Welcome to the Active Voice Blog, the official blog of the Wake Forest University Writing Center. You can find all the information you need about the Center around our main site, but this space is reserved for students, faculty, and staff to share perspectives on writing practices and processes. We hope you’ll find something here that speaks to you!
“Ambiguous discourse; a sentence which may be construed in two distinct senses.”
“Her response to her boyfriend saying ‘I love you” for the first time was quite an amphiboly, which is exactly what she meant to do.”
“amphiboly, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 22 September 2015.
“Of persons, faculties, actions, etc.: Quick, sharp, keen, subtle, shrewd, esp. in small matters.”
“He enjoyed talking to her because she was an argute conversationalist and could keep up with his wit.”
“Singing, melodious, musical; resonant, ringing.”
“The little bird had such a canorous song, it started to draw a crowd.”
“canorous, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 22 September 2015.
One of the most frequent questions I get from students about their writing assignments is: “Can we use the first person?”
Perhaps writing in my discipline is more conversational than other disciplines, but an overly impersonal style (of the sort that seems to be encouraged by many high school teachers) is hard to find even in the most technical works of academic philosophy. For example, all four of the philosophy books I have on my desk reveal uses of the first person within the first couple of pages, and none of these works are intended for a popular audience. Obviously, such evidence is far from scientific. But I think it is fairly representative of how philosophers go about their work.
However, permission to use the first person in philosophy comes with a caveat. Stylistically, philosophers may be happy to employ “I.” But we are distinctly uninterested in confessional reports about other people’s thoughts and feelings (especially others’ feelings). We are, after all, writing philosophy, not our memoirs.
So what’s the difference between good and bad uses of the first person? Bad uses will stop with the first personal report. They will take the sharing of the author’s thoughts and feelings as the point of the essay. Alternatively, good uses of the first person will regard the author’s thoughts and feelings as provisional–as a starting point for a discussion of the reasons why those thoughts and feelings might be justified. And it is those reasons that most interest us as philosophers. We want to know whether the thoughts and feelings we have are the thoughts and feelings we have are good thoughts and feelings–whether the thoughts and feelings we have are the thoughts and feelings that we shouldhave.
So, yes. You can use the first person. Talk about what you think, believe, and what you are going to try to show in your papers. Just be sure that the substance of your papers focuses on the reasons why those are good things to believe.
Today’s post comes from Dr. Gellar-Goad, Assistant Professor of Classical Languages
You’ve probably heard this potent rhetorical question somewhere. It’s the slogan behind the famous comics-turned-movie Watchmen, it’s the title of an episode of Star Track: Next Generation and of a Hitler novel by Edwin Fadiman, and it’s quoted by pundits across the political spectrum, often when addressing issues of national security and government powers. It even has its own entry on Urban Dictionary, and the Latin original — quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — has a Wikipedia page devoted to it.
It’s like the perfect indictment of Orwellian, 1984-esque Big Brother government, right? If the watchers are the guardians of our republic, who keeps them accountable?
Well, sort of. The Latin quote is real. And the translation is accurate. But what’s missing is the context for the quotation, and it’s a context that might just blow your mind. Content is everything, if you ask the editors of BuzzFeed. But if you ask a classicist, conTEXT is everything.
The context for quis custodiet ipsos custodes is the sixth satire of the Roman poet Juvenal, who wrote in the late 1st or early 2nd century ce. In this extremely long poem, the satiric narrator — a fictional version of Juvenal, sort of like the fictional blowhard version of Stephen Colbert from The Colbert Report — is focused exclusively on Roman women, and how terrible and disgusting and especially how morally and sexually depraved he thinks they are. (Like most ancient men and many modern men, this Juvenal character is a misogynistic pig.)
Our “watchers” line pops up in a discussion about how respectable citizen men’s wives will try to have sex with anything that moves in their house besides their husbands.
The solution? Put guards (custodes, “watchers,” where we get our word “custodian”) at the door. But the wives will just bribe the guards — with sex. So now the watchers are in on the wives’ adulterous adventures. And who will watch the watchers?
So we’re not talking about national security, or big government, or spying or neighborliness or accountability or independent media. We’re talking about a crazy chauvinist’s fear that he can’t trust his No Adultery Task Force because they’re too susceptible to adulterous bribery.
Context kinda changes things, doesn’t it? And the issue of context is crucial not only to the discipline of Classics but also to successful academic work and to better thinking and living more broadly. The nerdiest subgroup of classicists, Philologists, are at core all about the context, asking “what does this word mean in context?” and “how do meanings change based on how words are used in context?”, while any archaeologist will tell you that one of Indiana Jones’ most criminal acts (besides appearing in the fourth film) was removing ancient artifacts from their physical context.
Thinking about context — rather than about quotes or facts or artifacts presented with none of their surroundings or history — leads to a more accurate, more nuanced, and better understanding of things. So when you’re writing a paper or making an argument, watching your evidence isn’t enough. You’ve got to watch the watching, by watching the context, as well.