Category Archives: Yore

“Before technology was even invented…”

You can feel it coming, can’t you? It’s that observation-based-on-a-hazy-notion-of-history, the time of “yore” so usefully deployed by Phoebe—or was it Rachel?—in an episode of Friends to describe the origin of a putative antique: it was made in Yore.

I’ve written before about that historical time, so shrouded in the mists of the past and of the student mind. Despite the noble efforts of the school system, Americans in general have a rather shaky notion of history; nevertheless, we like to invoke its lessons and examples (accurately or otherwise) to justify all kinds of things. The past lends GRAVITAS. In this assumption, students are just like all the rest of us.

They want to put their ideas into an historical context to make them important, serious, significant. I appreciate that. The problem arises when the historical context is something comically vague, or comically wrong, or downright bizarre—as it was in this student’s paper.

He was writing about electronic communications: specifically, cell-phone calls, emails, and texts. We had talked in class about the changes these resources had made in the way we lived our daily lives, exchanged information or affection with each other, made contact with our fellow creatures. Then I had asked the class to write an essay that answered this question: Through our embrace of modern technology, have we become complicitous in our own isolation, almost agoraphobia?

My student wanted to defend our near-constant use of technological devices for communication, arguing that they enable us to be not isolated but actually more closely connected than ever before. That’s an argument that can be made, of course.

But he undercut his own effectiveness from the very beginning, because he felt he had to establish the contrasting image of those dark ages “before technology was even invented” (as if starting a fire by striking two appropriate rocks together or creating friction with a bow-drill were not technology). And the way he defined that pre-tech time was… well, you decide:

“Before technology was even invented, one would have to send a letter that would be carried by a man on a horse.”

Communication with someone not in the same room depended on three components, you see: a letter, a man, and a horse—the man carrying the letter and the horse carrying the man. Any other means could not succeed. Clearly the illiterate could not communicate at all (drums, smoke, beacon fires, and other non-script communications not counting). Those who could write letters but who were not men with horses, or who had no access to “a” man with a horse (so much for stagecoaches, not to mention ships), or who could not afford to employ said man, were out of luck. Could next-door neighbors simply hand their letters across the fence, or did even they have to find that obliging equestrian? People who lived in places where horses did not exist or, alternatively, existed but were not tamed to the saddle were, obviously, out of luck.

So what “technology” are we talking about here? Maybe the telephone and the telegraph machine, both of which inventions supplemented and then began to supplant letters—and both of which were faster than a man on a horse, or even a man on a bicycle or in a car, once that technology (!) was invented. I certainly hope my student had at least that time in mind, and wasn’t thinking of the invention of the computer or the cell phone as the advent of technology, because if he was thinking of the computer age as the dawn of technology (and many of my students do) then he was imagining this busy man-on-a-horse serving his very grandparents’ social and business needs, and that is a notion of history not merely bizarre but downright terrifying.

In all likelihood, my student wasn’t thinking in specific terms at all when he wrote this sentence. Something called “technology” that was his subject, a vague figure like a Pony Express rider thundering across the plains with mail in his saddlebags or perhaps a royal messenger galloping through Sherwood Forest, scrolled message held aloft in one hand and reins in the other, as a contrast to two thumbs dancing across tiny letter keys to ask “U hungry?” or remark “ROTFL.” And the contrast was, after all, his subject, his point; the rest of the image was mere launch-pad.

He didn’t expect me, his ever-hopeful reader, to spend more time thinking about the sentence than he had. But if he had spent more time, the essay would have begun better.

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! This image of the stamp accompanies the description of

A Pony Express rider, appropriately enough enshrined on a postage stamp. No technology involved here! (This image of the stamp accompanies the description of “Pony Express” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica online, and can of course be found on hundreds of other sites as well.)

“Human interaction has been around since the beginning of human history.”

Yet another example of the “deep opening sentence” or “profound historical generalization,” both of which seem to be among the aspirations of student writers.

I encourage students to seek an opening assertion that both invites the reader’s agreement and opens the theme of the planned argument. For example, for an essay that will argue that a community garden should be permitted to remain even if that means less acreage for commercial development, a student might begin “The value of a piece of land cannot be adequately measured by its monetary worth.” From there the reader can be responsibly led through the specific subject and the “lens” or issue through which the writer is viewing the problem, to the thesis that the essay will support.

But sometimes students mistake the idea of this “general subject” or “broad issue” statement and write instead a “deep opening sentence” or a “profound historical generalization,” as you see I call them. And then they write sentences like today’s example.

Where is an essay that begins with this sentence going? It could go anywhere.

For me, it goes directly to mental responses such as “Well, duh,” “Obviously,” and “Luckily for human history.”

Caution: Human interaction taking place! (One of several kinds of interaction these humans engaged in…note Cain and Abel, for example…) Lucas Cranach the Elder painted Adam and Eve a number of times. This one is in the Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin, and can be found on numerous Internet sites.

Caution: Human interaction taking place! (One of several kinds of interaction these humans engaged in…note Cain and Abel, for example…)
Lucas Cranach the Elder painted Adam and Eve a number of times. This one is in the Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin, and can be found on numerous Internet sites.


“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing…”

As a lover of the theater (and a lover of a good time, for that matter), I agree that it was fortunate that the Puritans stopped existing, although lately they seem to be rising from their graves to drag modern culture back to their narrow definitions.

But that is beside my student’s point.

“Stopped existing” is nicer than, say, “died out,” since it seems to give the Puritans some volition in the matter. “Life is getting to be a drag,” you can imagine them saying to one another; “Let’s stop existing.” They shut up shop and that’s that.

No, my student had a much more developed understanding of what happened to Bradford, Winthrop, Mather, Edwards, & Co.: they stopped existing “because of the Salem Witch trials.” Did she mean they were conscience-stricken at the wrongs they had done in God’s name, and so they rode off into the sunset or turned off their life force? Or their glee at beating the devil gave them all fatal strokes? Or they felt their work was done and moved on to viler pastures? The exact agency, process, and motive seem unclear, but she still goes on to offer an explanation:

“Fortunately, the Puritans stopped existing because of the Salem Witch trials. Luckily more Christians were rising so they didn’t last long after that.”

“Rising”? Rising out of the ground? Rising up from inactivity? Rising against the Puritans? Gaining in the popularity polls? You can see that she continues to be glad at the demise of the stern and rock-bound host (sorry, pun irresistible!), anyway; and I think she believes she is continuing in a line of exposition as well. They stopped existing because more Christians rose after, or as a consequence of, the Salem witch trials and so the Puritans couldn’t last.

Does this make sense to you? I wonder if, at last, it made sense to her. It happened, after all, back in Yore, that hazy past students love to allude to but almost never have much of a grasp of.…The statement ends like the Puritans in her narrative, not with a bang but a whimper (sorry, TSE).

She seems to realize she has embarked on a road that is becoming increasingly obscure, but she is unable to turn back. The repetition and amplification smack of desperation. There’s a hint of Oscar Wilde’s lovely line in The Importance of Being Earnest here: Algernon Moncrieff, in love with a country girl and therefore now impeded by the “existence” of the invalid (also in the country) he invented as an excuse to get out of social obligations in London, he now attempts to UNinvent him by telling his Aunt Augusta, Lady Bracknell, that Bunbury, the invalid in question, has died. The dialogue goes on:

Lady Bracknell.  What did he die of?

Algernon.  Bunbury?  Oh, he was quite exploded.

Lady Bracknell.  Exploded!  Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage?  I was not aware that Mr. Bunbury was interested in social legislation.  If so, he is well punished for his morbidity.

Algernon.  My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out!  The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean—so Bunbury died.

Lady Bracknell.  He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians.  I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice.

I think of this exchange because my student’s narrative has that same improvisatory feel to it, and the same ending note that “they stopped existing” because they realized they “couldn’t last.”

I have nothing against Bunbury, and so I have no feelings positive or negative about his passing away into the ether.

About the Puritans, though, I have to agree with my student. They had no tolerance for other faiths: they assumed that the native Americans were Satan-worshippers; and even other Christians they persecuted whenever they got a chance, at least in the early days, locking Quakers in smokehouses, putting non-Puritans in the stocks, driving them out of Massachusetts (that’s how Rhode Island got founded!). Maybe they knew that if these others “rose” sufficiently the Puritans would be crowded out and wouldn’t be able to “last.” But, perhaps because by 1692 the Puritans were giving more attention to killing suspected witches than to suppressing those Christian upstarts, somehow the others DID rise sufficiently to, what, jump them in dark alleys and do away with them.

However they “ceased to exist,” they were a dour lot when they trod the earth and we are fortunate that they no longer hold sway in our lives. If our luck holds, that is.

"Sample Puritan," by "Bill" Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.

“Sample Puritan,” by “Bill” Edgar Wilson Nye (1850-1896) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Luckily they no longer walk among us.

“Horses were not always house pets.”

This sits alone in a margin of an old gradebook. I have no context for it, although another Horror a few pages later does mention a character in Equus, so maybe this student was also writing about that play, although I have never taught it in a course.

I once had a student who built her assigned literature anthology on the subject of horses. This gradebook is from the University where I used that assignment. Perhaps, then, it is a statement from her anthology’s Introduction. In that case, it might have been one of those opening statements that offer the reader a quick and breathtakingly generalized vision of history.

Did she then mean to observe that horses were not always domesticated but used to live free and wild? But many domesticated animals live in designated areas other than their human family’s own dwelling. Even back in the days when domestic animals lived under the same roof as their human family, they were segregated from the rest of the living quarters and were definitely not thought of as “pets” or invited to climb up on laps or sofas.

I had to share this, if only for the bizarre image…although the thought did cross my mind that I might find a nice picture of a wild horse to drive home the point, as it were. My consequent trip through Creative Commons yielded a photo so bizarre that I hesitate to put it here although Creative Commons would let me. It is evidently “from Francesca Romana” and may have something to do with the closing of a horse track in Milan. It is so appropriate to this post that it might almost be a photo taken or inspired by my student. Anyway, I invite you to follow this link and judge for yourself whether horses have, in fact, become house pets unbeknownst to you or me:

Beyond this, I believe my student’s sentence needs no further comment. Let it stand as unembellished and unexplained. Enjoy imagining contexts for it, or picturing the many dimensions of strangeness that lurk beneath her serene observation.

“People are violent creatures…”

So begins a student essay on, if I recall correctly, the epic hero. It is a statement that, unfortunately, holds up pretty well, as generalizations go. Even the pickiest writing instructor can find little to quibble with here.

But he’s not done beginning yet. Will he fall into the Profound-Openings Trap? Yes, he will:

“People are violent creatures. Violence has been happening since the dawn of man…”

Okay, maybe not so bad. We don’t have any eye-witness accounts, but as Darwin observed, nature is red in tooth and claw, and “man,” as just another piece of nature, can reasonably be assumed to fit into that observation. So: not necessarily proven, but certainly a reasonable assumption. The second sentence is rather awkward in word choice, but I guess we can say “violence happens,” so we could also say “violence has been happening”—although I’d argue that “acts of violence have been happening” would be a more legitimate way of phrasing it.

Oh, sorry. Still not done beginning. Here it comes:

“People are violent creatures. Violence has been happening since the dawn of man, and probably even before that.”

There’s the Profound Opening. Sweeping generalization about distant history (“yore”), followed by an offered further application. Now, yes, acts of violence surely did “happen” before the “dawn of man,” unless you believe man arrived at the same time as all the other creatures, violent or otherwise. But if my student wanted to suggest that all creatures are violent, then why did he begin with his philosophical observation about people? And if he meant his observation about violence to be specific to people, why oh why did he have to go on to suggest that violent acts by people probably “happened” before the dawn of man?

Doesn’t he equate “dawn” with “first appearance,” “beginning,” or “arrival”? Is “the dawn of man” just another way of saying “a long time ago”?

Something like this seems to have been the case, because you can see him second-guessing himself (almost always a mistake!): “Whoa, wait! ‘Dawn of man’—probably longer than that! I’d better not stop at the dawn of man! I’ll make it longer…”

The link at Profound-Openings Trap will take you to one of the other specimens I’ve saved. I really do appreciate students’ desire to begin an essay with an assertion that has gravitas or philosophical sweep. But they undermine themselves every time by reaching for something SO profound as to be ridiculous. And if the first statement isn’t ridiculous, they keep at it until it becomes ridiculous.

Then they come to class and exchange drafts with other students, and the groups do their best to offer constructive criticism. And NOBODY laughs, or looks puzzled, or suggests a change upon reading these Profound Openings. And that’s what worries me. I’m not sure if it’s a lack of realism, or humility, or reason that makes them deaf to the way such sentences actually strike a thinking reader. I cannot let myself think that such openings were rewarded in high school classes, but possibly the teacher promoted the idea of opening an argument with an interesting generalization and the student lacked the perspective to discriminate between “interesting” and “jaw-dropping” or “laugh-out-loud funny.”

How can this awareness be developed without squashing the high desire? I can sit with a student in my office and discuss the pitfalls of grandiose pronouncements, and I can help him realize the problems with the one he has committed; but with the next paper, there’s another one.

What I hope is that eventually, as he continues to mature, my student will come to understand what is laughable in this kind of opening and learn to replace it with something he actually consciously means, before his audience is no longer his instructor in the privacy of her office, but professional colleagues at an important presentation he’s making, out there in the future.

“Food has been around since the beginning of time.”

As we gather to enjoy the old traditions of this time of year, we may not realize that eating is one of those traditions—perhaps the oldest! It goes back to the beginning of time!

That knowledge should also settle the age-old question “What did the first people eat?” or even “What did the dinosaurs eat?” Now we know: FOOD. Who says people and dinosaurs don’t have much in common? Adam and Eve and T-Rex probably sat down to many a food-feast together back in the Eden days.

The first sentence of a discussion of the link between obesity and overindulgence in fast food, this is another student effort to invoke Yore. As I’ve noted before, students seem to find these quick-but-definitive historical pronouncements irresistible for opening statements. The one here is the single most profound, most resonant, most certain I’ve ever seen. And unlike many of the others, this one is also almost certainly true.

But what can a writing instructor write in the margin to suggest to the student that it is also a crashingly obvious fact, and therefore not the wisest way to begin an argument? Next I’ll be reading an argument on bridge collapses that begins “Gravity has been around since the beginning of time.”

Surely the writer can find common ground with the reader closer than the edge of the universe.

“The media has influenced politics over the last 45 years.”

More history, courtesy of my students.

First of all, yes, I am so old that I still consider the word “media” plural. All my students think it’s singular. Perhaps acting in collusion the media might seem one mighty and single-minded behemoth; or perhaps it just seems like a singular word, like for instance “petunia.” Students who’ve never studied Latin don’t generally entertain the possibility that -a might be a plural ending; students who have studied Latin seem not to entertain the possibility either, or else they don’t expect a word in an English sentence to have a Latin ending. Who knows?

More amazing are the students who think “the media” refers to a specific thing. “Sex is everywhere—in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, in the movies, and in the media.” The author of that sentence seems to think that “media” is another word for “television.” (The sentence was written before the Internet added a whole new range of possibilities.)

But that’s just a nit-pick. I wouldn’t have copied my headline sentence for the sake of a Latin plural. It’s the history lesson that got me.

I’ve commented before about students’ eagerness, yea compulsion, to offer some profundity about history before getting down to their actual subject. This might be fine enough, if they had a clearer view of history. The past is sort of a cartoon, though (it is for many of us, including me…but a big part of education is learning not to pretend to be knowledgeable where you aren’t!). Some of its features are distinct, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re accurate; other features are blurred, but that shouldn’t invite glib speculation.

The term “media” may not have been with us in a big way before the advent of television, or scholars writing about television; but certainly those things we mean when we say “media” have been with us for longer; and even more certainly, those media have influenced politics. Just take a look at a 19th-century newspaper, or an eighteenth-century pamphlet, or a seventeenth-century broadside…or a Greek satire, for that matter. Probably among the hieroglyphics of the Pharaohs there were a few political cartoons. The individuals or associations that published their messages in these media were frequently doing their best to influence politics, and were often successful.

My student may believe that objective reporting was the only form of mass communication in those blissfully innocent days that ended abruptly 45 years ago, but I’ve seen evidence to the contrary. She could have written a more credible sentence had she taken a moment to consider the possibility that human nature and human society haven’t really changed a whole lot. “The media influence politics” should have been her whole sentence (or, sigh, “the media influenceS politics”). If she’s going to go in for history, she might as well jump in and swim, instead of dabbling around with her big toe.

“Since the time of Jesus, when the only two known religions were Christianity and Judaism…”

Here’s another student’s compulsive history sketch-in. Why do they insist on doing this? Is it an effort to add a scholarly dimension to their comments, or some gravitas, or an air of authority? They just about never get the history right, undermining not only those hopes but also the credibility of whatever is going to come next.

Surely there were more than two “known” religions in “the time of Jesus.” What about those Romans, for a start, bosses in the same neighborhood?

We might even pick a nit or two and suggest that in the time of Jesus “Christianity” wasn’t a religion at all; Jesus claimed he was trying to purify or clarify the religion of the Hebrews, and most of his followers were Jews. Christianity as a cult, and then as a religion per se, developed after his death and resurrection.

But that was just the preparation for the rest of her sentence:

“Since the time of Jesus, when the only two known religions were Christianity and Judaism, the human race has come a long way and developed many other religions in which various people follow.”

Is it just a function of my place in the history of the world that when I hear “come a long way” I think of Virginia Slims, those elegant cigarettes designed to grace a woman’s hand (and bring the lung cancer statistics into gender balance)? Oh, sorry, be that as it may….

My student is somehow implying that having only two “known” religions is rather primitive: we’ve “come a long way” by developing a lot more religions. But what then of all those religions the Old-Testament Hebrews were trying so hard to stamp out? Did the world go backwards in getting down to two? What does she mean?

You’ll also notice the “in which” witch. Somewhere in the more recent past there must have been one hell of a teacher, pounding into thousands of student brains the notion that “which” cannot stand alone but always must be preceded by “in.” Even the Beatles had the notion “in this ever-changing world in which we live in.” I’m sure teachers were trying to teach no such thing: they wanted their students to stop ending sentences with prepositions, and so began conscientiously moving the “in” to stand before the “which” that usually lurked elsewhere in the sentence. But the students’ desire to put that beloved preposition at the end resulted in doubling it, putting one in front of the “which” and one at the end of the sentence. Now I even get sentences, like today’s, that require no preposition at all but throw “in” in front of “which” just the same. I also get sentences that use different prepositions but yet retain the “in”: “The college in which I went to,” for example. Maybe we need some ancient Hebrews to stamp that quasi-religious practice out!

My student does seem to have no doubt as to where religions come from: the human race “develops” them. So much for divine visitations. Well, we’ve done a great job, and now we’ve developed a lot of them, a veritable holy smorgasbord for “various” people to choose from. Or from which various people can choose.

I wish I had noted the actual subject of the essay from which this sentence came, because I can’t now imagine what point she might have been headed for.

But I must I say I like her suggestion that the more religions, the better off the human race is, and her evident belief that there’s no problem which religion “various” people choose to follow. If only we could all be so broad-minded.

“The 1800s was a time that I could not even imagine living in…”

It’s true, of course. We cannot really imagine ourselves living in just about time in the past. I remember when the “Second Woodstock,” or whatever they called it, was being planned, students of mine said they thought they would go, just to “see what it was like the first time.” They acknowledged that the weather might not be the same. I said the whole experience couldn’t be the same, because the people who were at Woodstock (I refuse to call it “the first Woodstock”) were living in the world of 1969; shaped by the events that preceded that year, they hadn’t yet had their lives and their perspectives affected by the events that followed. The people who might go to this one were shaped by those and ensuing events, and thus could never experience the innocent hopefulness and despair of 1969.

I am on a listserv for people interested in clothing history and costuming; a number of the members are reenactors, and they would be the first to say that although period-perfect clothing, a period-appropriate setting, and a well-researched knowledge of the history, culture, and social mores of the time can open a window into the lives people led then, the reenactors can never fully imagine living in that time: they know what came afterwards, and that means they can only visit—just as Barbara Ehrenreich’s courageous year of living on minimum-wage jobs could give her an understanding of that kind of life, but since she was planning afterward to return to the “normal” of the life she actually lived, she wasn’t really experiencing blue-collar poverty as her life.

Still, I knew what my student meant. Even English majors admit they cannot really imagine living in the times of the literature they study, beyond the moments of living in the text through the eyes of the writer.

But my student wanted to go farther, be more specific, just to show how completely different from his own experience life in the 1800s clearly was. And so he went on:

“The 1800s was a time that I could not even imagine living in, a time when things were more personal, when instead of sending an email or a text you had to go see someone face to face.”

I hope that he was only commenting on the speed of communication. But he seems to be implying that seeing someone “face to face” is in and of itself a chore, an unimaginable burden, something to be avoided at all costs (“had to go”). And beyond that is a vision of his present that saddens me enormously.

We’ve all seen people sitting together in a restaurant but talking (or texting) separately to different companions via cellphone. Arriving in class I used to be greeted by a buzz of conversation, students comparing homework or plans or complaints or gossip; now I arrive to silent classrooms, all heads bent, fingers madly texting to other people—roommates, friends from high school, parents. And students used to leave a classroom talking with one another, sometimes even about something that had been discussed in class, or to linger to talk with the professor. Now I conclude my closing cadence and all rise, whipping phones up to ears to resume their conversations with other people. I have actually overheard such vital pieces of information as “Yeah, class is over. I’m leaving the room now.”

Out in what used to be the public sphere people walk, heads bent so they can text, or stride along talking full-voice to thin air (I occasionally think I’m being approached by an emotionally disturbed person, until I spot the head-mounted receiver). I go to the movies and sit with the few other people who venture out of their own homes to see films on large screens instead of on their televisions, computers, or cellphones. The aisles at Trader Joe’s still seem crowded, but it’s true that I also see  PeaPod trucks in my neighborhood. With the price of gas one might expect fewer cars on the road as people turned more enthusiastically to public transportation or car-pooling, but I see just as many one-person-one-car voyagers in the traffic jams. No wonder the public discourse—especially the “comments” world of the Internets—is revealing such agoraphobia, or perhaps more accurately otherphobia: we are increasingly distrustful of our fellows, increasingly uncomfortable with “strangers”—increasingly willing to think the worst of them, to hate them. We seem, like my student, to find it hard to imagine seeing someone face to face—a way of life that he clearly characterizes as “more personal.” That’s some realization: that the more “individual” we become, and the more “connected,” the less personal life is!

I’ve been more and more horrified by the policies and practices of the political party whose intention seems to be to take the country back to the Gilded Age, the good old days of 1880 and thereabouts. But the 1800s did get a few things right. One of them seems to be being “personal.” Most of the 1900s had that too, despite the spread of that late-1800s invention, the telephone.

I am resolved today to “go see someone face to face.” Perhaps I’ll do it every day. If you do it too, people might think it’s a new form of the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement. And maybe it is.

“This just proves more of this man’s ignorance…”

I don’t have a lot of time for a blog today and actually was thinking about letting yesterday’s post ride, but then I opened my gradebook and saw a Horror on a back page—a Horror that almost completely speaks for itself—and decided something this perfect really couldn’t wait.

The opening part of the sentence, above, couldn’t have made it into the Book of Horrors all by itself, but it’s nice enough to discuss briefly.

I feel as if I’ve been asking students all my life not to write “this” without a noun following. Not that a naked “this” is improper in all circumstances: student writers tend to say “this” and rush forward into the verb without really clarifying their thoughts, and in particular without committing themselves to a specific referent for the demonstrative pronoun. Without a noun, “this” is really just an arrow pointing backward—to the previous noun, the previous phrase, the previous thought, the previous paragraph, or even the entire essay that precedes it. I have noticed that once a student has used a non-specific “this” in one sentence, the sentences that follow will likely also use “this,” albeit not in reference to the same thing. A paragraph may ultimately offer as many as five “this”es, each vaguer than the one before. I have actually asked students, “What does this ‘this’ refer to? What are you talking about here, really?” and received the answer “Ummm. I don’t really know.” So this sentence raised a little flag, if not red then certainly yellow: “This is a warning!” Or, if you will, “The ‘THIS’ is a warning!”

I also like the idea that a man’s ignorance is being revealed piece by piece: Some ignorance, then a little more, then more…. Evidently our estimation of him does not improve on better acquaintance.

But still, as I said, the sentence is not a true Horror. Fortunately for us, the student couldn’t resist going on.

“This just proves more of this man’s ignorance and how it used to be like that everywhere back then.”

Aha! “Back then”! “It used to be like that!” “How!”

Why do students write “how” when they mean “that”? No one yet who has written “she told me how she liked me” in my class has been Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “My roommate said how global warming is just a myth.” Well, in what ways or by what means is it a myth? That is not the question: my writer means his roommate commented that global warming is a myth; no demonstration of methodology was included (or intended). I would be grateful for a reader’s explanation that goes beyond my own “Why do they always DO that?”

And like what did what use to be? I think we’re dealing with the unspecified “it” here, used the same way we’re using it when we say “it’s raining.” Asked for an antecedent we are left at a loss. But oh, I do wish my student had tried to find a noun. Probably the vagueifying effects of “this” were already setting in. All we know for sure is that “it” was like “that”everywhere. Does she mean this man’s ignorance was gradually being revealed everywhere? Various people’s ignorance was gradually being revealed? People were ignorant? The unspecified agent of proof or revelation was everywhere? I’m afraid she probably means things were rotten all over, in some particular kind of rottenness that she may have previously hinted at.

And finally, in walks YORE: that unspecified, unclarified, undefined, undifferentiated PAST that students are always so eager to generalize about. “Back then.” Now, I’m ready to admit that the subject of the student’s paper probably suggested a time frame: if she was writing about slavery, for instance, or more specifically Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life, then “back then” would probably mean the American 1800s; if just slavery, then maybe 1700-1863, or the world since the beginning of time…. If she was writing about a character in Julius Caesar, then “back then” might mean the English Renaissance/Elizabethan Era—or, of course, the first century B.C.E.

But as it stands, the sentence is saying “Something just proves an additional amount of, or more definitely, this man’s ignorance and the means by which, or that, something used to be sort of like something all over the globe (universe?) sometime during the vast stretch of years preceding my third birthday.”

Well, that’s good enough for me!

p.s. I thought I had nothing to say about this one. I thought I would let it speak for itself. What can I say in my defense? “This just proves how things are nowadays”? Well, try to ignore me. Go back and read what my student wrote, and savor it in your own way while this beautiful sun shines down from this gorgeous blue sky on this breathtaking early-Spring morning.