By Peter Elbow
People who care about good language tend to assume that casual spoken language is full of chaos and error. I shared this belief till I did some substantial research into the linguistics of speech. There’s a surprising reason why we — academics and well-educated folk — should hold this belief: we are the greatest culprits. It turns out that our speech is the most incoherent. Who knew that working class speakers handle spoken English better than academics and the well-educated?
The highest percentage of well-formed sentences are found in casual speech, and working-class speakers use more well-formed sentences than middle-class speakers. The widespread myth that most speech is ungrammatical is no doubt based upon tapes made at learned conferences, where we obtain the maximum number of irreducibly ungrammatical sequences. (Labov 222. See also Halliday 132.)
But just because so much spoken language is incoherent and ungrammatical, that doesn’t make it useless for writing. Careless casual speech may be too messy for careful writing, but it happens to be full of linguistic virtues that are sorely needed for good writing. For example, speakers naturally avoid the deadening nominalizations and passive verbs that muffle so much writing. Try asking students what they were trying to say in a tangled essay that you can’t quite understand: they’ll almost always blurt out the main point in clear and direct language.
In the past, I’ve been interested in the wisdom that can be found hidden behind incoherence. But now I want to explore the wisdom revealed by incoherence itself, a particular kind of incoherence that is especially characteristic of academics. That is, I’m not talking about little interruptions that so many literate people make to correct a piece of careless “bad grammar” that slipped out of their mouth. No, the chaos that bedevils the speech of so many academics takes the form of frequent interruptions in the flow of speech — interruptions that come from imperious intrusions into our minds of other thoughts. Before one sentence is finished, we break in with “well but, that isn’t quite it, it’s really a matter of…”. Academics often can’t finish one sentence or thought before launching into a related one. (“Elections tend to favor those who… You know what’s interesting here is the way in which political parties just… Still, if you consider how political parties tend to function…” and so on.) Alternatively, we drift into sentence interruptus: a phrase is left dangling while we silently muse — and we never return to finish it.
When we academics were in graduate school, we were trained to write badly (no one put it this way of course) because every time we wrote X, our teacher always commented, “But have you considered Y? Don’t you see that Y completely contradicts what you write here.” “Have you considered” is the favorite knee-jerk response of academics to any idea. As a result, we learn as students to clog up our writing with added clauses and phrases to keep them from being attacked. In a sense (a scary sense), our syntactic goal is create sentences that take a form something like this:
X, and yet on the other hand Y, yet nevertheless X in certain respects, while at the same time Y in other respects.
And we make the prose lumpier still by inserting references to all the published scholars — those who said X, those who argued for Y, those who said X is valid in this sense, those who said Y is valid in this other sense.
As a result of all this training we come to internalize these written voices so that they speak to us continually from inside our own heads. So even when we talk and start to say “X,” we interrupt ourselves to say “Y,” but then turn around and say “Nevertheless X in certain respects, yet nevertheless Y in other respects.” We end up with our minds tied in knots.
It’s tempting to laugh at this — and I try to smile good-heartedly when people make fun of my speech. After a recent talk, a listener said to me, “Peter, you never completed a single sentence.” But it’s time for the worm to turn. Finally I want to try to stick up for my linguistic disability. I want to suggest that it comes from a valuable habit of mind. It’s the habit of always hearing and considering a different idea or conflicting view while engaged in saying anything. Too many things seem to go on at once in our minds; we live with constant interruptions and mental invasions as we speak. We are trained as academics to look for exceptions, never to accept one idea or point of view or formulation without looking for contradictions or counter examples or opposing ideas. Yet this habit gets so internalized that we often don’t quite realize we are doing it; we just “talk normally” — but this normal is fractured discourse to listeners.
This linguistic problem comes in two flavors. The first is characteristic of strong-minded, confident academics who tend (especially after they get tenure and have published some books) to have few doubts about their own views. Strong-minded people like this can be incoherent in speech because they constantly think about criticisms that could be leveled against their idea. They constantly interrupt themselves to insert additions or digressions to defend what they are saying against any criticism. Sometimes the digression gets even longer as they move on from simple defense of their idea to an active attack on the criticism. This is a mind constantly on guard. Here is one philosopher’s ambivalent praise for the ability of a highly-respected philosopher to write steel-plated prose:
The argument is heavily armored, both in its range of reference and in the structure of its sentences, which almost always coil around some anticipated objection and skewer it; [Bernard] Williams is always one step ahead of his reader. Every sentence… is fully shielded, immune from refutation. Williams is so well protected that it is sometimes hard to make out the shape of his position. The sentences seldom descend to elegance, and lucidity seems less highly prized than impregnability…” (McGinn 70)
But there’s a second flavor of linguistic incoherence that comes from what seem like weak-minded, wishy-washy academics. Their sentences are confused because it seems as though they can’t quite make up their minds; they are characteristically tentative and tend to undermine what they are saying by being unable to resist mentioning a telling criticism. I have a special sympathy for this flavor of incoherence because I suffer from it. It comes from a tendency to feel loyalty to conflicting points of view. As soon as I start to say X, my mind is tickled by the feeling that Y is also a valid point of view. “Maybe I’m wrong. Uh oh. I can’t quite figure out what I really think. Should I change my mind?”
I want to argue that there’s something valuable here. (Let’s see if I can make this argument without being too weak-kneed about it. I don’t want to do you the favor of mentioning the vulnerable points.) I want to celebrate the mental ability to feel the truth in conflicting ideas. It’s a habit of mind that can help people avoid being dogmatic or narrow-minded. When I say something and someone gives a reason why I’m wrong, I often feel, “Oh dear, that sounds right to me. How can I be right in what I was trying to say?” I can be left in mental paralysis. But I want to argue that this is a frame of mind that can help people move past either/or conflicts and transcend the terms in which an issue is framed. “I believe X. Yet Y seems right. How can that be? What should I think? Let’s see if I can reshape the whole discussion and find a different point of view from which both X and Y are true?” Surely this is an important way in which genuinely new ideas are born.
In short I’ll be less apologetic about my inability to explain an idea clearly and forcefully. And besides, it was this ineffectuality in speech that led me to take writing so seriously. Nevertheless, the habit of constant interruption invades my writing too and makes me have to revise interminably. If I want strong written words that readers will hear and take seriously, I need coherent, well-shaped prose. For this goal, it turns out that the unruly tongue comes to the rescue. My tongue may breed incoherence when I let it run free, but if I take every written sentence and read it aloud with loving care and keep fiddling with it till it feels right in the mouth and sounds right in the ear, that sentence will be clear and strong. Why should the tongue make such a mess when given freedom to speak or draft, yet be able to craft strong, clear sentences when used for out loud revising? That’s an intriguing mystery that I’ve had a good time trying to explore.
Peter Elbow is Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and former director of its Writing Program. He is the author of Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing, Writing Without Teachers, Writing With Power, Embracing Contraries, and Everyone Can Write.