Rhetorical Grammar, Writer’s Voice, and the Art of Hedging
The past few weeks, I’ve been teaching my Advanced Grammar and Composition students the rules of Standard English Grammar and the art (for lack of better terminology) of rhetorical grammar. We’ve struggled with the “rules” for commas and the “guidelines” for rhetorical commas. I find that a lot of the class discussion has me hedging around the hard and fast yes/no answer because of these guidelines. For instance, a student will ask about a comma after an introductory phrase and I’ll find myself saying “it depends on where you want to place the emphasis.” I can see my students’ frustration at this answer–or lack of answer in their mind. I want to give specific answers for these questions, but since so much of rhetorical grammar is based on the individual writer, the individual sentence and the writer’s plan for the sentence, there are still no hard and fast rules.
But it brings me back to a time where I was the frustrated student wanting the answer. The question was different for me, though. I was immersed in the study of Creative Writing, not Rhetorical Grammar, and desperate to know how to find my writer’s voice. My professor did a lot of hedging of his own around that topic, often telling his students we would “know when we’d found it.” Years later, I know that I have a writer’s voice–both for fiction and non-fiction, but I couldn’t tell you when I found it. I couldn’t tell you how I found it. It’s the same thing for my own rhetorical grammar; I know it’s there, but I don’t really know how it got there. I sense the same will happen for my students.
Ironically, I’ve found myself contemplating the teaching of a Creative Writing class in conjunction with a Rhetorical Grammar class and I find myself wondering if this idea is even possible. If we can’t teach writer’s voice and we can’t teach the art of rhetorical grammar, would the class be an exercise in hedging? Or is there some way we can combine what we do know about rhetorical grammar in a portfolio-based class for creative writers? Can we begin to help students understand the power of rhetorical grammar within their writer’s voice when we cannot teach them how to find their voice?
I know that rhetorical grammar is an inherent part of a writer’s voice, but I’m confounded at how we help writer’s recognize this connection and make concrete decisions about their rhetorical grammar that will impact their writer’s voice in a positive manner. I don’t know that there is a right way to teach these. I don’t even know that there is a possible way to teach them. But it’s certainly something I’d appreciate having an opportunity to test run in the future.