D.H. Lawrence’s powerful and haunting short story “The Rocking-Horse Winner” includes this passage:
And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”
I will commit apophasis by saying that I won’t mention the similarity between this house and mine…or between this house and most houses nowadays, and then move on to my student’s sentence.
The first thing that strikes the eye and ear is the vast difference between Lawrence’s urgently rhythmic and elegant passage, poignant in its focus on the children, and my student’s lurching, mechanical, sterile summary. It’s heartbreaking, especially to me, who hear a writer’s voice so fully in my mind’s ear that after reading a story I go through a period of hours during which that voice inflects my own speaking and writing. (I view this as a gift even though when I was in college a professor occasionally asked me to document a passage of my own writing in a literature paper.)
How did my student manage to commit such an awful sentence?
I should point out first that “lack” seems an actual thing to many student writers lately. They comment on an “increased” or “larger lack,” or say that someone has “acquired a lack,” or refer to people as “having a lack.” Maybe the last two phrases originate in an echo of “having a knack,” the familiar phrase guiding a sentence that has nothing to do with it….
Anyway, this particular “lack” is “present.” Where? Nature abhors a vacuum, and I don’t think She thinks much of a present lack, either. It is, specifically, a lack of money that is present. I look into my wallet: I do NOT say “There is a lack of money present in my wallet”; I say “Good, grief, NO MONEY!” (I might then whisper to myself, “There must be more money!”)
“Geared toward” seems an abomination. I suppose I have probably read the phrase somewhere, most likely in some forgettable business letter or program proposal; but I happen to love gears, can’t resist a which-way-is-it-turning gear puzzle, find the insides of old clocks beautiful—and so the preposition “toward” offends me, even if it’s acceptable. Adding “negatively” only makes it worse. How can something be “negatively geared”? How can “negatively” be comfortable with “toward”? This is corporate-speak to the nth degree, and I want no part of it.
Moving backward, we see that the thing that is negatively geared toward the lack present is the house. So now we have a geared house. At this point, words fail me.
That is, of course, what happened to my student: words failed her. I knew what she meant. Clank and creak and bounce off walls as the sentence does, it is nevertheless functional on some basement level, at least for a reader who knows the story she’s writing about. She seems to have read the story, and she seems to have grasped the idea of the passage. She may even have been moved by it, although this sentence is keeping that a secret. But when she tried to express her understanding, she did not have the words to do the job. She had a lack of words present.
SAT cramming has not helped her. Memorized lists of prefixes and suffixes and roots, polysyllabic synonyms, words-of-the-day, all may have stocked her mind with handy answers, but they have done nothing to enable her to articulate thoughts.
What has she been reading all her life, and to what purpose? Did she move quickly from the adventures of Dick and Jane directly to dry social-studies texts? Or were her adolescent literature choices between modern “for-teens” stories and abridged and simplified classics? Or was the focus in high school reading discussions and tests mere plot summary? And was reading viewed as a pleasure or a chore, at home or at school? Did she spend any idle summer hours lying in a hammock in the shade reading Jane Eyre, or was she always at the beach, on the tennis court, behind a lawnmower, in a fast-food restaurant kitchen, or on the phone? (This student wrote in the days before the personal computer had geared lives toward itself, if I may so express it…)
“How do you know so many words? How can I improve my vocabulary?” students sometimes ask me (I wish more did!). My reply: There are lots of techniques and lists out there, but here’s the only real way: READ GOOD WRITING. READ FOR PLEASURE. READ OUT LOUD, or have a good reader read out loud to you.
It’s a huge and glorious language. Learn to love it, and it will love you back. You may still have a lack of money present, but you won’t express it that way; and you’ll also have something substantial actually present: words, to serve you and challenge you and delight you.