Alert! We are again in the wonderful world of freshman comp, where inanimate objects are agents. But before I reveal the agent of today’s Horror, I must pause to pick two nits:
Writing instructors at the middle- and high-school levels deploy several nonce-rules that students clutch permanently to their bosoms: for example, “Never start a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But'”; “NEVER start a sentence with ‘Because'”; “Never say ‘I'”…. Persuading students that these were temporary rules meant to break habits rather than three of the Ten Commandments of Writing is nearly impossible.
On the other hand, MY nonce-rules, announced as such, don’t stick at all. One of them is “When writing for my class, do NOT begin a sentence with ‘There is’ or ‘There are.'” I have a brief demo where I first lay out the non-content quality of “there” and the static nature of “is,” writing two sentences on the board that say basically the same thing: for example, There is a murderer behind the curtain and A murderer is hiding behind the curtain. Students tend to agree that the second version gets the important information out in front. Then I talk briefly about the most common structure in English: Subject, verb, object. John hit the ball. And I point out that the first two words carry the main action and the main energy of the sentence in this structure. Then I go to the door of the classroom, exit, and come back in backward, saying “There was a ball that was hit by John.” And then I ask them if they really want their sentences to back into the room, blowing all the energy on a pronoun and a verb of being. And then I say again, “PLEASE do not begin any sentences with ‘There is’ or ‘There are’ while writing for my class!”
But then the next set of papers comes in, and quite often the very first sentence of half the papers begins with “There is…” Ah well.
I also have a problem with “every day person.” For that word cluster to function as an adjective, it should be either fused or hyphenated. But in this case it still wouldn’t serve—”everyday” and “ordinary” may be in the same realm of meaning, but they aren’t straight synonyms that can be plugged with equal ease into any old sentence.
And now let’s move on, with those two nits lying dead on the sink edge, little feet in the air.
Well, the sentence for today began an essay on fast-food restaurants and obesity in America. My student’s point was that NOT going into a fast-food restaurant is very hard.
So here’s the whole sentence:
“There are millions of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, and Wendy’s that are continually being caught by the eye of an every day person.”
A sudden vision of an eye being used as a fishing lure suddenly crosses my mind. Enough to kill my appetite! I don’t know who the “every day person” who uses such a disgusting method of catching things might be, but I certainly don’t want to meet him or her.
But do you see what I mean about agency? Here, the eye is the active agent, busily out there catching millions of restaurants. And here the muckamucks of the fast-food managements thought the garish paint jobs on their buildings and signs would catch people’s eyes, and those people would follow their eyes directly into the eatery. But my student seems to think that the paint jobs, signage, play spaces, unfunny clowns, plastic toys, and easy parking all just sit there…until that eye is cast their way and catches them, continually, perhaps to bring them home to the every day person.
It’s not the eaters being hooked by those Whoppers; the Whopper-providers are being hooked by the eaters, wily anglers with very strange bait on their hooks.