Punctuation matters: establishing your ethos (or failing to)

Like many writing and rhetoric instructors, I focus a lot of energy on helping students wrestle with the concept of ethos, the image, reputation, and authority the author presents on her own behalf to the reader.  This concept becomes most important as we discuss two issues writers must face: proper grammar and citations.

With citations, we discuss the reason for using sources (to gain authority for the author by showing that the writing reflects ideas already established by others) and then explore the value of sources by disreputable or anonymous authors (very little). Sources without their own established authority do not provide any value to the author of the piece, and are thus far less useful than valuable sources.

What we have here is a failure to communicate
What we have here is a failure to communicate

With grammar, we discuss the effect we make on our readers.  I often use the analogy of wearing nice clothes to a job interview, even one for somewhere that doesn’t require nice clothes for its staff.  Wearing nice clothes shows a specific attitude, an approach to the interview that shows not just enthusiasm, but a knowledge of the practices of interviewing (and thus inclusion in the body of people who know how to act in a workplace).   Grammar plays a similar role.

All of this came to mind as I read this brief passage in a larger piece from PZ Myers about a recent creationist rant directed his way:

I must also mention that his habit of capitalizing the binomial name is a bit irritating. We teach a class in science writing here that hammers on a lot of the scientific conventions, and we literally tell our students that one of the first signs you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know basic biology is that they get the punctuation wrong. (“I’m a professional ‘biologist’ “)

My democratic impulse is to suggest that one’s knowledge of proper nomenclature in biology isn’t relevant to one’s argument about the facts of biology, in the same way that one’s knowledge of how to interview does not reflect on one’s work ethic or ability to learn how to use a cash register.  But both issues play to the same question — do you know the basic rules of the game? If not, many people are going to discount what you say because you obviously don’t belong.

As social animals, we divide into a multitude of sub-groups, and one’s ethos in each group gets shaped by one’s ability to speak the dialect (or act the part) of that group.  Of course, the limitations of those sub-groups often overlap inequities in our culture and hide harmful prejudices, so we mustn’t imagine that rhetorical biases justify discrimination.  But we must be aware that they influence ethos.

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