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Humanities LibreTexts

4.1: Understand the level of "correctness" necessary for your writing situation

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    15681
  • The role of grammar and "correctness" in writing classes like this one is one of the most contentious issues for composition scholars and teachers today. One camp believes that students must be taught standard written english (or standard edited english) because that is the language of the professional world, and not having mastery of that language puts students at a disadvantage versus those students who do. The other camp believes that the supremacy of SWE is at best an arbitrary decision and at worst a kind of white supremacy designed to privilege students for whom that is their normal language. And between these two camps are countless more positions that adopt aspects of both camps. 

    A good introduction to the debate can be found in Bad Ideas about Writing, in the essay "There is One Correct Way of Writing and Speaking" by Anjali Pattanayak. Here is the introduction to her essay:

    People consistently lament that kids today can’t speak properly or that people coming to this country need to learn to write correctly. These lamentations are based on the notion that there is a single correct way of speaking and writing. Currently, the general sentiment is that people should just learn to speak and write proper English. This understanding of writing is rooted called current traditional rhetoric, which focuses on a prescriptive and formulaic way of teaching writing that assumes there is only one way to write (or speak) something for it to be correct. However, over the past several decades, scholars in writing studies have examined the ways in which writing has a close dialectical relationship with identity, style genre, and culture. In other words, the rules for writing shift with the people and the community involved as well as the purpose and type of writing.

    Most people implicitly understand that the way they communicate changes with different groups of people, from bosses to work colleagues to peers to relatives. They understand that conversations that may be appropriate over a private dinner may not be appropriate at the workplace. These conversational shifts might be subtle, but they are distinct. While most people accept and understand these nuances exist and will adapt to these unspoken rules— and while we have all committed a social faux pas when we didn’t understand these unspoken rules—we do not often afford this same benefit of the doubt to people who are new to our communities or who are learning our unspoken rules.

    While the idea of arguing whether there is one correct way of communicating or whether writing is culturally situated might seem to be a pedantic exercise, the reality is that espousing the ideology that there is one correct way to speak and write disenfranchises many populations who are already denigrated by society. The writing most valued in this binary is a type of writing that is situated in middle-class white culture. In adhering to so-called correct language, we are devaluing the non-standard dialects, cultures, and therefore identities of people and their communicative situations that do not fit a highly limited mold.

    Here's an example from a popular OER, one that this book draws on throughout:

    Many students assume—or fear—that college writing is judged primarily on its grammatical correctness. Ideas, evidence, and arguments matter more than the mechanics of grammar and punctuation; however, many of the rules of formal writing exist to promote clarity and precision which writers much achieve in order to effectively convey ideas, evidence, and arguments. In addition, texts that observe the rules of formal written English tend to be more persuasive by making the author appear well informed and careful. Writing replete with errors does not make a great impression, and most educators want to help students present themselves well. Correctness, then, isn’t the most important thing, but it does matter.

    This statement seems harmless enough as it attempts to occupy a middle ground, recognizing that the professional world has a standard, but calling into question the value of correctness for correctness' sake. However, this statement also equates "formal writing" with "clarity and precision" and "more persuasive"; it ignores the rhetorical effectiveness and grammatical rules of other writing traditions; and, worse, it grants permission to judge those who attempt to make rhetorically effective statements in other forms of english.  

    Recently, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), two of the largest organizations for writing teachers and scholars from K-12 and College, put out a joint statement titled "This Ain't Another Statement: This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice". The demands in this statement call for a radical revision of the teaching of and about writing and language to respect users of other forms of English. As one small step in that direction, the book you are reading now will not privilege SWE over other forms. But, as a white cis-male, I will not attempt to teach about other forms of English. What follows, then, are a set of suggestions for creating clarity by following a few basic conventions of SWE that can be merged with other modes of english to create what Patricia Bissel refers to a hybrid discourse and what Vershawn Ashanti Young calls code-meshing.

    The video below recognizes that students' authentic voices are hybrid voices that find ways to effectively combine academic and other discourses. 

    Video 2.1.12.1.1
    • Some content Adapted from Reading and Writing for College Success by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto

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