too much typing—since 2003



My day job (and night job, and weekend job: it just never stops) as a teacher of college writing means I'm exposed to far more student writing than any sane person would desire. One curious aspect of student writing: certain words, phrases, and even punctuation seem to fall in and out of vogue. Of course, there are the perennials ("in today's society" being among the more notorious), but the way certain words or phrases suddenly flock forth from every other student paper (partake in lieu of participate, for example) suggests a cabal of Mr. Blackwell-like high school English teachers, attempting to inculcate this season's styles in a resistant and error-prone student populace.

Among the more curious of these trends is the spontaneous rise of a new punctuation mark, or rather, a particular usage of a particular punctuation mark. Standard American usage reserves single quotation marks for indirect quotation (there's an obscure corner of Chicago that allows them to designate philosophical concepts under discussion), but almost all of my students have decided that they should be used to designate words or concepts under question generally. That "under question" can simply mean "as words" (for which usage I prefer italics, as with partake above...and for that matter, in this parenthesis), but more often it means "as potentially inaccurate usage," "as non-specific quotation," or "as concept." For example, here's a phrase from a recent student paper:

So when one goes to visit this 'spectacle of nature' they expect that it is going to be wonderful.

The sense seems to be that the phrase is to be regarded as a common or stereotypical description, which the writer is disavowing to some extent. Or this:

I change my 'voice' for each of these people: my boss, parents, brother, friends, teachers, and other students.

(The writer is using Simon Frith's notion of "voice" as developed in his essay of that name.)

What's interesting is that, even though in most cases either (standard double) quotation marks or italics could accomplish the same thing, these students organically evolved the distinction under which single quotation marks mean something a bit more specific than either double quotes or italics. And actually, I think it's a logical distinction worth making, following from that obscure proviso in Chicago I mention above.

Now if only I can get the language to treat non-specific they as it has evolved to treat non-specific you (numberless, genderless)....

No comments: