Monday, January 19, 2009

Consider this the hint of the century

Each semester, I ask my students to identify their compulsive sentences, or the sentence structure they use the most often. I teach syntax as a way of mediating thought on the page (or screen). If you have strings of subordinate clauses, what is it you're trying to do--criticize someone else's idea, provide foundation for your modification of a previous idea, or something else? What are some ways to vary your syntax in that situation, and in what ways might this change in method determine a new way of dealing with someone else's idea? Unclear antecedents--such as sentences which begin with "this" standing in for some unnamed noun--tend to indicate that the author is skipping over the step of saying what "this" is, often because they're not sure or want "this" to be something amorphous. Dangling modifiers tend to signal a confusion of cause and effect. Then there's the Bloomberg ban on "but," which I think is appropriate and should be heeded more often in other contexts:
Winkler’s exacting approach was eventually codified in an often mocked companywide stylebook titled The Bloomberg Way. Bloomberg News stories, it declared, “have a structure that is as immutable as the rules that govern sonnets and symphonies.” Every story needed to include “the Five Fs”: first, fastest, factual, final, and future. Leads were to be exactly four paragraphs long, comprising the stating of a theme, a quotation in “plain English from someone who backs up that theme,” numbers-based details that further support it, and an explanation of what’s at stake. The use of “but” was banned—it forced readers “to deal with conflicting ideas in the same sentence.” Words such as “despite” and “however” were to be avoided for the same reason.

Or the conflict can be provocative of new ideas. I like Virginia Tufte's Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style to illustrate some of these concerns and to give some ideas for syntactical structures which can lead to new thoughts.

By mid-semester, the students are very good at diagnosing the function of syntactical units. A couple of my students identified their compulsive sentences as the dash sentence, where two independent clauses are joined together with a dash. "What does it get for you?" I asked. "What kind of connection are you trying to show when you join those ideas with a dash?"

They noted that it was an easy, unobtrusive way to join two ideas without explaining the connection.

"Yeah, the dash is sort of the high fructose corn syrup of grammar," I said. "The white flour. It adds no nutritional value to the sentence."

I stood behind the weird comparison. The habit of thinking that I see in those types of sentences is that the ideas are being juxtaposed but not put to any more rigorous use, whether it be subordination or comparison or something else. The dash sentence is useful in first drafts when it may be useful to see what it looks like to put two new things next to one another, but at some point you have to test those ideas out in some other way. I use that type of sentence all the time on this blog: I do the same thing with colon sentences because they have a similar juxtaposing function. Maybe they aspire a little more to chiasma, but how often do I really believe in the appropriateness of chiasma in whatever I'm testing out? Or rhetorical questions, for that matter? They're one of my least favorite structures because I don't see the usefulness if they're just going to be answered in the next sentence or paragraph. Or they're going to be used as a "consider this idea--but not so seriously that we move beyond mere interrogation" type of sentence.

Speaking of which...

My mom sent along this link to Jonah Lehrer's Frontal Cortex blog, where he identifies his "weakness": the "consider the x..." sentence. Lehrer links to the Language Lab blog, where Benjamin Zimmer traces the origin of the sentence to biblical passages ("consider the lilies of the field" and others). Lehrer notes that he probably owes the turn of phrase more to David Foster Wallace and MFK Fischer, and commenters on both sites suggest its funnier usages in Monty Python, Ogden Nash, among others.

Lehrer calls "consider the x" sentences "lazy linguistic bridges, cheap transitions from idea to the next." Those are exactly my thoughts on the function of the rhetorical question. They are transitions that work only at the juxtaposition level because the connection between the new thing and the previous item aren't explained. They really are "hint[s] of the century" in Michael Stipe parlance! The various uses from Zimmer and the commenters on both blogs demonstrate that the syntax doesn't always serve that single function, however (a no-no on Bloomberg). The structure doesn't serve the same function for DFW in "Consider the Lobster" because the act of consideration (and reconsideration) is at the heart of the essay: "There happen to be two main criteria that most ethicists agree on for determining whether a living creature has the capacity to suffer and so has genuine interests that it may or may not be our moral duty to consider."

Lehrer probably has plenty of functional uses for "consider the x" because he writes about thinking. So if he's interested in how people make connections between ideas, he has to figure out some syntactical solutions which explain these habits in others--as well as in his own work. How do you explain what people do after juxtaposing ideas but before they formulate them into coherent comparisons or judgments?

Finally, what does the hyperlink add to this discussion of how syntax illustrates and facilitates new thinking patterns? In his book Interface Culture, Steven Johnson calls the hyperlink "the first significant new form of punctuation to emerge in centuries." He insists that hyperlinks change the way we read because they suggest new ways of mediating the juxtaposition of ideas:
As the word suggests, a link is a way of drawing connections between things, a way of forging semantic relationship role, binding together disparate ideas in digital prose. This response to hypertext prose has always fixated on the disassociative powers of the link. In the world of hypertext fiction, the emphasis on fragmentation has its merits. But as a general interface convention, the link should usually be understood as a synthetic device, a tool that brings multifarious elements together into some kind of orderly unit.

I think the blog is a totally appropriate place for sentences which aspire only to juxtaposition, so the hyperlink is a good auxiliary for that habit. Lehrer and Zimmer are both writing about cognition and language in a medium that can facilitate some experiments, so maybe they can test out some of the outlier possibilities for mediating connections. The constellation method, where commenters suggest examples of a phenomenon, is one productive form it can take.

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Blogger MKG on Sat Jan 31, 12:29:00 AM:
It is positively embarrassing how much I loved this post.