Sunday, February 20, 2011

Like, Vagueness

In City, a publication I found by perusing Arts & Letters (see note at end), Clark Whelton pens an essay about Vagueness--about the inability of people to express themselves.  He's obviously older (or at least as old as I am) so is able to get a broader view on the shifting of speech, of communication skills.  He writes:
In 1988, my elder daughter graduated from Vassar. During a commencement reception, I asked one of her professors if he’d noticed any change in Vassar students’ language skills. “The biggest difference,” he replied, “is that by the time today’s students arrive on campus, they’ve been juvenilized. You can hear it in the way they talk. There seems to be a reduced capacity for abstract thought.”
 My mantra in my English classes is "vivid, specific," and I use the photo above as a lead-in to this idea.  I put it up and ask, "Is the young girl laughing or crying?"  I use this photo as the dated details (her hair up on her head, the old car, boy in striped T-shirt) obscures their usual references and they have to base their conjectures on other clues.  They give their answers and we discuss why it is so difficult to figure out what's really going on the picture.  The answer is obvious: the photo is blurry so we can't see the details.

I equate that to their writing.  Vivid. Specific.  I write these two words on the board, and read them examples of writing that eliminates what Whelton calls "Vagueness," writing that uses specific words and sensory images: "an annoying and noisy large seagull," instead of "a bird."

So is she laughing or crying? With the blurriness of vague imagery cleared up, it is obvious. 

I loved Whelton's article as I lecture on the use of like, instead of "as if."  I challenge them to excise "he was there for me" from all their writing.  I implore them to change out the flabby verbs for brisk and vigorous action words. 

Of course, the challenge is for me, their teacher, to continue the attack on my own feeble vocabulary, to be specific, instead of you know, like, whatever.


alotalot said...

"He was there for me" is a phrase I can't stand! What does that even mean!? I would ban it from my class if the young ones started using it. :)

Juliann said...

I love this post and the article is very enlightening. These words will give me much to think about as I pursue this craft of writing.