“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.


“Romeo and Juliet loved each other to death.”

This is a pretty good summary of the play, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, my student didn’t realize that: that their love led inevitably to their deaths (given their circumstances and personalities and impulsive youth).

Did she mean they loved each other a lot, as so many of us use this phrase: “Oh, I love you to DEATH, John!” (“To death” is used in this same way, to indicate a great amount or intensity, in such phrases as “he talked that subject to death!” and “she bores me to death.” Thus we can see that “to death” doesn’t necessarily carry a positive connotation–is, more often, negative…like death itself, I suppose…)

Judging from the rest of the essay she wrote, I have to think this was not her intention. No, it was an error much more likely: she had in mind the marriage vow to love the other “till death do us part.” Evidently what she had heard, or understood, when she attended weddings was “to death do us part.” So she was telling her reader that Romeo and Juliet kept that vow they probably murmured in Friar Lawrence’s monkish cell. They loved each other every minute until they died. They loved each other all the way to the moment of death. Her essay wasn’t even ultimately about the play; it was about love in general. Many people fall in love and get married and then they get divorced, unlike R&J, who were faithful to the end.

I will prefer to think that the sentence itself was a flash of insight, a conflation of Shakespeare’s entire play, and the fault was in the essay that didn’t live up to the moment of brilliance. A woefully brief visitation from Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy.

And next time I go to see the play in question, as soon as the Chorus mentions the star-crossed lovers, I will think to myself, “Yes, they loved each other—they loved each other to death.” End of story!

Romeo-Juliet-Death

She has already loved him to death; she’ll take his dagger and thus he will have also loved her to death. Death by loving. This engraving, an illustration, from an old book (note “Tales from Shakespeare” in the margin), is all over the Internet. No wonder.

 


“These rough seas are home to numerous shipwrecks.”

I suppose there’s really nothing very wrong about what my student wrote. Of course he didn’t make clear whether he meant the seas were home to the events called “shipwrecks”—waves pounding the sides and decks, winds tearing the sails and bending the masts, rudder snapped, wheel out of control, panicked passengers huddled below, desperate seamen swarming above—or to the objects called “shipwrecks”—wrecked ships lying on the ocean floor, hulls stove in, masts splintered, treasure scattered on the drifting sand, fish swimming through empty portholes, sad skeletons partially encrusted with coral. I suppose if he thought about it he might say he meant both; I’m not sure he gave the question a lot of thought while actually writing, though.

Certainly the “rough seas” are places where there are such objects and events. “Numerous” is a rather flabby term here next to a noun of such violence and loss, but “many,” “countless,” “lots of” shipwrecks would be just as flat—and “shipwrecks aplenty” wouldn’t strike quite the right note, would it? So let “numerous” go.

What I can’t quite let go is “are home to.” Doesn’t “home” connote pretty much the opposite of despair, death, and destruction? We say New England is home to several august universities that were founded during the Colonial period. California has been home to the film industry since the beginning of commercial movies in America. New Orleans is home to the rich cuisine that is Créole. We might even say, or I might even say, Connecticut is home to me.  BUT would you say “Kansas is home to numerous tornados”? or “Cemeteries are home to numerous corpses”? Don’t things have to be alive to come, or be, “home”? Does the Dore illustration below suggest “home” to you, in any way?

Figures of speech can become so much a part of our ordinary language that we don’t pause to consider the pictures they evoke, and I think my student was betrayed by familiarity here. Blessed (or cursed) with a very visual sense of language myself, I find his perfectly ordinary statement oddly unsettling, perhaps even morbid.

Maybe I’m overreacting on this one. I welcome your comments!

This bleak and terrifying image of a shipwreck is by the great 19th-century artist Gustav Dore; it is an engraving of his impression of the ship in the ballet "Le Corsaire." Note the rough seas.

This bleak and terrifying image of a shipwreck is by the great 19th-century artist Gustav Dore; it is an engraving of his impression of the ship in the ballet “Le Corsaire.” Note the rough seas. Pretty homey, eh?


“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.


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