The Web Requires a New Kind of Reading

Reading on the internet is a new kind of reading. Some of the skills we use when we read printed material still apply, but we need to develop new skills as well. Because almost anyone can post images and text to the internet, we have new questions about who is an expert, who is knowledgeable, and who trustworthy. Because texts link to texts and then to other texts creating hypertexts, we no longer read in a predictable linear fashion. There is a sense in which the entire internet is just one big text. And while the internet is full of helpful volunteers willing to share valuable knowledge, it is also full of pretenders, deceivers, and charlatans with political or criminal agendas.

I used to read the Los Angeles Times every morning. The paper was delivered about 6:30 am and I had read or skimmed most of it by 8:00. News stories covered the basic who, what, when, where, why in the first three paragraphs. Details followed, sometimes spiraling down to the very specific, but it was often enough to read the first three paragraphs of stories that interested me. This was my habit for decades. I always knew where I had read something, even to the page. If I discussed it with someone, they had read the same article. We had the same facts.

Now I still read the L.A. Times, but also the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Sacramento Bee, and a vast selection of articles delivered through the Apple news app. I read everything on my iPad and I end up having little idea of where I read something. I know things, but I don’t know how I know them. I am exposed to a great deal of news and opinion, but it is an effort to sort it all out. Is this better? Well, yes and no. But one thing is clear: we need to develop a new skill set to sort through all of this information. We need to retrain our brains.

Traditional newspapers were never perfectly objective, but they made an attempt to be so, and they had procedures for fact-checking and policies in place to prevent the advertising department from influencing or even contacting the newsroom. Now they are struggling to survive, as readers and advertisers leave and shareholders demand more and more profits. They also have to compete with news aggregating sites that are often reporting on their reporting, without having to pay the expense of having reporters on the scene. In this kind of environment, how can we know what is true?

Four Moves

Mike Caulfield, in his very useful online book “Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers,” offers four moves for students who are trying to check the validity of information they find on the internet:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.
  • Read laterally: Read laterally. Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.
  • Circle back: If you get lost, hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

Caulfield also advises students to “check their emotions.” He says, “When you feel strong emotion–happiness, anger, pride, vindication–and that emotion pushes you to share a ‘fact’ with others, STOP. Above all, these are the claims that you must fact-check.”

Something Simpler and Deeper

Caulfield’s online book offers detailed procedures for implementing each one of these moves. It is certainly worth a look if you are assigning a full-blown research paper. However, it seems to me that we need something both simpler and deeper. Also, I think that Caulfield relies too much on finding out what other people think, instead of having the students think for themselves. We need a new way to read. Perhaps we could call it “skeptical reading” that leads to “informed reading.”

What Caulfield is getting at with “check your emotions” is what psychologists call “confirmation bias”: we enthusiastically accept information that confirms what we already believe and we resist information that runs counter to our own opinions. (This article. “Confirmation bias: 6 ways to recognise it and 5 ways to counter it,” and the included links offer a detailed account.) Google’s algorithms have confirmation bias built into them. Google wants to make us happy, so it shows us what we want to see. Different people doing the same search on their own computers will get different results. Trump supporters will see pro-Trump sources. Democrats will see liberal sources. It is all tailored to the individual. One solution is to search with DuckDuckGo instead of Google. But Facebook and other social media platforms have similar algorithms. Perhaps the question is “Do I want to be happy, or do I want to know the truth?”

Caulfield makes “check your emotions” a kind of unnumbered fifth step, a “habit of mind” rather than a move, but I think understanding and accounting for your own biases is a fundamental first step. The questions to ask are “Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?” This is related to the “believing game” and the “doubting game.” If you are inclined toward the believing game, try the doubting game first, and vice versa. We could associate this move with pathos.

Once we have thought about our own personal biases, we can start more objective moves. Caulfield’s second move is to “go upstream” to the original source. Because a lot of content on the internet is reporting on reporting, i.e. paraphrases, summaries, or commentary on other writer’s stories, a good move is to follow the links or do searches to find the original source. The questions here are “Where did this come from?” and “Who did the original reporting?” If there is no actual source, this is a big red flag. Caulfield recommends what he calls “reading laterally” at this point, by which he means doing searches to find out what other people think of this source and this writer. We could call this an “ethos investigation.”

At this point I am going to depart from Caulfield’s recommendations and make a more rhetorical move. The question to ask is “What is this writer or source trying to do?” This is a question about motives and purpose. Thinking about why a writer is saying what he or she is saying will likely reveal much about the writer’s agenda.

A Summary

To summarize, there are three moves in my simplification:

  • Check Personal Bias: Why do I like/dislike this? Is my bias influencing my judgment about this article?
  • Check Original Sources: Where did this come from? Who did the original reporting? What do other people think of this source and/or this writer?
  • Check Motives and Purposes: What is this writer or source trying to do?

I think these three moves are possible for students to remember and implement. These habits of mind will lead to informed reading.

Dissoi Logoi (Two Arguments)

Dissoi Logoi” is a document associated with the famous sophist Protagoras, though the writer is unknown. The sophists were often criticized for arguing both sides of the question and for making the worse appear the better and the better appear the worse. This document is part of the reason why. It argues that what is bad for one person is good for another, that what is socially acceptable in one part of the world is shameful in another, and that what is just and unjust depends on the situation and the perspective. This looks like moral relativism and it fits with Protagoras’s statement that “Man is the measure of all things.” However, Aristotle himself argues that rhetoric is morally neutral and should look at arguments from all sides.

The document itself is incomplete. It appears to be speaking notes or perhaps a practice exercise. It is somewhat incoherent, and at times reads like it was written by someone who is crazy, or having fun at our expense. However, the writer is right that any position we take on an issue will have good and bad consequences and will affect different people differently. Our arguments will be stronger and more persuasive if we consider multiple perspectives. “Dissoi Logoi” is good intellectual practice.

Students given an issue or problem to consider and write about will often start with the following questions in mind:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

With the practice of Dissoi Logoi in mind, we start in a different place:

  • What are the possible positions?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each one?
  • Who is helped and who is hurt by possible policies or solutions?

These questions can be used in group brainstorming sessions so that individual students don’t have to come up with all of the possible positions and consequences themselves. This usually leads to lively discussions. I have a worksheet that I update every time I use it so that the issues it raises are somewhat current. Here are the first two groups:

Group 1
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Drones (Remote-controlled pilotless aircraft)
  • Internet Tracking Cookies
  • Food Stamps

Group 2
Choose one of the topics below and work out all of the arguments on each side of the issue. If you run out of arguments on one, begin on another.

  • Free Community College
  • Statewide Educational Testing
  • Organic Food

I give each group three issues to choose from in case they have no knowledge or interest about one of them. However, you could take a single issue that the class is exploring and have the groups brainstorm all the possibilities. After they have done this, they are ready to consider the questions I started with:

  • What is my thesis?
  • How can I support it?

However, because they have explored beyond their own position and understand why people take opposing positions, their arguments are likely to be much more developed and persuasive.

Teaching History of Rhetoric

Book-HistoRhet-crop

I was first introduced to classical rhetoric in a seminar by Lawrence Greene at the University of Southern California. I have been teaching a similar seminar since the mid 1990’s, first at Cal State L.A. and then later at Cal Poly Pomona. This fall, I am about to teach it again. The seminar is called “History of Rhetoric,” but in my hands it is mostly about ancient Greek and Roman works.

My students are mostly high school language arts teachers and prospective composition teachers, so my approach is very practical. Classical rhetoric is not esoteric or arcane. The strategies are designed to help students become more effective speakers and writers. They are mostly simple, but powerful, rules of thumb.

The course will have five basic sections:

  1. Plato versus the Sophists
  2. Aristotle’s Response
  3. A Postmodern Turn
  4. Roman Rhetorical Insights
  5. Beyond Classical Rhetoric

Plato versus the Sophists

We start with two sophistic texts. First, “Dissoi Logoi” (two arguments), a text associated with Protagoras that demonstrates that any outcome has at least two sides. For example, it notes that death is bad for the deceased, but good for the undertaker. This sort of rhetorical practice is what caused sophists to be accused of “arguing both sides of the question” and so having no principles. However, this sort of thinking is excellent for students to engage in. We can ask of any policy decision, “Who does this benefit and who does it hurt?” It is a rare policy that benefits everyone equally. Thinking about all the possible consequences broadens both the discussion and the mind.

The second text is the “Encomium of Helen” by Gorgias. Gorgias is trying to demonstrate that he is such a good rhetorician that he can defend even Helen of Troy. He argues that Helen went to Troy because she was either fated to do so by fortune or the gods, abducted by force, persuaded by speech, or conquered by love. This is an example of the rhetorical strategy of division. Gorgias offers four causes for her behavior, none of them leaving Helen any agency, and then proceeds to show that whichever one it was, she was helpless before it, and so blameless. The trick here is to get the audience to accept the premise that there are only four possible causes.

The most doubtful argument here is that Helen was helpless before persuasive speech. Gorgias argues that speech is like a powerful lord or a drug. He further argues that because it is impossible to know everything about the past, present, and future, we are all forced to rely on opinion rather than truth to make decisions, and opinion is necessarily unreliable and subject to persuasion.

There are some big ideas about truth, epistemology, and the role of rhetoric in these two texts. These are the very ideas that Plato will attack in dialogues such as the Gorgias and the Phaedrus. In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that rhetoric persuades to belief rather than knowledge. Gorgias readily agrees, believing, as I noted above, that there is no other way it could be. In the Phaedrus, Socrates comes around to imagining that a form of rhetoric that was about leading the soul to truth using words might be acceptable.

Aristotle’s Response

The Rhetoric is essentially Aristotle’s response to Plato’s arguments in the Gorgias. He says that rhetoric is an art because some people are better speakers than others and we can study why. He famously defines rhetoric as “the art of finding the available means of persuasion.” And he finds a role for rhetoric that is not about deception. He says, “The duty of rhetoric is to deal with such matters as we deliberate upon without arts or systems to guide us, in the hearing of persons who cannot take in at a glance a complicated argument, or follow a long chain of reasoning” (Book 1, Part 2).

Aristotle’s three “appeals,” ethos, pathos, and logos, allow us to think about the complex interactions and relationships between the speaker, the audience, and the arguments in more clarity and depth than in Plato’s analysis. Plato is more interested in rhetoric’s deficiencies, while Aristotle is more interested in why we need rhetoric and how to use it.

The Postmodern Turn

At this point in the course, I usually take what I call a “postmodern turn.” We read “Plato’s Pharmacy” by Jaques Derrida, an essay that takes one word that appears twice in the Phaedrus, “pharmakon,” and attempts to read the entire dialogue through that lens. “Pharmakon,” depending on context, can mean either remedy or poison. Derrida argues that writing itself is a pharmakon, and that the Phaedrus is really about the dangers of literacy. Because we have already studied the Phaedrus in detail, students feel capable of responding to Derrida’s reading. At the end of this part of the course, they know the Phaedrus even better and they are also much more comfortable reading Derrida.

Then we move to Rereading the Sophists by Susan Jarratt. Jarratt argues that Plato and Aristotle conducted a smear campaign against the sophists, who were actually more democratic and egalitarian than they were. After all, Aristotle grew up in the court of Phillip of Macedon and was tutor to Alexander the Great. Most sophists were arguing that lineage didn’t matter, what you needed to be an effective leader was speaking ability, which they could teach you, for a price. (By the way, by that definition, all English teachers are sophists. Don’t we say that we can make our students more successful with our teaching, and don’t we get paid for it?)

This time I am also trying out John Mucklebauer’s The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. The purpose of this section of the course is to engage classical concepts from a point of view closer to our own time.

Roman Rhetorical Insights

Now we come to the Roman part of the course. I used to assign translations of Cicero and Quintilian, but this time I am relying on the summaries and outlines in James Murphy’s A Synoptic History of Classical Rhetoric, which also has apparatus to help with Aristotle. Probably the most classroom friendly concepts from the Romans are the six-part speech and stasis theory. (I have linked to posts about those concepts in the previous sentence.)

Beyond Classical Rhetoric

If we have time, we will get into Renaissance rhetoric briefly, mostly with Peter Ramus, a controversial figure who had an outsized influence on how classical rhetoric came down to us. And if we have a few moments more, we might get into George Campbell, whose Philosophy of Rhetoric, published in 1776, had a big influence on rhetoric as it developed in American schools. But classical rhetoric is the heart of this course. By the time they have finished, the students will be well-prepared for deploying concepts from classical rhetoric in their classrooms and for taking the next course, “Modern Rhetoric.”

Student Presentations

Update: I forgot to mention one feature of this course. Each student will choose from a list of journal articles and prepare 15-minute presentation. (Download the guidelines here.) Many of the articles for this course are included in this collection:

Connors, Robert J., Lisa S. Ede, and Andrea Lunsford. eds. Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. Print.

However, one of my colleagues pointed out to me that my reading list left out rhetorical traditions outside of Greek and Roman, and that comparisons with other rhetorical traditions would make for interesting research projects. For this reason, I have added the following articles:

Halldén, Philip. “What Is Arab Islamic Rhetoric? Rethinking the History of Muslim Oratory Art and Homiletics.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, 2005, pp. 19-38.

Liu, Yameng. “To Capture the Essence of Chinese Rhetoric: An Anatomy of a Paradigm in Comparative Rhetoric.” Rhetoric Review, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1996, pp. 318-335.

Mao, LuMing. “Introduction: Searching for the Way: Between the Whats and Wheres of Chinese Rhetoric.” College English, Vol. 72, No. 4, Special Topic: Studying Chinese Rhetoric in the Twenty-First Century, 2010, pp. 329-349.

These articles all make comparisons with the classical tradition and raise questions about how scholars working within that tradition have misunderstood other traditions. Each also includes more sources to  explore and paths for possible new research.

Designing a Reading/Writing Course

I wrote this for the composition TAs I am supervising, but the questions are relevant to anyone designing a reading/writing course. (Edit: I just realized that I have another post with a similar title that has additional information.)

Here are some questions to consider in designing your reading/writing course.  Thinking about these questions is good preparation for writing a syllabus and a schedule of assignments. 

Who are your students?

  • What are their needs?
  • Are they native speakers of English?
  • Are they ethnically and linguistically diverse?
  • Do they have books in the home? Do they like to read?
  • Are they new to the institution?
  • Do they have jobs?
  • What goals do they have?
  • (You may want to do a survey to answer some of these questions.)

What are your learning goals?

  • What will students be able to do at the end of the course that they were unable to do at the beginning?
  • What skills and abilities will they be able to improve? (You may need to consult program guidelines.)

What will the students read?

(Hint: It is usually a mistake to assign your favorite story/poem/article because your students are unlikely to love it the way you do and you will be disappointed. Also, articles that you find hilariously witty will probably be puzzling at best to a diverse student audience.)

  • How will these materials help develop your reading and writing goals?
  • How will they connect to the writing assignments?
  • How will you prepare students to do the reading?
  • What kinds of prewriting activities will help them understand why they are reading and what they are looking for?
  • How will they use the materials?
  • Will you have a theme that connects multiple readings?
  • Will the texts serve as models, discussion fodder, argumentative foils, sources of information to support arguments, or in some other way?
  • What policies will you deploy to encourage students to do the reading?

What rhetorical concepts and strategies will you teach?

  • Will you teach strategies from classical rhetoric, such as ethos, logos, and pathos, stasis theory, kairos, or the Roman six-part speech? 
  • Will you teach modern prewriting strategies such as brainstorming, clustering, scratch outlines, or freewriting?
  • Will you teach strategies from modern rhetoric such as the Kenneth Burke’s pentad? 
  • How will your students use these strategies in their work? (Hint: Don’t teach strategies that you don’t expect students to use multiple times in the course.)

What is the arc of the course?

  • How will the beginning be different from the middle or the end?
  • Will students have a sense of progress, that they are going somewhere?
  • Will strategies and concepts introduced early in the course be practiced and mastered later?
  • How will you sequence the reading and writing assignments?

What written genres will you teach and why?

  • What genres do students know that you can build on? (Hint: Texting and social media posts.)
  • What writing process will you encourage?
  • Will you respond to rough drafts? Will you have portfolios with multiple drafts?
  • How will you respond to the writing?
  • Will you have a rubric or other scoring system? Will you have a point system or percentages?

How will you deal with grammatical, mechanical, and idiomatic problems?

  • Will you have mini-lessons?
  • Will you do “minimal marking”?
  • Will you attempt “consciousness-raising” by focusing on a limited number of problems to facilitate language acquisition?

Will students do research?

  • How will they learn research techniques?
  • How will you address matters of quoting, paraphrasing, and documenting sources?

What policies will you enforce about attendance, tardiness, and late papers?

  • How will you deal with plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty
  • (Hint: Include a link to the institutions policies on such matters.)

What will you actually do in class?

  • (Hint: Having a reading for the day is not enough.)
  • Will you lecture? (Don’t do this too much, but sometimes it is the best way.)
  • Will you have a class discussion? (Have some questions ready.)
  • Will you have a quickwrite to get things started?
  • Will you have in-class writing? (Often a good idea at the beginning, middle, and end of a course.)
  • Will you have a quiz on the reading? (Sometime the threat of a quiz is enough. Another strategy is to ask, “What was your main takeaway from the reading?)
  • Note: The Expository Reading and Writing Program (ERWC) recommends that every reading/writing assignment go through the following process: Preparing to Read, Reading for Understanding, Questioning the Text, Responding to the Text, Writing about the Text, and Revising the Writing.

Finally, what sort of ethos do you want to project in your class?

  • Do you want to be the student’s best buddy? (Probably not.)
  • The authoritarian taskmaster? (Probably not.)
  • The approachable coach? (Possibly.)
  • Don’t be too self-deprecating. You were offered this course because you have certain accomplishments.
  • Also, resist the temptation to be a despot in the small fiefdom that is your course.

This post is also available as a Word document.

Teaching (in Grammar B)

Where’s my roll sheet?
sleep oh sleep
Most of them are here.
didyoudo the reading the writing the reading
Hector? Oh there you are.
werewe supposed to
Does this work?
idk idk
OK, let’s get started.
omg quiz
ARISTOTLE!
no quiz no quiz
LOGOS!
richard textingme
ARISTOTLE!
ohoh sisterphone
ETHOS!
howmany pages whendo
GROUP DISCUSSION!
didyoudo
didyoudo
idid
whatdid itsay
idk idk
googlephone
REPORT!
wesay this
wesay this
ASSIGNMENT!
howmany pages whendo
DISMISSED!
nextclass
didyoudo
howmany
pages

See previous post for info on Grammar B.

The Alternate Style

In late June I went to Santa Cruz for a graduation, Sacramento for a presentation at an ERWC leadership conference, and then to Monterey for the Young Rhetoricians Conference, a delightful small conference frequented mostly by Community College folk, but with a smattering of K-12 and university people as well. The hotel is right on the beach. These days, the high tide reaches almost up to the seawall. It’s lovely, but probably doomed by climate change.  The ocean will take it eventually.

One of the presentations I saw was “On and beyond Grammar B” by Randy Fallows and Tamar Christensen from UCLA. Grammar B is a concept introduced in a 1980 book by Winston Weathers, An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. “Grammar A” is what Weathers calls the traditional “grammar of style” that insists on “continuity, order, reasonable progression and sequence, consistency, unity, etc.” (6). Weathers argues that whether you write like Henry James, or write like Ernest Hemingway, you are still writing in Grammar A.

AlternateStyle

Grammar B is an alternate “grammar of style” that deploys variegation, synchronicity, discontinuity, ambiguity, and other disjunctive devices. Grammar B is not bad Grammar A. Weathers characterizes it as a different game, with its own rules, played with the same deck of cards. Grammar B is not new, nor was it invented by Winston Weathers. Writers as diverse in style and time as Laurence Sterne, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and D. H. Lawrence have played this game.

However, even as we have students read Grammar B authors such as the above, we persistently teach them Grammar A. Weathers argues that if we add Grammar B, we will give students “a much more flexible voice, a much greater communication capacity, a much greater opportunity to put into effective language all the things they have to say” (8). I might also add that there will be less disjunction between the literature they read and the writing they are asked to do. Also, Grammar B is more fun.

What exactly is Grammar B? First, it deploys some different genres and treats traditional genres in a looser, more playful way.

The “Crot”

According to Weathers, “crot” is a obsolete word meaning “bit” or “fragment” resurrected by Tom Wolfe in the introduction to a book of fiction from Esquire magazine. It is an autonomous bit of discourse, set off without transitions between previous or subsequent crots. (If you don’t like the sound of “crot,” in “Collage: Your Cheatin’ Art” Peter Elbow calls them “blips” (3).) A crot can be a single sentence or many.

One way of thinking about this is to use the ancient Greek term “parataxis.” “Parataxis” is to put elements side-by-side and let the reader intuit the connections between them. Humans are good at this, but different readers will imagine different connections. The opposite is “hypotaxis” in which transitions and connections are made clear. Logically, this is the sophists versus Aristotle, or Grammar B versus Grammar A. Note also that by putting “versus” between those terms, I am specifying a contrastive relationship.  For the most part, this blog post is written in hypotaxic Grammar A.

Really Long Sentences and Fragments

Two other stylistic devices favored by Grammar B are “the labyrinthine sentence” in which one grammatical sentence goes on forever, and the sentence fragment. Both of these are strongly discouraged by Grammar A teachers, often marked as “run-on” or “frag.” Yet both are common in literary texts.

This section of the book reminded me of Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin, a book I assign in my genre fiction course. One of the early activities is “write a half page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, that is all one sentence” (32). My students usually freak out because this is so contrary to what they have been taught. They freak out even more when she asks them to write 150-350 words of narration with no punctuation or breaks of any kind. Exercises such as this demonstrate how much students have been brainwashed by their instructors about “correctness.”

The List

Many students have read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. One whole chapter is simply a list of items carried by G.I.s in Vietnam during the war, clearly a Grammar B technique. Lists are powerful. The items form connections. They have contexts. They say things about the listmaker and his or her times and purposes. It is easy for students to make lists.

Double-Voice

This technique involves a conversation between two voices that may in fact not be hearing each other. There might be tension between what the writer is thinking and what he or she is writing. It might be objective description plus ironic commentary. The voices might be in separate columns or alternating sentences. This is not quite the heteroglossia that Bakhtin is talking about when he describes an author taking speech from a specific part of society and putting it into the mouth of a character, where it has the voice of the original speakers, the voice of the character, and the voice of the author, all speaking at once. However, Bakhtin would recognize the technique instantly.

Repetition and Refrains

Writing that repeats phrases almost like the refrain of a song is discouraged by English teachers, though in disciplines like Engineering, synonyms and circumlocutions are frowned upon and a strut remains a strut throughout the document no matter how many times it is repeated. Here in Grammar B, however, repetition is used for an aesthetic effect, to remind, to call upon sameness and difference, in the way that a refrain like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Memphis Blues Again” in a Bob Dylan song repeats the same words in every chorus, but evokes a different meaning every time it comes around.

There’s more of course. Language play. Puns. Fanciful spelling. Unconventional orthography and layout. Lots of fun stuff. (A bit of Grammar B here.)

In the Classroom

Fallows and Christensen Have incorporated activities based on Grammar B in their First Year Writing course and upper-division courses. A lower-division assignment says:

While more traditional academic essays compel you to justify your perspective and reach definitive conclusions in a seemingly objective manner, grammar b essays encourage you to explore your ambivalence in an openly subjective manner. That being said, grammar b shares the same goal as traditional academic essays in that it should bring about new perspectives and insights as you explore the nuances of your subject. Through the use of stylistic choices, you can explore any number of conflicting or coinciding thoughts by utilizing different genres, juxtaposing opposing perspectives, jumping around in time, and making the layout of your page reflect the layout of your thoughts.

To my eye, this assignment is dancing between Grammars A and B, probably to avoid freaking out the students (as my students did when asked to write without punctuation) and to appease the institutional authorities, who will perhaps tolerate alternative pedagogies as long as the students end up fluent in Grammar A. But there is a lot of leeway here for exploration and expression, much more than in a traditional essay. This looks really cool.  I think writing courses should teach both grammars.

Works Cited

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. New York: Mariner Books, 2015.

Weathers, Winston. An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. Rochelle Park, New Jersey: Hayden Book Co., 1980.

What Makes Punctuation So Confusing?

When I directed a University Writing Center we fielded a lot of questions about punctuation, and we saw a lot of punctuation problems in writing produced by students, staff, and faculty. Most writers, even professional writers, feel uncertain about proper punctuation on occasion. The main problem is that we have three contradictory systems of punctuation operating at once: a breath and pause system, a grammatical system, and a system of rhetorical effects. It’s normal to be confused.

Punctuation practice is rooted in oral language. Face-to-face speech is a multimodal, multichannel event that encodes a lot of redundant information. In addition to speaking words embedded in grammatical structures, we vary the intensity of our speech, we pause for effect, we modulate the intonation, making the voice rise and fall, and we use physical gestures, body language and facial expressions.

In a telephone conversation we are no longer in a face-to-face situation and we lose the visual channels. Generally, we compensate by attending more closely to words, intonation and syntax.

A Significant Disadvantage

However, in a speakerphone conference in which some of the participants are physically present to one another while another only has access to audio information, the latter party may feel that he or she is at a significant disadvantage. And when the two parties to a telephone conversation have different cultural backgrounds, or when one party doesn’t speak the language of the conversation well, we feel the need of information from the missing channels to confirm our interpretations.

When we write, we lose all visual and auditory channels, leaving only words and grammatical structures to carry the message. Rather than a broad array of redundant channels to rely on, when we write, we have only two. Or perhaps I should say two and a quarter, because we also have punctuation.

These days we might also include emojis, a more recent and very interesting development in the history of punctuation. 🙂

Bringing Back Intonation

The punctuation system is designed to bring back into writing some of the information encoded in pauses, gestures, and intonation. As a substitute for the living voice, it is a pale shadow only. Instead of shouting and shaking a fist, we have the exclamation point. Instead of a conspiratorial whisper we have . . . well, we don’t have anything, because there is no mark for whispering. In fact, there are many common devices of speech that have no equivalent in the punctuation system. What marks we do have commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, question marks and the rest—are generally seen to indicate pauses of varying lengths and are historically associated with the breath. However, they are also associated with the grammatical structures, and thus there are grammatical rules for their use.

Contradictory Conceptions

The two traditional conceptions of punctuation—to indicate pauses for breathing and to delineate the grammatical boundaries of the text—are to a certain extent contradictory, opposing the creative, living, breathing, individual voice with an analytical, logical, rule-driven structure. These conceptions co-exist in our society, making punctuation both difficult to teach and confusing to learn.

The earliest work on punctuation in English is the anonymous Treatise of Stops, Points, or Pauses, published in London in 1680. The theory of punctuation presented here is based entirely on breathing and rhetorical pauses. Clearly designed for classroom use, it contains the following verses for easy memorization:

A comma is a breathing stop: no more,
Stop at it while you may tell one, therefore.

Where semi-colon placed is; there you,
May please to make a stop, while you tell two.

A colon is a longer stop; therefore,
Stop at each colon, while you may tell four.

The author of the Treatise is also aware of the intonation patterns implied by certain punctuation marks, as is illustrated by the following couplet on the question mark:

When e’re a question you shall propound,
An interrogation’s made: but raise the sound.

Indeed, the Treatise is valued by linguists today more for what it says about the pronunciation and intonation of seventeenth century English than for the author’s insights into the use of punctuation marks (and certainly not for the author’s poetic ability!). Still, it is a good example of the relationship between breath and punctuation in the historical tradition.

Modern authors are likely to attempt a compromise between the two views. G.V. Carey, author of Mind the Stop: A Brief Guide to Punctuation, writes: “I should define punctuation as being governed two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste. I shall endeavor not to stress the former to the exclusion of the latter, but I will not knuckle under to those who apparently claim for themselves complete freedom to do what they please in the matter.” Carey’s position is probably an accurate statement of the case, but we might ask, “What kind of rule applies only two thirds of the time?”

The Harbrace Handbook

Even the Harbrace Handbook hedges its position on the comma: “The use of the comma depends primarily on the structure of the sentence and signals a small interruption. Inflexible rules governing the use of the comma are few, but there are several basic principles.” So far, so good.

The Harbrace then lists four principles, stating that commas: a) precede coordinating conjunctions when they link main clauses; b) follow introductory adverb clauses and, usually, introductory phrases; c) separate items in a series (including coordinate adjectives); and d) set off nonrestrictive and other parenthetical elements.

A Morass of Jargon

For the average handbook consulter, in the move from the general statement to the basic principles the Harbrace has leapt from cogent wisdom into a morass of grammatical jargon. The four principles are constructed almost entirely of complex grammatical terminology. One gets the feeling that those who understand this terminology probably already know how to use a comma.

For the reader with a little more understanding, the principles appear to contradict one another. For example, principle “a” says that commas precede coordinating conjunctions, while “b” puts a comma after a conjunction (which is not, in fact, “coordinating” in this instance). Similarly “c” contains a parenthetical element (set off with parentheses) while “d” says that commas will be used to set off parenthetical elements.

There is nothing incorrect here, just potential confusion. The Harbrace comma principles conform to the condition known in technical writing as C.O.I.K: Clear Only If Known.

The Handbooks are Wrong

In “Teaching Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool,” John Dawkins advises us to disregard handbook advice on punctuation anyway. He says, “Manuals of style and college handbooks have it all wrong when it comes to punctuation (good writers don’t punctuate that way).” He proposes that there is “a system underlying what good writers, in fact, do; it is a surprisingly simple system; it is a system that enables writers to achieve important—even subtle—rhetorical effects; it is, even, a system that teachers can teach far more easily than they can teach the poorly systematized rules in our handbooks and style manuals” (CCC December 1995 533). Let us hope that Dawkins’ system is simpler than the punctuation he uses in that last sentence!

A Simple System

Dawkins argues that “all discourse, written or spoken, consists of independent clauses or underlying independent clauses.” What Dawkins calls “underlying” independent clauses are clauses that would be sentences on their own were it not for a subordinating word, such as “although” or “because,” or missing elements that make it necessary for the clause to be attached to a main clause, which could stand by itself. Dawkins sees the various punctuation marks as encoding different degrees of separation between independent clauses, or between elements in independent clauses. This perspective is different from either the breath-related or the grammatical perspectives already discussed, in that it is based on the writer’s perception of the conceptual relationships.

Three Patterns and Three Possibilities

Dawkins argues that independent clauses either have extra words, phrases or clauses attached to them, or they don’t. If they do, there are three patterns: the attachment can come at the beginning, at the end, or in the middle. In each pattern, the question for the writer is “Do I punctuate, or don’t I?” If punctuation is used, it is chosen on the basis of the degree of separation or connection the writer wishes the ideas to have, or in other words, the “meaning and intended emphasis.”

There are also three possibilities. 1) If the attachment comes at the beginning, only zero, comma, dash, or colon are permissible. 2) If the attachment is at the end, all functional marks are permissible. 3) If the attachment comes in the middle, only paired marks (commas, dashes, zeros, and parentheses) are possible. In this case, with the added material in the middle, the choice boils down to “two marks or none.”

Raising and Lowering

Dawkins then introduces the concept of raising or lowering. By “raising” he means using a mark that is higher in the hierarchy than would normally be used. He includes a chart of the “degree of separation” each mark signifies (535):

PunctuationHierarchyChart

Here is a sentence with a single independent clause and material added at the end. The basic marks are zero or comma:

1) Gerald promised to write the paper when he had the time.
2) Gerald promised to write the paper, when he had the time.

Example 2 gains more emphasis for the attachment. The higher up in the hierarchy you go, the greater the separation, and the greater the emphasis for the added materials. Thus:

3) Gerald promised to write the paper—when he had the time.
4) Gerald promised to write the paper. When he had the time.

The likelihood of Gerald actually writing the paper diminishes, and the irony of the tone increases, as the punctuation marks get stronger. This is Dawkins’ main point—that good writers use punctuation not to indicate breathing points, not to satisfy grammatical rules, but to create rhetorical effects. Example four creates a sentence fragment, violating a basic handbook rule that is often violated by published writers. Dawkins’ system explains why this rule is so often broken.

It should be said, however, that novelists and short story writers are much more likely to punctuate in the manner Dawkins describes than writers of business correspondence or scientific reports. There is insufficient space to summarize Dawkins’ whole article here. However, perhaps it is enough to know that punctuation cannot be reduced to rules of breath, counting, or grammar, and that there are good reasons to be confused about it.

Note: This post is a revised and updated version of a newsletter article I wrote for the faculty at Cal State L.A. in the mid 1990’s, which you may find online in various places.  A copy of this revised version in .pdf format can be downloaded here.

What about the Five-Paragraph Essay?

I remember the first time I taught the five-paragraph essay. It was in 1979. I was a brand new composition instructor and I had been told what book to use and that I needed to teach this formula. It was strange to me because I had never encountered it in my own education and it had not been part of the “Writing in the Schools” course I had taken. However, I did as the program commanded me to do.

I remember two students from the course. One was a Chinese girl who wrote short gem-like pieces that were more like prose poems than essays. They were unconventionally beautiful. The second was an African-American clarinet player who wrote like he was taking a free-form solo in a jazz tune. He wrote pages and pages in a rapid scrawl on any assignment, but it was pretty much free association without any coherence. On the day that I introduced the five-paragraph essay, some instinct was telling me that the Chinese girl shouldn’t listen. I was right. Her attempts to write this sort of essay were short, formulaic and vacuous. Within a couple of weeks, she disappeared from the course.

The clarinet player came up to me and said, “I think I need six paragraphs.” I said, “Go for it.” His writing became coherent after he had a form to pour it into. He went from being an unintelligible writer to a pretty good one.

So, the first time I taught this format, it hurt one student, helped one student, and left the rest pretty much unchanged. It might have helped some others too, though their writing didn’t change significantly. But the one it helped the most realized right away that he had to modify it to suit his purposes.

Build on What They Know

Now the five-paragraph essay is ubiquitous. It is often all students know how to do. When they get to college, some composition teachers teach it, some accept it, and some hate it. What is clear, however, is that to be effective writers at a higher level in any discipline, they have to outgrow the five-paragraph essay.

However, most students have been so thoroughly drilled in producing five-paragraph essays that we can’t simply eliminate this persistent format. After all, it is possible to write a good five-paragraph essay and, of course, no one wants to be told that everything they know about something is wrong. What we have to do is build on what they know, help them write better essays, and help them grow out of the restrictions of the format.

Without the Romans

I have been suggesting that the Roman Six-Part Speech is a good alternative to the five-paragraph essay (also see the mini-module, “The Classical Pattern of Persuasion“). I think it is, but for the reasons outlined above, we can’t just perform a switcheroo. Here are three principles that I think will help students write better five-paragraph essays without getting the Romans involved:

  • Don’t obsess about the number of paragraphs.
  • Think about your audience.
  • Think about your purpose in writing.

If taken seriously, those three directives will go a long way toward producing better essays.

With the Romans

If we do get the Romans involved, they really do have some insights that will generally fit inside the five-paragraph format, although they put pressure on the five-paragraph limit. I have created a comparison chart:

5para-RomanSpeech-Compared-chartimage

Each section in the Roman pattern has a rhetorical purpose.  These are all purposes and functions that writers of five-paragraph essays should also consider.

I think it is key to move students away from the five-paragraph format step-by-step. The first step might be to include a paragraph of narrative about how the issue developed to the point that we have to do something about it. That is introductory material that might create a need for six paragraphs. Students might think about these questions:

  • What background information does the reader need to know to understand the issue I am writing about?
  • What is the story behind the issue?
  • How did things get this way?

The second step might be to introduce a need to refute counter-arguments. This could take the form of questions such as

  • What will people who disagree with me say?
  • What are the arguments against my position?
  • How can I respond to them?

Putting more emphasis on these concerns, which are not generally part of the five-paragraph essay format and which are likely to expand the essay into six or more paragraphs for reasons that are pretty clear to the writer, will put students on the path to growing beyond the rigid five-paragraph format without having to abandon what they already know.

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Exigence”

“Exigence” is a term that has recently become common in discussions of rhetoric and composition. It appears in the influential book Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing by Kathleen Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak as a term for transfer. ERWC has introduced it as a concept in the newest version of the curriculum (ERWC 3.0), and it is used in numerous articles about teaching reading and writing. In this long post I will outline the history of this concept and the conversation it has provoked over many decades.

Note: If you just want a handful of questions to help your students use this concept, perhaps without using the term itself, skip to the end of this post.

“The Rhetorical Situation”

“Exigence” was introduced into the conversation of the discipline of rhetoric and composition by Lloyd Bitzer in his article “The Rhetorical Situation” published in the inaugural issue of the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric in 1968. Bitzer defines the rhetorical situation as having three components: the exigence that initiates the need for discourse, the audience to be moved to decision and action, and the “constraints which influence the rhetor and can be brought to bear upon the audience” (6).

Bitzer defines “exigence” as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (6). This definition is not the ordinary one. Dictionaries note that the adjective “exigent” means “demanding” and comes from the Latin exigere, which means “to demand.” The noun form is generally “exigency” and is usually in the plural, such as “the exigencies of war,” which could be rendered as “the demands of war.” These usages go back to the 15th century. The word “exigence” is more common in French than in English. As in English, it tends to to refer to a demand, either from a person or from a situation.

Going back to Bitzer’s definition, we could note the value judgments and ask, “Imperfect or defective by whose standards?” and “Other than it should be by whose judgment?” For Bitzer, the urgent “imperfection” is a disturbance in the way the true world ought to be. If there is a “demand,” for Bitzer the scene is making it.

An example: Let’s say there is a big pothole in the street in front of your house. You are worried that it will cause an accident, or damage your car, so you write an email to the city maintenance department asking them to send a crew to fix it. In a nutshell, that is Bitzer’s rhetorical situation.

Bitzer’s purpose in writing the article is to make a distinction between “rhetorical discourse” and non-rhetorical discourse. He says, “An exigence which cannot be modified is not rhetorical; thus, whatever comes about of necessity and cannot be changed — death, winter, and some natural disasters, for instance — are exigences to be sure, but they are not rhetorical” (6-7).

Bitzer argues by this logic that scientific and poetic discourse are not rhetorical because “neither requires an audience in order to produce its end; the scientist can produce a discourse expressive or generative of knowledge without engaging another mind, and the poet’s creative purpose is accomplished when the work is composed” (8). He acknowledges that scientists and poets have audiences, but that these are not “rhetorical” audiences because they are not capable of “making the change that the discourse functions to produce” (8).

If this strikes you as odd, it is because it is common these days to argue that all discourse is rhetorical, making such a peculiar distinction moot. However, this article started a conversation, mostly in the same journal, that was more about defining “the rhetorical situation” than about making distinctions between “rhetorical” and non-rhetorical discourse. Bitzer’s article had clearly made an impression and elevated the concept of “exigence” to rhetorical prominence.

After Bitzer

Bitzer has had many critics. In “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation” Richard E. Vatz asks “What is the relationship between rhetoric and situations?” and responds

I take the converse position of each of Bitzer’s major statements regarding this relationship. For example: I would not say “rhetoric is situational,” but situations are rhetorical; not “. . . exigence strongly invites utterance,” but utterance strongly invites exigence; not “the situation controls the response . . .” but the rhetoric controls the situational response; not “. . . rhetorical discourse . . . does obtain its character-as-rhetorical from the situation which generates it,” but situations obtain their character from the rhetoric which surrounds them or creates them. (158-59)

From Vatz’s point of view, the “exigence” is not found in the situation, but is constructed by the the rhetor through the way he or she defines the situation.

It is no accident that this conversation is largely occurring in a journal called Philosophy and Rhetoric. Beyond Vatz’s question about the relationship between rhetoric and situations is a question about how language constitutes the world.

In fact, the way this conversation has unfolded over decades in that journal was not so much about scholars disagreeing about how to define “the rhetorical situation,” but more about scholars inhabiting different world views. Bitzer is a Platonist and a realist. There is a real world and it makes us do things. Vatz is a social constructivist whose world is mostly cultural and manipulable by rhetoric. Scott Consigny, in “Rhetoric and Its Situations,” takes the position of a scholar of classical rhetoric who focuses on practical matters, and argues that “The real question in rhetorical theory is not whether the situation or the rhetor is “dominant,” but the extent, in each case, to which the rhetor can discover and control indeterminate matter, using his art of topics to make sense of what would otherwise remain simply absurd” (185).

Postmodern and Posthuman Readings

In “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of ‘Différance'” Barbara Biesecker performs a postmodernist reading that sees the world as a text and the rhetor making a cut that constitutes a speaker-audience-world relation. Diane Davis,  in “Rhetoricity at the End of the World,” provides a summary of the conversation about the rhetorical situation up to that point and, building on Biesecker, expands that view to include non-human participants and even non-human languages, such as DNA, chemical reactions, and physical forces. In this perspective, we take into account not only the pothole and the city maintenance department, but also the nature of the asphalt, the rain, temperature fluctuations, and the passing vehicles that caused the pothole to appear.

Another example: let’s imagine that a pair of birds has decided to build a nest in the housing that protects the red light in a traffic signal (I have actually seen this). The go, slow, stop of the traffic light’s sign system is easily interpreted by almost all humans, but meaningless to birds. The birds have read other aspects of the situation to indicate a well-protected nesting site of the appropriate height and size. In fact, the location and design of the traffic light may have seemed to be an invitation to build.  However, their exigence, the demand of instinct to build a nest and the invitation to build one, is in conflict with the human exigence in installing the traffic light, the desire to control traffic flow in a safe and convenient way. As the traffic light continues in its mindless signifying, the nest may in fact block the view of the red light and cause an accident. The perspective Davis adopts would see all of this as connected and rhetorical, without privileging the human point of view.

What About the Classroom?

But you may be asking, “How is this useful for teaching reading and writing?” It is always perilous to move from philosophy to pedagogy. Let’s see what we can do.

As I see it, the concept of rhetorical exigence splits one question, “Why am I writing?” into two: “What moves me to write?” and “What am I trying to accomplish by writing?” These are productive questions for students because of all the time they have spent in academic settings where the “exigence” for writing comes from the assignment and the demand of the teacher. It is time for them to see that the real world often demands writing. For the same reason, it is time for them to understand that audiences other than teachers exist, audiences that have needs and characteristics that must often be researched, recognized, or intuited. Writing is an act that occurs in a context and has purposes and audiences.

Do we need the term “exigence” to teach this? It is probably handier for philosophers and theoretical rhetoricians than for students. Many of the people using the term as part of this rhetorical conversation have lost the connection to “demand” that is implicit in the Latin root and common usage in English. Bitzer himself sees the term as more important for rhetorical analysis than for the production of discourse, for he says

The exigence may or may not be perceived clearly by the rhetor or other persons in the situation; it may be strong or weak depending upon the clarity of their perception and the degree of their interest in it; it may be real or unreal depending on the facts of the case; it may be important or trivial; it may be such that discourse can completely remove it, or it may persist in spite of repeated modifications; it may be completely familiar — one of a type of exigences occurring frequently in our experience — or it may be totally new, unique. When it is perceived and when it is strong and important, then it constrains the thought and action of the perceiver who may respond rhetorically if he is an a position to do so. (7)

In other words, plenty of discourse happens in the real world without anyone perceiving or thinking about exigence. Would we write more effectively if we thought about it? Perhaps. If we want students to use concepts related to exigence without being confused by the term itself, we might have them ask

  • What aspect of the situation calls out for change?
  • Who could help bring about this change?
  • What factors in the situation (both in the world and in the audience) do I need to consider in making my case for change?
  • How can I persuade this audience to work toward this change?

I think that these questions will help students explore the concept of “exigence” no matter what world view or philosophical perspective we take up.

Works Cited

Biesecker, Barbara A. “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of ‘Différance.'” Philosophy and Rhetoric vol. 22, no. 2, 1989, pp. 110-130.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric, vol. 1, no. 1, 1968, pp. 1-14.

Consigny, Scott. “Rhetoric and Its Situations.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 7, no. 3, 1974, pp. 175-186.

Davis, Diane. “Rhetoricity at the End of the World.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol 50, no. 4, 2017.

Vatz, Richard. E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 6, no. 3, 1973, pp. 154-161.

Yancy, Kathleen, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing. Logan, UT: Utah State Univ. Press, 2014.

Business Letters and Formal Emails

Note: This post is based on a handout I use in my “Professional Writing” course. Download this post as a .pdf for classroom use here.

For hundreds of years, business communication depended on letters and memos. Today, these hard copy print genres have been substantially replaced in the business world by email. Although texting and other electronic platforms do play a role in internal communication between employees, email remains an important medium for business correspondence. However, emails that perform the same functions as old-fashioned letters and memos tend to mimic the characteristics of these older forms. The rhetorical principles do not change.

A formal business letter is a powerful tool. It shows the reader that you know how to get things done, that you can’t be pushed around, and that you are probably the kind of person who knows how to hire a lawyer if you need one. Sometimes you need a real letter. In addition, the rhetorical skills you learn in writing business letters translate easily into electronic genres.

The style and arrangement of a business letter are closely tied to audience and purpose. Before you begin to write, think about why you are writing and to whom. Who will read your letter? Are there multiple audiences? What are they likely to believe or value? What do you want your readers to do?

The following structure will work for nearly any situation. If you are writing an email you should omit the addresses and the signature, but you may want to type your name at the end.

letterchart-1

Your letter should be typed with no spelling or grammatical errors. You should try to be clear and concise. Initial letters about a problem should be polite in tone. Follow-up letters may be more blunt, but you should never insult your reader or make threats.

Going a Little Deeper

The simple format above will work in many situations. For an even more effective letter, in addition to your audience and purpose, consider the following:

What is my theme?—A theme is a general concept or focus for the letter. A theme is especially effective in persuasive and sales letters, although the theme of a complaint letter might be “bad customer service” or “deceptive advertising.” The theme of a sales letter might be “our products are fun to use,” or “reach your potential with our product.” The theme helps you decide what points to include and what you want to emphasize.

How direct should I be?—If the news is good or the message is one that the reader is likely to accept or approve of, the general rule is “Bottom Line Up Front” (sometimes abbreviated as “BLUF”). In such cases, you get right to the point first and provide supporting arguments and details later in the letter. However, if your reader is likely to be unhappy with the conclusion you will need to write a “convincer,” a letter that lays out the arguments and evidence for the conclusion before reaching the main point or recommendation. That way the reader can see why you reached your conclusions and won’t reject them right at the beginning.

What are my key points?—It may help to make a list of the key points you want to make in your letter. You may have more points that you can cover effectively. Your “theme” will help you select the most important ones.

What action do I want the reader to take?—This is very important and often neglected. Letter writers often assume that after the case has been presented, the required action is obvious, but there are often multiple possible responses. Some writers of complaint letters describe their unhappiness in excruciating detail, but leave the question of “What are you going to do about it?” unasked. In a complaint letter, do you want the reader to refund money? Replace the product? Change a policy? In other letters, do you want the reader to buy something? Call or email you? Offer you a job? Whatever the action is, be specific.

Summing Up

Remember these six basic questions for each letter, memo, or email:

  1. To whom am I writing?
  2. What is my purpose?
  3. What is my theme?
  4. How direct should I be? (Should my letter be up-front or a convincer?)
  5. What are my key points?
  6. What action do I want the reader to take? (Franco 51))

Writing Emails

Emails are easy to forward and distribute. They are also stored on servers, so they are not secure, and can be accessed by law enforcement and by hackers. That means that you never know where they might end up. There are a number of rules about emails, but the two most important ones are:

  • Never write anything in an email that you would be uncomfortable seeing on the front page of the local newspaper.
  • Think before you send.

Email is an evolving genre. It may, in fact include multiple genres serving different purposes and levels of formality. SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, published in 2007 by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, was one of the first comprehensive guides to writing email. The main title is an acronym for what they think email should be: Simple, Effective, Necessary, and Done. The last word, “Done” is there to make you think about what is getting done. Is the problem solved? Or did it just get passed on to another person?

Shipley and Schwalbe outline eight deadly sins of email, but most of their sins involve not thinking clearly about why you are writing and who your audience will be (13). Emails tend to be written quickly so sometimes they are vague, unintentionally insulting (or intentionally so), or too informal. It is usually a bad idea, perhaps even cowardly, to say things in emails that we would be uncomfortable saying directly face-to-face. If you write an email in anger, wait to calm down before you send it.

Shipley and Schwalbe note that

The subject line is the most important, most neglected line in your email. . . . Always use them. Make sure they say something informative. Make sure they don’t sound like spam. Make sure they reflect not only the first item in your message (‘your lunch order”) but it entire content (“your lunch order and your court date”). (80-81)

Although email is often more informal than a letter, Shipley and Schwalbe recommend being more formal unless you know it is ok to be less formal. A good rule might be, “When in doubt, be formal.” “Dear” is always an appropriate opening and everyone is either Mr. or Ms. unless they are already using first names with you. There are situations in which it is ok to go without a salutation entirely, such as when you are responding to many people.

The body of the email should state the topic in the first sentence. If you have a request or a recommendation, it should go there as well. Highlight the main points, using short paragraphs to make for easy reading. In business situations, it is usually best to keep an email to one topic. If you have another topic, write another email with a different subject line.

Closings: Phrases that are appropriate in letters, such as “Yours truly,” and “Sincerely,” will work in formal emails as well. Sometimes a simple “Thanks,” works well too.

Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation: You should take care not to make mistakes in emails to professors, officials, employers, customers, etc. In somewhat less formal emails, exclamation points (Hooray!!!) and emoticons 🙂 can be used to lighten the tone.
Be careful about the chain! One of the most common mistakes that new employees make is sending an email to a customer that has a chain of internal emails attached to it off screen. The recipient may scroll down and read messages that are inappropriate for that audience, causing embarrassment, loss of business, or even lawsuits.

Works Cited

Franco, Leonard and Paul M. Zall. Practical Writing in Business and Industry. North Scituate, Massachusetts: Duxbury Press, 1978.

Shipley, David and Will Schwalbe. SEND: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, New York: Knopf, 2007.

Download this post as a .pdf for classroom use here.