No English Help Please November 15, 2009 3:13 PM   Subscribe

This question seems like homeworkfilter to me.

As someone who's taught freshmen comp, this sort of editing was precisely the homework that my students were often given. Though the OP says he cleared it with Jessamyn, and that his questions are specific rather than "help me edit this", the questions are all actually pretty broad, particularly as he appends that he wants "general feedback about grammar etc."

I appreciate that kylej is hoping to improve his essay, but I can't help but think that editing high school comp papers isn't a good ask of AskMe, and would hate to open the door to questions here being used as free editing help. I get the feeling that a bunch of the responders so far feel the same way, but kylej says to take it to metafilter, so here we are.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi to Etiquette/Policy at 3:13 PM (80 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

Ack. Take it to MeTa.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:17 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's what Jessaymn wrote to me:

It's sort of borderline. Saying "I'm looking for feedback" is pretty
broad and generally not what is okay but if you're like "I've written
this essay and I'm trying to figure out how to solve these specific
problems..." and then list them, sure. Basically don't use AskMe as
sort of a classified ad service to find people to give you feedback,
but asking how to solve specific problems is okay. That said, this
should be a once in a while thing, not like something you do every
week with a different essay. Feel free to ask if you have any
questions.


I said that general feedback about grammar would be appreciated as I didn't want people to feel discouraged from commenting about that, especially as many people on mefi are pretty particular about grammar. If that lines bothers other people a mod can remove that line.
posted by kylej at 3:18 PM on November 15, 2009


Yeah, you posted Jessamyn's response - also in bold - in the AskMe. Buy a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Refer to it. The advice that you are getting can be found in a very simple, very thin book. Good luck to you in your academic career. I think you are being resourceful, but it's not what AskMe is for. I was serious when I said ask your Mom or Dad.
posted by fixedgear at 3:24 PM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Are you going to cite us when you submit this paper? That seems only fair.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:24 PM on November 15, 2009 [10 favorites]


Yeah, this seems way over the line. As PhoBWanKenobi noted, those questions are overly broad and of the "What do you think" variety. Seriously, you want people to tell you whether dialogue seem contrived or if the language is too verbose and how to add self reflection to it.

Any one of those is over the line and you want to use AskMe to do all three? That's so far over the line, IMO, that it should be deleted with extreme prejudice.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:26 PM on November 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I flagged this immediately when I saw it. I don't think this is what AskMe is for, and like Pho said, it kinda opens a can of worms. There are other avenues for editing help.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:29 PM on November 15, 2009


I'm pretty torn on this, personally; I know you made an effort to take Jessamyn's advice into account, kylej, and I appreciate that as far as that goes you've attempted to make the question an attempt at asking for some fairly specific feedback, but I agree with the notion that the presentation is still a little problematic for all that.

At this point I've cleaned out some of the metacommentary from the thread that should have been over here in the first place and am leaning narrowly toward leaving it open with the understanding that anything like this in the future needs to be more carefully constructed to not raise the hackles (and generate the flags and community reaction) that this one has. It's Sunday and we're all kind of scarce, so I don't know what Matt or Jessamyn's take is on it, and they may think it just needs to go when they've had a chance to look at it.
posted by cortex (staff) at 3:30 PM on November 15, 2009


I just can't resist pointing out dialogue punctuation problems.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:30 PM on November 15, 2009


I think you can tell from the comments so far that it's pretty impossible for mefits to address this question without offering line editing. And line editing an entire paper is homework, when it comes to any decent English class. It wouldn't bother me if the questions were more specific (like "What are some tips for writing authentic-sounding dialog?"), and, maybe if the essay in question wasn't linked in its entirety, but this just feels wrong to me.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:32 PM on November 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


Sorry that this created such an uproar; I won't post any more questions like this in the future.
posted by kylej at 3:32 PM on November 15, 2009


Yeah it's hard to fix dialogue without getting into line-editing, and the text screamed out for line-editing. *hangs head in shame*
posted by Hildegarde at 3:34 PM on November 15, 2009


OK, there's revision, and there's editing. As a college English teacher, I don't mind if my students seek help with either of those, but it needs to be appropriate. Providing feedback on content (does any of the dialogue sound artificial? should I include some reflection?) seems above board. Doing the actual re-writing is problematic, though; I really go after my students if they do that "Why don't you say it like this: ___________" thing.

With the editing (grammatical corrections), the same thing applies. There's the good kind of help such as sitting down in person with someone and reading aloud and the two of you together identifying errors and discussing corrections -- which the writer should make herself/himself.

Identifying all the errors and making the corrections for the writer is not at all helpful. It doesn't help her/him understand why the errors are errors; it doesn't help her/him learn to see/hear them, correct them, or avoid them. It's just giving someone a fish, basically.

I can't stop my students from getting the wrong kind of help that actually prevents learning and fosters learned helplessness, but I would hope we could try not to pass it out in AskMe.
posted by FelliniBlank at 3:34 PM on November 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


Please, please, please let this stand. I have dyslexia and I'm trying to wrap up my dissertation.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:35 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


This post is going to help your dissertation?
posted by Hildegarde at 3:36 PM on November 15, 2009


Dude, if you're going to be asking people for this kind of labor intensive help, you should be offering compensation.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:36 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Hildegarde, if I'd tried to address this question I would have done the same (and I suspect that the myriad teachers and editors on here wouldn't be able to resist, either), which is part of the reason that I'd rather have this sort of question not creep onto Ask.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:37 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Buy a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Refer to it. The advice that you are getting can be found in a very simple, very thin book.

Yes. This. Here's an online version to check in the meantime.
posted by CKmtl at 3:38 PM on November 15, 2009


In fairness to kylej, it seems to me that he tried to do exactly as jessamyn said. Maybe it was a little clumsy when he said he'd accept comments about grammar -- but he'd get those comments either way. The rest, though, was a question about flow and narrative. I don't think that's over the line. We can definitely give him ideas and information about those issues without writing the paper for him.

And if we're going to snark about the grammar, let's snark in his school's direction, not in kylej's direction.
posted by Houstonian at 3:49 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Since this is a new issue, it seems to me that in a big way that the subject of the question is kosher in light of current guidelines, but the incredible broadness of the question sells me for deletion.

My worry about the subject matter is that if it continues to be okay it could open the floodgates for this kind of thing. It still wouldn't address kylej's specific problem, but what about a MetaWriting page? It'd be pretty much exactly like the Music page, but for writing. Maybe such questions would be okay in the questions section there, but it'd be mostly for overall sharing and feedback, again like MetaMusic. Anyone? No?

In fact, I'd considered posting an AskMe for help with my statement of purpose, but decided against it, probably only because I've never seen a similar question.
posted by cmoj at 3:58 PM on November 15, 2009


Yeah I was trying to avoid the "hey this person wants help with homework!" because we get into the inevitable fight about how much help is appropriate and how much is not. I agree that this seems to be "letter of the law" in line with what I suggested [and copypasting email is sort of "not great" territory even though it might have been necessary to manage this issue and yeah I'm a mod] but does still make the question seem like homework.

That said, yeah the first two questions seem decent whereas the last bit "Any general feedback about grammar etc is appreciated also!" is really not okay. We try to err on the side of inclusion which is why this question is here in the first place. That said, doing this sort of thing more than once or twice is basically crossing the line into "don't use MeFi as an editing/translating/math service" territory.

I think we're sort of hitting a weird place where we have members in their teens who are getting assigned homework and we have older members who are assigning that sort of homework and people see it via their own lens. Add to that the its/it's sort of fidgety typo brigade and "edit help?" starts to turn into a several hour project to some people. I think you can offer feedback without a line edit, maybe other people can't. I only skimmed the answers he got, they seemed mostly decent, the grouchy "do your own homework" comments, not so much.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:01 PM on November 15, 2009


cmoj, there are at least two livejournal communities where you can get feedback on your statement of purpose: applyingtograd and review_my_sop
posted by needled at 4:07 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


I flagged it when I saw it, and am surprised to see it still there. I really dislike the "please do my homework for me" AskMes that always show up at the end of the semester. They strike me as distasteful at best, dishonest at worst. There are better ways to access AskMe help, and there are better ways to get help with your essay (like, say, going to the teacher, perhaps?).
posted by Forktine at 4:09 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I understand how this gets people's hackles up but it seems to keep just on the side of okay to me. The first question is fairly concrete and not something that's easy to get good advice on. The second is a sanity check. The third is the most problematic, but I don't think it sinks the whole thing. Anyway, that's my take on the matter, such as it is.

fixedgear: Buy a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.

Please don't. First of all you'll find little help to your specific questions but a lot of half-baked rules that neither Strunk nor White actually follow in their own writing. But don't take my word for it, here's Language Log's Geoff Pullum taking it apart. And if that's not enough, here's Geoff Pullum again, in company of such illustrious language cats as MetaFilter's own languagehat.
posted by Kattullus at 4:15 PM on November 15, 2009 [13 favorites]


I've taught freshman comp and I'd have been delighted to find out that any of my students was running around the internet trying to score extra feedback from strangers.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:15 PM on November 15, 2009 [14 favorites]


I have no opinion on this question.

I do have an opinion on Strunk and White. It is an abomination.
posted by grouse at 4:30 PM on November 15, 2009 [5 favorites]


AskMe should not be in business of editing papers. I was surprised this was even allowed to stand as a precedent. Not only is line editing in comments painful and slow, it just is not what this site is for. There are many places on the internet which might be convinced to read your writing and make suggestions. There are even better resources off the internet, such as teachers, a writing center, classmates, friends, and family. This should not be that place.
posted by sophist at 4:37 PM on November 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


Yeah, pretty shocked this is allowed to stand.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:42 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


A very useful book for me all through college was the Prentice-Hall Handbook for Writers.
posted by Daddy-O at 4:47 PM on November 15, 2009


But don't take my word for it, here's Language Log's Geoff Pullum taking it apart.

An essay that severely misrepresents what Strunk & White actually says.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:50 PM on November 15, 2009


I think kylej asked this question in line with Jessamyn's comment and in good faith, but I still think it's a bad question for askme. We shouldn't set the precedent of being willing to proofread or review peoples' papers for free. Because then we'll get all these questions asking us to do so, and that really doesn't seem like the purpose of ask.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:00 PM on November 15, 2009 [6 favorites]


Kattullus & grouse:

So, what concise reference(s) would you recommend for a high school student, if S&W were thrown out the window?
posted by CKmtl at 5:01 PM on November 15, 2009


I strongly recommend Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers, and, if you need a "style" guide, William Zinsser's On Writing Well, which, tellingly, begins with an anecdote about how its author's personal preferences and methods aren't for everyone. Would that Mssrs. Strunk & White had been so circumspect.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:08 PM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


I strongly recommend Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers,

agree!!
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:33 PM on November 15, 2009


That Geoff Pullum essay is pure crap. I read it some months ago and this particularly egregious example still sticks out in my mind:
"Keep related words together" is further explained in these terms: "The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning." That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase ("as a rule") that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.
He completely failed to grasp the humor in that statement, putting "as a rule" in the middle.
posted by 6550 at 5:47 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


I strongly recommend Diana Hacker's Rules for Writers

This is what my own mother got me during high school. Not that I ever read it, of course.

As a librarian I get more of this type of question than I'm comfortable with, and I send them to our writing center every time (and when I did the public library thing, I suggested after-school assistance or other types of tutoring).

Personally, I feel that inflicting this type of query on anyone other than a writing tutor, your teacher or maybe a very good friend who reciprocates with something they need help with (math or chem were always my reciprocal requests) is outside the line and puts the person asked in an awkward place.
posted by librarylis at 5:48 PM on November 15, 2009


Rules for Writers is on my shelf too. I've never used it, so I guess it's working!
posted by !Jim at 5:48 PM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


[Shrugs.] I'm an editor, and yes, this question requires a time-intensive answer. So I just didn't bother. Seems like in this situation it's not necessary for mods to delete the question or further define policy and it can be left up to Mefites to reply with their individual "why should I bother" or "yes, I'll be nice and spend the time to help you" responses.
posted by orange swan at 5:54 PM on November 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is the going rate for paying someone to do your homework more expensive than $5.00?
posted by anniecat at 5:56 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm very much in the camp that interprets asking for help of this sort as a request for a time-intensive, line-by-line edit. I would do this for a friend if they had a really important assignment or application, but I wouldn't ever ask a stranger (or a bunch of strangers) to do it for me. At the same time, I understand that different people have different ways of going about looking for feedback on things they've written, and I know that sometime folks just want a quick "is this ok, yes or no?" sort of reply. The way this question is constructed seems to skew toward the former, which I think is not ok for AskMe, but if someone just wants a general evaluation to know whether they're either on the right track or need a lot of serious revision, I think that would be fine. I guess the way one reads the question really depends on their background, like the boss lady said...
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:12 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well I'm done with my paper, and most people's comments were very helpful. I really appreciate the people who took the time to help me. I'm sorry to have upset everyone (and sorry for quoting you Jessaymn).

I'm not planning on asking for more critiques in the future, though my question next week might be something like, "Where can I get constructive criticism on my writing on the internet without getting yelled at?"

I do have Rules for Writers, as does everyone else at my school, and I probably should have looked at it a little closer before posting my essay here.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday night everybody.
posted by kylej at 6:12 PM on November 15, 2009 [14 favorites]


Kylej, you're a good sport. I hope you get a good grade on your essay.
posted by orange swan at 6:50 PM on November 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


kylej, since you're done, consider giving the post a "resolved" tag, so people will know further answers are not needed.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:04 PM on November 15, 2009


I didn't have a problem with this thread, but that's because I love editing. I'm sad I missed the chance to. Darn!
posted by biochemist at 7:08 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's internet important.
posted by nola at 7:12 PM on November 15, 2009


yep, kudos for being such a good sport, kyle. Good luck.
posted by scody at 7:19 PM on November 15, 2009


CKmtl: So, what concise reference(s) would you recommend for a high school student, if S&W were thrown out the window?

Back in my day we chiseled our own style guides out of granite with rhubarbs for chisels. We'd never heard about no fancy schmancy pansy division style guides! I tell ya... up a hill both ways! My folks lived on top of a volcano, you see, that grew during the day and collapsed during the night and became a deep pit... snow too... so much snow that even the volcano didn't melt it... well, it was a cheese volcano, so it wasn't that hot... and I'm telling ya, if I ever have fondue again I'm just gonna kill myself... shouldn't do that to a young boy, make him eat fondue every night just because you live on top of a cheese volcano... just ain't right.

I've heard excellent things about Zinsser's On Writing Well, but I've never read it. Here's a charming essay by Zinsser about On Writing Well. In the interests of full disclosure I should note that I was never an American high school student, though I did read The Elements of Style when I was 16 and thought its advice was odd.
posted by Kattullus at 7:23 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


To get back to Strunk and White, the entire point of the book is that they violate their rules. At least that's the way I always saw it.

Anyhow, kylej, I agree, you're a good sport. If you really like to write and want to improve, feedback is critical. There are definitely places in the world to get critiques and feedback on your writing. You might want to see if there is a writing group at your school. Or you could check into the possibility of taking an upper-level english class where fiction writing and critiquing is all you do. We had a poetry class like this in my high school, and in college there were a ton of classes like this. If you're really into it, see if you can take a class over the summer in creative writing at your local community college.

Another thing to consider is to check out fiction writing classes for teens at a local writing center. My home town has a place called Writers and Books that offered all sorts of classes like this and they were really fun. Feedback from other writers is something that a lot of people swear by, so if you are really interested in getting feedback on your writing, finding a group of other people who are into it could be very helpful. I would say that this might be the kind of thing you have to do in meatspace, though - the internet seems like it could be a good venue for feedback on writing, but I don't know that it actually is. I might be wrong about this, maybe other people will have suggestions about where to go online for constructive criticism on your writing.
posted by k8lin at 7:33 PM on November 15, 2009


For the record, I'm with biochemist -- I love editing and often do it for free. I too am sad that I missed out on the chance to help!
posted by hapax_legomenon at 7:46 PM on November 15, 2009 [1 favorite]


For the record, I'm with biochemist -- I love editing and often do it for free. I too am sad that I missed out on the chance to help!

I didn't have a problem with this thread, but that's because I love editing. I'm sad I missed the chance to. Darn!

Haha, maybe next time I need help with a paper I'll just memail you guys!
posted by kylej at 7:56 PM on November 15, 2009


Don't have a problem with the question staying or leaving, but I'm kind of unclear on the "why."

I'm seeing three reasons floating around here (not all from mods):

* It's homework
* It's asking for editing help on a specific document
* It's a lot of work, too much to expect from someone on AskMe

I understand the first, and that's explicitly in the FAQ, but what about the other two?

Would it be okay to say "Here's the cover letter for a job to which I'm applying, how does it look to you guys? Did I make any mistakes in grammar or usage? Should be be more formal or more friendly?"

Would it be okay to ask something that's a ridiculous amount of effort, like "How many tiles are on the floor of the men's bathroom nearest the front doors in the New York Public Library? I have twenty dollars riding on this." I just assumed that if it's too much to ask, people won't answer.

I'm just curious, not currently needing any help with cover letters or bathroom tile counts.
posted by lore at 8:35 PM on November 15, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is not a good use of AskMe.
posted by unSane at 8:54 PM on November 15, 2009


Am I the only one who finds it depressing that he repeatedly misspells the moderator's name? It's not exactly winning me over to the cause.
posted by galaksit at 9:50 PM on November 15, 2009 [4 favorites]


kylej contacted Jessaymn, who hangs out with Mr. Mxyzptlk.
posted by lukemeister at 10:26 PM on November 15, 2009


I've taught freshman comp and I'd have been delighted to find out that any of my students was running around the internet trying to score extra feedback from strangers.

That's kind of compelling, actually. Hadn't thought about it that way.
posted by mediareport at 11:19 PM on November 15, 2009


> That Geoff Pullum essay is pure crap.

Yeah, that Geoff Pullum doesn't know what he's talking about! So what if he coauthored the standard grammar of English, he disagrees with me about my favorite teddy bear of a style guide—it may be inaccurate and unhelpful, but it makes me feel good and keeps me warm at night, so screw that poopyhead Geoff Pullum!!
posted by languagehat at 6:15 AM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Seems to me the only thing this question is guilty of is potentially asking too much (in terms of time and effort) of its answers. If you don't happen to have said time, or don't feel like applying it to this matter--*gasp*--don't answer the question. The OP is totally upfront about this being homework. If it gets to the point where he's totally taking advantage of the community (posting all his essays or, say, a dissertation for editing), that's one thing, but we're not there.

The point of such an educational endeavor is presumably to improve one's writing skills. If the OP is not supposed to receive any outside help, that's a matter between him and his instructor. Otherwise, I don't think we should be refusing posts on the green just because a question might encroach on the classroom except in the more egregious cases. "Please help me with my homework" is a perfectly reasonable question. "Please do X for me, where X is something looking suspiciously like a homework problem" is not.
posted by zachlipton at 6:32 AM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Metanoiafilter
posted by Burhanistan at 6:33 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Please help me with my homework" is a perfectly reasonable question. "Please do X for me, where X is something looking suspiciously like a homework problem" is not.

There really doesn't seem to be any net difference between those two options.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:34 AM on November 16, 2009


That Geoff Pullum essay is pure crap.

Yeah, that Geoff Pullum doesn't know what he's talking about! So what if he coauthored the standard grammar of English, he disagrees with me about my favorite teddy bear of a style guideā€”it may be inaccurate and unhelpful, but it makes me feel good and keeps me warm at night, so screw that poopyhead Geoff Pullum!!


This is the opposite of an ad hominem argument.

The statement was that the "Geoff Pullum essay" is crap. And that's pretty true. It was an ingenious concept for an essay that was guaranteed to get a high amount of traffic. But the merits of the essay are independent of Pullum's life accomplishments. The essay misrepresents Strunk & White to make it sound like it takes extreme positions that it really doesn't. For instance, S & W says to favor the active voice, which is actually great advice. Pullum makes it sound like S & W says never ever use the passive voice because it's evil. I actually agree with Pullum that many people are too doctrinaire about avoiding the passive voice, but this is the fault of those individuals, not Strunk & White.

My hunch is that the people in this thread attacking "Strunk & White" haven't looked closely at what the book actually says. You're just using it as a stand-in for "those big bad prescriptivists."
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:44 AM on November 16, 2009


Burhanistan: I see a couple of differences -
1. In the former, it is fully acknowledged that the question at hand is homework-related. In the latter, the poster pretends that it's not a homework question when it most obviously is. The latter pisses everybody off and is insulting to our intelligence--like we can't spot homework when we see it.
2. Here, the OP has already written an essay. He wants to make it better. He's not asking us to write it for him, or do his research, or formulate his thesis statement.
3. Editing is, IMHO, an activity where it is generally accepted to receive help from others in the context of most English classes. If this is forbidden in the OP's case, that's really a matter between the OP and his teacher. In contrast, questions of the latter type tend to violate the academic integrity policy of virtually every educational institution.
4. Helping edit an essay helps the OP to improve his writing in the future, assuming he reads the comments with care and considers their implications. Having random internet strangers do your homework for you is expedient, but not particularly useful when it comes to actually receiving a learning experience.

The post could probably been less controversial if it asked readers to focus on a particular question, e.g. the dialog, grammar and usage, etc..., but I really don't see it as super out of line.

Anyway, that's just my opinion on this. Obviously, others feel rather differently...
posted by zachlipton at 6:46 AM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Finally, I think this is, in part, a classic Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture tug-of-war. The Ask view is you can post whatever on the green, and if it's too much trouble to answer, people won't bother.
posted by zachlipton at 6:51 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


The Ask view is you can post whatever on the green, and if it's too much trouble to answer, people won't bother.

Considering that there are 10s of 1000s of people on this website, that's the case with every AskMe question! It's not like emailing the question to a friend.

I agree that the homework question is problematic, but the reason can't be that answering would be too difficult. First of all, if it's too hard people won't answer. Second, people did give useful, concise answers, so it apparently wasn't too hard!
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:55 AM on November 16, 2009


Yeah yeah, not the best use of AskMe, but wow, kylej, yours has been among the most mature responses to a callout that I've ever seen here. May you kick serious ass on that paper!
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:57 AM on November 16, 2009


Any analysis of what Pullum has to say about Strunk & White needs to be understood as, in large part, what Pullum is saying about what guileless boosters of S&W have to say about S&W, which is to say (and as Pullum and other Language Log folks have on a number of occasions said) that if S&W hadn't become a sort of holy text to a great many people who themselves fail to read it as full of gentle advice but rather as a slate etched with inviolable commandments, the criticism the book now receives from people tired of the ugly produce of said acquired prescriptive, proscriptive half-baked nattering pedantry would not be in evidence. It'd be a perfectly nice little book in another universe.

Before asking if it is unfair of Pullum to slag this makeshift bible for the crimes committed by its zealous readers, it'd make sense to ask if it's unfair to slag Pullum for writing this in a context that, for those aware of it, makes it clear that he is writing with the crosshairs on those style-guide-brandishing zealots as much as anyone or anything.

Defending S&W's purported nuance while ignoring the actual context in which the book itself gets wielded and in which Pullum is writing about it is foolish. Accusing descriptivists of being the lazy ones is just ironic icing.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:59 AM on November 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Accusing descriptivists of being the lazy ones is just ironic icing.

Well, I'm not "accusing descriptivists" of doing anything, since I reject the descriptivst/prescriptivist paradigm. Everyone who prescribes rules (at least, everyone who does a good job of it) is actually describing how (certain) people use language, and even those who claim to abhor "prescriptivism" follow rules. (I haven't noticed an excess of passive voice in the writings of linguists.)

I agree with cortex, as I said, that many people take some of the rules in Strunk & White and other books and exaggerate them, which actually leads to worse writing (e.g. strained attempts to avoid passive voice where it would actually be effective -- which is not prescribed by Strunk & White). Now, you can tar it as a "teddy bear" for "zealots" or whatever, but there's a reason S & W so acclaimed. It's one of the best of its kind that exists. Of course, if you're opposed to the very existence of anything of its kind, then you won't see that as a compliment -- but that would be absurd dogmatism.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:16 AM on November 16, 2009


"Please help me with my homework" is a perfectly reasonable question.

Except it says in the metafilter FAQ "Please do not Ask MetaFilter to do your homework for you." Whether it's reasonable is different from whether it is or should be allowed. As to whether the editing help received here helps kylej improve his writing in the future, well, maybe. If you look at, say, Houstonian's first comment, it's editing on the sentence level, of the sort that Word could do for you automatically. This isn't bad; in a very immediate way it's helpful, but as FelliniBlank says, what's really helpful is for someone to sit down and explain usage rules to a student, and it's probably more helpful to explain them in a general, holistic way without referring to a specific document. My experiences in tutoring writing have shown me that, if you correct grammar on one paper, students tend to just make the corrections there and ignore similar errors in the future.

Of course, it's not the job of people on AskMe to be teachers, but if we're not aiming to do that, and instead making these sort of immediate editing suggestions, I think we're getting into ethically murky waters, particularly since the lines seem to be drawn in a muddy sort of way: we'll edit an English paper for English class, but not answer your math word problems that you got for homework in Math class. The difference seems to be in the nature of how our culture treats the subjects, not in the qualities of the questions themselves.

Regarding the questions that lore raises, would it be okay for me to post my novel here and ask for editing help? A short story that I plan to sell? What about a short story that I plan to show only to my friends? To me, it's not only that it's a lot to ask (which it is, but, okay, I concede that if it's a matter of the amount of work requisite to address the question, people are free not to answer it if they don't have time) but also that "Edit please?"-type questions aren't really questions at all, but requests for a certain type and certain level of professional exchange. This isn't asking about the number of bathroom tiles, but showing someone your bathroom and asking them to retile it for you. If anything, it belongs on jobs, but not AskMe--the fact that it can be done via the internet doesn't really change that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:25 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, I'm not "accusing descriptivists" of doing anything, since I reject the descriptivist/prescriptivist paradigm.

But you're happily catering to that kind of partitioning when you say:

You're just using it as a stand-in for "those big bad prescriptivists."

If you're happy to assert some precriptivist/anti-prescriptivist dynamic for the sake of declaring everyone who disagrees with you about S&W to be worried about "those big bad prescriptivists", it doesn't really matter whether or not you used the word "descriptivist" yourself: you're assigning teams and implying that those who disagree with you are on the team that's against The Prescriptivists.

Whatever your personal paradigm or anti-paradigm, you're presumably not ignorant of the popular paradigm in language discussions, so claiming that you aren't taking a shot at folks who would in popular terms (however problematic and over-simplifying those terms are) be described as "descriptivists" is either backpedaling or tantamount to claiming that, aside from being obviously correct about S&W, you're also above the fray, operating under a superior paradigm than those you disagree with.

If that's not what you intended, you didn't convey your intentions well. It certainly came off as a cheap dismissal.

It's one of the best of its kind that exists. Of course, if you're opposed to the very existence of anything of its kind, then you won't see that as a compliment -- but that would be absurd dogmatism.

But there are plenty of people who aren't remotely "opposed to the very existence of anything of its kind" but who, when asked, will happily suggest style guides that are very much not, and very much not like, S&W, and who would not suggest it. Are they all simply wrong?

It's fine to call S&W a classic—it certainly has the age and the popular visibility to qualify as such—but declaring it among "the best of it's kind" as a useful style guide for the average reader rather than as a testament to William Strunk Jr's personal preferences and dry wit (and E. B. White's devotion to same) is questionable. It's an opinion, and you're welcome to it, but it's hardly a slam dunk.

It is a book that many people like; but for all that I'm not convinced that it is popular for the same reasons that the people willing to carefully defend it like it. Which makes an appeal to its popularity a questionable tactic.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:18 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


That said, I seem to be arguing on the internet about Strunk & White, which is something I should know better than to do by now.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:22 AM on November 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


cortex: That said, I seem to be arguing on the internet about Strunk & White, which is something I should know better than to do by now.

Well, it's better than arguing in bars about Strunk & White. Not that I've ever done so... that often.
posted by Kattullus at 8:31 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


FWIW (which probably ain't much), Joseph M. Williams' Style: Toward Clarity and Grace changed my writing for the better in inestimable ways. Anyone else used this book?
posted by barrett caulk at 9:12 AM on November 16, 2009

I didn't have a problem with this thread, but that's because I love editing. I'm sad I missed the chance to. Darn!
If you can stomach it, head over to any community that harbors fan fiction and ask if anyone needs a "beta reader". There's plenty of freelance amateur editing to do there.
posted by Karmakaze at 9:42 AM on November 16, 2009


I like Strunk & White.
posted by cjorgensen at 10:39 AM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


I like Strunk & White.

I do as well. It gives people some very basic stuff they can do to spruce up their writing. I'd probably have felt pretty good about it if most of the kids I taught just followed those guidelines. Not everyone likes writing and editing. I do, but I'm a nerd. Plenty of people have good things to say but crap writing skills and anything that helps them get past that is a-ok with me.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:57 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I was at school we were always told to write in the passive voice. It was quite depressing.

"An experiment was carried out..."

I've never heard of Strunk and White
posted by dng at 3:50 PM on November 16, 2009


I like Strunk & White.

As do me I.
posted by ericb at 3:58 PM on November 16, 2009


That Geoff Pullum essay is pure crap.

Yes. The poppinjay should've omitted the needless words.
posted by jgirl at 4:30 PM on November 16, 2009


Several years after reading The Elements of Style, there are two things that stick with me:

1) Strunk and White agree with me about how to pluralize words ending in S, which is a nice bludgeon to have on hand when someone thinks I'm doing it wrong.

2) Be terse. I write better when I try to do this.

I know there's a lot to criticize in Strunk's analysis of English grammar, and if I thought Strunk was trying to analyze English grammar in any kind of reasonable way, I'd probably join the hate-in. But I never thought his weird fiddly little rules came off as anything other than his own weird fiddly idiosyncratic little rules. I mean, "persons" instead of "people"? Really? I can't take that as a serious threat, especially from someone who'd push for a word like "studentry".
posted by moss at 5:45 PM on November 16, 2009


I love the term beta reader.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:36 PM on November 16, 2009


Try Strunk and White AND Spunk and Bite, and I think we've got it covered.

And I think kylej actually handled this in a mature manner, was upfront about what he was doing and why he was doing it, and as a former English teacher I like to see a student putting in this much effort, so I really don't have a problem with the askme.

I do think that we have some great contributors here who are also professional editors, though, and that no one should be taking advantage of them for free editing services, so line-by-line stuff is out as far as I am concerned.
posted by misha at 4:59 PM on November 17, 2009


Asking for conceptual help on homework should be allowed on AskMe.
Asking for the answers to homework should not.
Yes, there's a large gray area between them, that's why we have flagging, meta and mods.
posted by forforf at 7:25 AM on November 18, 2009


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