“‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is an exacerbating story of the struggle of one man’s will to live.”

I loved this Poe story as a kid, and I loved it even more when I read it in college and could appreciate the author’s use of language to ratchet up the suspense and create palpable darkness. I can’t actually tell from this sentence whether or not my student liked it.

Did she mean “exasperating story”? Did reading it make her increasingly angry or frustrated, perhaps because of the sophisticated vocabulary, the lengthy descriptions, or the implacable cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition?

from listverse.files.wordpress.com, but clearly an early illustration of Poe's 1842 story

Did she find “exacerbate” in some thesaurus under “excite”? (I just found “excite” as one of a number of possible alternatives to “exacerbate” in Roget’s.) This is a common student route from sane word choice to some truly bizarre “fancier” words (I will be posting what I call the Roget Trio sometime in the near future).

Or did she think she was saying that each event in the story exacerbates the narrator’s suffering, or the reader’s suspense? That might have been her intention, but it certainly isn’t what her sentence conveys. As far as I can parse it, the sentence says that the story makes something-or-other “more violent, bitter, or severe” (per Webster’s), but what that something-or-other may be is unknown. It cannot make the reader more violent (unless the reader hates the story more and more and finally throws the book across the room); it cannot make the man’s struggle more severe or bitter, since it IS the man’s struggle. Upon what else can a story exert its powers?

Well, Poe was a master of mystery and suspense, and with this sentence my student joins him.

As always, your theories are welcome. What would you have said to this student to help her understand the problem with her word choice, or to get her to explain her reasoning to you?

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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

5 responses to ““‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is an exacerbating story of the struggle of one man’s will to live.”

  • RAB

    Notice that I did not explore the meaning of “struggle of one man’s will to live.” Did she mean the story is about a man’s will, struggling to survive, or someone’s struggling will-to-live? Or did she mean something else—the struggle of a man to survive, energized by his will to live? Alas, I think she meant the third choice, and that’s the choice the sentence does NOT express. For effective revision, she desperately needs a reader capable of misreading and willing to exercise this capacity. We do not find such capacities or willingness in peer-reader groups, which may be why so many students find peer-reader groups rather unproductive. Somebody has got to sit there with the student writer and say “Here you confuse me, because ALTHOUGH I KNOW WHAT YOU MEAN, the sentence structure (or vocabulary choices, etc.) can’t express that.

  • kitchenmudge

    Quite aside from the misuse here, I wouldn’t mine if “exacerbate” were banned from the language. I wrote about it here:
    http://kitchenmudge.wordpress.com/2011/07/05/a-good-whine-i-believe-ill-have-another/
    Scroll down to the middle of the post, if you’re impatient.

  • dysfunctional unit

    Lol…very nice post….I guess my favorite explanation is that the story did exacerbate her…and possibly because she did not understand why the narrator’s “will to live” struggled so much…

  • solberg73

    In struggling to parse my fellow man, i count myself luckiest if there is only one(1) error which, if corrected, leaves the sentence at least understandable.
    But too often there is no way home at all from the reckless joyride, the Gordian mess-o-pottage. I’ve heard the thing called ‘word-salad’ or alphabet-soup.
    Another parallel comes to mind; when i’m called in to ‘fix’ a poorly-constructed roof. As in chess at times, there is no sequence of moves which will ever bring the roof home to roost, short of tearing it apart and starting anew.
    And (finally) this is the case with the above student’s willy-nilly struggle to express his/her-self. BASIC had it right when they called it ‘Redo From Start-Error 101.

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