“Problems often arise between siblings when there are two or more children in the same family.”

I have to wonder whether this sentence isn’t the result of a good impulse: verifying the definition of a term one is accustomed to using but suddenly not positive of. Doesn’t “two or more children in the same family” feel like part of a dictionary definition of “sibling”?

If that’s the case, then here’s an example of a good action with a bad result—or at least an unintentionally funny result.

“When there are two or more children in the same family” is a nice adverb clause; as such, it modifies the verb in the main clause, “arise.”

My student would have done fine with the sentence “Problems often arise when there are two or more children in the same family.” Or with “Problems often arise between siblings,” which I would speculate was the sentence he wrote in the first place, before his vocabulary qualms or his fear that the sentence sounded too simple for college writing.

That last, by the way, is the source of probably 60% of what’s bad in college students’ writing—the desire to sound grown-up and intellectual. I understand, have felt, and appreciate this desire. We urge our writing students to “find your voice!” and so they look for it…in the persons they imagine they will become, rather than in the persons they are. But just as I once imagined I could pass my driver’s test with next to no preparation if I just imagined myself driving and then followed my imagination (a notion I fortunately disabused myself of before actually going to DMV and wreaking havoc), the imagination has better uses than helping fools rush in. To me, late at night propping my head up with my left hand and and plying a red pen with my right, a parade of self-defining sentences, misapplied vocabulary, inflated diction, and mangled syntax—yet another student reaching for an imagined “intellectual” tone—is every bit as awful as a three-car pileup, albeit at the same time a lot funnier.

Because there’s been a lot of scholarship on the damage inflicted on students by correcting in red, let me hasten here (as I do in class) to say that I ply a red pen on papers at the school whose colors are red and white, and a blue pen at the school whose colors are blue and white. Long ago I taught at a school whose colors were purple and white, and I used purple ink. I don’t know what I’d do at a blue-and-gold or black-and-red school; I haven’t come to that crossroads yet and prefer not to imagine myself into it!

So, back to the siblings. If we substitute the noun in question for the quasi-definition, the sentence reads “Problems often arise between siblings when there are siblings.” A self-defining, or at least circular, sentence. Shall we “fix” the sentence by striking out the adverb clause and move on, or shall we admit that perhaps unbeknownst to the student the sentence seems to be uttering a Truth?

One of my earliest posts in this blog included a statement that had the same ring of deep truth: “In Adam and Eve this is the first time man and woman have been together and right away there is trouble.” Here is a real philosopher speaking. And in the Sibling sentence, I imagine I see the same kind of resigned recognition of the human condition: The minute Kid #2 arrives, right away there is trouble. I don’t really think this is what my student meant to say, but I like to imagine that’s what he meant.

Thinking of my own two dearly beloved siblings, I can reassure my writer that a lot of those problems disappear when the children cease to be children and realize that one and all they are people. At least that’s the case in a lot of families: sibling rivalry is a lot of little piggies crying “Me Me Me.” Eventually when, no longer little piggies, we cry “We We We,” it’s a gladsome cry.

We We We! (image by gustavorezende, on openclipart.org)

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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

One response to ““Problems often arise between siblings when there are two or more children in the same family.”

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