Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bryan Garner on “The fallacy of intelligibility”

Bryan Garner, from “The fallacy of intelligibility,” a short piece about the idea that it doesn’t matter how you write it as long as they understand what you mean:

Nonstandard, ungrammatical language irks educated readers. It distracts them and makes them less likely, even unwilling, to align themselves with you. Wrong words are like wrong notes in music: they spoil the tune. And wrong words make readers stop thinking about your message and start pondering your educational deficits.

If anyone tells you otherwise (that is, if someone says it don’t make no never-mind), don’t believe it.
Who would tell you otherwise? Well, there is the familiar construction, beloved of some teachers of writing, “This is not a grammar class.” But teaching writing without attention to grammar is like teaching painting without attention to color and form, or teaching music without attention to playing or singing in tune. Things come out wrong.

What Bryan Garner says about writing is plainly true. Teachers who encourage their students to think otherwise are cheating them.

Related reading
All OCA Garner-centric posts (Pinboard)

comments: 6

Daughter Number Three said...

But okay for a draft, yes?

Michael Leddy said...

I would say so. You can’t work on everything at once, and trying to fix, say, a comma problem when you have to work out the structure of an essay makes no sense. I think what Garner is saying applies to finished writing, when you’re presenting yourself to an audience and making a lasting impression.

I’ve known many students whose previous teachers let all kinds of things go by in silence. It’s a painful thing for students to realize that they’ve been done a disservice, but that realization can be the prelude to genuine improvement.

Chris said...

To me, bad writing means writing that is unclear, awkward, or dull, or that simply makes the reader work too hard without good reason. It has nothing to do with its being "nonstandard" (nonstandard English can be vigorous and effective). You have to write in the code that is expected by your audience. Part of the art of writing an academic paper is imitating the customary style and grammar of that kind of text. That's an acquired skill, and an important one, but we shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that nonstandard speech or writing inevitably indicates "educational deficits." Sometimes educated readers need to be shaken up a bit.

Michael Leddy said...

In GMAU, he writes of what linguists call Standard English, or Standard Written English, as a matter of becoming bidialectical. I would think of “deficits” here (and I hope Garner would agree) in relation to SWE. You can have all kinds of intelligence without SWE. But when you can’t write “in the code that is expected by your audience,” you’re going to be in difficulty.

shallnot said...

Hello Michael,

Looks like "link rot" has set in. The revised link to Garner's post should be: Fallacy of Intelligibility


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the heads up, Steven, and for the new link. I’ve replaced the old one in the post.