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The other L in WLP

by Blake Campbell / Arts Columnist • February 28, 2013

In the first foreword of Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, he recounts a conversation with fellow novelist Amy Tan. When King inquired about what questions fans had never asked her at her writer’s talks, she responded: “No one ever asks about the language.” 

This anecdote speaks to a larger issue among aspiring writers. Young writers often take the mechanics of their craft for granted — I know I do. Conjugating verbs and constructing sentences have become almost second nature to me; certainly, these aren’t things I usually think about when I’m writing something, be it a piece of fiction or this column. Similarly, in the writing classes I have taken at Emerson, I hear mechanics discussed only on seldom occasions; workshops usually tackle such issues as point of view, imagery, and character development in student writing.

All of these things are essential components, of course, but it worries me how many people who plan to dedicate their lives to the English language (myself included) have put grammar and mechanics on the back burner. Creative writers must skillfully manipulate language if they ever hope to create effective, interesting, and original work. This kind of innovation is not simply a matter of reading the work of other writers and following their example. Rather, it necessitates a comprehensive understanding of the mechanics of the English language, including those nagging grammatical dilemmas and innocent syntactical errors that all writers face.  As someone who still stresses about mixing up “further” and “farther,” that prospect worries me. 

Even among English majors, grammar gets a bad rap — and understandably; it is arguably the most mathematical and least glamorous aspect of writing. I hated studying grammar in my English classes in grade school. I couldn’t see a practical application for knowing the difference between a gerund and a participle, and memorizing the names of various parts of speech quickly grew tiresome. I knew how to write grammatically correct sentences and could whip out some pretty cool figures of speech when I wanted to. Wasn’t that enough?

At 19, I now wish that I had retained more of this information. Grammar is a very serious matter, not the grade school busywork I once thought it was, and it is vital that aspiring writers have a working knowledge of it. Emerson’s writing, literature and publishing major should require students to take a mechanics-based English course to graduate.

Undoubtedly, some will argue that this approach is condescending or a waste of time. Yes, grammar is theoretically something you should have learned in elementary school, but an in-depth study of the inner workings of the English language could be profoundly beneficial to the WLP program. 

Moreover, poor grammar is as much a professional issue as it is an academic one. According to The Wall Street Journal, a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management and AARP last year found that about 45 percent of 430 polled employers were increasing measures to improve their workers’ grammar skills. Better education at the collegiate level could help alleviate this burden. 

To look at the issue from a different perspective, the English language should have a greater presence in the writing, literature and publishing department, as an entity in itself. Language is far more than a means to a literary end; it carries a cultural and aesthetic value all its own. 

Consider how much English has changed since its beginnings, from the composition of Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon to text messaging abbreviations that have entered our everyday speech. William Shakespeare’s contributions to our everyday vocabulary alone could form the basis of a class. Fields like philology (historical linguistic studies) and etymology (the origins of words) could provide compelling material for new WLP classes, fostering an appreciation for language on its own terms.

Like a great work of literature, we can find truths of the human condition in studying our language. Although we take its everyday use for granted, language is intrinsic to the human experience, and we can find echoes of our anthropological, historical, and aesthetic past if we take the time to examine our words in depth.  

But linguistics isn’t just a matter of probing the past for answers; it is a field of study that is deeply relevant to contemporary society. In an increasingly globalized and technological world, language is evolving rapidly. Regardless of whether or not the recent addition of “hashtag” in face-to-face conversation represents the degradation of the English language, it is particularly important that aspiring writers of the Twitter generation have some grasp of linguistic studies.

Of course, writing, literature and publishing classes already engender at least an implicit appreciation and understanding of the English language, and I am not suggesting that Emerson create another department’s worth of linguistics courses. Simply put, language needs to have its own say. A better understanding of its components will not only benefit authors’ writing, but also their perceptions of the world at large.