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.