Just Because You Can…

One day, in my first year of teaching high school, I made (as one does in their first year of teaching high school) a huge mistake.  I told my students they could use the first person singular in their papers.

“Really?” they said, going goggle-eyed and slack-jawed.  “We can?  We’ve always been told we can’t!”

I rolled my eyes – inwardly, if not in actuality – at all their past teachers who had taught them all these dumb fake rules that suffocated their voices and creativity.  “Sure you can,” I told them.  “Academic writers do it all the time.  So did all the world’s great essayists.  No first person is just a made-up rule for middle school.”  Thus did I send the delighted students on their merry ways to write essay drafts.

You veteran teachers already know what happened.  Having been given the go-ahead to play with this previously forbidden toy called “first person,” my students’ essay drafts turned into the personal narratives and diary entries from hell.  Every other sentence started with “I think,” “I believe,” “I feel,” or the absolute worst, “I personally believe.”  (When was the last time you impersonally believed something?)  After reading three or four of these drafts, exhibits of evidence for the crime I had unwittingly committed against my innocent students, I realized I needed to throw on the breaks fast.

A popular genre of writing-related screed on the Internet is the “your English teacher lied to you” screed.  Were you told not to start sentences with coordinating conjunctions?  Joke’s on you teacher; writers have always done this!  Did you have points docked for a split infinitive or ending on a preposition?  Clearly your fuddy-duddy teacher didn’t know that this is totally allowed too.  Did mean old Strunk and White tell you that subject and verb have to agree in number?  Well guess what, so great an author as Oscar Wilde didn’t write that way, so who says you have to?  The Internet would have you believe that just about every “rule” you learned about writing is wrong, and shame on all your teachers for sapping your joy for creative expression by enforcing all these crabby, pedantic “rules.”

To some extent – to some extent – I agree.  I think that, for example, docking points on essays for split infinitives is bad practice that demoralizes students and that teachers shouldn’t do it unless the assignment was about split infinitives.  Unnecessarily punitive grading practices dampen enthusiasm for writing just as they do for anything else.  Fortunately, that problem is easy to solve: rethink and refine your grading.  (Topic for future post!)

But here’s where I part ways with the laissez-faire no-gods-no-kings crowd: there’s also no “rule” that says you can’t run a marathon in bare feet.  Some of the world’s greatest distance runners have run marathons in bare feet.  People have been running in bare feet ever since people started running.  All that is true.  However, for most of us mortals, running a marathon in bare feet would be a really terrible idea, and wearing running shoes for our first marathon instead of going barefoot is definitely a better idea.

Be like the second runner. For now.

So it is with many of the writing “rules” your English teacher taught you.  It’s not that starting sentences with “however” and other connectives is forbidden.  Almost nothing in writing is forbidden.  It’s that when you’re a beginning writer, you can’t do it very well.  

(To be entirely fair, most of the screeds I have linked to acknowledge this, but that reality sometimes gets lost on readers who are still bitter about that C+ on an eighth grade term paper.)

Consider the following paragraph:

Jean arrived at the university certain that she wanted to major in economics.  However, once she began exploring the course catalogue, her certainty melted away.  In particular, she felt intrigued by many of the course descriptions in the psychology department.  Moreover, she was concerned that econ might require more math than she was prepared to stomach.  However, she signed up for the required intro econ course anyway, but she filled the rest of her schedule with psych and history seminars.

The above demonstrates what often happens when beginning writers get in the habit of starting sentences with connectives or transition words: the connectives take over every sentence, and the writing becomes flat and repetitive as the connectives turn into weeds.  The last sentence in particular is a mess, because it runs off a cliff after getting a push from the starting “however.”  I have had students start three successive sentences in an analytical paragraph with “however” without even realizing what they’ve done.

Here’s the same paragraph with the connectives removed:

Jean arrived at the university certain that she wanted to major in economics, but her certainty began to melt away once she began perusing the course catalogue.  Several psychology courses caught her interest; so did several history courses.  Both psych and history had the distinct advantage (as far as Jean was concerned) of not requiring nearly as much math as econ probably did.  She dutifully signed up for the required intro econ course, but her first semester schedule also included intro psych, abnormal psych, and just for fun, the history of baseball.

Still not the most inspiring thing you’ve ever read, but getting rid of the starting connectives has improved both our rhythm and our word choice variety by leaps and bounds.  Just because you are allowed to start sentences with connectives doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it.  Great writers are great writers because they recognize when starting sentences with connectives (or coordinating conjunctives, or “this”) is the right technique for the job.  You, my students, are probably not quite there in your writerly journeys.  Your teacher doesn’t have the entire semester to explain this to you, so he just told you not to do it.

The same is true for most of the other “rules” you probably learned.  Excessive first person makes everything about the writer when it’s supposed to be about the subject of the paper.  Excessive coordinating conjunctions at the beginning of sentences make writing sound choppy and immature.  Ending sentences with prepositions often results in clunky construction (though so does twisting yourself in knots to avoid ending sentences with prepositions).  You can do all these things, but you have to do them in moderation, and only when they’re called for.  As you grow into a more mature writer, we will slowly permit you to experiment with breaking the rules you were set before, just as parents may gradually push their child’s curfew later and later as she demonstrates responsibility.

That’s what I told my students once I realized we needed to regroup on the first-person matter: follow George Orwell’s very useful rule (which is not actually a rule) from his masterful essay “Politics and the English Language”: “break any [other] rules to avoid saying something outright barbarous.”  In other words, don’t contort the language beyond recognition to avoid using first person.  But before you throw it in, ask yourself if there’s a more elegant way you could make your point.  Getting in the habit of asking that question – have I stated this as clearly and elegantly as I can? – will serve you better than either lists of rules or indulgent free-for-alls.  You’ll be running that barefoot marathon in no time.

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