Opinion: writers need to remember that readers often expect their work to observe particular conventions, especially when language is always in flux
In DIT, I teach a handful of writing modules. One of my aims is to remind students of the value of conventional grammar, punctuation and syntax. I sometimes talk to them about Reader Response Theory, which asserts that we bring our own experience to bear on the things we read, so that our interpretation of any text is dependent upon our shaped worldview.
According to Reader Response Theory, any piece of writing can give rise to a multitude of interpretations because readers derive meaning in ways that satisfy their own longings and reveal their own values. Norman Holland argued in the 1970s that readers apply their own "defences, expectations, and fantasies" to any text.
Within Reader Response Criticism, the degree to which readers determine meaning has always been debatable. Wolfgang Iser made the distinction that textual structure induces expectations. While all texts have the potential for varying interpretations, they nevertheless signal, guide, direct and manipulate readers. They do so through the deployment of established norms that both lead and limit us.
Though these fluctuate and evolve, new writers - really, all writers - benefit from understanding these norms. We are more likely to achieve our desired effects if we can imaginatively trade places with our readers. In thinking about Reader Response Theory, a writer will need to consider the value of adhering to the established norms that allow effective writers "to signal and to guide."
Sometimes I ask my students to consider how it is that we all seem to know what the red, octagonal "STOP" signs mean on the streets. Do they mean stop walking? Stop daydreaming? Stop blinking? These signs are all around us, but if you are a visitor from another planet with little knowledge of English, you may not know what to make of them.
Students enjoy this example because it demonstrates our willingness as readers to interpret within given contexts. This willingness allows us to engage with signifiers in ways their creators (probably) intended. The STOP sign tells us to bring our cars to a halt, not to stop thinking or smiling. Our willingness to "do the work" of de-coding conventional signifiers grants us meaning, but the signifiers must do their work too.
Examples of arguably "correct" and arguably "incorrect" interpretations of words and phrases are easily generated for consideration. Students appreciate the opportunity to contemplate how they themselves, as readers, construct meaning from texts that allegedly convey meaning by their very existence.
When we are writing, we need to appreciate the arbitrary nature of signs, including words and their letters. Despite our best efforts as writers, we also need to appreciate how stubbornly indeterminate language can be. Clarity won’t happen by accident. This is true in the work-place and wherever words are put on paper. Good writers everywhere will either observe established conventions or craftily manipulate them. They will choose to meet, or tactically thwart, convention.
A pair of Clarks Shoes’ advertisements helps me to make my point.
These ads are savvy. One pair of Clarks costs in the region of €50 per shoe: one left, one right. While it’s tempting to suggest that the left foot here is free, liberal and unconstrained by "the rules," that’s just not true. The consistency of dependent clauses and short phrases here is methodical. The text appeals to our relaxed, colloquial natures. But the fragments in this advertising text are procedural, not accidental.
The same is true of the "full sentences" copy. Here, the register of the text is somewhat more formal, more carefully expository in tone. It has the ring of corporate credentials, but it is no more or less tactical than the other page. For learner writers to produce either sort of text, they may need to be able to think like this:
Or, they may need to learn some other version of optical grammar, such as Hybrid Trees, or even the underlining of subjects and predicates in sample sentences in workbooks.
Ultimately, writers need to realise that when readers expect the writing to observe particular conventions, they must adhere to those conventions. Or, alternatively, their writing needs to subvert them skillfully. "Fingered speech", as the linguist John Mcwhorter calls texting and other forms of messaging, works well enough in subgroups of friendly insiders, but not in larger groups of anonymous readers.
As dictionaries and grammar books become web-based and mutable, language becomes more swiftly influenced by contemporary usage. All conventions governing formal or informal writing are always in flux. Language is codified and re-codified many times over as time moves on.
Even so, a lucid imagining of the reader is crucial to the enterprise of writing and any good writer will extend to any implied reader the courtesy of convention. A focus on mechanics may seem old fashioned or too directive, but formally conventional English has the advantage of being predictable, precise and intelligible to a great many people.