Connecting Dots

Students (and offspring) whom I’ve taught to write in a particular way should immediately proceed to follow this link to Joseph Williams’s article “The Phenomenology of Error” from College Composition and Communication 32 (1981): 152-68 (PDF here). Williams, as you may recall, is the patron of the writing-for-readers school of instruction, of which I’m an enthusiastic adherent.
Williams makes a compelling case that grammatical (and lexical) errors are not all created equal. Some errors generate ambiguity; some give offense; some depart from established usage without imprecision or dissonance for most readers; and some depart from standard usage and give offense. The force of his article, though, depends on the premise that if an error (as defined by some canonical source of grammatical law) does not distract or confuse the reader, we ought not worry about that error. Perhaps we ought not consider it an error at all. That grates on the nerves of old-school prescriptivists such as I (or “like me”), but I think it makes the best sense of what we can observe from real readers and real writers interacting.
Now, I discovered this article online through a link from Language Log, which is where it all gets especially interesting to me. As I was reading the LL post, it occurred to me that my entanglement in Williams’s reader-centered compositional practice contributed significantly to my expression-apprehension hermeneutics (I think there’s a sentence in the article that triggered that recognition, but I can’t find it right away). (Aha! There it is: “To address errors of grammar and usage in this way, it is also necessary to shift our attention from error treated strictly as an isolated item on a page, to error perceived as a flawed verbal transaction between a writer and a reader” (p. 153). The “transaction between a writer [or speaker] and a reader [or hearer]” gets to the heart of the matter.)
Then too, we sang the hymn “O Love How Deep” at church this morning, one of the verses of which goes, “For us he prayed; for us he taught; / For us his daily works he wrought, / By words and signs and actions thus / Still seeking not himself but us,” and I realized that I’d like to write an article making some of these connections, to be called “By Words and Signs and Actions.” I love it when a constellation of ideas comes together.

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