Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. New York: Oxford U P, 2012. Print.
familiar name in Rhetoric and Composition since the 1970s, Peter Elbow appears
to intend this lengthy book as his final work.
Even if he doesn’t intend it to be his magnum opus, Vernacular Eloquence certainly reads that way, as he seemingly has
crammed in every bit of knowledge about writing he has into the book. I doubt many of you will have the patience to
get through this entire tome, but, in its many pages, Elbow has some good ideas
here worth discussing, so I will point out the specific areas of the book that
you might find most useful. His major
argument is that speech can be useful for writing in a number of ways, an idea
that we certainly can use to help our students.
For example, if your students have trouble expressing themselves
clearly, ask them to read their writing aloud.
Often, the ineffective portions will stand out and be easily
corrected. This won’t work in all cases
(the Dunning-Kruger effect applies to writing as it applies to nearly
everything else), but it will help some students improve their phrasing and syntax,
as well as catch some obvious word usage misfires and other mistakes. For that alone, it’s worth doing as part of
the writing process. In the book, Elbow
explores at length the many benefits of speech for writing, which go far beyond smoothing out phrasing.
useful bits of the book include Elbow’s explanation of his own writing process,
which might be useful for others to emulate (208); his discussion of the split
between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation styles, which might explain why various
instructors enforce very different approaches to punctuation and how students
get confused as a result (259); his commentary on how the fear of being judged
inhibits people’s writing abilities (325), his reference to how using Black
English in a writing course can help African-American students succeed in
college overall (333); his critique of how certain features of student writing
such as insisting that essays “announce their thesis in the first paragraph”
aren’t really representative of true academic writing (which is, after all,
what we’re supposed to be teaching them—students already know how to write in
general, even the ones we consider bad writers, or they couldn’t have made it
this far to begin with) (346); his suggestion that policing “proper” grammar
has much more to do with social class and gatekeeping than it does with communication
and language (354); and his reflection on how freewriting has come to be
accepted by the academy over the years (391). Elbow’s book contains a wealth of wisdom, but
reading it is a bit like panning for gold.
I hope I have pointed out where you are more likely to strike a mother lode.
book is available in our library.