“The story begins very effectively with a type of dramatic structure called expedition.”

If reading a piece of literature is like going on a journey, then beginning with an expedition seems not entirely inappropriate, although most definitions of “expedition” refer to the entire journey, not just the outset. There is another sense, that of “efficient promptness or speed,” but most stories don’t begin with any particular rapidity of tone or content. The two meanings part company when suffixes attach themselves: “expeditionary,” for the journey, and “expeditious” for the haste.

I’m pretty sure my student didn’t mean “speed,” and I don’t think she was philosophical or figurative enough to mean “journey.”

I knew what she meant: she meant “exposition.” At least I hope that’s what she meant, since it was the term I used then, and still use, when speaking of the openings of stories, novels, and plays. It comes, of course, from “expose,” and means a setting-out in the same way that putting dinner on the table is setting it forth, not in the way that starting the car engine after stowing the luggage and loading the passengers is setting out on a journey.

I can say, sympathetically, that she misheard. “Expedition” was a familiar word; “exposition” was not: “expedition” got into her notebook (and head) by claiming old acquaintance. The fact that an expedition may be dramatic but the opening of a story wherein the basic ingredients are laid out—time, place, characters, initial situation—is usually the least dramatic part, and is only a piece of the narrative structure, should have alerted her enough to turn that old acquaintance away from this particular sentence. But it didn’t.

If I type “expesition” into Word and then ask the program to check my spelling, the first term it suggests is “exposition,” which would mean that automatically hitting the “change” button or running auto-correct would have provided the correct word as long as she got that “s” in there. If I also type “expodition,” just to make sure, Spell-Check offers, first, “expedition”: the “d” makes the difference. To be fair, I will note that the first misspelling got me “expedition” as a second choice, and the second misspelling got “exposition” as the second choice. But to make the error from an “expod-” beginning, she would have had to consciously select it. So I am NOT going to blame Spell-Check for my student’s sentence: the word she wrote was the word she thought she meant.

But I WROTE IT ON THE BOARD. It was the term USED BY THE TEXTBOOK. I SAID IT REPEATEDLY. This equates to, or should equate to, a triple assault on the neural pathways. Either she had the initial gates shut (daydreaming? sleeping? chewing gum?) or the pathways themselves were dead ends.

That way lies despair.

I will therefore choose to believe that my student was, in fact, figuratively minded and romantically inclined to think of reading as a great adventure, a journey to new and exciting worlds. The word choice is still wrong, but at least it offers hope of curiosity, open-mindedness, willingness to explore. If that’s there, I won’t be too picky about the terminology. I’ll let a beginning be a journey in and of itself, the journey that precedes and prepares for the greater one, comparable perhaps to the (dramatic?) plane flight that takes us to the city where we will rent a car or don our hiking shoes and begin our own experience on the narrow road of the interior.

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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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