Category Archives: reality confusion

“Instead of limiting choices…”

Just one more in the inanimate-object-as-agent series.

This sentence came from an essay on fast-food consumption and obesity. My student was arguing that fast-food restaurants shouldn’t have to offer “healthy” choices and cut back on the burgers; individuals should exercise control over their eating choices.

But in her sentence, people aren’t really doing much; it’s an intangible force that has to make an effort:

“Instead of limiting choices, a sense of responsibility should try to be instilled into people’s minds for their own health.”

That sense of responsibility has to try to be instilled in these people, or rather in their minds. So far, it evidently isn’t succeeding, but that doesn’t mean it should give up, I’m sure. Maybe the minds are closed, and being instilled is therefore difficult—my student doesn’t explain. She does note, however, that something is “for their own health.” The position of this modifying prepositional phrase makes its application ambiguous: Does she mean that for their own health, a sense of responsibility has to be instilled? Or does she mean that a sense of responsibility for their own health has to be instilled? Or is it the act of being instilled that is for their own health? I would imagine that if the sense of responsibility isn’t sure what the modifier modifies, instillation (I just looked that up, and it IS a word!) cannot be accomplished, regardless of effort.

She doesn’t say how the sense of responsibility is to accomplish its mission, either. It has to do the trying, but something else must do the actual instilling (“try to be instilled”…by what or whom?). Can it instill itself?

If people made the effort, they might develop a sense of responsibility. But for my student, they’re just lying there, waiting for that s. of r. to get some gumption and try to get instilled in their minds!

Hmm. Fast food plus lying around…probably not a good combination for anybody’s own health.

“The majority of sources that came across my path…”

That fragment isn’t a teaser; it’s all I wrote down. I’m sure my student finished the sentence somehow—”were useful”? “were hard for me to understand”? “seemed irrelevant”? “gave the same information”?

No matter. This is yet another instance of the passive student in a world of lively inanimate objects.

Here I am, sitting in the library (perhaps, or in my bed with my laptop before me), hoping to work on a paper for which I am supposed to do research. I am sitting here, evidently, passively and hopefully.

And sure enough, along the aisles come parades of sources. Can you see them? Slim books, fat books, bound periodicals, videotapes, microfiche cards… Or, if I’m sitting at my computer, here they come like pop-up ads and streaming banners: links, excerpts, full-text articles, YouTube screens… In either case, they’re all headed for ME, traveling at right angles to my gaze, or to my assigned task.

And I just sit there. Or maybe I get up and walk a step or two—not sure if my “path” is figurative or literal.

All those sources come across my path. I seem not even to have summoned them, let alone located and seized them for my use. I reckon I’m pretty lucky—had I sat in a different section of the library, or opened my laptop at a different time, I would probably have missed the parade, since the sources weren’t actually ever coming to me: they were just coming across my path. They would have marched along to their intended destination, and I would have been luckless and sourceless. My paper might have failed to be completed! My grade might not have been able to pass!

Such writing suggests that the world of today’s student, or today’s young adult, is curiously random, a place where things happen to people rather than being the result of anyone’s actions or choices. Flotsam on the sea of life, without what we currently call “agency.”

What ever happened to that conviction of responsibility and purpose that infused us Back In The Day, when we thought we could make the world a better place just by making an impassioned effort? (And we succeeded, too, to a point…)

Those were the days when research was a pursuit—legwork as well as head-work. And damn, it was fun.


“The play consisted of many different people reading various monologues…”

Well, a play doesn’t actually consist of people, but we can let that pass. And I’m glad my student didn’t say “many different people reading different monologues”—so many of my students use “different” when they mean “various,” making the use of “different” to mean “different” difficult.  “…eight actresses each reading a monologue” or “…four women performing eight separate monologues” would have been much better, of course. There’s nothing like being specific.

My student had attended a performance of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues to fulfill a requirement for my Intro to Theater course, and liked it quite a bit. Here’s the initial description of the production:

“The play consisted of many different people reading various monologues revolving around the different characteristics of female gentiles.”

Note the return of “different.”

And of course, here’s that confusion, again, about words that begin with “gen” and have an “l” somewhere. The intended word might be “gentle” or “genital,” but the error of choice is “gentile.” Why is that?

Those of us who can actually distinguish among “gentle,” “genital,” and “gentile” get a good laugh out of this, though. A little comedy about male and female gentiles might work, in fact. What would the “different” characteristics of female gentiles be, I wonder? Different from male gentiles, or different from female non-gentiles?

Should we indulge in a few stereotypes? In northeastern U.S. culture, the most common usage of “gentile” is to mean “non-Jew,” and since we’d certainly want to open our play in the City (you shouldn’t need to ask which!), we might as well go with that regional choice. Would we concentrate on “different” physical features, such as coloring, profile, and voice, or would we rather emphasize speech styles? Holiday observances? Sports preferences? Would we dare draw on “Jewish” jokes and “blonde” jokes? I don’t really know. Which “different characteristics” would be most entertaining in our play? Would we cast two best friends, or two neighbors, or even two in-laws, one Jewish and one “gentile”? Would we focus on Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist Judaism? And for the gentile, would we go all the way with Episcopalian, or settle for Methodist or Unaffiliated or agnostic? Or would the point be the different characteristics of various female gentiles, leaving the contrasting non-gentile out? Would dialogues be more fun, or should we stick with the monologue idea?

If we do monologues, we’d better be sure they revolve around the characteristics of female gentiles. (And suddenly “revolve around” in connection with the word the student actually meant is making me blush…)

Drama, to reach its audience, should very clearly limn the specific—a specific character in a specific situation at a specific time and place—but in such a way that the audience can also simultaneously understand in broader, more inclusively resonant terms. American theater has many fine plays that present specific individuals in specific cultural circumstances, celebrating like Walt Whitman all the distinct examples that make up the rich variety of America, all the separate songs that interweave into our astounding chorale. There are some plays that seem to speak for, or define, a particular culture. On the modern stage, say “Jewish” and Neil Simon might come to mind; say “gentile” and someone is bound to reply “A.R. Gurney.” These are two of many, varied, examples.

I’m not sure a vaguely-defined evening of revolving monologues about gentiles is really needed, no matter how much my student may have enjoyed it.

“These were pure animal survival instinks.”

Do I have, at last, a student who does form mental pictures when she hears a word? —because surely the idea of “animal survival instinks” is vivid in the mind of someone who has been confronted by, or fears being confronted by, a cornered skunk.

The actress in the production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play A Picasso (opening tomorrow night under my direction) was late to rehearsal one evening last week. She explained that her charming and generally nonconfrontational dog, Emma, had had a skunk encounter, necessitating emergency baths. Immediately an intense conversation ensued between my actress and my actor, whose own dogs have had their share of skunky set-tos: is a tomato-juice bath the best remedy, or does it merely mingle the smell of skunk with the tang of tomato? Are herbal treatments better? Where have skunk meetings taken place? Whose dogs are smarter/braver/more fastidious? …and of course on into dog stories. I have no dogs but do enjoy dog stories. AND I really like skunks.…Supreme effort of three wills was necessary to bring us back to rehearsal mode.

I happened on a skunk nest (nest? is there another word?) on my way to pick up a pizza one night. Mama and four kits, curled up together in a hollow beside the walkway, a bit under a small shrub. They were simply adorable. Luckily for me, I frequently sing or hum under my breath while walking. People may find me strange, but skunks hear me coming and so are never surprised by me. We gave each other a cautiously amiable look, and then I walked on to the pizza place (and returned by a different route: why tempt fate?). Clearly she felt no threat to the survival of her kits or herself, so she had no need of instinks with me. But if I had been a curious, bouncy dog, her survival instinks would surely have been deployed.

I like to think my student thought of skunks the first time she heard someone refer to “animal instincts” or “survival instincts,” and came up with an appropriate spelling, almost a poetic one. (My friend Philip would call that an “eggcorn,” I believe.)

There’s always the possibility that she was listening to a speaker who didn’t take care to pronounce all his consonants, or that she had never heard or seen the word “instincts,” and she simply assumed the term was spelled the way she thought she heard it—no mental pictures involved at all. That’s a sad thought.

It’s a chancy passage from the ear to the brain and back down out the mouth or typing fingers. If we don’t have enough signposts installed along the way, the word, and consequently the thought, can stumble off the path and wind up at a surprising place that never was the destination—but may seem to be. My student may have intended a simple behavioral observation, but where she wound up was a playground for me!

I have a dear friend who thinks those creepy shiny pincery-looking bugs, earwigs, are called Airwicks. None of my students says “all of a sudden”: they all think the expression is “all the sudden.” Being widely read and hanging around with people who speak with some care are the only defenses against making hundreds of such false assumptions and subsequent errors, living in worlds full of animals with instinks and bugs that are air-fresheners.

I guess if you have one, it would be nice to have the other….

“Every night she would tell the king a story and…”

My student was writing on the great Middle Eastern framed collection of tales One Thousand and One Nights (commonly in English “The Arabian Nights”). Drawn from many cultures over centuries, and still accruing additions (“Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” probably authentic Middle Eastern tales, were added to the Nights by European translators in the 19th century), it is a wonderful work.

You know the frame: the Persian king Shahryar, sickened by his wives’ infidelity, vows to marry a new wife every day, bed her, and kill her the next morning before she has the chance to cheat on him. Scheherazade, the daughter of his vizier, insists on becoming the next wife; the vizier reluctantly consents. (She hopes to teach the king the error of his ways and, incidentally, save all the other women in the kingdom.) She asks to bring her sister with her to the bridal chamber, and after the king has consummated his marriage the sister asks Scheherazade to tell a story. The rest is, as they say, history: dawn breaks before the story can be finished; and the king, like all of us needing to know how it comes out, lets her live. But the next night, the story’s ending slips into the beginning of another story…

My students love this work. But something besides the sister slipped into this one particular student’s summary:

“Every night she would tell the king a story and leave off on a cliff note.”

Those of us old enough, or addicted enough to “old movies,” to have seen The Perils of Pauline and its ilk know the expression is “cliff-hanger.” Even some children’s cartoons and Wild West tales and the occasional spy movie have benefited from the suspense of that lone figure hanging from his or her fingertips over some abyss or other, the potential rescuer galloping/driving/flying frantically, the audience wondering “will he be in time?”

The breaks in One Thousand and One Nights can’t really be called cliff-hangers. Yes, sometimes there’s peril. But peril isn’t the constant here: it’s fascination. The stories have many complications, and the reader can’t wait to see how those complications can possibly be resolved.

But my student didn’t say “cliff-hanger.” He said “cliff note.”

And most of us know what’s lodged in that mind, don’t we? Cliff’s Notes! I will offer a link to the Wikipedia page for Cliff’s Notes, conscious that this time Wikipedia IS an appropriate source.

The iconic cover. Perhaps the Catcher can rescue the story stuck on a cliff note?

The iconic cover. Perhaps the Catcher can rescue the story stuck on a cliff note?

Today’s student is more likely, I’m told, to turn to Spark Notes, the rival “study guides” initiated by four Harvard undergrads to tap the market created by that one Nebraska publisher’s employee. But Cliff’s is still around. What’s more, “Cliff’s Notes” has entered our lexicon as a way of saying “simplistic short form” of something more complicated and lengthy, or simply “cheat sheet.” Every teacher knows that these publications, whether or not serious about being “supplementary” to reading the original works, are for many students the substitute for being actually prepared, or actually familiar with the experience of a text.

My student should have written “and stop midway, leaving the king hanging” or “leaving the story hanging.” “Hanging” was evidently linked with “cliff” somewhere in the recesses of his mind, but once he came up with “cliff” the word that followed naturally was “notes.” That was the much more strongly imprinted phrase. Alas.

The great irony, the second level of delight in this error, is that if Scheherazade had actually used Cliff’s Notes her first story would have been done in a trice, and she would have been a goner at sunrise.

Verbum sap.

P.S. I’ll be away from the computer for a few days. Read something!


“Poe had his readers’ sweaty hearts racing with his famous words, ‘Nevermore.'”

I’m not sure whether my student is trying to convey genuine enthusiasm or imitating that hearty voice that used to be the voice-over for the opening of The Lone Ranger. Either way, she is doing her best to ramp up the passion of the sentence. Those racing hearts, those famous words, the sonorousness of the final word as the emotion drops to despair….

Actually Edgar Allen Poe sometimes does have my heart racing. All the exclamation marks and dashes as the narrator insists on his sanity to the accelerating heartbeat under the sentences in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The blind groping in the perilous darkness as the scythe-blade  swings closer and the walls push inexorably toward the fetid abyss in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” My startled realization that the “you” in “The Cask of Amontillado” is not a narrative convention, but an actual inclusion of me as a character, the aging murderer’s confessor, in the story.

Certainly the speaker’s heart has its racing moments, too, in Poe’s poetic triumph of rhythm, sound, and sensibility, “The Raven.” I’m not sure the reader’s heart follows suit, though: the refrain “Nevermore” is a long hollow fall rather than a shrilly climbing scream.

Nevertheless, a racing heart is what my student wants to point out. I hope her heart did race. And that must have been quite a race, too, to leave the heart all sweaty. Or perhaps the heart is always sweaty: the sentence is unclear as to that.

Did I miss something back there in Anatomy class?

The image is really almost too much. The reader of this sentence must, I think, take a moment to quell the rising laughter that accompanies the vision of a sweaty heart.

And the quelling is only momentary. Why in the sweet world did she put that “s” on “word”? Yes, the worD is famous. Poe’s own essay “The Philosophy of Composition” traces the intellectual process by which he crafted this poem, and puts special emphasis on his reasons for choosing the worD “Nevermore.” I’m glad my student responded to it. But she herself typed the worD correctly: “Nevermore.” Had she mistaken the line and transcribed it as ending “Never more,” she would have been talking about more than one word. She makes no such error, though.

Perhaps her sweaty heart dripped onto her typing fingers and caused them to slip onto the “s” unbeknownst to her.

Language is conceptual and often pictorial. Many of my students are blind to the pictures. A heart completing its first 10K race, flushed with pride and heat, dripping with sweat, its little undershirt soaked…didn’t she see the picture she evoked in her sentence?

Probably not. A student who actually capitalizes on the pictorial quality of language is a rare bird indeed nowadays, rarer than a talking raven sitting on a bust of Pallas.

For instance, on quite a fundamental level: If you read a lot of writing by younger people, you will wonder where the phrase “based on” has disappeared to. My students say, and write, “based around” and “based off of.” I bring in a little statue and a block of wood, identify the wood as a “base” for the statue, and then put the statue next to the block. They know that’s wrong. Presumably they know that a runner who is “off of” the base in a game of baseball is vulnerable to being tagged out, and they have not seen many base-runners run rings around the bases rather than actually step on them either. Yet even after my little object lesson (yes, I tried it this year, in frustration), my students continued to “base” interpretations, conclusions, and plans “off of” or “around” observations and data. This supposedly visually-oriented generation has no mind’s eye.

And I’m afraid they’re not going to develop one.

“Villain!” cried I, “thoughtless student, can you not be wise and prudent,

Standing things upon their bases as they stood in days of yore?”

Quoth the student, “Nevermore.”

(In a word.)

Ah, well. After all, she seems to have liked the poem. It seems to have stirred enthusiasm in her. So I have to say this: Bless her sweaty heart.

“…the governments would revert to equality…”

My prolonged lack of new posts is the result of several newsletters, a stage production, and a mountain of student papers and exams coming into extravagant collision.

Today’s post is, thank goodness, NOT so much typical as cumulative. That is, this student managed, in his meanderings and maunderings, to sum up so much of what drives us paper-readers to despair. I leave it to you to decide if he actually thinks he’s saying something or merely trying to  free-associate his way to filling up the required number of pages. (The topic, by the way, was of his own choosing!)

I take comfort in my hopeful belief that he is not majoring in economics, political science, history, sociology, or logic. Or, of course, writing.


“Greed prevents governments that are harmful to society like that of communism and socialism. Greed makes it so that there is a division between social classes, this division helps to separate the classes and stop the spread of communism. If greed did not exist the world would indeed be a better place but the governments would revert to equality among the classes and the sharing of wealth, which in the long run would deplete the economies.”

“He went to Amsterdam, in the Neverlands.”

I post this in celebration of my dear friend David Chacko (also a fine writer, by the way! check him out on…), who last week took up residence in Amsterdam.

But unlike Peter Pan, David did not wind up in the Neverlands.

My student wasn’t thinking of Peter Pan either; she was writing about someone who had left the U.S. to avoid the Vietnam draft. He went, actually, to the Netherlands. But if your knowledge of European countries is scantier than your knowledge of children’s fiction, and if you’re unfamiliar with the adjective “nether,” meaning “below”—or “low,” as in the Lowlands, as the Netherlands is referred to in folk songs—you might hear “Netherlands” but think you hear “Neverlands.” Of course to think that a person could avoid the draft by hanging out with Peter Pan, who flew to Neverland on fairy dust rather than by airplane, takes a certain stretch of the imagination…

I hope David doesn’t meet up with any pirate captains, although he might enjoy making the acquaintance of an Indian princess or a mermaid.

Meanwhile, I invite you to check your maps. From Newport, RI, where he was living up until last week, David could get pretty close to Amsterdam by traveling “straight on till morning.” Well, more or less.

“With the research of the history I will know about the other countries and how they were before I got there.”

This is another student who believes that most of what we know of life began more or less with his birth. Fortunately, he is aware that “the other countries” do have SOME history that he can do “the research” on, just to sketch in that primitive past. Does he hope to find out what they were like, or the means by which they existed, one wonders…

Beyond pointing this out, words fail me.

I will leave you to enjoy the resonances of this sentence, and I hope you find them as amazing as I do.

“Many people who either live or do not live in the Bronx believe…”

Do we even care what they believe, this particular population?

I don’t remember, anyway. I wrote down only this much, because this was how far I got into the sentence before I fell apart.

Think of the number of people who live in the Bronx. Now, consider “many” of them.

Similarly, think of the number of people who do not live in the Bronx. Now consider “many” of them.

These two bunches believe something. How many people believe this? A billion, maybe?

I urge students to be specific, not merely to say “some people” or “many people,” or “some say,” or whatever vague entity masks the writer, who actually intends to tell us what he or she thinks, but maybe doesn’t want to seem to be relying on too small a sample. I recommend at least getting as specific as “Many paramedics,” or “many poets,” or “many Pennsylvanians.” Let’s get a sample relevant to the idea, anyway.

I wonder if my student is trying to be specific in that way here. She was writing an essay to introduce the group of writings she had chosen to present as an anthology with the theme of New York City. Maybe she wrote “Many people who live in the Bronx believe…” and then thought to herself, “Hey, this is something people who live in Queens probably also think, along with possibly a few people in Brooklyn!” Rather than leave them out, she tacked them on as people who do not live in the Bronx.

But if she intended only residents of New York’s boroughs, she should have changed that “people” at the beginning of the sentence into “New Yorkers.” She might have gotten away with the sentence, although it would still have been pretty noncommittal.

No, she left it at “people.” She forgot that almost everyone on earth is a person who does not live in the Bronx.

Lose points for saying something ridiculous. Gain points for making the teacher laugh.

The Bronx is yellow. All the other places have people who do not live in the Bronx.Image: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bronx is yellow. All the other places have people who do not live in the Bronx.
Image: Julius Schorzman, via Wikimedia Commons