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From the Archives 6

On “proper usage.” Offered to those who may want to teach students how to write well.In several of the conversations about language arts education in which I am presently engaged, questions and concerns regarding language mechanics have arisen and much of what is being said has been said again and again throughout the history of language arts education, that students to often do not know the basics and, for this, continue to, grade level to grade level, course to course, at the job site or in the college classroom, make the kind of mistakes they should have been taught not to make.Punctuation and spelling errors, paragraphing problems, poor choice of words often attributed to limited vocabulary, organizational errors, bad diction, and so on and so forth, problems arising from lack of knowledge or lack of will related to correct use of language mechanics. Many of the suggestions for curing the ill call for drills and more study of the conventions, approaches that have been employed forever to little meaningful effect.Proper usage is something that is rarely spoken about in a proper manner, the notion of proper residing in a set of rules rather than in familiarization through experience with the function, the rhetorical functions of language mechanics. Too many students understand the reason for correct to be punishment of some sort, by teacher, for incorrectness, the real consequences of incorrectness never really understood, the response most often coping to correctness rather than thinking about the functional value of correctness.So the problems linger through the generations. The abandoned student-centered, whole language approaches, when properly used by teachers understanding the real basic principles of language and language use, did offer some sensible curatives to these eternal problems with usage, all based in the notion that those with a purpose will find a way to achieve that purpose or, at least, while in the process of trying to find a solution to a problem (in writing this would be the problem of creating a rhetorically sound solution to a rhetorical problem) and, along the way, if conventional tools, tools already available offer solutions, a problem solver will find those tools and work to discover how to use them to affect the situation as he or she wishes.In response, then, to the many comments voicing concern for student errors and the attitudes that allow students to resist instruction in the conventions, I offer this set of principles for the teaching of the language arts that may help to both change attitudes and lead to the production of relatively error free, thoughtfully worded, writing.Basic principles of a viable conceptualization of the process of writinga. Students need to discover, through classroom activities or experiences in their lives, things they wish to talk about to audiences that are outside the range of their voices–physically distant, removed in time.b. Theses are, most often, not sought out for the particular purpose of writing a paper. They usually result from observation, experiences, and interactions that cause one to come to a conclusion of some kind that they, for some good reason, is a valid conclusion for others to share. With this in mind, a writer has a rhetorical goal that is real, meaningful, and already backed by the evidence and reasoning that caused the writer to conclude as he or she has, the thesis the end product of a thought process and not the beginning.c. Theses most naturally come from interaction with the world that cause one to catch on to something that, for some reason, is compelling enough to ponder long enough to discover the meaning of the something, meaning in that something. It is that meaning around which is formed a thesis, any thesis of worth.d. The body of a piece of writing is formed of and generated by an author’s desire to be understood. Without such desire, without a sincere desire to be understood, the writing process corrupt to the point that the exercise is not only meaningless and worthless, but an exercise in futility that is, perhaps, one of the primary reasons for so many writing so poorly. Because, as so many have pointed out over so many years, much of what students write, particularly in their language arts courses, are “dummy-runs,” written for the sake of assessment of writing skills and not for the purpose of getting across meanings expressed in order to affect another’s mind, another’s thinking, many, most never really experience true engagement in the writing process, never get caught up in the dynamics of a process that exists so that an individual can, through language, influence the minds of others. e. Without engagement in authentic communication activities that make necessary the proper use of the rhetorical elements and mechanical devices because they do not understand the relationship of function to form, the meaning of elements and mechanics in the context of making meaning and making meaning meaningful for others. Correct usage is correct only if it works to achieve rhetorical ends one wishes to accomplish.f. The paragraphs and sentences within them are written, each after the other, with audience sensibilities in mind, the writer gauging an audience’s thinking at a particular moment in their reading of a piece, such assessment providing the vital information necessary for deciding what needs to be said next.g. Choice of words, decisions regarding application of language mechanics, for the engaged writer intent on effectively conveying his or her meanings to others, are based upon a sense of the rhetorical effect a particular will have on readers.h. Choice of genre, medium, style, tone, language and dialect, even color and weight of paper and the choice of paper clip or staple, are dictated by the author’s sense of what he or she wishes to have happen one a reader receives the document created.i. Because the thesis is the end product of a thought process, the writer, for the most part, engages in the task of replicating for the sake of a reader understanding the legitimacy of the thesis, the thought process that lead the writer to the conclusions that form the thesis. Thus, the production of a written draft comes near the end of the though process that produces the ideas a writer wishes to convey.j. Because the process of developing text for the purpose of bringing others around to see the legitimacy of ideas, of theses the writer understands not to be ideas or theses held by the others being addressed, the writing process acts as a powerful means for clarifying for oneself the meaning and the value of thoughts related to the topic under consideration in the piece he or she is developing. The writing process, engaged properly and adequately is a powerful engine for critical thinking as the writer must constantly check his or her meanings against the meanings others are assumed to hold in order to provide for those others whatever it takes to convince them that the thesis being presented and argued is sensible enough and good enough for them to, at the very least, change their minds.

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