by Laura Aull and Shawna Shapiro
The two authors of this piece come from distinct institutional contexts: Laura Aull works at a large, public, research university, and Shawna Shapiro at a small, private, liberal arts institution. We each think a lot about language and writing as we do our work—Laura while training new writing instructors in a large writing program and Shawna amid multi-institutional outreach, for example. We both share training in writing as well as linguistics—Laura especially in corpus and applied linguistics, and Shawna especially in sociolinguistics and TESOL. We both believe in (and write about) supporting linguistic knowledge as part of students' rhetorical agency, and in our work, we regularly hear questions and concerns from writing educators about language and linguistics. The most common queries we hear from colleagues at our institutions and elsewhere, including through the CLA Collective (http://clacollective.org/), relate to three frequently-asked questions, which we explore here by drawing on linguistics and writing research.
Many writing instructors, administrators, students, and scholars share important questions about how rhetoric and linguistics are similar and different, what linguistics offers to writing studies, and how to support writing development and linguistic equality. We've consolidated the most common queries we receive into the following three FAQs.
It is understandable that these questions come up so regularly. A number of writing studies scholars have pointed out that especially since the 1970s, language study has had a tenuous or unclear position in US writing studies research and teaching, which tends to focus on writers, writing contexts, and language ideologies, more than on language itself (Connors, 1997; MacDonald, 2007; Aull, 2015). Below, we answer these three FAQs in an effort to provide foundational knowledge about linguistics and language that build on conversations in our field. We have structured our responses to each question as a set of concise points, followed by an “upshot” summary at the end of that section.
Training in rhetoric and writing pedagogy focuses on important macro-level writing concepts and sociocultural and sociopolitical concerns. Macro-level concepts, for instance, include audience, purpose, and genres as social actions, or, in some composition textbooks, rhetorical modes such as narration and description. Sociocultural concerns include language-related themes in curricular content, such as language ideologies (e.g., monolingualism, native-speakerism), language policies (e.g., English-only legislation in the U.S.), or reflections on first-hand language experiences (e.g., in literacy narrative assignments).
Although social and political aspects of language are also prevalent concerns for linguists, linguistics also offers tools for systematic examination of language itself, including micro-level patterns (word and phrase, or lexicogrammatical patterns, such as noun phrases) and meso-level patterns (sentence and paragraph patterns, such as subject/verb coordination or rhetorical moves) as they inform or challenge language ideologies. When instruction in writing studies does address paragraph or sentence-level concerns, it often focuses on insights from analyzing one text at a time rather than on insights from patterns analyzed across many texts. This leads to rich insights about situated language use and rhetorical concepts in a few texts, but it doesn't necessarily guarantee that writing instructors or students have writing knowledge regarding systematic language norms and patterns (Matsuda et al., 2013; Eckstein & Ferris, 2018; Aull, 2020; Gere et al., 2021; Rossen-Knill & Hancock, 2021).
Here are some pedagogical trends related to a greater emphasis on macro-level concepts and sociocultural concerns:
Why these trends? A key historical reason is the US disciplinary and institutional divide between rhetoric/composition and linguistics/applied linguistics (Matsuda, 1999; Aull, 2015; Gere et al., 2021). The former has traditionally emphasized humanistic research methods and graduate training and been linked to English departments, while the latter has drawn from more social scientific theories and research methods. Today, these disciplinary separations tend to hold within the US, though there are important overlaps in commitments and student populations (e.g., support for students from diverse linguistic backgrounds) and there are several important exceptions—for example second language writing (e.g., Hyland, 2019; Wang, 2022) and discourse studies of student writing in and out of coursework and across disciplines (e.g., Cunningham, 2014; Nero & Stevens, 2018; Lancaster & Olinger, 2014). They include humanistic rhetorical insights as well as scientifically based information about what languages are, how they function, and how they are learned.
The Upshot of FAQ 1: Rhetorical traditions draw important attention to macro-level concepts, sociocultural details, and sociopolitical beliefs about language, with meaning in context as a priority. Linguistics traditions draw important attention to patterned language use as it follows descriptive rules and crosses contexts, with form and meaning systematically intertwined. Given their respective emphases, we have observed that linguistic traditions can complement rhetorical traditions in writing, and we address how they do so in the second FAQ.
We have especially found that attention to language and linguistics helps us cultivate two areas of writing knowledge: (A) awareness of the difference between usage preferences, on the one hand, and what is grammatically possible and meaningful in English, on the other; and (B) evidence-based understanding of linguistic equality across all language use.
(A) Usage preferences versus what is grammatically possible and meaningful
First, linguistics insights help highlight the difference between usage preferences or norms (language choices often associated with "correctness") and what is grammatically possible and meaningful in English (all forms that are available within the constraints of English as a rule-governed system). While usage preferences are socially-constructed, what is grammatically possible is linguistically-constructed within the structure of English. This is true of all varieties of English, regardless of whether they are privileged in school assessment; all shared varieties follow rule-governed norms (Smitherman, 1986; Young & Barrett, 2018).
In short, form and meaning always work hand-in-hand. Even if students’ linguistic or rhetorical choices diverge from what is typical or conventional in school assessments (i.e., according to usage preferences or norms articulated by teachers, handbooks, style guides, etc.), there is some form (i.e., some governing structure) being employed, because all shared language use is rule-governed. Language without form or structure (or any language knowledge) would be incomprehensible, and unlikely, because we learn language from the structures of language used by people around us. Form includes rule-governed options for words and sentences (i.e., morphology and syntax) as well as options for the structure of a paragraph or genre of writing (or speech).
When teachers and scholars express a concern about whether to attend to “form,” or they critique a focus on “form,” they are usually concerned about a prescriptivist view of form–i.e., the idea that there is one universal set of rules for “correct” language use regardless of context, or the idea that there is one inherently “correct” dialect of English. Linguists tend to take a descriptivist view—i.e., they look for patterns in language use (spoken, written, signed, etc.) that have social meaning within communities and contexts. Put another way, while prescriptivists are interested in what language users should do according to socially-constructed usage preferences and norms, descriptivists attend to what people actually do with what is grammatically possible in a language within particular contexts and communities (see, for instance, how the Linguistic Society of America addresses the issue of 'correctness' in language).
(B) Evidence-based understanding of linguistic equality
A second and overlapping point is that linguistics insights can help us promote evidence-based understanding of linguistic equality across all shared language use. An evidence-based understanding underscores that all shared language use is rule-governed and responsive to community needs. The social value of different kinds of language use is socially-constructed, not inherent in the linguistic forms themselves.
Linguistics insights and methods help us explore different language varieties in term of both linguistic patterns and socially constructed values. For example, Geneva Smitherman (1986), Staci Perryman-Clark (2013), and April Baker-Bell (2020) have investigated patterns and variation in the historical influences, purposes, genres, and linguistic patterns of African American or Black English. They observe context-specific variation, including both informal and formal registers (e.g. Dyson & Smitherman, 2009; Mufwene et al., 2021; Young, 2010), and they illustrate how we can describe (versus prescribe) linguistic patterns and social values associated with language varieties we explore. In other words, these studies explore language in terms of what/when rather than right/wrong.
We can similarly explore the what/when (versus right/wrong) norms and patterns in formal, standardized written English (SWE), the variety we are asked most about by writing instructors. Like Black English, SWE follows linguistic norms and is socially constructed to have value in some contexts and not others (Smitherman, 2017; Lippi-Green, 2012; Barrett et al., 2022). And like all language varieties, SWE varies by context, encompassing both formal and informal registers and both spoken and written genres.
Below, for example, are some features of SWE that have been identified in empirical studies by linguists:
Analysis of disciplinary writing has also found specific patterns within academic fields; for example, humanities writing tends to use first person pronouns to foreground one's own interpretive reasoning (e.g., I argue that; in my view), while natural sciences might use first person to emphasize the replicability of research activities (e.g., our results show that) (Hyland, 2005) (see all research based on the British corpus of Academic Written English).
Exploring historical influences, purposes, and patterns is a way to describe (versus prescribe) language, approaching it as socially-constructed and linguistically-patterned. In the case of SWE, doing so can help us avoid vague messages, such as that academic writing is "concise" or "sophisticated,” when we really mean "phrasally dense" or "more hedged." Likewise, knowledge of social norms and linguistic patterns can help us avoid labels like "correct," "elegant," and "lucid" that are not only hierarchical but often mystifying for students, potentially making them fall back on school language rules (such as "don't use first person") rather than language knowledge (such as "informational or interpersonal first person"). No language variety is inherently more "correct" or "lucid." Instead, all shared language varieties are rule-governed and responsive to community needs—and can be a matter of informed choices, or rhetorical agency, which we return to in FAQ 3.
The Upshot of FAQ 2: No one kind of shared language use is linguistically better, or more systematic, than another. Knowledge of language patterns allows us to descriptively investigate language norms toward awareness and informed choices, rather than perceiving or labeling language norms according to hierarchical or unclear terminology. Language knowledge helps us say as well as show that all registers and dialects are linguistically equal, and helps foster informed choices about what we use and value.
Recognizing that form and meaning are inherently interconnected and that all language varieties are linguistically equal but have differing social value within communities, we can draw on linguistics to help us support thinking about language less in terms of following abstract, universalist rules (e.g., “Never use ‘I’; “Avoid passive voice”) and more about making rhetorical choices. In other words, our writing curricula and instruction should aim to build students’ rhetorical agency—i.e., their ability to make informed decisions as language users (Lorimer Leonard, 2014; Shapiro, 2022; see also Charity Hudley’s “Students’ Right to Their Own Writing”). With this agency, students can use evidence-based language knowledge to decide for themselves when and how they wish to conform to particular writing conventions and where there might be possibilities for divergence from those conventions. Some of the strategies we can use to build this agentive capacity include:
(A) Giving students opportunities, strategies, and tools for identifying and experimenting with a range of written linguistic norms (Aull, 2023). This is one way to help students make informed decisions about conforming, resisting, and playing with patterns associated with dialect, genre, style, and modality, from grammatical patterns in SWE and other varieties of English, to moves in media for academic and public audiences, to help expose students to the range of linguistic choices available to them. As we explore the differences across genres, we can also discuss standardization within historical and political contexts: What is it? How does it occur? Who benefits and doesn’t, from the privileging of standardized language at school and in larger society? Thus, we take an approach to standardized language that is both progressive and pragmatic (Curzan, 2014; Delpit, 2006; Shapiro, 2022).
(B) Teaching (explicitly!) the skills of linguistic analysis to make space for exploring language through rhetorical reading and critical response. For example, students doing narrative writing can examine writing samples that use past tense versus present tense verbs, noting how the former helps to create a linear sequence while the latter can engage readers differently. Whichever choice students make in their own writing, we encourage them to be consistent, to avoid confusing the reader. Students can conduct in-depth analyses of linguistic data as a focus for original research, using data from surveys/interviews, databases like MICASE or MICUSP or COCA, and from their own lives—including online! Our goal is to help students see the range of possible variation within the discourses they are writing in, rather than to teach a single/universal set of “rules” for “good writing.”
(C) Investigating texts (written or otherwise) as cultural artifacts. Learning about linguistic norms and conventions can increase students’ understanding of academic cultures and communities. We know from decades of qualitative research that literacy education is a form of socialization—i.e., a means by which students come to see themselves (and come to be seen) as members of a community, whether it be an academic discipline or another community connected to students’ backgrounds, interests, or goals. Being able to analyze texts as cultural artifacts helps students to recognize community values, norms, and tensions (Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010; Duff, 2010; Lillis & Scott, 2007). For example, the use of passive voice in the Methods section of a scientific article reinforces a value of objectivity, by—literally—making the “object” the grammatical “subject” of the sentence. Of course, this value at times comes into tension with other values, such as the importance of recognizing who is providing the labor—which often gets obscured by passive voice. Conversations like these build on the rich tradition of WAC scholarship focused on making disciplinary genres and values more transparent (Thaiss & Zawacki, 2006; Wilder, 2012).
(D) Reflecting on our own language use—including our experiences with language and power—and modeling that reflective process for students. We can talk with students about the choices we make in our own writing, including the persona/tone we convey in our syllabi, during class discussion, and our feedback to students. Where appropriate, we may want to discuss the rhetorical choices in our scholarly work as well. We can convey a critical awareness of language and power by considering actions such as the following.
(E) Centering our feedback and assessment practices on rhetorical agency. Prioritizing rhetorical agency means that we emphasize concepts such as choice (versus intangible criteria such as “voice”—see Shapiro, 2022), clarity (vs. “correctness”) and effectiveness in our feedback practices. Strategies that are aligned with these emphases include:
The Upshot of FAQ 3: Descriptive attention to language allows students to recognize how form and meaning inform one another, including in SWE, so that they can make informed choices with awareness of patterns and variation. Attention to language itself supports students' rhetorical agency, our reflections on our own language socialization and use, and feedback practices that are effective and empowering for writers from a variety of language backgrounds.
We hope the insights and strategies presented here, informed by insights from linguistics and writing studies, might empower instructors to attend to language with curiosity and criticality, recognizing the social and political tensions around linguistic patterns and norms while also building students’ (and our own) rhetorical agency vis-a-vis adopting, negotiating, and challenging those patterns and norms.
For readers who would like to learn more about working with language in the writing classroom and curriculum, stay tuned for a forthcoming Annotated Bibliography we are working on.
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