Monthly Archives: March 2015

Asking Basic Questions

“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This message, written by Michael Pollan, encapsulates in a simple form his recommendations for eating well. It also accurately summarizes the contents of one of Pollan’s books, In Defense of Food. Christopher Johnson, similarly, offers a “micromanifesto” that resonates with the purpose of this class. “Pay attention to the language around you in the spirit of appreciation and curiosity” (28).

Attention and curiosity take on many forms, and in this case it is basic questions about language and meaning. You will remember, for example, the exciting but somewhat disarming question by Stanley Fish we considered at length. “So,” he asks, What is a sentence, anyway?” Johnson helps focus on the basic questions as well. How do words summon such complex ideas and feelings? Why do some phrases sound right and stick in our minds? How can we be creative when we follow linguistic convention? How do our forms of speech relate to the way we live? Johnson calls these kinds of queries “thinking like a linguist.” He goes on to explain that that such thinking really begins with asking “questions about things that seem obvious.”

Johnson’s third chapter, “Meaning,” offers a layperson micro-history of how people have thought about words and language. Gottlob Frege, Charles Sanders Peirce (whose work happens to be at the center of my own doctoral dissertation), Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Paul Grice, Michael Reddy, George Lakoff—these are a few of the people he mentions who have shaped how we think about language. From these philosophers and linguists we can think about “connotation” and “denotation,” describe our own thinking about language with the “conduit metaphor,” or explore the conceptual basis of language use through “conceptual metaphor.” We can ask, with Peirce, “How can one thing stand for another?” We can describe signification in functional terms using the terms iconic (similarity), indexical (correlation), and symbolic (codes or conventions).

So here is the basic question we will be thinking about this week: “What is meaning?” You will remember that we have already talked about in class. I called attention to the ways we talk about reading using the phrases “reading deeper” or “reading between the lines.” You will remember that I suggested how these metaphors express a way of thinking about language that determines how we think about meaning. And my point was that these ways of thinking do not take us very far in answering the basic question about meaning. Here is how Johnson asks you think about the question of meaning. “Word meanings are made out of concepts, and concepts aren’t discrete entities. They exist in networks of interrelatedness” (35). So, as Johnson will go on to say, in the case of the meaning of a word, we are talking about concepts associated with verbal forms. “To put it simply,” Johnson says about concepts, “they’re not things, they’re occurrences” (36). Simple, for sure. But a place to move from as well.



From Michigan to New Hampshire

Dear class,

Vermont had a good run in the USA hockey national tournament! No losses in regulation. Four wins. And two overtime losses—the second a double-overtime loss in the quarterfinals that earned us a bronze medal in the tournament.

My hope is that the cancelled class on Thursday has provided you with time and space to prepare for our work this week. Please see the Spring Break Checklist to make sure that your work is up to date. Also, I will be reading your Week 10 and week 11 blog posts this evening to prepare for class. I’m especially interested to read your thoughts on Fish and Johnson.

The Course Schedule lists all of the work you are doing this week as we continue talking about the art of writing little. There is much to learn from Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle. My hope is that you are finding the remarkably rich mine of materials for thinking and for writing!

  • On Tuesday we will be talking about and working on a range of short forms from the materials in Microstyle you have read (section 3 to section 18, or pages 66-89 and 160-178). We will also be working from the “six-word stories” you have posted on your blog using the advice Johnson gives in his book. (See page 67 for a useful example.) Have fun with these!
  • On Thursday we will be working in class on exercises based on the readings on conceptual metaphor and poetic patterns. Read 90-159 to prepare for the in-class work.

See you tomorrow!

Spring Break Checklist

This checklist will help if your blog is not up to date. All of the prompts below are on the schedule or the classwork page. Thank you for organizing your exercises by title and date. Also, make sure that you complete the sentence exercise that was due during our conference week. The guidelines are on the schedule page and are also included below.

Style Journal
You are required to write a blog post on style each week. These short essays (in the form of a blog post) are due each Monday. You should have a minimum of seven posts by the time you leave for spring break.

In Class Work
Exercise on building sentences using subordination and coordination 1) Build examples of the subordinating style (“Hypotaxis”). Begin with a “when clause” and build a sentence 2) Build a sentence with the basic  “although . . . yet” structure. Build three or four sentences, of different kinds, using coordination.

In-Class Exercise on Conciseness This class session is dedicated to practicing the art of conciseness: reducing the unnecessary words (redundancies, metadiscourse, qualifiers, and so on) to create more concise and direct prose. All of the writing below was written by a student for one of my classes or for one of my class projects. Cut and paste the original assigned to your group into a document. Work individually on a second version of the original. Compare your revisions in groups and produce a final version that we will read aloud in class.

In-Class Exercise on Discourse: Identify a speech or discourse community and analyze the specific ways language is used by members of that particular social group or community. Identify a speech or discourse community. Look closely at the language used by the group and build a descriptive account of the significant features and stylistic resources of members of that group. Post your account on your blog with a title that makes clear to a reader the discourse community that you have identified and are describing.

Exercise on Sentence Construction Starting out with one of the brief sentences, expand the sentence until it can expand no more. See if you can get to 20. Your sentence needs to be grammatical, and make sense, but other than that, you can add any information you choose. Likely, the sentence will end up telling its own rather complete story. Once you have composed your sentences, publish them on the “Exercises” page of your blog.

Thirteen Ways of Using a Comma: Compose your own paragraph with each of the thirteen comma uses in the sequence you compiled in completing the practice exercise on page 191 of Style and Difference. Post the paragraph, with a title and date, on the exercises page of your blog.

Two Four Six Eight: Write a paragraph that makes use of the following marks of punctuation: Two different examples of a comma (the speed bump); Two different examples of a period (the stop sign); Two different examples of a semicolon (the bridge); Two different examples of a colon (the magician). Your paragraph will use the examples correctly, and will be written with an emphasis of clarity and style. That is, each use of punctuation should be appropriate to the sentence and the paragraph. Describe each of the uses after the paragraph. Post the paragraph and commentary, with a title and date, on the exercises page of your blog.

Homework Assignments (“For Next Time”) from the Schedule page
Post a paragraph or excerpt from a writer whose style you admire and a paragraph that appears to you to have very ineffective or poor style

Post a brief answer to question 18 on page 273 of Style and Difference

Answer the last question on page 43 in A Dash of Style (it asks you to use the principles you’ve just learned and apply them to one page of something you have written—either a creative piece or an academic paper.) Post the original and the revised version on your blog

Find something you have written and analyze one page for sentence variety. How many different kinds of sentence styles do you see, or are they mostly subject/verb/object? You don’t need to revise—just analyze

Do the exercise under “Practice” on page 191 in Style and Difference and post on your blog

Using a page of your own writing, choose one of the exercises on pages 85-86 in A Dash of Style and complete it and post the assignment prompt and the result on your blog

Do the exercise on page 109-10 in A Dash of Style and post on your blog. Write a brief reflection on your experiments with the colon. What have you learned by doing these exercises?

Do the exercise on page 202-203 in Style and Difference and post on your blog

Locate, on your own, a poem you find interesting and discuss the choices the author made regarding the stanza breaks. What is the effect of the stanza breaks in particular places in the poem? How might this principle be applied to your own writing, even if you are not writing poetry?

Locate a piece of writing (either by a published writer or yourself) and, using Gorrell’s ideas in this chapter, discuss how emphasis and rhythm is achieved (or, if it is not, show how it could be.) Post the example and your discussion on your blog.

Do the exercise on pages 74-75 of Style and Difference and post the results on your blog

Take a page from something you wrote or are currently writing and apply the principles of conciseness to it and post the results on your blog with a brief commentary about the changes you have made and why

Read Part Four, “A Few Good Rules” in Style and Difference (225-261) and post on the “Exercises” page of your blog three examples of public writing (published writing, online writing, signs, etc.) that violate these rules/principles. If you have trouble with this assignment, read the chapter “Break the Rules” (154-59) and browse the chapters that follow in Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle for useful examples of rule breaking.

Find a sentence that you consider to be “good” or “effective” (or “amazing,” whatever term suits you). Then post on your “Exercises” page a description of how to read and appreciatewhat the sentence is doing. You will be writing a few of these, and so I recommend that you have a look at how Fish does this kind of descriptive analysis. For example, look at his writing on pages 90-97. We can learn from Fish, too, about the vocabulary we can develop to do this kind of work. Learning to read sentences as “performances” is difficult to do at first; but you will get the hang of it and, I hope, learn to enjoy this kind of reading

Read Fish “The Subordinating Style” (45-60) and “The Additive Style” (61-88). As I say above, attend to (and learn from) how Fish sees and describes these sentences and then 1) choose a sentence you admire that exemplifies the subordinating style. Write your own 300-500 word descriptive analysis of the sentence and 2) choose a sentence you admire that exemplifies the additive style. Write a 300-500 word descriptive analysis of the sentence

Sentences and Sardines

What is the relationship between forms of writing and forms of thought? This question has preoccupied the literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish for decades. In the 1970s Fish was among a group of thinkers interested in what is called “Reader-Response” criticism and he was a significant theorist of the idea of “interpretive communities” that we were working with a couple of weeks ago.

A professor and a public intellectual, Fish also writes for a non-academic audience. In fact, I recommend that you read a three-part essay that Fish wrote for the New York Times in 2009 titled “What Colleges Should Teach.” Among the more interesting things about these articles is the comment stream. Fish has a way of framing questions and problems that provoke people–startling them like a school of sardines. The three pieces make a case for an approach to teaching writing in colleges and universities.

What is a Sentence, anyway?

The most honest answer to this question: it depends upon who you ask. Most reliable definitions will surely get around to using the words “subject” and “predicate,” or will talk about a complete thought, or will say something about clauses and relationships. Or, if you happen to be Stanley Fish, and you are writing a book about how to write and read sentences, you might define the sentence as 1) “an organization of items in the world” and 2) “a structure of logical relationships” (How to Write 16). Ok, you say.

The other way to define the sentence would be to turn to a poem, in this case the poem “Permanently” by Kenneth Koch that tells the story of how relationships come together to create what we call the sentence:

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

Some times stories can help. Technical knowledge (or definitions) in the abstract, as Fish will go on to say in his chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White,” often “yields only the illusion of understanding” (19). This is why when one has a definition in hand the next move will be classification. Here is a very partial list drawn up by Fish:

There are short sentences and long sentences, formal sentences and colloquial sentences, sentences that satisfy expectations and sentences that don’t, sentences that go in a straight line and sentences that surprise, right-branching sentences and left-branching sentences, sentences that reassure and sentences that disturb, quiet sentences and sentences that explode like hand grenades, sentences that invite you in and sentences that exclude you, sentences that caress you and sentences that assault you, sentences that hide their art and sentences that ask readers to stand up and applaud. (44)

What is it that you are trying to do, anyway? For once you figure out what you are trying to do then you will be ready to find the form that will be the answer to the question. It is up to you, as Edgar Allen Poe remarks in his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846):

Of the innumerable effects or impressions of which the heart, the intellect or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?