Politics & Policy

‘Getting the Words Right’

From the September 11, 2000, issue of NR

Once upon a seminar in the mid 1980s, a cadre of graduate teaching assistants gathered to hear a talk delivered by the author of a textbook designed for courses in freshman English. “This is an exciting time to teach writing,” she intoned, “because it’s not just about writing anymore.” She extended her arms from a billowing smock of clashing colors and balanced an invisible balloon upon her head. “Writing is about self-realization. You have the power to help your students discover their own uniqueness.” Mere writing, stringing words together with concision and clarity, suddenly seemed pedestrian. What those TA’s could not figure out, though, was how her textbook, damp with its New Age mist of self-discovery, could help to teach any­one how to write anything one might generously call English.

She didn’t ride the fringes. She spoke for the New Way. For over the previous 20 years the academic instruction of writing in America had been trans­formed from an apprenticeship in careful utterance—burdened with grammar and rules of usage and endless red-pencil­marked themes—to a smooth path to an easy grade. Everybody can do it. Just open the dikes of the repressed psyche and watch the creative tide flow to the broad, calm waters of mental and emo­tional health. Our New Age author was right: It isn’t just about writing anymore.

Would that it were. Writing well has been a thorny task at all times; the best practitioners of the craft have always borne witness that good writing doesn’t come naturally. It’s a sweaty, punishing business. And it is a job made no easier by larding on greasy desiderata for self-fulfillment and, a not-always-stated purpose, political awareness. How did anyone fob off the idea, sometime be­tween the Beatles’ first LP and disco, that writing one’s language simply and accurately isn’t enough for one course?

We can see the damage wrought upon us all by “empowerment” learning—namely, not so much that words fail us, but that we fail words, the mindful use of which once supplied a fairly reliable key to one’s intelligence and culture. Everywhere, even in formal situations where precise language has been customarily expected, we hear speakers fumbling for the tolerably approximate word. We were taught to express ourselves, after all, not to agonize over bourgeois notions of communication. Little do we realize that expression without communication not only fails to express accurately, it also sports a lack of consideration for the listener or reader, whose job is now to guess what is meant. Refusing to take pains with words is bad manners. If careless language isn’t exact­ly uncivilized, it’s certainly uncivilizing, for carelessness is contagious.

Our predicament may be even more dire than it appears. Historian Paul Johnson speculated recently that, despite the wizardry of computers and the Human Genome Project, the dollop of intelligence meted out to each one of us may be shrinking. It would be ironic if the Information Age ushered in a new disenfranchising ignorance.

Fortunately, teachers of writing needn’t bother themselves over such doom-spotting. In fact, they oughtn’t. We’ve had philosophers and psychologists aplenty holding forth in the writing academy. What we need now are folks who can teach the craft of prose, which is a much simpler matter than the theorists would have us believe. Learning to write well involves learning rules and usages; it entails heavy reading in models of clarity and grandeur; it requires practice. An interviewer once asked Hemingway what exactly he was doing during his long, sticky hours of revision. “Getting the words right,” he replied. That’s the word from a pro: Writing is about making sure both that you know what the words signify and that they work together to say what you mean. It’s about getting your words right.

Hard work makes superior writing achievable; tenacity counts for more than talent. The good news is that people exist who can do the teaching required to bring it about. The bad news is that they’re rarely to be found teaching writing courses in schools, colleges, and universities.


Aside from attacking the endemic causes of bad writing and expression in the vital years of childhood—loss of rich reading habits, abdication of schools from teaching the proper use of lan­guage, unwillingness of parents to cor­rect their children’s verbal gaffes, TV—there remain a few things we can do to improve the quality of our writing. We must begin the trek with stout doses of clear thinking.

Good writing can be taught only pre­scriptively: It begins with rights and wrongs. It feeds on precept. This is obvi­ous enough in the realm of grammar: Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t say “I has a dream” for a reason. Then there’s that vast sea called “usage,” fraught with principles and precedents galore, need­ing delicate navigation and a deft finger on the tiller. (May we split infinitives? May we end sentences with preposi­tions?) Communication should be the watchword. The object isn’t merely to get your thought out, but to get it out where it can be understood: in the minds of other people. Grammar and usage together, not self-expression, should be the lodestar for the writing course.

Here the wolves begin to howl. Language changes, the linguists bark. Do we apply Shakespeare’s rules and principles—or Regis Philbin’s? This misses the point. Those of us who use the English language for professional purposes—and therefore have a stake in its health—must reserve the right to assert that even while English evolves, it also devolves. It can be diminished by the loss of useful distinctions. Imply and infer, for example, differ in meaning, and ought to; to conflate them, as some authorities now sanction, is to degrade both. Usage does change, but only a trained mind can judge whether a change be good or not. If the habit of making such judgments isn’t fostered in the writing class, it may never form.

So we follow those rules and princi­ples exemplified by the best, because most brilliant and conscientious, users of the language. Period. We should not allow every trite, cliche-ridden excres­cence of talk-show hosts to guide edu­cated usage. The herd mind tramples us wherever we go; it needn’t invade the sanctuary of the classroom. We must regain the courage to discriminate be­tween the smart and the stupid, the clear and the clumsy, word or phrase.

Then comes that elusive thing called style, tricky to define, and perhaps im­possible to teach. Evelyn Waugh once identified the three elements of style as lucidity, elegance, and individuality. Lucidity, using words clearly and simply, marks the first step towards developing a style, and it’s enough for all literate pur­poses. Elegance comes only to the per­sistent. Individuality, though, is the topper; according to Waugh, that’s what makes your elegantly lucid language dif­ferent from the next guy’s—and in it grow the seeds of literary merit. Telling­ly, in our age of free expression, only the third counts. We want our students’ work to be “individual.” Correctness and clarity, though, must come first. Without the virtue of elegance, one’s writing may not be pleasing. But without that of lucidity, it won’t even be compre­hensible.


Once we’ve brought about this return to linguistic sanity, much else will fall into place; accurate maps do wonders for the lost. Here are a few compass bearings for the journey.

Start at the first square. Words and sentences must once again form the building blocks of instruction on the lower rungs of schooling. Students should be immersed in words. We should find them flipping through dictionaries and thesauruses with abandon. They should be made to read exhaustively, and be guided to books composed with a correct and crisp use of language— regardless of political, social, or ethnic content. (Heather Has Two Mommies may not provide the best possible arti­fact of clean prose.) Teachers must insist that children never use words they can’t define. Practice with grammar should be unrelenting. No drudgery, no learning.

College students must be instilled with a respect for the sentence as the basic logical unit of thought and expres­sion. Essay writing is architectural; sen­tence writing is horticultural. Stay with the fundamentals as long as needed. Don’t always look at the forest; in botany, it’s the trees and plants that matter. Institute tutorials. If courses in English composition must revert to a year of chalky grammatical and syntacti­cal drills, so be it. Writing courses should be as easy to flunk as trigonometry.

Relax the death grip of English depart­ments. English professors tend by nature to be engrossed in literature and ideas; many deem it beneath their dignity to ape the schoolmarm. What’s more, many not so much teach literature as play the pied piper for a sandal-shod, flannel-clad way of life, spurring students to explore their feelings and respond intelligently to the world around them: no small things perhaps, but leagues away from troubling over misplaced modifiers. Reading and brooding over Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek will not alone bestow the skill to write.

The teaching of many English profes­sors is encrusted with a miasmic jargon bespeaking a state of mind that, com­bined with a vague or strident nihilism, renders them singularly ill-suited to the task of teaching the right and graceful use of words. Some have even bought the tripe of charlatans that grammar cannot be taught, only absorbed. The sad fact is that most Ph.D.’s in English are no longer—how to put it gently?—masters of the English language, and are therefore unqualified as a group to instruct the young in its use. Relegate them to surveys, seminars, and arcane research.

All of which leaves us in a pretty place. If writing courses are no longer to rest in English departments, where will they reside? Who will do the teaching?

One modest proposal would be to hand over courses in English composi­tion to willing professors and instructors of foreign languages. Enrollments are down in the more difficult tongues like German and Russian, and financially strapped departments may soon find themselves extinct. This is a shame, for those who teach foreign languages are, as a rule, among the most acutely intel­ligent and patient to be found in any institution. They understand the quid­dities of verbal communication; gram­mar and usage already punch their tickets. They would have not only the endurance for grammatical instruction where needed, but also perhaps the flair for teaching stylish diction and syntax, at least as much flair as that possessed by anyone who has deconstructed Fin­negans Wake.

Finally, we must not create a new orthodoxy, which will only invite the meddlesome. Leave witch-hunting to self-important academics with little to do but skirmish over paltry inches of arid turf. Keep instruction flexible but grind­ingly serious. While learning to write well can be satisfying, it isn’t fun. Don’t tell anyone it is.

Writing courses need, in short, to be about writing again. If we are to rise out of our creeping sub-literacy, this ancient task must be entrusted to a corps of the able and committed. Einding these folks will be a chore, but we can follow a few signposts. Paper credentials need to be pitched. Go for ability, not certification. We should break our reliance on gradu­ate degrees altogether; a proper B.A. should suffice. The chief criterion must be that these men and women have liter­avj minds. They should relish the quest for the right word and the sturdy essay. They should read much and selectively. Most of all, they must be armed with a faith in the power of language to com­municate what the author intends—and resigned to the tedium required for help­ing others to flex their muscles to achieve precision and poise of utterance.

One more thing: This brigade should constitute the highest-paid band on campus. That will make it about writing again overnight. 

— Tracy Lee. Simmons is the author of Climbing Parnassus. This article originally appeared in the September 11, 2000 issue of National Review.


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