A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.

Not as much rules about grammar now

A couple of excerpts from an essay J recently submitted for English 101:

At that time, people didn’t think that smoking was as bad, and therefore a lot of people have smoked and there weren’t as much rules about smoking in the building or restaurants or bar, and even hospitals.

Speaking of people drinking alcohol, there was some prohibition from 1920 to 1933, but it seemed like picture was taken after the prohibition ended, but before the prohibition ended, there were some organized crimes, like going to a secret bar and drink alcohol.

The professor loved it, particularly appreciating its “informal tone.” I loved it: J wrote it all by himself, without any help or edits from us. J’s grandparents loved it, too. None of us can stop marveling at how far he’s come, from barely putting two-three words together at age 6, to, after years of computerized grammar training, writing college-level English essays.

Right—college-level English essays. And there’s the rub.

“I trust the teacher will give him some feedback on grammar and punctuation,” my mother wondered.

Well, no.

In fact, at this point in my experience with the education world, I would have been surprised if there had been any such feedback. In the ed world, after all, it’s all about false choices and fake freedoms: open-ended communication as opposed to the confines of grammar; encouraging students to express themselves as opposed to stifling their creativity. No matter that, once in the real world, well-formed sentences suddenly matter: whether you’re writing a cover letter, a memo, or even a routine, job-related email message. Outside of English class, clumsy, error-filled sentences not only make you look careless and stupid, but also close off opportunities.

In fairness to the professor, I should note that (1) many of J’s sentences contained no errors; (2) the course is an online Blackboard course. (Normally online classes aren’t open to full-time undergrads: permission to take English online is the one accommodation that the disability office has made regarding J’s difficulty working in groups in English class—group work, naturally, having long been the norm in the brick-and-mortar versions of English 101).

This online English, as a Blackboard class, lacks functionality for marking up papers. Blackboard makes it convenient to submit papers, grades, and general comments, but (at least in the versions I’ve used) not to insert comments within student work. The best you can do is cut and paste entire passages into the “comments” window and then make edits (or cut and paste somewhere else, make edits, and then re-paste into comments). This procedure (though I’ve often resorted to it) is unwieldy. And it’s unwieldy not just for the person making the edits, but also for the student—who may or may not bother to do all the scrolling up and down that it takes to process all that’s been cut, pasted, and edited.

It wouldn’t be that hard for Blackboard developers to make inline edits as convenient as everything else is. But for this to happen, a lot more people would have to care.

What computer programming can tell us about writing

I’ve been doing a fair amount of coding lately—I’m working on an upgrade to GrammarTrainer to make it more user friendly and more informative about student progress.

And as I code my way through javascript and ajax and PHP, I can’t help noticing some similarities between expository writing and computer programming.

Good writing requires logical organization; computer programming, even more so. Even though a disorganized program can, in principle, run properly, it’s awfully hard to debug or upgrade—let alone for a new coder to make sense of.

Good writing requires clarity and precision; computer programming, even more so. The slightest lapse yields code that runs poorly, weirdly, or not at all.

For clarity in writing, it’s often a good idea to break long, complex sentences and paragraphs down into shorter ones; so, too, with programming. You start coding a routine, and, a dozen lines in, you realize that the various if-thens, for-loops, and string manipulations actually comprise several distinct subroutines.

Good writing also involves labeling new concepts with evocative words and phrases; so, too, with those subroutines in programming. It’s a lot easier to keep track of what you’ve done if the subroutines—and the variables—have perspicuous names like “setCursorPosition” and “wordStartPosition,” as opposed to “functionA” and “X”.

Good writing requires an economy of words; even more so with programming, where repetitions can slow down run times.

Finally, computer programming involves a kind of creativity that isn’t so different from the creativity we associate with writing. All writing can (or should) involve some creativity, but here I’m thinking of story writing in particular—and of its distinguishing features of plots and characters. After all, plot-like and character-like entities also figure in computer programs. And, much like the story writer staring at his blank page or screen, the computer programmer, staring at hers, has to figure out what events the program should execute, and in what order—as well as who the various actors are, what they’re going to be called, and how they’re all going to conspire to make everything unfold in just the right way.

Get me rewrite

The other night, trying to revise the dyslexia passage, I convinced myself it couldn’t be done without adding new content.

I’m sure that’s wrong, but I’m finding it much easier to fix the start-stop quality (technical term: choppiness) of the original by changing the content, not just the syntax.

So here are two copy edits, one relying on syntax alone, the other relying mostly on added details.

I want to stress that in I don’t mean to be critical, or to embarrass the author. Her essay works as is– the reason I know about it is that a friend of mine liked it so much she emailed it to her friends.

ORIGINAL

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair right after getting back his spring grades in ninth grade. They were disappointing. They didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. We were standing in his room at the time. I had pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I had said.

Jay Leno’s Advice for My Dyslexic Son

(Aidan’s project is a series of interviews with successful people who have dyslexia.)

POSSIBLE REVISION USING CHANGES IN SYNTAX

During 9th grade, in a moment of despair, Aidan had started the project after getting back his spring grades. They were disappointing. Certainly, they didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. I pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I said.

 

Lots of sentence combining, plus I changed two instances of  the past perfect to simple past tense

POSSIBLE REVISION USING CHANGES IN CONTENT AS WELL AS SYNTAX

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair after his spring grades arrived freshman year. They were a disappointment. He had worked hard, and the unrelieved column of Cs and one D didn’t show it. Discouraged, I looked at the poster he’d tacked up over his desk, the one listing “Successful and Famous People with Dyslexia.” There were 80 of them, all told, beginning with Robert Blake—Robert Blake—and ending with Ernest Hemingway.

“I wonder how they did it,” I said.

Adding details (I found the Robert Blake dyslexia poster on Pinterest) made it much easier to fix the problem of a string of sentences starting with “I,” “they,” and “we.”

AND SEE:
How to turn a list of sentences into a paragraph – 9/20/2016
Get me rewrite – 9/24/2016
Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being – 9/27/2016

How to turn a list of sentences into a paragraph

I came across this passage in a Times story by the mother of a high school student who wrote letters to successful dyslexics asking for advice, and thought it would be fun to see if I could punch it up a bit using principles Katharine and I teach in Europe in the Modern World:

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair right after getting back his spring grades in ninth grade. They were disappointing. They didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. We were standing in his room at the time. I had pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I had said.

Jay Leno’s Advice for My Dyslexic Son

First thought: personal writing is harder than it looks.

This is a successful piece of writing; it was published in the Times, after all.

Even so, the rhythm needs work. There’s a choppy, start-stop quality to the sentences that makes them read more like a list than a paragraph.

Speaking of: paragraphs are a topic I’ve been contemplating for a while now.

What is a paragraph, exactly?

I’m not sure anyone knows–people don’t seem to study the paragraph per se–but one thing a paragraph is not is a list. To write a proper paragraph, you have to do something to make each sentence feel connected to the one before. You have to create “flow.”

Flow is hard, maybe especially hard in personal writing, where every sentence logically begins with “I” or “he” or “she” or “they” or “we.” Too much of that and you’ve got a list.

So I thought it would be fun to see if I could make the sentences in this paragraph flow.

It wasn’t easy.

I see it’s getting late – back tomorrow with the rest.

51gxLPmjumL._SX403_BO1,204,203,200_

AND SEE:
How to turn a list of sentences into a paragraph – 9/20/2016
Get me rewrite – 9/24/2016
Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being – 9/27/2016