“Upon reading this, a strong sense of irony bestows itself upon the reader.”

Here’s another one of those busy non-actors.

I like the idea of a “strong sense of irony”—the whole phrase suggests spinach. What sense of irony wouldn’t be strong, being mostly iron? Perhaps it’s what inflated Popeye’s biceps whenever he glugged down a can of spinach (and canning–isn’t that a mean thing to do to a delicious, green, and leafy vegetable? But I digress…).

This sense of irony is so strong that it is capable of action. First it reads something (there’s that introductory participial phrase!); then it “bestows itself” upon “the reader”—who is someone else, or perhaps itself!

According to Webster, “bestow” can mean “put to use,” as  someone who “bestows his spare time on study”—I have to admit, I have never seen it used in that sense.

It can mean “to stow” or “to house or temporarily put up”: I will bestow my guests in a nearby motel? My childhood books are bestowed in the attic? I have never heard these uses either.

The fourth definition Webster’s lists is “to convey as a gift (with on or upon).” Now, this is the one I am familiar with, and the one my student seems to mean, since she uses “upon” with it. So, a strong sense of irony gives itself to the reader as a gift.

But in what way is a sense of irony, meaning a feeling of irony coming from an outside source (rather than a learned or inherent ironical point of view), a present? For certain writers and comedians it certainly is a gift, but only in the sense of talent or blessing, not in the sense of something that can be gift-wrapped, beribboned, and bestowed.

In a way, my student has written a rather creepy sentence, with irony coming in through the window like a pungent fog and settling itself generously on the innocent reader as he pores over his book. What did the fog itself read, to give it the inspiration to visit itself on someone (or, if it is itself the reader, then on itself!) that way?

That’s the kind of thing that happens when a student seeking eloquence reaches into the lexicon grab-bag: what she comes up with may not fit what she already has. Perhaps she wanted to say that the passage, or the piece, was ironic; perhaps she meant that the reader realized the irony of the passage only gradually (we didn’t read Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but this is often the experience of readers of that wonderful piece of satire). But the word she chose doesn’t work for the sentence she wanted to write. I do love a student’s desire to write with a more sophisticated and spirited vocabulary, but I wish such students would take a closer look at the words they press into service—and at other, more “ordinary,” words that might serve better.

Surely some purple prose got to be that color by being beaten up. Would that be black-and-blue prose?

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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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