Format, prescriptivism and Plato's chair

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Journalism, Writing

Even during blogging droughts I try to keep up on the continuing discussions among science bloggers. I came across a couple of posts in my catch-up reading that I really enjoyed reading, and wanted to share a few thoughts on format, language, standards and how they apply directly to what I've experienced.

Melody has a post up at Child’s Play discussing a piece from the New York Times about literacy and grammar, the general “decline” of English:

…to pull the strings together: I agree that part of what’s driving linguistic variation may be, as Greene argues, a lack of strong “top-down” constraints on variation. Basic literacy has exploded, but not well-normed literacy, and that probably has a lot to do with the massive educational disparities that exist in this country. On a societal scale, our education system is clearly failing to get everyone ‘up to standards’ [3].

She goes on to say that there is an inherent moralistic imposition in the standardization of English taught that doesn’t account for its colloquial value among communities.

I can see the reasoning, but I think that’s based on a incomplete idea of how the English language is accepted/presented among even the most pedantic English teachers and grammar Nazis. As Melody says, it constitutes an enormous body of words, phrases and mechanics, a mish-mash of bastardizations and misinterpretations that become a new standard; part of the beauty of English is its affinity for new words, new turns of phrase, its capacity for the incorporation of novelty. I grew up calling Capicola ham cabigal, and Ricotta cheese rigot – other Italian Americans knew what we meant, but the gourmet shop clerk did not. But I think underlying even the most nuanced dialect of English is the same basic structure that makes it, well, English, and that the standard isn't necessarily in conflict. It was made clear during my education that grammar constituted ground rules, and knowing exactly how to break the rules is what has produced our greatest writers and speakers. That was always emphasized.

Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a great example of this. Faulkner writes from the differing perspectives of a group of Southerners – family and friends – that surround the death of a friend and mother. Each chapter is written from one character’s perspective in their own dialect. Faulkner’s range is astounding. Darl is traditionally articulate and perhaps, the vessel of the author. Vardaman is young and brash, his language is crude on the surface, but Faulkner writes with such skill that he evokes beauty from “poor” grammar and non-standard English. Faulkner was breaking the rules in all the right ways over 80 years ago, appreciating the way people truly spoke the English language, because he knew how to.

In other words, fiction hasn’t been following the rules for a long time. Authors recognize the value of colloquialisms. No one has written like Herman Melville since Herman Melville. We've always loved slang, always welcomed it warmly into general use; then we abuse it until it's annoying and drives us all crazy. You're on notice, lolspeak.

I think it’s more productive to consider language in an applied, categorical sense. The proper use of language depends on the standards of the medium or the institution governing the medium. In gaming, social media and blogging, anything goes because it’s unmediated. We write without filters. Our online communication is usually intended to be an exchange rather than a presentation. We want feedback. I usually don’t bother with punctuation when I’m getting rolled by pro nerds online. In the interest of brevity, why type “you’re” when you can get the same result with “ur”?

But when I go to work, I have an industry standard to uphold. I need to communicate technical information in the most clear, direct fashion that I possibly can so that there is no confusion for the end user. I need to take industry slang and translate it. My terminology needs to be precise and consistent. It needs to conform to the style guide. The terms Window, Screen, Dialog have specific meanings that need to describe the same components in every instance.

Similarly, journalistic writing is formulaic, as Hannah is fast realizing (congrats on the internship!). Using the inverted pyramid feels awkward at first, but like technical writing, it’s purposefully restrictive. News story writing is bread and butter; content needs to be concise and churned out quickly. The formula streamlines the process, helps the writer to focus the delivery of information. Not every piece is a story, and usually only experienced journalists are given feature pieces. But even the expansive features in newspapers and magazines are formulaic. In fact, the vast majority of blog posts you’ll find on – including my own – are predictably constructed. The structure exists because it’s useful.

The inverted pyramid isn’t the frame, the marketing scheme of “Science Is Cool” or “Science Is Friendly” is. Scientific research in the context of a journalistic interpretation is often treated like Plato’s chair – we judge its value based on some theoretical purest form, a subjective, ineffable idea of the research. The truth is, however, that it’s the skill of the writer working within the format that determines the piece’s informative value to us. It is not a story until it’s given a narrative; the quality of the narrative is dependent on the skill of the writer.

When you’re forced to work within a restrictive format, along certain standards, it teaches you precision that can be applied to more creative formats. Let’s not pretend that there aren’t levels of communicative ability; some have a better mastery of language than others, but I think all lovers of the English language hope that this appreciation extends to its outer reaches, its innovations, its novelty and its interpretation.

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