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Moe, Peter Wayne. The Importance of Ordinary Sentences. Comp Studies, Fall 2018. Posted 03/21/2019.

Moe, Peter Wayne. “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences.” Composition Studies 46.2 (2018): 79-95. Web. 14 Mar. 2019.

Peter Wayne Moe investigates the rhetorical work of “ordinary sentences” like those in his “collection” from first-year writing students (81). He shares with Jennifor Sinor a definition of “ordinary writing as a text that is not literary, is not noticed, and one that should have been discarded but that instead somehow remains” (qtd. in Moe 92n4). Student writing, Moe contends, meets this definition (92).

Moe builds his argument around the concept of writing as an act of “inhabitation.” He notes that this concept is embedded in “elocution,” the Latin roots of which mean “out of” a “place” (80). Similarly, the Latin sources of “composition” are “to place” and “together” (81). He draws on a number of writers, including both scholars and fiction writers, to demonstrate that the possibility that a writer can “inhabit” his or her prose is widely accepted (79-81). In this view, “location” moves “beyond physical places to include the rhetorical situation, the ways language locates a writer in relation to other people, other ideas, other discourses” (81).

In this sense, Moe argues, ethos becomes a function of the nature of a writer’s location. He cites Kathleen Blake Yancey’s sense that who a writer is will be enabled and constrained by the people and circumstances around her, often in ways that are hard to recognize (80). Moreover, Moe evokes the participation of the reader, who also does the work of “locat[ing] the writer” based on interrelationships between a text and larger contexts that the writer may not control (82).

Moe cautions that his project of developing “a theory of the inhabited sentence” in this larger sense of “inhabitation” is not meant to provide models for imitation because the meaning of individual sentences emerges from the circumstances surrounding them, and therefore the work of any one sentence is “not reliably repeatable or transferrable from one piece of writing to another” (82). He also distinguishes his analysis from the moves of location via metatext highlighted by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein in They Say/I Say. In Moe’s approach, writers are seen to make communicative moves without “heavy-handed metatext” that can be “overbearing” or even “violent” (82). In contrast, Moe argues, sentences in his collection allow readers to construct connections in which they, along with the writers, inhabit meaning (82).

Finally, Moe argues for the value of studying ordinary sentences like those students produce, in contrast to the practice in many textbooks of “[p]lucking ideal sentences by masters,” a practice that Moe maintains delivers the message that ordinary writing, especially that by students, is not “real” writing (83). In addition, in Moe’s view, making extraordinary sentences the basis for writing instruction neglects the need for students and writers to see how their choices in “worker sentences” serve to establish their relationships with others and with issues (91). Students who struggle to note counterarguments or cite sources, he contends, are actually grappling with the problem of locating themselves in and alongside texts (91).

Moe’s collection addresses moves that he feels are both mundane, performed by all writers at some point, and yet important. As one example among eight, he contends that the choice of whether “I” or another writer discussed in the text is chosen as the subject of sentences can map a writer’s changing location with regard to that other writer (84). In another example, he argues that a parenthetical aside “allows the student to speak back to herself, to question what she’s already said” (87). In yet another case, he shows how removing the locative adverbial components leaves a sentence “decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (88).

For Moe, acknowledging the “rhetorical density of ordinary sentences,” especially through the lens of inhabitation, underscores the degree to which any sentence occupies space, “among other sentences, other clauses, other phrases” (91). This understanding, he argues, is “more important than being able to identify President Lincoln’s use of epistrophe in ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’” (92). Helping students see how their easily overlooked choices locate them among others, in this view, should be the primary academic task (91).