Thursday, March 23, 2017

Entering the Empty Prose Zone

I read the phrase "inherit simplicity" and briefly thought what a nice heirloom to pass down before I realized that the context demanded "inherent simplicity." But at least in that case the intended meaning was obvious; later I read about a person who cast off all "implications," and I had to stare at the sentence for an embarrassingly long moment before realizing that the writer was looking for "inhibitions."

Yes, we have once again entered the realm of the not-quite-but-almost-right word, which is next-door neighbor to the black hole of tautology: "the character commodifies nature by turning nature into a commodity," or "the scenery is important to the way the performance of the play is performed," which raises the question: what happens to a performance that is not performed? The unperformed performance is not worth performing, or something like that.

Empty sentences written by students desperate to meet the word count: this is not the only problem that raises its ugly head at this point in the semester. Yesterday I was talking with a colleague whose students think she's doing some sort of magic when she identifies passages in their writing that are clearly plagiarized, as if recognizing sudden shifts in writing style were some sort of superpower. "I know they're not illiterate," she said, "but maybe they don't read and write enough to recognize that differences in style exist."

I think she's onto something: the tone-deaf sentences, the near impossibility of getting most students to feel rhythm in lines of poetry, the blindness to differences between writing styles, the willingness to grab words out of the thesaurus without any clear understanding of their meanings or connotations--all are signs of inadequate immersion in texts. Not text messages but real texts, big fat books and meaty articles written by skillful writers who know the difference between "implications" and "inhibitions."

If this is the wave of the future, the implications are frightening. Inherently.


JaneB said...

The easiest way to fix student writing would be to fix student reading. When I meet a student who genuinely wants to learn to write better English, that's my strongest recommendation - read more well-written and edited long form English prose. English is not a language learnt by learning sets of rules, especially for learning at the level of writing it fluently and in different dialects such as "academic essay" or "research dissertation". The reading doesn't have to be dull and worthy to be very very good for you - I recommend things like Stephen Jay Gould (essays on cool science stuff), Bill Bryson, Terry Pratchett, James Herriot, various popular science/environment books - to students. Heck, if they read decent graphic novels they'll still learn a lot about prose and style, I just want them to READ. Myself, my prose style such as it is in formal writing owes a lot to reading and rereading a somewhat obscure newspaper columnist writing as "Cassandra" (I have a second hand collected volume of his work which I LOVE), Ursula le Guin's masterly essays, and a small number of scientific articles in my field which just have that certain something (plus, when in the final push of a piece, the firm eschewing of anything written before about 1950, since my native prose style (as witness here) tends to the florid and needs astringent counteractive reading matter as a reminder to restraint).

Inadequate immersion in text is an excellent diagnosis of the problems most of my students face in learning to write effectively. Just wish I knew how to push 'em all in and hold them under til it starts to sink in...

Bev said...

Yes. Couldn't have said it better myself.