Friday, March 11, 2016

It Ain't Necessarily So: Rules, Audiences, and Arakin

My contribution to the most recent "Dialogue of Languages and Cultures" conference:

If you were an American high school student in 2002 and took the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) as part of your college entrance preparations, you would have been asked whether this sentence had an error:

Toni Morrison’s genius enables her to create novels that arise from and express the injustices African Americans have endured.

The intended correct answer was “no error” but controversy erupted when a high school journalism teacher publicly disagreed: the pronoun “her” cannot take a possessive phrase (“Tony Morrison’s”) as its antecedent, according to several manuals of usage. Ultimately the exam’s publisher, the Educational Testing Service, agreed to remove the question from its scoring process. [Denham/Lobeck 2012:231.]

If the venerable and authoritative Educational Testing Service cannot calibrate its tests correctly, what chance do our students have to navigate all the rules and exceptions of English usage? Here are three suggestions, based on my own classroom experience.

First, don’t teach “rules”; teach guidelines based on respect for the audience. There is almost no rule in English that great writers and orators have not broken, so we ought not to pretend that good English depends on rules. In the PSAT example above, Toni Morrison might not be the antecedent of “her” in a mechanical sense, but she certainly is in a notional sense. Pinker [2014:3714] resorts to no less an authority than the King James Bible for an example: “And Joseph’s master took him, and put him into the prison.” The key point is to avoid confusing the audience with more than one candidate antecedent: “Sophie’s mother thinks she’s fat.” (Again, Pinker 2014.) Who is fat, Sophie or her mother?

Among the many rules that are subject to being reinterpreted as common-sense guidelines, more or less negotiable in practice, are these:
  • distinguishing between “fewer” and “less”
  • distinguishing between “that” and “which”
  • avoiding splitting infinitives
  • avoiding beginning sentences with conjunctions or ending them with prepositions
  • knowing when to use “who” and “whom”
(Here readers can no doubt add many more examples!)

At the heart of this “guideline” approach is helping students develop a sense of their audience. In formal English speech and writing, correct use of “whom” is important because mistakes distract the audience and reduce the speaker’s credibility. In informal conversation, however, correct use might occasionally be distracting!

Suggestion number two: Let’s include these language controversies in our classroom materials, so that students get first-hand exposure to the issues and trade-offs involved. The Toni Morrison/PSAT story is a good case study. Steven Pinker’s recent The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century is an excellent introduction to these issues. [Pinker 2014.] Two Guardian articles based on this book (see Источники) can be used as short and convenient introductions for classroom discussion. Pinker’s work provides several advantages: For one thing, he strikes a sensible balance between blind faith in rules and completely abandoning them. He often shows how best usage is linked to cognitive psychology, reminding writers that the number of thoughts and paths our audience can hold in their minds at one time is limited, and why the most important freight in an effective sentence usually comes at the end. Don’t get in the way! Also, his writing is enjoyable -- a good model for the principles he advances.

Finally, let’s apply this audience-centered perspective to our existing curricular materials. In my paper for last year’s conference (“Three questions about cheating” [Maurer 2014:91]), I argued that even the relatively rigid format of ЕГЭ preparation lessons allowed critical examination of texts as well as student creativity in designing exercises and homework assignments.

The same applies to textbooks such as the Arakin series, Практический курс английского языка. In fact, with Arakin’s texts, the application of critical student involvement and awareness of audience is urgent. As a source of rules and patterns, Arakin suffers the same problem as any other typical textbook: in the words of one student, “We forget the rule three seconds after we close the book.” In general, students remember rules and patterns that they themselves discuss, compare, question, and practice. Last week, we had a long conversation with students on the differences between “ignore” and “neglect” [Аракин 2003:126.] Our interpretation of this difference was not the same as Arakin’s, but the priority is not deciding whose interpretation is superior; it is making the question memorable for the student.

Unfortunately, the Arakin textbooks are full of errors. (I just opened randomly to this one [page 118]: “He was dressed in the affection of wealth to which colored people lent themselves.” Disregarding the narrator’s questionable generalization for the moment, the word “affection” should be “affectation.”) But the most serious problem with the Arakin series (or, to put it positively, the most important opportunity to engage students in critical examination) is its separation from contemporary English-speaking audiences. The series claims to be “практический” but it is impossible to overemphasize how stilted, mannered, and class-bound some of the texts are. The vocabulary lists are good, but the texts, commentaries, and exercises give no hint of the inappropriateness of the language for the audiences that students are likely to meet. Some students already know that Arakin has defects, but it is up to instructors to redeem the material by inviting students to read it critically in light of real-world audiences.

Examples: By contemporary standards, R. Gordon’s description of female medical students [page 8] is offensive. This might not be surprising; after all, it’s a linguistic time capsule from three generations ago! However, there is no invitation to students to identify the offense and consider how to avoid it in their own communication. E.L. Doctorow’s excerpt [pages 118-122] and accompanying commentary and exercises seem completely tone-deaf to the condescending portrayals of black people (especially without the context of the original novel). The offensive term “coon songs” is given this strange, unenlightening definition: “White American Negro (Black) folksongs.”

All of these supposed defects could serve as take-off points for lively classroom discussions, encouraging students to identify problems in the text and propose or research solutions. We thereby strengthen our students’ ability to communicate clearly and confidently with their intended audiences, instead of fearfully navigating obstacle courses of linguistic and cultural rules … or forgetting those rules altogether three seconds after they close the book.


Аракин В.Д. и др. Практический курс английского языка. 4 курс. М:ВЛАДОС, 2003. 352 стр.
Denham, K. and Lobeck, A. Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2012. 576 стр.
Maurer, J. Three questions about cheating // Диалог языков и культур в современном мире / Материалы Четвертой Международной научно-практической конференции. Электросталь: Новый гуманитарный институт, 2014. с. 88-93.
Pinker, S. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. / Электронная версия. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. 368 стр.
Pinker, S. [Электронный ресурс] Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions // Guardian 6 октября 2014 / URL ссылка проверена 24 ноября 2015).
Pinker, S. [Электронный ресурс] 10 grammar rules it’s OK to break (sometimes) // Guardian 15 августа 2014 / URL ссылка проверена 24 ноября 2015.

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