Sunday, October 21, 2012

Rule #1: You don't matter.

What kind of wacky grammar rules have I been taught?

My favorite aspect of the "wacky grammar rules" question is not the grammar rules themselves, but the insistence of those who teach them.  It's one thing to say, "Avoid contractions in formal writing," or, "Don't end a sentence with a preposition."  It's another to say, "NO CONTRACTIONS, EEEVVVEEEERRRR!!!!  That's a nice abbreviation, though."

So I suppose what I was taught was to see these grammar guidelines as grammar rules.  I've learned after some years writing academically and not-so-academically that this perspective is false.

One of my favorite "rules" is to never refer to yourself or the reader.  In a cold, bland science paper, I can understand why this would be the case (or in a warm, yummy science paper, for that matter!).  But one of the best things about writing for the philosophy department is that they love it when you mention yourself in your paper and take direct responsibility for your inductive positions.  Or maybe they're just tolerant of my "me first!" writing style. . .

Seriously, though, this is an important point for me: Writers new to academia are trained to remove themselves from their papers.  This is probably to help them avoid opinion-mongering, which, as Dr. Rogers has pointed out, is quite common in the students entering academia these days.  At some point, however, once we've drilled into them the need for evidence and sound argumentation, our writers need to be permitted to bring themselves back into their papers.  After all, sometimes interpretive work depends on arguments that hang on the inductive periphery.  As we say in so many philosophy papers, "For the purposes of this paper, I will take it as a given that. . ."  And we move on from there.  We give the reader a heads-up that we're making a few assumptions, and that they are free to call us out on them.  Using first-person (plural or singular) and the occasional second-person can help create directness in our papers and allows us to take responsibility for those little wandering thoughts that deserve attention as part of our work but that are nevertheless incomplete.


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