Adrienne Roberts: Rewarding elitism

BY ADRIENNE ROBERTS

Published July 29, 2012

Freshman year, the thought of having an essay workshopped in front of 15 other students in English class terrified me. I would sit at my laptop and read over my peers’ essays, amazed at how words I had encountered — maybe once in a Jane Austen novel — were apparently a part of their vocabulary. I felt as though my way of speaking, and therefore my writing, paled in comparison.

After getting to know these students throughout the semester, it became apparent that they didn’t speak in 18th-century English. They talked like me. But if they wrote the way they spoke, there would be a few too many swear words, and exclamation points would quickly overtake periods.

Not many people can get away with writing like that. But it seems as though many tend to veer to the opposite end of the spectrum, resulting in writing that sounds so foreign that a dictionary is a necessary companion for reading it. It comes off as elitist.

In an article by Ryan Bloom in The New Yorker, he describes how “prescriptivism is currently the dialect of power and being able to manipulate that dialect can help you get ahead.” According to Bloom, using our natural dialects in writing is a worthy goal, but it isn’t reality. Big words, correct comma usage and structurally sound sentences are rewarded in college classes, articles and so on.

He’s right. Stylistically, most of us conform to the standards we’ve been taught since kindergarten. And that’s expected. But what’s scary is that we, as a society, reward the writing with the most obscure word and style choices.

For example, growing up, I always thought Mitch Albom was a flawless writer. I think it was mostly because of name recognition, but it was also due to the fact that I felt like crying after reading almost any article written by him. A few weeks ago, a coworker informed me that he didn’t like Albom’s writing because it was predictable and he felt as though his emotions were being manipulated.

I was shocked to hear this, but after reading one of his articles again, I realized he had a point. I wanted to cry because of the style of the article, which consisted of italicized, short and poignant sentences combined with word choices that wouldn’t make appearances in everyday conversation. This style of writing is rewarded. Many consider Mitch Albom to be a brilliant writer — and he very well could be. But in all honestly, no one speaks in italics while taking five-second pauses between sentences. It’s unnatural. This style of writing can work really well, but it shouldn’t necessarily be the best and only way to get your point across.

The problem with this is that most students try to emulate writing of this kind. In my third grade class, we had a project in which we had to write a story and then look in a thesaurus and change some of our words. It caused me to include the word “pungence” in my story. And trust me, I don’t think I ever used the word — let alone had any idea of what it even meant — before stumbling upon “pungence” in that thesaurus.

I stuck by that method for a while. When my essay was being workshopped in that first English class at Michigan, I had a field day with the Word Thesaurus tool, and I can’t imagine that the essay was my best work.

It’s a scary thought to write exactly the way we speak when grades and reputations are on the line. We stick to what we know works: smooth transitions, capital letters and a rich vocabulary. That probably won’t change anytime soon.

A small step to ending this so-called “language elitism” is to recognize that style doesn’t necessarily have to drive a piece of writing. Many of us — myself included — are quick to love a writer or an essay simply because we’re awestruck at how much smarter the writer sounds than us. It’s unfortunate because some of the best essays and articles sound like the author is having a casual conversation with a friend. Rewarding great content and stylistic risks is the first step to dethroning prescriptivism and crowning natural dialects in the written form.

And maybe, most importantly, those well-placed italicized sentences that evoke unnecessary tears aren't a requirement for great writing.

Adrienne Roberts can be reached at adrirobe@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @AdrRoberts.