are correct or whether they are simply my taste. What I have loved about these comments is that they have challenged any absolutes, discussed the changing nature of language (David, I'd love you to write a blog post about Henry Hitchings on Grammar Gang one day), and invited a consideration of the relationship between rules and taste (shibboleth is such a fine word, thanks Allen!).

But what this raises for me, as a teacher of writing is how do we teach these issues without resorting to teaching 'rules' that can be misinterpreted or converted into absolutes? How do we give students the flexibility to work with language and make judgements about usage, while still meeting the formal requirements of many of their teachers? I'm still thinking around these issues: do you have any views on this? Or have you come across any absolutes about writing that your students believe in?