Category Archives: circular statement

“Spending a great amount of time in prison has stripped him of his freedom.”

Another sentence that takes up at least a line of type to express the obvious. This is another example from the “rape” case I’ve written about before, where an innocent man sat in prison for eight years because a teenager selected him at random from a mug book and accused him of a rape that had never taken place.

All my students were indignant about what she had done and how grievously his life had been ruined, and I suspect some of that indignation can be blamed for the inept statements in their essays. Blinded by passion, they wrote from their hearts and never revisited their drafts by means of their heads. They were more angry that he had been deprived of freedom for eight years than that he would find his life forever straitened by a criminal record for rape, and their inarticulate sentences about freedom reflected their feeling of impotent rage.

This situation, being nonplussed by a fact, unable to put our outrage or astonishment or indignation into words, is common to us all. We may not vent this outrage in self-defining or self-evident statements, but I have noticed how often we take the time to say with great emphasis something utterly obvious—indeed, how often we say it not once, but over and over, or pass the statement from one mouth to the next as if each time it’s said it’s new and the more often it’s said the deeper it is.

I never really blame myself, so I suppose it isn’t fair to blame my students. Nice, at least, that they can get so angry they can’t think or speak straight.

Still, I find this sentence funny—funnier, I’m sure, than the poor chump in the case found his sentence.

Apologies for the pun!

“Graveyards are notorious for being a place full of death.”

Just to follow up on yesterday’s tombstone post.

Here is a sentence that reeks of opening-sentence-of-my-essay or at least opening-sentence-of-my-paragraph. It has that sonorous quality students often reach for when they get ready to write.

I will try to ignore the number disagreement between “graveyards” and “a place.” I will also try to ignore the word “notorious,” which student writers don’t necessarily consider a pejorative term—although this writer probably did intend to introduce a negative, gloomy note.

What really interests me is the relatively long road he takes to get to a destination so close as to be the same spot he began. If graveyards aren’t “full of death,” what is? The sentence is self-defining, unless the writer’s point is the “notorious” part. But since the sentence came from an essay about the grave-robbing restorer of Tiffany windows, I don’t think the reputation of graveyards was his point. What we have here is just an Opening Sentence.

The student wants to say something important, to express the mood or the topic’s urgency or the writer’s seriousness. For that, I have sympathy; and that’s the reason I don’t write “Empty sentence” or “What the hell do you think you’re telling me?????” in the margin, or even “Point?” I just indicate the number disagreement, write “wordy,” and make a mental note to spend some time on opening sentences in the next class session.

And then I read the sentence again and laugh till I cry.

“The essay was really fun to write and very easy to relate to because it was something fun to write about.”

Here’s one of those circular sentences again! There is some sort of distributive middle, I suppose, or else it’s a rubber wall off which the sentence rebounds to revisit itself….

The essay was really fun to write.

The essay was very easy to relate to because it was something fun to write…


Surely the student didn’t go on to write about the sentence. (I’m the one doing that.)

Maybe it’s not a circular sentence after all. I have to be careful of these hasty assumptions.

Perhaps my student meant the “it” to refer to something other than the obvious antecedent, “sentence.” Maybe he meant “it” to refer to the topic of the essay? The topic was “‘reality’ television.” Yes, this can be something fun to write about, although how much fun and what kind of fun would depend on which version of “reality” the writer chose: Top Chef? Bridezillas? Dirty Jobs? Lockup? The Jersey Shore? Alas, most of my students chose The Jersey Shore, which they said was a terrible, stereotyping, disgusting show that should be taken off the air BUT which most of them said they watch “frequently.” (This may be why they’re baffled by Beowulf…)

So, the essay was very easy to relate to because “reality television” was fun to write about. This means the student needed to relate to the essay in order to find it fun to write? There’s no possibility in the sentence that the student finds the topic easy to relate to, thank goodness: the topic is only, perhaps, fun to write about. But generally, essays are more fun to write if the topics themselves are engaging, entertaining, open to fancy. I don’t know, though, that I have ever related to an essay of mine.

Actually, I’m not sure what relating to something means. It’s one of those generalized terms that sweep up a lot of nice, specific ones into a huge but vague embrace and never let them go. If I were to take a few minutes I could come up with at least a dozen specific relationships that might be implied in “relate to,” depending on the subject and the context. The trouble with these generalized terms is that students (and other lazy or wary writers) glom onto them and use them all the time, and pretty soon those are the only terms out there and they leap to mind for all of us. I’m ashamed to say that I would need a few minutes to come up with the list of specific relationships: those are the terms that should leap to mind, not “relate to.” I look at the big, beautiful OED, remember what it looked like in normal-size type on regular paper (a whole library shelf!), and mourn the rich lexicon we are trying our damnedest to reduce to a slim volume.

But this morning, having turned in all my grades (and having begun to receive the inevitable e-mails of dissatisfaction), I am going to count my blessings. Blessing #1 on this sunny morning: the sunny morning. Blessing #2: this student wrote “easy to relate to” instead of “relatable,” which is now the much more popular term. “Hamlet isn’t relatable because he speaks in Old English.” “I find Sarah Palin very relatable.” “The course was relatable for me because I had something like it in high school.” I’m waiting to be told that it’s easy to relate to relatable people because you can relate to them.

On New Year’s Eve we’ll have dinner with some relatives. We’re already related to them; we’re just going to enjoy their company.

But first I have to do some major house-cleaning. Right now my house is definitely not relatable.

“To negate the truth, she lied.”

So simple.

This is pretty much one of those circular statements I love so much, a sentence that does no more than define itself, reach around and shake its own hand.

One could quibble, or I could quibble, with what looks like the underlying assumption of the sentence—that the truth can in fact be negated. I believe the only instance of a real truth being negated by a mere statement is that conundrum/paradox that fascinated my friends and me for about a week in high school: on one side of a piece of paper, the statement THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE IS TRUE; on the other, THE STATEMENT ON THE OTHER SIDE IS FALSE. I had finally to stop thinking about it when I felt my brain might explode.

If we believe there is such a thing as “truth,” we have to accept at least the possibility that no utterance to the contrary can lessen it, or undo it, or negate it.

The young woman referred to in this sentence is that egocentric teenager who accused a man chosen at random of rape to provide her with an explanation in case the intercourse she had had with her boyfriend should result in pregnancy, and steadfastly clung to the accusation even after the uterine coast was clear because she was then trying to protect herself from charges of perjury. To negate the truth that she and her boyfriend had been having sex, she lied that someone had come out of the night and raped her. But although her lie might have fooled her parents, the police, and the jury, it did not negate the truth that she had had sex with her boyfriend; it merely concealed, or contradicted, the truth. And she knew it.

Still, I do love the sentence my student wrote. It seems so simple, in both the utterance and the idea. There’s a nice rhythm to it.

In fact, I wish it were possible. I can think of a lot of truths—or facts, or realities—I’d like to wipe away with a word.

“Should the happenings be blamed on phenomenons?”

Essentially, this is one of those circular sentences, and would be just as meaningless if the terms were reversed: “Should the phenomenons be blamed on happenings?” I guess it’s a good question. Maybe it’s even meaningful, in a strange way, if the student is writing about possible witchcraft in the village of Salem. Perhaps she’s making a distinction between “happenings” as physical manifestations, and “phenomenons” as supernatural causes. I wish she’d at least written “phenomena,” but with so few students taking Latin nowadays I guess it’s too much to ask that the Latin plurals be retained. Actually, a quick look just now at Webster’s Collegiate informs me that “phenomenon” meaning “an exceptional, unusual, or abnormal thing, person, or event” is pluralized with an “s.” If the Infant Phenomenon of Nicholas Nickleby had had a sister, they would have been billed as the Infant Phenomenons, I imagine, by this definition. Perhaps, then, we can let my student’s “phenomenons” slide.

Another student, though, didn’t think the supernatural was to blame; he attributed it to more psychological causes:

“There were a couple of things that were behind the Salem witch cases, such as power of pervasion and hysterics. Power of pervasion is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Pervasion” is a word, but doesn’t fit the context or the declared meaning. Here it might be an unwitting portmanteau for “perverse persuasion,” although once the accusations got going they certainly did seem to pervade Salem. But none of these possible component ideas can explain my student’s confident observation (or definition?) that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe he’d like to meet the student who explained “psychosomatic.”

Well, Hallowe’en is here, and the Hallowe’en witches will have taken their candy and gone by midnight, so I might as well end my Salem series with another famous student “death sentence” >wink<:

“I’d like to say that those people that are dead and buried because of so-called witchcraft are now dead.”

“They have established a drinking ban which forbids consumption of alcohol with intent to drink.”

That’s some ban.

I would imagine my student meant possession of alcohol with intent to drink, although I’m not sure how such a ban could be enforced, dependent as it is on discerning intent.

This is probably one of those unrevised draft sentences, the writer first writing that the ban forbids consumption of alcohol, but then realizing it might address possession with intent and just squeezing some of that into the existing sentence.

But since we readers can’t go back in time to see whether the student proofread the essay or not, we have to go on what he actually wrote, which is a lot more interesting.

Can’t you just picture it? The hapless drunk is hauled before a judge, who says, “You have been charged with consumption of alcohol with intent to drink.” And the drunk says, “Butcheronner, I din’t intend t’drink. Sumuddy muss’ve slipped me sumpin.” And the judge has to let him go.

This is probably the kind of ban that would go down well with those women who unintentionally learned to read (possibly while sipping Scotch that they thought was tea), and of course Columbus, slurping some grog he mistook for soup as he discovered America without meaning to.

“Jane had the misconception that she might be pregnant.”

There’s nothing wrong with this sentence, except for the fact that no pun was intended.

The student was writing about the case of a young woman who had a roll in the hay with her boyfriend and then panicked that she might have become pregnant. Looking for a way to exculpate herself and shield her boyfriend from parental wrath, she fabricated a rape charge, chose a “rapist” at random from a mug book, and stuck vehemently to her accusation even after her body gave her an all-clear on the pregnancy scare. Convicted solely on the strength of her testimony and the weakness of his alibi, the hapless man did eight years in prison before Jane decided to recant, and then she couldn’t get the conviction overturned. This case was in all the newspapers, and produced some interesting student essays (and a few pretty scary ones, actually).

So my student is right: Jane thought she was pregnant, but she was wrong.

This was not a student given to puns, or even to moments of writerly wit, so she must have been visited at the typewriter not by her muse, but by the impish ghost of Sigmund Freud, who prompted a word choice that was unimpeachable for accuracy but hilarious for the pun.

Certain topics do this to people more easily than others. Another student writing on the same case said “By having sex with her boyfriend she opened herself up to the possibility that she might get pregnant.”

As for the “rapist,” “Once he is convicted, he is found guilty.” Although without unintentional puns, another student’s strange but accurate report of Jane’s failure to undo her lie is still worth remembering: “She unsuccessfully persuaded the judge to set him free.”

Curious about how it all came out? Jane went to the newspapers and to the governor, and finally the imprisoned man was granted a pardon. Nevertheless, his life would never return to normal: “The bottom line is when people go to jail they come out a changed man.”

“I think this quote is important and stands out from others because it is a quote that stood out from others.”

As I’ve said in previous posts, these circular, self-defining sentences always raise the question of whether the student lost track of an idea mid-sentence and then didn’t proofread the final statement, or actually thought he’d said something. And sometimes you have to make a guess as to whether something a student has written is a stupid statement, a cry of despair, or a bit of wise-assing. In other words, you have to figure out the subtext.

With today’s sentence I still haven’t decided. In class the writer always seemed pleasant and attentive but sometimes confused; on tests, ditto. Grasp of the material sometimes pretty sketchy; willingness to try usually apparent. Attendance okay. Never came to office hours or lingered after class.

This one was a journal entry. As a way of getting students to do at least part of the assigned reading, focus for a moment on the actual words in a piece of literature instead of glomming onto some fuzzy general idea, and come to class with something to say, I habitually assign a weekly “journal” in literature courses: List title, author, and date of composition or publication of an assigned work; present a passage of at least one sentence from the piece; and then write a paragraph or two in response to the quotation, showing its significance to the whole, its relevance to any other literature being read the same week (in the case of poems, we read more than one poem, and sometimes more than one author, in a week), or some aspect of the quotation itself that makes it memorable. “In short,” I say, “comment on what made this passage stand out for you.”

Well, here’s the answer: It stands out because it stands out.

Who can quarrel with that? A rose is a rose, a horse is a horse (of course, of course). Or, as the lawyers are so fond of saying, “It is what it is.”

I knew what the student meant, but what did he mean?