What Sarah Palin Can Teach Us About Writing
A distinguished linguist is quite impressed with Sarah Palin's facility with the written word.
John McWhorter, a “cranky liberal Democrat” who holds a PhD in linguistics from Stanford, has been poring through Sarah Palin’s emails. His shocking finding: “Palin, in contrast to her meandering, involuted speaking style, is a thoroughly competent writer—more so than a great many people most of us likely know, including college graduates.”
It should be noted that Palin herself is a college graduate. Still, having looked at a few randomly selected emails and concluded that “her composition style is that of a teenager” owing to rapid fire style and cutesy abbreviations and therefore “comes across as unprofessional and insipid,” I was surprised at his glowing appraisal.
Because email is written speech, it’s easy to miss artfulness in them. Yet, take this Palin passage: “Even CP has admitted locking up tax rates as Glenn suggests is unacceptable to the legislature, the Alaskan public, this administration, and the Constitution.”
The spelling is flawless—and unlikely to be completely a product of spell-check, which misses errors and often creates others. More to the point, she has an embedded clause (“locking up tax rates”) nested into a main one, with another clause “as Glenn suggests” nested within the embedded one. That’s good old-fashioned grammar school “syntax.” I have known plenty of people with B.A.s who could barely pull it off properly at gunpoint, and several others who would only bother to at gunpoint.
Equally graceful despite its mundane content: “Cowdery telling a kid what’s acceptable and what isn’t inside these four walls??? Puleeeze. A three-pound puppy vs. all the CBC crap that he helped dump around here?” You hear an actual human voice here. We tell some people “I can hear your voice in the way you write”—because it’s unusual for people to be able to “write” themselves. Palin is one of the people who can.
McWhorter is, of course, right. Neither of his examples would have jumped out at me as anything remarkable. But that’s because I read for content and analytical value rather than for style. And while I read the “Puleeze” and “CBC crap” and roll my eyes at the non-standard and juvenile qualities, McWhorter is a student of the rhythms of speech who studies creoles and is non-judgmental about variations on standard English. Where I see mundane blather, he sees crisply formed sentences true to the author’s personal voice.
The point of his essay, though, isn’t to rebut the notion that Palin isn’t particularly bright or to argue she would make an effective president. Indeed, McWorter supported Obama last go-round and one suspects he’ll do so again. Rather, the emails are a hook to discuss how people learn to write and the merits of various approaches to remediation. He cites this passage from Palin’s autobiography, Going Rogue:
Reading was a special bond between my mother and me. Mom read aloud to me – poetry by Ogden Nash and the Alaska poet Robert Service, along with snippets of prose …. My siblings were better athletes, cuter and more sociable than I, and the only thing they had to envy about me was the special passion for reading that I shared with our mother.
Knowing that Palin was “a bookworm” as a kid, “it is predictable that her emails would evidence such casually solid command of the language—even if her oral rendition of it is a different matter entirely.”
And yet, the oratorical Palin is the swivel-tongue we all know—which means that Palin demonstrates with almost scientific precision that writing well stems not from general linguistic ability, but the specific activity of reading early. Thus, if our ideal is that all American adults write with ease, grace, and natural expression, then Palin is a handy demonstration that it would be more effective to make all tots avid readers than for legions of teenagers to sit in remedial writing classes long after their brain wiring and avocational predilections have jelled.
The anonymous “Professor X” [author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower] certainly thinks so: “The two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.”
This comports with my own experience. I read a lot growing up and developed a natural affinity for the written word. I was never one who could cite the rules of grammar and syntax–and didn’t spend a lot of time memorizing vocabulary words–but absorbed a good eye for what “sounded right” by osmosis.
The problem, of course, is that human variation in makeup and experience is too heterogenous for all children to ever be readers. Yet the view from remedial writing classes is not sunny. Professor X, for example, has taken flak for statements like the aforementioned, but how many of us can recount one 18-year-old whose writing was shot through with run-ons, fragments, off spellings, and no sense of what a paragraph is, who, after a nice remedial writing class, came out writing even as well as Sarah Palin!
Is writing like golf, in that the best advice is “take it up ten years earlier”? If so, that’s not very encouraging. McWhorter ultimately doesn’t offer any concrete solution to the problem of remediation. He seems to imply that drilling in vocabulary lists and analogies will be helpful, if not immediate. But, oddly, he comes down saying that it might not matter all that much:
In the grand scheme of things, those tacitly uninterested in whether all students can compose articulate text and more interested in students being able to “think” are on to something they don’t realize. Namely, while functional writing should be instilled in all, writing of a grace and deftness beyond that level is but one of a great many ways one can be of value to society. If we want more graceful writers, let’s encourage more avid and precocious reading where we can, but, please, less of the painful remedial writing courses foisted upon those for whom it appears to do little good.
These are the kinds of things that Sarah Palin’s emails might make us think about. Verdicts will differ, but nota bene: We must be wary of resorting to the objection that critical thought is impossible without avid, effortless fluency with the written word. That claim has no empirical justification—and, moreover, subjects most human beings on earth, including many we know, to grievous insult and underestimation.
On that much we agree. Indeed, it’s absurd that there’s debate over this. I’ve read innumerable papers by brilliant scholars with prestige graduate degrees who are awful writers, having failed to master decent syntax, much less argumentative flow. And mathematicians and scientists who can write truly well are a rarity, indeed.