Information Sheet #141


September 16, 2003

A CHEMIST AND AN ETHNOMUSICOLOGIST ON CLARITY AND VOICE

[A primary objective for my spring sabbatical was to spend some time reading through the piles of books and articles in composition theory that had been relentlessly accumulating in my office  since the last sabbatical.  One particular goal was to locate Word Shop candidates written by authors outside of Rhetoric and English.  An essay that soon caught my attention was a memo/ manifesto, addressed to students, entitled“Making Choices About Voices,” by Charles Keil, an ethnomusicologist.  Keil has been active in projects which involve the arts in community-building performances (for more information on these ventures consult the web sites www.musekids.org and www.128path.org).  Keil yearns to bring people together in a “common” life through language, music, and dancing.  As described by John Trimbur, one of Keil’s students at SUNY-Buffalo in the 1960s, Keil sought in his work with writers to put “the student’s writing in crisis, not to correct it but to grasp its latent powers, yearnings, and affiliations. . . to imagine how students might enact, dramatistically, multiple codes, identities, and social allegiances.” As for the first article reproduced in this Word Shop, my thanks to Marty St. Clair for helping me keep abreast of recent editorial ruminations in Analytical Chemistry--alas, not a journal on my original sabbatical reading list. --Bob Marrs]

 
Clarity First: Language in Research Articles

by Royce Murray

 As a scientist, I rely on communication by "print journalism," rather than radio or television. The written or electronically transmitted word has an exacting capacity that conveys information and understanding. Visual images and spoken words--television and radio--are powerful at evoking learning and understanding on emotional levels and at stoking a desire for learning. But written communication is the superior way to instruct, interpret, analyze, criticize, and hypothesize about complex subjects, like science. Additionally, there is the reiteration effect: One can read and re-read to achieve a better accumulative understanding and exploit the subtleties of language to convey the uncertainties of scientific interpretations. TV "talking heads" never repeat their 15-second summaries of the state of the world in order to evoke anyone's understanding.

Our world--its politics, economics, and (even) sports--also has enormous complexity; I try to understand some of it through reading print journalism. This editorial was provoked by an editorial by S. S. Pickering in The New York Times, which stated that solving grammar problems depends "not so much on how many grammar rules I knew, but on determining the clearest, briefest way to get on to the next sentence, that is, on good syntax and common sense." Later, he said "grammar is important, clarity is more so." These remarks resonated with this Editor.

Analytical Chemistry (and most ACS journals) has seen a steady growth in manuscripts from authors in non-English-speaking countries. This is good--basic chemistry has no nationality. Most of our "off-shore" authors are admirably fluent in English and in the subtleties of language needed to express the full scope of the cutting-edge research reports that they submit to this journal. The most language-demanding expressions are of uncertainty, about their own work--both experiments and interpretation--and the previous literature. Some off-shore authors have, however, limited language abilities, which has been a continuing problem for reviewers and readers. Steps taken to cope with this problem have included admonitions by the Editor to have the paper edited by someone competent in English, summary editorial rejection of incomprehensible papers, and acceptance of a paper that was entrusted to the competent ACS copy editors to fix its awkward moments.

The New York Times article prompted me to articulate a long-standing Analvtical Chemistry attitude about language, which mirrors Pickering's comments, namely, "grammar is important, clarity is more so." Our editorial actions focus on clarity: what the author is saying about the existing state of knowledge (all of the relevant literature), the experiment described (what was it), the results (what were they, pre-interpretation), the interpretation (consistent with the results, or why not), and the broader implications (the impact).

Whether the paper's grammar is impeccable is not as important as clarity, which includes the aspects of uncertainty previously noted. Reviewer comments are consistent with this view; reviewers are generally critical when previous and obviously relevant literature citations are ignored in favor of the author's own work, details that make the experiment under- standable are omitted, inconsistent results and theoretical contradictions are ignored, and interpretations are excessively broad or inadequately supported by the results. I fully support these kinds of reviewer responses, which occur regardless of the authors' nationality and, as Editor, act accordingly in accepting or rejecting papers.

The English language is remarkably resilient to mishaps of grammar, while still conveying the information desired, even in the field of chemistry. Authors of Analytical Chemistry papers must nonetheless attain a level of clarity that conveys the desired information, as outlined in this editorial. We otherwise do not serve our readers well, or the science of analytical chemistry.

               [Originally published in Analytical Chemistry, 1 July 2003]

 

* * * * *

 

“Making Choices About Voices”

by Charles Keil

This memo could have a lot of different titles. I want to persuade one student in particular to take three steps: 1) write poetry regularly; 2) develop a prose style for and from her home culture, a prose style of solidarity; 3) develop a crisp, professional, all-purpose "King's English." But many students and human beings generally could use this "triple competence," a "both/and" approach to communication in writing, starting with: 1) "who I am" as a poet; 2) "who we are" socially; and 3) "who I could become" in the corporation-controlled, university-assisted, bureaucratically manipulated world as it has been recently and is today. With these three foundation competencies established a person can move confidently to fluency in more than one language, knowing some dialects of each language, having a variety of solidarity prose styles and poet's skills as strategies for situations. This is a good goal for many individuals and probably good for the world historical process too.

I'm looking at two "book reports" that have some poetry in them, but it is hidden, smothered; ideas behind the sentences are poetic, playful, hinting at participatory consciousness, but these impulses are screened from view. The book reports have some African-American dialect in them but it is scattered, NOT free-wheeling, flowing, in your face, NOT a celebration of another way of being and speaking both in the world and on the page. Rather, the writing comes across as long, unpunctuated sentences filled with annoying ‘grammar mistakes’ suspended somewhere between the ‘black world’ and the ‘white world.’ It is NOT poetry. It is NOT sassy black prose. It is NOT crisp, clear, easy to read ‘King's English.’  And this prof wants one of these three voices, or another compelling voice, to appear on the page representing a person I know to be very intelligent, very quick, very eager to make a difference in the world.

I call the third voice "King's English" because it has authority and centuries of text usage, dictionaries, thesaurus compilations, libraries full of books, behind it. To get a good job, rise up the ladder, be effective in today's world you need to have command of this language. Go to the composition course, go to the writing lab, read Ernest Hemingway, learn to write short sentences in topic-sentenced paragraphs, practice noun verb agreement, avoid the passive voice constructions, learn the rules of punctuation and any other rules that an efficient user of the King's English can tell you have been broken over and over again in your present ineffective prose style. Too often, what 1'm reading is the writer's imagined approximation of what the King's English might sound like! Get it right and make it real.

Poetry. Demystify it. Practice it a few times a day. Make metaphors in the moment. Find the poems inside the prose you have written. Bring it out. Try different line schemes. Speak into a tape recorder and transcribe it. Speak or scream or whisper it just the way you want it. Try to get the sound and feeling of it on to the page. The King's English is the King's. There are rules. Learn them and follow them. Poetry is yours. No rules. Whatever you say and put on the page is what it is. . . .

The intermediate prose, #2 above, is more of a puzzle, a negotiation, saying it the way the people closest to you would like to hear it. Maybe they would like to hear you able to jump back and forth from poetry to the King's English without missing a beat. Maybe they would like to hear or see you show mastery of the King's English in order to deliberately mess with it, subvert it, play with it. Maybe they would like to hear it straight from the heart, but elegant. It is not easy to give advice because for each person the negotiation is going to be different every day. Many people don't see the need for this language. No one can tell you how to do it. But I think it is very important to solve this puzzle, to find a new middle ground between your poetry and your official prose, to join a community that is not the King's and to communicate with that community in a way that is more reasonable than poetry, more passionate than the King's English can ever be, more committed to shared sociability and shared vision. Who are you "with" in this world? Who is your extended family? What does your circle of friends want to hear that bears witness to your friendship? There are times when you can answer these questions with a poem. There are times when statements in the King's English can and must represent this community of yours to the wider world. But there are also times, if a diversity of cultures and communities is to be sustained on this planet, when you need to write for each other in a language that is being invented from day to day in order to develop this sense of belonging to a community. I believe that developing and clarifying this solidarity prose, this language of the in-group, may be necessary to developing your voice as a poet, and may be necessary for improving the very specific precision and tone of your King's English as well. Conversely, if you grow as a poet and master the King's English, this prose of your people may emerge over a lifetime and become your most effective channel of communication.

                  [Originally published in Composition Studies, Spring 2002]

















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