“It’s agreeable that kids are always using their phones or electronics.”

Maybe you find it agreeable. I find it depressing, frustrating, irritating, frightening. Not “pleasing to the mind or senses,” as my old friend Webster assures me “agreeable” means.

I’m going to skip over the other problem in the sentence, the word “electronics”—a branch of physics, Mr. Webster says, that deals with “the emission, behavior, and effects of electrons and with electronic devices” or “of, relating to, or utilizing devices constructed or working by the methods or principles of electronics.” My student means neither of these things: he means electronic devices. And he doesn’t mean all of them; he means those that kids are always using—especially iPhones and iPads. I have other students who refer to such electronic devices merely as “devices,” and I wonder what they think when a professor tells students that for their final project they will be “left to their own devices.” Actually, a hallway sign at one of my schools admonishes students to “be considerate of others: use your devices in the stairways, not the hallways.” My imagination runs, predictably, wild at what must be going on out there, considering the hundreds of possible “devices” our society has to offer…

What I do want to talk about is that wonderful word “agreeable.” Of course I knew what he meant: He agrees, or is willing to agree, that kids are always using their phones etc. Is he trying to cope with the taboo-ification of using “I” in writing? That is not a taboo I impose, although I do say I don’t want to see them refer to themselves as the writer or opinor (sorry for the coinage) in an essay (“I think,” “I know,” “It is my opinion that,” “I feel,” “I truly agree that,” “I sincerely believe”…). Phrases like this are redundant with the unspoken premise of every argument: “I think that…” They also reinforce the writer’s feeling of authority and thereby seduce her to believe she has proved something rather than merely asserting it. So I would be one of the professors who did NOT want this student to write “I agree that kids are always etc.” But I have no problem with “I” when the writer is offering his own experience as evidence or example, and so I would have been perfectly happy with “I have seen hallways full of kids using their phones while walking to class,” for instance. Still, if he was trying to avoid writing “I,” I am willing to sympathize, albeit not to forgive.

Quite simply, he has forced a word to mean something most people would not expect or immediately grasp. “Agreeable”=”pleasant.” “Agreeable” might also = “ready or willing to assent or consent,” or even “in harmony.” Normal readers would try to understand the sentence in terms of one of these meanings. Normal readers would therefore be confused.

Or maybe by “normal” I mean “older than 20.” I’m afraid “agreeable” may be sneaking into the lexicon in the same way that “relatable” has. Now, Webster’s does include “relatable” as a form under the definition of “relate”; no such listing yet exists for “agreeable.” (Interestingly, WordPress’s spell-checker doesn’t recognize relatable as a word. Bravo!) But not that many of my students have as yet inflicted the new “agreeable” on me. Hundreds now have subjected me to “relatable.” I’ve written about that already, at length; here I mention only that it is close to meaningless in statements like “Hamlet is relatable” and “Gawain and the Green Knight is relatable.”

I use Webster’s as my base dictionary reference for this blog partly because it focuses on contemporary usage and partly because it is so widely and easily available to college students. I have the OED at home and use it for my own work, especially in my field of choice (Elizabethan and Jacobean drama); but its historic wonders and etymological subtleties aren’t generally to the point when dealing with student writing. Of course one of the most dramatic aspects of the OED is its revelation of shifts and changes in a living language. And I know contemporary usage continues that drama. But, like the plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, loving them as a group doesn’t mean I have to actually love, or advocate, any single one. The same is true for changes in the language. Some I find fascinating; some I lustily embrace; some, like “agreeable” and “relatable” in the hands or “devices” of my students, I loathe, and will fight against as long as there is ink in my pen.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

20 responses to ““It’s agreeable that kids are always using their phones or electronics.”

  • KokkieH

    With reference to your last paragraph I wonder how you feel about the new “literally”.

    I find that, since I’ve started writing regularly, I’m referring to my dictionary more and more to make sure I correctly understand the meaning of a word before I use it, even when commenting on blogs. More often than not I find that my original assumption as to the word’s meaning was incorrect. I’ve also found that students are notorious for not doing that when writing, which leads to the gems you regularly tell us about here. (I almost used “share” in the last clause of that sentence, but then I remembered your previous post ;-) )

    • RAB

      Hate the new “literally.” Literally hate it. I think the word is like “penultimate”—it SHOULD mean what people want it to mean because it sounds so absolute!

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    “. . . as long as there is ink in my pen.” Ah, pen and ink. Yes,
    I write that way too, sometimes. The tactile sensation is so satisfying,
    and I feel linked to the past. Which I consider a GOOD thing, if you will
    pardon the fragment.

  • solberg73

    I suspect that ‘Sparky’ here intended to use ‘arguable’, and indeed would have , had the batteries in his devious electronics not faded to less than one bar. And zooming out, the question is really ‘What is to be done?’ Your diligence notwithstanding, it appears that the future is sound-tracked with rumors of echoes of murmurs of errors.
    The quill pens we used way back when I learned’ penmanship’ (an odd term when one stares at it too closely), although composed in part by electrons, had no ‘Delete’ button. Every word we penned was as fateful as the signature on a death warrant. We kept the ink , not in pens but in wells sunken into the tiny desks. (Thanks for this reverie, and yes, Mary Blocher, drooling her life away at the desk in front of mine, went home every day with indigo braids.)

    • RAB

      Oh! Were you really one of those dipper boys? I was just a little bit too late for this—we had the holes for inkwells, and actually called the HOLES “inkwells”…but no ink. Ballpoint, which frequently left Stephen Winograd, the pen-chewer, with a mouth full of violently blue ink when the teacher called on him…. Now Patty Ann McGettigan had lovely blonde braids and would have been your target I’m sure.
      I wish Sparky had meant “arguable,” but even though we use the word “argue” in class they shy away from using it in writing, let alone its derivatives. I’m afraid he really did mean that he agreed.
      O tempora! O mores!
      (An artist might say O tempera! A lover of Japanese food might say O tempura!)

  • A Voice

    (1) I got in the habit of using ‘we’ language when writing papers in college and graduate school. I forget the exact rationale behind it or how it was that I picked it up, but chances are good that I picked it up much like a lot of the British English I use when writing: heavy exposure. I also picked up the habit of a very clear thesis paragraph at the beginning of every paper, outlining what ‘we’ were setting out to discuss and what could be discussed but, for reasons of length, were beyond the scope of the particular paper. Working in this manner seems to me to invite the reader to follow along and work with the writer as easily as possible.

    With that said, an alarming amount of people are entirely unaware of how they use language and what they are actually saying with the words they use. My last post (http://thebittervoice.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/the-fuck-did-you-just-say/) may be of interest to you.

    (2) In this decidedly and disturbingly Post-Modern world, words have pretty incredible demands put upon them. They are at once supposed to mean every conceivable thing related to them (e.g. ‘electronics’ and ‘devices’) and be vague enough to mean only one thing (e.g. ‘product’). It seems to me that the over-exposure of marketing and withering educational standards -hell, the absence of standards altogether due to archaic, no, draconian notions of States’ Rights in America- make effective communication difficult where it isn’t near impossible.

    Were I allowed to teach I would start my first class every semester with an exploration of the term ‘enthymeme’ and what it means to people today. The most effective way to look at the term is to consider it an argument or statement with missing or suppressed premises, viz. someone making an (un)intentionally incomplete statement. I’d ask how often they say ‘you know what I mean’ or ‘I mean X’ in defence of a misunderstanding and what that means for effective communication in all walks of life, from work to play to romantic relationships.

    • RAB

      I LOVE “we.” Pace Victoria, I took “we” in my grad school papers to mean “we readers,” or “we literate souls.” I think the bond it implies with the reader makes for a more caring and careful paper, all to the good.

      • A Voice

        This is ESPECIALLY helpful when dealing with controversial subject matter or a particularly strong stance that isn’t likely to be seen as favourable.

        The best example I can give of this is in graduate school. Throughout my class on Augustine I regularly pointed out the glaring contradictions from one work to another on a given subject, the legitimate innovation of ‘Original Sin’ and how we are unable to see the positions of his opponents that may have been distorted due to the ready disposal of ‘heretical’ material. My classmates were shocked but my professor was not, though sometimes he was surprised by the connexions I made, and didn’t discourage it -in fact he often took the opposing point for the sake of providing argument.

        My final paper was an examination of several of these contradictions, how Augustine could not have possibly avoided them and why we shouldn’t throw out Augustine despite these real issues. The paper wasn’t flattering to Augustine but it did make sense of him and his writings. I earned an A for that paper and the course, with my professor saying that it was the best paper he’d read in many years.

        That ‘we’ language would be key to bringing the reader (if someone other than my professor, of course) to accept this stinging criticism of a saint. Reflecting these criticisms back upon the purpose of Augustine’s Retractions is another key to bringing the reader close, however nothing compares to the critical reader allowing themselves to enter into that we and accept argument. THAT is the real key and is something that I think is lacking in this Post-Modern world.

        How many people are willing, nevermind able, to enter into conversation as a genuine participant instead of a passive receptacle for audio vibrations that will be interpreted before they are understood? How many people are willing to be present?

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    What? Loathe is good. (It’s getting bad when native English speakers start sounding like English language learners….)

  • RAB

    To A Voice: What’s truly wonderful about my students’ Horrors is the doors they open into much larger and headier considerations. Witness your post!

  • Susan P

    I enjoyed your post. It is a good thing that my husband is out of the house. The shrieks of laughter might have disturbed him.

  • yearstricken

    I would be willing to wager that most of these students are not readers, at least not readers of good writing.

    • RAB

      I’m not sure you could find anyone to bet against you. And if they do read, it’s more likely than not to be online, and studies suggest online reading is not easily retained…

  • newcleckitdominie

    I’ve come rather late to this comment thread, but I can’t resist sharing an association prompted by your second paragraph. If we follow your students and interpret “devices” as referring exclusively to smartphones, iPads and their kin, a famous phrase from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer acquires a new resonance. “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts”… This phrase will now forever suggest to me one of those scenes so common on campus: students shuffling and jostling along a corridor, each completely oblivious of a surrounding world, and intent only on the smartphone held before his or her downcast eyes.

    Oh, and I really like the idea of an “English as First Language” course. I’d sign most of my students up for it right away.

    • RAB

      Glad to have you here! And thank you so much for this post: I knew there was another “devices” phrase niggling at the corners of my mind but couldn’t call it up. “Devices and desires of our own hearts”—I remember it now, and what new vistas it does reveal in this context. As for English as First Language (or EOL, English as Only Language) (see post at “Columbus discovered America, but not on purpose”) —yes, more and more students need it. What have we wrought?

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