Choice Linguistics: Why and How I Choose this Choice Made by Me

I struggle with “trying to sound academic,” or “trying to sound smart” before I knew what the difference between “academic” and “smart” writing implied. Anyone can write smart. To me, smart writing is a process of finding patterns in my composition and in my speech, and then editing what I express to others. I use these patterns to try to understand why and how I create my argument, and how my argument functions in my writing piece. To me, this argument-question, this attempt to understand why and how I argument-think, helps me both to write and to say something about my writing experience.

In my writing experience, I find myself trying to find “a perfect first sentence.” I become so obsessed, perplexed, and entranced about what words I use to phrase my thoughts, and not about why and how I intend to provide my reader an opportunity to change the way they understand a concept. I call this intention-changing, opportunity-providing, way-of-concept-breaking process teaching. The difference between teaching and tutoring is the instructor’s intention in sharing a thought. I call my Whitman professors “professor,” not “teacher.” My professors could not teach me, they could only provide an opportunity to teach myself. I perform this same function for a student, but the people I tutor are often my fellow schoolmates, humans of my same age. I find that my life and academic age-proximity to the people I tutor helps this student “to feel heard,” to feel validated for their attempt to express a thought, and to still have an opportunity to improve. I remember a sentence my ninth grade English teacher told me, “You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I could bring a horse to water, and I could make it drink, but neither the horse nor I will enjoy this process. I enjoy watching a student tear open their own mind as they realize why and how they taught themselves, and then what they have learned.

One way I attempt to start this process is asking a student what they intend to say in their writing, and how they intend to say it. One student wanted to talk about Alienation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She told me that she did not know how to start. “Start what?” “How to talk about it.” “About what?” “About Alienation in Frankenstein.” “What about Alienation in Frankenstein?” “About the relationship between the creature creator.” “What about the relationship between the creature in the creator?” “About how the creature does not have a father or a mentor, how Frankenstein is angry at the creature, and how he feels distant, separated from Frankenstein.” I did not do anything in this interaction. I asked questions, and she responded. I did not tell her what I thought. I asked her what she thinks, and how she intends to express her thoughts. Acting as a mirror in that way could help a student more, could provide a student a better opportunity to teach themselves, than that of information transfer, the process of force-feeding a student information, and waterboarding this information out of them.

Rather than force-feeding and waterboarding my students, I ask them why diction, passive voice, and stylistic choice affect how they make an argument, how they present a concept. To show them one example of why diction, passive voice, and stylistic choice affect how they make an argument, how they present a concept, I show my students a line from Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis. The final line of Chapter 1 of this translation of Genesis reads “And God saw all that He had done, and, look, it was very good. And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day.” [1] Prior to studying academic religion, I thought this line read “And seventh day, God rested.” In this these sentences, I see similar concepts, similar processes. The ending of an event. God. A release, maybe from tension, maybe from work. The order that these sentences present these concepts, these processes, differs. In this difference, the concept, the process these sentences present changes by means of the language and of the order of the images in my mind. If I say the sentence “I went to the park,” versus “the park was went to by me,” then I necessarily change the concept I share with my reader. I still see the image of me, of going in the past, and of the park, but the order I present these images in changes the concept I provide my reader an opportunity to choose to try to understand. Both the active voice, “I went to the park,” and the passive voice, “the park was went to by me,” are “correct” and “incorrect” depending upon the context. If I need to use passive voice to convey a concept in an ethical means, a clear and accurate means, then I will use passive voice, or passive voice will be used by me.

Finding my writing authority by figuring out my question’s answers helps me not only to shatter the writer’s block, but also to try to understand why and how my expression-intention affects why and how my reader experiences my words, and thus expand my conception of the universe and of the human mind there in, or vice versa, depending upon how I choose to express this thought.

1. Genesis, trans. Robert Alter (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 6.