The Erasure of Language by Susan MacDonald

David Mulroy’s 2003 The War Against Grammar has been cited extensively in a major composition journal. Oh well – it’s not like I don’t have a thousand other worthwhile things to do. It’s more important that someone did it.

That said, “The Erasure of Language,” a June 2007 article in CCC by MacDonald is very, very good, and not just because she cited Mulroy’s book on 605-606 and 610. Along with a few other articles I’ve seen in the last few years, it points to a needed revival in the study of style. (She cites many – Fulkerson, Haswell, Connors, Williams, although mine in CE and Butler’s recent “Style in the Diaspora” in RR comes to mind immediately – Butler claims style hasn’t completely disappeared, but has been pureed, rather, via a series of academic Cuisinarts.)

Now I’m not sure this revival means that we all must become part-time linguists, as much of her article hints, although I have greatly enjoyed the linguistics and grammar courses I’ve taken. I even enjoyed English in grade school (although my grades were lower than I typically remember) – in the mid 1980’s, when I was a lad, I remember extensive drilling in sentence combining and Reed-Kellogg diagramming, and I don’t resent it.

But I agree with her that the decline of style is very closely tied to composition’s morbid fear of grammar instruction, which is based on a half-ton of empirical studies, none of which are longitudinal enough to justify kicking the parts of speech out the door. For more on that, read Mulroy. He’s a classicist with a historical bone to pick, but he does know how to evaluate empirical research.

It’s hard to discuss style at all without extensive terminology, and almost all the terminology comes from grammar. If you don’t know what a clause is, introducing parallelism is much more difficult. Too many of my students come into my classes without this basic knowledge, and the discipline fears providing it, as it has little discernable short-term value – even though everyone damn well knows that learning to write well takes many years of study. We have to think long-term, knowing we are but a stepping-stone on a long path. That may be the key fallacy of FYC – that most students can improve their skills significantly in a year with only two fifteen-week courses that rarely offer enough one-on-one mentoring.

Her emphasis on the lack of “language” and “style” in CCC sessions was also interesting. I remember having difficulty finding sessions I wanted to watch when I went in 2006 for a very similiar reason, because I was also looking for such material, the ‘what’ of teaching composition rather than the ‘how,’ ‘why,’ or ‘who’. It was there, just scattered to and fro. I plan to go in ’08 whether or not my proposal is taken, as it’s physically close again, in New Orleans; I’m anxious to see what everyone is talking about. Maybe there will be a panel or two with this style-revival theme.

Skimming through Mulroy’s book again, there’s still an opening for me in the future to talk about what he calls “higher illiteracy” – the inability to paraphrase, in a reasonable fashion, even single sentences, which he demonstrates using the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence.

One thought on “The Erasure of Language by Susan MacDonald

  1. (Shouldn’t there be another C on that thing?) and Ooo! New Orleans! I wanna go too. We could take the train. It’s pretty cheap and it’s a train!

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