Being Open-Minded to University Bias

Jonah Lehrer has another excellent piece at Wired on some recent work by psychologists at the University of Michigan, University of Toronto and Harvard University on the inabilities of some students to focus and a surprising correlation this inability has with creativity and achievement.

The University of Michigan study is more of a survey and finds that U of M students who have been labeled with ADHD are more likely to have won awards at science fairs or juried art shows. That is pretty cool to read, especially since so many of my own students have been labeled with ADHD.

Then there is another study by the University of Toronto and Harvard University which Lehrer cites, and it is even more good news for the easily distracted. They find that students who struggle to ignore irrelevant distractions, such as air conditioners and other noises, are seven times more likely to be rated as “creative achievers.”

Lehrer writes:

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.)

As someone who teaches students who would never leave their homes without their cell-phones and iPods and laptops, this sounds like great news. My highly distracted students seem to be award winners with enormous creative potential. I cannot wait to tell them. Hopefully they will show up to class on Monday.

As usual, my students are not in these studies nor are they anywhere near the vast majority of studies that come out of universities. When these universities run studies on their students, they are working with students who have adapted very well to the demands of their surrounding even when they are easily distracted. In fact, the students who are easily distracted might even have higher I.Q.s than the average university students they are being compared to.

Lehrer is quite clear about the shortcomings of this research and its selection process, and he points this out in parentheses at the bottom of the article:

(It’s also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn’t tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.)

And that is the problem. But it is a far bigger problem than I think Lehrer is aware of.

Lehrer is more attuned to the issue of bias in the studies than most, but even he gives little more than a parenthetical remark on this significant problem with so much research coming out of universities. Far, far too often universities study their own students and spend little effort considering how different these students are from the average students coming out of high school and struggling through college.

The kids with ADHD who fail to be graduated are not the exception to be dismissed and ignored but very well might be the majority. To take them out of the study is wrong, very wrong. In fact, the study is not just dealing with the kids who were graduated from high school but those who passed highly selective entrance requirements to get into these competitive universities. For U of M and Harvard to tell us how creative distracted students are is like Cindy Crawford telling us how lovely moles are, especially when they are on your face.

In one sense, this is no big deal. I could just ignore these studies and show up on Monday no worse for wear. But that is not how it works.

These studies are frequently covered in the news or are disseminated though graduate schools and other places where educators are educated. They are written about at numerous blogs and make their ways into e-books that are read on iPads and Kindles by the well-washed masses on their way to UCs and Ivy League schools. In short, these studies and their flawed conclusions become the common knowledge that people with power and influence know, but they end up having little to do with the common college student who never won an art show or a science fair and is instead struggling to get off academic probation and wondering if he should have stayed at the pizza delivery job.

This problem with selection bias in these university studies reminds me of the early dyslexia research that showed how intelligent people with dyslexia really are. There were some initial studies showing that people with dyslexia had higher I.Q.s than average folks. This research was cut down when more comprehensive research showed I.Q. really was not a factor either way, but this misconception about the high intelligence of dyslexics has remained and has been promoted by books such as The Gift of Dyslexia. This book and its conclusions are still being promoted by a select group of people who have been quite successful with their dyslexia.

In both cases, the majority of students are being left to look at themselves as being stupid for not being able to keep up, let alone win the art contests and science fairs. These students do not just lack the abilities to make it at the University of Michigan or Harvard University, but carry with them a good deal of emotional baggage from years of struggling and failing.

Maybe, just maybe, some of those highly creative graduates of these highly competitive universities could start paying attention to people outside of their highly successful circles.


Contradicting Myself on Standard Written English–Well, Not Really

Reading Research Quarterly has an excellent article on a topic quite similar to the rant that College English published last month. But, unlike, College English, Reading Research Quarterly shows its usual dedication to good research to back up the article.

The article is a review of research by Melanie Sperling of UC Riverside and Deborah Appleman of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Sperling and Appleman look at the research on the poorly defined concept of “voice” in the writing of college students. There are essentially two ways of looking at voice, one that focuses on the individual as the producer of a rhetorical position within his or her writing and another that is ideologically constructed and shaped by the context in which the student develops academically and socially.

Sperling and Appleman do an excellent job of going through both conceptions of voice and review the literature in both areas thoroughly. The students who achieve a fluency of voice have progressed in a way that allows them to be understood and to center their identities in their spoken and written communications. Even though voice is not something that can be clearly defined in this sense, instructors often evaluate for it and see it in the abilities of students to navigate their rhetorical contexts with a good degree of dexterity.

Here is what Sperling and Appleman write:

In this view, the ability to write with voice and to imbue reading with voice demonstrates not only a particular  threshold of linguistic accomplishment but also a threshold of identity achievement, with identity understood to be firmly centered in the individual.

The important element for the students is the development of a personal mastery over their language. The characteristics of this “voice” are not all that easily delineated for a rubric, but they are evident to anyone who has read the writing of a developing student. Even if we cannot quantify voice all that well, teachers know that watching students find their voices in our own classrooms might be the single reason we slog through those stacks of essays.

Sperling and Appleman then go on to describe the conception of voice as a social or cultural construct. To readers of Vygotsky, this notion is not all that new, but Sperling and Appleman develop this approach a good deal more with the perspectives of Bakhtin and Wertsch, among others:

For Wertsch, following Vygotsky and Bakhtin, human thought including language and learning, is fundamentally social in nature. From Vygotsky’s perspective, humans learn and develop language in social interaction. What begins as interaction or dialogue in the social sphere becomes, for the individual, internalized as thought.

Vygotsky, Bakhtin and Wertsch show that an individual’s dexterity with language is not simply a personal mastery of a set of cognitive skills, but is a manifestation of social conventions and the ideologies that refined them in the individual him or herself. Linguistically speaking, no one is an island, and this has much to say about notions of voice in the writings of our students.

What we see as voice in the writings of our students represents not just a level of personal development but also a navigation of the rhetorical modes originally developed by social and political forces. A student’s name may be on top of an essay, but an ideologies he or she is not aware of are shaping much of the language and rhetorical approaches used throughout the essay.

This should give pause to English teachers, especially ones such as me who argue for the utility of teaching Standard Written English to students from lower classes and marginalized ethnic groups. Standard Written English is a dialect developed primarily by middle class white folks for communicating with each other, and its conventions are frequently used to exclude people from lower classes and non-white ethnic groups. There is no way around this historical fact.

In the College English piece, Bruce Horner sees Standard Written English as a tool of the dominant groups for keeping other groups marginalized and weak. Their argument is that English teachers need to “legitimize” other dialects in the college classroom by accepting them as legitimate discourses. This would counteract the history of using Standard Written English to marginalize ethnic minorities. I think this is just plain silly.

What Sperling and Appleman argue for is somewhat different and more useful, but I still see the need for Standard Written English to play a dominant role in our composition courses. They point to the work of a number of researchers who have developed alternative ways of developing voice in our students. Fisher and Jacson both find ways to include non-standard discources in the classroom that I think are legitimate. They use poetry in urban classrooms to “legitimize urban youth culture” and give “voice to students who generally are silenced by traditional academic writing assignments.”

I see these types of assignments as interesting to students because they allow students to act as the experts right when they walk in the door. The student research for such assignments is done through many of the activities they already engage in with their computers and iPods. The assignments qualify as academic because they require the students to reflect on elements from their own culture in ways that are more critical and more appropriate for an academic setting.

I would, however, say that these assignments have a limited value for developing a more thoroughly developed voice. I do not use these types of assignments myself, but it is not because I enjoy lording Standard Written English over my mostly marginalized students. Instead of such “high interest” assignments, I stick to more traditional topics because I see that student gain a greater level of confidence from working and writing in Standard Written English than by using a polished version of their own home dialect.

Sperling and Appleman seem to want to hold onto such an approach and cite Smitherman’s 1972 essay where she “mashes” Black English and Standard Written English in an academic essay to argue for the acceptance of non-standard dialects in composition courses.

Smitherman writes:

There are, to be sure, a few brave enlightened souls who are doing an excellent job in the ghetto. To them, I say: Keep on keepin’ on. But to those others, that whole heap of English teachers who be castigating Black students for using a “non-standard” dialect, I got to say: the question in the title is directed at you, and if the shoe fit, put it on.

Smitherman continues:

As a daughter of the Black ghetto myself, don’t seem like it’s no reason the teacher be doing none of that correctin’ mess. I contend that the size of the above mentioned shoe fully exceeds the magnitude of the problem, for language power is a function not of one’s dialect but of larger linguistic structures skillfully and effectively employed.

One wonders what W.E.B. DuBois would say to this.

What troubles me about Smitherman and others is that they take their own position and treat it as if it were the black position. All that “correctin’ mess” is actually something my students, especially my black students, want to learn about and master most often because their own parents and grandparents have told them in no uncertain terms to clean up their speech and stop talking “ghetto.”  The whole notion of a college professor “legitimizing” any dialect strikes me as little more than patronizing.

The core mistake that Smitherman, Horner and others make is that they see dominant ideologies as inherently exploitive and needing to be resisted at every corner. Standard Written English becomes the language of those in power and is good for keeping the marginalized powerless and little else. (Horner actually acknowledges that he is using Standard Written English in his own essay but sheepishly avoids discussing this irony in any detail.) Smitherman, Horner and others are correct in this assessment of the way Standard Written English can be used against marginalized students to a degree. Making people believe Standard Written English is inherently superior to other dialects is often what English teachers do, and that is simply wrong on so many levels.

What they miss is that Standard Written English is the most effective dialect for people to use to communicate about more complicated situations and to do so across cultures and times. Regional dialects simply do not work well when people from different backgrounds are trying to work with each other on more challenging tasks where clarity and accuracy are important. I could imagine how well Smitherman’s writing style would strike a Latino man from East Los Angeles or a poor white woman from West Virginia, let alone someone from Ireland or England.

Regional dialects are not used in professional fields simply because there are so many white professionals but because you cannot write about genetics, engineering, business management, contract law or pre-Columbian history all that effectively in any dialect other than Standard Written English.

When I read of scholars and others criticizing the use of Standard Written English as a tool of alienating and marginalizing certain groups, I fully agree with them, but there is far, far more to it than that. I also see Standard Written English also as a common meeting ground where people from different groups can and do communicate with each other quite well.

So I agree with Sperling and Appleman when they argue for a greater awareness of how dialect and ideology walk hand in glove:

Teaching voice, then, means that we understand with students how and whether one discourse infiltrates or meshes with another, and to what rhetorical, academic, and not least, political ends.

But I would add that Standard Written English, when taught as a living dialect and not enforced as a rigid set of rules, does not squelch the development of voice in students. If it is taught as a dialect that students can learn, use and change, then their voices become all that much stronger and clearer and colorful. When internalized by someone who has been marginalized, Standard Written English becomes a discourse of personal power. And that is nothing less than a good thing.


Standard Written English–The Universities’ New Whipping Boy

I just finished an Opinion piece in College English delineating the many ways that Standard Written English is oppressive and demeaning to minorities and others outside the existing power structure. Sadly, this has become a standard practice among university types.

Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu and a couple others spend ten pages or so in the essay “Language Differences in Writing: Towards a Translingual Approach” making Standard Written English into a tool for oppression and the people who teach it into cultural tyrants with naive notions about the English language.

I know it might sound as if I am exaggerating, so allow me to turn the floor over to them:

[Instructors] take as the norm a linguistically homogeneous situation: one where writers, speakers, and readers are expected to use Standard English or Edited American English–imagined ideally as uniform–to the exclusion of other languages and language variations. These approaches assume that heterogeneity in language impedes communication and meaning. Hence, the long standing aim of traditional writing instruction has been to reduce “interference,” excising what appears to show difference.

Horner et alia resort to simplifying the many English teachers out there who see value in Standard Written English as a uniform type bind to the flexibility within Standard Written English. Apparently, we hold onto some ideal that Standard Written English is “uniform,” and then we exclude other languages and language variations thusly.

This is, of course, a rhetorical stance designed to portray people such as me both ignorant about the nature of the English language and prone to punishing linguistic elements of which we do not approve. I know there are people who are pedants first and teachers third or fourth, but most of the people I know who teach this language know something about the arbitrary nature of the conventions we teach and use their red pens judiciously.

No matter. Horner et alia get worse:

For, in fact, notions of the “standard English speaker” and “Standard Written English” are bankrupt concepts. All speakers of English speak many variations of English, every one of them accented, and all of them subject to change as they intermingle with other varieties of English and other languages. Likewise, standards of written English are neither uniform nor fixed.

Notions of Standard Written English are “bankrupt”? Horner et alia are getting a little over-dramatic with the rhetoric here, but they are using an approach that is quite common among composition and linguistics faculty at universities.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, pillories such an English “peeve” named Richard Grant White in an blog entry concerning White’s criticism of the use of what is known as the progressive passive. White is just the kind of person that Horner et alia see as the problem. They are nit-picking and pompous and go around making people feel all bad about their writing, and Liberman does a wonderful job of poking holes in everything he writes. The problem is White wrote his critique of the progressive passive back in 1869 when peevishness was in vogue. White is dead and so are many of the most egregious pedants.

In fact, Horner et alia‘s piece is not so much a scholarly work as much as it is a manifesto signed by 50 faculty members from a few dozen universities with little experience of student writing outside of the universities where they teach. (Only one of the 50 is from a community college.) These people are not all that likely to encounter the kinds of oppressed masses they seem so willing to go to the ramparts to defend.

Horner et alia are not about to let their lack of experience teaching slightly more marginalized people hold them back, however:

While it is both accurate and useful to identify the language strategies by which specific collectivities have tried to resist domination, the aim should be to honor their linguistic ingenuity and to encourage other innovative strategies–not to reify a set of forms that supposedly have intrinsic power.

Horner et alia know their rhetoric of oppression, but they seem to have little to no familiarity with the students who come to a community college and sign up for a grammar class. They have this image of marginalized students from lower classes and minority groups coming to the universities and fighting the good fight and resisting the power structures of people such as myself who teach Standard Written English to people who speak and write in non-standard forms. But I am here to tell you that I am really not such a bad guy.

Horner et alia are correct in recognizing that Standard Written English is the language of the powerful today, but they are naive in thinking that marginalized students are looking to “resist domination.” The students I see aim to learn Standard Written English for school and work and become part of the powerful classes not for the sake of oppressing their fellow comrades but for the sake of having a life with little less drudgery. Nor do the students I see want us to “honor their linguistic ingenuity” any more than they want us to share their lunch with them or compliment them on the t-shirt selection for the day. They just do not need us to legitimize their language. Urging English instructors to do so strikes me as patronizing and little else.

What strikes me about this piece is that it is endorsed by so many big names in the field of composition studies from so many big name universities where the first order of business is to exclude so many common people from their classes and from their campuses. These professors from Dartmouth College, University of Louisville, The Ohio State University and many other universities seem to think “marginalized” people occupy a great number of places in their classrooms. They do not. Marginalized people cannot make it past the entrance exams at these universities in large part because they are nowhere near fluent in Standard Written English. Trust me.

Instead these composition scholars are spending most of their time working with high achieving students who happen to have some markers of non-standard English on their tongues and pens. Allowing them to get away with these in their writing is not all that egalitarian.

What would be truly innovative and egalitarian would be to accept anyone and everyone who applies to their universities and then allow them into their English classes. When the first batch of essays comes rolling in, most of these scholars might not endorse the peevishness of a Richard Grant White, but they would probably be a little more tolerant of the pedantries of Strunk and White and others of their ilk. Such as me.


Misconceptions and Refutations in Grammar Textbooks

Reading Research Quarterly has an excellent study from a group of researchers based at the University of Cyprus that examines the differences between expository and refutation writing for teaching college students about scientific concepts.

The study is fairly involved and has a number of nuances that are beyond the scope of this entry, but basically the researchers take two groups of students and have them read one of two different pieces about how energy works in physics. The researchers picked this topic because energy is something that students often have trouble understanding or come up with misconceptions to explain situations around them that seem to use energy. Many students, for example, see energy as akin to a natural force or believe it has mass that can be seen in a microscope or measured with a scale.

The first group was given an expository text written in much the way textbooks are written while the second group was given a refutation text written in much the same manner as the first but with refutations of common misconceptions about energy at certain key places. The refutation texts were slightly longer but they did not provide extra information, but instead simply debunked common misconceptions about energy.

The abilities of students to understand the core concepts regarding energy were essentially the same in both groups, but the students reading the refutation texts tended to be better at making inferences about energy and its application to situations. This difference was especially pronounced among students who were assessed as having very little knowledge about energy or as having knowledge that was made up primarily of misconceptions. The students who started the study with lower levels of knowledge about energy and physics in general were prone to making poor inferences and were easily confused by situations that required application of the knowledge to a concrete situation. Could you, for example, see the energy within sugar with a microscope?

To me, this was interesting.

Students of grammar come to class with a great number of misconceptions about how the language works and what learning grammar is supposed to involve. Misconceptions seem to be more common and more deeply rooted than actually understandings. There is, of course, the comma rule that is not a rule (“Put a comma wherever there is a pause”); then there is the clear and concise definition of a sentence that makes no sense (“A sentence is a complete thought”); and, there are many many others that students have picked up from well meaning family members and poorly educated English teachers. All these misconceptions add up to a great deal of interference when the students are trying to learn this messy language.

I see the research as having application to grammar instruction not only because of the number of misconceptions students bring with them but also because it showed how useful refutation writing is for developing the ability to make inferences. The reality is that knowing grammar is not all that impressive if it cannot be applied directly to writing more effectively.

Oddly enough refutations of common misconceptions rarely make it into the basic grammar books. There are plenty of books out there that deal with how silly many of the “rules” that English teachers have come up with over the years are, but the books are written by linguists for other linguists and never make it into the textbooks students use.

The teachers tend to use textbooks that answer certain questions and resolve the issues that students bring to class without taking the time to explain how arbitrary many of these “rules” actually are. There are plenty of books by linguists that blow holes right through these “rules” but there are no books that I am aware of that balance the need to teach students how to use the language but make them aware that these rules are really just useful conventions.

Knowledge of these misconceptions has been around for quite some time. Mina Shaughnessy, David Bartholomae, Joseph Williams and many others have written about the nature of “error” in student writing decades ago, but the students do not have their error patterns directly addressed in the textbooks themselves. A more direct approach to the misconceptions students have would make teaching them new concepts all that easier. No major rewrite of the grammar textbooks would be needed. Just a revision, a revision that would incorporate refutations of the many misconceptions students already have on the first day of class.


Bad Writing

Dick Cavett is generally well regarded as a writer, but I am trying to understand why. I do not remember reading anything he has ever written that had not been overwritten. His recent piece “The Wrath of Grapes” in the NY TImes is typical of what I have read by him.

Like most bad writing, the nastiness of the piece exists on a number of levels. There is, of course, the obvious problem with writing about being drunk, which is a topic best covered by adolescents at MySpace or ex-boyfriends in text messages. Cavett figured the NY Times readers were missing out on the fun, so he decided to write a two-part piece on his adventures with a bottle of Scotch during the 1960s. Thanks, Dick.

Things get worse when he starts writing and comes up with this paragraph:

The mouth was a distinct displeasure. I remember saying aloud, to no one, “It tastes like I’ve eaten an assortment of larvae.” I tried to laugh but the head pain forbade any more than a murmur of self-appreciation. I made it to the sink as Vesuvius erupted.

The paragraph starts off well enough, but when Cavitt describes the larvae as an “assortment,” he has started overwriting. Most people cannot identify with eating larvae in the first place, so I doubt describing the taste as “an assortment of larvae” rather than as “larvae” is much like differentiating between the tastes of cookies-and-cream and vanilla.

Then there is the use of “forbade” which only  a nun at a grammar school in 1962 would use with a straight face. But the coup de grace is his allusion to Vesuvius, which fans of classical correspondence know quite well since it suffocated Pliny the Elder under a blanket of volcanic ash and rock.

What strikes me about Cavitt’s writing is not that its stuffed with pseudo-intellectual silliness but that it relies on diction and allusion for its sophistication. Those two rhetorical tools mark the style of Cavitt, and both are focused on words, not phrases and clauses. When Cavitt needs precision and accuracy, he reaches for individual words with multiple syllables and uses them to make himself sound worldly and well-read.

Word choice is an important part of writing well, but it is only a small part of good style and has the danger of leading to overwriting. Having an ear for what sounds right means more than reaching for a thesaurus; it means being in tune to the rhythms of phrases and clauses and how they affect the style and aesthetics of the sentences and paragraphs. Good writers know this.


The Not-So Simple but Oh-So Necessary Task of Defining Words and Sentences

One of the more difficult things to do in grammar instruction is to define what a sentence is. It is almost as difficult as defining what a word is. No kidding.

Words seem self evident. They are units of language that are made up of letters and have an identifiable meaning or definition that can usually be found in a dictionary. In speech they can be pronounced as a single unit, while in print they have spaces on both sides. That seems simple enough.

We could keep this simple and exemplify this with a solid word, such as the word “establish,” and proceed to find it in the dictionary. Then we would find that even dictionary.com has eight definitions for the word. All of them are the same part of speech, so this is not really that much of a problem. (I can imagine that the OED has a few extra definitions, but that is a silly book we should not trouble ourselves with at this point.) But if I look at how we defined the parameters of a word as having an identifiable meaning, would “establish” be one word or eight? I will try not to think about that right now.

Instead I will move on to another issue brought up by the modification of words with suffices. (Is that supposes to be “suffices” or “suffixes”? And would that count as one word or two? They seem to be two different words but they have the same exact definition. No matter. I should be writing and not thinking.) I could, for example, add an “es” to the end of “establish” and make it “establishes.” Does this count as a different word or a modification? Probably a modification, eh? How about if I slap a suffix on the end and change it from the verb “establish” to the noun “establishment.” Seems good. How about if I add an “s” onto the end and make it “establishments”? Not really? How about if I slap a prefix onto the “establishment” and create “antiestablishment.”  Or “antiestablishmentarian.” And then “antiestablishmentarianism.” And we should not forget “antiestablishmentarianisms.”

Our most basic unit for grammatical instruction seems hopelessly undefinable in any practical sense. I am sure a good linguist could go through all this silliness and make sense of it with precise definitions of concepts only a linguist would be familiar with. The problem is that a linguist’s precision would quickly become silliness for most students.

We run into a similar problem with the definition of a sentence. The most common definition I have heard is probably the one that has created the most confusion. Most students come into class with the definition they picked up in junior high or high school: “a sentence is a complete thought.”

This definition tells students very little since a “complete thought” can be as simple as a one word answer to a question. If someone asks you “When are we going to Disneyland?”, an answer of “Tuesday” would be perfectly complete since nothing else is needed to answer the question. A complete thought could also answer the question “What is a sentence?” but that question seems to be demanding more than a one word answer at this point since I am nowhere near completing this thought.

The “complete thought” definition becomes mildly useful, however, when students try to determine if a dependent clause can be punctuated as a sentence. The dependent clause “When Claude was waiting in line at the Matterhorn”  sounds as if something is missing. Most student say they want to know what happened when Claude was waiting in line.

It seems many people have this vague sense that something is missing when there is no independent clause. Asking about what happened when Claude was waiting in line forces the students to come up with an independent clause that would change the fragment into a sentence. It would seem that the “complete thought” people might have a point about fragments. But, thankfully, they do not. A simple erasure of the subordinating conjunction “when” would change things entirely. The stripped down clause would read “Claude was waiting in line at the Matterhorn,” which most people would probably consider to be a complete thought, but this transformation happened not because something was completed, but because something was eliminated.

I do understand that linguists can break this stuff down far more effectively than I can and are able to provide more precise definitions of words and sentences. I get that. These linguistic definitions are not useful for someone who wants to write better for a job and does not care much for discussing the shortcomings of Chomsky’s universal grammar in light of the fMRI studies published in Volume 114 of Brain and Language. The problem is that when we simplify things for grammar instruction, we often create problems for our students. That is usually not the goal of simplification.

But instead of doing away with our rules and definitions because of their short comings, we need to make it clear that many of the terms we work with are good only within a certain context and are not so much rules as they are conventions. Students who learn grammar in college just want to write better and have no use for the particulars of language. In a sense, our students are learning to become mechanics and need to know and need to know where to pour the oil; they are not learning to become mechanical engineers who need to calculate velocity using the Bernoulli theorem.


Contractions and Verisimilitude in “True Grit”

The contraction-free diction and the biblical themes in the movie True Grit have caught the attention of a number of folks who know far more about movies and language and literature than I do or ever will. The movie is a remake of the John Wayne movie of the same name and is based on Charles Portis’ novel which was written in the 1960s.

Alan Barra at the Daily Beast makes it quite clear that he believes the movie accurately portrays the way people spoke back then and credits studious attention to the King James Bible by the good country people in Arkansas for this:

One of the best things about True Grit is that all of it is written in that vernacular, the speech of people who, while they may have been illiterate, were raised on readings of Shakespeare and the King James Bible, an English practically devoid of contractions and Latinate words. Portis, the reclusive author of a handful of novels (including NorwoodMasters of AtlantisGringoes, and Dog of the South, all of which have devoted cult followings), and a former journalist, supposedly learned the rhythms and cadences of late-19th century Southern speech working on newspaper stories in rural northwest Arkansas.

Illiterate people were raised on readings from Shakespeare and the King James Bible? Huh? Shakespeare is devoid of contractions and Latinate words? Umm…. The people of Arkansas in the late 19th-centrury English did not use contractions? Errr….

Maybe there was a highly redacted version of Works of Shakespeare that all the illiterates were checking out of the Little Rock library in the 1870’s that I just do not know about, and maybe Charles Portis cut class and went fishing the day he was to have read Huck Finn and missed Mark Twain’s stab at the rhythms and cadences of late 19th century Southern speech. Maybe.

(Oddly enough Barras claims to have read True Grit but seems to have not read Portis’ other novels which are covered in contractions and those fancy-pants Latinate words. No matter. Maybe Barras cut class the day those novels were assigned.)

The claims about Shakespeare are easily dismissed with a glance at any page of any of his plays from any point in his writing career, but the claims for rhythms and cadences of Southern speech in the 19th century and for the role of the the King James Bible in setting the morality of the characters seem to be taken seriously by others who should know better, such as Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanley Fish at the New York Times.

The question of the contractions comes up in two blog entries by the linguist Mark Liberman here and here. Liberman does an interesting analysis of the near complete lack of contractions in not only the narration of Mattie in the novel but even the speech of the characters throughout the movie. Personally, I caught only one contraction in the entire movie while others in the comments section of his blog claim to have heard as many as three. This is more than a little bit odd since the movie is set in the 1870’s and deals almost entirely with the lives of adults and a child who have little education.

Liberman makes a point of quoting a gentleman by the name of David Fried who brings up this issue of contractionless speech. I cannot find Fried anywhere on the Internet, which probably means he does not exist, but he does apparently quote Ethan Coen in a Newsweek interview as having explained the lack of contractions as a 19th century mode of speech:

She [Hailee Steinfeld] handles that language. Did people actually not talk with contractions at that time?

Ethan: We’ve been told that the language and all that formality is faithful to how people talked in the period.

What stuns me is that Liberman takes Coen as being somewhat serious. If Ethan Coen were at all serious, then Barras would have something akin to a point, and we should know better. Anyone who has ever seen one of the Coen brothers’ movies or read any of their interviews should know that is a pretty silly thing to take anything they say seriously. (They were, after all, born in Minnesota.) In fact, this comment that the language is true to the time comes right after Joel and Ethan have a good deal of fun with Mattie’s amputation, which Ethan flippantly compares it to 127 Hours where a hiker loses his own arm.

The whole interview is clearly a lark for Joel and Ethan, and anyone looking for something insightful into the movie itself from the words of the Coen brothers is hunting for snipes in the forests of Minnesota. But Liberman treks on and even starts running word searches through Google Labs and finds that they probably did not talk that way back in 1870.

I don’t know what Portis intended, and I don’t know what the Coen brothers did. But I know that that informal American speech in the 1870s was far from contractionless, and in fact I suspect that it had roughly the same proportion of contractions as it does today.

Liberman follows up this insight with quotations from a 1989 article in the Journal of English Linguistics and with some fairly unscientific searches for contractions through Google Books. Liberman is having some fun with this whole thing and calls it a “Breakfast Experiment,” but he does seem to think Portis and the Coen brothers believe this is how people spoke in Oklahoma and Arkansas in 19th century America.

Stanley Fish comes closer to understanding the nature of the moral themes of the movie when he notes how individual virtue is answered arbitrarily with either rewards or punishments but more often with indifference and violence in a column he wrote for the New York Times. God’s grace, he notes, is withheld or handed out to people in ways that make human virtues seems worthless, and he sees Mattie and the Coen brothers as being well aware of this in a religious sense that goes beyond what John Wayne and other might recognize:

The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.

Oddly enough, outside of the opening frames where a quotation from Proverbs is given regarding the flight of those sinners who are not pursued, there are not any key scenes where characters quote the Bible or discuss and debate biblical morality. Quotations from the Bible or scenes where characters are attending church services are absent. There are not even ministers or priests showing up for the coffins and dead bodies that are piled up throughout the movie.

Instead of discussions of religion and morality, we get a great deal of legal talk by Mattie and others around her along with debates over who has jurisdiction and what kind of justice is to take place and where it is to be executed. Mattie’s whole motivation is based on her goal to ensure that the killer of her father is executed for his murder and not the other murders he has committed in Texas. There is nothing religious or biblical about this motive, and she is quite clear about this. She wants a legal form of revenge and is willing to pay $50.00 for it. Plain and simple.

Being one of the most accomplished Milton scholars this country has produced, Fish is certainly going to be well aware of any biblical allusions or quotations that should cross his path, but, oddly enough, he has a hard time finding them in the movie itself, let alone the words of Mattie. Fish ends up quoting lines from the book that are not in the movie and citing passages from the Bible that Mattie herself does not seem to know. This should have been a sign to him.

The lack of contractions, oddly enough, is the key to understanding the way Mattie is constructing the characters in her narrative and her views of the world. Mattie’s alleged biblical training may be responsible for aversion to contractions, but this must be inferred since she never demonstrates all that much familiarity with the Bible or any real concern with what God might think of what she is doing. She makes some loose allusions to the Bible but shows surprisingly little knowledge of the text itself and does not cite it to justify her motives. Ever. She does not even bother to have a cross placed on the tombstone of Rooster Cogburn even though she pays for his burial herself. That should have been another sign to Fish.

Instead of seeing what is missing right in front of him, Fish claims Mattie’s convictions are rooted in a faith so deep it cannot be perceived in our world:

[Mattie] goes forward not because she has faith in a better worldly future — her last words to us are “Time just gets away from us” — but because she has faith in the righteousness of her path, a path that is sure (because it is not hers) despite the absence of external guideposts. That is the message Iris Dement proclaims at the movie’s close when she sings “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms”: “Oh how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way / Leaning on the everlasting arms / Oh how bright the path goes from day to day / Leaning on the everlasting arms / What have I to dread what have I to fear / Leaning on the everlasting arms.”

You would think Fish would be a little more alert to the irony of a woman with one arm humming this hymn about leaning on “everlasting arms,” but he misses that part. Again. You might also think he would be able to cite a single instance of Mattie claiming to have a faith deeply rooted in her own convictions. Once again, Fish misses what is missing.

Instead, Mattie cites the law and her familiarity with those who practice it again and again and again. You cannot get out of one scene or another without her or someone else explaining what the law is or where it applies and who has which rights. Mattie knows the law and knows a good lawyer and will take you to court again and again and again if you do not give her what she sees as hers by right.

What is so surprising is that Fish says nothing about all this legal talk. He is not only a Milton scholar but a professor of law too. Legal language, as he well knows, is one of the few areas where contractions are not used with any regularity today or back in the courts of 1870’s Arkansas. Mattie’s relentless adherence to a legal language rather than her alleged affection for a Bible would explain why she wipes the contractions right off the lips of all the characters in the story she narrates.

What becomes painfully clear throughout the movie is that her legal mind is about as well tuned to the situation she finds herself in as her ear is to the speech of the people around her. She cannot see how arbitrary and indifferent the law really is to her and those around her any better than she can hear the inflections of of the speech of the people she communicates with. She is as blind to the workings of the law as she is deaf to the contractions in speech of those around her.

So Fish is right in claiming that Mattie sticks with her convictions, but he is wrong in seeing this as occurring in spite of the indifference of God’s grace to the virtues of people close to her. Instead, she sticks with her conviction that there can be something close to justice in a legal language and in a legal system that cares nothing for right and wrong, and she sticks to a language of lawyers and judges which hears and reports no contractions in the speech of others.