David Foster Wallace, author of the essay “Authority and American Usage*,” praises and advocates for “good” writers who have a strong rhetorical ability, which he defines as “the persuasive use of language to influence the thoughts and actions of an audience” (Wallace 628). To have a strong rhetorical ability, an author needs to be aware of whom their audience is, in order to present their information in a way that will be influential on their audience. Wallace recognizes that an author who applies a strong rhetorical ability will be able to connect with the audience so that they respond “not just to utterance but also to ” (Wallace 641). An author needs to take into consideration not just content, syntax and grammatical structure (their “utterance”) but also how their character will be perceived by their audience. A positive tone will make the author seem more pleasant and relatable, whereas a negative tone connotes arrogance and pretentiousness. That is why it is crucial for an author to recognize that an audience will respond to “them” and not just their “utterance,” as an author’s appearance to their readers can also shape how impactful their writing is.Order now
The impact and effectiveness of using proper rhetoric was a strategy of “good” writing that I was not aware of until my senior year of high school. While taking AP Language and Composition my junior year, my fellow students and I believed that we had survived countless essay workshop activities and writing assignments with emphasis on word choices, grammatical structure, syntax, punctuation and spelling. By the time we had entered AP Literature our senior year, we felt we could achieve success; we already knew how to write in the correct format and structure- we just had to master analyzing literature. It was only natural that I was taken by surprise when I received my first graded essay back. There, glaring up at me in bold, red ink against the crisp white paper was a C- . Comparing my grades to those of my classmates, it was revealed that they too had received these grades. What had we done wrong?
Our teacher, Mrs. Hetrick, provided the answer to our question: “These essays could have easily been generated by a computer program. They tell me nothing about yourselves; why in the world you are telling me all of this? You need to make me care about the message you are conveying, otherwise, your writing is useless.” She then told us that while we were all communicating in the proper format, we had failed to take into consideration whom our audience was. In order to truly persuade and influence our audience, we had to do more than place complicated ideas into a grammatically immaculate sentences; we need to show the audience why they should care about our writing; otherwise, they will just lose interest. I realize now that this experience provided a stable foundation for what I consider to be an example of passionate rhetorical ability, which helps me reflect on what authors Wallace deems as “good” through their rhetorical strategies.
Wallace distinguishes the “Democratic Spirit” in the writing of Bryan A. Garner, author of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU). Wallace identifies a “Democratic Sprit,” as one that “combines rigor and humility, i.e, passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others” (Wallace 625). Wallace implies that since a Democratic Spirit contains “rigor,” the author will focus on the precision, quality, and accuracy of the writing (Wallace 625). At the same time, an author that possesses “humility” will dispose an impression of conceitedness, presenting the reader with a reflection of their personality (Wallace 625). They must also convince the readers that they are writing with a purpose or it will fail to create a lasting impression, thus the need “passionate conviction” (Wallace 625). At the same time, an author needs to recognize that they cannot shove their beliefs onto their readers who may not share their opinions, illustrating a “sedulous respect for the conviction of others” (Wallace 625).
Wallace identifies the “Democratic Spirit” when he states that Garner’s preface is “extremely sneaky” because it “confirms Garner’s SNOOTitude in fact while undercutting it in tone” (Wallace 626). In one area of the preface that Wallace finds so “sneaky,” Garner justifies to his readers why he must make certain judgments regarding what content is included or excluded in ADMAU: “You don’t want dispassionate descriptions; you want sound guidance. And that requires judgment” (Wallace 629). When Garner states that “you,” meaning those who seek the dictionary for authoritative guidance, “don’t want dispassionate descriptions,” it means that readers of ADMAU want Garner to provide them with concise guidelines for English usage (Wallace 629).The fact that Garner’s readers want him to provide guidance on the English language implies that they view him as an authority. This claim is supported when Garner states that readers “want sound guidance. And that requires judgment,” which can lead the audience to believe that Garner is making these judgments in order to be a figure of “sound guidance” for them; he is merely giving his readers what they are asking for, making him appear genuine.
This is in turn creates the “extremely sneaky” preface that Wallace is referring to; Garner can be prescriptive (embracing his “SNOOTitude”) while his tone implies to the reader that he is providing passionate descriptions and being a “sound guidance” because he recognizes that they have come to him for help, thereby “undercutting in tone” (Wallace 626). Wallace would thereby distinguish the writing of Garner as “good” because he takes into consideration whom his audience is and how to best convey his message through his tone in order for them to see him in a positive and credible manner. Therefore, it is only natural to assume that an author of “bad” writing would not take into consideration how the tone of their writing would affect their audience; it would produce a negative portrayal of the author’s character, which could discourage readers from seeing the author as credible.
An illustration of what Wallace deems to be “bad” writing is found in a statement from Panelist Morris Bishop in his dictionary: “the arrant solecisms of the ignoramus are here often omitted entirely, ‘irregardless’ of how he may feel about this neglect,” which Wallace states is “snobbish and anal” (Wallace 629). Bishop’s writing fails to take into consideration who his audience is; it isn’t going to SNOOTS who justify his “snobbish and anal” attitude, but rather individuals like myself who use a dictionary when they need to learn what a word means or its proper grammatical usage. By using an excessive amount of complicated words that someone like myself, who isn’t anywhere near a SNOOT’s standards of comprehension, he makes it difficult for his readers to trust him as an authority figure. It isn’t so much about the words that Bishop is using , but rather the way his message is being relayed to the audience through his tone. Bishop’s lack of consideration for his audience sets up a derogatory, belittling, and insulting tone towards the reader . I agree with Wallace when he states that Bishop’s statement is an example of “bad” writing because it fails to take into consideration how the tone will affect the audience, and Bishop’s tone at least discourages me from using his dictionary.
Similar to how authors use rhetorical strategies to persuade their audience, Wallace states that belonging to “Discourse Communities,” which he defines as the “cultural/geographical dialects of American English,” can also influence how a person chooses to speak and present themselves (Wallace 642). Wallace states that being a member of a “Discourse Community” involves a dialect that is learned or used because “it’s your native vernacular or because it’s the dialect of Group by which you wish…to be accepted,” thereby stating that individuals who are involved in a “Discourse Community” or want to belong to one have to take into consideration how using a specific dialect will affect their appearance towards others and when it is appropriate to talk in a native, nonstandard dialect or one more formal and proper, such as Standard Written English (Wallace 642).
EXAMPLE OF A NON-STANDARD DIALECT THAT THIS AUTHOR ACTUALLY KNOWS ABOUT FIRSTHAND.
I happen to be fluent in two English dialects- the Standard American English that I use in regular situations throughout my daily life and People-Who-Justify-Spending-Four-Dollars-on-a-Cup-of-Coffee English that I switch to using while working at Starbucks. Part of my training as a barista was learning an intricate system of abbreviations, terminology, and phrases in order to make sure each drink is made consistently due to the amount of modifications that can be made to each original beverage recipe. This dialect only makes sense to my co-workers and regulars to any Starbucks location. A person ordering a drink for the first time at Starbucks would possibly state it in the following manner: “Can I please get a medium latte with an extra shot, two of which need to be decaf, vanilla flavoring but only half of the amount that you usually put in, skim milk, no foam and stirred? ” Because this person ordered their latte in Standard American English, it took my brain a few seconds to read it back to the customer as a “2/3 Decaf Triple Grande 2 Pump Vanilla Nonfat No Foam Stirred Latte. ” Whether a person walks into Starbucks and orders a “Grande Pike Place Roast” or a “Medium coffee,” I’m still going to hand them a cup of black coffee. This is similar to how a person can talk in Standard Written English or a dialect of American English and still be understood efficiently. However, why then is it that Wallace deems it significant to enlist his students in a “three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit,” where he proceeds to tear the unsatisfactory syntax and grammatical structure of his students’ essays back to the basics of English composition (Wallace 624)?
This radical action demonstrated by Wallace is caused by his recognition of what and whom Standard Written English (SWE) represents. Wallace states that: “Traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair” (Wallace 626). By stating that SWE is controlled by “Privileged WASP Males,” Wallace is indicating that only individuals who could afford or were deemed “worthy” enough had access to higher levels of education: race, ethnicity and religion have determined factors in a person’s accessibility to higher education. Privileged WASP Males have therefore become the spitting image of the socio-economic elite, due to the availability of education and their accomplished usage of SWE. Privileged WASP Males are prejudiced towards those who are not like them and utterly “unfair” in whom they chose to associate with. These old, xenophobic white men don’t want just anyone off the street joining them for intellectual discussions over Sunday tea . This is why Wallace advocates for students in high school and college to learn SWE; if students are able to present themselves in a more erudite and intellectual manner by using SWE, it can provide them with more opportunities to ascend the “social ladder” as they will have a stronger foundation for academic and professional success. Using SWE will not guarantee that a student will become a doctor or a lawyer, however, they will have the opportunity to expand their education and achieve that ranking if they wish.
Wallace, David Foster “Authority and American Usage” 2005. Ways of Reading: An Anthology for Writers. Ed. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky. 9th Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 622-47. Print.