The Heroic Justice of Grammatical and Stylistic Decisions

Dr. Kevin Shorner-Johnson continues our look at the power of words with a reflection on how the ethics of diction in the college classroom. See earlier posts on Millennials and persuasion, scriptures in public school, and sexual rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible. 


her hands
Vyacheslav Bondaruk, “her hands,” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


For college students, acts of justice often seem to be abstract acts performed by the “great” heroes of the past. However, justice and ethics are embedded in the every day as well as the heroic. Pervasive, everyday actions have great power.

Papers are the ubiquitous assignments of college life. We are told to pay attention to tense, voice, and grammatical structure because it is the way to thinking and communicating in an educated manner. But what if there was something far deeper to these decisions? What if these decisions were heroic ethical decisions, acts of justice?

Virtually all discussions of writing and ethics have focused on issues of plagiarism. While plagiarism IS a matter of justice, grammatical decisions about tense, precision, nouns, and voice are also ethical decisions and therefore embedded acts of justice.

The Justice and Complexity of Tense

Decisions about tense are complex, contextual, stylistic, and important. Every decision about tense is informed by beliefs about permanence or impermanence. When writing about a cultural tradition, activity, product, or institution, writers often move to forms of present tense to discuss continuously-present phenomena. Classical music critics often use present tense to write about classical compositions. Embedded within these decisions are beliefs about the permanence of notated music as phenomena separate from composer action.

However, beware of assuming too much permanence. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (2009) reflected upon the danger of permanence assumptions in intercultural dialogue. They stated, ”One of the fundamental obstacles to intercultural dialogue is our habit of conceiving cultures as fixed, as if fault lines separated them” (p. 9). Beliefs about permanence affect our perceived capacity for change, honesty, restoration, and reconciliation. When we over-assume the authority of our knowledge, we can perpetuate injustice and transform humans into unchanging phenomena. I often choose to write in past tense because I want to open space for humans or cultures to be living, breathing, creative, and mistake-making organisms.

Consider the following:

(A) “Kim Jong-un is an oppressive dictator.”

(B) “Kim Jong-un has been an oppressive dictator.”

(C) “Kim Jong-un implemented practices that oppressed the North Korean populace.”

Each statement makes different ethical decisions. In statement A, the writer used simple present tense to imply a belief that Kim Jong-un has no capacity to change. In statement B, the author used present perfect tense to identify a past identity that continues into the present. While I can argue both A and B as truthful, my favorite statement is statement C. This statement speaks truth about oppression, identifies the centrality of human action, and refrains from demonizing the human soul. The past tense statement remains valid even if the dictator wakes up a changed man.

The Justice of Precision

Words help us understand and break down concepts. When we use imprecise and limited vocabulary, our writing moves towards stereotype and generalization. As vocabulary enlarges, our understandings become more discriminant and precise. Consider the difference between these two statements:

(A) “Africans celebrate their spirit world through community drumming.”

(B) “Ewe community members often form connections to the spirit world through community drumming.”

The first statement (A) is offensive. The writer has made assumptions that all Africans connect to the spirit world in the same way and all Africans drum. The second statement speaks of a particular cultural group on the continent of Africa and uses the word “often” to acknowledge the writer is not all-knowing for every Ewe member. The precision of language and the humility of authority form just action.

The Justice of Nouns

In a memo to National Public Radio journalists, Memmott (2015) discussed journalist decisions about the use of “migrant” or “refugee” when reporting the Syrian crisis. Because of political ramifications, the precision of the noun is important: if a person flees violence, the person is labeled a refugee; if a person flees economic conditions, the person is labeled a migrant. However, the world is not nearly as neat and tidy as our dictionaries.

But, there is a deeper ethical question here. When does a person stop being a refugee? When I study and research people with refugee status, I worry about adopting a noun that overrides all other descriptors. An individual who is a refugee can also be a mother, father, musician, artist, professor, Buddhist, or writer. Using “refugee” as the dominant noun defines people by the worst moment of their lives. What is the justice of being defined by moments out of our control?  If we make nouns permanent and provide no other alternative, we alienate and permanently label a human group as a deficit people.

The Justice of Voice

Sentences written about human beings involve actors and actions. In early paradigms of scientific thought, scientists referred to research participants as subjects. Researchers used passive voice as a means of inferring objectivity. Consider the following:

“After testing, positive scores were obtained by subjects.”

Freire  (1968) commented that one of the fundamental tools of oppression is the dehumanization of the oppressed. When we remove agency from people and place them as cogs in the wheel of phenomena, we perpetuate messages of oppression.  Rockmore (2015) analyzed textbook writers’ use of active and passive voice in discussing “upsides” and “downsides” of slavery. She stated, “In the sentences that feature slaves as the subject… the slaves are contributing their agricultural knowledge … singing songs and telling folk tales.” However, when discussing negative aspects of slavery, Texas curriculum writers consistently moved to passive voice (“Families were often broken apart when a family member was sold to another owner”). She commented, “Through grammatical manipulation, textbook authors obscure the role of slave owners in the institution of slavery.”

As I teach world musics, I am struck by the differences between how students write about popular Western musicians and the alien “other.” For example:

“Garth Brooks performed hit singles that led to his fame as a country music star.”

This statement gives agency and power to a named Western actor. When my students write about the alien “other,” they often hide actors and agency to represent phenomena. For instance:

“The music performed by Haitian people is often complex and polyrhythmic.”

I believe this statement is unjust because it reduces Haitian agency. We seem to contend music is a mysterious phenomenon that happens around and not by Haitian people. A much more just statement is: “Haitian musicians often perform complex, polyrhythmic music.” This sentence adds precision and acknowledges the agency of actor upon the structure of music. I wonder if our decisions about actor and agency reveal hidden racism, sexism, and stereotypes.

Final Thoughts

If decisions about tense, precision, and voice are ethical decisions, then writing is an act of justice or injustice. I believe in using precise language, correct voice, and carefully choosing tense because I believe in the transformative power of written language for truth-telling, reconciliation, and restoration. I choose to write in a way that lifts up unheard voices, transforms injustices, and restores a more loving world.


UNESCO, UNESCO World Report: Investing in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialogue: Executive Summary (2009),

Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968).

Mark Memmott, On Migrants and Refugees, NPR Ethics Handbook, August 28, 2015.

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas teaches history,” The New York Times, October 21, 2015.

Shorner-Johnson-Kevin.jpgKevin Shorner-Johnson, PhD is Assistant Professor and Director of the Music Education Program at Elizabethtown College. His research interests include instructional design, the development of instructional technology for music education, international perspectives on music education, and music education philosophy.


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