Category Archives: stating/repeating the obvious

“When one eats fast food…”

I’m going to consider this Horror the third in the Unnecessary Sentences sequence, although it could arguably stand alone.

Here it is in all its glory:

“When one eats fast food, the oil, fat, sugar, salt, and other contents of the food go directly into the body.”

Where else it might go first I cannot imagine, unless “eating” can include “spilling on tie,” “playing with on dish,” and “putting in the refrigerator for later,” all of which activities do involve a detour between bag and mouth. But once it’s in the mouth, food can pretty much be said to have gone directly into the body (assuming no physical abnormality of the mouth).

I THINK my student meant that all those “contents” are broken down into substances that will enter and affect the various systems and components of the body—structurally kind of like the lament sometimes heard at birthday parties, “That cupcake will go directly to my hips,” an hyperbolic utterance bemoaning the speaker’s propensity for putting on fat. As in that example, so for my student: it’s enough to say the “contents” of food go directly into the body; the intermediate steps can be assumed. But if that’s what she means, how is fast food different from other foods?

She might mean that we should worry because fast food contains excessive amounts of things that are bad in excess—oil, fat, sugar, salt—and we are putting those things into our bodies. That would be a likely idea in an essay about the unhealthy effects of a McDonald’s diet, and that’s what this essay was. But that isn’t what she has offered the reader. Maybe she thought the worry part was obvious.

And of course it is. Of course I knew what she meant. How to prevent invasion by these substances? When you eat fast food, this happens—so don’t eat fast food. And that was her essay’s message, so maybe the sentence is doing its job, sort of, after all.

But I’m still sitting here thinking about ways in which food might go into the mouth and then take some side excursion before entering the body. And I don’t really want to think about it!

Well, I wish I hadn't decided to put a picture in here. Now I'm hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from

Well, I wish I hadn’t decided to put a picture in here. Now I’m hungry. But if I eat this food, will it go directly into my body? Image from

“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?

“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.

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was…”

I think this is going to be another one of those sentences that begin all right, go on all right, and then go on a little too far and become ridiculous. And I know it’s coming because although it does begin all right, it doesn’t begin with much elegance or focus. “Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass'” is a fairly flat beginning. “Yeah, so?” asks the reader. The opening has no promise: my student was merely pushing a pawn, so to speak, as a rather unimaginative rhetorical gambit. Statement of fact.

And the adjective clause that follows offers merely to define the noun just introduced. So, fact followed by definition. (Oh, I know you’re thinking that “which was” could launch an observation rather than a definition: “which was revolutionary in form as well as content”; “which was the first truly American poem”; “which was arguably the most influential poetic work of the American nineteenth century”; and so on. But that’s not what my student had in mind; she wanted a definition, and definition she gave.)

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that…” she goes on. The “that” may be launching a definition of the collection or the poems—in other words, a definition of something in the current definition. Or of course she may NOW be about to make an observation or judgment (“that shook the literary establishment,” “that together defined Whitman and his world,” “that he sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson in response to Emerson’s call for a truly American voice”…).

But, at least up to the “that,” she is on solid ground, if not very interesting ground. Put a period in there, my dear, and move quickly to engage your reader with the next sentence!

Here’s what she did:

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that he wrote in his lifetime.”

You see? She really didn’t have anything in mind when she began the sentence, but she kept going in hopes that light would dawn. For that, I guess she didn’t go on long enough. But evidently to her the sentence had acquired some necessary gravitas, or sonority, or importance, and was enough. Where the essay went from there I do not recall. Where could it go from there?

This student is not the only one fascinated by the fact that poets tend to write while they are alive. Or perhaps I should say Whitman was not the only poet who wrote while alive: Dante did too, for example.

I honestly don’t know of any poet who wrote before birth, or after death. I once wrote something I had dreamed (Ah, Coleridge, you too?), but I don’t think any dead poets were dictating.

But certainly there are many poets whose work lives on.

Mourning the loss today of Seamus Heaney, whose lyric poems are breathtaking, alive, moving—and whose translation of Beowulf reveals all the vigor of its Old English original as well as the story and its characters. Most distinct in his work is its life. You can’t achieve that if you’re not alive yourself.

“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…!

“In my own opinion I think that…”

Student writers never get tired of writing these two phrases.

I’ve had the chance to ask what the phrases mean, or why they are needed. Here are some answers:

  1. “I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all.”
  2. “I want the reader to know I really mean it.”
  3. “I want to show that I’m not using any sources, that I myself think this.”
  4. “I know there are other opinions.”
  5. “I think I’m right, but I don’t know.
  6. “This is a thesis, not a fact.”
  7. “The sentence sounded kind of rude without it.”

Here’s what I say: “Every essay begins with two invisible words: ‘I think…’ If you then write those words, you’re saying to the reader ‘I think I think…,’ or ‘I think it’s my opinion that….'” Several times I’ve even asked the students to write those words in capital letters after the heading of their paper so they wouldn’t feel compelled to write them in the essay itself.

Doesn’t help.

The phrase/clause is even more ridiculous when followed by something that is provably or obviously true—as in today’s example:

“In my own opinion I think that once again Sappho is talking about something or someone.”

Most writers write about things or people whenever they write. Sappho clearly falls into this category, even though so much of what we have of hers is fragmentary. No poems celebrating generalized abstractions or undefined emotions. She more or less takes my students’ collective breath away, in fact, particularly because they’re surprised to recognize real emotions of their own in these “old” texts.

So why would my student bother to make this silly statement? To be fair, I know what he probably meant. If he had only added one more word before ending his sentence—the word “specific”—he would have been fine. We do discuss the fact that poets, like writers of fiction, often construct characters, or embody ideas in fictional people, for literary purposes; that “I” in a poem is no more definitely the poet herself than “I” in a short story is the writer rather than a narrator. And here my student is trying to say, I believe, that Sappho seems to we writing of or to actual, specific people, about actual, specific events, rather than creating poetic situations. IF that’s what my student meant, I applaud him for recognizing the immediacy and urgency of the images, the circumstances, the carefully delineated emotions in her work.

But, as is always my lament, he didn’t say what he meant; he said something else, or at least something less. He said something so self-evident as to strike the reader as completely unnecessary, completely obvious—to evoke in the reader either the classic laugh or the PoMo “Well, Duh.”

And the “once again” suggests that this writing-about-something is a habit of hers. There she goes again.

Combine that with the rest of the sentence and this is what you get: “I’m not sure, and I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all about this, but it seems to me that Sappho is falling into that old habit of hers of writing about something. But others may disagree.”

For people who are so VERY certain of most of their judgments and notions, students can turn into shaking aspens and shrinking violets and sensitive plants when asked to commit their thoughts to paper.

“The ‘Divine Comedy’ was written by Dante Alighieri during his lifetime.”

I suppose this should not have taken me quite so aback as it did, because the student who presented me with this revelation was in my World Literature I survey. We read selections from the Hebrew Bible, written by writers claimed to have been divinely inspired; we also read selections from the Qur’an, according to the book itself dictated by Allah to Mohammed. So perhaps my student felt it necessary to make a distinction between those texts written by (or dictated or revealed to) entities who did not actually have a “lifetime,” and those written by flesh-and-blood creatures while they still walked the earth.

Dante’s masterpiece describes an extensive journey the narrator/poet makes through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise in the company of the Roman poet Virgil. Where did he get the ideas he portrays by way of this allegorical trek? He doesn’t say: unlike Coleridge explaining “Kublai Khan,” he makes no claims of an interrupted opium dream; unlike Julian of Norwich, he doesn’t attribute his interpretation of God’s will to visits from Jesus during an illness; unlike John Bunyan, he doesn’t even say the story came to him in a regular dream. Simply, the narrator finds himself midway on the road of life, lost in a gloomy wood; Virgil comes along, and they go on their adventure. Out-of-body experience?

Wherever he got his ideas, we can be pretty sure Dante wrote them down while still alive.

I probably asked for this. When they write commentaries on passages from assigned readings in their Journals, my students are required to note title, author, culture, and when written. This student doesn’t seem to have spent any time with the textbook’s introductory materials at all. Culture from which this text comes? He says Roman. Okay, now, Virgil was in fact Roman. And Dante lived in Italy. But Dante was a Florentine, not a Roman; and he certainly did not live during the Roman Empire, which is what we generally mean when we refer to the Roman culture. Given this sketchy notion of “where,” why should I have been surprised by a sketchy notion of “when”? Why look up the date? In fact The Comedy was written during his political exile from Florence; by 1317 “Inferno” had been published. When the other pieces of the poem were written is uncertain, but “Paradiso” was probably published after his death in 1321 at age 56.

Perhaps my student actually did take a look at the introduction and got the notion that Dante did some of his writing after death too. But if so, he confidently asserts that The Divine Comedy was not among those writings.

And I have to say I’m glad. The idea of literature coming to us from beyond the grave is unsettling, to say the least.

But since we’re fairly certain that every writer who wrote did so while alive (even those who were writing from spiritual direction), we generally don’t take the time to note the fact. My student’s taking the trouble to do so suggests that he felt it worthy of remark. That’s almost as unsettling as ghostly composition—composing while decomposing, as it were…

The great Gustav Dore depicts Dante and Virgil in Hell: "I had not thought death had undone so many." And probably none of them was doing any writing anymore, either.

The great Gustav Dore depicts Dante and Virgil in Hell: “I had not thought death had undone so many.” And probably none of them was doing any writing anymore, either.

“The word ‘night’ is quite commonly associated with the idea of darkness.”

I suppose if the university this student attends were in Alaska, or if she lived in Siberia, she might legitimately take time to inform her reader about the association between “night” and darkness.

We are, however, in Connecticut, where her family also resides. So I’m afraid this is another example of the reaching-for-an-opening-profundity syndrome that afflicts many student writers, especially first-years.

She was planning to go on to distinguish between ideas associated with the darkness of night: fear, wonder, romance, rest. So a reader who did NOT have a blog might have given her a pass on this sentence as a set-up for those that were to follow.

Me, I quietly and supportively wrote “unneeded” in the margin and during office hours suggested other ways she might establish her basic thought. But I also copied the original statement in the back of my grade book, vol. 40 of the Book of Horrors.

I do associate words other than “night” with the idea of darkness, and ideas other than darkness with the word “night.” I’m sure everyone does. I toyed with making a couple of lists here, but that might be an enjoyable parlor game for readers so I will not indulge myself at your expense.

As “today” moves into “this evening” and then “tonight,” though, I encourage you to contemplate the idea of darkness—absent, approaching, and then very much here…at least until “dawn” and “tomorrow.”

“The two are on their respected balconies at the same time.”

Who respects these balconies, one must ask, and what does a balcony do to gain such respect? Are there perhaps some disreputable balconies in the neighborhood, not respected by anyone? The judgmental qualities of architecture are well known, as James Joyce demonstrates in a respected short story, “Araby”: “The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.” The personification is appropriate and effective in the Joyce story, but I’m not sure my student is trying to achieve this in her own sentence—since, as I said, we don’t know who respects the balconies. It might be other balconies, or the buildings that face the balconies; or it might be passersby, or architects, or the residents of the flats so graced.

What would a respected balcony have to do to maintain its standing in the community? Always be tidy, perhaps sport well-watered plants, and certainly not host any loitering riff-raff of the human or pigeon species, I would imagine.

I know my student meant “respective” balconies. Students love that word, and they scrupulously use it to avoid any possible confusion, as in Adam and Eve wrote their respective names in the hotel register; Lois and Clark donned their respective swimsuits in their respective cabañas….  Okay, I made those two up. But not by much. The reader can’t be trusted, I guess, to understand that Adam didn’t sign the register “Eve,” and Clark didn’t don Lois’s swimsuit—in either cabaña. Nor can the reader be trusted to understand that the two girls in the story my student was summarizing, forbidden by their parents to play together, were standing each on her own balcony, not huddled on one or using each other’s as a joke on the folks.

What charms me is the things they feel they must be this scrupulous about, and the other things that they feel comfortable expressing any which way. What are the criteria for the choice?