“The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found…”

My student is writing about Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” (part of The Canterbury Tales). I’ve written before about the Prologue to the Tale and what my students think of the Wife herself; the Tale itself presents one of the Arthurian legends and gives us an understanding of the Wife’s definition of “what women want.”

According to the story, a young knight more full of self than courtesy encounters a young woman in the woods and decides to have his way with her (droit de seigneur). She accuses him of rape, and he is taken before King Arthur for judgment and sentencing. The King would kill him; but Queen Guinevere and her ladies, perhaps taken by his youth or good looks (shame on them!), persuade Arthur to set him a quest instead, and so he is given a year to find the answer to the question “What do women want?” If he succeeds, he will be free to go; if he fails, he will be executed. A year of wandering and questioning everyone he comes across gives him too many answers, none definitive; the deadline looms on the day that lo and behold! he sees a ring of lovely maidens dancing in a clearing in the woods, but when he approaches them they vanish, leaving nothing but an old (and of course ugly) hag. With a sigh and a shrug he asks her the Question, and she agrees to give him The Answer on condition that on his successful appearance before the Queen he will grant her a request. At court he offers the hag’s answer: Women want maisterye. This term has been translated variously but seems to mean power over their own lives (and perhaps power over their spouses as well). Guinevere and the ladies pronounce his answer correct, and he is freed. His joy is short-lived, however: the hag’s request is that he marry her. His consent shows that he is in fact a man of some honor. But once they are married, he refuses to perform in the marriage bed; she is simply too repulsive for a handsome young man such as himself. Finally she offers him a choice: she will be faithful and a good wife in every way but as ugly as he sees her now, or she will be young and beautiful but definitely not faithful to him. We see that he has taken her wisdom to heart when he answers: “You choose.” And so of course, happily-ever-after, she makes her choice: she will be faithful and young, beautiful and skilled in the homemaking department. That, after all, is what she wants.

You, dear reader, have been so patient, awaiting the completion of my student’s statement, so here it is:

“The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found to be the heroic jester in this story.”

Was it the Days of Yore and kingly setting that suggested a jester, or was it my student’s ignorance of the word “gesture”? Heroism aside, yes, what he has done can be called a “gesture,” in the sense of “geste,” behavior, action, or comportment. The word “gesture” can apply to physical motions that convey thoughts or emotions, or actions intended as formal indications of courtesy in order to impress or persuade, and clearly “gesture,” perhaps in both these senses, is the word he meant. I hold onto the hope that he was being sincere, though, not merely making a gesture—heroic or otherwise.

I certainly hope the knight didn’t intend it as a joke, a bit of merriment, a royal entertainment, the stock-in-trade of jesters.

And I hope my student will someday learn the difference between an heroic action and a comic ploy. Otherwise, I fear his own relationships in the romance department are doomed.


“The ad may even make people think twice before allowing themselves to be ignorant.”

To celebrate my 4000th follower (!), I offer this wonderful sentence.

My student was commenting on a public-service ad about nutrition, if I recall correctly.

Can’t you picture the people who see it? “Hmm!” they say; “maybe a diet of nothing but candy and Big Gulps isn’t the greatest idea! Maybe I should….” And then: “Naaaaah. This thing is probably not true. I’d rather not think about it anyway. Where did I put that bag of gummy bears?”

Nothing against gummy bears per se, but I’d say that’s a pretty INeffective ad, and I’d say some advertising agency ought to be firing somebody or maybe looking for an account to replace the one that just fired THEM.

If she had written “rather than” instead of “before,” she might be holding out some hope for us all. But maybe she didn’t proofread. Maybe she doesn’t understand what “think twice” actually means. Maybe she didn’t even think twice.

Maybe she just allowed herself to be ignorant…


“The soil will become intoxicated by all the chemicals that they use to build the buildings.”

This sentence comes from an essay discussing a plan by the city of New Haven to convert a strip of land used by a co-op farm into a combination of mall stores and “clean manufacturing.” My student was considering a compromise proposal whereby the farm would occupy a smaller part of the strip and the development would be built around it. Not a good idea, my student argued, and you can see why: intoxicated soil.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, or can imagine, a building built by chemicals, but that’s not the fun of the sentence. Construction, especially in these modern times, does involve fuel, solvents, adhesives, finishes, and materials that contain or release chemicals of various sorts, although that’s not exactly what the language says. The first part of the sentence is so much more interesting that we can let the latter go by (although I didn’t in my comments on the paper: I drew an “equal” sign in the margin and slashed it, underlined “chemicals,” “use,” and “build,” and hoped the student would ask for clarification).

No, what’s interesting is the intoxicated soil. Once you start explaining why it’s wrong, you see why it’s so close to being right.

Webster’s New Collegiate provides definitions of three parts of speech.

intoxicate vt -cated, -cating: 1) to poison; 2a) to excite or stupefy by alcohol or a drug esp. to the point where physical and mental control is markedly diminished; 2b) to excite to the point of enthusiasm or frenzy.

Intoxicated adj: affected by or as if by alcohol.

intoxication n: 1) an abnormal state that is essentially a poisoning, as in “intestinal intoxication”; 2a) the condition of being drunk; 2b) a strong excitement or elation.

All these forms have as their root the word “toxic,” meaning “poisonous,” or “toxin,” meaning “a colloidal proteinaceous poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.”

I don’t think alcohol actually qualifies as a toxin by this definition (chemists and biologists, please correct me!); but there is such a thing as “alcohol poisoning,” and it’s real, so we can at least use the term “toxic” with it. So “intoxicate” by its first definition can apply to alcohol, just as “intoxication” by its first definition can apply to drinking way too much.

But “intoxicated” is dedicated entirely to the effects of alcohol, either literal or figurative.

Well, I’m in love with my student. He eschews the shorter and simpler (and much more acceptable) “the soil will become toxic” and instead goes straight for the far more colorful “the soil will become intoxicated.” Has he decided on his own that this is the correct adjective to mean “poisoned”? Oh, I do hope so. I would far rather that he figured it out for himself than that some thesaurus offered it to him.

He has written a phrase that technically is not wrong, but nevertheless conjures up a delightfully bizarre picture in the reader’s mind (at least if the reader has ever been intoxicated by something other than arsenic or motor oil). Can’t you just see clods of earth reeling around the property, attempting to dance, bumping into each other, singing “Melancholy Baby,” clinging to lampposts, kissing, weeping, ultimately lying down and passing out? Are those sounds we hear coming from the site late at night hiccups?

That’s not a construction site: it’s a party.

Yes, definitely a party. Notice the intoxicated soil? Image © Parkinsonsniper | Dreamstime.com - Construction Site Photo. By permission.

Yes, definitely a party. Notice the intoxicated soil?
Image © Parkinsonsniper | Dreamstime.com – Construction Site Photo. By permission.


A good read for a snowy day…

Here’s a wonderful essay to read on what is here yet another snowy day. It’s from the 23 February 2015 New Yorker: “Holy Writ,” by Mary Norris, Copy Editor at the magazine.

Norris may be my new goddess. I agree with her on everything—except the claim that the comma is a pause. I think it’s a vocal dip usually without an actual pause. Using that definition, I concur on every comma choice she describes even though she makes those choices for reasons of a different nature. The test of my ear concurs with the test of her principles and reinforces her preference for the “Oxford comma.”

Well, anyway, it’s lovely, and exquisitely punctuated. Please follow this link and have yourself a great time!

 


“I saw screaming children crying to their parents as they begged for donuts.”

March 4th! As my friend Michael Neill Stanton used to say, The only day of the year that is a command. (“May One?” is the only day that is a question, per MNS also.)

March 4 is also, Wikipedia tells us, National Grammar Day.

In celebration of both, I invite you today to march forth and offer some responses to this wonderful grammar error, Faulty Pronoun Reference. You know what my student meant, but obviously that’s not quite what he said. Please join me in savoring this noisy sentence by leaving a Comment!

Meanwhile, you can follow this link to a blog I follow; there you will find the history of donuts/doughnuts, the original of this yummy picture, and a recipe. They may make you beg!

Doughnuts-640x425

Tori Avey’s blog on history and food provides this pile of donuts for you to beg for!

 


“I have diffidently put effort in.”

Awhile ago I devoted a post to ruminating on an example of this word, “diffident.” That writer was writing about fast food as an eating “path,” and I was comparing this concept to the two paths in Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” especially since my student said the fast-food road was “diffidently not the only one.…”

Today I’m looking at two more examples of that word, edging its way (modestly) into a sentence where it does not belong.

In the example headlining this post, my student assures me (the reader) that he has tried all semester. And in fact, he did work quite hard, coming to my office to work through rough drafts, revising and developing his thoughts. He “diffidently put effort in,” he assures me.

In another example, another student also praised the writing course:

“It was tough but diffidently worth it.”

Now, wouldn’t you think this was the same writer in all three examples? But it was diffidently not.

None of the writers actually meant “1) distrustfully; 2) with hesitation in acting or speaking through lack of self-confidence; 3) reservedly, unassertively, shyly” (as Webster’s New Collegiate would have it).

The Fast-food Road Not Taken was not an unassertive road, shyly admitting to being one of several; the student who tried did not try hesitantly or distrustfully; the course did not lack self-confidence or deny its value.

I knew what all three of them meant, and so do you: they meant “definitely,” not “diffidently.” They meant the opposite of what they wrote.

Can this be blamed on AutoCorrect? Or are my students not hearing words correctly? Does the cacophony of modern life drown out significant differences in sound that would communicate significant differences in meaning?

I can’t say, but the possibility scares me, especially since so many of my students admit to doing so little serious reading, and seem to pay such light attention to what they do read. If we are going to leave literacy and again become an aural culture, then shouldn’t we be paying closer attention to pronouncing words carefully? And, ironically, isn’t careful pronunciation partially dependent on attentive reading?

Well, be on the lookout and see what you encounter. And meanwhile, please do encourage young people to “own” their experiments and efforts. Trying diffidently will only obscure errors and blur intentions. We want no timorous students, but instead learners who are bold enough, and wise enough, to present their ideas and work unafraid, confident that any corrections or questions they receive will only help them grow.


A serious post this time…

This entry is in memory of my dear friend Tony Sanders, teacher of writing and exciting, difficult poet, whom I was speaking with on the phone about snow storms and friendly neighbors a couple of weeks ago and who died, I discovered just now, a couple of days ago.

Here is a passage from a prose poem called “No Can Don’t,” in his book Subject Matters: Prose Poems. You can find all his books on Amazon.com.

“…The older you get, the older you get. The irregular skyline, like a well-worn house key, says so. You are now the river, then the riverbed, then the river again with some remorse, since you never get used to opportunity, like a half-day of work or happenstance happening on a park bench known for drama, though you leave without so much as a faint ‘hello’ or the tip of a cap as you try to sort out the significance the line-breaks and syntax of your thoughts, while avoiding your fear of saying what was already obvious in the fingle-fangle of the moment the hero in the novel seizes upon. There would always be excuses and Acts of God you could Google like history or ask the Psychic, who saw your time was up and your wallet out.”

Back when we taught together and shared an office we would occasionally read our students’ astonishing or hilarious errors to one another. On the phone we would discuss politics, romance, favorite bands, bad jokes, late-night Law & Order reruns. On the phone he sometimes read me new poems. I remember when he read me this one.

The word’s the thing, my dear friends, and people who use it well are precious for that. And for many other things.


“They are long last friends.”

Dylan Thomas enjoyed revisiting clichéed expressions, refreshing them to offer his reader new insights, experiences, lines of thought. Phrases such as “a dog among the fairies, The atlas-eater with a jaw for news, Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream” (“Altarwise by Owl light”) and “Dead men naked they shall be one  With the man in the wind and the west moon” (“And Death Shall Have No Dominion”) wake us up with a tug on the bell of familiarity. 

Sometimes a student error has the same effect. This is one such error.

The reader of student papers (as distinct from the reader of a Dylan Thomas poem) must of course first ask: “Is this just a typo?” We can be almost certain here that my writer was going for “long-lost friends,” and possibly all she did was hit “a” instead of “o” and omit the hyphen, a little mark students are generally not comfortable with anyway. The reader silently corrects and moves on. No problem. We knew what she meant.

Just as likely, though, is that my student has not heard the expression “long-lost friend” very often; she is, after all, only 18 or 19. How long can friends be lost for if one’s entire life is two decades or less? And if she hasn’t heard the expression very often, she may not have heard it correctly. I’ve looked at a lot of other errors that seem to have resulted from reaching into one’s own lexicon to interpret an unfamiliar term, and this may be one of those errors. She may have misunderstood what she heard.

If so, then what intention did she add to the phrase? We get to play with punctuation here, all the “little marks” that group words into concepts.

Did she mean “long, last friends”? That is, was she thinking of enduring relationships with people, possibly tall people, who were likely to be among the mourners at her gravesite? For some reason this strikes me as a kind of Dylan-Thomas-y thing to write.

Or are we seeing “long-last friends”—those sturdy ones who can be relied on through thick and thin, kind of like Levi’s jeans or Wearever cookware or Firestone tires—?

I like the latter. Rather than the poignancy of friends separated by space and time, meeting again in a joyous embrace, two bereft halves coalescing finally into a stable and satisfying whole, this phrase offers us the practical, workaday comfort of friends who are, as so many of my students like to say, “THERE for each other.”

I therefore offer you the companion phrase as something you might want to add to your lexicon. “At my high school reunion I enjoyed the thrill of seeing again some long-lost friends” can be joined by “When I got home I told Jane, my long-last friend, all about it.”

Remember to keep that hyphen in there, though, or you’ll have to be writing from a sickbed or coffin.

Medieval statues of Mourners—or Long, Last Friends. No reunions here. This image from an article on the exhibit “Mourners” at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Dijon.


“This piece shows the lusty side of the 1600th century.”

You know what he meant: the 17th century. Or possibly the 16th century. I’ve written before about the trouble students have keeping the ordinals straight when referring to (notice how I resisted writing “referencing”?) centuries, and perhaps this student was trying to avoid making a mistake by making the actual date ordinal.

But I like to think rather that he’s imagining how much fun the future will be. It may be driven by technology, and robots (like corporations?) may by then be “people, my friend,” and because of climate change (if of course it’s real) the landscape may be unrecognizable—but fear not, it WILL have a lusty side.

We haven’t read any literature that predicts the future, but I’ll imagine my student had that in mind anyway. Always best to err on the hopeful side.

Today’s forecast for Connecticut is daunting: blizzard, white-out, closed roads, snow piling and drifting deep, probable widespread loss of power, cold temperatures… I looked for Horrors that had to do with any of that, just so my blog post could be topical, but I found none. Hence this post about “this piece.” At least the lusty 1600th century takes us into hyperbolic territory.

And in case you’re shut in by weather but still have power, I invite you to enjoy “Snowbound,” by John Greenleaf Whittier. My fifth-grade class had to memorize chunks of it, and any snowfall continues to evoke its images, its rhythms, its world, its human warmth. It was published in 1866 and is a reminiscence from the author’s youth: it is a 19th-century poem. A lovely, lovely one.

More snow for you:

Emily Dickinson… “It sifts from leaden sieves—”

Edna St. Vincent Millay… “The Snow Storm”

Ralph Waldo Emerson… “The Snow Storm” (this one has one of my absolute favorite last lines!)

Wallace Stevens… “The Snow Man”

Billy Collins… “Snow Day”

If you enjoy these, please leave a comment and your own favorite snow poem!

snow deck for blog

After a snowstorm a few years ago: view from my deck. NOTHING compared to what is forecast this time!

 

 

 

 

 

 


“Phillis reverences Cain in line 7.”

Reading extensively in an author’s works, or even with deep involvement reading a single work by an author, can lead us to feel an intimacy with the writer that is almost like a personal relationship, albeit one-sided in that only the reader is aware of the relationship. It’s also possible to fall in love with, or develop protective feelings for, a character in a literary work (again, one-sided—alas, if that character is Lord Peter Wimsey and the reader falls so deeply in love with him that no flesh-and-blood man can compete…). But even then, the reader does not begin referring to the writer, or the character, by nickname, in the case of the character, or first name, in the case of the author. In an earlier time, not even the characters called each other by first name: how late in Pride and Prejudice before Elizabeth Bennet permits herself to call the man she comes to love anything but “Mr. Darcy,” for instance?

Students, on the other hand, seem to get chummy very quickly with the characters and authors they read, blithely throwing protocols to the wind.  At its most extreme, this practice can blow a student to some pretty strange places. I once had a student who wrote that her favorite composer was a German gentleman called Bay Toven. (Evidently she knew of him only by way of her ear…) After the first sentence, she referred to him for the rest of the paper simply as “Bay”: “Bay could not hear his own music, being unfortunately deaf.” This was, remember, her favorite composer.

On a side note, I have to mention that some students don’t use any kind of name for their professors. In the last few years I have received many emails that begin simply “Hey.” I might not mind so much if they went on, “I just had to say THANX for that great class!” But they rarely do; usually it’s “I lost the syllabus, so could you send me another one?” or “I worked hard on that paper and think a C is too low of a grade.” Yeah, Hey.

But let’s get back to Phillis.

“Phillis” is Phillis Wheatley, a serious and delightful poet of the eighteenth century, the second published African American and first published African-American woman. Named Phillis after the ship that brought her from Africa as a slave, and Wheatley for the family who bought her in Boston, she showed aptitude for classical languages and literature at an early age, talents the Wheatleys supported and helped to develop. She was freed at their death, but had never truly been treated as a slave while with their family; they had even traveled to England for her sake because they thought she had a better chance there of being recognized as a writer. My students expect protest poetry from her, but what they read instead is elegant verse in the forms and styles popular at the time, and expressions of gratitude for the life she lived.

The poem my student is referring to is one of the latter: “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” She praises the good fortune that brought her to a land where she could become a Christian. The poem is lovely, if somewhat disturbing to a modern reader whose “racial” ideas are less accepting of 18th-century definitions than hers. Here it is, although you can follow the link above and read it at The Poetry Foundation with links to more information:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

Would you refer to her as “Phillis”?

Now, let’s get to my other problem with this sentence: the word “reverences.” Of course my student didn’t mean “reverences”—that is, “regard[s] or treat[s] with reverence,” “reverence” here meaning “honor or respect felt or shown” or “a gesture of respect, such as a bow.” He wouldn’t know what I was talking about if I asked him why he thought Phillis was bowing to Cain in line 7. But he had heard, on many an educated lip, “reverences” used in the way he uses it, meaning “refers to,” and he wanted to use it too. He hasn’t read many educated papers, though, or he would know that the mot du jour he heard is not “reverence,” but “reference.”

He’s chosen a word that’s doubly wrong: the one he’s written doesn’t mean what he thinks it does (and is completely bizarre when used with Cain!), and the word he thinks it is shouldn’t be used that way either. But I may be the last living objector to the use of “reference” as a verb, and especially as the kind of verb he’s trying to use.

What ever happened to words and phrases such as “alludes to,” “refers to,” “makes reference to,” “mentions,” “points to,” “compares…with”? I know English is a living language, but “references” as a verb seems to have swept all these other, more traditionally correct, terms suddenly away. I hear it from the mouths of scholars as well as the mouths of babes; it peppers academic papers so thickly as to cause sneezing. Why it caught on I cannot say, unless it just sounds so intellectual? or is so lazy? or maybe both?

Here’s friend Webster’s New Collegiate as of 1973, which to me isn’t so long ago:

“Reference (n): 1. the act of referring or consulting; 2: a bearing on the matter; 3: something that refers, as allusion or mention, something that refers a reader to another source of information, consultation of sources of information; 4: one referred to or consulted as a person to whom inquiries as to character or ability can be made, a statement of the qualifications of a person seeking employment, a source of information to which a reader is referred, or a book such as a dictionary or encyclopedia concerning useful facts or information.”

Webster does acknowledge a verb form: “Reference (vt): 1: to supply with references, to cite in or as a reference; 2: to put in a form, as a table, adapted to easy reference.”

Neither of these definitions describes the usage employed by my student (and so many, many others).

“Phillis” doesn’t reference Cain; she makes reference to, or refers to, or alludes to Cain. She’s not interested in his opinion, his authority, or his recommendation; she isn’t suggesting that he is a source of information or turning him into a table. Actually she’s using a then-popular figure of speech in an interesting way: the conflation of “black” of skin and “black” of sin implied in the simile becomes one single attribute, and since Christians pray that God refine their own sin-blackened hearts they should also recognize that people who are black can be “refined,” or purified, to fit their souls equally well for heaven. She is urging Christians to view people of the “sable race” as their potential fellow angels. Her mention of Cain is, then, a learned allusion, full of conceptual substance, not a “referencing.”

But I’m afraid that this is yet another battle I am doomed to lose. Once an error or grotesquery becomes widespread among multiple classes of users, one aging prof, armed with no matter how mighty a sword, can’t withstand it. I fear it is too late for the blithe users of “reference” as a verb to have their sin refined away, because far from recognizing it as a sin, they hold it in an unbreakable embrace—yea, reverence it.

I’ll just have to try to become deaf to it. Like Bay.


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