On Campus
Dec 02, 2015, 12:24AM

Tarting Up the Language

Teachers would rather their students sound fancy than smart.

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The headline of James R. Hagerty’s article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, “‘Use More Expressive Words!’ Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore,” should be modified, with “And Other Contextually Passive Synonyms for ‘Said’” affixed to the end. Middle school teachers, apparently, are holding funerals for “boring words”—necessary standards like “said,” “go,” “walk,” “see,” “run”—and eulogizing them with more “sophisticated” words (read as: polysyllabic).

While the goal may be admirable (very few teenagers can write well), the execution is silly—or, I’m sorry, it’s foolhardy, scatterbrained, and irresponsible. Take Josh, a ninth grade victim cited in this article, who now sounds like an idiot in The Wall Street Journal (thanks a bunch, teach!): “Rather than saying, ‘This soup was good,’ you can say something like, ‘The soup was delectable,’ which really enhances it. It gives it sort of this extra push.” Yes, Josh, because “delectable” is so much more sensorily stimulating than “good.”

It’s one thing to prohibit bland, broad words like “good” and “fun”; it’s another to suggest they can be improved with a thesaurus. Encouraging students to liberally use their thesauruses will lead to lazy, imprecise writing, or, as middle school teacher Leilan Shelton might prefer: Sanctioning scholars to permissively avail themselves of their synonym dictionaries will shepherd them to slothful, nebulous penmanship. Conditioning students to use Latinate instead of Anglo-Saxon verbs—like “consume” vs. “eat,” for example—will only dampen their writing. Latinate verbs are “of the mind,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “more descriptive,” or better fit for the classroom. Anglo-Saxon verbs are “simple,” and that’s why they’re so powerful. They contribute visceral, body-oriented action to sentences and trigger specific images. Take these two sentences:

Bonnie Dougherty, a Mt. Lebanon parent in favor of the exercise, drank the Kool-Aid.

Bonnie Dougherty, a Mt. Lebanon parent in favor of the exercise, imbibed the Kool-Aid.

Is the second sentence “more descriptive” because I used “imbibed?” Of course not. It’s pretentious and out-dated. Are we teaching students to value purple prose? Are we teaching them to indiscriminately flaunt their wide, thesaurus-aided vocabularies? Should we reconsider the modernists, and shift our academic attention solely to Charles Dickens?

Yes, apparently we should. Students were encouraged to “edit” passages from A Farewell to Arms and Ulysses without cultural or literary context:

“Josie and Josh agreed to take a stab at editing famous authors, starting with the closing words of James Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘….yes I said yes I will Yes.’ Head down, her pigtails brushing the paper, Josie examined the phrase and then suggested a small amendment: ‘…yes I hollered yes I will Definitely.’”

“In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway refers to cars “going very fast.” Josie revised that to “going at a superior speed.” Josh went with “lightning speeds.””

This exercise exemplifies the idiocy of the American school system. When will a functioning adult ever have to expand a piece of writing on the sentence level? The key to clear, effective real-world writing (emails, contracts, policy briefs) is concision and precision, which this exercise completely rejects.

These teachers ought to be fired. I implore it.

  • These teachers sound like Paul McCartney's dad admonishing him for singing "Yea, Yea, Yea!" instead of "Yes, Yes, Yes!" i bet they've never said "it's lit, fam" in their life. *That* is a shame. Fling!

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  • Good one Booker. Whoops, I meant exemplary.

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  • There's a misperception in high school that big words are good words. A large vocabulary is only useful if you know how to use it properly. I'm a college admissions officer, so I encounter student essays that are polysyllabically dense yet vacant content-wise. ErikEssig above has the right idea. "Exemplary" brings nothing new to the table. Of course, kids are misusing words, too. Every other essay, it seems, misuses the word "myriad," which, for whatever reason, is the go-to "Look at me, I'm smart" word.

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  • By the way, this is a great piece, Booker. Thank you for it.

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  • I suppose there's nothing wrong with learning various words which mean the same thing, or, for effect, nearly the same thing. I heard some years ago that Winston Churchill wrote an effective essay as a tour de force in which the readers did not notice he used words of only one syllable. One crime novelist--wish I could remember who--obseved that when you quote a character and end the sentence with "...he said." you stop there. No qualifiers. The qualifier should be obvious. All of which is to say, this stuff is hard. I might go with "imbibed" if I thought the connotation was the ostentatious nature of slurping the stuff up. But I don't know if anybody else takes it that way. This stuff is hard.

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  • yooooooo BUMP this article is dope, wish it got more love!!

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