Category Archives: stating/repeating the obvious

“By killing his son he did not give him the right to live.”

My student was not trying to examine the legitimacy of charging a killer with violating his victim’s civil rights; she was merely trying to explain what was so bad about killing someone. Even without reading the rest of the essay, we can gather this from the fact that the sentence does not claim the father was depriving his son of the right to live, or denying his son’s right to live; it says that he did not give him the right to live, which would imply that such a right was the father’s to give or deny in the first place…an idea certainly contradicted in the Declaration of Independence, where the right to life is proclaimed to be inalienable.

She just wanted to convey the seriousness of the act of killing someone. Negating the verb, though (“did not give him” as opposed to “refused him”), almost always produces a sentence that is weaker, not stronger, than another phrasing of the idea. My theory is that she began her sentence with energy and intention: “By killing his son he…” And then she didn’t know what to put next.

I thought at one time that a good way to explain to my visually-oriented students how to find concrete language was to suggest that they ask themselves what they would show in a movie if they had to tell their story that way instead of in words on a page. If I had to show this scene (it’s Football Father again), I would probably decorate the wall behind the son’s bed with photos of the kid catching a long pass, father and son laughing, maybe a college pennant, maybe a nice nature shot; this would form the backdrop as the father put the gun to his sleeping son’s temple and shot him dead. If I really wanted to sock it to my viewer, I’d let the kid take a deep breath and smile slightly in his dream just before Dad pulled the trigger. If I could see that in my mind’s eye I would then know the words to put it in writing, because I would know the point and the feelings I wanted to convey.

But I guess not being able to turn a verbal description into a mental picture is part of the same problem that impedes envisioning a movie scene. A few students have actually benefited from my explanation, and told me so; most, though, either don’t try to follow the advice or don’t know how to follow the advice. And such a student was THIS student.

Her sentence could have invited her reader into an experience, a point of view, ultimately a judgment; instead, it’s a circular sentence that actually undercuts its point by making it abstract and pedestrian.

 


“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as…”

My student felt the need to assure us that Cotton Mather’s position on witchcraft, although not spelled out, is clear enough to those who take the time to think about it.

For some reason I am immediately reminded of the story of Calvin Coolidge, “Silent Cal,” asked by his wife what the minister’s sermon one particular Sunday had been about. “Sin,” replied Coolidge. “What did he have to say about sin?” pressed Mrs. C. “He was against it,” replied Coolidge. (Coolidge claimed this story wasn’t true, but it’s still wonderful.)

Some positions don’t really need to be specifically expressed, and Cotton Mather’s (nay, the whole Puritan society’s) position on witchcraft was one of them. In short, he was against it. Reading Mather’s copious accounts of witchly visitations, laden as they are with vivid and judgmental language, one cannot miss his condemnation of such activities.

My student presents this idea in a rather distracted way, though:

“Though Mather never states his stance on witchcraft, it is interpreted as though he is against witchcraft and is strongly against it.”

We can find many grounds for distress in this one little complex sentence, but they are not equally distressing. “States” is always an unfortunate choice anywhere but in an objective news story; we have so very very many good verbs that offer information, energy, conceptual relationship, and judgment, not just the fact of uttering. “Stance” is okay, but aurally odd after “states” (in fact, it sets me up to expect a third term: “he never states his stance on stunts,” for example). The passive voice of the main clause saps the energy further while exempting the writer from any complicity in the judgment that will follow. “As though” should be “as that”: otherwise, the student has destabilized the sentence’s syntax.

Any of these weaknesses could legitimately be pointed out to the writer, but I generally try to give priority to the lapses that actually undermine the meaning and overall effectiveness of the sentence.

And here the highlight is the interpreted stance itself, presented (by means of the “and”) as two positions but most likely only one: against it, and strongly against it.

Now, we might entertain the possibility that the writer is trying to create emphasis here: Mather is not merely “against” witchcraft; he is strongly against it. Perhaps the repugnance in the general population is a given, and Mather’s goes beyond it.

Well, perhaps. But I really think this is just one more sentence where the writer got lost…and to which he never returned with a proof-reading eye. Just as he typed “and,” did the phone ring, or a dinner date arrive, or a sudden brief coma descend? Then, on returning to task, to room, or to consciousness, did he simply pick up where he had left off, going forward from “and” without looking back to see what had already been said?

In any case, he offers this as an interpretation of Mather’s unstated stance. Here’s what I hear: “Mather never really tells us how he feels about witchcraft, but I can make a good guess: he was against it. And I interpret ‘against’ to mean ‘against’—in fact, ‘strongly against.'”

If I’m right about this student, then he wouldn’t be the first who, asked to “interpret” something, merely rephrased it. Or restated it.

Alas.

Himself, looking for witchcraft (which, by the way, he’s against). Image: widely available; here, Wikimedia Commons.


“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.


“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.


“It is wrong to compare fast food with smoking because they are totally different.”

What more is there to say?

He was responding to an essay that claimed fast food and smoking were addictive in similar ways and equally harmful.

He has put an end to all debate.

What I like about it is that it’s definitive, definite, and much more engaged than the riposte so many of my students favor: a simple “I think not.” He has taken the time to explain why he thinks not, and I appreciate that.

Enjoy!


“Most people don’t actually think with their brains.”

I honestly don’t know what more there is to be said!

Of course, trying to imagine what else these people do think with is very entertaining.

Enjoy!


“Queen Elizabeth I grew up in a dysfunctional family.”

This is the best illustration I have ever seen of the inadequacy of the quasi-clinical vocabulary that moves so quickly and smoothly and brain-numbingly into the vernacular.

Enjoy!

 

Detail from a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at Age 13, attributed to the
Elizabethan female court painter, Levina Teerlinc / (Teerling) (1510/1520-1576)
From http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/cds/elizabeth/index.html


“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.”

Uhhhh?

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 openclipart.org)


“When you have good and evil it always leads to life and death.”

I don’t know what could be added to this profundity.

The unreferenced “it” adds just that bit of unsettling to an otherwise pretty pat statement.

What was the point in stating it? The context was Paradise Lost, so perhaps my writer was pointing out that the entrance of Satan into Eden necessitated the death sentence God gave out to Adam and Eve. Following that idea up in an articulate manner might have been interesting; what the student wrote, however, did not make clear that she was trying to go in that direction.

Well, as written, a lesson in the inevitable. I wonder, though: is the mixture the thing that creates the “circle of life”? Would having only good always lead to life, and having only evil always lead to death?

Since such purity is generally considered to be reserved to heaven and hell, I suppose we won’t get a chance to test the hypothesis until the lesson is beyond our use.