The Notes and the Music

(Pictured: “Admonished? Articulated? Vocalized? Which one?”)

It’s Off-Topic Tuesday. Come along if you like, or not.

Last week the Wall Street Journal published an article about a movement among some teachers to banish certain words from student writing and to replace them with more colorful or unique words. Some of the forbidden words, such as fun, things, and very, are frequently overused by young writers—but the one that’s caused the most consternation is said. “You might use barked,” one teacher said. “Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

Encouraging young writers to expand their palette is a fine idea. Banning certain words and sending students to the thesaurus or some other list for substitutes is not.

Over a decade ago, I worked for an education company that collected 30,000 brief essays from kids in grades 3 through 8 for eventual use in a software product, and I read them all. I hadn’t been at it long before I started saving especially funny, weird, or horrible excerpts.

Some of the most remarkable examples of bad writing in my collection came from a single school out east. It’s unlikely that so many different students adopted such a baroque style independent of one another, so I am guessing they were taught by somebody. Somebody who urged them to use colorful or unique language, maybe. Behold three examples.

Everything, in this age of technology, is controlled by computers. Without the momentous ability to properly operate such devices, one will have a difficult time finding a respectable job. . . I believe adding a computer/technology program to the school day will facilitate students in learning the complex but fascinating world of technology.

Business fundamentals courses are prerequisites in order to succeed as an entrepreneur, and I sincerely presume that a business fundamentals program should be annexed to the school timetable, and I offer two, justified reasons why. Primarily, it is a bona fide actuality that it is beneficial to be acclamated to handling business, before initiating a career.

In addition, financial study can be sprightly.

It was easy to see that students went to the thesaurus and found momentous, respectable, and facilitate to replace important, good, and help, presume for believe, annexed for added, and bona fide actuality for real truth. (As for sprightly, your guess is as good as mine.)

Many middle-school students, especially those who like English, consider themselves quite sophisticated, and they long to show off. If you complicate that desire with an insistence that they use more “colorful” vocabulary to express themselves, you’ll get stuff like this.

For my proposal of a school mascot I would first like to mediate on some notions that brought the character into animation in my mind . . . . In conclusion I believe that my whimsical mascot would be a suitable figure and would not vex anyone to it’s meaning.

Being educated in learning how to save a human’s life in the aquatic area would be an expedient lesson on how to survive an extended period of time in a perilous situation in the water.

They are just kids, though. Sometimes the writerly mask slips, and the real child underneath peeks out.

Home ec is beneficial because it educates you and drills the information of cooking into your head.

In this age of technological bliss, how important is it to have a complete understanding of computers? Momentously important.

I’m not sure how the latter kid got important into the essay twice and foremost, weighty, or exigent not at all.

In the teacher’s defense, he or she wasn’t expected to review these essays; kids wrote them based on a variety of instructions and the school simply sent them in. Had the teacher seen them, the more egregious crimes against English might have been toned down. Or perhaps not. English teachers are not necessarily expert writers, and some are surprisingly bad at it.

The best way to ensure that kids become good writers is to expect them to read a lot. If you’re repeatedly exposed to good writing, and to the good thinking that produces good writing, it’s easier to model it when the time comes. When teaching the craft, encourage clarity always. (E. B. White: “Write with nouns and verbs.”) Good writing involves choosing the right words and sentences to convey the right nuance. It’s not simply swapping one similar word in place of another from some list. Using more advanced vocabulary is not the same as writing better. Teach kids to write that way and they may learn the notes, but they’ll never play the music.

4 responses

  1. Just yesterday, I came across the following 5-star review for Melanie’s ‘Stoneground Words’ CD, reproduced exactly as it appeared on Amazon:

    “The only problem I had with this CD was that kept using the same words over and over again….
    Otherwise this is a pretty good Album……”

    Not even a momentously sprightly would save that gem.

  2. Also, the passive voice is to be avoided.

    I taught 8th grade English during the 1997-98 school year. It was the longest year of my life.

  3. “The best way to ensure that kids become good writers is to expect them to read a lot.” Yes, he said emphatically (or perhaps “he enthused”).

  4. This gets dragged out every 20 years or so. It appears in Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase in 1964. The kids in her class were told by a previous teacher never to say “say”. She gives them a list. Depicts. Portrays. Observes. Remarks. Narrates. Exclaims. “Well, Shakespeare narrates this murder….”

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