My sister-in-law is a neurolinguist and my wife is a lawyer. I’m a writer and college professor of writing and literature. To say that we don’t bump heads when it comes to what constitutes “good” or “bad” writing is like saying that clichés aren’t the repetitive iterations of the indoctrinated. Better yet: we don’t “bump heads”; we smash each others’ brains into metaphorical food processors and whip up some semantic taters.

The discussion is not new. We’ve talked about it over the years. In particular, it’s an ongoing fight between me and my wife. Our most recent battle took place one night while my sister-in-law was visiting with us.  Afterwards, I talked to one of my writer-friends. This pal brought up what seemed at first a good point: since it is our profession to be writers, can we not “own” that craft? Are we not able to determine what is and is not good writing? As an analogy, my friend offered, “It’s not like you’re telling your wife that what she practices is ‘bad law,’ or that what your sister-in-law does is ‘bad science’; but they’re telling you what they think is ‘good’ writing.”

At first, this sounded right on. But the next morning, after I resumed the intellectual battle with my wife, armed with this new analogy, my advance proved short, and was ultimately repelled. I didn’t stump my wife, even if the analogy made her think for a moment. I had to consider her counter-argument: just because “writing” is not the main component of her profession (since, as a lawyer, the intellectual understanding of the law and its processes is her foremost skill), in almost every instance at her job she cannot articulate her ideas without writing them. The same goes for my sister-in-law. So writing is central to both their occupations, yet neither would consider herself a “writer.”

This all comes after teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Tense Present,” or, as it appears in his collection Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, “Authority and American Usage,” in which he laments, among other things, Academic English and other abominations, like legalese. Wallace, I feel confident in arguing, cannot stand Academic English (he calls it “a cancer”) or legalese, and I admit his point of view was enticing, especially since, like me, he was a writer of literary fiction and nonfiction.

In his essay, both of the above-mentioned uses of the English language come up as asides–mentions in an essay that concerns itself with the “Usage Wars” between Descriptivist and Prescriptivist linguists and other language nerds. Think of these as the Democrats and Republicans of how people use English. Descriptivists might say that “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” is perfectly valid English, not unlike a Democrat might argue that everyone equally deserves the same basic human rights, whether black or white, man or woman, straight or homosexual, etcetera. Obviously, people do speak this way; and if people speak this way, how can we ignore that this is one way that the English language is used? Descriptivists can explain what’s happening in the language as Standard Black English dialect with elided vowels and dropped consonant endings. They would also claim that Arnold’s now-famous Diff’rent Strokes (note the spelling as appropriate to the show’s characters’ dialect) punchline is just as valid English as the Standard Written English equivalent of “Whatever might you mean, Willis?”

The Prescriptivists, on the other hand, do not ignore the multiple uses of language, but prioritize the Standard Written English dialect over others as the language of commerce and discourse, kind of like the Republican economics of the “trickle-down” philosophy that favors the fiscally-privileged. Consider another example that compares Standard Written English and California English (my own native dialect): “Dude, this is hella good guacamole,” as opposed to its Standard Written English equivalent: “My friend, this guacamole is exceptional.” Thus, Prescriptivists care about Standard Written English and argue its supremacy in socio-economic discourse (i.e., talking or writing to one another, especially when it comes to the finer points of advancing one’s business goals, or “winning friends and influencing people”). Of course, realistically, there exist rhetorical situations in which the use of such a dialect as Standard Black English, California English, and/or others specific to particular groups of speakers remains preferable to SWE, which Wallace likewise admits.

So, a problem in my claim that AE and legalese are both examples of “bad” writing is my wife and her sister’s central argument: that within those professions there exist both “good” and “bad” writers. There are writers who take AE and legalese to their extremes, and there are writers who employ academic and legal terms but who, for the most part, use SWE to convey their ideas. Compare the following

“I am herewith returning the stipulation to dismiss in the above entitled matter; the same being duly executed by me”

To–while on the same Google search of “bad legalese”–this from The Wall Street Journal.

Or consider the most esoteric of articles written for the journal Discourse and Disclosure, such as the recently published “HILDA: A Discourse Parser Using Support Vector Machine Classification,” by Hugo Hernault, Helmut Prendinger, and David A. duVerle.

But just because these experts do not write the kind of prose that I think makes “good” writing, it’s preposterous of me to think that all members of these professions ought to write in the clear but flowery language of the literary ilk.

I confess my inclination to argue that the academies which have produced the linguistic ticks of prose in the scientific and legal worlds (not to mention a thousand other jargon-laden professions) ought to revise their strategies and take classes on writing clear and deliberate prose. But such a thesis is impractical and asinine. To argue such only serves to piss off my wife and sister-in-law–and others in their respective professions–and in the interests of maintaining decent familial and romantic relations it’s best for me to consider alternatives.

This is, ironically, what DFW argues in his review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage: that rhetoric is an element that traditional linguists have failed to consider in the majority of their arguments, either for or against prescriptivism. Language itself is, after all, something all humans use, either speaking, in sign-language, or in writing, and just because my artistic medium is the language itself does not give me leeway to judge all uses thereof. That would be like Picasso telling a house painter he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

In hindsight, now that I’ve taken the time to think through these thoughts and write them here, and after revising said thoughts and the writing thereof on numerous occasions, and after the badly planned morning assault on my wife’s position in this argument–the result of which was said wife, in her bathrobe, picking up her laptop and stalking out of the living room where we’d previously sat together, peacefully enjoying our coffee and checking our email accounts–I have decided that when considering the immediate audience of my lawyer wife, and, by extension, my scientist sister-in-law, it is best to agree: lawyers and scientists can be pretty good writers.

 

Not long ago, the following sentence was entered into the personal literary canon of my household:

“She is m’ennerve because she is toujours trying to cache my doudou.”

It’s an even larger mess and a more resplendent marvel when you hear it.

The line was uttered by my four-year old who wanted to say that her sister is “getting on her nerves because she is still trying to hide her favorite plush toy.” But instead she spoke this one sentence from the two languages she has yet to fully unbraid. I stood over her at the time, ready to respond “Quoi?” before reminding myself to stick with English and leave her mother to the concerns of the tongue with all the accents.

Word

By Angela Tung

Appreciation

These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears. – William Shakespeare

The bird is the word. – The Trashmen

 

 

I love my job.

I love my job because it’s not my old job. At my old job, you were expected to dress, talk, and act a certain way. You were expected to be a team player.

I am The Wannabe Novelist. Yes, in title case. To one day drop the adjective (“Wannabe”) and simply be The Novelist or at least A Novelist is a goal on my corkboard of goals that is thumbtacked to the left hemisphere of my brain.

From Brad Listi’s “It’s Kind of Like Creative Herpes”:

I like to joke that one of the best things I ever did in my career was to tell everyone close to me that I was going to write a novel back when I was twenty-one and dumb and fresh out of college. I remember right after graduation I went to a family wedding and stood around all fresh-faced and boozy talking to aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, wearing the coat and tie, receiving congratulations and answering twenty questions about the future.

“So what are you gonna do now? What kind of career path are you gonna pursue now that you’ve graduated college?”

“I’m gonna write a novel.”

THE ORIGINS: From a Construction Site to the Classroom

It was at this age, 21, I, too, seriously began writing—though I did not know it quite then. I was not in college or fresh out; I was working a meager paying job in construction. A friend of mine by the name of Jeremiah, 23, had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was July 2003. The night of his diagnosis, I sat in my car at the basketball court across the street from my house and his. We were next-door neighbors growing up, and the basketball court, to us, had always been hallowed ground where memories of our youth together had been birthed on its very blacktop. The floodgates opened. I cried every salty tear I could accouch from my swollen eyes.
 
There was a green notebook in my car and an ink pen. I always kept both with me wherever I went. Although I had never written seriously in my life other than horrible love poetry to high school girlfriends, a handful of left-wing, anarchist inspired Letters to the Editor of the local newspaper, and rock ‘n roll lyrics (for the greatest cow pasture rock ‘n roll band to ever exist, Anti-Lou), I used to jot down fragments of thoughts and emotions, or whatever popped into this head of mine. It was a way of controlling all of what bounced around up there. Therapeutic writing, nothing more than emotive prattle.

I flicked on the dim interior light of my car and commenced writing. A little over a month later, I made the decision to enroll in a local junior college. Jeremiah’s sudden diagnosis urged me to think about my own situation in life. I had health insurance, not through work but individually purchased at the request of my parents, particularly my dad, who had not long before overcome his first battle with cancer, Stage IV Colon Cancer.

Could I financially afford to be sick? Jeremiah had a well-paying job with substantial benefits working as an accountant for a firm based in Charlottesville. Therefore, his company was, at the start, helping foot his medical bills, and could also afford him the time away from work while he recovered from the first of what would be his numerous surgeries and hospital stays, first at Lynchburg General Hospital, then the University of Virginia, and later, Duke University in Durham. If I were to get sick, whether from a more likely cause such as a car accident or injury considering my employment in construction, I simply would not get a paycheck. Although I worked with a company, I was considered self-employed, an individual contractor per se. Thus, I had zero benefits. No AD&D. No sick days. No vacation. Nada. If I didn’t work, I wasn’t paid. It was that simple.

Up until this point, I had never really thought about my future seriously, at least not more than a passing nod of what questions tomorrow would bring: peanut butter and jelly on white, or ham on rye. I was never engrossed with the idea of college while in high school. Neither of my parents went nor did any grandparent. Only one of my cousins on either side of the family had been to college and most recently, my sister; hence, college was never really up for consideration for me, never an ambition to attain.

I began college part-time, taking night classes while I worked full-time during the day. I studied on the carpool to work as we drove to our next job site and during my lunch breaks. If I could cut it in these night classes, I would enroll full-time the following year. I was petrified my first day of class having not situated my rear end in a classroom in over five years since high school. Nursing students, being that the class I enrolled in was Anatomy and Physiology, surrounded me. I had even enrolled a day before the add/drop date finalized, so I was already behind from day one by about a week-and-a-half. It showed in my first test. I flunked it miserably. I didn’t know how to study although I did try. Not only had it been half a decade since I last cracked open a textbook, I never once studied in high school. I winged it all. I did well then, but I winged it. There would be no winging it here.

I’m in over my head, I thought. I stared at the results of my test and hung my head. My professor, Mrs. Lisa Dunn-Back, approached me as I shuffled my way out the door.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can drop your lowest test score and lowest two quizzes. You’ll be fine. Take a look at your test. Do you see a pattern?”

I didn’t.

“The questions you missed were from the first week-and-a-half of class when you weren’t part of the lecture. You didn’t miss a single question from the week you were here.”

She was right.

I picked my head up. Determined, I made it a point to read every single line on every single page in the gigantic Anatomy & Physiology book that was required for class. I’m going to ace this next one, and I did.

“I told you,” Mrs. Back said, stopping me again as I made my way out the door that day.

A few weeks passed, and with them a handful of tests and quizzes. I piled up A’s and suddenly found myself on the job site during the carpool and my lunch break so immersed in the class text, I knew that I had made the correct decision. I called Jeremiah on a weekly basis to see how everything was going. I told him about my plans to return to college full-time the coming year, but was hesitant to tell him my reasons why, his diagnosis being the wake-up call that made me realize how fragile life is at its core, even at such a young age.

Being that my first round of night classes were science-oriented, there were no creative writing assignments that propelled me forward in wanting to etch my way closer to becoming a writer. To be honest, I had not given it a second thought; to be a writer, that is. What did happen during the time I learned of Jeremiah’s diagnosis and throughout my first year as a part-time student was scribble down little scenes from our childhood. Nothing intact. Nothing literary. Fragments only: An adventure down the train trestles, through the woods playing a game of War as children, or what have you. I jotted down these scenes on scraps of vinyl siding and metal trim, on empty cardboard boxes that housed coil or downspouts.

By the end of my first semester, I had managed to achieve the highest average in Mrs. Back’s class, “the highest average of any student in any of her classes,” she alerted me; this, obviously, after dropping my first test which, due to its very low score (and I mean very low score), would have pulled me down a couple of points easily.

“Have you ever thought about the University of Virginia?” she asked me the last day of class.

Jeez, I had only completed my first semester of class and my professor was already asking me about a school I never in the world thought myself material for ever since I was a kid. I laughed a little, “Well, no not really.”

“You should,” she said, and that was that. My professor had lost her mind.

Then, after another semester taking the second part of Mrs. Back’s Anatomy and Physiology course, came the decision; not quite of LeBron James’ epic proportion, but an important decision nonetheless; and it was, though I had been mulling it over for quite some time, very difficult to make: to leave the job and the co-workers I had known for the last three years of my life, who I had become such great friends with, and return to school.

I loved my job. I really did. Yet I knew it wasn’t in the cards for me, not in my future at least. My boss knew it was coming. He could see the transformation I had made in less than a year’s time and how engaged I had become in the life I led in the hours after work, and he graciously accepted my resignation, and let me know that, should I need any hours to work anytime in the future, I would be welcome to them with his company.

I enrolled full-time at Southside on the John H. Daniel campus in Keysville, Virginia. One of my classes, College Composition I, an English course with Professor Judy Lloyd (then Stokes), would be the first class on my plate, beginning at 8:00 a.m., Monday morning. I had no idea then how much this mandatory course would alter the path I would travel from that point forward, how it would open a window into my creative soul. I was about to find out.

Invaders! The enemy is at the gates, and he looks just like us, but with better teeth. And really, we want to be his friend. And there are no gates. I’ve filed this piece under “Rants” and with good reason: I’m about to get right off my bike about British English’s gradual erosion and the slow, insidious advance of a simplified (dumbed down) form of American English.

But.

I wasn’t sure how to categorise this little number – memoir or fiction? The people, places and background are all real enough, but I can state with certainty that the scene recounted here never happened and is therefore, technically, fiction.

BOULDER, CO-

It’s common among the literati to carry around a bunch of grammar gurus, like¹ Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady. Usually you’ll find some mix of H. G. Fowler, E. B. White and Quiller-Couch, and perhaps some volume-by-committee such as The Chicago Manual of Style or Hart’s Rules.  I personally used to follow Fowler.  I would read from his The King’s English almost every day.  I enjoyed it only moderately, but I assumed it was a mandatory part of the writer’s daily diet and exercise.  I boxed like a fiend with Fowler in my corner.  I’d beat you down for any latent coordination of relative clauses, or any fused participle.

A funny thing happened early this decade. I realized I was in a quagmire and became disillusioned.  I’ve learned to make linguistic love, not war.  My attitude towards prescriptive grammarians has become “kiss my that-which-abusing, colon-and-semicolon-using, passive-voice-embracing arse, bitches!”