Holier Than Thou: How and Why We Judge Others’ Writing

I recently reread one of my favorite academic articles “The Phenomenology of Error” by Joseph M. Williams.  If you are interested in the kinds of things composition instructors read, here’s a link:
“The Phenomenology of Error”

I first read this, when I was a brand new graduate teaching assistant (read: slave labor), teaching while still earning my degree and not entirely knowing yet what my philosophy about teaching was yet.

The gist of the article is that many of us who care about grammar and usage, and this includes the general public, not just English teachers, consider poor grammar “atrocious,” “horrible,”  and “detestable”.   We judge those who break the rules as uneducated and offensive.  We get knots in our stomach so tight that they illicit heartburn.  William argues that  social faux pas that make us feel as strongly are easily remedied through an apology but with poor grammar, we will not forgive!

I believe this concept goes for writing choices people make as well, like plot, character, etc..

In the article, one of his main points is that as instructors, we tend to mark off for every error we can find without mercy while when we read something professional, we forgive or do not even notice the errors.  He believes it is unfair for us to judge students this harshly when we don’t do it for people who we either hold in high esteem or that have more experience.

Likewise, there are classic writers who are unorganized and have no clear point, yet we forgive them because they are a classic writer.  We figure we just must not be getting the genius of the work.  Then there are newly published or unpublished writers who we thrash mercilessly, often missing brilliant ideas buried in the carnage.

As a teacher, I never use a red pen and I don’t expect grammar perfection.  It took me a while to get to that place, but I’m a much more peaceful person for it, and my students can concentrate on their meaning more when they are less afraid of getting nailed for everything they do wrong grammatically. I try to apply the same principle when I read other’s work, too.  I don’t want to be quick to judge because someone is not higher on the reading and writing ladder than me (whatever that means)!

By the way, (and this is a spoiler so if you are going to read the article, skip this part until later), Williams purposely put 100 errors in his article to prove his point.  Most people don’t notice them, because he is a composition scholar, and they expect he’ll write correctly.  While I’m no Williams, I decided to do the same thing in this post, though I have far fewer errors than 100.  It was painful to put so many in on purpose!  Did you catch them?

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