Anti-racism and the comma splice

Should composition instructors teach Standard Written English to students of color?

Apparently, there is a faction within the field of Rhetorical Studies that holds we should not. Standard Written English is a white language, the thinking seems to go (I have this secondhand) and should not be imposed upon POCs. People of color have their own language, which we instructors should respect and embrace. 

I dissent.

I dissent for the simple reason that I teach writing, not talking, and black and Hispanic students don’t have their own written language. White students don’t, either. Nobody does.

The reason people are hired to teach writing classes, not talking classes, is that all language is, first and foremost, spoken. Humans have been talking for a very long time—perhaps for millions of years. But writing wasn’t invented until a mere 5,500 years ago, and more than half of the world’s languages have no written form to this day. Where language is concerned, writing is an add-on. People are born talkers, not writers. 


Ebonics, again

Presumably, respect-their-language advocates are thinking of African American Vernacular English, or Ebonics, as it was known during the 1996 controversy over Ebonics in the classroom

But AAVE isn’t a written language. It’s a variant of English, which is also not a written language, though we can of course write in English (or in AAVE). The essence of AAVE, as of any other variant of English, is speech. 

It bears pointing out that, as a variant of English, AAVE is the equal of any other variant. Language is language, and native speakers are fluent in the language they’re born into regardless of race, class, or educational status. 

I thought we settled this twenty years ago, but no. 


How real people really talk

The point is—and this is what matters in a composition class—Standard Written English is radically different from spoken English no matter who’s doing the talking. No one speaks Standard Written English. 

I imagine the highly educated may use broader vocabulary in speech, but that’s just a guess, and I could well be wrong. What no one uses in conversation is 30-word sentences and conjunctive adverbs.

Here’s how real people actually talk to each other


At the starting gate

Inside the classroom, what language-is-talking means is that black students enter freshman composition with the same faulty parallelism, mixed constructions, and comma splices as everyone else. 

And vice versa. 

If a white student is more skilled than a black student at producing college prose, that is not because the white student is white and speaks an English that is white. 

That is because the white student has spent more time reading and writing formal prose. 

Ditto for a black student who enters college more proficient in Standard Written English than the white students in his/her class. A black student who starts out ahead is better at producing Standard Written English because he/she has spent more time learning to read and write Standard Written English.


Consider the comma splice

Comma splices don’t exist in spoken English. 

To be fair, comma splices don’t necessarily exist in written forms of other languages, either, and they’re probably headed toward extinction in English, judging by the number I see popping up in edited prose. 

But that is neither here nor there. For the time being, Standard Written English has a rule that a comma cannot be used to join independent clauses without a coordinator (a FANBOYS) to back it up. 

That rule can’t be learned by talking because it doesn’t apply to talking. 

Comma splices know no race. Ditto for mixed constructions and crappy parallelism, poor cohesion, missing topic sentences, and all the rest of the elements that, done correctly, constitute Standard Written English. 

I say it’s time for the field of Rhetorical Studies to acquaint itself with the field of Linguistics. 

Any linguist worth her salt could tell them talking isn’t writing, and being fluent in white vernacular doesn’t give students a leg up when it comes to writing college prose.

3 thoughts on “Anti-racism and the comma splice

  1. I have made, and stand by, the claim that all punctuation is style, not grammar.

    Punctuation is a late addition to the various written forms of language that was added to improve readability and comprehension. It is not fundamental to the language qua language.

    Fundamentally, what this means is that like any other style issue, you need to know and follow the house style of the place you’re writing for. In the case of writing for colleges (and a variety of other venues for written language), that’s generally some minor variant of standard written English.

    If you’re writing for a law review, you nearly always need to follow bluebook standards. If you’re writing for the AP, you follow the AP style guide. If you were writing for the Chicago Tribune in the ’40s, you followed the (frankly bizarre) Tribune style of Col. McCormick.

    That doesn’t mean that any of those standards is particularly more correct than any other; it just means that if you want your work published, you follow the house style.

    And because the vast majority of consumers of edited, written English have* been trained in that environment (even though they generally have no idea of the history), if you want to be well-regarded by them, you would do well to cater to their prejudices. And a teacher who doesn’t teach to that general style would be derelict in his or her responsibilities.

    * “Majority” can be treated as either a plural or singular noun, depending on style and usage. Following the advice of MWDEU and my own sense of readability, I’ve chosen the plural with “majority of”. It’s the kind of thing one does when writing for an audience. 😎

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Doug!

      Punctuation is definitely not grammar — though you do need to know some grammar to use commas correctly

      I need to add a section on AAVE, after talking to Katie about this…

      Liked by 1 person

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