One Day in the Life of the English Language

In an age of text messages, tweets, and all manner of shorthand, do correct grammar and usage matter anymore? According to Frank L. Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language, they do indeed matter, but what today’s writing students need is an “anti-handbook”. In just such a book, Cioffi examines everything from the most serious newspaper articles to celebrity gossip magazines. Drawing his examples over the course of a single day, he illustrates the importance of applying grammatical principles to “real world” writing.

In this newly released video, learn more about Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language, including his stance on the changes in language owed to technology.

One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook by Frank L. Cioffi from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

One Day in the Life jacketFrank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is also the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

The New Yorker’s Fall Reading List; Cioffi’s “One Day in the Life of the English Language”

Unsure of what to add to your Fall Reading List? Refer to New Yorker‘s Mary Norris.

One Day in the Life jacketMary “comma queen” Norris, contributor and proofreader for the New Yorker,  likes to keep up-to-date on the latest and greatest books about English grammar, language and writing. In a recent New Yorker piece, “What We’re Reading this Fall”, Norris writes, “People might expect that, as a copy editor, I’d be absorbed in the new usage manual by Frank L. Cioffi, ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language,’… They wouldn’t be that far off.”

While she continues to admit her current absorption in a fiction work about a proofreader, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook, by Frank L. Cioffi, is certainly on her mind and surely listed on her Fall Reading List.

Using real-life examples to debunk myths of digital-age English and emphasize the inevitable evolution of the English language, this one-of-a-kind anti-handbook handbook convinces and motivates readers to use correct and effective grammar in their day-to-day lives.

Join Norris by adding One Day in the Life of the English Language to your own Fall Reading List and discover the significance of grammar in today’s world and why the ways of words matter.

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana Universities and at Bard and Scripps Colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Which of these 15 myths of digital-age English do you believe?

One Day in the Life of the English Language by Frank Cioffi, a new style guide that eschews memorization in favor of internalizing how sentences actually work, handily refutes these 15 myths of digital-age English. Think brevity is best? Swear by your default settings? Feel sure the internet is a “total latrine”? Try out this “True or False” test and see whether you’re the digital-age wordsmith you thought you were:

Myth 1 image1.  In the age of the tweet, short and concise is always the best.
True, true, short messages are often the best. But not always. Sometimes one needs to go on at some length. Sometimes it is necessary to provide a context, especially if one is trying to communicate more than just minimal information. And sometimes the very brevity or terseness of a tweet makes it impossible to understand.

2.  My word processing program doesn’t let me change margins, spacing, or other aspects of format.
Most word processing programs can be set up to accommodate any standard style; however, you need to use the program’s capabilities and not always accept default settings. In Microsoft Word, for example, many writers allow the program its silly default—to put an extra line space between paragraphs of the same format. This should be unselected as a default off the “paragraph” menu.

Myth 3 image3.  My word processing program will highlight and automatically fix any errors I make.
These automatic correction programs are notoriously unreliable, as they often “fix” writing that is in fact correct. For example, at first I thought one of my students had subject-verb agreement problems; then I noted that the program tried to get me to introduce such errors into my own work. You, not the program, are the mind behind the words. Don’t rely on your program to fix everything. Let it check—but you check too.

4.  “Logical punctuation” is the best option in most situations.
This idea usually refers to putting punctuation either inside or outside of quotation marks. The logicality of doing so or not doing so has been questioned by many. It’s probably best to follow conventions of a given style, unless you are not working within any particular field. In that case, you can invent new rules; just don’t expect others to understand or follow them.

5. People don’t really read anymore; they merely “scan a page for information.”
Gary Shteyngart brings up this idea in his 2011 novel Super Sad True Love Story. It’s interesting and has some truth to it: I agree that many people don’t read with a lot of care or seek to understand and internalize the written ideas they encounter. But some do. Think of that “some” as your audience. At the same time, consider the needs of an audience that just “scans the page.” Ask yourself, “Does this page I’ve just written include information worth scanning?”

Cioffi jacket6.  Anyone can publish written material nowadays, so what’s the value of Standard Written English?
With the Internet, it’s true that anyone can publish now. And many self-publishing options are open to any writer seeking to get work in print. Simply publishing something is now less a guarantee of its excellence or importance than it once was, but if you strive to have your work read—by more than family and friends—it will have to respect some standard forms and conventions. Or to put it another way, no matter what your publishing goals, if you want people to read your work, you will have to write with a high level of competence and lucidity.

7.  People are much less precise and exact than they used to be, now that they have computers to rely on.
This is clearly not the case in all situations. In fact, people must be much more careful now with details such as spelling, especially when entering passwords or usernames. In many digital contexts, attentiveness to language accuracy is obligatory. If you are inattentive, you often can’t even use the computer or the program. If you don’t respect the syntax of a program, it just won’t run.

8.  “Talking street” is what most people want to do anyway.
I think that most people have to use multiple forms of English. They might speak one way to their family, one way to their friends, one way on their jobs, and another way, perhaps, when they need to write a paper for a college course they are taking. People can and should become multilingual.

9.  Most grammatical stuff is of minor importance—kind of too boring and persnickety to bother with.
I agree that there are more important things in the world, but I have been making the argument throughout this book that in fact these “minor” matters do seem to make a difference to some people—and a major difference to a small minority. And writ large, they make a big difference in our society. Admittedly, there is a persnickety quality to some of the material, but isn’t specialization all about being persnickety?

10.  Someone else can “wordsmith” my ideas; I just generate them.
The line between the idea and the expression of it is very fine; that is, how you say something is often inextricable from what you say. You need to take charge of not just coming up with a basic idea or notion but also of how that idea gets expressed. If you have a stake in how an idea exists in its final form, you should take great care with its exact verbal formulation.

11.  Since so many “styles” (MLA, APA, Chicago . . .) are available and used by various specialties, it’s pointless to worry about this kind of superficial overlay.
There are a lot of forms and styles, to be sure. But you need to find the form that’s conventional in your professional field and use that. If you don’t, you almost automatically label yourself an “outsider” to that field, or perhaps even an interloper. And sometimes, just abiding by the conventions of a style gains you credibility in and of itself, allows entrée into a field.

12.  There’s no possibility of an original idea anymore: it’s all been said.
One certainly feels as though this might be possible, considering the ever-expanding scope of the Internet and the existence of over seven billion human minds on the planet. However, each of us has his or her own individual experience—which is unique. And out of that, I feel, originality can emerge. You must really want that originality to emerge, though, and resist succumbing to the pressure of the multitude to simply conform to what’s standard, acceptable, predictable, dull.

13.  If something is published on the Internet, it’s true.
I know that no one really believes this. But I want to emphasize that a great deal of material on the Internet is simply false—posted by people who are not reliable, well-informed, or even honest. Much Internet material that claims to be true is in fact only a form of advertising. And finally, do keep in mind that almost anyone can create websites and post content, whether they are sane or insane, children or adults, good or evil, informed or misinformed.

myth 4 image14.  The Internet is a total latrine.
A few years ago, I heard a well-known public intellectual give a talk for which this was the thesis. And there are certainly many things on the Internet and about the Internet that bear out such a judgment. However, there are also some amazing things, which prompt me to say that the Internet is the greatest accumulation of information and knowledge in the history of humankind. But you need to learn how to use it efficiently and effectively, and sort the good from the bad.

Myth 15 image

15.  I can cut and paste my way through any college paper assignment.
There are many opportunities to create what looks like your own work—cutting and pasting here, auto- summarizing there, adding a few transitional sentences, and mashing it all together. I don’t recommend this kind of work; it doesn’t really benefit you to create it. You want to write papers of your own, ones that express your own ideas and that use your own language. The cut-and-pasters are ultimately sacrificing their humanity, as they become people of the machine. And when they’re caught, the penalties can be severe.

How did you do?

Frank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

Graphics by Chris Ferrante

An interview with Frank Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language

This week we had the opportunity to ask Frank Cioffi questions about his new book, One Day in the Life of the English Language, which was recently featured in Inside Higher Ed. Cioffi offers insights on the “ethics” of usage, why grammar is “not just a set of rules”, and why students often readily grasp proper usage in exercises, but struggle with their own prose.

What was the inspiration for this book?Cioffi jacket

FC: Here is what I wrote in my five-year diary on 12/28/08: “millions of sentences are uttered and written. . . Most float off into a void, never to be heard of or recalled again. Most are ‘ungrammatical,’ no doubt unable to pass the scrutiny of a gimlet-eyed grammarian. But these sentences, and those of the previous days, and those of the next ones, make up our lives. They help to form the dense linguistic net of which we are all a part. And this book seeks to both represent that net and to show how you as a writer might well make a small, a human scale, a molecule-level, improvement of it.”

In what way or ways does your handbook differentiate itself from the thousand or so English handbooks already out on the market?

FC: I guess I am trying to persuade readers that Standard Written English (SWE) matters; it’s not just something to be memorized, like how to factor polynomials or the quadratic equation, but has a real impact on how we live and function as human beings. For example, using SWE usually improves one’s capacity for communicating to a wide and varied audience. More people will understand you if you use SWE than if you use, say, a dialect or an argot.

In addition, when you don’t use SWE you run the risk of stigmatizing yourself, of giving your audience the excuse to ignore what you say (“He can’t be saying anything of any importance—he’s clearly uneducated and dumb”). Now that’s not the right response, I know, and I emphasize in my book that we should not stigmatize people because their English is unpolished or somewhat far from the “standard,” but it still happens, so people need to learn SWE in order not to be stigmatized.

For many decades now I’ve been teaching English at the college level, and I have seen a lot of handbooks. None of them, I felt, had a sufficiently human voice. Most books say, “Here it is: learn it.” I say, “Here it is, and here is why it’s important to learn it.” Fred Crews’s Random House Handbook was something of an exception, but it’s now out of print. It is also not a compact book, which mine attempts to be.

Tell us a bit more about the “voice” of a handbook.

FC: Grammar books have multiple voices: the author who is lecturing, the author who is commenting on samples of English, and the sample sentences, often also by the author. I thought there was something wrong with all of these as they exist in current texts. In particular, I wanted the sentences to come from a real world, not the one of “Dick and Jane” books.

Here is the paradox I saw: students could do worksheets or exercises very readily, but their own prose didn’t reflect the lessons of those exercises. For example, my students did a worksheet on comma splices, but comma splices still marred their writing. We did a worksheet on apostrophes, but apostrophes were still a major problem in the formal papers. Why is that?

It seemed to me that maybe in our handbooks, workbooks, and even lectures, we tended to simplify example sentences too much. We tended to make them spare and simple so as to illustrate a grammatical point. But that point is easy to understand with simple sentences. As complexity grows, the capacity for error enlarges.

At the same time, students might think, “Only a total dummy would make a mistake like this sample sentence!” or maybe “That’s not me!”Or they might think, “This book is totally condescending.”

So I wanted sample sentences that were complex.

But the problem here was that making up sentences in the sample sentence genre suddenly grew difficult, since their lack of content becomes much more apparent as they grow in elaborateness. This made me wonder about the “world” depicted in the example sentences. It’s a made-up world. a world of nonevents, a world where nothing scary or awful or threatening or sexy happens. It’s the same world that the Educational Testing Service depicts in the “fairness guidelines” that they give to test preparers, which in some ways makes sense. We don’t want to distract students from the grammatical issue at hand.

Yet the world of these sample sentences has the interesting effect of making grammar somehow disembodied, disconnected from a real world. Its sentences emerge from a world where nothing is really happening, and where nothing really matters. What message does that send to our students or to our readers?

That’s when I decided to go for real-world sentences.

These come from the “one day,” then, of your title?

FC: Yes. I didn’t want to make these the culled variety we see in Strunk and White, or Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s book The Reader over Your Shoulder. No. I just wanted them to be from a single day, since that would show how we all make mistakes, how language is really tricky even for professionals to get just right.

So I combed magazines and newspapers published on December 29, 2008, and I tried to find examples of good sentences, elegant sentences, let’s say, as well as of sentences whose grammar struck me as “dubious,” as one of my colleagues likes to say. I came up with almost 300 of these sentences, so the book is at once a grammar handbook and a curious snapshot of history, on a day that is not particularly historical. And oddly enough, even though it’s more than six years later now, a lot of the sentences still resonate with current events.

What about the “rules” of Standard Written English: don’t you feel these need to be hammered home?

FC: As far as “learning grammar” goes, I didn’t want to provide just a set of rules, though of course I do emphasize what’s SWE and what is not. I instead argue that students and readers need to internalize the pattern and form of English sentences, really need to get inside them in a profound way, need to become, in a way, linguists themselves, in order to express themselves more fully.

In addition, I wanted to be honest. The rules of English are not apodictic: they are constantly being debated by professors; they are under constant pressure. Think of the problems with pronoun reference. Think of the “acceptable” comma splice. There are borderlands of acceptability in English that are becoming increasingly large.

And too we need to recognize that not all English needs to be SWE. We need to allow our students their own language in many situations, just as editors allowed that in the papers and magazines I looked at. One of the things we want to keep in mind is that so much of the success of one’s English has to do with accurately gauging what’s appropriate to a given situation, with assessing the audience for one’s words.

Your book also emphasizes the “ethics” of usage. Can you elaborate on this?

FC: I also suggest that grammaticality or accuracy is something that has an ethical component, since lives, careers, futures—our future—can hinge on the accuracy of English. At the same time, SWE often allows people to better express their ideas to a wider audience—people can get heard “when it matters,” if they properly gauge their audience and if they are able to be agile enough with their language to move from one register to the next, and to assume SWE when it’s needed and abandon it when it might be counterproductive, when it might sound stilted or stuffy or supercilious to use it.

What surprised you about writing and publishing this book?

FC: I was surprised by how hard it was to get published. It came close to being accepted by a couple of textbook houses, but it didn’t make the grade. One time, after three very positive outside reviews, I thought the book was as good as accepted. I was to meet with the editor soon and we were to work out the details. But then at the last minute the editor canceled our meeting and said the book could not be published by her press.

“Why not?” I wondered. Then it occurred to me that if I am writing a book that challenges the value of standard handbooks, then a publisher that has 100 such handbooks on its list isn’t likely to publish mine! This also clued me in to why it is that all the handbooks out there are so similar.

It’s as if there is a weird monopoly of ideas—we can’t rock the boat too much with new ideas or approaches, since we’re making a ton of money off of the old ones!

When I was teaching in Poland a few years ago, it was communist days, and I was complaining about censorship. One of my colleagues, though, challenged me on this: “You have censorship in America, too, you know, and it’s as repressive of new ideas as ours is, maybe more: books that aren’t deemed salesworthy are simply not published. That silences all sorts of voices.” So a book might be itself salesworthy, but might drag down the sales of the other books published by a press, so that book won’t see print, at least not by them.

So do you think your book might change the way that college writing is taught?

FC: My book attempts to get writing instructors to grapple on an ongoing basis with the complexities of English usage and grammar, and to work with students as they try to plumb these issues together. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a course of instruction in what, for many students, is a new language altogether. If we really want to change the quality of the work our students produce, we need to reimagine how the college composition course is structured, staffed, and funded.

How did you come up with the title of the book, which is a play on Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

FC: I was going to call it “One Day’s Sentences in America,” but I wasn’t all that happy with that title. One day, though, my wife, Kathleen Cioffi, said, “Hey, why not call the book ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language’?” Bingo.

What are you reading right now?

FC: Right now I am reading a collection of short stories by Alberto Moravia. He is a marvelous and, I think, neglected Italian writer. His stories examine the minutiae of daily life; they explore the psychological menace and poignancy of the ordinary. In some ways they are stories about a lack of communication between people and the effects of that.

What are your next writing projects?

FC: I have several going on right now. Probably I have too many. I have three completed book manuscripts: one is about teaching entitled Beyond Zombie Pedagogy. I’ve also written a biography of my late uncle, the philosopher Frank Cioffi. And I kept a detailed diary of my life in communist Poland. The diary is maybe 700,000 words, though—I kept it for three years—so I need to cut it down and turn it into a narrative/analysis of life in Poland in the waning days of communism. Still waiting for publishers and contracts for these three books—!

I also have a volume of poetry that I’ve culled from the hundreds of poems I’ve written over the last three decades.

Really? Poetry? Perhaps you could give us a short poem?

FC:

Ok, here is a villanelle, “Noisome T. Rex”:

 

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

Smooth feelings blunt as a plastic doll’s sex,

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Moving ‘midst throngs swarm-clogging the pavement,

lumb’ring dumb-monstrous as noisome T. Rex,

fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Pointless to think of her lips or prevent

recall of their blood-damp cling pre/post-X.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Don’t look directly—no, keep that gaze bent,

as eyes switchblade your so vulner’ble neck .

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Its fluid-flow blocked, mind needing a stent

or swift amputation—painless, unvex’d—

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

 

Violate space through some vocal event.

Stall devolution, and fight your thrawn hex.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

 

Be sure to read the introduction here.