Watch Your Language: Literary Decorum, St. Augustine, and Student Papers

WP_20130922_009Imagine this. You have to write a paper for one of your classes—ACS, business, philosophy, any subject, really. Your professor gives you the prompt, but says he will not be the one grading your paper. He tells you he will give your paper to another grader, but he refuses to tell you who your grader will be. He says it could be another professor in the discipline, a student who is unfamiliar with the subject material, or a random passenger on the train. If you did not know who would be giving you the grade, how would you write your paper? Would you include technical jargon common to the discipline? Would you oversimplify your argument to the point of ambiguity? How would your use of language change?

At the heart of this scenario is the concept of “literary decorum,” or determining what is suitable or fitting to including in discourse. At the annual Saint Augustine Lecture on September 10th, Father Robert Dodaro addressed the effects of literary decorum and ancient rhetorical theory on our understanding of Christian doctrine from the time of Augustine to Vatican Council II. Father Dodaro’s lecture, titled “Language Matters: Augustine’s Use of Literary Decorum Theory in Theological Argument,” was rooted in theology, but his discussion of rhetoric is applicable to any field.

According to literary decorum theory, “appropriate” discourse takes into account the relationships between the speaker, the subject, and the audience. Internal literary decorum focuses on the relationship between the text and the ideas, while external decorum theory focuses on the relationship between the audience and the text. As an example, Father Dodaro suggested that in the Nicene Creed, the phrase “one in being” may be considered theologically ambiguous (an internal problem) while “consubstantial” may be considered overly technical for the audience (an external problem). To be rhetorically effective, it is important to maintain a proper balance between internal and external decorum, both staying true to the ideas expressed in the text and conveying the ideas in a manner befitting the dignity of the audience. In writing your hypothetical paper, you might use jargon and technical terms if your audience is the professor in the discipline. For the train passenger or the student, you might use more colloquial terms or explain a concept in your own words.

Literary decorum theory also accounts for using words that do not have a direct translation to express the idea, which was a problem in the earliest translations of Christian doctrines from Greek to Latin, and on a smaller scale, can be difficult for students who want to convey written ideas more vividly than a simple adjective can express. Father Dodaro discussed St. Augustine’s defense of the “tres personae,” or three-in-oneness of God, as an example of the difficulty of translation. “Tres personae” is a loose translation of the Greek word to express the relationship between God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and in Augustine’s view, was an incomplete translation. If there is no proper word to convey an idea, literary decorum suggests using an archaic word, a neologism (a word newly created for the purpose of expressing the idea), or a metaphor. “Tres personae” was thus the best linguistic choice because it was already established in Church tradition and acted as a metaphor to express God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. My example of the professor giving your paper to another person to grade is another instance of using metaphor to convey an idea to an audience.

Father Dodaro used these past historical and theological examples to argue that literary decorum can and should be used to effectively communicate church doctrine to Christians, emphasizing the relationship between the text and the audience while maintaining the integrity of the internal ideas. But this lesson can be taken outside of a Christian context, too. When we write a speech or a paper, or even something as simple as a letter or an email, shouldn’t we also consider our audience as an integral part of our rhetorical strategy? Attention to audience, words, and ideas play a paramount role in communications of any type, whether a theological argument or a student’s thesis statement. Our writing is best when our internal ideas match our language and can be conveyed in the most appropriate manner for an audience.

So how would you write that paper for the professor? For the student? For the passenger? Recognizing even the smallest differences in an audience and adapting our language to suit a context renders us more understanding, more articulate, and ultimately, more effective writers and speakers.

By Janine Perri ’15

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