Vernacular Eloquence — “Proper Literacy” (Ch. 17)

Elbow, Peter.  Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing.  “Ch. 17 How our Culture of Proper Literacy Tries to Exclude Speech.” (343-362) New York: Oxford UP.  2012. Print.

Key Words

Discourse Communities, Proper Literacy, The Picasso Principle, Spoken Language, Writing, Propriety Anxiety

Key Quotes

“I’m arguing that proper literacy is not just at war with the speech of nonprivileged or stigmatized groups: it’s at war with spoken language itself–even with the spoken language of privileged or mainstream speakers.  I can’t resist repeating the mantra: proper writing is no one’s mother tongue” (345).

[On student writing being critiqued for using the second-person pronoun] “So students are in a bind: they must learn the tricky and unnatural skill of writing to an audience while not  syntactically addressing anyone at all” (347).

“I want all writers to feel they have permission to call on the resources of their spoken language”  (350).

“That’s why truly good writing is so hard: you have to get back into your writing what you had to work hard to take out of it in order to pass through the initial doorway into literacy.  Sadly, many people who have passed through that door–who have learned to be perfectly competent at writing correctly and who may write a great deal–haven’t learned this  trick of getting back into their literate writing some of the intonational energy and enthusiasm they used as children” (354)


Elbow begins this chapter, and dwells throughout it, on the seemingly continual rising bar for literacy.  He finds the call for proper literacy–for correctness in surface conventions in written English–to be both an elitist notion and a recipe for forgettable writing.  Elbow finds the best writing to carry a mysterious mix of proper conventions and expressivist concern for voice in a near literal sense.  Ostensible lapses into conversational tones, into the kind of writing that reads like speech, is what Elbow tries to understand in this chapter.  He presents evidence from prestigious publications (New Yorker, NY Times, etc.) to show how well respected writers (even William Safire!) bend and break “proper” English.  That sweet spot that Elbow searches for in his own and others’ writing reminds me of the kind of effect Roland Barthes speaks of in his meditations on photography — the punctum: that seemingly unexplainable mixture of elements, those felicitous conditions of composition, that escape easy articulation.  These are the moments, the passages, the works that handbooks, grammar nazis, and all the editing in the world will never distill into the tidy confines of a set of rules.

Elbow also shares his unease with expanded use of the term “literacy” beyond writing and alphabetic domains; such expanded use reinforces, he says, the idea that actual literacy should be defined by correctness.  His argument here reminds me of Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola’s “Blinded by the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?”, though, in Elbows case, he seems less concerned with the kinds of generative moves Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola seem to be going after in searching for new media frameworks; instead, Elbow seems to be making a more conservative argument that the term “literacy” should be reserved strictly to the textual and alphabetic domains from which it’s etymology entails.


One thought on “Vernacular Eloquence — “Proper Literacy” (Ch. 17)

  1. It seems like in this chapter (and others), Elbow is arguing for the best way to hide the process from the product, and he’s hit upon bringing speech into writing as a solution. I like how he expounds on the notions of this, while at the same time arguing for the conventions to be followed. He’s not advocating a sea change in writing pedagogy, so much as he’s trying to add some valuable tools to the writer/writing teacher’s toolbox. It is refreshing to consider that the language we already employ has many of the elements we need for “correct” writing. We don’t have to learn a whole new language so much as figure out how to blend the aspects of vernacular into our writing in a seamless, invisible way. I like to think this process will improve anyone’s writing, and speech.

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