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Friday, November 30, 2012

That vs. Which

One of the things I'm really starting to love about my job is all of the grammar-confusion-induced discussions I've had with people on Facebook. When I get stuck on a sentence, know that something is off, but don't quite know how to fix it, I post it as my status and wait for the suggestions to come in. Many, many thanks to all of you who have been active and resurgent participants in those discussions.

One rule that I've looked up many times, which I still do not seem to be able to impress permanently, is when I ought to use "that" rather than "which." Perhaps many of you suffer from the same malady. But thanks to old classmates, aunts, cousins and past co-workers, I think perhaps today I have come a little closer to remembering the rules. Look here to see how the Oxford Dictionary explains it.

In addition to my understanding of that distinction being increased, I was given the gift of a truly remarkable, outrageous and totally awesome sentence. One of my facebook advisees (thank you, Elaine!) shared this with me. I showed it to several people in my office, and, sadly, most of them either scratched their heads or gently mocked my enthusiasm for nerdy grammar stuff. If you are a faithful reader here, I'm sure that you'll appreciate the brilliance of the following construction:

I know that that that that that lady used was correct.

Can we throw a party now?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Home Burial - Robert Frost

Thanks to some wise words from one of my faithful readers (see the comments on this post), known to all of you as The Thin Man, I decided last week that I should use a road trip to memorize one of my favorite longer poems. Perhaps favorite isn't the right word; I go back to it regularly because it troubles me and worries me and I want to sort it out, but of course I haven't been able to yet. My planned method for memorizing it involved recording it and playing it back about a hundred and fifty times as I drove home to Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, but of course I got in the car only to discover that I had no batteries for the recorder. I'm sorry, Thin Man. Next time I will plan better.

Besides reminding us that the occurrence of a child's death is so troubling, so seemingly senseless, this poem also helps us to look at the troubling aftermath of such an event. The scene, set and related fluidly without any hint of restriction by the meter (evidence of a master wordsmith at work), presents a husband and wife who are trying to navigate their life together after the death of their child. While the husband seems more able to cope with his grief, he does not seem to be able to understand why his wife, Amy, is still so unhappy, still unable to communicate with him, and still apparently directing her anger at him.

I was convinced when I read this in college that they are ultimately able to work things out, if for no other reason than the husband's determination, emphasized in his final and italicized word. Much to my surprise, one of my professors, Dr. Eileen Gregory, disagreed with me. I don't remember what her rationale was; perhaps it was that the husband's determination could too easily be manifested in an attempt at forcing Amy to do what she ought, which would ultimately drive her spiritually and emotionally further away, increasing rather than healing the rift between them. I think it possible that my early interpretation of this poem stemmed from a naive expectation and unrealistic optimism that everything, both in literature and the reality that it communicates, turns out well. While I am not yet convinced of the opposite, I am not so certain of my initial interpretation as I once was. I'm interested to hear your take on it.

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”
 “What is it—what?” she said.
“Just that I see.”
“You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me what it is.”
“The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound——”
“Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”
“Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”
“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.”
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.”
“You don’t know how to ask it.”
“Help me, then.”
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
“My words are nearly always an offence.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”
She moved the latch a little. “Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied——”
“There you go sneering now!”
“I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”
“You can’t because you don’t know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”
“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”
 “I can repeat the very words you were saying.
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlour.
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”
“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up.
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”
“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”
“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”

Monday, November 19, 2012

Commas (II)

 I love the Chicago Manual of Style. It is a little difficult to navigate at times, but it's such a comfort, such a detailed and thorough guide to the nuts and bolts of anything you'd ever want to know about proper writing. However, I've recently become acquainted with The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation. It is a very slim book, a light little paperback, with big print and peppy style that could make even the most anti-grammarian soul among us chuckle. Of course, given its slender make-up, I am still glad that I've got Chicago sitting on my shelf for when I'm in a serious quandary. Nonetheless, it has been a help, and it provides a nice bit of comic relief in the midst of angsty footnotes-editing hell. It only costs ten dollars; go buy it.

Chapter 7
     Commas aren't much to look at—not elegant like the exclamation point nor emphatic like the dash—but they handle enough major roles to qualify as virtuosos among punctuation marks.
     And as temperamental performers, they need to be treated with respect and precision. They'll cause trouble when misplaced, as they often are, and cause even more trouble when they are erroneously omitted, from attribution, for instance: In 1912 (,) he said (,) automobiles were fewer and slower. . . . He didn't say it in 1912. Without the commas, the sense evaporates.
     Besides nurturing attributions, commas deftly separate clauses, clarify murky sentences, fence off appositives, asides and inessentials, organize series, sunder absolute verbs and direct addresses from the main sentence, and perform a fistful of other important chores.
     Despite, or because of, the commas' versatility, they are easily overused. Here's an example from a book of quotations: You can't derail a train by standing in front of it, or not quite. But a tiny bit of steel properly placed . . . .
     The first sentence was simple and short, though swollen with commas. Then there are writers addicted to piling on clauses by resorting to commas; writers who specialize in over-long, convoluted sentences of the sort that, in Alexander Pope's words, "like a wounded snake crawl along."
     In Pope's day, incidentally, commas were in high fashion and appeared in gaudy profusion. Modern practice has marched in the opposite direction: The fewer commas, the better. Unneeded commas are anathema.
     To encourage economizing, I have added a special section, "Doing Without," that summarizes where commas can and probably should be omitted.
     Commas may not exactly be "our friends," as a recent style guide proclaims with a 21-gun-salute, but you'll get along with them well enough, provided you understand their ways and avoid the traps they set for the inattentive.
     As the bereaved widow in "Death of a Salesman" says, "Attention must be paid." That applies to punctuation generally and doubly to the comma. (33-35)

The Bavarians knew beauty in abundance.
I think that I could tell this writer a thing or two about the freedom and reckless abandon with which she begins one paragraph after another, but I suppose that, as her focus is seemingly on the more minute details of the craft, I should be a little more generous about her liberality. Also, I am a firm antagonist to this modernistic adoration of economy that, among other things, eliminates commas that are not incorrectly placed, however unnecessary they might be. I'm not saying I like everything in writing or other art forms to be complexly latinate in structure or rococo in style, but there is beauty in abundance as well as in simplicity. And my defense of that, I think, will be in the next post. Safe Thanksgiving travels to you all!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Best Laid Plans of Teachers and Generals

After several weeks in which I had a pitifully small amount of work to do, and made myself little lists of things which which to fill my time during the day (memorizing Home Burial, working on choir music, writing letters), I suddenly have a huge stack of papers on my desk, just waiting to be torn apart by my green pen (Yes, the head editor uses red, so green is my assigned color. I already feel strangely attached to it, and very fond of it. Back off.) I will be kept busy for quite some time, as the shortest of these seven essays is roughly thirty pages, while the longest is over seventy. Hallelujah! And I do mean that sincerely, despite what you might think. Work is good. I like work. Today's work, editing an essay which analyzes the problems in the current methods of mission command in our Army (Wait, how did I get this job? Riiight.... craigslist...), made me think back to my teaching days.

One struggle of teaching that I recall without great fondness is lesson-planning. Of course, one wants to be prepared. Knowing where you're going and what you need to accomplish by the end of each trimester is pretty important. But, how much detail should you write down for each day? Should you have a particular discussion question in mind for every day of class for the next three months? Some people might say yes, and that such attention to detail ahead of time is the mark of a truly proficient planner, and the clear indication of a teacher well schooled in the subject matter at hand. I, however, would have to disagree. Teaching is an unpredictable science, and trying to ink in the fine points of each class, filling in sometimes by the minute how much you will spend on each portion of whatever needs to be communicated, while it might serve as an excellent opportunity for a betting pool among faculty and staff, ends up distracting a teacher from paying attention to what he actually needs to do in the moment. Also, since when does a class room discussion go where it's directed? The best discussions, at least in my experience, often came out of nowhere. Well, that's unfair. They came from my students, who asked wonderful questions and passionately argued out the answers, oftentimes allowing me to sit back and watch them, glad that I could see them confronting life's big problems and really caring about them. Sorry, but I wasn't about to interrupt that natural flow because my plan book said: "10 min on vocab, 5 min on reading quiz, 15 min on poetry recitations ...." Of course, I would have died without my planning book, but ultimately my students, hopefully docile enough to take a little gentle nudge in the right direction here and there (as they usually were) directed the course of the conversation. And that's how it works best.

Unexpected Teaching Experience Fig. A: Deplorably cluttered desk.
Thank you, Drama.

Unexpected Teaching Experience Fig. B: 8th grade Latin students throw Miss Turner
a surprise birthday party. Were they trying to get out of having class? Surely not...

Today, I am proud to say, I have discovered that a leading Prussian military theorist of the 19th century agrees with me on the principles of lesson planning. I realize that sounds pretty silly; but life is full of small victories, and today I am vindicated by a dead Prussian. In Die Lebensgeschichte, Helmuth von Moltke writes:
One does well to order no more than is absolutely necessary and to avoid planning beyond the situations one can foresee. These change very rapidly in war. Seldom will orders that anticipate far in advance and in detail succeed completely to execution. This shakes the confidence of the subordinate commander and it give the units a feeling of uncertainty when things develop differently than what the high command's order had presumed. Moreover, it must be pointed out that if one orders too much, then the important thing that needs to be carried out unconditionally will be carried out only incidentally or not at all because it is obscured by the mass of secondary things and those which are valid only under the circumstances.
I feel so... affirmed.