“They proceed to walk down the hill to a grassy null or open space.”

The “they” here is the procession with the Paul bearers. The procession is “proceed[ing] to walk,” not merely walking. We get an echo of police patois in this phrase. But the interest lies beyond.

I think that for this sentence my student actually did consult a dictionary. Perhaps he imagines the coffin (or Paul?) will be buried in a grassy clearing.

Probably he doesn’t imagine a knoll as a burial place, at all. Certainly that procession isn’t going to walk down to a knoll.

But he has heard the expression “grassy knoll.” He’s too young to associate the phrase with anything in particular. If he had Googled it, he would have been taken directly to the accounts of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and maybe even to this note about the person who first referred to the grassy knoll.

To pick up that trail, though, my student would have had to know that the word “knoll” begins with “k.” Searching for “noll” might have helped: Google lists “knoll” as a “search related to ‘noll,'” albeit only as someone’s name (Daniel Knoll). In fact, just about all the listings under “noll” are people’s names, too. So not a very big help.

Did my student begin by searching for “noll,” or even “nole,” or did he already know the word “null” (from math class, perhaps)? One way or another he got there. And we know what “null” means: without value; nonexistent; empty.

From here to the grassy “open space” is the shortest of steps. Not even an uphill climb.

I lament and bemoan my students’ reluctance to look things up, think about odd phrases, generally be aware of their word usage. And now here I am, bemoaning this student’s thought processes and, perhaps, research, which led him so logically to such a wrong choice.

I must seem to them a lot like the serpent (actually Alice’s very long neck, courtesy of the mushroom) that beset the pigeon’s nest in Alice in Wonderland: “I’ve tried every way, and nothing seems to suit them!…those serpents! There’s no pleasing them!” says the pigeon.

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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

5 responses to ““They proceed to walk down the hill to a grassy null or open space.”

  • Philip Schaefer

    When I was a young English teacher–this is Mrs. Schaefer speaking here–I discovered that my students had HAD it, trying to discern or comment upon symbols in pieces they’d been assigned to read. Apparently in high school many of them had been subjected to a “guess the symbol” experience. They had become convinced that the secret to getting symbols’ meanings “right” was the ability to read the teacher’s mind. I don’t know if this reflects more on insensitive teaching, or on the fact that their high school selves were too under-read to have a web of associations within their own minds.

  • Philip Schaefer

    Goodness, I just read over my comment. This is not at all what I think Ruth Anne is doing! Heavens!

    • RAB

      Right. This poor lad did NOT have a web of associations in his own mind, but he had a word in his mind that was somehow attached to “grassy.” I’m not willing to insist that the “null” occurred at the moment of writing this paper: he may very well have made the assumption years before, when he heard “grassy knoll” from someone’s lips. He may have been saying or writing “grassy null” for years. But he took time here to define “grassy null,” just in case WE didn’t know the term. And it isn’t the term at all, nor does he have the meaning of the actual phrase in mind–that is, he isn’t misspelling “knoll,” but intending “open space” and choosing “null” to say it.

  • yearstricken

    The confidence of some of these writers astounds me. Do they never doubt their word choices?

  • RAB

    Of course we WANT them to write with confidence….but we’d love it if the confidence was merited. They never do seem to have doubts….

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