I LIKE to think I question everything. In reality though that’s not true. I’ve never questioned English language conventions, like punctuation, grammar, even capitalization. That’s certainly one thing I — and most likely most of you reading this — have taken for granted. It just is.

Recently, 61-year-old University of British Columbia (UBC) architecture student Patrick Stewart from the Nisga’a First Nation did put these conventions into question. As a PhD candidate he defended his 52,438-word (149 pages) dissertation that had almost no periods, no commas or capitalization, and no conventional formatting. His first draft wasn’t even in English — it was in his native Nisga’a language. He did acquiesce and translate it so it would at least be accepted for review. Stewart said that he “wanted to make a point” about aboriginal culture, colonialism, and “the blind acceptance of English language conventions in academia.”

The introduction includes:

“in my defense my style of writing is not laziness or lack of knowledge of proper usage of the english language it is a form of grammatical resistance as a deconstructionist in the manner of many writers especially american poet ee cummings he graduated with a master degree in english from harvard university and they called him experimental and innovative not words likely to be used to describe an indigenous writer who breaks all the rules of writing (the behavioural ethics board at the university of british columbia suggested that i hire an editor as it appeared that i did not know the english language) times though they are changing”

Predictably he had many critics of his style who urged him to be more sympathetic to his readers. His response was to include a short standardized abstract before each chapter, but he left the rest of it alone. After his 30-minute defense of the dissertation there was question and answer from the five examiners for a few hours. In the end it was a unanimous vote: He passed.

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