Category Archives: overanalysis

“Poe’s writing style seems to really bring out the reader’s emotions…”

Today’s Horror comes from the “Why didn’t you just stop there?” department.

Aside from the typical student reluctance to commit fully to any observation (“seems to really bring out”!), this isn’t a bad statement. It can lead into a nice specific discussion of the various aspects of Poe’s technique as it relates to his stated concept of the purpose of literature.

But my student just couldn’t stop there. Yes, he’s right that the idea isn’t finished; but he’s wrong that the sentence isn’t finished. So he goes on to finish it, in the process second-guessing himself into nonsense:

“Poe’s writing style seems to really bring out the reader’s emotions, whatever emotion Poe happens to be trying to get out that is.”

Well, heaven forefend that I might think the student meant Poe’s style brings out random emotions! Far be it from my student to imply that a reader might double over with laughter while reading “The Raven,” or fall in love with Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado,” or think that “To Helen” is suspenseful. To prevent this kind of misunderstanding, that qualifying phrase materializes.

It’s not just that the clarification is unnecessary; it’s also that two other things manage to sneak in as well, things that students don’t seem to be able to resist: the implication that the act of writing is random, or coincidental, or accidental— “happens to” — and the implication that the author is making an effort that may or may not be successful—”trying to.” In the current combo, Poe is, purely by chance, making an effort to bring out an emotion.

That is.

I also like the idea that the emotion is somehow wedged there deep inside the reader, and Poe comes at him wielding his style like a big spoon or a crowbar or a forceps, trying to get it out. Oh, comes at him purely by chance to try to get it out.

All this, tagged on to a statement of observation and appreciation.

Maybe I should start rationing sentence length, to save them from themselves.

No wonder Poe looks worried. (from poemhunter.com)


“People blame one thing after the next.”

Obviously she meant “one thing after another,” which is a phrase so common that we use it without really thinking, although we usually use it right nevertheless.

How she came up with “the next” I don’t know. Maybe she thought “another” was vague. But I’d think some thought would have steered her away from “the next” rather than straight to it, unless she lives in an alternative universe where time moves backwards. In our world, people might blame one thing after the previous thing, or one thing before the next thing, but I’m not sure even Einstein could have gotten to “the next” before he got to the “thing.”

Relativity Watch, in honor of Einstein. You can get this watch at http://www.philosophersguild.com.

Thus a perfectly useful, if not also overused, expression becomes something else, and that else is something that makes no sense.

I’ve been fascinated in the last few years to hear students say, and see them write, another oddity: “We should do this sooner than later,” for instance. “Sooner than later”? “Sooner or later,” which is the standard phrase, means “eventually”: “If you plagiarize your paper, someone will find out sooner or later”; “If I play the lottery, sooner or later I’m going to win something.”

Evidently somewhere recently along the line somebody looked at the phrase and asked, “Why would I say this? It’s either ‘sooner’ or ‘later’—pick one!” And then somebody, maybe the same somebody or somebody else, said “‘Sooner or later’ doesn’t make any sense, then. It must be ‘sooner than later,’ meaning ‘pretty soon.'” And so I began seeing “sooner than later” in student papers.

A few months ago I got an e-mail from one of my department chairs: “We should do this sooner rather than later,” he wrote.

Now “sooner” is less relative; it’s an alternative. Either sooner or later. “Take your pick: I suggest sooner.”

Lest anyone think we’ve come full circle and the new phrase means the same as the old, I’d say no: it means something very much else. From a time continuum stretching from here to eternity, with an anticipated event occurring somewhere along it, we have moved to a future of two compartments, in one of which an event must occur. From a world in which events sometimes occur without our volition or control, we have moved to a world where the timing of things is a matter of our choice.

As with blaming one thing after another, if we had just left “sooner or later” alone, we would still be in a universe that bears some resemblance to the one we actually live in, as opposed to the one we like to think we live in.

Aye, there’s the rub. Perhaps the unexamined cliché is worth using, not the strange phrase we come up with when we try to think about it.


“Each and every child has an imagination…”

“Each and every child has an imagination. Some are wilder than others, but all children have them.”

From the second sentence, I’m not sure whether some children are wilder than others, or some imaginations are wilder than others; but of course I know the student meant the latter.

The real stumbling block for me here is a reflection of what the student incorrectly saw as a stumbling block. It’s the on-the-fly second-guessing that can legitimately be part of the drafting process but shouldn’t remain in the final version. “Each and every child has an imagination.” YES! We recognize children’s imaginations, celebrate them, and then in the name of developing or channeling them we narrow or squash them. My student really doesn’t need the “each and every,” since both words count one by one and thereby do the same job: “each child” and “every child” are the same idea and the same entity. But “each and every” has become a cliché because it continues to serve a purpose for a writer or speaker by emphasizing the idea it expresses. So, okay.

And then the writer second-guesses herself—Am I being too emphatic here? Is this too strong a generalization?—and pulls back: “Some are wilder than others.”

And then the double-reverse, just in case the second guess has moved her away from the point she was trying to make: “but all children have them.”

So she’s back where she began, but now that confident step has become a totter, the idea has been vitiated, and the reader has lost some faith in the writer’s convictions.

This kind of drafting behavior is very common in student writers, and we who sit in judgment on their efforts probably exacerbate it. Maybe we unintentionally imply that good writing and wild imaginations are incompatible, that successful writing is all about caution. If so, we (I) have to communicate more effectively that we want students to take risks, to make bold assertions and then do the hard work of validating them rather than to offer tepid generalizations that aren’t worth the trouble of supporting.

I offer the post today in memory of Steve Jobs, who trusted his wild imagination and changed the world.


“Socrates had a choice…”

So begins a student paragraph; and so far, so good. The rest of the sentence is also fine: “…to stop stirring up the state.” This is pretty much what the government wanted from him, although he hadn’t set out to stir up the state—he was only teaching people to think (or, as the state had it, “corrupting the youth” and dissing the official gods). Well, yes, I guess that’s subversive.

In fact, I suspect all the government tinkering with American public education since my school days, especially the tinkering that makes it more and more test-centered, “knowledge”-centered, has been an effort to inoculate the rising generations against the kind of thinking that turned many of the scrubbed, Sputnick-watching, twist-dancing kids of my generation into peace, civil-rights, women’s-rights, and Earth Day activists in jeans and beads. Or am I succumbing to conspiracy theories?

Anyway, my student was going along more or less well. If Socrates had chosen to shut up and retire to the country, he probably would have ceased to be of interest to Athens.

She starts off all right in the next sentence, too: “Instead he picked death by drinking poison….” Well, he chose to keep teaching, and that got him arrested, and that got him tried for impiety and corrupting the youth, and that got him sentenced to death, and fulfilling that sentence meant “voluntarily” drinking poison, that famous hemlock cocktail. “Picked death by drinking poison” elides the trial-and-punishment part, but she does have the ending right.

The Death of Socrates, by Jean Louis David

Except that she doesn’t end there. As in several examples I’ve already shared, and a few more yet to come, she just couldn’t leave well enough alone. The sentence felt too short to her, perhaps; or she might have wanted to make his death seem less eccentric, or less remarkable, or more routine (all of which possibilities could reasonably be associated with a state-imposed death sentence). Or maybe she felt some further comment was needed to clarify things, but after opening an adjective clause she discovered she had nothing to put in it.

So now I present the whole paragraph:

“Socrates had a choice to stop stirring up the state. Instead he picked death by drinking poison, which was popular in those days.”

She makes it sound like a trend or a fad, doesn’t she—as if it would have been covered in the “Styles” section of the Sunday Athens Times?

And there goes your image of Socrates.


“I think in Shakespeare’s time it was easier to express yourself. William Shakespeare was good at expressing himself through poetry. Probably because it was his job.”

We begin here with a student’s frustration at not being able to say what she means. Reading a poem by Shakespeare that speaks eloquently of love, time, death, art, she notes not the complexity of thought, the demands of the sonnet form, the wit driving the flexible central image, but the seeming ease of the verse. Ah, expressing yourself was easier back then, evidently, because this poem never gropes for words, never stops to think: it’s so inevitable.

Then on to the observation that Shakespeare was “good at expressing himself through poetry.” Well, that’s a fact; or, rather, it’s a fact that Shakespeare was good at expressing ideas and emotions through poetry. So much of what a working poet had to say “in Shakespeare’s time” was suggested by convention, model, and genre expectations. Granted, Shakespeare was one of the writers actively developing those conventions and genres; but reading sonnets by other poets of his day will reveal some of the same thoughts, some of the same images, also eloquently expressed.

But why quibble with whether Shakespeare was expressing himself or expressing ideas associated with the sonnet form, filtered through his own experience or beliefs? The wonderful thing here is the afterthought, the tagged-on speculative explanation, that not only undercuts Shakespeare’s achievement but also nicely flips the cause-effect relationship usually implied by “because.” Shakespeare was good at expressing himself through poetry because it was his job.

Maybe today it may seem as if people get jobs and then become good at them: witness any number of pop stars, for example. In fact, to an extent that is always true: in “my day,” before people could major in business as undergraduates, plenty of liberal-arts majors took their BAs into the marketplace and found jobs in business, jobs they actually did learn to be good at once they had them. But generally speaking, I do like to continue to believe that a person enters a profession (or lands a job) because he or she has a talent for it, or has achievements that show an ability or preparation for it: the readiness predates the opportunity.

I know a fair number of poets, but none of them would claim to have gotten the “job” of poet and then become “good at” it.

Well, the student may just have been expressing a wistful notion that if she had the job of poet, she, too, would be good at expressing herself…but until that happy day, she is stuck having a hard time.

Of these possibilities—envy, resignation, desire—which do you think she meant?

Happy Labor Day.


“Jesus was raised a Jew but crucified a Catholic.”

This was a response to a quiz question: “What was Jesus’ religion?” The course was World Lit I. The question was meant to be easy.

At first I didn’t know what she meant. She began with the right answer, and then went on to make it bizarre. This is a problem with a lot of students: they have a piece of information that is in fact accurate, and then they stop and think–what? “Is this a trick question?” That plagues students who think an answer that is fairly obvious must be wrong, and hampers any class discussion that begins with an easy question meant to lead into more complex ideas, because students are reluctant to answer the easy question.

But this student stopped and thought something else, I believe: WHAT ABOUT THOSE CRUCIFIXES?

In a society that seems obsessed with religion, an awful lot of us have only the sketchiest of notions about religious doctrine, including the doctrine of a religion we ourselves may claim to espouse. My students have on occasion made truly weird statements that seem to be the result of an on-the-spot effort to reconcile a hazy religious idea or image with their own common sense. Hence another of my favorite examples, “Holy Ghost is another name for Jesus. He became the Holy Ghost when he was crucified on the cross and came back to life.”

Cricifix, by Michelangelo