Creative Commons licensed photograph, "Underwood," by Flickr user Canned Muffins

Class Prep


The Written Rules

In reading the first chapters of The Information by James Gleick and Ted Chiang’s short story The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, I became interested in the correlation between comprehension and regulation. Chiang writes about a Russian man named Solomon Shereshevskii with “arguably…the best memory ever documented,” (Chiang 9). In his description of the man he notes that while his memory was unparalleled there were limitations to his ability: “Reading a passage of text evoked so many images…that he often couldn’t focus on what it actually said, and his awareness of innumerable specific examples made it difficult for him to understand abstract concepts,” (Chiang 9). This brought to mind the English linguists’ difficulty translating the drumming language discussed by Gleick. Since the language of the drums was “distinguished only by their speech-tones” English speakers who could not decipher the different tones struggled to comprehend (Gleick 23). This made me think about how we study language, and specifically, how we think about writing. Early on in grammar education, we hear warnings of run-on sentences, incorrect punctuation, and dozens upon dozens of rules which define our language as we know it. All of these rules seem to work towards a sort of streamlined version of speech and writing; a form which we see as standard and simple to read. However, Gleick notes that “redundancy–inefficient by definition–serves as the antidote to confusion,” a notion which seems to actively work against a system which admonishes the uneconomical (25). In this way, it seems that the issue of communication is less one of not knowing, but rather knowing too much. Perhaps if linguists hadn’t been searching for a ‘code’ to the drummed conversations that heard they might have realized their patterns more quickly. In this way, I feel that the rules of grammar and traditional “good” writing can become a hindrance. Following such a line of thought, I question whether these rules have any real significance or are simply another threshold of restriction to keep those with less access to formal education from making their voices heard, all done in the name of proper form.

Chiang, Ted. The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling, 2013

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, Vintage Books, 2011.