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.

Shorter and simpler?

From Lowering the Bar:

Writing (or speaking) at a higher grade level is not a good thing, or at least not necessarily. What these particular numbers really measure (at least the Flesch-Kincaid test) is the complexity and length of sentences. It says nothing about how accurate or intelligent the sentences are, and all else being equal, the shorter and simpler something is then the more thought was probably put into it. (This is why people who use legalese because they think it makes them sound smarter are actually proving the opposite.)

Shorter and simpler almost always means better communication, if nothing else. As the foundation points out, the Constitution (a great document, but not the most readable) measures 17.8 on this scale, the Gettysburg Address measures 11.2, and the “I Have a Dream” speech is down at 9.4. President Obama’s recent State of the Union was delivered at an eighth-grade level (8.4), well below the average SOTU score of 10.7. FOX News illustrated this news with a picture of a kid in a dunce cap, possibly not knowing that simpler often means smarter or that 8.4 is almost exactly the same as the average American’s reading level. (link)

While I can see Kevin’s point here — especially the point about how bureaucratic or jargon-laden writing often indicates a lack of clear thinking, I want to ponder this claim: “Shorter and simpler almost always means better communication.”

On one hand, he’s absolutely correct.  Richard Lanham’s argument at the center of Revising Prose suggests exactly this: that you will communicate better if you’re writing shorter and simpler.  If you don’t ask your reader to maintain complicated sentence structures or use obtuse jargon, you have a better chance at communicating effectively.

On the other hand, he ignores the major tradeoff, which is complexity of ideas.  To write about a complex idea, one must either write in shared shorthand (jargon) or explain oneself at more length.  To simplify inevitably means to cut nuance, and thus to communicate less effectively.  I think the quip-heavy Twitter-friendly modern media suffer most severely from this problem.

To whit, consider this unsourced anecdote (I heard in a keynote at a conference from someone I believe was from the Center for Media and Democracy):

In a survey of Americans about the news, the Center for Media and Democracy (?) found that individuals who got most of their news from newspapers were the most accurate and knowledgeable about current events.  By contrast, television news imported the least accuracy and knowledge.  Strangely, individuals who got their news primarily from television felt the most confidence about their knowledge, while newspaper readers were less confident about how informed they were.

This goes to the old adage that the more you know, the more you know there is to learn.  I consider this relevant because television news simplifies its coverage in order to be clear and quick.

Thus, while I think Kevin’s assertion stems from a truth about writing, it needs to be amended to say that “Between equally informative pieces of writing, the shorter and simpler almost always communicates its message better.”  See, I made it longer and more complex in order to add necessary nuance.

Ethos, or Stay Classy

I recently sold a futon/bunk bed on Craigslist, pricing it relatively low so as to get rid of it quickly.  I had a number of nice inquiries, but I also had this one:

Date: Tue, 6 Dec 2011 14:10:45 -0600
Subject: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)
To: sale-grnau-2738549139@craigslist.org

** Avoid:  wiring money, cross-border deals, work-at-home
** Beware: cashier checks, money orders, escrow, shipping
** More Info:  http://www.craigslist.org/about/scams

U sell futon


This message was remailed to you via: sale-grnau-2738549139@craigslist.org

A bold, straightforward inquiry, to be sure.  This person may have been telling me what I’m doing, as in the imperative You sell futon!, but I suspect he was asking a question with an implied subject: Will you sell this futon to me?  So, being the polite futon salesman you’d expect, I replied as follows:

Date: Tue, 06 Dec 2011 15:09:19 -0600
From: Brendan Riley <briley@curragh-labs.org>
To: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: Re: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)


Sorry, it's spoken for.  I'll keep your email just in case the sale 
falls through, but there are several people ahead of you.


I was aiming to let him down gently, but reassure him that I would contact him if things turned around.  His reply expressed his disappointment tersely:

Date: Tue, 6 Dec 2011 15:10:48 -0600
Subject: Re: Futon couch/bed with twin bunk above - $50 (Forest Park, IL)
From: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
To: Brendan Riley <briley@curragh-labs.org>


What interested me about this email is the personal ethos this person reveals in his correspondence.  What does it say about him, if anything, that he sends one or three word emails?  Is he emailing from a mobile device?  Does he disdain archaic niceties of asynchronous communication?  Regardless, it shows poorly on him, I think.  Or perhaps I’m being too judgmental–why should it matter whether he sends several sentences asking about the bed, when three words with no punctuation got the message across just as well?

Either way, the choice to swear in his later response was the worst of three choices, rhetorically.  Consider his options, keeping in mind that he got a fully formed email letter from me, with punctuation and a signature.

  1. No response.  None was expected from my note, I thought.  It’s safe to assume I will contact him if the bed swings to him.
  2. Polite regret, along the line of “Thanks anyhow.”  This would be my choice, and likely to be an even more positive interaction, unlikely to be a negative, likely to be a positive.
  3. Profane regret.  At best this is a neutral, as the I might be comfortable with such language.  (Not true, a peer might appreciate the profane reply, but from my response, this man could not have guessed how I feel about such language).  There’s also a significant portion of the population with whom this would be a definite turn off, something that might insure even if his turn were to come up, I would pass him over in favor of someone who stuck to email conventions.

Such is the problem with Ethos — it works on many levels that the speaker may not have considered.  Our society certainly associates articulate communication with respectability, so the correspondent who writes politely will be more likely to persuade me to do business with them.  But as Charles Ponzi and his spiritual descendants remind us time and time again, the ability to speak eloquently does not automatically correspond to ethics in business transactions.

Are Blogs Dead?

My three minutes from the excellent roundtable discussion at Computers and Writing 2011 session e13 this morning.  Here you go:

I’ve seen the best ideas of my presentation offered by scholars smarter than I.  Consider this a coda or an echo to the conversations that have come before.

I’ve kept a blog since November of 2004.  At some point, it went silent for several months.  When I posted again, I asked “how long can a blog lie dormant before it’s declared dead?”  Clancy Ratliff replied immediately that “A blog will never die as long as the RSS feed stays alive.”

When I first heard of blogging, I thought of Carl Schmitt’s “Buribunker” essay from Friedrich Kittler’s chapter on Typewriters. Schmitt wrote:

the attitude of the Buribunk, which originates from the desire to record every second of one’s existence for history, to immortalize oneself… [the Buribunk] is nothing more than a diary-keeper, he lives for his diary, he lives in and through his diary, even when he enters in his diary that he no longer knows what to write in his diary…

At first  blogging was logorrhea: Live Journal and MySpace and Blogger were eminently updatable.  I’m Blogging This.  This narcissistic torrent of data spilling the uninterrupted, unedited minutae of our lives onto the world stage, is Dead. So Yes, blogging is dead. But the liforrhea has, obviously, transposed itself to Facebook and Twitter, where schoolchildren “friend” their teachers and then post about how boring class is and divorce lawyers use screenshots instead of honey pots.  So No, blogging is not dead.

Some bloggers tried reportage, but these scrappy conspiracists with tenacious typewriters garnered lots of scorn.  Then came Matt Drudge’s Fedora and Monica Lewinsky’s beret, Dan Rather’s fake documents and Trett Lott at Strom Thurmond’s birthday.  Newscasters who’d sneered at the “bloggers” began covering their stories, and journalists everywhere still hold their breath to see what will come next, how the growing army of citizen journalists will overrun the fourth estate, or whether the strategic capture of these wildcatters will succeed.

But consider Schmitt’s warning for the Buribunker:

The path of evolution silently passes over the silent ones; they are outside of all discourse and as a result can no longer draw attention to themselves… Since they don’t write anymore… they no longer stay current, they disappear from the monthly reports and become nonentities…

Both liforrhea and reportage must stay current, they have to keep going, going, going.

Those kinds of blogging are Dead.  They have either evolved into the sleek tweets or the big aggregators.  What’s left are the blogs that do all sorts the other things.  They create and commemorate.  They set trends or snark on them.  They use the long-form, searchable, permalinked platform to craft and publish diverse texts in ways only possible on blogs.  And whereas the temporal priority of the earlier forms has lost its shine, the small pockets of consistent permanence attest to the fact that Yes, blogging is alive, No, it’s too diverse to die. It has become Other.

On revealing exposition and inspiration, also an invitation.

So I’ve been trying my hand at some short-story writing this summer, and it’s not going too badly, if I do say so.  We’ll see how it goes when I start sending the stories out to accumulate some rejection letters.  But a couple thoughts:

Writer's Block by Thorinside
Writer's Block by Thorinside

On revealing exposition.  The stories I’ve been working on are SF stories with a healthy amount of back story in my mind.  The telling of the events relies on some revelation of the back story, obviously, but it’s not just a straightforward telling of the world events.  In fact, one of them explicitly relies on revealing bits of the back story to the protagonist at the same time the reader gets it.

So my problem is in figuring out how much to explain to the reader.  Is it important that they understand the whole back story as I laid it out?  I tend to write some ambiguity into the descriptions and events, but then would like that ambiguity to resolve itself without being too heavy-handed.  In other words, how do you make a clue work like a clue without saying “here’s the clue.”

On inspiration.  Of the four stories I have been working on this summer, two have direct inspiration from other texts.  In both cases, I rely on the title to draw the connections, but I’m wondering what I should do with readers who don’t recognize the references.  Do I alert them to the references?  More importantly, when I’m sending these stories out, do I alert the editors/slush readers to the references?

On readers.  If any of my regular blog readers would like to become early-draft readers and commenters, I’d happily add you to my list.  Be warned, though, that I’ll send you multiple drafts.  Be assuaged, also, that I completely understand if you’re busy and aren’t ever able to offer comments.  As long as you don’t distribute the story to other people, I’m happy to have the help.

Why Am I Writing This?

"Caught in the Fence" by thorinside
"Caught in the Fence" by thorinside

Andrew Kozma, poet and playwright extraordinare, recently wrote a post about getting food from a co-op.  Toward the end of the post, he writes:

Why is this important to me? [Yes, why? –ed.] Why am I writing about this? [I already asked. –ed.] Here I could ladle out a metaphor stringing cooking and writing together, how both, for me, are a matter of taking what you’ve got (random ideas vs. random ingredients) and experimenting with a predetermined given (literary form vs. recipe), but that would be really silly.

Instead, I’ll say this: [Will you please stop using colons? –ed.] What’s important to me about the co-op and our buying food from there is that it at least makes gestures towards sustainability.  Of a few people.  In this small area of the earth.  Granted, I’m not growing the food that I’m buying and preparing, but I am making do with what can be grown around me and helping to give life – through buying the food – to this community. (link)

I like the metaphor, and am happy to be in a similar place with my own gardening (post coming soon about that).  But I’m more interested here in the first question.  Blogging, of course, has no single purpose or meaning, but works like writing itself.  Historically, though, it demands the mix of the personal with the professional, the blending of writing forms and the stretching of institutional boundaries.  As a poet, Kozma can’t write about food buying or sustainability unless it’s in poetry form.  As a Composition scholar (or new media scholar? popular culture scholar? Geek? Dad? Gardener? Incompetent DIYer? Book reviewer? Cineaste?) I couldn’t write about all the things this blog elicits, but as a blogger, I can–and must–write about all these things.

And for me, the approach to this blog feeds back on my scholarly style, which tends toward database writing, the assemblage of interesting nodes and engineering of them into aesthetically pleasing arrangements.  Geoff Sirc’s Box Logic and Gregory Ulmer’s conduction continue to prod me, as does Jeff Rice’s ydog.net as rhetoric.  But blogging also eschews the need for explaining the elaborate metaphor.  Ulmer once suggested to me (and probably did so somewhere in one of his books) that electracy shifts the burden of conclusion making onto the reader.  In literacy, we start with the conclusion, line up the evidence in order, and convince the reader.  In electracy, we pull together the nodes, make some links between them, and gesture toward an idea, all the while hedging our bets by offering other readings, other options, other possibilities.

Perhaps the SAT question for electrate argument would look like this:

author : reader  ::  database architect : API programmer


Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation (A Polemic in Seven Fits), by David Denby, narrated by William Dufris

Denby’s “Polemic in Seven Fits” seeks to categorize and understand the modern tendency toward snarky writing and commentary.  Denby makes the argument that snark works in a similar mode as satire and irony, but where those two forms have purpose and craft, snark does not.  He suggests that it’s the cheap joke without the purpose behind it.

  • Denby levels significant criticism at the Internet’s anonymous commenter culture, which allows individuals to make long-lasting criticisms of people that do not fade with time.  He suggests our penchant for snarky commentary exacerbates this problem.
  • He tends to focus much more ire at writers on the right than on the left, making an argument by implication that when you don’t have anything substantive to say, snark takes its place.  He also argues that people like Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are not being snarky as they have a point and bring their wit to bear on crucial issues.  I feel like that line gets drawn too easily down partisan preference for this to be an open-and-shut case, but overall I think I agree.
  • The best part of the book is its historical survey, which stretches from the writings of Juvenal to user forums on JuicyCampus.com.  I love the treatise explaining why Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is not snark.  There’s also a whole chapter devoted to Maureen Dowd’s tendency to write snark for snark’s sake.  He makes an interesting point toward the end of that chapter, noting that Dowd claimed the country was “losing its sense of humor” right around the time it became clear that her snarky voice wouldn’t work in that specific moment of Washington politics.
  • I’m not sure William Dufris was the right person to read this book.  I enjoyed his work on Anathem, but in this book his particular voice (which sounds a bit more nasal than the average voice) came off as a little snide, like the character from Kids in the Hall who sounds sarcastic all the time.  His inflection works well, but the tone doesn’t, for me.

I enjoyed the book overall. If nothing else, the samplings of snark (and the bits of snark Denby wields himself) amuse.

It bugs me to no end…

That Simon and Garfunkel say

…I wish I was Homeward bound.

instead of

…I wish I were Homeward bound.

I know was has a better sound in the phrase, but it bugs me.

Damn you, marketing survey folks!

I can understand not minding poor punctuation, but forcing it? Come on.

Bad Punctuation

Always the rebel, I tried using the shift key and was blocked by a pop up that says “This feature has been disabled.”

Organic TV

A thought, not fleshed out.

Entertainment Weekly had an article this week explaining that product placement is up and going to keep going up in television shows.  The newest debacle is Jingles, the reality show in which contestants come up with ad campaigns for real products.  Why don’t they just televise ad agency spitball sessions.  (Aside: why do they call it “spitballing?”)

I’m not categorically opposed, or even uncategorically opposed, to product placement.  If ABC can get some scratch from Apple to feature iMacs in the CSI labs, fine by me.  I’m less happy with the idea of news agencies following suit, but in television I can understand that such revenue streams are part of the game.  But there are some people who have prejudices against such chicanery, which leads me to my idea: certified organic television.

COT would be television devoted to audience alone.  But I’m curious what the lines would be.  Would the rule be “no product placement” or “no advertising of any kind?”  The second would eliminate a lot of revenue streams for television shows, demanding new ones.  And would this really make better art?  How much of the product created by television creators is affected by advertising concerns?  Three thoughts come into play:

  1. Public television works this way already.  The viewers provide the bulk of the funding by which the media support itself.  The “public service” angle of the programming, however, limits the production of cutting edge entertainment to the import of British mysteries.
  2. HBO works this way.  The television shows made for premium cable are often cited as the most innovative and interesting, and these shows are able to be that way by the fact that they’re beholden only to their subscribers, not to advertisers.
  3. Internet television like Dr. Horrible and The Guild, which operates even more directly, the latter raising funds through donations in order to complete further episodes.

So my question is whether this really makes a difference.  Sure, shows that dive into the blatant realm of product placement often seem hackneyed and cheap, but don’t they also usually involve content that’s equally shallow?  The Apprentice would be just as shallow if its contestants were selling fake products.  (Aside: It’s interesting that writing classrooms often embrace similar strategies, valuing the service and/or experience of working on real-world projects instead of the revenue provided by such projects.  It’s classroom product placement!  Note to any corporate readers: I am willing to wear and/or endorse most products in the classroom for minimal fees.  I’m sure Marshall McLuhan would agree that with Sure deodorant, the medium’s message smells great!)

Also, enjoy this relevant clip from State and Main by David Mamet.



The next podcast from my Writing and Rhetoric 2 class. In this one, I explain my approach to editing at the college level. Influenced by the U.S. swim trials right now, I use elite swimming as a metaphor for learning to edit at the college level. It works pretty well, I think.

Podcast below the break.

Continue reading Editing

In the Restaurant!

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
by Bill Bryson

I seem to be on a Bryson binge lately, somehow finding myself reading two of his books at the same time.  We have three more on the shelf downstairs, but it will be a while before I read another.  This book was quite delightful: full of little details that you hope you will remember far into your future life.

Consider the words that Shakespeare alone gave us, barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pedant, and some 1,685 others. (76)

I thought this was a particularly funny turn of phrase:

…we don’t know where the dollar sign ($) comes from.  “The most plausible account,” according to Mario Pei, “is that it represents the first and last letters of the Spanish pesos, written one over the other.” It is an attractive theory but for the one obvious deficiency that the dollar sign doesn’t look anything like a p superimposed on an s.  (163)

Apparently the phrase/abbreviation/word O.K. is actually proto-l33t speak:

According to Allen Walker Read of Columbia University, who spent years tracking down the derivation of O.K., a fashion developed among the young wits of Boston and New York in 1838 of writing abbreviations based on intentional illiteracies.  They thought it highly comical to write O.W. for “oll wright,” O. K. for “oll korrect,” K. Y. for “know yuse,” and so on.  O.K. first appeared in print on March 23, 1839, in the Boston Morning Post.  Had that been it, the expression no doubt would have died an early death, but coincidentally in 1840 Martin Van Buren, known as Old Kinderhook from his hometown in upstate New York, was running for reelection as president, and an organization founded to help his campaign was given the name of the Democratic O.K. Club.  O.K. became a rallying cry throughout the campaign and with great haste established itself as a word throughout the country.  This may have been small comfort to Van Buren, who lost the election to William Henry Harrison, who had the no-less snappy slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” (165-166)

On place names:

However, what America does possess in abundance is a legacy of colorful names.  A mere sampling: Chocolate Bayou, Dime Box, Ding Dong, and Lick Skillet, Texas; … Dead Bastard Peak, Crazy Woman Creek, and the unsurpassable Maggie’s Nipples, Wyoming. (208)

On swearing:

Some cultures don’t swear at all.  The Japanese, Malayans, and most Polynesians and American Indians do not have native swear words.  The Finns, lacking the sort of words you need to describe your feelings when you stub your toe getting up to answer a wrong number at 2:00 A.M., rather oddly adopted the word ravintolassa.  It means “in the restaurant.” (214)

On the other hand, words that seem entirely harmless now were once capable of exciting considerable passion.  In sixteenth-century England, zooterkins was a pretty lively word.  In nineteenth-century England puppy and cad were highly risque. (217)

My favorite of the wordgames he mentions:

  • Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to new era? (palindrome, 229)
  • Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas (palindrome, 229)
  • The Morse Code = Here come dots (anagram and awesome potential t-shirt slogan, 230)

Overall, the book is quite enjoyable for those of us who enjoy words, in English.

How to email a professor

This isn’t strictly writing pedantry, but I think it’s good advice. Orange Crate Art advises the following ‘rules’ for writing to professors via email:

  • Write from your college or university e-mail account.

  • Include the course number in your subject line.

  • Think about what you’re saying:

    • Choose an appropriate greeting.

    • Avoid rote apologies for missing class.

    • Avoid Make direct requests.

    • Proofread what you’ve written.

    • Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.

  • Don’t send unexpected attachments.

  • When you get a reply, say thanks.

For me, the attachments one isn’t so key–I ask students to send me a lot of stuff by email, so that’s okay. I also don’t mind direct requests, but phrasing them politely is nice.

Found via Lifehacker

Not as many

Less does not mean “not as many.” Less means “not as much.” Fewer means “not as many.”

10_items_or_less.jpg fewer.jpg
Wrong Right

Do not write:
I didn’t have a stomachache because I ate less M&M’s than last Halloween.

Do write:
I didn’t have a stomachache because I ate fewer M&M’s than last Halloween. I still had a sugar high, though.

The “naked ‘this'”

Do not use this as a pronoun. Include the noun to which you are referring.

Do not write:
The answer to “life, the universe, and everything” is 42. This has puzzled scholars and fans of silly novels for years.

Do write:
The answer to “life, the universe, and everything” is 42. This mystery has puzzled scholars and fans of silly novels for years.

Using a “naked ‘this'” leaves the reader guessing at your meaning; don’t make them guess! (Thanks, Doug!)