Tag Archives: Grasmere Journals

“This isn’t a concept that most people aren’t familiar with.”

Oh, my. Read it again. It doesn’t get better, does it?

Now, I have nothing against double negatives. They come in very handy in expressing shades of meaning: “I don’t not like him; I just don’t want to date him”; “The sensation is not unpleasant.” More time in thought might produce other ways of making the point—other words, other structures—but those ways might not necessarily be better, especially for conveying attitude or establishing tone.

In informal, vernacular, or dialogue writing they can also be great for emphasis: “I don’t NEVER want to see your face NO MORE.”

I think, though, that my student wasn’t actually purposeful when he wrote his sentence. I think he just got lost.

He was commenting on an entry in Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals. She observed that although she herself noted and appreciated the small changes in the countryside from one day to the next, people for whom the landscape was merely the environment—people like the postman, for instance, who walked the same route every day in the course of working—were often oblivious to the changing life around them. But what his comment is meant to convey I cannot with any certitude say. Therefore I couldn’t even suggest changes to help him convey it.

If we assume that “two negatives make a positive” (which outside of arithmetic they often don’t, but let that go), does he mean most people ARE familiar with Wordsworth’s idea—it’s a concept that most people are familiar with? If his point was that her observation is nothing new, then why did he dedicate his own Journal entry to it?

But if we try to read the two negatives as somehow introducing subtlety or attitude, we can’t come up with much. “This isn’t a concept that most people aren’t familiar with, but it’s a concept that some people aren’t familiar with”? Why not say that, then?

That leaves the explanation I believe to be THE explanation: He started off wanting to say that this concept (presumably that people overly accustomed to a thing don’t really notice it anymore) is probably new to most people, and therefore wrote “This isn’t a concept that most people….” Not a great beginning: wordy and clumsy. I generally advise student writers to try to avoid negating the verb with “not,” but instead to make the sentence negative through vocabulary choice, and this sentence is one example of why. Couldn’t he have written “This is a concept that few people…,” or even “Few people are familiar with this concept”? Be that as it may, this student ignored that advice as he began his sentence. So far, so (kind of) good.

But then something happened. Did some friend text him, or phone him, or email him, or otherwise intrude into his concentration? Did he fall asleep? Did he suddenly realize he was hungry, and leave his computer to get a snack or go to dinner? Did he have a moment of insanity?

Whatever it was, when he brought his mind back to the screen he didn’t really read what he had already written; he just went forward with his intention to point out the originality of Wordsworth’s insight. “Most people aren’t familiar with” it. Hang that “aren’t familiar with” on, type another vaguely enthusiastic sentence or two, and so to bed.

People who take pleasure in putting the language through its paces sometimes decide to violate a “rule of grammar” to say what they mean with precision and effect. People who don’t really pay attention to what they’re writing—like postmen trudging down the spring lane intent only on reaching the end of their route—miss all the fun, and sometimes don’t even wind up where they meant to go.

And I ain’t got NO patience with them!

“Dorothy Wordsworth was very intuned with the natural setting around her…”

Ah, was she now.

Here we have the phrase “in tune with,” an image musicians understand well and many people use with ease, and the word “attuned” (which needs “to,” not “with”), a term that means pretty much the same thing as far as Webster is concerned (“to attune: to bring into harmony with”) but that is also used by competent speakers to mean something like “alert to” or “quick to resonate with,” or even “sympathetically attentive to.” “In tune with” suggests more the idea of harmony or consonance. I for one wouldn’t use the two terms interchangeably, but I wouldn’t get too fussy with people who do.

My student isn’t using them interchangeably, however: he’s using them simultaneously. That’s what happens to writers whose hearing vocabulary is much larger than their writing or reading vocabulary. My student is likely one of that population.

For him, “intuned with” may go farther than resonance and consonance, though, as the rest of his sentence implies:

“Dorothy Wordworth was very intuned with the natural setting around her, she seemed to be in some sort of a daze. A daze that made her think everything was alright around her.”

To dispense quickly with the flat-out mistakes here: run-on sentence (call this one a comma splice if you must), followed by a sentence fragment. Then there’s that “alright.” I’ve been reading so much student prose that I really have to check to see if this is a “proper word.” Webster’s lists it, but gives its definition simply as “All right.” There is then an example from Gertrude Stein, not necessarily the guide to orthography.

I like the passage because it bears out an observation of mine that I have come to believe is very true: when the thinking is sloppy, the grammar comes tumbling down. Everything ceases to be alright.

And then to tweak a bit: I wouldn’t bother with “around her” after “setting”—simply redundant. Actually, though, Dorothy didn’t write as much about “setting” as about the features of the landscape. Well, let that slide…the first time. The “around her” that ends the fragment could stand if we deleted the one that modifies “setting”; but really, he can’t have both and probably needs neither.

Of course what stands out most gloriously here is that daze. A daze he then feels he needs to explain.

I don’t think either of the Wordsworths would like the idea of Dorothy spending the Grasmere days in a daze. The close observations she recorded in her journal, full of detail and delight, are not the sorts of things one associates with dazes. William, tramping the fields and lanes and feeling strong emotions that he would later recollect in tranquility, would neither claim to be in a daze himself nor appreciate a daze in Dorothy.

Does my student believe that everything was not all right around Dorothy, that the daze was a kind of hypnosis that disguised a far less pleasant reality? Where is his evidence for such an assumption? (If I were looking for something that was not all right, I’d point to William’s poem about daffodils, to which he proudly signed his name upon publication, and note its similarity with Dorothy’s [unpublished] journal entry on the same subject….Well, brother and sister were very close….)

I believe my student meant that Dorothy Wordsworth was so attuned to the simple beauties around her at Grasmere that she was suffused with contentment and general well-being. I don’t think he was picturing her sitting stoned and happy in the midst of a muddy natural setting. These were, after all, the Grasmere Journals, not the Woodstock Musings.

If he proofread at all, I guess he thought everything was alright. He, not Dorothy, must have been the one in a daze.