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2 Posts authored by: Barbara Wallraff Expert

Do you remember being 19? I do. The last thing I wanted to be was correct—or (in most circumstances) appropriate. I wanted to be … independent! Creative! Envied! I did want to write well, and I understood that doing so involved correct grammar and the use of appropriate language. I just didn’t like to think of it that way.

 

Lately I’ve been wondering what a better way to think of it might be. What are we really asking students to do when we tell them to write correctly and appropriately? We’re asking them to conform to standards of language and conventions of genre and discipline. Unfortunately, conformity is another thing that young people may not be interested in working hard to achieve. “Why are we supposed to do X?,” they’ll want to know.

 

These are much the same issues as come up when someone is learning a sport. The coach will say, “Hold the bat/club/racket like this,” and the learner will be more inclined to remember and follow through if the coach offers a reason, such as “It will give you a stronger swing.” Saying only “This is the correct way to do it” is not only less helpful but also less persuasive.

 

With sports, people learn many of the rules and the reasons for them by, over time, watching, asking questions, and playing. With writing, we learn by reading, asking questions, and writing. Some reasons are obvious; just seeing the rule broken shows what its purpose is. The reason not to write run-on sentences, for instance, becomes clear if you have to struggle through a few run-ons that someone else wrote. Or consider repeats. In my work as an editor, I mark phrases like “The supervisor is responsible for supervising …” or “Currently, the currents in the Atlantic Ocean …” and suggest changes. Authors do ask me why I’ve suggested certain changes, but none has ever asked me about these. Evidently they realize what’s wrong without asking.

 

Other reasons can be hard to figure out. For instance, why do we look down on the passive voice in most fields and genres but consider it standard when writing in scientific disciplines? If the active voice is stronger and more forceful in journalism or a memoir, why isn’t it more forceful when describing a scientific experiment? It’s because, in science, who performed the experiment is generally beside the point. A sentence like “Jamie Gonzales placed the mice into the maze” puts the focus on the wrong thing; “The mice were placed into the maze” is what readers need to know; who did the placing doesn’t really matter. Ideally, experiments will be replicable—anyone might follow the same procedure and achieve the same results. To that extent, the passive-voice convention makes sense.

 

Not even expert writers always know the reasons underlying some of the writing standards and conventions they observe. Often, to begin to understand a convention, we need to critically read examples of its being observed or not, and we need to consider how the convention evolved over time. It would be an interesting assignment to have students read passages in various genres, possibly all on the same subject—say, an abstract from a scientific journal, a newspaper article about the same study, and an editorial discussing its implications—and discuss the differences they perceive. How do the purpose and audience of each genre influence the conventions used within?

 

When the reason for a writing standard or convention is opaque, we may have to ask students to take it on trust that there is a reason. That trust will be easier for them to come by if we explain as many reasons as we can for other standards and conventions, rather than simply telling them what’s correct.

 

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff @mac.com.

 

Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word CourtYour Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of
In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.

Even able writers who try their best to “be clear” may fail miserably. A couple of months ago, I was reminded of how subtle clarity can be—and how greatly it can matter.

 

In March the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Maine, handed down a controversial decision—one I heard about the same way you probably did, in coverage by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, NPR, and other news outlets. The court reversed a lower court decision in a Maine labor law case to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, dairy-truck drivers, on the grounds that the absence of a comma in a state law made it ambiguous.

 

The law says that the usual regulations mandating extra pay for overtime do not apply to the following categories of work: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution” of perishable foods. Because no comma appears in that series after “shipment”—because the series lacks a serial, or Oxford, comma—about 75 drivers are entitled to four-plus years of back overtime, the court decreed. That overtime is worth millions.

 

As the Times explained the Court of Appeals’ reasoning, “The phrase could mean that ‘packing for shipment or distribution’ was exempted, but not distribution itself.” So, arguably, people who distribute perishable food do not belong to an exempt category, and they do therefore deserve overtime pay.

 

My first thought when I read this was, No, sorry—nothing against truck drivers, but the law does not say that. If what was exempt from overtime was packing for either of two purposes (shipping or distribution), the phrase should have ended, “… marketing, storing OR packing for shipment or distribution.” The missing “or” is the clincher, not the serial comma, which would unimportantly appear, or not, after “storing.” As written, the single “or” can’t, correctly, be part of the phrase “shipment or distribution” because it’s busy tying together the series as a whole. The two distinct work categories of packing and distribution are being declared exempt.

 

But then I stepped back from the grammar and thought, The higher court found the law ambiguous! If the justices couldn’t agree on what the law means, what more do we need to know? And I noticed that the sentence does contain a bit more evidence pointing toward ambiguity: canning, processing, … and packing are all -ing forms of verbs, specifically gerunds, whereas shipment and distribution are not. The form of these two nouns subtly encourages us to think of them as different from the gerunds in the series. Might they be a pair of objects of the preposition for?

 

Further, let’s acknowledge that not every law on the books is well written or even up to code grammatically. So never mind that the manual for drafting laws in Maine, according to the Times, advises against using serial commas. (The manual is said to give “trailers, semitrailers, and pole trailers” as a don’t-do-it example, and “trailers, semitrailers and pole trailers” as one to emulate.) It’s crazy that the meaning of this section of the law in question depends so heavily on one optional comma.

 

To me, this episode demonstrates why we should all routinely use serial commas. “The canning, processing, packing for shipment, or distribution” of perishable foods—that’s clear, no?

 

But it also contains a broader lesson about looking out for readers. I doubt that any of us can write anything worth reading if we’re constantly considering possible misreadings and ambiguities in sentences as we draft them. So we need to take that step after drafting and read our work over with sharp, skeptical eyes. I think of it as pretending I’ve never before seen what I just wrote. When I have time to put the work aside overnight, or at least while I go out for a walk, I do it. It makes the little trick of imagination I’m playing easier. Alternatively—or usually also—I ask someone to weigh in who really has never before seen what I wrote and who understands that I’m not just seeking praise.

 

While looking out for our readers, we must also give them credit as critical thinkers; we don’t need to tell them things over and over. Trying to see through their eyes what we’ve written doesn’t have to lead to dull repetition. Rather, the idea is to meet readers more than halfway.

 

Looking out for readers may not be worth millions to them—let alone to us—but still it’s worth a lot.

 

Do you have questions about language or grammar, or are there topics you would like me to address? If so, please email me at bwallraff @me.com.

 

Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word CourtYour Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of
In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.