Category Archives: circular statement

“The artwork that was placed there for deceased loved ones was put there for a reason.”

My student is clearly indignant that the lover of graveyard art appropriated some objects from the cemeteries where he was employed.

I know she was indignant partly because the phrase “___ for a reason” is usually spoken in tones of indignation: “I told you not to touch the stove for a reason, Missy!” “I give homework for a reason, young man.” Implied is “for a very GOOD reason, and now you know, don’t you?”

And so I’m confident that indignation, rather than complete obliviousness, has produced this seemingly circular sentence. “For deceased loved ones” isn’t quite the reason the artwork was “placed there,” although it is perhaps the occasion, or the practical purpose. In the case of the assignment, she’s discussing a Tiffany window that had graced a family mausoleum until, neglected and evidently forgotten by any remaining kin, the mausoleum lost part of its roof and the walls began to shift, and the window itself sagged out of its frame, its glass stress-cracked and its leading weather-softened. The art-lover removed the window, took it home and restored it, and then sold it to an antiques fence (and was caught in the trap set to catch the fence).

Once upon a time, the window was put into the mausoleum, and the mausoleum was “placed there” to house the beloved remains—that is, the mausoleum was “for” deceased loved ones, and the window was part of the edifice. Both window and mausoleum commemorated the dead. But, at least according to western belief, the dead weren’t likely to be able to admire the window or the handsome stone-and-mortar work; they weren’t likely to celebrate being laid on shelves instead of buried in the ground, either, or consciously bask in the pools of colored light. What, then, could the “reason” be for erecting a lovely little building and installing a window made by a famous (and fashionable) artist?

The reason must have been multidimensional: to honor the dead (not merely to deposit them); to comfort the surviving family that they had “done right by” their forebears; to console and delight survivors when they came to lay wreaths or to bring more company to the deceased; … and to impress passersby with the dignity and wealth of the family.

In the context of the story, one might question the success of the installation. The mausoleum was in what the news report called a “neglected corner” of the cemetery, where passersby would be unlikely. The tomb itself was in a state of neglect and decay, meaning that the family had died out, moved away, or just forgotten about it: at any rate, nobody was laying wreaths, adding new “loved ones,” or stopping in for some private grieving. Nobody among the living was enjoying the window as it inched toward disintegration. No aspect of the reason was being fulfilled.

If I had been writing the essay, I might have followed the sentence with a discussion that went in exactly that direction: for a reason, but the reason is long forgotten. I probably would have been sad rather than indignant, and I probably would have been arguing that the theft hurt no one and should not be prosecuted as a felony. I believe such a case can be made.

My student didn’t go in that direction, though. She wrote her statement, and then she put her figurative hands on her figurative hips and went on to argue that no one had the right to take the artwork away, since it had been put there “for a reason.” She didn’t go into the reason at all, and she didn’t meditate on the pitiless tooth of Time and the decay of all earthly things.

This was, after all, comp class, not lit or creative writing.

And because she did NOT go into the reason, I suggested in my comments that the sentence was somewhat circular (or self-reflective) and seemed to belabor the obvious rather than making a point.

If students would come to office hours, so many interesting conversations might occur! But at the end of a paper in a stack of 40 papers, a sentence or two in cursive (which I write but which many of my students seem unable to read) can’t do much. I write my comments for a reason, but I’m not sure that the reason is fulfilled.

“He covets whatever belongings he desires.”

Should we respond to this observation with “Well, duh…” or is something more going on than initially meets the eye?

“desire. 1. to long or hope for. 2. to express a wish for.… syn. wish. want. crave. covet.”

“covet: 1. to wish for enviously. 2. to desire (what belongs to another). syn. see ‘desire.'”

Ah, another example of the dictionary game of round-and-round.

This student was writing about our cemetery thief, a formerly ordinary young man who developed a love for funerary art when he was taken by his father to cemeteries to practice driving. He took pieces of broken statuary from discard heaps and repaired them at home; he later sought and obtained a cemetery caretaker’s job, and on his rounds he noticed other pieces that were damaged or deteriorating. Bypassing the middle step of the discard pile, he removed these pieces from their tombs himself, and took them straight home. Some he fixed and sold; others he fixed and kept. His downfall was rescuing, repairing, and then selling a large Tiffany window from a crumbling mausoleum. His purchaser was an antiquarian/fence who was already being watched for dealing in stolen art and antiques.

I asked students to define this man’s crime, if indeed they believed there had been a crime at all. Assessments ran from “grand theft by a hardened criminal” to “salvation by a hero of a work of art that otherwise would have been lost,” and everything in between. The essays were very interesting, but sometimes—especially among students who were trying to defend the thief—the sense got swept away by urgent but inarticulate passion (much like the emotions of the thief, come to think of it).

In this instance, I’m hopeful that my student was trying to say something beyond the pair of synonyms. “Covet” is a Ten Commandments word, and perhaps coveting is forbidden because it is an emotion that can tempt into theft, which is also forbidden. Perhaps she was drawing a line between merely desiring, or wanting, and coveting,  sinfully wanting, wanting that leads to taking. The two words may be listed as synonyms by Webster’s, but they do seem to express two different classes of longing. If we add “cupidity” to the noun forms “desire” and “covetousness,” we can make a progression from wistful to passionate to active: He feels desire for something; the desire becomes covetousness as he wonders why someone other than himself should have it; covetousness becomes cupidity and he reaches out his hand and takes the lovely object.

Of course she may not have been thinking of the nuances of desire; she may have thought that “covet” meant something other than “desire.” Or she may not have even realized she wrote, basically, a circular or self-defining sentence. The context of the statement gave me no help here, since rather than going on to elucidate her pronouncement by definition, explanation, or example, she moved on to another subtopic. As so often happens with student writing, she opened a door and then, instead of going through it, she moved on down the hall to twiddle another doorknob. And the professor can point this out in the current instance without being able to help the student recognize the next such occasion.

It seems, as the years go by, that students get involved in their writing more and more at the level of getting the sentences “right” or “engaging” and less and less at the level of the actual thought. The former engrosses them at the expense of the latter. But shouldn’t the excitement of following the twists and turns of an idea be the very impetus for seeking the best expression of the idea? Isn’t that one reason for all the near-synonyms in our language, to facilitate that kind of thinking?

What do you think: is engagement with thought a necessary driver of engagement with expression, or can they exist independently?


“Only the most memorable moments are the ones that I can remember.”

Yes, someone wrote this. Talk about self-defining sentences, or circular sentences, or … where was I?

If we pause a moment we can imagine something poignant here: “I remember so little,” he thinks. “I don’t seem to be able to recall my own life. I can remember only the most memorable moments—all else is lost to me.” Does he suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, or inattention, or overcrowded days and years, or a lazy mind? Does he make the effort and fail, or does he simply assume the big stuff will float to the top and the rest can be ignored?

How does he know how memorable these moments actually are if he can’t remember any others to compare them with? Or does he simply assume that if he remembers something it is by definition memorable?

Did he begin with “Only the most memorable moments” and then find himself unable to finish the thought? Or by the time he came to writing the last few words had he actually forgotten how he began the sentence?

What was he actually trying to say? We’ll never know, as we make another pass on the merry-go-round.

The funniest thing about this sentence is that it sticks in the mind. It is, if you will, memorable.

“These buried people are dead and gone.”

Before or after they were buried?

Actually this is not necessarily another case of a student inept at writing about death, of which I have had words before. So often they are trying for a gravitas, a profundity, that they can’t get at with ideas or words. After laughing, I do spend a moment appreciating their aspirations.

The student who wrote about “buried people” here was discussing the case of a man who stole damaged or disintegrating cemetery art, refurbished it, and in some instances, including one spectacular case dealing with a Tiffany window, sold it. I ask students to decide what the man had actually done, and how criminal it is. I get some interesting essays from this topic.

This student is trying to say that the dead don’t care what happens to the stones (etc.) above them—or, in the case of the Tiffany window, the mausoleums around them. This is part of her argument that it is impossible actually to steal from the dead. So by “these buried people” she means “the people whose remains lie in this cemetery,” and by “dead and gone” she means “no longer capable of owning anything or having an opinion about material goods”; “no longer in this world.” She’s taking the clichéed “dead and gone” quite literally.

And I knew what she meant.

Alas, though, as in many of the other Horrors I copy into my little book, she may have meant it, but she didn’t write it.

The written word is a funny thing. We set great store by it, and whole disciplines—industries—have been built up to serve and interpret it (Literary Criticism, History, Constitutional Law, Theology…). Yet it is slippery, elusive, protean, relative, source-dependent, reader-dependent, inadequate.

Nevertheless, any effort at interpretation must begin with the thing itself, das Ding an sich—in this case, the word. And by that measure, my student has not made a point: she has merely written what seems to be a self-defining sentence that evokes laughter. Or at least silly questions.

Well, all I can say is, I hope I am well dead and gone before anyone tries to bury me.

“Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites…”

I can’t seem to leave the Puritans. My students really enjoyed reading and discussing their narratives, poems, and sermons, for various reasons; but a lot of them had trouble actually writing about these things. Here’s the rest of the Edwards comment:

“Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example of what happened to the Israelites.”

Actually Edwards’ famous sermon to the slow-to-Awaken congregation at Enfield, Connecticut, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” warns Puritans of what will happen to them if they fail to give themselves wholly to God: if God would punish the Israelites, his chosen people, with devastation and eternal punishment when they strayed from his commandments, IMAGINE WHAT HE WILL DO TO YOU! Don’t get Him angry!

My student will be impervious to the warning, of course: for her, what happened to the Israelites is an example of what happened to the Israelites.

I imagine she began the sentence with a clear idea of what she wanted to say, but had forgotten it when she reached the end. Such a long sentence? Maybe her original intention was to write “Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example. What happened to them will also happen to Puritans who forget God.” That would work well enough. More simply, “Jonathan Edwards talks about the Israelites and he uses them as an example of what would happen to the Puritans.” This second alternative is probably exactly what she started out to say. Typing “what happened” instead of “what would happen,” though, made it impossible for her to reach her original destination: indeed, it forced her to stay historical, and back came the Israelites.

Taking another minute or two to decide what she actually meant might have provided her with a cleaner grammar and clearer statement: “For Edwards, God’s punishment of the Israelites who strayed from his commandments is a warning of what will happen to Puritans who stray.” She should have taken those minutes.

After all, eternal damnation is no laughing matter.

“Even a glance can send a person into the trance that love sends a person into.”

I love the internal rhyme here—”glance” and “trance.” In fact, the whole sentence has a certain rhythm that leads the reader to expect more rhymes—Even a glance can send a person into the trance that love by chance sends a person into, like a dance? ROMANCE!

Alas, though, my student doesn’t seem to have noticed the rhyme, or else isn’t susceptible to its seductive charms.

The reader’s main question, I think, is whether the glance is sending a person into actual love, or whether we’re dealing with two stimuli—glance and love—that lead to the same response: trance.

If that’s the case, of course it explains the cloud into which so many 13-year-olds wander, not to emerge until perhaps their twenties. Glancing around, or being glanced at by others, is an almost constant activity during those years, prompted by many impulses including love, and so the trances must come so fast one upon the other that they create a perpetual trance.

But I think my student was just trying to say that love can come with a mere glance. Could the subject have been Romeo and Juliet? That’s very possible. Poor kids, trying to navigate a complex family-feud-arranged-marriage-avengeable-friend tangle while in a love-induced trance. No wonder the faked-death scheme got so screwed up: Friar Lawrence and his colleague, sworn themselves to celibacy and perhaps therefore immune to trances, couldn’t have anticipated the difficulties the two young lovers would have with what seemed to the friars a simple plan.

Who ever loved, that loved not at first…um…glance?

Well, perhaps my student was also in love, and he was writing in such a trance that he didn’t notice his sentence was also going in circles.

P.S. …As was I last week, although probably not because of a sudden romance. Only a chance meeting with a friend prevented me from arriving for my conference a week early and wondering where everybody else was. (I really should look at actual calendars once in a while.) Instead I spent the week so busy helping to get a show opened that I went ahead and took a little blog vacation. But TODAY I really am going to D.C. and won’t have computer access for a few days. Best wishes to all.

“Making fun of the Baroness’s weight is a bit dark…”

This student is referring to the Baroness in Voltaire’s grotesque satiric novel Candide. Here’s pretty much all Voltaire does to “make fun of the Baroness’s weight”: “My Lady Baroness, who weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, consequently was a person of no small consideration.” (When the Bulgarian army comes to the castle they split Cunégonde, Candide’s lady love, and then repeatedly ravish her; her mother, the Baroness, they “cut…in pieces.” When Cunégonde reappears in the story—not all accidents, she assures Candide, prove fatal—she confirms her mother’s death. Although many presumed-dead characters continue to reappear, the Baroness is gone from the story. Cunégonde later refers to herself as “born a Baroness,” but her weight is not in question.)

So my student is wrong: Voltaire is not really “making fun of the Baroness’s weight”: he is making fun of the weightiness of the nobility, and probably also of the general avoirdupois of German burghers, in that the “most noble Baron of Thunder-ten-tronckh” lives in Westphalia. The fatter they were, the more important they were, generally speaking, and Voltaire mocks the automatic respect consequently afforded the hefty.

But my student explains away her implied criticism of Voltaire:

“Making fun of the Baroness’s weight is a bit dark, but because it was written in humor it is funny.”

I believe (but do not know) that my student meant that in the context of Voltaire’s satiric purpose and tone, a remark that would otherwise be far from comical, or even tasteful, elicits laughter. I probably talked a bit about the black comedy, or “dark humor,” of the twentieth century when introducing this eighteenth-century work—I usually do. If that is what she was trying to say, she was right to try to say it.

But of course she didn’t say it. Instead, she gave us a comment not far from Nixon’s explanation that if the President of the U.S. does a thing it is by definition legal. My student is saying that if  Voltaire writes something dark “in humor,” it “is funny,” as a matter of course.

I once had a colleague who made remarks that were startlingly rude—”God, you’re a slob, aren’t you?” she said to a friend who, pausing with his spoon halfway to his mouth in order to finish a comment about department politics, had just dripped some soup onto his tie at lunch—and then evidently believed she made it all all right by following up with “Only kidding.” She, too, must have thought that anything said or “written in humor” was funny, regardless of what it was. Yes, she was a barrel of laughs.

And speaking of department politics: I’m going to be tied up for the next several days getting ready for and then participating in the American Association of University Professors’ Annual Meeting in D.C. I own neither a laptop nor an iPhone, so unless someone wants to lend me a computer for an hour or two I will probably not be able to maintain my blog until maybe Sunday. Please go back and read some of the posts from August and September of 2011 in the interim—I led with some of my most hilarious horrors, all of which, I hasten to say, were not “written in humor” but are very funny just the same.

“I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder…”

Here’s a nice emphatic opening for a sentence. And my student has offered The Irrefutable Evidence to support her yet-to-come thesis: “I believe.” (It is the bookend to The Irrefutable Refutation: “I think not.”)

Students have a tough time with that first-person pronoun and its relationship to an essay. Some have learned that “Never use ‘I'” is a hard-and-fast rule, and so they get into all kinds of tangles avoiding it, especially in autobiographical essays (where “I” is appropriate because it refers to the material, not the writer qua writer).

Some have learned that having a personal voice is important in writing, and they personalize by using “I” every chance they get.

And then there are the many, many students who seem unable to write without “I think” or “I believe” or (oh, dear) “It is my opinion that…,” no matter how many ways I try to communicate the idea that an essay is, by definition, what the writer thinks, and one reason documentation is so important is that it identifies those things someone other than the writer thinks. Some still insist on using those phrases in order to indicate to their readers that the idea that follows may not be the only idea and the student is humble enough to know it. We spend class time identifying other ways the writer can provide this room-for-disagreement or room-for-wiser-heads: adverbs like “probably,” “possibly,” “perhaps,” “evidently”; verbs like “seems,” “appears,” “may be,” “suggests,” “implies”; adjectives like “some,” “many”; and other strategies. Still, in comes the next batch of papers, laden with “I think” and “I believe” (not to mention a few “I think not”s).

This student seems to be using “I believe” to add fervor and importance, though: a nice ringing opening. (Insert here a chorus of “I Believe For Every Drop of Rain That Falls.” Of course that’s a song about faith, and faith has no place in a logical argument….)

And now for the rest of the sentence, where appears the thesis for which this opening prepares:

“I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder is no doubt guilty.”


What did she think she was saying? Could she be echoing former Attorney General Ed Meese, who famously observed that anyone who was arrested for a crime was pretty sure to be guilty? I hope no student of mine would have that kind of blind faith in anything, including or especially the infallibility of the police. Or was she trying to say that someone guilty of murder was really GUILTY, guilty in a worse-than-usual way, guilty of something bad enough for a really big punishment? Oh, and guilty beyond the famous shadow: “no doubt.”

The opening prepares the reader for something profound or particularly significant, while all the student actually wants to say is that someone who has committed a crime has committed a crime. Now, there’s a controversial thesis for you! She can’t live up to the fanfare of that “I believe.” And because she began so importantly, what follows is not only a circular sentence: it is a ridiculously circular sentence. VERY much ado about nothing.

P.S. I apologize for sticking that song into your consciousness. You may take consolation in knowing that I have also stuck it into mine.

P.P.S. This Horror seems somehow fitting for the first day of the new dispensation in the State of Connecticut: we have joined the civilized nations and a growing number of civilized states in abolishing the death penalty. I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder deserves to keep his or her life in order to serve a long, long, long prison sentence, during which he or she will have the opportunity to think about just how serious it is. But if I were writing an essay about it, I wouldn’t use that belief as my evidence: like a good attorney, I would use evidence as evidence. And that’s not a circular sentence.


“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

“Puck pokes fun at Bottom by making fun of him.”

Well, as we used to say a few years ago, Duh.

This sentence is so short that even its writer should have noticed that it is circular, or self-defining. I can’t imagine why she thought it was worth the space.

My colleague Richard Reagan (passing my office door as I write this and dragged in to play) says he would have commented to the student: “Puck is apparently stuck in a rut, and so are you too!” (Nice rhythm, that.)

This kind of statement does get onto a page when the writer has no idea what to say but feels compelled (“the teacher made me do it!”) to say something. And that’s what happened in this case: She was answering one of the short-answer questions on a test from me—the question that I considered the test’s “gimme.” It was worth, if I recall correctly, 5 points, and I was sure no one could possibly miss the answer.

Q: How does Puck poke fun at Bottom?

A: By giving him an ass’s head. / By putting a donkey’s head on him. / By transforming his head into an ass’s head. (Any of these variants would have been okay.)

Landseer's 19th-century painting of Titania, Bottom (as ass), and the faerie train.
Thanks to for making it available.

This trick by Puck is played out over the course of at least four scenes, and referred to in at least two others. Puns on “ass” abound, and Bottom’s lines are full of words that incorporate the sound “nay,” or “neigh.” He asks for hay to eat.

I showed the class videotape clips of a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had directed. The ass’s head was a large, vivid full-head mask. The actor plied it with grace and comic skill. Titania stroked it lovingly and sensually.

I mean, Come On!

Somehow, this student had no recollection of the transformation of Bottom. Had she read the play? Had she seen the video? Had she listened to the discussions (at least two classes’ worth)? Not a trick question!

Faced with the question on the test, clearly she had no idea what to say…but she felt she had to say something.

From her point of view, though, how could I mark her answer wrong? Making fun of someone is surely a way of poking fun at him. Had her vocabulary been a little bigger she might have said that Puck pokes fun at Bottom by mocking him—actually, that would have added a milligram of information to the sentence, at least clarifying that the “fun” was mockery, rather than, say, tickling. Or taunting (the way Puck does taunt Lysander and Demetrius, for instance).

In fact, my student’s “answer,” opaque as it is, challenges the (ever-hopeful) reader perhaps to look for some clarity, some deeper meaning the student may have had in mind. Presuming there might be a difference between “poking fun” and “making fun,” we can take some time to look at the other actions of this sprite. Actually his jokes do take more than one form. Puck’s “fun” with the young lovers is consequent on his own errors, and is directed at them; they are aware of and frustrated at being taunted although they have no idea what its source is—just fog, or inexplicable fickleness, they think. His “fun” with Bottom, on the other hand, is an intentional joke and is shared with us, the audience. Bottom is blissfully unaware that anything is wrong: when his friends run away from him, he assumes there’s something wrong with them; even after the spell has been lifted he remembers his ass-self as a dream, not as a real experience, and actually plans to celebrate the dream in a ballad. Thanks in part to his own enormous ego, he never guesses that we and Puck are laughing at him. With some resourcefulness, a writer could use my student’s answer to launch a fairly interesting discussion.

Well, I did mark her answer wrong anyway, and she never asked me why (a pretty good indication that she knew it was no answer in the first place).

Recently I gave an announced quiz to my freshmen, asking mostly questions with pretty obvious answers (for those who had done the reading). One of my students confidently and unhesitatingly wrote replies to every question, and from a distance I watched with pleasure, thinking to myself, “Well, he certainly is prepared, just as I expected from him.” The paper he turned in looked (from a distance) like a sure winner. When I actually read it, though, I discovered that after each question he had simply rewritten the question. He wanted to seem to be doing very well on the quiz. Was that meant to fool me, or his fellow students? Was he saving face before them even though he knew he couldn’t pass the quiz? Another student in the class, one who also is usually well prepared, simply handed me his quiz paper with no answers or answer-substitutes at all, murmuring “I’m so sorry” as he did so.

Which of these three students would impress you the most? For my money, I’d take Student #3. But how many of us are willing to be that honest, and that aware of the impact of the failure?