Category Archives: circular statement

A summer gift for all those who correct English papers…

I just revisited a site recommended by a friend awhile ago. The first time I read this post I was reduced to tears. This time I was successfully brought to that state of euphoria that follows true hysteria. So today, a reblog of a piece by Debby Thompson published on the blog “Timothy McSweeney’s.” Enjoy!


“The health issues that come with eating fast food…”

Part two in the “sentences that need not have been written” series.

“The health issues that come with eating fast food can cause one to become obese and have health issues.”

Now, maybe this sentence isn’t circular at all. Perhaps the first “health issues” are, what, stimulated appetite? Addiction to sugar or fat? Cavities? We know obesity isn’t one of the  health issues mentioned here, because obesity can be caused by these health issues. What else can be caused by them? Ah. Health issues. These must be other health issues: diabetes, perhaps; high blood pressure; heart attacks? Or maybe just addiction to sugar or fat, because really, if the first one isn’t defined then we can’t rule out any possible definitions for the second.

I can’t overthink this. It may just be one of those sentence-interruptus products: halfway through the sentence, his roommate says “Hey, let’s go over and get some lunch” or the hot girlfriend texts “PARTY TIME!” and the writer stops, mid-sentence, to do this other, more attractive, thing. Upon returning to task, he doesn’t waste time reading what he’s already written, but just plows ahead. That might explain it.

Or he knows what he means by “health issues” but doesn’t want to share. He might feel “health issue” is a more grown-up term than “diabetes.”

There is always the possibility, of course, that he doesn’t know what he means by “health issues” but is sure someone must. Either he has no imagination or he’s reluctant to pin himself down.

Maybe he’s afraid if he mentions one he’ll forget a more obvious one and the reader will laugh at him….

Use your words, dear. And I don’t mean “issues,” which you’ve heard a lot lately and feel safe with; I mean the ones in the OED, or at least in Webster’s—the clear, concrete terms people used before the mass media, fear of commitment, and lazy thinking replaced them all with “issues.”

“Mental illness affects the mind.”

I will embark for the next few posts on the sentences that never had to be written.

There is something to be said for establishing common ground in an argument: beginning the process of presenting evidence and interpreting it as supportive of an opinion by first making a statement the reader can readily agree with. But this student’s statement takes that idea down to ground zero.

Mental illness affects the mind.

The funny thing about sentences like that is that they somehow feel important, resonant. But then the reader pauses, sensing something disconcerting. Did the writer mean to be that simplistic, or am I missing something?

Has the teacher unwittingly set a false example? Certainly many of us try to open discussions by asking questions with fairly obvious answers, planning to go from those easy responses to more sophisticated points. For example: What did Melville call his great whaling novel (that you, dear students, have been assigned to begin reading for today)? [How long will I have to wait for the answer? How many students will think to themselves, “Well, I know it’s Moby-Dick, but the answer can’t be that simple…”? Will I have to smile benevolently and encourage them: “Not a trick question, class”?] But of course this answer isn’t the point: the next question, assuming the first eventually gets answered, will lead off from it: for example, “How much of the book do we have to read before we find out who or what Moby-Dick is?” And then, “Why might Melville have wanted to keep the reader guessing?” Or “Did you have any ideas about who Moby-Dick might be?” Or “Did your prior knowledge about the book make this a non-question for you?” Or “If you had been living when Melville’s novel came out, you would already have heard of the real albino whale Mocha Dick, who had sunk a number of ships, most recently the Essex out of Nantucket; would you have associated that whale with this book because of its title, and would that have made you want to read this book perhaps?” If the class had gotten farther into the novel, the second question might instead have been “Could you suggest another title?” or  “Why not title the book ‘Ahab,’ since the reader’s (and narrator’s) attention is on the obsession, the psychology, of the captain?” Or “Do you think the white whale is the most interesting aspect of the book?” Etc. We all do this: lead the student from the obvious, to the intriguing, to the interesting hypothetical, to perhaps an insight or two or a productive association of multiple pieces of information. But the seemingly obvious and certainly basic first question in a class discussion is not meant to encourage students to commit obvious statements to paper in a written analysis.

Still, students do imitate and emulate; that’s one way of learning. Alas for us, we never know WHAT the students will choose to imitate, and whether they’ll understand what they’re doing.

Now, if the student had begun with “Although the manifestations of mental illness may be physical, behavioral, or verbal, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is an illness of the mind,” I would have happily expected an essay that prioritized types of studies of mental illness, or made recommendations concerning services for the mentally ill, or looked at various treatments of mental illnesses that targeted either symptoms or sources. Or “mental illness affects the mind, but earlier cultures assumed it was a matter of demons, not disease.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, but usually it affects many more aspects of the individual as well.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why we fear it so deeply.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, the very seat of identity.” Or “Mental illness affects the mind, and that may be why the madman in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ thinks he is not mad.”

My student did none of the above, although he was writing about Poe’s story. After the bald beginning, he continued to enlighten along the lines of that’s-why-the-madman’s-thinking-is-so-twisted and we-can-see-from-what-he-says-that-his-mind-is-affected. In other words, yes, the simple statement could have been a door into an interesting and perhaps complex line of discussion.

Or not.

Be that as it may, he has given us a fact. Shouldn’t that be enough?

“I think every story is different. I say this because…”

Students tell me they write “I think” to let the reader know they are not so egotistical as to equate their opinions with fact. Perhaps that’s their intention. But to the reader, that “I think” sounds less like modesty and more like uncertainty, especially to the reader who understands that what people write down is most often what they think and therefore doesn’t expect to see the writer point that out.

Following “I think [whatever]” with “I say this because” begins to seem like wheel-spinning while the writer actually does try to think. There are just too many words there.

I do like the fact that my student thinks every story is different. We spend time in class looking at stories (or poems) that share settings, or themes, or subjects, and discussing the details that make them different; after all, I say, all of literature can be boiled down to some three basic story lines; there must be some reason writers keep writing more. So here, my student is telling me that she has taken into her own set of thoughts the proposition that the differences we’ve been looking at from time to time all semester actually exist. This is gratifying. At exam time, the professor is grateful to see anything familiar show up on the test.

You know I’ve been teasing you with the ending of the second sentence. All right; here’s the entire utterance:

“I think every story is different. I say this because no story is the same.”

That’s a damned fine reason to say it.

Actually, “no story is the same” is a disconcerting thought. Had my student gone on to discuss the relationship between the reader and the story, it might have led to a thoughtful paragraph or two. After all, every reader has experienced the phenomenon of rereading a favorite book after some time has elapsed and finding that the book has changed: the story has wider or deeper implications; the “hero” seems to have acquired flaws; something funny now seems sad (or vice versa); more experience on the part of the reader has revealed a whole new meaning in a phrase, or reference, or scene. Those of us who like to talk about books with friends also know that no story is the same to all readers. Her first sentence, then, would come to mean that every story is different from itself at every reading, or to every reader.

But alas, my student wasn’t taking that philosophical, or reader-response, road. She was about to discuss three stories (as the essay question demanded) that were different from each other. She meant, then, “No two stories are the same,” or maybe “no three stories are the same.” But she has written that no one story is the same, and that must give one pause, although for her it was evidently what enabled her to move forward.

Long ago a professor of mine noted on a paper that I “spent too much time in throat-clearing.” I think this is a good way of describing those first sentences, or transitional sentences, where the writer can be seen to avoid committing herself to a point while she tries to figure out what the point actually is going to be, or gets ready to force a concept into actual words. I make this comment to my own students. (I would also allude to Art Carney as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners and the way he would repeatedly shoot his cuffs and shake his fingers in preparation for signing his name to things—master of suspense!—but I know this cultural reference will not resonate with today’s students.)

What my student was doing here was throat-clearing, or cuff-shooting, not yet saying anything. What she produced is yet again one of those masterpieces of circular (appropriately, for wheel-spinning) or self-defining statement that leaves the professor sighing, in wonder and despair, “True. True.”

“This short-term pleasure will only last so long.”

I am ashamed of myself for neglecting my blog for virtually the entire month of December. I have been grading and grading and grading as those student essays, projects, major papers, portfolios, and finals juggernaut in.

The bright side is More Grist for the Mill.

My student was writing about the role of pleasure in the formation of unhealthy eating habits. She meant to say that the pleasure of appetite gratification is temporary, while the bad effects accrue over time and produce lasting suffering. Very true. But instead of saying “That Big Mac with cheese is only a short-term pleasure,” she began with “This short-term pleasure …” and then sought a verb that would emphasize the point. The point, of course, was that the pleasure was only short-term, and so unless she was going contrast it with long-term something-or-other the sentence really had nowhere to go, other than to double back on itself. Rather than start the sentence over, or express the other half of the thought, back she doubled.

And so she didn’t really write what she meant, or at least she didn’t manage to write all of what she meant.

What she DID write was a poignant, if self-defining, reminder of the ephemeral nature of pleasure (in this life of pain and toil). So young and yet so wise, or so disillusioned….

On the other hand, we might view her statement as less a cri de coeur than a carpe diem, and in that sense it’s not a bad reminder for the approaching family gatherings; parties; exchanges of gifts; lightings of candles and fireworks; quaffings of nogs, punches, and champagnes; samplings of cookies and candies; singings of auld-lang-synes: this short-term pleasure will last only so long [note that I myself prefer to place the modifier as close as possible to the word modified], so enter into the joy of the season whole-heartedly, appreciate the pleasures to the full. There’s a lot of winter yet to come, and the warm, bright memories will flicker still even into the darks and damps of January and February.

Especially if you’ve turned in your grades.

“It is an indisputable fact that…”

First, as a back-to-blog special, I have to share this post (AND COMMENTS) from Humans of New York—a real Mondegreens festival!

And now, for something like what we’ve been doing for the past two years.

My first-year students wrote their first essays on a subject I thought they’d bring a lot of personal experience to: electronic communications. Instead, most of them tried to give me vast, sweeping surveys of the history and variety of electronic-communications media.

When a student starts off with the assured observation that something is an “indisputable fact” (as opposed, presumably, to those disputable facts*), the reader braces for something impressive, but usually impressive in a way not intended by the student. This student did not disappoint:

“It is an indisputable fact that technology has an extensive presence in technology and continues to evolve.”

I suppose this would be a lot like saying that I have an extensive presence in myself and continue to evolve. Well, perhaps that is an indisputable fact, but it strikes me as more of a sentence that got lost somewhere. Most likely my student began his sentence with the intention of saying that technology has an extensive presence in our culture and that presence continues to evolve. Perhaps that’s what he did write at some point, but then revised a couple of times and in the process lost some words. If so, didn’t he think about reading the final version?

And does technology itself evolve? I’ve always thought of evolution as a self-driven process, not the result of thousands of technicians/creators in labs experimenting with new ideas. Aren’t Creationists dead-set against the theory of evolution?

I ask students to begin their essays with a claim that they believe most readers would agree with, then move into a more specific claim that requires demonstration and defense. My student began his essay by daring his readers to disagree (“It is an indisputable fact”) and then making a claim that in its current form is either self-evident or ridiculous, depending on the degree to which it is analyzed.

Be careful what you ask for!


* such as the sun revolving around the earth, etc. But I don’t think my student had such things in mind; certainly his essay didn’t, as we say, “go there.”

“Keeping your promises is very important in ‘Gawain’…”

We’re referring here once again to the ever-interesting (and, for student writers, ever-risky) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

My student is correct that keeping promises is important in the poem. It is a mark of honor not only for the individual knight but also for the reputation of the Table Round altogether. Morgan-le-Fay has set out to destroy the credibility of Camelot, and the ploy she uses is the famous beheading game between Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain takes the dare to strike G.K.’s head from off his shoulders with an axe, agreeing to search out the Knight a year later and receive a comparable blow. Severed, the head reminds Gawain of his promise; the reader then watches the months go by as Gawain anticipates fulfilling the agreement with growing dread. But he sets off in good time to keep the appointment.

After a difficult journey he happens on a delightful castle where he rests, exchanges promises in an evidently less deadly game with the castle’s lord, flirts with the lady, hears Christmas Mass, and duplicitously secretly accepts a sash that supposedly will protect him from the Green Knight’s axe.

On his way once again, he is offered an “out” by his guide: run away and the guide won’t tell. But Gawain keeps his promise; and the Green Knight, impressed with Gawain’s essential honesty and pluck, lets him off with the merest nick.

Gawain returns to Camelot ashamed that his honor was proven flawed; but the lords and ladies are so proud of him that they all don green sashes like the one he considers his badge of shame.

And Morgan-le-Fay loses, this time.

My student understands that the promise Gawain makes is of critical importance:

“Keeping your promises is very important in Gawain because it shows you are a man of your word.”

She should have stopped at “important,” but she felt compelled to go on. “Explain why it’s important,” she must have urged herself—and that was a good instinct. But her explanation is no such thing: it is a circular, or self-defining, definition. “Keeping your promises,” she’s saying, “is important because it shows you keep your promises.”

Now, I believe she meant more than that. Keeping your promises proves that you are a man of honor, perhaps. The behavior of keeping promises attests to the knight’s integrity of character. Something like that. And if that’s what she meant, she was right. She was right, too, that the first clause is insufficient to make that full point.

But the second clause is insufficient to make it, too, because it’s virtually identical with the first. It adds nothing, amplifies nothing, explains nothing, contextualizes nothing, clarifies nothing. The cause-effect connection promised by “because” is never earned. All the second clause does is make the sentence feel as if it says something, feel finished, feel significant.

Her instincts are fine. But her sentence promises more than it delivers.

Kind of like Gawain, if you want to be cynical about it.


“The interesting part of this passage is that…”

No, this sentence is not a continuation of the one that managed to use the word “interesting” three times. This one is by another interested student.

She’s impressed because the author succeeds in doing what authors do:

“The interesting part of this passage is that it conveys feelings and beliefs that the author is trying to show.”

It’s wonderful when an author has an idea, or a feeling, or a belief, and he decides to try to write about it, and he DOES write about it! And by writing about it, he conveys it to the reader! My student is appropriately impressed: she has found a passage that is interesting for the fact that it conveys something the author is trying to convey.

Well, now that I think a bit about this blog, I guess many of the quotations I present are passages that do not convey feelings and beliefs that their authors are trying to show.

Is that the difference between a great writer and a not-so-great student? —the great writer conveys something, whereas the student merely hopes that the reader will know what he meant…!

“By killing his son he did not give him the right to live.”

My student was not trying to examine the legitimacy of charging a killer with violating his victim’s civil rights; she was merely trying to explain what was so bad about killing someone. Even without reading the rest of the essay, we can gather this from the fact that the sentence does not claim the father was depriving his son of the right to live, or denying his son’s right to live; it says that he did not give him the right to live, which would imply that such a right was the father’s to give or deny in the first place…an idea certainly contradicted in the Declaration of Independence, where the right to life is proclaimed to be inalienable.

She just wanted to convey the seriousness of the act of killing someone. Negating the verb, though (“did not give him” as opposed to “refused him”), almost always produces a sentence that is weaker, not stronger, than another phrasing of the idea. My theory is that she began her sentence with energy and intention: “By killing his son he…” And then she didn’t know what to put next.

I thought at one time that a good way to explain to my visually-oriented students how to find concrete language was to suggest that they ask themselves what they would show in a movie if they had to tell their story that way instead of in words on a page. If I had to show this scene (it’s Football Father again), I would probably decorate the wall behind the son’s bed with photos of the kid catching a long pass, father and son laughing, maybe a college pennant, maybe a nice nature shot; this would form the backdrop as the father put the gun to his sleeping son’s temple and shot him dead. If I really wanted to sock it to my viewer, I’d let the kid take a deep breath and smile slightly in his dream just before Dad pulled the trigger. If I could see that in my mind’s eye I would then know the words to put it in writing, because I would know the point and the feelings I wanted to convey.

But I guess not being able to turn a verbal description into a mental picture is part of the same problem that impedes envisioning a movie scene. A few students have actually benefited from my explanation, and told me so; most, though, either don’t try to follow the advice or don’t know how to follow the advice. And such a student was THIS student.

Her sentence could have invited her reader into an experience, a point of view, ultimately a judgment; instead, it’s a circular sentence that actually undercuts its point by making it abstract and pedestrian.


“Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because…”

This is the hapless son of yesterday and earlier posts. Actually the case write-up I gave the class(es) didn’t say the kid couldn’t stop using drugs, and the father, who killed him to save him from a junkie’s death, actually admitted that his son was NOT yet addicted. But the student who wrote this sentence was sympathetic to the boy, and preferred to assume, I’m sure, that he couldn’t stop—not that he just wouldn’t.

From the rest of the sentence we can see why stopping was so hard:

“Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he would start using them again.”

I don’t know what I can add here. Obviously the surest way to fail at quitting is to not quit, or to keep restarting.

I’m not sure how many student writers have trouble with the word “because,” but I can say with some certainty that many of my student writers do. If I asked this student what she meant, I’m pretty sure she would say she meant that the kid quit smoking dope more than once but kept going back to it. I do not think she would say that what was keeping him from quitting was not-quitting, even though that’s pretty much what her sentence says: the reason he couldn’t stop was that he kept on. She’s describing a cycle of behavior but inserting a false causality.

And that’s because she doesn’t seem to know what the word “because” actually means: it’s just a word to put between two actions. Proof of this assumption is that the facts in the case left a lot of room for speculation, a lot of clues. For instance, plenty of adolescents discover that their parents’ priorities are no longer their own priorities, and in this case the boy quit his high school varsity football team and lost interest in tossing the ball around with his (ex-pro-football-player) father; he began hanging around with kids from school instead of coming home to spend time with Dad; in defiance of school rules and probably Dad’s preferences he grew his hair long. Suspended for this dress-code infraction, instead of mending his ways he accepted expulsion and began to skulk in his room. Marijuana and cheap wine seem to be part of this effort to find his own way, or at least evade the path he suddenly didn’t want to tread any longer.

If he was rebelling against his father’s expectations of him, smoking dope may have been THE thing he knew would make his father crazy. In that case, Dad’s efforts to “help” him would have confirmed him in his refusal to cooperate.

Or, of course, at 17 he may have suddenly felt lost in a world he wasn’t sure he could deal with, and wanted to be left alone for awhile to sort things out.

ANY of these might have been a “because”: “Once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he wasn’t ready to deal with his confusion.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because giving in to his father and the school would have been too embarrassing.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because he liked the feeling of not having to care about anything.” Or “once he started using drugs it was hard for him to stop because for the first time in his life he felt really cool.”

By sticking a “because” where  it made no sense, my student prevented herself from actually thinking about what might have been going on in that boy’s mind. Instead, she gives us a sentence that dooms itself to circularity and the whole essay to superficiality.

That’s why these errors, or “horrors,” or what-you-may-call-ems, matter: because rather than inviting thought they short-circuit it; because rather than opening new vistas of intellectual possibility, they pull the blinds and leave the writer in a situation like the boy’s in this case…safe and numb in the dark, getting through the day (or the assignment) but going nowhere.