Reflections on about and around

Catherine’s spending Bastille Day getting back to the US; I’ll be spending it visiting Gettysburg. One of our traveling companions has equipped us with copies of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. I finished it yesterday, and am now primed as can be for the theater of war and the dramatis personae: from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top; from Pickett to Chamberlain.

The book was a quick read, but was not without its distractions. The primary culprit was a preposition. Writing in the early 1970s, author Michael Shaara appears to be emulating the style of the previous century. Accordingly, the various generals and captains would “think on” the situation, “brood on” the best course of action, and “worry on” what would happen next. Oh, what a contemplative age that was! Nowadays, tellingly, we no longer think on things, let alone brood on them or worry on them. Would that that were otherwise!

But with a moment’s linguistic experimentation, I realized that there’s no obvious difference between thinking on things and thinking about them. What’s shifted, instead, are prepositions. In the arena of cognitive verbs, “about” has defeated “on.”

More recently, though, it’s “about” that’s under attack. For decades, fewer and fewer of us have looked about the fields and seen dandelions all about us; instead, we look around them and see dandelions all around us. But now the conquest of “about” by “around” has advanced from the spatial to the conversational arena. Today’s Americans are gradually ceasing to have conversations about things, or to examine issues about important topics; instead, we’re having more and more conversations around things: in particular, conversations around issues around particular topics.

So stay tuned: we may at some point now longer think about anything at all, but, instead, think only around things.

When students don’t look up…

…at what they’ve just written, and at the squiggly lines that word processors generate under questionable word choices and grammatical errors, this is an example of what you get:


(From a recent student paper.)

Actually, most of my recent students have been good about proofreading. Examples like this one stand out to me partly because they aren’t that common, but partly, also, because I don’t understand why they happen at all.  That is, I can’t imagine what it takes to turn something in without (a) noticing these markings, and/or (b) caring to address them.

We’re still a long way from routine, sentence-level revisions!

Waxing sententious about sentences

With enthusiasts like Doug Lemov, the sentence is finally, after years of neglect, regaining its due. And this due is long overdue. After all, the sentence is the minimal unit of thought. It derives from Latin sententia, meaning “opinion” (and shares its root with “sententious”). As Catherine has cited J.S. Mill as saying, “the structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.” And, as I noted in my last post, it’s the smallest unit of prose that lends itself to multiple revisions.

Typically, sentence-revision enthusiasts have focused on syntax errors, word choice, and introductory phrases like “although” or “in desperation.” But Catherine and I would like to take this further—or, rather, we’d like to take a step back to consider the bigger picture. We’d like to move beyond errors and word choice to word order. And, in considering word order, we’d like to move beyond isolated sentences to sentences within texts.

What are the various word order options? Which ordering maximizes how well a sentence fits into its host paragraph and connects to what immediately precedes or follows it? What are the various options for taking apart and recombining the sentences in a text—even while making minimal changes to content? Which of these options maximizes clarity, flow, and sense of purpose?

We find that choices about word order and sentence combining can have an enormous impact, not just on how clearly the writer’s ideas come across and flow together, but on how interested and engaged the reader is. I’ll repeat here a rewrite I did of a passage from my son’s world history textbook.

The original:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. However this region was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. His forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes, yet whenever he left the country, disorder returned. Following Otto’s example, Frederick repeatedly invaded the rich cities of Italy. His brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants to unite against him. He also angered the Pope, who joined the merchants in an alliance called the Lombard League.

In 1176, the foot soldiers of the Lombard League faced Frederick’s army of mounted knights at the Battle of Legnano. In an astonishing victory, the Italian foot soldiers used crossbows to defeat feudal knights for the first time in history. In 1177, Frederick made peace with the pope and returned to Germany. His defeat, though, had undermined his authority with the German princes. After he drowned in 1190, his empire fell to pieces.

My rewrite:

Frederick I was the first ruler to call his lands the Holy Roman Empire. This region, however, was actually a patchwork of feudal territories. So long as Frederick remained in these territories, his forceful personality and military skills enabled him to dominate the German princes who ruled there. But whenever he left, disorder returned.

Frederick left the country frequently. His destination was Italy, where, like Otto, he repeatedly invaded the rich cities. But his brutal tactics spurred Italian merchants and the Pope to unite against him (in an alliance called the Lombard League).

In 1176, at the Battle of Legnano, Frederick’s army of mounted knights faced the Lombard League’s foot soldiers. In an astonishing, unprecedented victory, crossbow-wielding foot soldiers defeated knights on horseback. Frederick made peace the next year with the pope and returned to Germany. But his defeat had undermined his authority with the German princes and, with his death in 1190 (a drowning), his empire fell to pieces.

Often, what looks like an issue about content is actually one of word order and sentence combining. In my rewrite above, for example, I barely changed any words, let alone any content.

Or consider that bugaboo of so many student papers: the issue of unclear connections or significance. Time and again, as a student, I’d receive papers back with comments like “how is this significant?” “how does this connect to your thesis?”. Time and again, as an instructor, I’d find myself writing these same comments in the margins of my students’ papers. Without thinking it through carefully, I’d generally assume, whether as a student or as an instructor, that the way to address these questions about significance or relevance was to add more content. And yet often this approach would end up bogging down the paper—and putting it over the word limit. Only recently did I start considering a much under-appreciated alternative: simply change the word order and the divisions between sentences.

Here’s a hypothetical example from a Great Gatsby paper. First, the original, with teacher comments in brackets:

Tom Buchanan’s “sturdy” body, “hard” mouth and “great pack of muscle” contrast with the “rippling and fluttering” dresses of Daisy and her friend, who look if they’d just taken “a short flight around the house.” But Tom enters and shuts the windows. [What is the significance of this statement? It sounds too much like plot summary?] This foreshadows the ultimately lethal effects of Tom’s brute force, because we see how the levity is squelched: the breeze “died out” and Daisy and her friend “ballooned slowly to the floor.” [How does Tom closing a window foreshadow lethal effects?]

And now a rewrite that mostly just re-orders the words in the last two sentences:

Tom Buchanan’s “sturdy” body, “hard” mouth and “great pack of muscle” contrast with the “rippling and fluttering” dresses of Daisy and her friend, who look if they’d just taken “a short flight around the house.” But that levity is squelched when Tom enters the room and shuts the windows. In a foreshadowing of the ultimately lethal effects of Tom’s brute force, the breeze “died out” and Daisy and her friend “ballooned slowly to the floor.”

Everyone, everywhere—from the Common Core to the College Board—is touting higher-level communication skills. But few people are touting what we suspect is the most promising starting point for written communication: not “critical thinking”, not group collaboration, not open-ended reflections about open-ended prompts, not Gallery Walk or Chalk Talk, but—yes, indeed, the very thing we’re in the middle of right now–the lowly sentence.

In order to teach students to write well, it requires that you get them to revise their sentences

Jostling me out of my grading groove this weekend was this item–another candidate for my collection of student sentences:

In order to be a successful advocate, it requires that you be extremely persistent.

I blogged about this type of sentence earlier: a moderately heavy modifier (“in order to…”) leads up to a maximally light subject (“it”). These elements, to my ears, beg to be tightened. The “it” cries out for elimination; the modifier, for incorporation into the main clause:

Being a successful advocate requires that you be extremely persistent.

(Or, taking it a step further: Being a successful advocate requires extreme persistence).

I’ve attributed the increase in such loose, wordy sentences, in part, to a decrease in how much students revise their papers. That’s not the full story—not everyone hears these sentences as excessively loose or wordy.  A student might re-read a paper full of them and not feel the slightest urge to revise anything.

But I’ve got other reasons for thinking that students aren’t casting their eyes back upwards—or leftwards–at what they’ve written. Consider the squiggly red lines that word processors generate under questionable word choices and grammatical errors. Even if students don’t notice the garbling of a sentence that begins one way and ends another, wouldn’t they at least notice a squiggly red line?

I certainly notice the red squiggles (and the green ones and the blue ones): they leap out to me as I marvel at why they’re still there. OK, it’s possible that students do notice the squiggles, and perhaps address some of them, but that they don’t care or don’t know how to fix all of them. For some reason, however, I prefer to think that their eyes simply never look back; that, as the spoken and written modes continue to merge (think text messaging), writers become like speakers in only worrying about what’s next. The past is over; there’s no sense in going back. If you have any corrections, make like Microsoft with its patches and simply tack them on to the end of what you’ve already said.

All the more reason—assuming we don’t want a complete merger between speech and writing–for teachers to step in and make students revise—and revise repeatedly. Doug Lemov has posted a great piece on this: he discusses both the virtues of assigning students frequent, multiple revisions, and the impracticality of teachers constantly reading and giving feedback on dozens of full-length papers. His solution? Focus on the sentence—the smallest unit of prose that lends itself to multiple revisions, and have students–guided by feedback–revise given sentences over and over.

I’m guessing that such practice would foster, among other things, refined ears for looseness and wordiness. And with that, a gradual reduction in “In order to X, it requires that..”, “In X’s book, it discusses…”, “From doing Y, it seems that…”, “For those people who do A, they also do B”—and a whole extended family of similar sentences that have sometimes offered me a perversely welcome distraction from grading.


Or are we walking and talking in circles?

Shortly after writing about the pedagogical conundrums that arise when students don’t do the reading, I encountered this passage in Tristram Shandy–which suggests that it’s all part of one big, ever-repeating cycle:

Thus—thus, my fellow-labourers and associates in this great harvest of our learning, now ripening before our eyes; thus it is, by slow steps of casual increase, that our knowledge physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, aenigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and obstetrical, with fifty other branches of it, (most of ’em ending as these do, in ical) have for these two last centuries and more, gradually been creeping upwards towards that Akme of their perfections, from which, if we may form a conjecture from the advances of these last seven years, we cannot possibly be far off.

When that happens, it is to be hoped, it will put an end to all kind of writings whatsoever;—the want of all kind of  writing will put an end to all kind of reading;—and that in time, As war begets poverty; poverty peace,—must, in course, put an end to all kind of knowledge,—and then—we shall have all to begin over again; or, in other words, be exactly where we started.

—Happy! Thrice happy times!

Except that in our perhaps less happy times, the chain of causality is reversed, with the end of reading portending the end of writing–and, with that, the end of all kinds of knowledge–physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, enigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and if not, obstetrical, then many other branches of knowledge ending in ical.

Common Core Language Goals for Common High School Graduates

I’ve just finished revamping my power point slides for this week’s installment of my Autism, Language and Reasoning class. In the process, I found myself back on the Common Core website–a place I hadn’t visited for a while.

This week’s class discusses the challenges that writing assignments pose to children with high functioning autism, most of whom are mainstreamed into regular classrooms. One of the strategies we consider is offering alternative, autism-friendly writing assignments.

But what do the Common Core English and Language Arts Standards have to say about that, I wondered. How much flexibility does the Common Core allow towards uncommon students? After all, only 1-2% of students are exempt–only those with the most severe cognitive impairments. Everyone else, including those with high functioning autism (like J), is held to the same calendar-age-based standards.

A quick scan through the ELA Standards shows a number that could double as diagnostics for autism. Consider:

  • “collaboration with peers”
  • “Use… dialogue… to develop characters.”
  • “anticipate the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases.”

(From the Writing Standards).

Even better, from the Speaking and Listening standards:

  • “Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions…building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.”
  • “Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others with care, speaking one at a time about the topics and texts under discussion).”
  • “Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks”
  • “Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives”

and, perhaps most effective of all:

  • “use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.”

America’s Common Core architects appear to think they’ve landed on something that has eluded the world’s psychologists, neurologists, and therapists: a cure for high functioning autism! Namely, America’s Common Core-guided K12 classrooms.

Unless what they’re really after is a high school diploma that certifies that none of America’s high school graduates has more than a mild touch of autism.

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.