Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Depending on the Conversation

by Matt Girolami '13

They didn’t teach grammar at my elementary school. Or my middle school. Or my high school. My school district fell under some strange spell that made them  believe adolescents learned proper grammar through conversation and reading. (The latter is arguably true; I learned what makes a sentence look good by reading on my own; however, “clause” was nothing more than a large, bearded man’s surname). Because of this lack of guidance, students—even we readers—spent their high school careers just barely dodging the red pen. So, you can imagine Franklin & Marshall was an interesting transition, to say the least.

To say my first year writing seminar was a shock doesn’t quite capture its impact; it was a screaming wake-up call: a genuine reality check—insofar as my “reality” had become a prestigious, private, northeastern liberal arts college, and that there are rules here.  

Cardinal rules I did not know.

Cardinal rules I have already broken in this piece.

But that’s not to say I don’t respect those rules. In fact, I am so used to writing without contractions that the ones on this page occasionally make me cringe—yet I’ve learned (despite my red first year seminar) that they can have a place in the academic conversation. As can the “I” and the emphatic fragment. It just depends on the conversation you’re having.

By spring of my sophomore year at F&M, I was quite comfortable with my writing capabilities within the sphere I occupied. I had absorbed the once daunting formal writing rules and used (and abused) grammar to creative ends (such as exorbitant use of the semicolon and m dash—in case you haven’t noticed). While this conquered (or so I thought) knowledge helped me both do well and enjoy writing, it didn’t stop me from hitting a wall.

I remember taking a 300-level anthropology course for a non-western requirement. Given it was a 300-level course, I was an anomaly among the anthropology majors. But I was determined to prove that I could excel. Until I got back my first paper. I didn’t do terribly—that wasn’t it. But I didn’t do as well as I expected, and all because I was writing with an accent. That is, in an unconventional form for anthropology papers.

Most notably, I broke out an emphatic fragment (or two) in the essay, which met with a foreboding red pen comment (paraphrased here): this doesn’t belong. That is, the fragment does not belong in an anthropology paper. After class, I talked with the professor, whose criticism was positive but sobering: that my fragment (and other unorthodox language) was stylistically pleasing, but inappropriate in this context. In a sense, it was as if my inappropriate fragment became nonsensical—instead of reading as an emotional pull, it read as an incomplete thought.

This experience decentered my understanding of writing once again: it forced me to take a step back and consider the breadth of academic conversation and the many voices within these conversations. Like any conversation, the speakers need to share the same language for it to be productive. And on that day in my sophomore anthropology class, I learned a little more about the language of anthropology’s conversation—that in that company, creative risks risked credibility.

To trace my narrative once more, I was an unrule-y student, a dubious student, a successful student, a repentant student, and finally, a student who understood—better, at least. Learning the rules of grammar is a small step; learning how to use those rules to your advantage is the ultimate goal. 

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