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The Five Clocks (International Journal of…
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The Five Clocks (International Journal of American Linguistics,) (1961)

by Martin Joos

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When one is introduced, or identified, as an English teacher, inevitably someone will respond, “Oh, you’re an English teacher. I guess I’d better watch my grammar.”

Now the fact of the matter is that most teachers of English do not think of themselves as linguistic police, patrolling for “he don’t’s” and “ain’t gonna’s.” But there was a time when some such teachers—in the sexist language of the day, we called them “schoolmarms”—exercised a strictness in marking student writing: don’t split infinitives, don’t end sentences with prepositions, don’t use contractions in written prose except in dialogue, don’t use first and second person pronouns in formal exposition, avoid sentence fragments at all costs. Two colleagues of mine, when I began teaching, gave automatic F’s to papers on the basis of run-on sentences, comma splices, and fragments. As if those were mortal sins for a writer. (How horrified they would be at that truncated sentence, or deliberate fragment, that I just used!)

The Five Clocks by Martin Joos (Harcourt, 1967, c1962) is a delightful essay that takes a more sophisticated stance toward linguistic variation. In his introduction to the Harbinger paperback edition, Albert Marckwardt (himself a distinguished linguist) recalls the origin of Joos’s original essay. He had been teaching a course in Modern English Grammar to a group of thirty-eight experienced teachers. He began by inviting their response to a two-paragraph passage. They unleashed the red pen of their critical minds and castigated the work as the messy, awkward work of a teenager, full of slang and grammatical errors. Actually the passage was an excerpt from the memoir of a Pulitzer-prize winning author.

The author’s style had drawn the ire of Miss Fidditch -- a term coined by Henry Lee Smith, but described by the acerbic H.L. Mencken ("old-maid schoolteachers who would rather parse than eat") . Working with his class, Joos came up with his “five clocks” as a way to explain stylistic variations in language.

Language varies for many reasons. Joos particularly points out several scales: age (baby talk, teenage slang, for example), breadth (from provincial to standard to genteel), responsibility (bad to good). The scale that he dwells on is style; he identifies five variations or “clocks,” all of which are appropriate (indeed, almost required) in certain situations.

We have children living in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin; Portland, Oregon; and Melbourne, Australia. If we want to know when to call them on the telephone or how to talk with them when they answer, we need to keep four clocks—five if we happen to be in Dever or London. Just as we adjust our clocks to different time zones, so we adjust our language to different situations.

The first three of Joos’s “clocks” are all informal: (1) intimate, the language used between, say, a husband and wife, almost nonverbal; (2) casual, for friends, acquaintances, insiders, making use of slang, ellipses, and verbal formulas (“Been there; done that!”); (3) consultative, language used in negotiating with strangers, distant acquaintances, or colleagues of unequal rank. The fourth clock, formal, is required when the group becomes too large to permit participation, and the speaker is uncertain how much the audience already knows or how they might react. Hence, the language must become more cohesive, more detached, more carefully informative. The fifth, and most enigmatic clock, Joos labels as “frozen” language, or a “formative clock.” It is language used in a text that is read and re-read, that must stand intact, that must address an audience of absolute strangers, that cannot depend upon the speaker’s intonation or the reader/hearer’s asking for clarification. Literary texts, religious rituals, historic documents exemplify “frozen” language: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Preamble to the US Constitution.

Good intimate style fuses two personalities. Good casual style integrates disparate personalities into a social group . . . [in which] the personalities complement each other instead of clashing. Good consultative style produces cooperation . . . . Good formal style informs the individual separately, so that his future planning may be the more discriminate. Good frozen style, finally, lures him into educating himself, so that he may the more confidently see what role he chooses. (p. 40)

So is one style right or wrong? Is one style better than another? Do educated folk avoid colloquialisms? Are sentence fragments always a sign of incompetence? Skillful users of language will adjust their style to each situation. Informal styles reward spontaneity. (That makes language use difficult for the reticent.) Formal style rewards planning and empathy. (That makes language use difficult for those who are impatient or self centered.) Frozen style rewards multiple drafts and linguistic choices that will engage an unknown reader. (That makes language use difficult for the unimaginative person.)

One must adjust one’s clock to the time zone one is in.

Let’s see now, what time is it where you’re talking from?

Gotta reset our watches when this ol' jalopy crosses the line.

Time is ’t?

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may;
old time is still a-flying,
and this same flower that blooms today,
tomorrow will be dying.


Markwardt's introduction is itself a splendid review of the book. He emphasizes the literary quality and purpose of the book. It shows the development of Miss Fidditch's character. The changes are dramatized by the terms by which Joos addresses her: first, she is Miss Fidditch: she interrupts him abruptly and is silenced or ignored or insulted. Then she becomes Candida, and is addressed more thoughtfully, and by the end of Chapter V, she becomes Candy, and they're buddies -- more or less.. "Chapter VI belongs completely to her, even though she lapses into Miss Frankenstein on one occasion." The last chapter, indeed, is an extended dialogue between the two, clever, subtle, nuanced, challenging, in other words, "literary."

Marckwardt concludes, however, by warning us not to be completely diverted by the "literary" format:

Nevertheless, carried away though we may be by the story detail, we must not overlook the force at work, namely the power of looking at language and seeing it whole, for that is still what the book is primarily about. It is thinking and learning about language, not only as a human instrument but as an instrument of humanity that is responsible for the metamorphosis of Miss Fidditch. Here is the message and the hope for those of us who are professionally dedicated to the study of language.

Joose devotes all of Chapter V to his formative style. What is good literary form? Not "fine writing," but good literature? "The answer is that there is no such thing as good literary form; there is only literary good form. . . . Good form is that behavior that makes your partner feel at home; that's why literature is about people and the best literature is all about people." (p66)

I might add -- or argue -- that any writing in any style may be "frozen" when it is cherished by readers and preserved to the letter;for example, the Gettysburg address, "Remember the Alamo!" the letter from my grandmother that my father kept in his shaving stand until the day he died.

Chapter VI plays with formative language, in an exchange between Candy (who once lapses into Miss Frankenstein) and the author. He concludes by going back to the beginning, the epigraph of Five Clocks, which he introduces with this explanaton:

I'm not going to impose my preconceived ideas on a text in English, the language I love; it shall speak, and I will listen. Vox populi vox dei. I'm only an editor. Is that what you were hoping I would turn out to be? I wouldn't put it past you.

That's his stopping point. We've come to the end of the line. It has been, in his subtitle, A linguistic excursion into the five styles of English usage. With a quiet wave of the hand, he bids Miss Fidditch adieu and to the rest of us says, "See ya!"
2 vote bfrank | Aug 1, 2007 |
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That more than one kind of English is likely to be in use at the same time and place is a notorious fact.
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