The Basic Pirate Code

Here you’ll find not rules but guidelines for teaching basic writing.

You need to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in order to figure out the real connection between Basic Writing and piracy. The characters frequently refer to “The Pirate Code,” but also suggest they’re more like guidelines rather than rules.

The Oxford comma is right.

The Oxford comma is right.

I think English language conventions are often like that, a pirate code, the rules are guidelines. If you look at comma punctuation you could go to fisticuffs over this: Oxford comma or not. (The Oxford comma is right, by the way, it says so in the caption.) One style manual says the Oxford comma is correct (and me), but another style manual says, oh, it’s optional in short lists. I don’t like that at all, but it is the way it is. In some styles bullet lists have very specific rules, some don’t. Some require certain titles be capitalized; some have to be in italics; some bibliographies are called bibliographies, some are called references, some are called works cited, and sometimes people also used “Works Consulted” as another way to cite sources “consulted.” Ahem. Makes sense.

I love that there is such variety in language use. But it can be confusing. Take a basic writer from another part of the world who is used to British English and spelling, whose first language isn’t English, now plop that same person into a school in Boston where American English is different and accents also have a way of making pronunciation even more difficult AND think about what that might that be like: “the cah was pahked in the yahd.” Right.

So Rules, not so much. But guidelines…I like that. Guidelines seem less strident, more flexible. Because language usage is always moving and changing. If you dig into the Oxford English Dictionary‘s (OED) history, you’ll find that it started out to catalogue (or catalog) words and common spellings in English. Well. That was a fine thing. The founders of the project thought–how long could it take? Samuel Johnson created his dictionary in less than 10 years and he was one dude with some scribes. The OED was begun in 1857, but it wasn’t until 1928 that it was bound in ten volumes. There’s since been a second edition. A third edition was begun in 2000 and it’s still underway. Why so long, why so difficult? Because they keep adding words. Why? English=mutability. It’s quite grand.

And spelling. I had an Australian editor once who was so so so dismissive of my writing. He was brand new and asked to see some of my work. I gave him a sample. He gave it back to me covered in red pen. What a __________. So I explained to him, politely that we use American English in America, and that all his corrections were to my American spelling and punctuation. We use ” where the Brits use ‘. Why? I don’t know. Just because we wanted to be different than our former overlords? Who cares why.

What matters is that we have conventions in the academy (like on a pirate ship) and we have a code, but then our code needs to be more like guidelines–ways to help us communicate so reader and writer can have a meeting of minds. But it’s the thinking that matters first, the connection next. Without the connection, though, the thinking can be lost.

What’s a pirate to do? Study how to teach students not subjects.