Monday, October 31, 2005

The Tale of The Half-Remembered Rules, or, What My High School Teacher Always Told Me

Gather round kids, and I'll tell you stories that will raise the hackles of the hairs on your neck. All of what I am about to relate is true and told to me by writers of papers past.

1. Never begin a sentence with the word "because." Never. Ever. Don't do it. Because.

2. Always put a comma before the word ",and." ,And don't you ever up ,and forget, pal. Because.

3. Thar be Dragons! Don't write too much. Not even if your prof suggests that you develop an idea by adding more information ,and details. Don't do it. Because.

Now, these rules are half remembered, right? That means that the high school teacher no doubt explained why she said what she did. Or that somewhere, perhaps in a musty volume of Warriner's Grammar, bricked up ,and sealed in an old, forgotten supply closet in a high school somewhere, are the rest of the rules. . . .


At 1:28 PM, Anonymous clc said...

That must be why you can't start a sentence with "and"--because there's always a comma in front of it!

And don't forget my favorite: Never use "I" in a paper.


At 9:39 AM, Blogger macncheese said...

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At 9:40 AM, Blogger macncheese said...

Oh, I love this game: I start every first-level comp class by asking them to tell me the rules they've been taught. I just violated one of them: no contractions. Some have even been taught that a paragraph consists of a specific number of sentences.

Oh, yes, and then there's my favorite: Never put your opinion in a paper. In this view of writing, there are only two types of information: fact and opinion, and opinion is baaaadddd. If a person comes to a well-reasoned conclusion using information (often in the form of research) that the person has collected, that well-reasoned conclusion is an opinion, which is baaaddd.

Of course, this idea of fact and opinion leads to the well-reasoned conclusion that research is not meant to help us put together new information; it is solely meant to regurgitate already existing, expert information. When this idea of information is well-ingrained, I find myself fighting it all semester.

At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Scott said...

Oh man. How much time do we all spend every semester trying to get these things out of their heads? All essays have five paragraphs! Thesis statement is the last sentence of the first paragraph, and is only ever one sentence! Always begin with a pithy quote, even if it's completely unrelated to your topic! Never ever ever use "I"! Facts, not opinions! Ugh.

I'm teaching an advanced college writing class this semester, and students are required to deliver conference papers. At the end of one of them, a student in the audience said "You know, it really seemed like you were trying to persuade instead of offering an interpretation of the poem, and I'm not sure you want to do that." My head nearly exploded.

How about this one: begin your first page about halfway down? Hit an extra carriage return after each paragraph? OK. Must stop before this become Things Not To Do Because Your English Professor Hates Them, part 2.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger middlebrow said...

I think the perception that English courses are about rules and grammar is sometimes encouraged by the popularity of books like "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves." Did anyone read Louise Menand's critical review of that book in The New Yorker?

Popular handbooks like Truss's will always appeal to people's anxiety about writing.

I begin my classes with a similar game, Macncheese. I get them to talk some of the rules they learned.

At 8:30 PM, Blogger macncheese said...

For the second semester, I've actually been having students analyze pieces of writing to see if they do, in fact, ever play by these rules. It opens up an interesting discussion about genre and disciplinary expectations, as well as why teachers teach such ideas in the first place.

At 8:25 PM, Blogger ana said...

"Never start a sentence with 'but'."

Of course, I am about to get all nasty and arbitrary myself. "The next person who turns in a paper with a compound sentence without proper punctuation is going to get an F!"

So I do sympathize with those high school teachers who were probably confronted with papers full of sentences that began with Because (and never turned into complete sentences) or And or But. There's only so much hair you can tear out before you start making absolute rules.

At 12:06 AM, Anonymous joanna said...

I know, Ana,about the hair-pulling issue, and the feeling one gets when one has just read the zillionth paper with the same error in it. When I'm rested, I do talk to the class about half-remembered rules and about whether or not their high school teachers meant what they heard. It can lead to a great discussion on listening, which is another skill that developmental students often lack. Welcome to the crowd, BTW.


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