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What's wrong with "Suddenly"?

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Postby KatyBr » Mon May 30, 2005 9:39 pm

[quote="gailr" ]the works of James Michener? his books, one feels dragged through the entire creation of the universe--and not the 6,000 year biblical literalist "short" version, either--[/quote] Gosh I love that about his books, real background!

I find exhausting ... Thomas Wolfe, where no noun appears without an honor guard of adjectives and no verb goes unchaperoned by adverbs.

golly gee whiz Gail, yer downright unimarcan! Watts wrong with embellishment! I love embellishment. but your discriptions are cute and funny as usual.

Katy
still laffin' :lol:

gailr[/quote]
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Postby M. Henri Day » Tue May 31, 2005 7:44 am

Good to see that fellow Agorists are united with regard to the type of writing that appeals to them ! Here below another coal to the fire, which deals with how to teach writing (and linguistics). I found much in it of interest (and should certainly have enjoyed taking Dean Fish's class) - but why would anyone wish to turn five words, «randomly chosen» into a sentence ? And who says it can always be done ?...

Henri

May 31, 2005

Devoid of Content

By STANLEY FISH


Chicago

WE are at that time of year when millions of American college and high school students will stride across the stage, take diploma in hand and set out to the wider world, most of them utterly unable to write a clear and coherent English sentence. How is this possible? The answer is simple and even obvious: Students can't write clean English sentences because they are not being taught what sentences are.

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions - between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like - that English enables us to make.

You can imagine the reaction of students who think that "syntax" is something cigarette smokers pay, guess that "lexicon" is the name of a rebel tribe inhabiting a galaxy far away, and haven't the slightest idea of what words like "tense," "manner" and "mood" mean. They think I'm crazy. Yet 14 weeks later - and this happens every time - each group has produced a language of incredible sophistication and precision.

How is this near miracle accomplished? The short answer is that over the semester the students come to understand a single proposition: A sentence is a structure of logical relationships. In its bare form, this proposition is hardly edifying, which is why I immediately supplement it with a simple exercise. "Here," I say, "are five words randomly chosen; turn them into a sentence." (The first time I did this the words were coffee, should, book, garbage and quickly.) In no time at all I am presented with 20 sentences, all perfectly coherent and all quite different. Then comes the hard part. "What is it," I ask, "that you did? What did it take to turn a random list of words into a sentence?" A lot of fumbling and stumbling and false starts follow, but finally someone says, "I put the words into a relationship with one another."

Once the notion of relationship is on the table, the next question almost asks itself: what exactly are the relationships? And working with the sentences they have created the students quickly realize two things: first, that the possible relationships form a limited set; and second, that it all comes down to an interaction of some kind between actors, the actions they perform and the objects of those actions.

The next step (and this one takes weeks) is to explore the devices by which English indicates and distinguishes between the various components of these interactions. If in every sentence someone is doing something to someone or something else, how does English allow you to tell who is the doer and whom (or what) is the doee; and how do you know whether there is one doer or many; and what tells you that the doer is doing what he or she does in this way and at this time rather than another?

Notice that these are not questions about how a particular sentence works, but questions about how any sentence works, and the answers will point to something very general and abstract. They will point, in fact, to the forms that, while they are themselves without content, are necessary to the conveying of any content whatsoever, at least in English.

Once the students tumble to this point, they are more than halfway to understanding the semester-long task: they can now construct a language whose forms do the same work English does, but do it differently.

In English, for example, most plurals are formed by adding an "s" to nouns. Is that the only way to indicate the difference between singular and plural? Obviously not. But the language you create, I tell them, must have some regular and abstract way of conveying that distinction; and so it is with all the other distinctions - between time, manner, spatial relationships, relationships of hierarchy and subordination, relationships of equivalence and difference - languages permit you to signal.

In the languages my students devise, the requisite distinctions are signaled by any number of formal devices - word order, word endings, prefixes, suffixes, numbers, brackets, fonts, colors, you name it. Exactly how they do it is not the point; the point is that they know what it is they are trying to do; the moment they know that, they have succeeded, even if much of the detailed work remains to be done.

AT this stage last semester, the representative of one group asked me, "Is it all right if we use the same root form for adjectives and adverbs, but distinguish between them by their order in the sentence?" I could barely disguise my elation. If they could formulate a question like that one, they had already learned the lesson I was trying to teach them.

In the course of learning that lesson, the students will naturally and effortlessly conform to the restriction I announce on the first day: "We don't do content in this class. By that I mean we are not interested in ideas - yours, mine or anyone else's. We don't have an anthology of readings. We don't discuss current events. We don't exchange views on hot-button issues. We don't tell each other what we think about anything - except about how prepositions or participles or relative pronouns function." The reason we don't do any of these things is that once ideas or themes are allowed in, the focus is shifted from the forms that make the organization of content possible to this or that piece of content, usually some recycled set of pros and cons about abortion, assisted suicide, affirmative action, welfare reform, the death penalty, free speech and so forth. At that moment, the task of understanding and mastering linguistic forms will have been replaced by the dubious pleasure of reproducing the well-worn and terminally dull arguments one hears or sees on every radio and TV talk show.

Students who take so-called courses in writing where such topics are the staples of discussion may believe, as their instructors surely do, that they are learning how to marshal arguments in ways that will improve their compositional skills. In fact, they will be learning nothing they couldn't have learned better by sitting around in a dorm room or a coffee shop. They will certainly not be learning anything about how language works; and without a knowledge of how language works they will be unable either to spot the formal breakdown of someone else's language or to prevent the formal breakdown of their own.

In my classes, the temptation of content is felt only fleetingly; for as soon as students bend to the task of understanding the structure of language - a task with a content deeper than any they have been asked to forgo - they become completely absorbed in it and spontaneously enact the discipline I have imposed. And when there is the occasional and inevitable lapse, and some student voices his or her "opinion" about something, I don't have to do anything; for immediately some other student will turn and say, "No, that's content." When that happens, I experience pure pedagogical bliss.

Stanley Fish is dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
曾记否,到中流击水,浪遏飞舟?
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Postby Brazilian dude » Tue May 31, 2005 9:16 am

how does English allow you to tell who is the doer and whom (or what) is the doee

How can a guy like him make such a basic mistake? :roll:

"Is it all right if we use the same root form for adjectives and adverbs, but distinguish between them by their order in the sentence?"

Not unlike what German, Dutch, Swedish, and Danish do, and what we occasionally do in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and even English.

We don't tell each other what we think about anything - except about how prepositions or participles or relative pronouns function."

That's some good shtuff.

Brazilian dude
Languages rule!
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Postby Verbum » Thu Jun 02, 2005 10:28 am

Hi Gailr,

No, I don't know Michener. Thanks for warning me. I will never try to make his acquaintance. There must have been a time when people liked this sort of stuff, because some of these writers were popular... well perhaps with the "élite".

I suppose that before photography, cinema and tv came along, people did admire "wordsmiths", no matter how futile their writing. We are told that the Gettysburg address, which would take a couple of minutes on TV took all of 20 minutes to deliver. Imagine the long speeches that had to be delivered without the benefit of loud-speakers. People must have developped a high tolerance for logorrhea!

What I notice, is that writers like Dickens, Zola etc, people who most often published their work in serial form before the legit publication, don't have this kind of style. Possibly they could not have held a newspaper reader spellbound with a geological history of Barcelona or Bucarest.... or even sexy Paris!

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Postby KatyBr » Thu Jun 02, 2005 11:24 am

Steven Speilberg said future generations would find it much harder to create great movies as the authors of real books were a dying breed; The screenwriter, One who writes mere scene direction and dialogue, is replacing the writer of discriptions and real scene building.

Fie!, shame on you who decry real writing and real writers!

Katy
Gailr knows I'm just kidding, Verbum doesn't, hmmmmmm.
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Postby gailr » Mon Jun 06, 2005 10:38 pm

Michener became more "historical" with each new work (maybe he was paid more per word with increasing fame?) so the earlier ones should be safe for you to snack on, Verbum. :wink:

On the other hand, I enjoy Umberto Eco, whose books are stuffed with his characters' flights of cognitive fancy. I don't mind hacking my way through a dense jungle of prose if the scenery is grand and we're going somewhere. I feel Foucalt's Pendulum is the most interesting, but he has some short story collections as well. Unfortunately, I was becalmed halfway through The Island of The Day Before. Every once in awhile I notice it lurking, albatross-like, in the bookcase, but I just cannot bring myself to pick it up again:
I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.
[shudder]

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Postby Stargzer » Tue Jun 07, 2005 3:13 pm

Michener often would move to the location he was writing about so he could research and write in the same setting. For instance, he moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore when writing Chesapeake.

I remember reading the condensed version of The Source as a child and was impressed with the complete history of the Middle East from the pre-Crusader eras through the foundation of Israel. Part of the setting, as I recall, was a hill or tell, and the descriptions as archeologists went through the different layers.

Let's face it: before too long, books, or at least anything longer than a paragraph or two, will become extinct as the population's attention span shrinks. But while they and I are still here, I'll continue to enter their literary fantasylands as often as I can, escaping the real world.
Regards//Larry

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New language

Postby Audiendus » Tue Feb 08, 2011 10:12 am

May 31, 2005

Devoid of Content

By STANLEY FISH


On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester each group will be expected to have created its own language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions - between tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like - that English enables us to make.


Looking at this old thread, I think this might be an interesting exercise for members of this Agora. The full text of the article can be found in M. Henri Day's post of May 31 2005.

I may start a new thread to discuss some general ideas about creating a language, and any preliminary suggestions about words and/or rules. Even if it doesn't get very far, it may provide food for thought. :idea:
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Re: New language

Postby Slava » Tue Feb 08, 2011 9:02 pm

Audiendus wrote:I may start a new thread to discuss some general ideas about creating a language, and any preliminary suggestions about words and/or rules. Even if it doesn't get very far, it may provide food for thought. :idea:
I didn't notice this at first, but the languages the students are creating are all textual, not spoken. Thus they can use brackets, fonts, and colors. This wouldn't be of much use in a spoken language, and absolutely worthless to even the colorblind, let alone the blind.
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Re: What's wrong with "Suddenly"?

Postby misterdoe » Wed May 22, 2013 2:07 am

1. Never open a book with weather.

Ah yes, the Bulwer-Lytton rule or, if you prefer, the Snoopy rule :)
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Re: What's wrong with "Suddenly"?

Postby Perry Lassiter » Wed May 22, 2013 1:17 pm

Writing styles change. In slower times, one could read more leisurely. Dickens kept an audience eagerly looking forward to his next release, but his writing today seems prolix. (To me, it's lke reading poetry. I love it, but can make only slow progress.) Elmore Leonard's rules reflect his own writing, and he is a best seller. I remember once loving Ellery Queen's novels as the best, but returning to them, they are way too wordy. Oddly Rex Stout, beginning in the 30's, is as modern today as when first written.
I loved the Source, but agree on the other books. In fact, Michenor himself said he wrote the first pages of Hawaii with the intent of driving away the unworthy. My own style is rather like the sculptor who whittles away everything that doesn't look like a horse. I draft rapidly, then go back and eliminate, cut, and redraft.
Last edited by Perry Lassiter on Sun May 26, 2013 11:59 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: What's wrong with "Suddenly"?

Postby Philip Hudson » Sun May 26, 2013 11:19 pm

Thank you, misterdoe, for reviving this old thread. Some of it goes back to before my time with the Agora. The offerings are so interesting. I want to discuss almost all of them. But I shall contain myself and only discuss a few.

“Never open a book with weather,” is one of the discussed writing no-nos. We probably are all familiar with the rather weak, "It was a cold dark night. A family was seated around the fire...." Weather is not always verboten nor is it out of place. The favorite book from my childhood is "The Swiss Family Robinson". It began, "For many days we had been tempest-tossed. Six times had the darkness closed over a wild and terrific scene, and returning light as often brought but renewed distress, for the raging storm increased in fury until on the seventh day all hope was lost." That is a pretty stormy start for one of the most endearing, famous, mimicked and sequeled novels ever written.

Most of you know I am not a great fan of Mitchner. He wrote “Chesapeake” which was bad beyond measure. One reviewer wrote, “Read it if you must, but whatever you do, don’t drop it on your toes.” In “Chesapeake”, Mitchner started out to prove that everyone was evil except the Quakers and the Noble Red Men. During his research, he changed his mind about the Quakers. Mitchner spent a lot of time researching his book “Texas”. He moved to Austin and, I think died there. My brother, a UT Austin professor, met him on several occasions. I have not read Mitchner’s “Texas” and I probably won’t. I am sure it isn’t as good as “Giant” by the hackneyed writer Edna Ferber.

I am a great fan of Edward Rutherfurd, styled the modern Mitchner. He surely out Mitchner’s Mitchner in a positive way. If you haven’t read him, I suggest you start with “Sarum”. Skip “Ruska” unless you are particularly interested in Russia.

My final comment is on Balzac. I don’t know much about him but his name makes a great malapropic swear word. Balzac!
It is dark at night, but the Sun will come up and then we can see.
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Re: What's wrong with "Suddenly"?

Postby Slava » Mon May 27, 2013 8:16 am

Nice "tells" we have here. A certain author's name is rather frequently not spelled correctly. Does this mean people don't like James Michener? :)
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Re: What's wrong with "Suddenly"?

Postby Perry Lassiter » Mon May 27, 2013 3:55 pm

No, only that we are too lazy to look it up.
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Re: What's wrong with "Suddenly"?

Postby gailr » Mon May 27, 2013 8:44 pm

I read The Source quite young, while still considering archeology as a future profession. It made quite an impression, but I found Michener's later books less and less inviting. One exception was The Covenant, encountered by accident after a unit on African nations in high school. While not gospel, it offered insights into centuries of institutionalized social problems.

The topic of this thread is "suddenly" and I kept one quote from The Covenant that fits:
The river hesitates, looks at the wall of rock, then leaps forward shouting, "It can be done!"
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