Monday, October 17, 2011

What? Me fail English? That's unpossible!

In the spirit of Eladio's post, I'll start mine with a Simpsons reference as well.

Most of the grammar superstitions I was taught were covered in class yesterday. At least the ones I can remember. Instead of covering those I thought I'd write about some of the superstitions I hear from students in the WC. Last week one came in that was so baffling I'm still in awe of it. Perhaps someone can help shed some light on it.

This specific grammar superstition came from a student (or rather, the professor) in an upper-level history course. It has two parts, both of which are equally amazing. Here it is:
  1. Any sentence that has more than one comma is a list; and
  2. You should never use lists in an academic paper.
You read that right. According to this student, the professor instructed the class that they should never use lists. Thinking the professor must have meant bullet-points or a numbered list like the one I used above, I mentioned this to the student, but she assured me that the professor had told them quite clearly that they were not to use lists and any sentence with more than one comma was a list.

The first problem with this is the assertion that lists have no part in an academic paper. The ramifications of this ridiculous claim are evident. For example, instead of writing the following sentence,

"Many scholars claim the primary causes of the Civil War were economic and social differences between the North and South, state vs. federal rights, the election of Lincoln, and the slavery issue."

the student would be forced to break it into three different sentences. Like this:

"Many scholars claim a primary cause of the Civil War was the economic and social differences between the North and South. They also claim state vs. federal rights played a role. In addition to this, the election of Abraham Lincoln was part of the cause. The slavery issue is also part of the cause."

It's long, wordy, and worst of all, there is no "FLOW."

The second fallacy, obviously, is claiming any sentence with more than one comma is a list. The sentence I am writing, right now, has more than one comma, yet it is not a list. Same with the one I wrote before it. Also, I'm pretty sure that, sometimes, there are other cases where, if you really think about it, a sentence can have more than one comma and not be a list.

Am I missing something here? This is completely ridiculous, right? Is there some obscure writing convention in Turabian that forbids a history writer from using more than one comma in a sentence?

Here's another quick example from a student: Never use 'they' in a paper.

As explained to me by the student, the professor had instructed the class that they were never to use the pronoun 'they' in a paper. Like with the list example, I first probed around to see if they had possibly misunderstood the professor. I'm guessing the professor was telling her to avoid using the gender-neutral "they" in place of "he" or "she." As with the first student, however, she insisted this wasn't the case and that she had been told quite clearly the word "they" (and its possessive form, "their") was never to appear in her paper.

The student had therefore replaced every instance of the forbidden word with "he or she." So a sentence like this,

"The Vikings were a ruthless group. They pillaged and plundered wherever they went."

read like this:

"The Vikings were a ruthless group. He or she pillaged and plundered wherever they went."

Or, another instance,

"The English people flourished as an international power by developing their navy."

read as,

"The English people flourished as an international power by developing his or her navy."

This poor student had filled her entire paper with these kinds of sentences. There were at least 15 instances, each more ridiculous than the last. She was completely aware of how strange it sounded, but felt like she had no other choice. Her hands were tied. She couldn't use the word "they".

When these situations come up I take the professor's side, as students don't always pay attention and are liable to misinterpret what was said. It's possible the first professor was merely asking the class to avoid extensive lists or bullet points (even though the student insisted that wasn't the case) and that the second professor was simply showing a few cases where "they" wasn't appropriate and that student had also misinterpreted it. I'd hate to think there are professors out there forbidding the use of "they" or claiming that any sentence with more than one comma is a list and lists are bad.

On the other hand, where else are these superstitions coming from?


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