“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs…”

“Both” is a troublesome word for student writers. They join all sorts of people in collaborations never intended by the people themselves. Carping about it in this example may seem extreme—after all, “both” doesn’t necessarily mean “together” or “simultaneously.” But trouble arises before the sentence is over:

“Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly.”

See? The word comes into sentences that are merely talking about two people, not necessarily about two people who are doing similar things. In fact here, they are doing something together that differs. Now, if my student were going on to add a third party—”Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs in a manner that differs greatly from Cotton Mather’s,” for example—she might be working on an imaginable idea. But she has no such plans.

Actually Anne Bradstreet’s beliefs and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s differ greatly. So do their manners of presentation—Bradstreet’s in poetry and letters and private meditations, Emerson’s in poetry and essays and sermons. In this survey course students read some of each, so it’s hard to be sure what “manner” is in this student’s mind.

The paper itself was looking at religion in Bradstreet and Emerson and pointing out that they had different ideas about it—not surprisingly, considering their separation in time, denominations, and societal roles. But in this sentence, they’re presenting their beliefs, both of them, in a single manner (we deduce from its singular form), and that single manner differs. From what, we do not know.

One of the words I sometimes want to outlaw for student writers is “both.” In “both-and” sentences the parallelism is almost never achieved; in other sentences we get these unintended partnerships. In other words, its use is both ungrammatical and imprecise. Is this another lost cause in the great battle over English as she is spoke?

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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

6 responses to ““Anne Bradstreet and Ralph Waldo Emerson both present their beliefs…”

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