Dreamy Child Syndrome

It’s not that you’re unsocial: in some ways, you’re unusually socially sensitive. While you struggle to intuit what’s socially appropriate, you worry about the impression you make and about not hurting people’s feelings. You may have trouble interpreting facial expressions, but not tones of voice. You make eye contact, speak fluently, and tentatively engage one-on-one or in small groups—especially in imaginative play. The broader world out there, however, baffles you, and so you retreat. The more you retreat, the less you sponge up. As you grow older, you fall further and further behind your peers—in worldly knowledge, in vocabulary, in knowledge of social rules. Group conversations and real-world phenomena (everything from politics to pop culture) become increasingly difficult to make sense of. Things snowball.

Your refuge is a private world–of fantasy, of systematizing, of thought experiments, or, at its worst, of brooding and perseverating. Unlike the stereotypical introvert’s retreat to a library to gobble up books, your retreat is more deeply interior. You deviate from the introvert stereotype, but not from introversion in the word’s truest sense.

Except for fantasy and sci fi, age-appropriate texts become as hard to follow as the real world. When others address you directly or give you specific tasks, or you give yourself a task (painting, learning music), you tune in, but when the topics turn worldly and tap into your knowledge deficits, you start losing focus. Keeping your mind turned outwards is exhausting, and once you’re no longer immediately accountable, you relent. While teachers teach, or kids chat, or a show plays on TV, or your parents converse at the dinner table or read to you at bed time, or you yourself try concentrating on a book, you find yourself picking up only snippets and then free-associating back into your head—back to the rivalries between witches, to the phonemic categories of English, to the nature of infinity, to a replay of a plot line from Harry Potter, or to the question of why someone snubbed you at lunch.

Has any diagnostician classified this syndrome?

And why am I talking about it here, on a blog about language and writing?

I plan to spell that out more in the next few weeks, but (spoiler alert!) this post is my lead-in to a discussion about… the reading and writing sections of the new SAT.

Lost in translation

Alright, I’ve just watched the Orientation video for the famed French in Action class, and am left with two thoughts:

      1. Being fatigué (or fatiguée, in my case) is a lot worse than being tired. (see 15:23)
      2. Also, and related: it may not be possible for a person born and raised in central Illinois to be fatiguée, at least not in public.

Which brings me to my first question: how does one say “Great!” in French?

Or: Good!

As in:

Pascaline: Hi, Catherine, how are you?

Catherine: Great!

Or, alternatively:

Pascaline: Hi, Catherine, how are you?

Catherine: Good!

(Is it rude to say Great! (or Good!) in France? With the exclamation mark?)

That’s my second question.

Mysteries of the apps

Meanwhile, on Doug S’s recommendation, I’ve also devoted myself to Duolingo & Tinycards, which seem terrific and well worth my time.

But I’ve hit a snag:

  • I’m stuck on the difference between bonne soirée and bonsoir
  • I can’t figure out the meaning of Duolingo’s color coding, or its skill charts, or the rules that govern when I get to move on to learning words for food; nor do I know what an ‘xp’ goal is or what “60/20” means in relation to my xp goal, or whether it’s good or bad that I have “6 hours left.” Six hours left till what, exactly?

The plan seems to be for me to carry on learning (or “strengthening“?) Lessons 1, 2, 3, and 4 until a time to be determined, and not by me.

Maybe you have to know when to say bonne soirée before they let you learn the French word for bread.

Duolingo___Learn_French_for_free

Duolingo___Learn_French_for_free 2

Is there a Missing Manual for Duolingo?

Headlines I have known and loved

Almost a blooper:

Here are 330 Ivy League courses you can take online right now for free

Right now?

All 330 of them?

This reminds me of my all-time favorite National Enquirer headline:

Do you know the 1,110 reasons marriage makes women sick?

I still remember wandering the grocery store aisles chuckling over that one.

No!

I do not know the 1,110 reasons marriage makes women sick!

Nor will I ever know the 1,110 reasons marriage makes women sick, because: how long would it take me to memorize 1,110 individual reasons marriage makes women sick?

Not as long as it would take me to complete 330 free Ivy League courses online, but still.

As I recall, the Enquirer actually listed all 1,110 reasons inside the paper, but since I didn’t buy a copy to preserve it for posterity, I can’t say for sure.

(P.S. I’ve spoofed the headline, but I actually appreciate the post and the effort that went into it…. in fact, I’m reading the entire list of 330 free Ivy League now. Sad to say, I don’t see a course offering on How to Hear in French.)

Getting over my word-count mania

One of the best writing instructors I ever had gave some advice that, for many years, I took too much to heart. “Wordy,” “repetitive,” “you can reduce this passage by a third”—these were among Mr. C’s most frequent comments in the margins of our English papers. My takeaway: the number one priority in revising your work is to cut out as many words as possible.

To this day, I continue to cut. And even when I’m forced into virtual clear-cutting—say when my first draft is several hundred words over the limit—I’ve generally found what survives to be much improved: denser with active verbs and precise nouns, freer of fillers like “it” and hedges like “seems”.

At the same time, I’ve realized that one can take this too far. Does it really improve things to replace “on top of” with “atop,” or “the fact that X happened” with “that X happened”? Sometimes reducing words reduces accessibility. Mr. C. had noted that “the fact that” is, to use his words, “wordy, repetitive, and often a lie.” But “I enjoyed that the Eagles won the Super Bowl” sounds stilted, and “That the Eagles won the Super Bowl meant I didn’t have to teach yesterday” is just begging for “the fact”!

The fact is… that “the fact that” can greatly enhance readability.

So can fillers like “it.” Compare “that the Eagles won the Super Bowl thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors” with “it thrilled the heck out of most of my neighbors that the Eagles won the Super Bowl.”

Hedges, too, can be crucial. Even those that seem to add no actual content—like “clearly,” “obviously,” and “apparently”—often hedge the existing content in significant ways. Consider the “obviously” in:

Obviously, the U.S. is not a company, but a similar model can still work.

Without this “obviously”, the writer would appear to think it necessary to tell her readers that the United States isn’t a company. “Obviously,” acknowledging their awareness, allows her to state an obvious premise without insulting anyone’s intelligence.

Or consider the “clear” in this review of Alan Moore’s Jerusalem:

The equivalent of Stephen Dedalus here — Moore’s stand-in — is a painter in her 50s named Alma Warren (her name is a clear play on the author’s)…

“Clear,” besides granting that the Alan Moore/Alma Warren connection may be obvious to the reader, casts the word-play idea as a judgment of the reviewer rather than as an explicit intention of the author.

Finally, consider the “apparently” below (from a recent CBS/San Francisco report on a robbery at a Walnut Creek Tanning Salon):

But apparently that wasn’t enough, because he then demanded that she also give him every bit of loose change in the register.

“Apparently,” too, adds little semantic content. But it distances the writer from the judgment that “that” wasn’t enough, attributing it instead to the robber. The irony that results makes those four extra syllabus totally worthwhile.

Doug S on Duolingo and YouTube

This is helpful:

FWIW, I’ve been working on my German again for some months now and have been pretty happy with Duolingo. It has the virtue of being free and has been reported to me by people who have used both as being about as good as Rosetta Stone.

Which is all very well for the usual sort of classroom language learning (with all its many limitations). For actual conversational language, I’ve found YouTube videos on subjects that I’m already interested in and uploaded by native speakers of the language I’m working on to be quite valuable. The cadences, slang, and vocabulary are similar to those I’ve run into on the streets in a way that more formal products (like newscasts and translated scholarly works) are not.

I’ve always wondered about Duolingo & haven’t quite had the wherewithal to form an opinion.

And I’d never thought of using YouTube videos!

Brilliant!

Painters use paint–what do writers use?

Until recently–more recently than I care to admit–I would have said: “Words.”

Writers use words.

Writers do use words, but that’s not the right answer.

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ”Do you think I could be a writer?”

”Well,” the writer said, ”I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ”I liked the smell of the paint.”

“Write Till You Drop” by Annie Dillard | New York Times 5/28/1989