Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sentenced to simplicity

I want to applaud my wonderful students for the surprising ways they're taking hold of ideas and developing them in interesting essays, but I'm puzzling over what to do with a small group of students who keep tripping over the same problem in pursuit of clarity.

Sometimes a complex sentence can create within its nesting clauses a profusion of ideas competing for attention, with the result that the reader attempting to untangle the knot or, if you prefer a different metaphor, emerge unscathed from the labyrinth eventually discovers a verb so far removed from its subject that he or she (the reader--remember?) has to scan back over the sentence to figure out who is doing what to whom and why. But that's not the problem with these students.

They eschew confusion. This is a good thing. Clarity is better. Short, simple sentences are easy to read. Just put one small idea in a sentence. Then stop. Then put the next idea in the next sentence. Then stop again. Keep going. The result will be easy to read. It will be clear. It will require no semicolons. Why don't we always write like this?

"Because we don't want to sound like three-year-olds" is the obvious answer, but it's not particularly helpful. I could cry wordy or choppy or I could point out the lovely rhythms that can be produced when ideas are connected more smoothly, but first-year students in required writing courses aren't always particularly interested in wordiness, choppiness, or pleasing rhythms. I could remind students that sophisticated ideas sometimes require sophisticated structures, but they've been traumatized by past attempts that went awry, resulting in red ink bleeding all over their jumbled prose--their run-on sentences crying out for semicolons or their sentences that start out in one direction and then veer sharply, stumbling aimlessly through the woods before falling off a cliff.

Because of past difficulties, a handful of my students have given up trying to produce anything beyond simple sentences that don't demand any extra punctuation or subordinating conjunctions. That's right: in a few short years, I've moved from students who believe that although must always be followed by a comma to students who never use commas and don't know although from Adam.

The problem, I tell them, with all those short, simple sentences lined up in a row is that they obscure relationships between ideas, presenting every single sentence as if it were of equal importance with the next. Although the sentences may be clear and grammatical, they don't build or grow or connect; they just stand at the party with their hands in their pockets refusing to mingle with others. Yes: these short, simple sentences are like students who sit in their seats staring at the little screens that define the margins of their private worlds, sharing space with other students without ever reaching a hand across the void to connect.

Do solipsistic students write solipsistic sentences?

Maybe I'm reading too much into this trend. Maybe this small group of simple-sentence aficionados never learned the miraculous functions of subordination and coordination, never spent sufficient time immersed in the labyrinth of language to understand the magic in the etymological relationship between grammar and glamour. That's a deficit too deep for me to cure in a single semester, but if nothing else, I can introduce my struggling students to some sentence-combining methods and see how they do. 

So simple! Let's hope it works.

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