A minority position

by Sherri Cavan


What My Yiddish Speaking Grandmother Taught Me

My grandmother traveled from Cairo to Istanbul to Kiev as a child, and then from Kiev to Bremerhaven to New York as a young woman. In addition to Yiddish, she spoke Turkish, Russian, German, English, and some Arabic. Her young husband traveled from Tunis to Barcelona to Lyon, and then to Bremerhaven and New York. So he added some Spanish and French to the mix. (1) My mother grew up in New York, speaking Yiddish with her parents and English with everyone else, including me. I grew up in Southern California in the 1940s. There, a single language was the rule.

When I was about eight or nine and learning the rules of good grammar, learning that you started each sentence with a capital and ended it with a period, that you always made sure your subject and predicate were in proper agreement, etc., I was also learning that good people used good grammar and bad people broke these sacred rules. My grandmother came for a visit. She said, "By me's OK," grafting youthful slang to Yiddish grammar. "Grandma," I corrected her, "it's OK with me." We were almost the same size then. She looked me straight in the eye, her eyes flashing fire. She said, "With you's 'with you'; by me's 'by me'".

I give this example to illustrate how---in a scant fifty years---the great linguistic variability that had characterized immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was reduced to a hegemonic system of classification and communication via the forces of "assimilation."

I also think this example illustrates my uneducated grandmother's linguistic savvy. She knew intuitively that language was about style and that the rules of grammar were about power.


Students graduate from our university and most other contemporary institutions (public and private) without being able to sing, dance, play a musical instrument, draw or paint, yet at one time all of these skills were part of a formal European education. In ancient China, educated men were trained in classical literature, self control, and the proper way to express piety and awe toward parents, superiors and elders. There was no concern with geography, natural science, or grammar. (2) In 19th century America, reading and writing Greek and Latin were required to claim the respect due an educated person. Imagine the moaning and groaning about "no standards" when these requirements were dropped from the leading universities.

When I was a graduate student in the 1960s, the University of California required a reading knowledge of one foreign language for the MA.; two foreign languages for the Ph.D. Despite heated opposition, they have since abandoned both of these requirements.

Stanford University continues to struggle with the change from a Eurocentric to a global perspective as a part of its general education requirements. Right now voices are raised in righteous indignation, claiming that the standards of education are being been debased by this transformation.

Things change. Some people hold on to the old standards, enforcing and reinforcing them, feeling oppressed by their lack of success. They see change as degradation and decay. Others look for new alternatives, exhilarated by the renewed prospect of hope that change brings---the opportunity to do things differently.

The rules of grammar are performance norms They specify what you should do and what you should not do. They are arbitrary and changing. Joseph Bram writes (in 1955!!!),

All grammars must have been conceived originally as purely descriptive studies of current forms. Very early, however, they developed into prescriptive codes for correct usage. In time a conflict developed between the dynamic and ever-changing character of spoken languages and the restrictive and oppressive influences of various authoritative grammars. This conflict arose in all of the nations of Europe, since they had been subjected to the influence of the classical tradition....A growing number of linguists feel that any meddling with language in the name of "correctness" or spelling or nationalism is unjustifiable and harmful. (3)

There is nothing inherent in the rules of grammar that makes communication more or less effective. You can lie and dissemble with "good grammar"; you can communicate eloquently with "bad grammar". Consider e.e. cummings, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Each of these authors contributed to European literature by breaking the conventional rules of "good writing." Would we have corrected their work to conform to proper forms of capitalization, punctuation, sentence structure, etc.?



The inability to spell, punctuate, conjugate, align subject and predicate, select the proper tense and maintain it through a number of irregular verbs, use active instead of passive verbs, neither split infinitives nor dangle participles, etc., is less likely to disqualify a person for a job than is a positive drug test.

Jobs for which perfect grammatical skills are required are generally low level positions. The editor and the manager do not need to know how to do all the detailed grammatical things; that is the job of the copy editor and the secretary---and even they now have a computer program to do all this work. The reason a machine can be programmed to do "good grammar" it is that grammar is a mechanical, not a conceptual task. "Writing" is not "thinking" but "documenting" a topic I will return to later. (4)

I did a small survey of the help wanted ads in the San Francisco Chronicle. On Sunday, December 18, 1994, I opened the job section at random and read all the ads on pages 25-27, using colored pens to indicate the kinds of skills they specified. Then I read all of the "Human Resources" ads for that date and the following week, thinking that category might be a place sociology students look for work after graduation.

The results were informative. Not all ads specified skill prerequisites, and not all ads that specified skills included writing, either directly or indirectly. Of those that did, "writing skills"---whether described as good, superior or excellent---were always part of a "skill package". Emplopyers requested "writing and verbal communication skills" or "communication skills". I called someone knowledgeable about corporate personnel practices, who explained that "communication skills" covered writing, (such as memos and letters) and oral communication, (such as using the telephone and sometimes, interviewing skills. Sometimes "communication skills" included presentation skills.) At least in the local San Francisco job market, good writing skills alone will not take the applicant far.

Just as writing skills are embedded in "communication skills" communication skills are part of a larger skill package that employers request. That skill package includes

organization skills

problem solving

interpersonal skills

research skills

people skills

computer skills

presentation skills

written and oral skills


team player; team oriented

Only one ad required "demonstrated... knowledge of grammar and punctuation"; this ad was for a customer service letter writer.

Admitedly, this is a small, ad hoc sample. But it suggests that writing is only one of a variety of skills job applicants are expected to have. It is not the most important. It would be unfortunate if we gave students the impression that it is worth more in cultural capital than it is.

But what about academic careers? Just how important are gramatical skills for those who wish to become professional sociologists?

There is abundant evidence to show that zero-defect grammatical skills are not necessary for an academic career. For example: English professors often use our prestigious sociology journals as examples of "bad writing" and sociologists themselves get on one another's case. Anslem Strauss' name is synonymous with 20th century advances in qualitative methodology. In a review of a recent book by Strauss, the late Carl Couch writes, "The book suffers from redundancies and looseness. Both could have been lessened by a thorough editing." (5)

Copy editors advertise in Footnotes---our professional newsletter---suggesting a market for assistance in these "basic" writing skills. Indeed, in that very publication I read, "It is ironic that as society has increasingly adopted the perspectivalism of the sociology of knowledge..." (6) Almost every scholarly book in sociology indicates a significant other or two who "helped make this book readable," suggesting that the ideal of good writing is often beyond the practicing professional. Often the author will apologize for errors in advance, acknowledging that mistakes are inevitable. This example is typical:

Karen Wieder gave the present version of the work a line by line and paragraph by paragraph editing. With her unstinting effort and influence, many serious deformations of the English language and other various obscurities of style were avoided. Those...that remain are due to my own stubbornness. (6B)

Consider our past chair who could not spell, whose sentence structure was awful, whose verbs were all over the place---yet he earned a Ph.D. from a respectable university, published various articles and books, became a tenured full professor and was chairman of the S.F.S.U. department for over twenty years, as well as being elected president of the California Sociological Society.

Consider Harold Garfinkel, whose writings are taught in our classes. A Ph.D. from Harvard, Garfinkel is a grammarian's nightmare. His sentence structure is so convoluted, his vocabulary so specialized and unique, and most of all his thinking so challenging that as students in his classes, we could hardly figure out what he meant when he lectured. He got terrible teaching evaluations. Graduate students were recruited to help organize his lecture notes and get his papers ready to submit for publication, where they were further reworked by various editors and copy editors. In Studies in Ethnomethodology, Garfinkel writes, "David Sudnow worked to the limits of his patience to improve the writing" suggesting that the task was both monumental and incomplete. (7) After all this grammatical re-working, his writing is still opaque. At the same time, it is clear that fracturing the rules of good grammar is part of stretching the envelope, opening new windows, being able to grasp what the language hides, etc.. Much of what Garfinkel writes about rests on breaching common sense assumptions, not slavishly conforming to archaic standards that are as political as anything else. His writing reflects this commitment. (8)



Some place in mammalian evolution others we recognize as "us" appear in the paleological record---upright, big brained "thinkers". They thought for thousands of years before they thought of the idea of writing. And then they thought for a few thousand more years before they thought of codifying the rules of writing.

As a method of communication and documentation, pictures preceded writing by more than 30,000 years. Writing only appears about 5,000 years ago. For the of human history, reading and writing were considered to be the skill equivalent of "brain surgery"---only a very tiny part of the population knew or could know how to read and write. The possession of these skills gave those who had them enormous social power. The democratization of reading began with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. In the 19th century, compulsory education transformed writing in a similar fashion. As with all skills, the more people who have them, the less their market value.

Thinking and writing are not the same thing. Many human beings are "illiterate"---without the ability to read or write---but they are not dumb. Nor are they necessarily any less insightful, wise, or enlightened than literate people. More often their memories are considerably more impressive than people who rely on notes and documentation. Their mechanical problem solving, their capacity for design, for art, or music or drama, their ability to create society, etc. is not affected by their inability to read or write.

Like beliefs about "IQ tests", conventional beliefs about the relationship between reading, writing and thinking reflect ruling class rhetoric; and they both result in the same kind of institutional racism, where good people inadvertently support repressive policies. Indeed most "intelligence tests" rest on the preexisting capacity to "read" in a socially sanctioned way, i.e. select the best option from a multiple choice field which often includes items that are "close" but still incorrect. These tests do not test intuition, inspiration, insight, ingenuity, innovative thinking, etc.. They only test the ability of the subject to make appropriate responses in a very specific "test" situation. As Garfinkel would say, we "normalize" all of this to "get on with the business". But as sociologists and teachers, we need to be critical of what we assume, lest we become unwitting accomplices of repression rather than active agents of change. (9)

Writing may stimulate and even enhance thinking. (10) Writing is often recommended as a form of meditation or as an aid to concentration. Therapists often recommend "journal writing" to depressed and anxious patients. Writing is useful for documenting objects, transactions, ideas; this was its known origin. Writing has been useful for communication at a distance, but 20th century technological changes have altered the landscape of options. The telephone has all but replaced writing as a means of interpersonal contact across spatial distance; laser scanners are routinely used to "read" information that previously required human intervention. Pictures (as icons) are experiencing renewed influence as a "literate" population becomes "computer literate". (11)


Language is both a means of expression and a method of communication. It expresses self, subculture, sex, status, etc., as well as expressing ideas about Durkheim and Marx, deviance and development. Communication is a general social process, an exchange of information, ideas, expressions; writing is but one means of communication. Oral presentations, diagrams, poetry, posters, even illustrated T-shirts are means of communicating. As the small survey of job ads illustrated, writing is only part of the skills package employer expect job applicants to have.

In focusing on how educational standards change and how even professional sociologists deviate from the rules that we hold our undergraduates accountable to, I hope to have brought a different perspective on the evaluation of student writing.

I do not write this critique in opposition to "good writing". I try to practice it myself and in that way, encourage my students to do the same. Whenever I can I assign texts and readings that reflect graceful, insightful prose, although you cannot teach sociology without having to compromise that principle. Where appropriate, I share things I have written with my students, some of them published, some of them not. I discuss organizing and presenting information with them in a general way, as problems to be solved rather than rules to be followed.

Regardless of the size of my classes---which can go from 45-120---students have a variety of written assignments with varying lengths and varying objectives. Six years of art classes have taught me another way of looking at these assignments. Art students are constantly reminded that the work we are doing for class is not expected to be a masterpiece; after all, we are just learning. Instead of finished work, we were encouraged to think of "work in progress". I try to apply this idea to the sociology students I teach. The written work they submit is expected to be a "final draft" rather than a "zero-defect product". If their writing were to be submitted to a journal for publication or to a student paper contest, it might require further work. But for now, it communicates well enough.

A second thing I learned in art school was the value of working loosely---getting the major forms correct and not worrying about the surface details. I like to translate this into teaching sociology by encouraging students to make the argument and not worry about whether they have dotted every "t" and crossed every "i". I am more concerned about their ability to access information, apply concepts, identify relationships, extrapolate, generalize, draw conclusions, etc., whether or not they dangle their participles or get so carried away with their ideas that their sentances run on berift of proper punctuation. If necessary, they can take their draft to a professional typist. And many students in my urban university do, whether they have the instructor's permission or not.

Finally, I always suggest that my students ask someone to read their written work before they turn it in to me, hopefully catching the most glaring problems, and also bringing others into the realm of discourse represented by that student's work. (12)



1. That we reconsider whether "teaching writing" is the best use of our skills and training. Wouldn't you rather spend your office hours talking about ideas instead of talking about problems of verb tense and punctuation?

2. Reconsider whether having our student assistant do remedial grammatical instruction is the best use of the department's limited funds.

3. Discuss whether department goals of "good writing" can be better pursued collectively rather than in a one-on-one format. Barbara Phillips prepared a style sheet that made her writing requirements explicit. Perhaps (with her permission) we might revise and reissue it. I have purchased a set of "grammar instruction tapes" that I plan to put on reserve in the Media Access room; students with writing problems can be directed to that resource. The advantage of audio tapes is that people with writing problems are often people with reading problems. Yet these people may be very effective at taking in information aurally rather than visually. As an undergraduate at UCLA, I supported myself my first two years reading to blind students, as well as doing their written presentations. I learned a lot from that job!

4. We might think about a "Brown Bag Grammar Gab" each semester, where faculty give a presentation of expectations and guidelines and answer general questions students have about written assignments. Students could also have this as an opportunity to meet one another. Maybe they could form a buddy-system, reading one another's written work, and in the process, learning to work as a team.

5. The department regularly and frequently exchange ideas about what we are trying in class, and whether it seems to work or not.


(1) For romantics in the audience, they did indeed meet aboard ship, vowing to marry even before they arrived in the new world. Because they had sailed from Bremerhaven, each was documented "German Jew" by the officials at Ellis Island. German Jews had the highest status in their multicultural immigrant community, so this was a big joke in my family.

(2) Discussed in Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, Doubleday, 1960 pp. 134-42)

(3) Language and Society, Random House, pp. 11-12; 28, 1955

(4) Indeed, the simple grammar program on my computer even lets me choose between a variety of different "syles" for example, "academic" "advertising" "business" "legal" "informal" and half dozen others. Newer programs are even more impressive in their ability to transform the users work into correct grammatical style, and even anticipate their users frequent mistakes.

(5) Carl Couch, review of Anselm Strauss, Continual Permutations of Action, in Contemporary Sociology, Nov., 1994, v.23, p.879

(6) January, 1995, p.10, emphasis added.

(6B) D. Lawrence Wieder, Language and Social Reality, Mouton, 1974, p.6

(7) p. xi, Prentice Hall, 1967

(8) This point is made in a very diferent context in Melvin Pollner, "Left of Ethnomethodology: The Rise and Decline of Radical Reflexivity" American Sociological Review, 56: 370-380, 1991. Also relevant is Ira J. Cohen and Mary F. Rogers, "Autonomy and Credibility: Voice as Method," Sociological Theory, 12: 304-318, l994. They write of Garfinkel and Goffman: "To challange "orthadox" sociology successfully thus entailed breaking out of its normal discourse." (p.310)

(9) The pressure on professors to manage their workload by acceeding to rationalized claims of ruling class rhetoric can only increase in the future. Randall Collins writes in his Pacific Sociological Society presidential address, "Educational status credentials have become central to the stratification system...The mass inflationary credential-producing education of the future may not be very pleasant to live in, especially if one is an educator who values cultural ideals or an egalitarian ideology. Nevertheless...it appeals to the material interests of educators, since it makes their jobs structurally indispensable." "What Does Conflict Theory Predict About America's Future" Sociological Perspectives, 36:289-315, 1993, pp. 307-308

(10) A thoughtful example of writing exercises to stimulate thought is found in Mary S. Lawrence, Writing as a Thinking Process, University of Michigan Press, 1974

(11) Michelle Quinn, "Art that clicks: Icon designer strives for simplicity" San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 25, l995, p. B1 describes some of the considerations in creating visual images to stand for verbal commands in popular software programs.

(12) . Obviously, it is only possible to suggest that students have someone outside of school read over their papers if those papers can be intelligible to people outside the disicpline. Those who teach "good writing" always suggest that the writer write about something that is familiar. For a discussion of the relationshiup between "life" and "the discipline" as the focus in teaching sociology, see Thomas Scheff, "Comment: Yamane on Profscam" in Teaching Sociology, 23:53-54, 1995