Plan for Today
- Choices, Styles, Standards
- More on Rhetoric
- Word Usage
- On the Reading…
- Preview Review #1
If you don’t have the books by this week, make sure you have them before next Wednesday because you’re going to have to turn in HOMEWORK #1 on Canvas by Wednesday, 2/03, by 11:00 pm.
Choices, Styles, Standards
As your reading notes, grammar is often considered a boring, pedantic topic. No doubt, many of you have had language authorities, pseudo-authorities, and the generally uncritical prescribe grammar rules to you. Both our textbooks would caution us not to think in terms of right or wrong, correct or incorrect. However, there are standards and conventions that audiences expect, and not following conventions can hurt your ethos. Our concern will mainly be professional contexts, but we will consider a variety of contexts. Please rank the formality of the following writing modes (1–most informal to 5–most formal).
Ok…the above list is devoid of context, so how about the following:
- Presidential Correspondence
- E-mail to one’s boss…to a co-worker…to a client
- Grant Proposal
- Application Letter
- Wedding Invitation
Great! No ambiguity in the contexts above. Each of you, obviously, ranked the formality in the correct way…right?
This is a good time to mention to those of you who haven’t had a class with me that I’m a very sarcastic person. It’s much easier when face to face to hear I’m being sarcastic, so I’ll explain what I mean in this online environment. The above lists require more context in order to understand their level of formality. Also, if you know me, you know exactly what I think about wedding invitations…Any of the above can be formal, semi-formal, or informal depending on the context. For instance, a wedding invitation to the Biltmore is going to be rather grand; a wedding invitation to a Las Vegas chapel where an Elvis marries a couple will be less formal.
Let’s focus on e-mail. Although some of you use e-mail like it’s texting, e-mails run the gamut of formality. If I send an e-mail to the Dean, I’m not going to be sarcastic and will make sure I have a clear concise message. An e-mail to a colleague is a little trickier: Some colleagues I know very well and can joke with (they’ll easily read my sarcasm); whereas, other colleagues I don’t know as well won’t get my (always hilarious) jokes. I’ll refer to nearly all UNC Charlotte colleagues by their first name; however, if I’m sending an e-mail to someone I don’t know at another institution, I’ll most likely use “Dr. …” or “Prof. …” in the opening salutation and close with “Aaron.” In the response from the outside-UNCC colleague, they* will probably open using my first name and close with their first name. This is a typical practice for addressing academic colleagues. I didn’t read this is any “How to be a Professor” manual; it’s a practice I picked up from my 20 years in academia. We “pick up” language practices the same way–most of us have been immersed in a culture where English is the dominant language.
*”They” as a singular pronoun. Some people might consider this a pronoun-antecedent agreement mistake. Nope. It is perfectly appropriate to use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Language conventions change, and using “they” as a singular pronoun is long overdue for English. If someone tries to complain that you can’t have a pronoun be singular and plural, you (the entire class) need to explain to them that “you” is both singular and plural.
More on Rhetoric
Review our discussion on ethos, pathos, and logos from last week. Kolln & Gray define rhetoric as “the art of using language effectively” (p. 2). An older definition is below:
- Aristotle defines rhetoric as…
“Let rhetoric be [defined as] an ability, in each [particular] case, to see the available means of persuasion” (1.2.1).
- Aristotle explains ethos as…
“[There is persuasion] through character whenever the speech is spoken in such a way as to make the speaker worthy of credence; for we believe fair-minded people to a greater extent and more quickly [than we do others] on all subjects in general and completely so in cases where there is not exact knowledge but room for doubt.” (1.2.4)
Let’s consider these one at a time. Overall, “rhetoric” deals with understanding the way a message is conveyed: What gives a message it’s power? Aristotle (and Socrates and Plato before him) didn’t think rhetoric was appropriate, but he felt the need to catalog types of persuasion. Aristotle’s school of thought was contrary to the Sophists, who believed teaching people the art of persuasion was important. More on this in another class. As for “ethos,” a speaker conveys their credibility directly and indirectly. For instance, the University has a communications page that lists our various expertise, so people outside can easily find experts in certain fields. If you go to my profile, what do you see? Consider both the text attributes and picture.
- Title, Degree, Alma mater
- These are important markers in academia.
- Jacket and tie
- Those of you who know me know I find ties to be the most useless article of clothing ever invented. However, why did the University insist on “business attire” for our pictures?
Historically, rhetoric is often associated with oratory, but we study it in writing as well. Interestingly, Socrates and Plato didn’t like writing because they felt it would hurt one’s memory. If you wrote something down, you wouldn’t have to commit the information to memory; therefore, your memory would diminish; it would atrophy (p. 96).
Why the Negative Connotation Associated with Rhetoric
You’d think that with such a rich history, rhetoric would be introduced to students long before college. Well, it is but not necessary as a pillar of Western Civilization. The term comes up when politicians or their critics denounce an opponent’s speech as empty; therefore, “rhetoric” is often associated popularly with “empty speech,” non-contributing verbiage, or fluff.
But the study of rhetoric is much more complicated. Just as each discipline has its own epistemology, each discipline’s communication has a rhetoric. And rhetoric isn’t limited simply to disciplines: Movements, Social Norms, Technology, Science, Religion, etc. have a rhetoric (or, more accurately, rhetorics). I often define such analyses into “rhetorics of…” as common factors surrounding the power or belief in a particular area. In other words, beliefs, attitudes, values, and practices are rhetorics of prevailing social ideology: One’s acceptance of cultural “truth” is based largely on one’s immersion into the culture’s myths and beliefs. This includes language conventions. In linguistics classes, you will focus on syntax and grammar rules, and this class will overlap slightly with those courses. However, this course is mainly concerned with prose style, the choices you have when communicating. Sometimes, it ain’t bad to break conventions for a particular a/effect.
Language and Hegemony
Ok. I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t rhetoric just BS…empty political speech? While empty political speech is a definition of rhetoric, it’s too reductive a definition for enlightened college students such as yourselves. Rhetoric is much more involved than the unfortunate popular definition. For this class (and others) you should have a broader view of rhetoric. I like to define rhetoric as “what builds meaning into something.” That something can be an object, belief, event, or system, but, whatever it is, meaning is attached personally and culturally.
Take the following words for example: communism and feminism. Both have denotations and connotations. The denotative definitions (from the dictionary) are below.
- communism: an economic system based on total equality and ownership of the means of production.
- feminism: a philosophy recognizing and attempting to change women’s subordinate status in patriarchal society; a philosophy promoting the equality of all people.
Connotations are the feelings, allusions, and values a group (such as a culture) associates with certain words. Likewise, conscious and unconscious rhetoric describes what gives messages (even visual ones) their meaning. The above words elicit strong feelings–often angry ones–which are the connotations of these words. Consider the connotations people affix to those terms. How might one’s cultural context (class, gender, nationality, etc.) influence the connotations they have?
Barrett advises writers not to “use a thesaurus to find new words….because a thesaurus does not always indicate which words are appropriate for which contexts” (p. 18). Let’s consider a lesson that highlights this. What’s a common word we could use? Swing on over to Dictionary.com’s thesaurus entry for the word “common.” Are all those words appropriate substitutes? For instance, can you use “routine” and “universal” interchangeably?
The webpage has more appropriate words highlighted in dark orange and uses lighter shading to indicate lesser synonyms to the word. However, without scrutinizing the connotations of the choices, you could confuse (or offend) your audience. For instance, consider the following headings:
- Common Mistakes Made When Planning a Wedding
- Simple Mistakes Made When Planning a Wedding
- Universal Mistakes Made When Planning a Wedding
Although I can definitely point to “universal” wedding mistakes (please note this video uses profanity, so don’t watch it if the “f” word offends you), the word “universal” means 100%, always, everywhere, etc. It is an absolute term (like “never”) that is different than “common,” which we’d define as typical but not universal. Interchanging “common” and “universal” doesn’t seem to be appropriate. On the other hand, “simple” is closer in meaning, but there’s a catch: Whereas “common” means typical or regular, “simple” can mean “dull,” “stupid,” “pedestrian,” etc. The connotation of simple isn’t always pejorative, but it certainly can be. Consider your word choices carefully.
While we’re on the subject, the word “everyday” is listed as a synonym for “common.” If you click on “everyday,” you’ll get to a list of synonyms for it. The word “quotidian” is on that next list. Be aware of your audience’s reading level and choose your diction appropriately. Ironically, “quotidian,” isn’t an everyday word. (Yes, there’s a very nerdy joke in that sentence)
Review Fabulous First-Day-Of-Class Exam
If all went according to plan (as it always does…see sarcasm discussion above), you should have gotten the results to that practice quiz from last week. The “quiz” was merely a diagnostic tool for me to gauge the class’s familiarity with grammar rules. Please understand that your score on that is meaningless and has no predictive capability for how well (or not so well) you’ll do in this course. You probably write and speak (although speech is usually less formal) with excellent grammar but don’t know EVERY rule. Don’t worry. I can’t recall all the rules right off the top of my head. No one writes because they fetishize grammatically correct sentences. People write to convey messages. As an English professor, I do think it’s important to have some mastery and understanding of grammar rules, but it’s more important to recognize how your prose conveys your intended purpose for your intended audience.
Although editing requires some knowledge of grammar rules, naming parts of speech, knowing absolute rules, and thinking of grammar out of context isn’t the best pedagogical strategy to begin a class. I hope (hopefully) to reiterate throughout the semester that I’m more concerned with you understanding the choices available in writing than knowing all the specific rules, names, and variations out of context. You will probably need to read and re-read the books’ chapters. Also, please do the exercises. There isn’t a lot of reading in this course, but it will require active reading.
This Week’s Reading
You should go ahead and re-read the material for this week. It’s still introductory, but it’s important. I’m not going to repeat everything from the reading, but I do want to stress a few things from Kolln & Gray’s Ch. 1 “The Structure of Sentences.” One goal for this semester is for you to adopt a verb-driven prose style. As Kolln & Gray mention, you need to recognize the “subject-predicate relationship” of a sentence and understand “the concept of the verb as the central, pivotal position in the sentence” (p. 11). Always strive to use strong verbs to explain action. You won’t always be able to use action verbs, but try to limit using to be verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been, etc.) We’ll return to this many times this semester. Also, these categories (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, modifiers, etc.) are collectively known as “parts of speech,” and I’ll use that phrase to ask under what category a word falls. Write that phrase down.
At this point in your schooling, you need to know what nouns and verbs are:
- Nouns: person, place, thing, or idea/concept
- The first three are pretty easy. Think about “idea/concept” as a thing. Democracy is an idea, a noun.
- Verbs: action words or words describing states of being
- Don’t forget that verbs have modals and auxiliaries (aka. helping verbs). We’ll also discuss verbals and phrases the act like verbs (and nouns).
You should also know that adjectives modify nouns. Adverbs modify verbs. They often have -ly suffixes, which are called adverbs of manner (p. 12), but adverbs also denote time, frequency, and location. We also use conjunctive adverbs frequently but rarely consider them adverbs: therefore, however, nevertheless, etc. Consider this: You can probably define nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs of manner easily.
- quickly: moving at a rapid rate
- slowly: moving at a low rate of speed
- heroically: acting in a grand, often self-less, manner
Now, try to define these adverbs:
- however: …
- therefore: …
- whereas: …
Hmmm…those are much harder because they don’t have concrete (or, at least, pseudo-concrete) meanings like car, run, big, fast, etc. You’d have to define them with more context and discuss their usage rather than using synonyms.
While we’re at it, let’s consider prepositions. Please remember that a preposition is almost always a single word; a prepositional phrase is multiple words. Define these prepositions:
- to: …
- of: …
- from: …
- on: …
Yeah…I’ll pass on that. We take so much about language for granted. As people immersed in a language, we acclimate to “rules” based on usage. It’s only when we’re taught so-called “foreign” languages (or delve into linguistics) that we slow down and recognize rules. If you look up nouns and action verbs–let’s hold off on to have and to be verbs–you’ll find relatively short entries. Even adjectives will have brief entries, often synonyms. When you look up the simple preposition “to,” the entry will be much longer. It is very difficult to define prepositions, and they’re use is based on a variety of contexts. Native speakers of a language often have more trouble explaining prepositions because we rarely stop to think about them because we’ve internalized their usage rules as opposed to their meanings as we do nouns, verbs, and adjectives. If you want to improve your understanding of English, I HIGHLY recommend studying a different language. Andiamo!
Below I have two sentences for you to contemplate. Ch. 2 of Kolln & Gray should clear up the confusion, but, for now, just consider the word “on” in both sentences. Does “on” have the same part of speech in both sentences?
- My computer is on my office desk.
- My computer is on.
Enjoy! Remember, this is for you to contemplate. You probably won’t get the answer until you’re further along this semester.
In two weeks–Wednesday, Feb. 17–you’ll have Review #1 due. Please go to the Assignments page for more details. You’ll notice there is a word count range of 800-950 words. Before you claim, “but this is a 4000/5000-level class! How can I lower myself and only write 800-950 words?” One goal of professional/technical writing is to communicate a succinct message in the appropriate space. Brevity and concision are difficult to master because you need to make appropriate choices about what to include and what to exclude. Reviews are supposed to be short, providing context without giving too much away and without any summary, and the writer’s job is to recommend (or not) the item. Consider the following two reviews:
- David Fricke’s E Street Band review (from last week)
- Suzy Feay’s review of the Netflix series Away
- You can only access the above webpage once, so I recommend saving it using the Adobe Acrobat extension. I didn’t realize this until after I had already closed out and tried to re-access it. You should be able to re-access it on a different computer.
- Because UNC Charlotte has a Financial Times subscription, I also have the PDF of it up on Canvas.
Both reviews are similar in that they use a montage approach to listing attributes of their media. However, even though Feay is absolutely correct that Away is garbage, her review is sloppy, depending on a pastiche approach that throws references from the show together but doesn’t weave them into an appropriate review that provides a fuller interpretation. Fricke makes many references to other musicians’ works, but he doesn’t just list them; he uses references to weave together an impression. Consider these passages from both:
- Fricke: Ironically, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is not the Beatles’ Revolver song but a Springsteen original outfitted with fiddle, strings and pedal steel guitar à la Bob Dylan‘s Nashville Skyline.
- Feay: “Spacewalk is like war!” snarls Misha (Mark Ivanir, respectable). “I can do it”’ “You’re crazy!” “What the hell is she doing?” The Brit starts praying. “We’ve lost visual!”
Fricke’s word economy compares a song to two well-known albums; whereas, Feay lists out-of-context lines from a new, not-very-well-known TV show. Again, Feay’s review is correct that Away is a trite, poorly written show with a run-of-the mill plot that puts Hilary Swank, an Oscar-winning actress, into a Razzie-winning Lifetime Network role. This review would get a 70% grade and not because its 432 words are nearly half the required length. In order to truly understand the banal nature of the show based on this review, you’d have to watch the show. This review didn’t paint an appropriate picture, so I had to watch the show, and that’s an hour I’ll never get back.
By the way, trite, banal, and run-of-the-mill are all synonyms for “common.”
Keep up with the syllabus! You’ll have to do HOMEWORK #1 next week, and it’ll be based on Ch. 2 in Rhetorical Grammar and Ch. 4 & 5 in Perfect English Grammar, but it will mostly be based on Rhetorical Grammar.
Also, even though I’m not requiring you to have conferences with me, I highly suggest that you schedule two (virtual) conferences with me this semester–on before the Midterm and one after. Mondays and Wednesdays are the best days for me, but, considering I only leave my house to go to the grocery store or the Greenway, I have lots of availability (just not Tuesdays and Thursdays until 11:30 am or Tuesday evenings).
Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Feay, Suzy. “Hilary Swank Leads a Mission to Mars in Netflix Space Drama Away.” Financial Times, 28 Aug. 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/dd57c616-1478-445b-9f0a-b1861edd1fd4
Fricke, David. “The E Street Band Keep Rolling in ’09.” Rolling Stone, 1070, 22 Jan. 2009, p. 14.
Kolln, Martha J. and Gray, Loretta S. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects (8th Edition)
Barrett, Grant. Perfect English Grammar: The Indispensable Guide to Excellent Writing and Speaking
Plato. Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII. Trans. Walter Hamilton. London: Penguin, 1973.