Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Best and Worst of Words

Someone recently started a discussion thread on a message board, asking for each user’s favorite word, remarking that as writers, we should have some insight. People posted many interesting choices, but my initial thought is also my final response: the.

What word could prove more useful? Want to mark any word of your choice as a noun? The. Sure, other words can do this, but most are limited in their capabilities. Demonstrative adjectives (that, this, those, these, and other such words) can do this, as can count words (numbers and relative quantity indicators), but these are subject to external circumstances. A and an can mark nouns too, of course, but they’re constantly jockeying for position, always looking over their shoulders for what vowels or consonants might be following—let alone possible exceptions. Even then, their indications are indefinite. Adjectives, with or without additional modification from adverbs, just steer information obliquely. The, however, knows its own mind. This is definitely that. It’s THE noun, not a suggestion or a possibility. The is the anchor in an uncertain world.

That uncertainty is the root of my least favorite word, usually applied in the phrase “in conclusion.” I forbid using this marker in my classes, arguing that such a flagged conclusion can’t be leading up to much. Mindful of this rule, one of my poetry students. a college senior, submitted his final paper with his final paragraph beginning “to conclude.”

Yeah, that’s better. Why not just write, “So where’s my paper leading? To what final point? Final argument? Well, no point, really, so let me just repeat the stuff I already said.” Twenty-five words instead of two! That’s gotta help meet the minimum length. It would at least be more honest and more entertaining, if still pathetically weak in content.

So “conclude” becomes a sorry attempt to “occlude,” merely to include what the student should preclude, clearly choosing to exclude more effective approaches, preferring to seclude any real thinking process, clearly not at all clude in.

This decision mirrors the one to baulk against concision, circumventing precision by changing expletive openers like “it is” and “there are” to “it’s” and “there’re” rather than exercising incision in favor of much more definite subjects and verbs. Such an inclination to decline more effective approaches in order to recline will ultimately leave the student facing quite an incline, but this seems systemic in his native Incline Nation.

I do try to intercede, as I want students to succeed, but when they proceed to embrace approaches that precede college level writing, they prevent any hope to exceed grade school competence, and I can only concede.

The student’s stated goal, incidentally, was “to just earn a C.” Mission accomplished.


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