The Arbitrary Rules of Writing Forbid Bae and Abuse Commas

As a teacher, my ultimate goal is to help demystify the writing process. I have colleagues now who are intimidated by the idea of writing proposals or even budget requests. I think part of this anxiety stems from thinking of writing as some kind of mystical or mysterious force. Back in the day when more people were illiterate, having the ability to read and write was often seen as an almost supernatural kind of power. (Think of priests interpreting the Bible to their uneducated parishioners.)  

Today, though, we live in a kind of writing Renaissance. Really. People write more than they ever did before in any era and more people have the ability to write than ever before. Literacy isn’t just a commodity of the wealthy. It’s no longer seen as a privilege, but as a right. And because more people are writing more often, there are now vastly different kinds of writing.

Facebook statuses, Messenger, Yaks, Tweets, Snapchats, e-mails, text messages, websites, blogs. The list goes on.

Yet, the modes of discourse are more numerous still: Instagram, Vine, Slingshot, Skype, FaceTime, Google+, and so on.

It’s the distinction between these kinds of discourse that I like to highlight. Vine and Snapchat, in particular, are doing amazing things to language, almost creating nomenclatures. In this way, Vine and Snapchat mimic spoken language: constant use leads to constant flux. There are no rules for spoken language because spoken language cannot be controlled. And, more to the point, humans have a natural propensity for spoken language. We speak to each other even when we don’t share a common language.

Written language, on the other hand, is unnatural. Writing systems do not come about organically like spoken systems do. Writing is created, engineered. And because writing forms in this way, we find it necessary to create rules for it.

It’s the rules that drive me crazy. Because when you have rules, when you create a standard, you also create the ability to deviate. Words are spelled a certain way, which means they can be misspelled. Commas are only used in certain ways, which means they can now be misused.

It’s these rules that intimidate students. They view me like some kind of shaman, each critique produced by magic. In this way, academic writing, academic discourse, becomes inaccessible to them and, therefore, superior because of this inaccessibility, this manufactured exclusivity.

What’s vital to remember is that academic discourse is just another kind of communication, its “rightness” is determined by context. In an essay, I would never say, “My eyebrows are on fleek.” Technically, “fleek” is slang and not an “actual” word, whatever that might mean. However, if I was tweeting about something, fleek becomes appropriate and commas become superfluous. In the context of 140 characters, commas are often excised. And that’s fine. Very few people, I imagine, worry about grammatical correctness when tweeting or snapchatting.

The rules for written language are mostly arbitrary. Periods are used to separate complete and independent thoughts from one another, but everything else seems like it was just added in later. There’s no logical reason not to end a sentence with a preposition or not to start a sentence with a conjunction. English rationalizes why it’s “incorrect” to do those things, but as language makers, we can change these rules at any time. There’s not a very good reason for why those particular rules exist, especially since those rules are often broken in spoken language. My favorite rule is the double negative. And I like it because of how absurd it is. If I say something like, “He never was no good,” there isn’t a reasonable person who would conclude that he was good. But writing dictates that two negative words (in this case, “never” and “no”) cancel each other out and produce a positive meaning. This rule forces us to bend our own reasoning in order to comply with the rule.

Yet, for many students not knowing these rules causes anxiety about writing. I try to remind them that academic discourse is not innately superior or better than other kinds of discourse. It’s just different. The rules need to be learned but they’re not so different from tweet or Vine rules. After all, not being able to use “bae” correctly is just as embarrassing as misplacing a comma.

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