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.

A Podcast on Stasis Theory

As an experiment, I am putting up some audio of me talking about modules.  My first effort is a 15-minute talk about my mini-module, “Stasis Theory: Asking the Right Questions.”

In discussing stasis theory, I reference two other posts on this blog:

Stasis Theory: A Mini-Module

Modifying Stasis Theory for the Classroom

If I get good feedback on this, I will do more.

Update: One of my friends told me that the touch of reverb I had added to this was distracting, so I took it out.  Now it is just my voice, plan and simple.

The Declaration of Independence as an Argumentative Essay

The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (hereafter called the “Declaration”) is the hook that announces to the reader what the document will do. It argues that “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” responsible people will explain why. This is an interesting way to establish ethos at the very beginning, as the writers have been called “the ringleaders of the American revolt” and “a few ambitious, interested, and designing men,” and worse, by such figures as George Campbell, who also called their supporters “deluded fellow subjects.” If responsible people who have “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should explain their causes, and they are explaining their causes, they must be responsible people. It is only logical.

It is the second paragraph, however, that is most famous, and deservedly so. It introduces what Aristotle would call an “enthymeme” with five tightly linked assumed premises. However, while assumed premises are often tacit and hidden, in this case the assumptions are overtly and boldly admitted with the phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” simultaneously acknowledging that they are not going to try to prove these claims, but also challenging the reader to dispute them. These assumptions are

  • that all men are created equal
  • that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights
  • that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
  • that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
  • that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government

These are pretty grand assumptions. If we accept them, it follows that what they have to do is show that the British government is destroying the unalienable rights of the colonists to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And this is exactly what they try to do, in 29 paragraphs that read like the whereas clauses of a committee resolution. Though most of the disagreement is with the British parliament, the writers and signers of the Declaration choose to focus their anger on the king, George III. They document a multitude of grievances, including

  • refusing to pass necessary laws
  • dissolving legislative bodies that don’t agree with him, or causing them to meet in difficult, inaccessible places
  • preventing population increase by obstructing the naturalization of foreigners
  • appointing judges and other officers that work for him instead of the people
  • keeping a standing army in the colonies in peacetime and making the colonists provide food and lodging for soldiers
  • preventing the colonies from trading with whomever they want to
  • taxing the colonies without their consent
  • depriving the colonists of jury trials and sending them to England for trial on false charges
  • forcibly recruiting American sailors into the Royal Navy
  • and more

Blaming George III for all this is clearly a rhetorical move. The king becomes a convenient scapegoat for all this misery, whereas parliament is a more diverse and complex foe. Another reason is that the American revolution pits Enlightenment values against feudal monarchy. In Britain, the parliament provides aspects of democratic rule, but the system still includes the House of Lords and a monarch. The Enlightenment and feudal trappings coexist. The Americans, however, are declaring themselves no longer to be subjects of the king, as well as declaring that “all men are equal,” denying nobility as a concept. This is a big deal.

Having made these arguments, the Declaration concludes that the united colonies are absolved of any allegiance to the British crown and henceforth have all the rights and responsibilities of free and independent states.

Strictly speaking, the argument is perhaps proven, but the initial premises are not. Of course, Englishmen immediately asked how men who owned slaves could believe that all men were created equal. However, charging hypocrisy is not the same as arguing against the premise. One can also argue in favor of tradition and preserving the monarchy, but even at the time, that sounds like arguing against progress and history. Stating that the premises are “self-evident,” which initially looks like an argumentative weakness, turns out to be a rhetorical trap and a brilliant move. It is a very interesting document.

Update: Here is a much more detailed rhetorical analysis of the Declaration with lots of historical context:

The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence by Stephen E. Lucas

Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students

As a follow-up to her popular Stenhouse book, Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response (see review here), Jennifer Fletcher has published a new book, Teaching Literature Rhetorically: Transferable Literacy Skills for 21st Century Students. This new book is even more jam-packed with classroom-tested teaching strategies, graphic organizers, handouts, and big ideas. Literature teachers are guaranteed to find something immediately useful in this book. Like the previous volume, it is written in first person with lots of classroom anecdotes and a passion for teaching and learning.

Fletcher-TeachingLiteratureRhetorically

What exactly does it mean to “teach literature rhetorically”? Teachers who are used to teaching close reading, analyzing figurative language, and exploring themes and motifs may be initially puzzled. They may ask, “Does this mean I would be focusing on ethos, pathos, and logos and analyzing arguments?” Actually, both sets of techniques apply in combination. At its core, rhetoric is about how language affects audiences and this is true whether we are looking at aesthetic or persuasive effects. Jennifer puts it this way:

From literature, we learn about the transformative power of stories, the gifts of the imagination, the pleasures of reading, and the importance of craft. From rhetoric, we learn about critical reasoning, the structure of arguments, the tools of persuasion, and the significance of context. Combining the two gives students the best of both worlds. (xiii)

However, this new book does far more than combine the techniques of literary criticism with strategies for rhetorical analysis. The key claim of this book is that a rhetorical approach will “promote the kind of deep and transferable learning that prepares students to be adaptive thinkers and communicators who thrive across the diverse contexts of their lives.” And it does this without diminishing the aesthetic experience of literary texts.

As an example, lets look at what Jennifer does with the familiar “Say, Mean Matter” activity that originally came from Sheridan Blau’s book The Literature Workshop.

  • What does it say? (A quotation)
  • What does it mean? (A paraphrase or close reading)
  • Why does it matter? (A connection to a theme of the work)
  • What does it do? (Effect on the reader; rhetorical function or move)(35)

The addition of the “What does it do for the reader?” question connects the literary questions to questions about their rhetorical effect on the audience. It makes us think about who the readers are and why authors do what they do.

I should note here that in asking these questions, we are boldly engaging in two perspectives that the New Critics (1940’s through the early 1970’s) called fallacies: the “Intentional Fallacy” (focusing on what the author intended) and the “Affective Fallacy” (focusing on the emotional response of the reader). As a critical focus, New Critics were not interested in authors or readers, only texts, and some of their prejudices have been passed on to us in one form or another. However, as teachers, we want our students to learn how to do things with words, so of course we are interested in authors and readers, as well as texts.

Immediately after the “Say, Mean, Matter, Do” activity Jennifer introduces another of her own inventions, the “Descriptive Plot Outline.” This combines the “descriptive outlining” that is common in ERWC (and was originally developed by Ken Bruffee) with the standard plot outline in order to create something new and very useful. Students draw the line for the plot chart with its depiction of rising and falling action. Then on the outside they describe the events of the plot and on the inside they describe the impact that each event has on the reader, the character, or the theme. This very effectively combines literary and rhetorical approaches, while also enhancing the student’s understanding of the work.

Chapters in the book deal with integrating skills and knowledge, close and critical reading, analyzing the rhetorical situation, analyzing genres, negotiating voices and meaning, developing and supporting a line of reasoning, communicating with yourself and others, and reading and writing with passion. The appendices contain more than 20 pages of graphic organizers, handouts, charts, sample texts, and other useful materials designed to implement the activities in the book.

Jennifer says that the final chapter, “Reading and Writing with Passion,” is about “changing the measure for postsecondary success from academic proficiency to intellectual passion, from workforce preparation to liberal learning, and from diploma or degree completion to a life well lived” (220). In that sense, she is going against the grain of our time. But I think she is selling herself short here. The approaches delivered in this book may change the focus, but I think they will accomplish all of those goals, both the practical and the ideal, with passion.

An Update to the “Three Ways to Persuade” Mini-Module

The feedback from teachers on my original “Three Ways to Persuade” mini-module was substantially negative.  Most teachers liked the article and the first half of the module.  However, the writing assignment dealt with issues of knowledge versus belief and whether rhetoric was good or bad.  It also asked the students to paraphrase quotations from Aristotle.  All of this turned out to be too challenging, as well as diverting students away from learning about ethos, logos, and pathos.  A few teachers found that their students were capable of dealing with all of these challenging questions and activities, but most complained.  I thought that these complaints were quite well taken.

I ended up moving most of that material to a new mini-module: “Knowledge, Belief and the Role of Rhetoric.”

That worked, but now I had to come up with a new writing assignment for the original module.  I decided to have the class create an annotated list of rhetorically interesting websites that might be used to help outsiders understand what “rhetoric” is and how ethos, logos and pathos work together to persuade.  Each student would create a paragraph for this list.  Here is the assignment:

Many people don’t know what “rhetoric” is. Some people who do know have a bad impression of it. They think it is all about deception. However rhetoric is everywhere. It can be used for both good and bad purposes. You and your fellow students will create a list of rhetorically interesting websites that will help people understand how rhetoric works, or at least how ethos, logos, and pathos work together to persuade people to do or believe things. You will write a short paragraph that will become part of this list.

Choose a website that focuses on an issue, problem, or cultural trend that you consider important or interesting. Explore the website carefully. Then write a paragraph answering the following question:

How do ethos, logos, and pathos work together (or not work together) in helping to achieve the writer’s purpose?

Activity 8 contains some questions that will help you gather information and ideas for this analysis. Remember that you are doing a rhetorical analysis, not arguing for or against a position on the issue.

The next activity includes some questions to help students do this analysis:

The following questions will help you in your rhetorical analysis of the website. In answering the questions, in addition to the words and sentences, also consider images and other visual aspects of the site.

Purpose

1. What is this document or web site about?
2. What is the writer of the document trying to accomplish? Why is he or she writing?
3. What kind of ethos or image does the writer project? What are some of the elements that create this ethos? Is it believable?

Audience

4. Who is the primary audience for this document or web site? What are their characteristics? Is the document well-adapted to this audience?
5. Who else might read this document? (This is called a “secondary audience.” If the website was not created with you or your classmates in mind, you are a secondary audience.) What are their characteristics? Does the document work for them too?
6. What arguments and evidence (logos) does the writer use to persuade the audience? Are the arguments convincing? Is the evidence true and reliable? Summarize the main points.
7. Does the writer try to create an emotional response (pathos), or keep the reader’s emotions in check? What are some examples? If the writer does not try to engage the reader’s emotions, what is the effect of this emotional neutrality?
8. Do all of these elements work together to achieve the desired response from the reader? Why or why not?

The student version of the new version is available here. There is also a somewhat revised version of the “Three Ways to Persuade” article.

Aristotle’s Poetics in the Classroom

In this blog, I have written a lot about Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, I have not written about his literary criticism, which he develops in the work called the Poetics. The Poetics has had a great deal of influence on literary thought and practice for many centuries, especially on drama. Though Aristotle was mainly concerned with the dramatic form of the Greek tragedy, his principles can be usefully applied to other art forms, including novels, short stories, and movies, and perhaps even poetry. The principles are simple, easily understood, and useful for students.

Perhaps the genre in our own time that is closest to Greek tragedy is the dramatic movie, perhaps even a horror movie.  Analyzing a movie is probably the best vehicle for introducing students to Aristotle’s ideas.

Aristotle, like most ancient Greeks, thinks that art is about imitation of life. The Greek word is “mimesis,” which we find in “mime and” “mimic.” He thinks that humans are natural imitators and that we enjoy representations, even of things we would not like to see in real life, such as dead bodies or fearsome beasts. This literary theory is pretty easy for students to apply. Is the work realistic? Is it lifelike? Does that mean it is good? They can also easily disagree with it because they often enjoy fantasy and other things that are abstract or unrealistic. Disagreeing with Aristotle is fun, and it gets them thinking. They can have a dialogue with Aristotle.

Aristotle argues that tragedy has six components. I have created a simplified chart, with questions for students:

AristotlePoeticsChart-Simple-1a

A more detailed version of this chart with more extensive questions is available here.

Plot

Aristotle argues that plot is the soul of tragedy and that while there could be a tragedy without character, there could not be without plot. Simply relating the events of a tragic plot should create pity and fear in the hearer. Students appear to agree with Aristotle on this in that when they write about a novel or a short story, they tend to summarize the plot. However, such summaries rarely analyze the plot in terms of Aristotelian plot elements such as reversal, recognition, and what he calls the “scene of suffering,” the climatic scene in which the different strands of the plot come together for the greatest emotional effect.  The plot itself creates emotions, for Aristotle pity and fear, in the audience.   The questions in the chart linked above help students analyze the plot from such a perspective.

Character

Aristotle’s views on good character are probably more at odds with the students’ views than on any other aspect of literature.  He believes that the protagonist should

  • Have good moral values
  • Be above average in nobility and birth
  • Behave appropriately according to his station in life
  • Be realistic and life-like
  • Be consistent in behavior
  • Have a flaw or other characteristic that causes him to experience a dramatic change in fortune

Today we are used to viewpoint characters and heroes who are quite unlike Aristotle’s ideal.  The disjunction between Aristotle’s views and the students’ should provide lots of interesting discussion.

Thought

When Aristotle discusses “thought” in tragedy, he refers to his work on Rhetoric.  He says, “Under Thought is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite” (XIX)  Clearly arguments are part of thought, but also emotional and ethical appeals, the full range of ethos, logos, and pathos.  Themes, philosophical questions, and exploration of moral and ethical choices are also included here.

Diction

Under “diction” Aristotle discusses formal and informal language, the use of strange and unusual words, and other aspects of style.  His concern appears to be mostly about the effects of word choice on the audience.  Some of the factors that we might assign to style, such as the creation of emotional effects, Aristotle sees as belonging to Thought.

Song and Spectacle

Song and Spectacle are considered to be the least important factors in Aristotle’s scheme.  For students, they may be the most important factors.  Some movies rely on exciting music and spectacular visuals, often created by computers, to become big hits, while neglecting plot, character, and thought.  Can the musical score and cinematic effects successfully make up for a lack in other categories?  This is an interesting question for students to discuss.

Conclusions

Aristotle has two big disadvantages in relating to current students: 1) he is analyzing an ancient dramatic form that is no longer produced, and 2) his analysis reflects the cultural values and customs of Athenian Greeks in the fourth century B.C.  However, looking at current cultural productions, such as movies and novels, from an Aristotelian point of view, produces what Kenneth Burke calls a “perspective by incongruity,” that allows the student to have insights into Aristotle, current artistic work, and their own perceptions and values.  It is a worthwhile discussion.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by S. H. Butcher. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.

 

Mini-Module: Knowledge, Belief, and the Role of Rhetoric

Note: Revised version updated 6/7/19. Also, this article, “Chances Are You’re Not As Open-minded As You Think,” might be a good pre-module reading or a follow-up.

While revising the “Three Ways to Persuade” module to fix some serious problems with the writing assignment, I ended up writing a lot of new material that I ultimately decided not to include in that module. These “outakes” eventually became a new module that is designed to be a follow-up to “Three Ways.” It deals with rhetoric’s age old epistemological questions: What can we know and how can we know it? The problem is, sometimes there is no way to be certain, yet we still have to act. That is where rhetoric comes in.

This new module has the following learning goals:

Students will be able to

  • Make distinctions between certain knowledge, belief, and opinion
  • Understand the role of rhetoric in matters where we do not have certain knowledge
  • Assess the effectiveness of different rhetorical appeals in different situations
  • Surface assumptions in their own thinking and in that of others
  • Write a list of rhetorically effective “talking points” regarding a specific issue or problem that demonstrates their understanding of the previous outcomes

Most of the activities involve charts to fill out. First,after exploring the concepts of persuasion, knowledge, belief, opinion, and probability, the students or the teacher select a current controversial event such as a murder, a scandal, a celebrity divorce, or other prominent news item. Then they fill out a chart and share it with a partner:

HowIknow-chrt-1

Because their charts probably differ, they explore the differences by filling out this second chart and discussing the assumptions they made:

Assumptions-chrt

Note: I took the following section out of the revised version of the module.  These ideas are still important, but I felt that as a mini-module was getting too conceptually complex.

Then, we discuss Aristotle’s statement that “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). This translates into two main functions for rhetoric:

  1. Rhetoric is useful when we don’t have certain knowledge, but we still feel that we must do something.

  2. Rhetoric is also useful in cases where we have certain knowledge, but the meaning of the knowledge has to be explained to the audience to make it persuasive.

After the initial activities about knowledge and belief and the assumptions we make when reading or listening, I present the three Aristotelian appeals–ethos, logos, pathos–as strategies for controlling the assumptions made by the audience. Then students explore different uses of rhetoric by filling out a chart like this for different situations. In this example, one student makes a claim that his favorite song is better than his friend’s favorite song:

RhetoricalEffectiveness-chrt

For each situation they rate which type of appeal is likely to be most persuasive, though they also see that they work together.

Finally, they take all of this rhetorical practice and write a list of “talking points” for an issue they have chosen. Here is the assignment:

For this assignment you are going to think about a community problem. This could be a problem at your school, in your neighborhood, or something on a bigger scale, such as your city, your state, or the whole country. If you can’t think of a problem, you could use the Flint, Michigan example from the previous activity.

When a leader has to speak or write publicly about a problem, he or she will have a member of the staff write up a bulleted list of “talking points.” The purpose of the list is to help establish the message and help the leader stay on that message, no matter what questions he or she is asked. This list should have the following:

  • A clear purpose. What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Arguments that support that purpose, expressed in clear language, short and simple enough to memorize. These arguments should address all three appeals: ethos, pathos, logos. (Just like you have been doing in the charts above.)
  • Anecdotes (personal stories) that people can relate to that support the arguments are very useful. Keep them brief, however!
  • Points of common ground that both sides can agree on.
  • A proposed call to action.

With your issue or problem in mind, imagine that you are a staff member working for a community leader. You have been asked to come up with talking points for an upcoming press conference. Write a one-page list of talking points for your boss.

This is a challenging module with lots of important concepts. It builds on what they learn from the article “Three Ways to Persuade: Integrating the Three Appeals.” I think high school students can do this, however. You may disagree. Please leave a comment if you have feedback, positive or negative, or have a suggestion.

Download the latest draft of the module in a Word document or as a .pdf.  Here are some handouts that might also be useful:

Activity 5: Applying the Concepts

Activity 6: Clarifying Assumptions

Activity 10: Talking Points Assignment