“As a kid growing up with split parents…”

Usually I tease you, gentle reader, with the ellipsis in a post title: “wait till you read the rest!” I implicitly promise.

This time the three dots are all I have; they end what I wrote down on a back page of my gradebook. The rest of the sentence was, presumably, okay, so I felt no need to preserve it for the ages.

The word choice in question is certainly let’s-say unorthodox: on its face, the phrase invites us to picture two adults whose bodies have been cleft in twain—producing four half-parents. Or perhaps the individuals are only partly split, like strands of hair with split ends. This is a funny picture, a moment of laughter the reader does want to preserve for the ages. A cartoonist could draw it.

But any reader, including this willfully obtuse professor (“It’s my job to misunderstand you if I can!”), knows exactly what my student meant: while she was growing up, her parents did not cohabitate. Part of the time they may have been only separated; in all probability they eventually divorced. If when they called it quits one even left town—and if they passed the child back and forth but never themselves sat down together, talked in a friendly way, got together with their offspring for a holiday or snack or college visit—then they completely split up. My student could have referred to this as a “split household,” or could have said “as a kid growing up with parents who had split up…,” both more orthodox ways of saying that.

(I could quibble with the “growing up with,” suggesting that it might be taken to mean the parents were growing up along with the kid, but I don’t choose to quibble with it. The rest of the words are more worthy of remark—I want to focus on the main feature.)

“Split parents” is so efficient: at once communicative not only of their physical and marital situation but also of a certain forlornness, wrongness, that the child must have felt. It is also to-the-point, concise. From the writer’s point of view it keeps the emphasis of the essay where it belongs, too: on the “kid.” Trying to be more factually precise or verbally conventional would have taken more time, more space, and more care than the bald fact merited; she was writing about herself, not about them.

I don’t think my student spent much time (if any) on the phrasing of her idea; I think she put it down straight from her head. But I think she said what she meant.

So I think this “error” must be let stand, especially in a sentence that also refers to a “kid”: that is, in a sentence that is generally informal in tone and diction.

Sometimes you have to let them be poets, even if that isn’t their intention. Sometimes their “error” invites you to take a fresh look at the language, and at the reality they are offering to share. Sometimes you teach, and sometimes you learn.


“From the very beginning the right to bear arms has always had some way of being involved with everything.”

Regardless of your interpretation of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, you’ve got to love this sentence.

Certainly in today’s political landscape my student seems to be absolutely correct: we don’t seem to be able to address the issue of gun violence, or domestic terrorism, or even street fashion anymore without getting embroiled in the old “right to bear arms” debate (I use the word “debate,” but the reality is more and more like a brawl).

But what she has written here may be even more true than she intended.

In this blog I’ve commented on a number of student sentences where the writer seemed to be passive in a world of lively inanimate objects, and here’s another example.

Notice that the “right to bear arms” has some way of being involved. That crafty right, always finding a way of inserting itself into all sorts of situations where it wasn’t necessarily wanted. Maybe as a young person you knew a kid who always pushed his way into conversations, parties, conflicts, outings, clubs where he hadn’t been invited. He may have been lonely, or egotistical, or greedy, or needy, or just plain insensitive to social cues—whatever the reason, there he was, and he wouldn’t go away. He ruined a lot of good times: he overheard secrets, danced with girls who didn’t like him, ate too much cake, kissed up to the parental figure, sat in the best chair…. You did know a kid like that, didn’t you? And you didn’t like him, did you?

My student makes the “right to bear arms” exactly that kind of kid. Always involved with everything. You can’t get away from him. And he’s always been that way, that right,  from the very beginning. From birth! Not even enough courtesy to sit back and observe, to “lurk,” and get the feel of the group before horning in. The rest of us are evidently powerless to make him behave, or make him leave. That piece of paper—or idea, or law—is in charge; we must sit passively by and let him have his way.

Well, some people do like the Second Amendment the way it’s written (absolute phrase and all, governing the independent clause in good English), and others like the way the majority on the Supreme Court has newly read it (who cares about those words hanging off the front of it?). Of course the way it’s written is in words, and some of those words are open to interpretation (what is meant by “arms”? is “bear” the same as “always carry,” or does it mean “carry and use in battle,” for instance? how about “well regulated militia”?); some people like one definition while others prefer another. And some people wish it weren’t there at all.

But I think most people would prefer that the right just sit there until called upon, or invited. My student sees it differently: we sit there, and the right pushes his way in. As I said at the beginning, she might be wiser than she knows.

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.  (source of this image: usgovinfo.about.com)

The Bill of Rights. My student was describing only Right #2, that pushy thing.
(source of this image: usgovinfo.about.com)


Forgive me for waxing political, but I had to share this!

A brilliant collection of Shakespearean quotations for tonight’s debates! “Hell is empty; all the devils are here.” Posted by the Folger Shakespeare Library, from Timothy McSweeney’s blog, a post by Emily Uecker

Enjoy.


“Everywhere you go, you’ll indefinitely see people glued to their phone.”

Another phone essay, another bizarre image.

People glued to their phone. I won’t make much of the plural possessive pronoun that refers (properly) to a plural noun doing the possessing but disconcertingly refers to a single object possessed, giving the impression (okay, giving me, picky reader extraordinaire, the impression) of group ownership and thus of glued groups…. Okay, one flight of fancy: I wonder how many people could be glued to a single phone, especially something as small as an iPhone. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (Go here for an illuminating discussion of that celebrated theological debate; here for a relevant cartoon….)

No, I have to look more closely at the adverb in the sentence: “indefinitely.”

My student did NOT mean that “you” would see “in an undefined way,” or “imprecisely see,” or see “without limits” or “vaguely” or “without certainty,” or “through a glass, darkly”: any reader would recognize immediately that she did not mean any of these. Any reader, including the teacher, knows that she meant “definitely”: exactly the opposite of what she wrote. Or at least, putting ourselves in her place, we would look twice at a group of people before pronouncing them glued to anything; we wouldn’t be satisfied with an indefinite impression of that. We would mean “definitely” or not write anything at all.

I would attribute this error to mere carelessness, or perhaps bad cut-and-pasting (deciding to change “instantly” to “definitely,” for instance, but not erasing all of the first choice), except that this student is not the only one in recent years who has written “indefinitely” instead of the intended “definitely.”

What’s going on? Has “indefinitely” joined the ranks of “inflammable,” meaning either definitely or not definitely just as “inflammable” can mean “capable of bursting into flames” or, colloquially and increasingly, “not capable of bursting into flames”? (Webster’s, or at least my edition, has not caught up with this second usage yet, but all around me (everywhere I go) are people who insist that it is correct…) If we’re on a road that leads to the loss of distinction between words and their negated forms, we’re on the road back to communicating entirely by grunts and gestures.

Is there something more hopeful these students are doing? Something that can be, perhaps, corrected?

I’ve written before about writers who, not extensive readers, rely heavily on the heard language, and sometimes don’t hear it correctly (or hear an incorrect version). Usually this shows up in missing or incorrect prefixes and other unstressed syllables, though, not added ones.

Do those who write “indefinitely” when they mean “definitely” come from families who hesitate or gulp before taking the serious step of feeling “definite” about something—and have my writers heard the gulp as an actual prefix that they interpret as “in” or “un”? Or are they among those writers who try to impart gravitas to their writing by choosing words that are longer than necessary, regardless of meaning?

I don’t know. Theories welcome; more important, REMEDIES welcome!


“Kids today can sit on their phones for hours, not even saying a word.”

The problem is merely the choice of verb and its modifiers, but the image for the reader is something else again. My own phone is smallish and flat, but still I think sitting on it would be sufficiently uncomfortable that I would not want to do it for hours, and if I tried to sit on it for hours I am sure I would have some words to say, most of them unpublishable.

Of course I knew what my student meant: he meant “kids today can sit staring at their phones for hours…”

Generally I expect that when people sit silent for hours they are thinking (do we still say “lost in thought”?). When I’m really thinking, I stare into space, or doodle meaningless and badly drawn shapes, faces, embellished words…. Yes, I am silent. I come back from these mental excursions with a decision, or a plan, or a tentative idea, or an explosive expression of frustration.

When I sit for hours staring at a screen (my computer screen—I’m too penny-wise to do much on my phone other than talk), I may start with a thought or question but generally then embark on a mildly interesting wander-by-click through loosely related sites, stopping from time to time to join in some emotion-laden exchange of “comments” or take some silly algorithm-driven “quiz” or loop back to feed my dog on “Criminal Case,” ending suddenly with the realization that hours have passed and I have no idea how or why. That, I presume, is the kind of “sitting” my student had in mind when he wrote this sentence.

And he was lamenting that kind of sitting, as do I.

Now, some long-term silent-sitting-on-things can be productive. I’m thinking of the mourning dove currently nesting in the rose vines along my porch roof (I can see her from my window right now). She and her spouse take turns, exchanging their dove whoo-OO hoo hoo hoo only during that process. This is the second year I’ve had mourning doves nesting in this spot, which is hugely popular. Over the last seven years I’ve had two robin couples, one of whom raised four wonderful kids and the other of whom lost their eggs to a night raider; one cardinal couple, nesting on their tiny straw saucer and raising three lovely babies; two couples of house finches, one of whom last year crafted an amazing apartment for a clutch of kids, the other of whom (could it have been the same ones?) moved into it at the beginning of this season to raise a clutch; and three years ago the other mourning dove pair. Doves lay two or even three clutches a season, usually in different nests; but this season the happy couple settled back into their original nest two days after the second little squab took wing. With each of these families, I have been moved by their trust, their patience, their tolerance of us and friends (and mail carriers and delivery guys) in our comings and goings, their care of eggs and babies, and the emptiness we feel at their departure.

Anyway, I have to thank my student for launching me on a train of thought that brought me to my own study window and the sweet bird outside. How can she be comfortable sitting on two eggs? How can she be comfortable once the eggs hatch into wiggly, beaky, demanding little critters tucked up under her body? I suppose she tolerates it because it’s only once or twice a year and because she is participating in the perpetuation of her species. I’m sure she knows that…

Students surfing other people’s selfies, sending texts (and tweets!), playing games, reading random stuff, are probably not perpetuating the species or giving anyone else much joy. So I wish my student had said what he meant. What he wrote launched me on a brief but hilarious contemplation of kids sitting like nesting birds on their phones, certainly not comfortable, possibly expecting something to hatch. What a contrast to actual birds, and to the students he actually was trying to describe!

shutterstock_204344614

Sitting on two eggs must be more uncomfortable than sitting on a cell phone, but SHE manages to do it for hours, not saying a word. A better bird than I! Image: alexsvirid/shutterstock.com


“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685…”

Well, right off the bat we have two problems.

My student was introducing her Early American Literature “confluences” paper, for which students were to choose from the syllabus five works written within a span of 50 years and then use them to develop a sense of the intellectual, cultural, or philosophical life of that time. Since my syllabus was organized by theme rather than chronology, the paper was my effort to encourage students to weave the themes together into a larger picture (or tapestry)—or, to use the metaphor of the assignment, to show how these separate ideas flowed together into the collective experience of the culture.

She thinks of each piece as having its own “period,” though, rather than thinking of a period that comprises those works. Off to a bad beginning!

The phrasing has no logic, either, but my student is merely repeating an increasingly common bit of thoughtlessness, not inventing her own: “between” asks for two limits, joined by “and.” “Between the morning and the evening,” for example; “between north and south”; “between the cradle and the grave”; “between January and December.” So she should say “between 1630 and 1685.” Instead, she uses a hyphen (should be an en dash, of course), which in expressions such as this is pronounced “to,” as thus: “1630 to 1685.” Now, the last time I checked, it is not idiomatic to say “between [something] to [something else]: “between morning to evening”; between north to south”; “between the cradle to the grave”…. Sorry, but these phrases refuse to mean anything to me! Of course I knew what she meant; that isn’t how to say it, though, at least not yet.

But the imprecision that inhabits this part of the sentence is mere precursor to the huge vague wave of the hand that follows:

“The time periods of my pieces are between 1630-1685, which was when religion, illness, death, tragedy etc. happened.”

I don’t let my writing students use “etc.” In the margin I write “avoid this catch-all!” The Latin phrase that means “and others,” or “and other things of this nature,” or “and similar things” (or as the King of Siam so charmingly sings in The King and I, “et cetera, et cetera, and so forth”) should be used only when other elements in the series can with accuracy be predicted; it should not indicate writer’s fatigue, lack of interest, or “whatev”—which is exactly how most student writers use it.

Here my student seems to have a relatively coherent series, if “religion” can be considered dire and fatal like illness, death, and tragedy. But if she does intend a coherent series, I can’t imagine any more elements that would be needed to complete it: illness, death, and tragedy seem to cover most of the territory. And if she does not consider religion dire, fatal, and tragic, then what’s it doing in this series? (Her discussion of religion in her paper seemed to present it as dour but not dire.)

I also am relieved to know that religion, illness, death, and tragedy seem to have been confined to a mere 55-year period several centuries ago. I can breathe a sigh of relief that these things no longer occur, since she assures me with a simple past-tense verb that they are over and done with. I do wonder how Shakespeare and Sophocles got so sad, and evidently so prophetic, living before death and tragedy happened. Somehow death must have happened before 1630—and after 1685, for that matter—because a lot of gravestones carry very different dates. But my student’s sentence would deny such evidence.

What really fascinates me about the sentence is that it is at the same time so hazy and so confident. In that way it truly was predictive of the entire paper, so I suppose I should acknowledge its value as a first sentence. Yes, the paper really did go on as it had begun.

For nine pages.

Etc.


“Last night when I was having interpersonal communication with my boyfriend…”

From a journal entry some years ago.

It was the same year a colleague in the Communications Department began a memo “So happy for this chance to interact with you.”

I believe the combination places these examples in the ‘eighties, probably the early ‘eighties.

Jump to centuries ago: the naming of a town in Pennsylvania that was, in its heyday, a modest crossroads of travel and probably of trade. People met, dealt, exchanged news and views…and gave each other good old Amish social and spiritual support. In those days, these activities were referred to as “intercourse.” In MY day, as you’ve immediately guessed, the town was a mecca for frat boys eager to purchase souvenirs, especially hats, marked “INTERCOURSE.” (Here are a map of Pennsylvania showing the town, nestled in Amish country, and also facts and history.) (It isn’t very far from the town of Blue Ball, but that has nothing to do with this post, I think…)

This little excursion into Pennsy tourism is just to say that the meanings of words are not fixed and static in a living language, and English is a particularly lively living language. And the jargon of trades enters the language constantly, and often remains even after the trades have disappeared. Not that I expect the study of Communications to disappear any time soon. Jargon also changes within professions. AND people outside those professions like to pick up and embrace professional terminology, because…well, because they want to seem sophisticated, or educated, or au courant, or because the words enter the public vocabulary so forcefully that nobody can remember the plain old words.

Still, my field is English language and literature, and as any English major can tell you, part of the attraction is what we used to refer to as “the underlined parts.” Trained to, and willing to, read on more than one level, we sometimes see more than the author intended.

Given free choice of subject matter for journal entries, a lot of students are surprisingly willing to confide very intimate information on journal pages even though they know the professor is going to be reading them. For this reason, professors who read students’ “personal” journals sometimes blush but are rarely surprised.

All this is preamble to what you already probably know. In an office conversation with this student about her writing (and the journals were intended primarily as writing exercises as far as I was concerned—this type of journal was also very trendy in those days, and I was very young!) I raised the subject of vague language and used “having interpersonal communication” as an example. “Oh,” she said; “I meant we were talking.” Ah. And why had she not simply said “Last night when I was talking with my boyfriend…”? “Well, ‘having interpersonal communication’ is a better way of saying that, isn’t it? We learned that in Communications class.” (As somewhere along their way many have also “learned” that myself is a more sophisticated word than me. They’re not the only ones: I have received many a memo from a colleague ending “Please forward your report to John or myself.”

We all try. Writing students, especially first-year students, try very hard indeed to sound mature, sophisticated, knowledgeable. Bizarre historical generalizations are one result; stilted and vague phraseology is another. I appreciate the effort and sympathize with the desire. But that doesn’t prevent those moments when I imagine that boyfriend, moist and hungry, murmuring into my student’s ear “Ooooh, baby—wanna have interpersonal communication?”

 


“Human interaction has been around since the beginning of human history.”

Yet another example of the “deep opening sentence” or “profound historical generalization,” both of which seem to be among the aspirations of student writers.

I encourage students to seek an opening assertion that both invites the reader’s agreement and opens the theme of the planned argument. For example, for an essay that will argue that a community garden should be permitted to remain even if that means less acreage for commercial development, a student might begin “The value of a piece of land cannot be adequately measured by its monetary worth.” From there the reader can be responsibly led through the specific subject and the “lens” or issue through which the writer is viewing the problem, to the thesis that the essay will support.

But sometimes students mistake the idea of this “general subject” or “broad issue” statement and write instead a “deep opening sentence” or a “profound historical generalization,” as you see I call them. And then they write sentences like today’s example.

Where is an essay that begins with this sentence going? It could go anywhere.

For me, it goes directly to mental responses such as “Well, duh,” “Obviously,” and “Luckily for human history.”

Caution: Human interaction taking place! (One of several kinds of interaction these humans engaged in…note Cain and Abel, for example…) Lucas Cranach the Elder painted Adam and Eve a number of times. This one is in the Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin, and can be found on numerous Internet sites.

Caution: Human interaction taking place! (One of several kinds of interaction these humans engaged in…note Cain and Abel, for example…)
Lucas Cranach the Elder painted Adam and Eve a number of times. This one is in the Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin, and can be found on numerous Internet sites.

 


A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-stages-of-grading

Enjoy!


“They would die in a heartbeat to protect this great country.”

While we’re on the subject of stock phrases involving death…

My student was unaware that he had written a truly arresting statement, one that might be expressing a deep truth: We all die in a heartbeat, so to speak, or at least we all die with the cessation of heartbeats.

He didn’t notice that because it wasn’t what he meant. He was trying to emphasize the nobility of our military, that they would not hesitate to give their lives for the country. That’s what “in a heartbeat” means: instantly, without hesitation.

You’ve used the phrase, I’m sure. “I’d marry him in a heartbeat!” “I don’t know why you can’t make up your mind—I’d take a job like that in a heartbeat!” Note the enthusiasm as well as the promptitude conveyed by the image.

And I’m sure my student also intended to convey the enthusiasm, or at least ready willingness, of the soldiers.

In fact, in terms of its intention there’s nothing wrong with his sentence. But in terms of its expression, what he means as fervent praise becomes comical because the phrasing seems both self-defining and self-contradictory. The hapless reader—or at least the reader for whom words evoke pictures—is bounced out of the essay to contemplate the bizarre vision of soldiers dropping suddenly dead all over the place to protect their country in some unknown way.

That’s the problem with formulaic phrases and clichés: they jump onto the page whenever they see the chance, not bothering to pause in the writer’s mind to see if they are truly the best words for the job. And sometimes, as here, they are absolutely not.

If only my student had taken the time to see what he meant to say: to picture soldiers unhesitatingly obeying the order to advance into battle, conscious that they might be killed but fully willing to make that sacrifice. That phrasing evokes tears of admiration and pity. For pacifists it might evoke anger against the waste of war. But it would not, for anyone, evoke puzzlement or laughter.


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