Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Louis Menand, in his review of Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” suspects “the whole thing might be a hoax.” (New Yorker, June 28, 2004.) Menand corrects with comments Truss’s misuse of commas: “Doubtful, distracting, and unwarranted commas turn up in front of restrictive phrases,” and elsewhere, while he also finds nonrestrictive clauses missing commas. That’s not all he finds wrong (the controlling error in Truss’s book, in Menand’s view, is that she repeatedly violates the very rules she claims hold value), and so he asks, reasonably, “Why would a person who is not just vague about the rules but disinclined to follow them bother to produce a guide to punctuation?” Menand’s answer is that Truss’s true topic is not punctuation but declining literacy skills and values. Menand’s true topic is that mastery of punctuation and grammar rules doesn’t necessarily produce style, what he calls “voice”: “There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it. Calculated incorrectness doesn’t, either. Ingenuity, wit, sarcasm, euphony, frequent outbreaks of the first-person singular-any of these can enliven prose without giving it a voice. You can set the stage as elaborately as you like, but either the phantom appears or it doesn’t.”

The problem is that most readers either don’t recognize errors or ignore them if they do recognize them, or they recognize errors and do respond to them but their response is rendered useless by the fact that the general reader can’t discern a difference between the passage with the error and the same passage with the error corrected – so no one seems to be the wiser or not for the error recognized and its correction inserted. We either get the joke or we don’t, and if we don’t, it’s not the same experience having it explained to us. For a discussion of reader response to rules violated we should read Joseph M. Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error.” Williams, like Menand, also makes use of writers violating their own rules, and not just writers like Truss, but the venerable E. B. White, whose “Elements of Style” is a classic now in its fourth edition, and the practical George Orwell: “…I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay (“Politics and the English Language”) without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.”

“It don’t matter,” you  might be saying, “I amn’t one of those. Just give me a few rules I can understand and apply to get me through the long night of this paper” (if you happen to be writing one) or “these papers” (if you happen to be correcting a stack).

Williams did not argue for a rejection of rules. At the same time, he did not think the presence of a rule in a handbook requires us to honor it. Perhaps we should spend more time not correcting errors but commenting on what’s right in a paper (a student’s paper or students peer reviewing). But we might still have the same problem – Williams deliberately inserted about 100 errors into his original paper, so that he could ask his readers if they on a first reading noticed any of them. If a majority of readers, he reasoned, recognized the same errors on a first “non-reflexive” reading, those errors would be the ones we should all read for first: “In short, if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find. But if we could read those student essays unreflexively, if we could make the ordinary kind of contract with those texts that we make with other kinds of texts, then we could find many fewer errors.”

If we expect to learn to write by learning the rules… – but if we don’t know the rules, and we still managed to write something effective or even with Menand’s “voice,” how did we do it?

For more of Williams’s ideas see his “Clarity and Grace or Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” and the U Chicago writing site. There is a useful list of “articles on error analysis” at the IUB campus writing program site.

Menand, Louis. (2004, June 28). Bad comma. New Yorker.

Williams, Joseph. (1981). The phenomenology of error. College Composition and Communication, 32.

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