“Television nowadays contains explicit scenery.”

So, let’s do this one word at a time.

“Television”? An unobjectionable word choice, although we do use it to refer both to the machine and to what we view on the machine—in Thurber’s phrasing, both the container and the thing contained. We generally rely on what follows in the sentence to discover which use is intended.

“Nowadays.” One of my office-mates vehemently objects to the use of this word by anyone under the age of ninety. I suppose she’s reacting to the very thing that makes me love the word (and use it, although I’m still a bit short of ninety): its somewhat old-fashioned, slightly crotchety tone. Since the rest of the sentence is trying to be critical of television, I think I’ll let “nowadays” stand as a reasonable choice. (FYI, the student who wrote the sentence still had more than seven decades to go if he had to fit my office-mate’s criterion.)

“Contains.” Does this bother anyone? It bothers me, even though I have accepted “television” as a kind of container up in the discussion of Word One. Do I contradict myself? (You can fill in the famous next sentence.) Does the television, in the sense of a box or machine, contain what’s on it? Some dogs and children think so, but most of us know those things are elsewhere. Does television as a medium “contain” what it shows? I don’t know: does radio “contain” voices? And is scenery, when shown somewhere, “contained” by the where? I just don’t like this usage.

“Explicit.” Okay, we all know what my student meant; but what does the word mean? Leaf through Webster’s and you’ll find this: “Free from all vagueness and ambiguity; fully developed or formulated. Unreserved and unambiguous in expression. Externally visible. Involving direct payment, as explicit costs.” So, the sentence actually says that television nowadays contains unambiguous, visible, complete scenery. No one can quarrel with that. BUT. My student doesn’t mean “explicit”; he means “sexually explicit.” How do I know? Because that’s what most people mean when they use the word nowadays. As I’ve discussed extensively before, this word has been used so often in that one sense that its other meanings have more or less disappeared. A similar process has made it difficult to use the word “chauvinist” without implying “male chauvinist [pig].” In this way we gradually lose flexibility and depth of resources from the lexicon.

“Scenery.” My student doesn’t mean “scenery.” He’s not talking about the “hangings and accessories used on a theatrical stage,” and he’s not talking about “a picturesque view or landscape” (Webster’s notions about this word). The word he should have chosen is “scene”—”a single situation or unit of dialogue in a play or movie.” You can’t pluralize scene as scenery any more than you can pluralize green as greenery (“Harold, you may not leave the table until you have eaten your greenery!”). “Greenery” can mean “green things,” but “scenery” doesn’t mean “scene things” (don’t go down the pun path here please!). Perhaps he’s trying to express some kind of pattern of choices rather than individual instances…in which case I might be willing to commend his innovation…but it’s more likely that he just means “scenes” and doesn’t know the difference. If he meant “scenery,” his sentence would be saying that television uses scenery that is visible, complete, unambiguous (vide supra).

Television (the industry) can legitimately be criticized for airing (the medium) explicit presentations of sexual activity, and my student meant to do this, as was clear in the rest of his paragraph. But first, I’m afraid, I have to criticize this sentence—in explicit terms, and I’m not talking about sex here!

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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

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