Friday, February 6, 2009

High School/College Topic: Maxims about Writing

10-second review: Such maxims are half-truths and we should show students that they are not always followed.

Title: “A Pox on Pithy Prescriptions.” Erwin R. Steinberg. College Composition and Communication (February 1986), 96-100. A publication of the National Council of Teachers of Education (NCTE).

Summary: Every writing teacher has them. Pithy, concise maxims to help students learn the do’s and don’t’s of writing: “Never split an infinitive.” “Don’t use ‘I’.” All compositions should have at least five paragraphs.

The reality is that these maxims are half-truths, sometimes true and sometimes not. You and the students can find examples in published work of when the prescriptions are followed and when they are not—and why. “Instructions should adequately reflect the complexity of the matter on which they instruct. Pithy prescriptions oversimplify.”

Comment: Ouch! I have my own set of pithy prescriptions and they are just what the author says: half-truths. As a matter of fact, over my career I have been addicted to them. “Don’t use ‘get,’ ‘many,’ ‘thing.’ Don’t begin sentences with ‘there.’ ” And so on. And when I read published material I find as many writers using them as don’t. Punctuation? Most people think punctuation is a science. However, as many published writers do not use commas after introductory expressions as do. He’s right. Show students that these prescriptions are sometimes followed and sometimes not. Depends on the situation. RayS.

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