More fun with exclamation points

Disclosure: I am a person who, when texting, likes to use exclamation points.

Lots of exclamation points.

I like using question marks, too, especially question marks in conjunction with exclamation points.

e.g.:

WHAT???!!!!!

She *said* that???!!!

Out **loud**???!!!!

Good thing I don’t work for the FBI.

Anyway, where exclamation points (and question marks) are concerned, I like to do exactly what everyone tells you not to do if you want to have a job or a life or the respect of people writing articles complaining about too many exclamation points.

Which brings me to my actual point: French people write exclamation points and question marks differently than we do.

Specifically, they leave a space between the end of the sentence and the mark.

Au secours !

Or:

Sauve qui peut !

I love that. (I love that!!!!)

Somehow, for me, the space between the words and the mark gives the mark a dimension of poignancy it doesn’t have when it follows directly on the final letter. I don’t know why.

Poignancy or sobriety.

I’ve started leaving spaces, too.

I love that !!!!

Better, right ?

* It’s a really good thing. I once wrote a ticked-off email to a friend complaining about Ed refusing to sign off on my buying a new computer. He was cheap, I said. Then I sent the email to Ed, by mistake. I was in the room when he got it, and I still remember the look on his face.  

And see: More fun with exclamation points, part 2

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”.

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Active marketing for active learning

From my faculty inbox:

Dear Katharine,

The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for teachers to impart knowledge to students. With Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops providing an endless supply of distractions, savvy educators must rely on new teaching methods for classroom engagement.

Our new Active Learning Handbook highlights how using active learning techniques can result in higher student engagement, improved grades and a lower dropout rate.

“Active learning techniques,” apparently, do not include active banning of smartphones and laptops, nor do they include old methods like active calling on students, active class discussions, and active writing assignments that require active listening to lectures.

A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.

More examples of modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences

I forgot that the most egregious ones in my collection were hiding in my iPhone notes!

  1. During this field experience, it was the first time I saw an autistic support classroom in action.
  2. In Ms. X’s classroom, she teaches math and reading.
  3. When observing the speech therapist and teacher, they would show just how dedicated they are to their jobs.

Sentence 3 illustrates another hazard of not revising such sentences (a hazard far worse than loose structure and wordiness): some of these  modifiers, however innocently they start out, can end up as danglers.