“This just proves more of this man’s ignorance…”

I don’t have a lot of time for a blog today and actually was thinking about letting yesterday’s post ride, but then I opened my gradebook and saw a Horror on a back page—a Horror that almost completely speaks for itself—and decided something this perfect really couldn’t wait.

The opening part of the sentence, above, couldn’t have made it into the Book of Horrors all by itself, but it’s nice enough to discuss briefly.

I feel as if I’ve been asking students all my life not to write “this” without a noun following. Not that a naked “this” is improper in all circumstances: student writers tend to say “this” and rush forward into the verb without really clarifying their thoughts, and in particular without committing themselves to a specific referent for the demonstrative pronoun. Without a noun, “this” is really just an arrow pointing backward—to the previous noun, the previous phrase, the previous thought, the previous paragraph, or even the entire essay that precedes it. I have noticed that once a student has used a non-specific “this” in one sentence, the sentences that follow will likely also use “this,” albeit not in reference to the same thing. A paragraph may ultimately offer as many as five “this”es, each vaguer than the one before. I have actually asked students, “What does this ‘this’ refer to? What are you talking about here, really?” and received the answer “Ummm. I don’t really know.” So this sentence raised a little flag, if not red then certainly yellow: “This is a warning!” Or, if you will, “The ‘THIS’ is a warning!”

I also like the idea that a man’s ignorance is being revealed piece by piece: Some ignorance, then a little more, then more…. Evidently our estimation of him does not improve on better acquaintance.

But still, as I said, the sentence is not a true Horror. Fortunately for us, the student couldn’t resist going on.

“This just proves more of this man’s ignorance and how it used to be like that everywhere back then.”

Aha! “Back then”! “It used to be like that!” “How!”

Why do students write “how” when they mean “that”? No one yet who has written “she told me how she liked me” in my class has been Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “My roommate said how global warming is just a myth.” Well, in what ways or by what means is it a myth? That is not the question: my writer means his roommate commented that global warming is a myth; no demonstration of methodology was included (or intended). I would be grateful for a reader’s explanation that goes beyond my own “Why do they always DO that?”

And like what did what use to be? I think we’re dealing with the unspecified “it” here, used the same way we’re using it when we say “it’s raining.” Asked for an antecedent we are left at a loss. But oh, I do wish my student had tried to find a noun. Probably the vagueifying effects of “this” were already setting in. All we know for sure is that “it” was like “that”everywhere. Does she mean this man’s ignorance was gradually being revealed everywhere? Various people’s ignorance was gradually being revealed? People were ignorant? The unspecified agent of proof or revelation was everywhere? I’m afraid she probably means things were rotten all over, in some particular kind of rottenness that she may have previously hinted at.

And finally, in walks YORE: that unspecified, unclarified, undefined, undifferentiated PAST that students are always so eager to generalize about. “Back then.” Now, I’m ready to admit that the subject of the student’s paper probably suggested a time frame: if she was writing about slavery, for instance, or more specifically Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life, then “back then” would probably mean the American 1800s; if just slavery, then maybe 1700-1863, or the world since the beginning of time…. If she was writing about a character in Julius Caesar, then “back then” might mean the English Renaissance/Elizabethan Era—or, of course, the first century B.C.E.

But as it stands, the sentence is saying “Something just proves an additional amount of, or more definitely, this man’s ignorance and the means by which, or that, something used to be sort of like something all over the globe (universe?) sometime during the vast stretch of years preceding my third birthday.”

Well, that’s good enough for me!

p.s. I thought I had nothing to say about this one. I thought I would let it speak for itself. What can I say in my defense? “This just proves how things are nowadays”? Well, try to ignore me. Go back and read what my student wrote, and savor it in your own way while this beautiful sun shines down from this gorgeous blue sky on this breathtaking early-Spring morning.

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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