Two Spaces Forward, One Back

One of my pet peeves is when people are writing and double-space at the end of a sentence. This in fact was a rule once upon a time, when typewriters used monospaced type. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo wrote a screed about this a couple of years ago, which I happily posted to Facebook, only to be told by beloved friends and professors that Manjoo and I could stick it, and they would continue to use two spaces, thank you very much.

But more interesting to me today is James Harbeck’s recent post about the responses to Manjoo’s piece on Slate. Their reasons include an appeal that might sound familiar…

It’s the final category of comment, though, that touches on a point that comes up quite often when language professionals talk with their clients and other people who might think they know what they’re talking about but don’t really. An exemplary comment is “Hey jackass. Us two spacers didn’t invent this practice. It was taught to us somewhere, more than likely in a typing class. So despite your assurances, I assure you that it is correct.

So here we have [music please]: argument from authority. Their teachers said it was true, so it must be right. After the initial exasperated snark, Harbeck makes the right and obvious point that not everything you’re taught is true, and calls these people on their appeal to a doubtful authority:

School teachers are not subject matter experts. They teach what is in the curriculum, which has been determined by school boards and politicians, and most of the time it’s right, and of course in order to teach it they need to know enough about it to teach it. Certainly most of what they will teach you is true (whether you remember it correctly is another matter). But they are not always right about everything.

But I think Harbeck went a bit far here, further than he needed to for the sake of his argument. First of all, Harbeck would probably agree that even highly credentialed experts are not always right about everything. But more importantly (at least to me, since it’s my profession being impugned here), he begins with too absolute a statement about the non-expertise of teachers. Surely he’s not suggesting, I tweeted this morning, that teachers are never experts? I can think of several examples to the contrary: one longtime colleague had a degree in linguistics before beginning his career as a teacher; another recent colleague held a Ph.D. in, I believe, psychiatry.

Beyond that, I pointed out that expertise is not binary. By that I mean–and this was a point left out of the presentation today–we oversimplify the issue by grouping only into two categories that we label “expert” and “nonexpert.” A first-semester freshman taking Intro to Rhetoric has less expertise where argument and persuasion are concerned than does the doctoral student who is teaching that class, so the freshman may see the doctoral student as an expert; however, the doctoral student has less expertise than her professor, who might have written several books on the subject, so she may not see herself as an expert. (More likely, the way people actually seem to work, she thinks of herself as an expert in the first context, and as a nonexpert in the second.)

Degrees of expertise are thus best seen as qualitative, and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Think back to Anacharsis: Who is to be the judge of skill?

In any case, Harbeck was kind enough to write back and happily concede that point:

With which I heartily agree. Harbeck’s blog, by the way, is worth a look for all you developing linguaphiles.

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