Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Straw Man Will Get You Every Time

If I weren't bloody damned freaking out about my dissertation defence on October 11, I would apologise for the erratic posting schedule. However, I am bloody damned freaking out about my dissertation defence on October 11 and can't promise frequent or lengthy posts until the hideous two-hour Examination From Hell has come and gone. I certainly won't be able to deal with the narrative mode until the middle of October at the earliest. Blame academia. I usually do.

In the meantime, I have pulled myself together just enough to bring you the first in a series of posts on logical fallacies. Like the grammar posts, the fallacy posts will turn up now and then when I need something less horrifyingly long to write and/or want to take a break from the modes. An understanding of fallacy will come in handy when you're writing persuasively, so pay attention.

A logical fallacy is a sort of tool that helps a writer cheat on an argument, filling in holes with falsities, evasions, or truly imbecilic bits of "reasoning." Many writers believe they have presented well-reasoned arguments when what they have actually done is litter a paper with fallacious statements that deserve to be clubbed about their ears until they stop moving. The most common of the fallacies have names: red herring, straw man, ad hominem argument, circular reasoning, and so on. Politicians know and love them all. You should know them too, though once you do, you should probably leave them to the politicians.*

Today, I'm going to discuss my, and probably your, favourite: the straw man fallacy. The straw man is beloved of all undergrads everywhere, probably because it is so bleeding convenient. Unadulterated evil often is.

Imagine your prof has set you an essay on global warming.** You happen to believe that what you think of as the "fuss over global warming" is much ado about nothing,**** and you construct an argument that revolves around this belief. In your first paragraph, you include the sentence:

The idea that the planet is liable to be destroyed any day now because of the simple existence of the SUV is absurd.

You are here presenting a counter-argument and preparing to pick it to pieces. There's only one problem:

What sane person would argue that the "simple existence" of the SUV will cause the planet to be "destroyed any day now"?

The straw man fallacy constitutes the presentation of a counter-argument that is absurd, easy to refute, and usually non-existent. Think of it this way: if you were a medieval squire and your master-at-arms decided to train you in sword-play by having you hack at a man constructed out of straw, you would soon become very good at stabbing scarecrows to death. The first time you had to fight a real opponent carrying a real sword and actually doing his best to behead you, you would be in trouble.*****

Straw-man arguments are tempting to create because they make proving a thesis so damned easy. It is not difficult to argue that the SUV is not going to cause Earth to explode tomorrow. It is not hard to claim that a strong Canadian dollar will not lead to a second Great Depression. Setting up your imaginary opponent as hysterical, unreasonable, and wrong is a simple process, but it is also an unfair one and will lead to your readers taking you--not the opponent--less seriously. To refute a straw-man argument, a real opponent will only have to say, "I've never claimed any of that garbage."

Make sure that you have a real counter-argument. If it's a convincing one, you'll have to work hard to refute it. Many writers rely on straw men because they simply don't want to work hard. Wake-up call: there are no short cuts. You want to learn how to argue convincingly? Stop trying to cut corners. You're not fooling your readers; you're fooling yourself.

Other Business:

1) I've finally got around to creating an e-mail address that a) doesn't have my real name in it anywhere and b) does not include the name of a character from Winnie-the-Pooh.****** You can find the contact link in my profile (at least one person already has). Those who long to tell me what a horrible person I am for metaphorically slapping poor undergraduates upside their metaphorical little heads but don't want to leave public comments can now get started.

2) It's that time again. It is, in fact, time for some updates on

The Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour

The plagiarists have been busy this week. They are making me really, really angry.

essays on the impact of reading writing and speech

To be fair, this person could simply be doing perfectly legitimate research for a paper. To be considerably less fair, she probably isn't. Most legitimate researchers would search for articles, not essays, and they would do so on article databases designed for the purpose. This little toad is searching for essays. She also has no idea how to do a Google search. Most of the plagiarists don't (see below for one truly wonderful example).

Hello, people: the words "on," "the," "of," and "and" are not helping you here. Why are you including them in your search? Are you insane as well as evil?

essay show how bilbo is a hero

This one comes from the young gentleman who gave us "thesis and example in body paragraph about bilbo hobbit" and "bilbo such a hero transition to next paragraph in the hobbit." He hit the main page again. If he actually read it, he probably saw me insulting his search terms. Hello, Hobbit Boy: do you ever give up? Why has it taken you two weeks to find anything on this subject to steal? The Internet is strewn with information about heroism in The Hobbit. You are not simply a cretin; you are a persistent cretin. Go away, sir.

elizabethan photo paragraph of writing describing it

What the hell is an Elizabethan photo? There were no cameras in the Elizabethan period! Y'know those pictures of Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson and Sir Walter Raleigh and all those people you see all over the place? Those are paintings.

hobbit thesis

Admittedly, this person could quite innocently be searching for dissertations on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. I'm expecting probably not, however.

descriptive essay about my aunt

You, Ms. Plagiarist, are the human incarnation of Laziness. She's your aunt. Go have tea with her. Take her for a stroll through some garden somewhere. Describe her yourself. Why would you have to steal a description of your aunt when you could actually write it yourself in about thirty seconds, you oozing, bottom-feeding piece of animate slime?

process analysis essay on sandwich

The process analysis essay on the construction of a sandwich is a favourite first-year set topic. It is probably fairly easy to plagiarise. That's a sandwich. All you have to do is describe how to make one. Why are you incapable of going to the kitchen, making yourself a sandwich, and recording the steps? It will probably take less time than it will for you to find and plunder someone else's description, and you'll get a sandwich out of it.

thesis statement of batman essay

This wart is the second Filthy Plagiarist who has been set a Batman topic and has decided not to use his brain. You get to write on Batman. On Batman! What is wrong with you? Why are you not writing on Batman? I shall smack you!

4 page concept essay on aliens

The "aliens" topic is almost as popular as the "Batman" topic. This idiot has actually specified how long her stolen essay has to be. Have fun with that, Nasty Thing Stuck to the Bottom of my Shoe.

expository essay on the importance of having integrity


examples of introdction [sic] of an essay on how to begin writing a essay describing a room to someone who has never s

This search term goes on for so long that it actually exceeds my statcounter's ability to contain it. I expect the last two words were originally "seen it," though given this plagiarist's capacity for long-winded Googlocity, there may have been more.

Dear little don't know how to use Google, do you? You are trying to steal your essay, and you don't even know how. I wish you luck. You're going to need it.

an observations essay about parakeets birds

Here's an idea for you:

Go observe a bloody parakeet.

One further note:

Inevitably, people are starting to play with my statcounter, entering ludicrous search terms just to see whether they can bring up my site. Some of the searches above may be from such people, though I don't think so; I can generally tell when someone is a repeat visitor. A couple of my online acquaintances did spend a happy half-hour fiddling with Google one evening; they found my blog with search terms ranging from "kem abuses sandwich devotees" to "kem is really batman and bricks sandwich devotees resulting in their impending doom," not to mention, "kem is canada's merciless monster."*******

However, my favourite of these attempts came from a person from Pennsylvania who had visited the site nine times before. This enterprising reader found the blog with a number of fairly ordinary searches such as "plagiarize frodo friends" and "useful descriptive essay writing phrases," then ended with, "mock Kem the Merciless plagiarize."

This search record may constitute the first ever instance of Satire Via Statcounter.

Nicely done, faithful reader...nicely done.

*A rather learned drinking game might involve a political debate during which all the watchers took a sip every time a politician used a logical fallacy. Everybody would be roaring drunk in no time.
**Profs and teachers are always setting essays on global warming and the abortion debate and other such hot-button issues.*** They only realise how terribly foolish they have been once they are two or three sentences into the first paper.
***Long, long ago, when I was in high school, the hot-button issue of the day was euthanasia. When I trotted this example out before a bunch of high-school students last year, they looked at me as if I had gone mad. I had to explain the term, which they had never heard. I must be Getting Really Old.
****An opinion I do not share, by the way. Like many fervent Canadian environmentalists, I was brought up in BC. I learned to recycle cardboard before I learned to walk. When I went to Kalamazoo for a conference a couple of years ago and found myself in a university that had no recycling bins, I suffered. Oh, how I suffered.
*****Probably the really fatal kind.
******Not that I have anything against Winnie-the-Pooh. I love Winnie-the-Pooh. Mostly, the problem is that I never check that address.
*******One of the terms was much, much dirtier than any of the others. Let's just say that it involved the words "fingers" and "wet" and leave it at that.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Qualify This "This" or Face the Consequences

I don't have time to tackle the whole narrative mode tonight, but I can at least fit in a Grammatical Moment, plus an introduction of an exciting new feature that will allow me many opportunities for sarcasm. Actually, however, "Grammatical Moment" is not the right phrase here; this post constitutes a Structural Moment or an Anti-Vagueness Moment or a Moment in Which Kem Can Rant about Syntax, but it does not, strictly speaking, deal with grammar.

I would like to spend some time screaming about the word "this."* "This" is a useful little word. It is also a lazy little word. Writers use "this" as the syntactic equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. Want to refer to a vague, general concept you have covered somewhere in your last three sentences? This is not unusual. Want to avoid actually having to tell your readers what your subject is? This is easy. Want to drive your poor readers around the freaking twist?

This is what you are doing by using "this" as a demonstrative pronoun.

"This," "that," "these," and "those" can be used as pronouns. In informal writing and speech, they work well. If someone tells you that your sister is very good at spelling, you may reply, "That's true." Everyone listening will know that "that" here stands in for "your sister is very good at spelling," the utterance to which you are directly and obviously responding. Replying, "That statement is true," would add an unnecessary word to the conversation and convince your friends that you were an absolute idiot.

In writing, demonstrative "this" is problematic because it's not always possible to tell what it's standing in for. Take this passage:

Maria's boot-heel was lodged firmly between the ties. She tugged at her laces, but they were wet and tight; her fingers slid over them uselessly. Closer, now, the train whistle blew. This was not going well.

What was not going well? Maria's walk as a whole? Her problem with the boot? The blowing train whistle? It sounds as if "this" refers to the whistle, but if it does, the passage doesn't make very much sense. The "this" must refer to events before the blowing of the whistle...but which ones? All of them? Some of them? Could "this" be Maria's entire life?

"This" is a vague word. Moreover, "this" is a cheating word. If you want to gesture wishy-washily towards your last few sentences without specifying exactly which ones you mean, you use "this." Informally, the method is acceptable in moderation. Formally, it isn't, mostly because formal writing must be crystal clear. Every unqualified "this" is another fraction of a second the reader will spend going back over the writing to figure out exactly what is being said. The more backtracking the reader does, the harder the essay will seem to read.

I have marked passages that looked rather like, well, this:**

In "Something Different," Joyce is an attorney with a dark secret. This is important because the story revolves around the fact that the legal profession is not as honest as it sets itself up to be. This contrasts with the theme of "Impact," in which a lawyer's honesty provides the key that unravels the central mystery. If one takes this into account, one realises that the second story is actually a sort of sequel to the first. This means that Harper is moving gradually towards a personal trust of the law.

This "analysis" is actually horrible dreck that deserves to be flushed down a toilet that hasn't been cleaned for twenty years.*** The writer**** jumps to conclusions, makes huge leaps of logic based on sparse or no evidence, does something bizarre in the bit about the second story being a sequel (why is it a sequel? How do you know? Good grief, Fictional Kem), assumes she understands the author's intent, and simply doesn't say anything intelligent at all. However, her idiocy is helped along by the constant "this"ing. The first "this" could refer to Joyce being an attorney, Joyce having a dark secret, Joyce being an attorney with a dark secret, or "Something Different" being about an attorney named Joyce with a dark secret. The second "this" could refer to the first "this," the fact that the first "this" is important, the story revolving around the dishonesty of the legal profession, or the dishonesty of the legal profession itself. I could go on, but you probably get the picture. The writer***** isn't entirely sure what she's talking about, so she sticks a few gigantic, meaningless "this"es into her text and hopes that the reader gets the right idea, whatever it may be. The reader, in the meantime, ends up lost in a sea of confusion.

What the bleeding hell is "this"? Answer the bloody question!

If you must use "this," qualify it. You can cite "this passage" or note "this concept"; you may discuss "this character" or critique "this sonnet." Better yet, get rid of the "this" altogether. Write about "the concept Harper introduces here" or "Joyce's idea"; refer to "this sonnet" by its name (if it has one). Do not use "this" unqualified in formal writing. All it tells the reader is that you are too lazy to write more precisely.

The Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour

In my last (unexpected)****** post, I railed against the filthy little plagiarising jerkwads who had been searching on Google for material to steal and had in the process stumbled across this site. Since that post--three freaking days ago--I have caught seven more filthy little plagiarising jerkwads. We seem to have entered hunting season. Very well. It is time, say I, to start a Filthy Plagiarists' Roll of Dishonour******* on the left-hand margin of this page. On this roll will be recorded all the disgusting bottom-feeders I have noticed being stupid on the Internet. I hope they are chased by very fast zombies and forced to defend themselves with cricket bats that they do not have.

I should explain that people who may not be plagiarising--for instance, those who simply enter the titles of certain novels or plays--will not be included on the roll.

Today's inductees are:

all that is gold does not glitter analysis

This young parasite apparently feels quite strongly that thinking for yourself takes too long and involves far too much, well, thinking for yourself.

5 paragraph essay aliens

You have to write a 5-paragraph essay on aliens, and you're going to steal it? Your teacher is letting you write on aliens, and you can't think of anything to write? What is wrong with you? Do you need a brain transplant? I shall happily give you one.

essay thesis on batman

Okay...again: your teacher is actually encouraging you to write on Batman, and you are planning on stealing your ideas? Are you completely insane? I would happily write essays on Batman for the rest of my natural life. May I slap you? Please?

bilbo such a hero transition to next paragraph in the hobbit

This walking, talking rodent dropping is the same person who searched for "thesis statement and example paragraph about bilbo" a few days ago. Our friend here is actually going through his essay section by section, searching for extremely specific bits to pilfer. He is writing a Frankenessay. I want to eat his brain.

I am happy about the fact that this guy's second search led him directly to the main page of my blog, on which was prominently displayed--you guessed it--the anti-plagiarism post.

useful narrative essay writing phrases

You freak of nature. I don't suppose you have ever considered dreaming up a few original phrases yourself? No...didn't think so.

descriptive writing, describe a woman

I hope this person steals the Wilkie Collins passage. Holy mackerel, do I ever hope that. It is a fairly famous passage. It would also be considered rankly sexist by most modern high-school teachers and university professors.

subjective and objective words describing a girl

This search turned up a few hours after the "woman" one. I'm beginning to get the sense that all the writing instructors in the world are setting the same assignments this week, and that all of them are due on Monday. At any rate, I hope this moron tries to steal from the Collins as well, though she will be much harder to catch if she does.

Honestly: you have to find words that describe a girl. Why can't you do so on your own? Are you less intelligent than the average four-year-old?

Next time, there will, I'm sure, be many new and exciting plagiarism attempts to mock. For now, just direct your righteous fury at the ones listed on the Roll. I wish I could say that I didn't think there would be many more of them, but that--unqualified--would be a lie.

*The words "that," "these," and "those" fit here as well.
**I am writing informally and can use "this" as a pronoun if I like. Neener-neener-neener.
***Don't worry. I wrote it just now. I am insulting only myself, and frankly, I deserve it.
****I.e., me, but role-playing as a first-year undergrad.
*****Me again, still role-playing.
******Even to me.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Attention, All Plagiarists: I KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING

You know what really bugs me?

You know what really, really bugs me?

You know what makes me so freaking furiously and utterly irrationally angry that I am tempted to cast everything aside, find a lance, and ride around the countryside tilting at particularly offensive-looking windmills?

You do. Yes, you. Yes, I am talking to you, Evil Person Who Has Been Attempting to Plagiarise an Essay and Has Somehow Stumbled Across This Blog. I know exactly what you're up to, and I am not bloody amused.

I have a statcounter. It counts stats. It also tells me where all my readers are coming from, as well as--get this--listing the search terms they have used on Google to find the blog. Some of these search terms are quite enlightening. Let's take a look at them, shall we?

explain frodo and his friends relationship

Gosh. Hello, little student. You wouldn't possibly be plugging an essay topic into Google, would you? I'm sure that your interest in this topic is completely innocent and that when you have glanced studiously over my blog and noted the information about friendship in The Fellowship of the Rings, you will cite me in your bibliography!

thesis statement and example in body paragraph about bilbo hobbit

Even better. You, my friend, are clearly so determined to write an exemplary essay that you are combing the Internet for documents that involve not only your topic but its very structure. You are an inspiration to us all, sir.

essay on fear

...'cause I'm sure you're just looking for stuff to cite.

write a three to four-page essay that explains what writing and/or reading can mean in a person's life

What an enterprising little grasshopper you are. Look at that: another entire topic inserted into Google! I am terribly, terribly sorry that I cannot provide you with the essay for which you are searching, and I do hope you eventually find something to steal. Er, cite.

essay in support of colloquialism

Dude, ur sooo awesome! I hope ur like able to like find some info to like hand in and stuff!

descriptive essay about dinner

I feel your pain. How difficult it would be to write a descriptive essay about dinner all by yourself! Who can describe dinner? Dinner is rare and mysterious and cannot, in fact, be described by a mere undergraduate or high-school student. No wonder you are looking for inspiration online.

descriptive writing ants*

Ants! Those elusive, elusive creatures! The people who expect you to describe them are cruel and unreasonable. Steal away, little student; steal away.

There have been other such entries, but alas, they have fallen off the bottom of my stats list. I do remember a lot of Lord of the Rings material and at least one query regarding Edmund Spenser, but I did not think to record any of this information for posterity. In the future, however, I'm going to write all these babies down.


What the hell is wrong with you? Can't you spend an hour brainstorming instead of wasting the same time stealing from the Internet? Do you have any idea what an idiot you're being? Oh, sure, you've managed to "complete" your assignment in a fraction of the time it would have taken you otherwise. Well done. Have you learned anything? Well, you're probably pretty damned good with Google now...but have you learned anything else? You think you're pulling the wool over your marker's eyes. If you get away with it,** you are...but you're also doing an excellent job of pulling the same wool over your own. Won't it be wonderful when you stroll out into the real world after cheating your way through high school and university and suddenly discover that you have no skills at all? Stop. Cheating. You aren't helping yourself in any way.

What's that? You were just borrowing ideas from a website? Web content is free to all, and you should be able to borrow as much of it as you want?


If you "borrow" an idea from your best friend, you are plagiarising. Plagiarism constitutes the unacknowledged use of words or ideas that are not your own. "Common knowledge" is rarely an excuse unless you're working at a sky-is-blue kind of level. It doesn't matter where you have found "your" ideas; you always have to cite them. Your teachers are going to back me up on this one, so don't go whining about how noooobooooody eeeeveeeerrrrr toooooooolllld yooooouuuuuu. IIIIIII DOOOOOON'T CAAAAAAARE.

Teachers, professors, and markers:

Certain of your students have been coming to this blog in search of information on The Lord of the Rings, The Faerie Queene, and other sundry subjects. Some of them may try for The Woman in White soon. Other of your students have been very good and have simply been searching for information on how to write essays well, but a few aspiring cheaters have made it here.

I am a terribly vindictive person whose great loathing for plagiarists is legendary amongst the undergrads of my home institution. I am thus going to blow off steam by setting a trap for the pestilential little maggots who wander the Internet, searching for material to rip off. If you are not a plagiarist, feel free to watch. If you are, be aware that the Wrath of Kem is currently heading rapidly in your direction.***

Google away, plagiarists. I hope that your searches pull up the following sentences:

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth stands as an example of steadiness and good sense, whereas Jane is flighty and embodies both the "pride" and the "prejudice" of the title.

Hello, Demonic Plagiarising Student. Go ahead and steal this sentence. I dare you. I double-dog-dare you. No...I triple-dog-dare you. Laugh at me and base your essay on this statement.

Few know that the title character of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is actually the protagonist's dog, which accompanies the monster on his journey of self-discovery.

Hello again, you swine. Go on...take it. There it sits, inviting theft.

Statistics Canada confirms that 86% of high-income Canadians are likely to raise morbidly obese children.

Miscreant, greetings. Accept this nugget as my gift to you.

The badger typically builds nests in trees and feeds almost exclusively on fungi.

It's yours, my hideous little canker-blossom. Use it in an essay. Put it in the introduction.

I'm onto you, plagiarists. I'm following you with my insanely glaring electronic eyes. I do not like you, Sam-I-am. I do not like your essay scam. I do not like it here or there. It should not happen anywhere.

*You may be gathering by this point that a lot of people are writing descriptive essays right now.

**Plus if you're stupid enough to hand in an essay you've found through Google, you're probably not going to get away with it. I'll let you in on a little secret: markers know how to use Google too.

***The Wrath of Kem is a physical entity with knives for eyes and extremely large, painful Fists of Inescapable Doom.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Just a note: today's real post is just beneath this one. It is much, much longer. Much. Much. Longer.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. London: Penguin, 1974. Description.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 1719. London: Penguin, 1965. Body.

Finnbogason, Jack, and Valleau, Al. A Canadian Writer's Pocket Guide. Second edition. Scarborough: Thomson Nelson, 2002. Formality.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. London: Longman, 1977. Conclusion.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. Second Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Nothing.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Yes, It's a Tree; WHAT ELSE Is Important?

I'm back. No, I'm not dead. Marking took over my life for a bit there, as did procrastinating and prevaricating and running with scissors. I was going to write this entry last Friday, at which point a new character leapt full-grown into my comic strip and demanded that I pay attention to her. She had better be bloody well worth it; that's all I can say.*

However, here I finally am, whether you like it or not. It's time to talk about the descriptive mode.

Unless you are stuck in a first-year essay-writing course, you may never have to write an entirely descriptive essay. First-year essay-writing courses are famous for forcing students to learn types of essay writing they are never going to use again and skimming over types of essay writing they are. However, learning how to write a good description is not a useless endeavour. There are descriptive elements in most essays. Students excel at writing extremely bad descriptions, and most of them probably have absolutely no idea why their markers are constantly scribbling "Vague," "Wordy," "Inaccurate," and "Could you elaborate...?" in their margins. The truth is that a mastery of concise, accurate description can improve both an individual paper and a writer's rhetorical skills in general.

Description is an important element of fiction, but it is also essential to non-fiction. Descriptions of processes, objects, people, and works of art are often necessary if a writer wants to give his audience background on his chosen subject; some essays do assume that the audience is familiar with the subject at hand, but those that don't can rely on description to fill the gaps in the reader's understanding. This gap-filling does not substitute adequately for first-hand knowledge; no matter how accurately a writer describes a sculpture, the image she creates in her reader's mind is probably going to differ at least slightly from the real thing. A picture is worth a great deal more than a thousand words. Nonetheless, if a thousand words is what you've got, you had better learn to use them as best you can.

Here is a picture I took myself a month or so ago. I do not know the name of the person in it, though I do know that she is 1) an astrophysicist and 2) braver than I am. Pretend, for a moment, that I have asked you to describe this picture to me:

A lot of people would describe the photograph as follows:

A person is sitting on a log between two cliffs.

Gosh. You've got me there. A person is indeed sitting on a log between two cliffs. Ta-da. End of story. Can we go home now?

No. We. Can't.

If I walked up to you and said, "Picture a person sitting on a log between two cliffs," would you imagine this exact photograph?** Would your imaginary "person" be positioned just like the real one? Would this person be male or female? Dressed or undressed? In the foreground or in the background? Clear or hard to see? How big would the log be? What would the cliffs look like? Would they be close together or far apart? Would there be anything else in the picture? Trees? Moss? Sky? Where would the light be coming from? What season would it be?

The art of description depends quite a lot on the art of seeing: of noticing not just what is there but how it appears in relation to what surrounds it. Looking and seeing are two different things entirely. We tend to take in general details and edit out specific ones; many of us*** have a hard time recognising even people we have met recently or see frequently when these people appear in unfamiliar contexts. When I go to draw a particular scene, I like to have it in front of me because I know that no matter how well I think I know it, if I try to draw it from memory, I will leave something out.

Yet to write in the descriptive mode, you have to work against the impulse to edit out details. You may have the object you are describing in front of you; your reader won't. Your objective is to create a strong, lasting, and relatively accurate impression in his mind. You actually want to show him whatever you are describing.

There are many ways to accomplish this sort of thing; different ones are called for in different situations. The two main branches of the descriptive mode are the subjective and objective forms of description. Both are useful, and both can cause the reader to form vivid impressions of the object of the description. However, they have different purposes.

An objective description of the photograph above might be:

The picture was taken by someone standing in a gorge; the camera points up between two dark grey cliffs. The cliff on the left extends about a third of the way into the photograph. It has moss growing sparsely on its lower portions. The cliff on the right also extends about a third of the way into the photograph, and the way the light is striking it makes its extreme rightmost portion appear light green. The tops of both cliffs are visible; the left-hand one is silhouetted against a white sky, but the right-hand one gives way to a canopy of bright green leaves belonging to several trees growing from the top of it. One thick branch extends from the right-hand cliff to the left-hand cliff. It forks about halfway across the gorge. In respect to the frame of the photograph, this branch appears about a third of the way from the top of the picture. Smaller branches, covered with leaves, surround this larger limb. In the distance, extending along the right-hand cliff-top, are many other trees, though they seem to blur into one another. About a third of the way from the bottom of the photograph--behind the extended tree limb but in front of the trees in the distance--is a log that bridges the gap between the cliffs. It seems to be about the breadth of the waist of the person sitting on it. She is framed against the white sky; the light is behind her, making her difficult to see clearly. However, the proportions of her body--large hips and slender arms--argue that she is female. She is straddling the log quite close to the left-hand cliff (perhaps three-quarters of the log is behind her to the right and another quarter ahead of her to the left). Her head is obscured by a clump of leaves, but she appears to be looking towards the left-hand cliff. Her legs swing free, and her left arm--the only one visible--extends slightly ahead of her and down to where her hand (hidden behind her left leg) may grip the log. She is wearing dark blue knee-length trousers and a white sleeveless shirt.

I could go on (about the cliffs, the trees, the exact position of the moss, etc.). I could describe this scene so thoroughly that you wouldn't even want to see the picture. However, I think we've got enough to work with.

Notice that the objective description relies entirely on the writer's observations: not his interpretations or speculations, but his observations. When he is not sure exactly what he sees, he explores why (for instance, note the bit in the passage above where the writer discusses the human figure's obscured head). His observations have no particular emotion behind them; they are as unbiased and neutral as possible. He is painting his word-picture through accuracy of observation. In fact, his main objective is to be as accurate as possible.

Yet the above description is pretty bloody boring. I just proofread it, and I zoned out five or six times in the process. Its relative accuracy would help someone who needed to paint the scene; it would make everybody else throw the description violently against the wall.

A subjective description provides a vivid impression of whatever is being described through the object's personal relation to the writer. A subjective description of the scene in the photograph above might be:

There were three of us in the gorge when I snapped this photo of Liane's friend crossing from one cliff to another on a log bridge. Only the friend is visible here, but there were others on either side of the cliff, egging her on and warning her back. We stood and watched apprehensively as the girl--seemingly fearlessly--scooted across to safety. She was dressed in a white shirt and blue pants, and she appeared to us outlined against a white sky and a spreading canopy of leaves. The dark, damp cliffs loomed over us, throwing us into shadow while the girl sat in the sun, her legs dangling into the empty air. My camera caught the one moment of danger; then she was gone, safe beyond our sight, and we were left hearing the others laugh above us as we gazed at the trees and the sky.

Here the writer, in describing the photograph, speaks of the experience of taking it. Many details are left out, but she still creates a version of the scene that will leave an impression on the mind of the reader: she mentions the perspective from which the photo was taken, the position of the girl on the log, the presence of the trees, the colour of the sky and the darkness of the cliffs, and so on. However, she also gives details that relate, personally, to her interpretation of the scene. She says she and the others are watching "apprehensively" and that the girl is crossing the bridge "seemingly fearlessly"; she feels that the girl is in "danger" and later "safe"; she describes the cliffs as "looming" (personification: cliffs do not, in reality, "loom"); she keeps drawing our attention to her own position down in the gorge, though she herself does not appear in the photograph. Because she is describing the original event itself, she can also access details that the writer of the objective description cannot: for instance, the sounds of her friends' words to the girl. She also focusses on the girl, giving only a brief impression of her surroundings. The objective writer starts at the edges of the photograph and works in towards the middle; he might also have chosen to start at the left and move right or at the top and move down. He does not privilege one element of the photo over another. The subjective writer does.

This passage is more vivid than the other because it offers the writer's personal connection to the scene. However, it is also less exact. Though it leaves the reader with a clear mental picture, it is a picture of the writer as much as it is of the scene. A painter who created the photograph from the above description would probably come up with something whose details differed from those of the original, though the subject--and the spirit--of the picture would remain intact.

When you are writing a description, you need to negotiate between objectivity and subjectivity. Sometimes one is more appropriate than the other. Sometimes you need a mixture of both. Circumstances dictate what sort of description you need to write. However, in an essay-writing situation, it is usually safer to err on the side of objectivity. "That girl looks almost exactly like my aunt" may be an extremely accurate description that would hold great meaning for someone who knew your aunt. Someone who didn't would find it subjective to the point of uselessness. You are not describing the girl for your own benefit. Even if you are writing a largely subjective description of her, you should go on to explain how the girl looks almost exactly like your aunt. In the process, you will cover the details of her appearance, and even people who have never met your aunt will be able to picture her.

Be aware that comparing anything to anything else can be useful but also dangerous. "A ukelele looks like a small guitar with four strings" will give many people a pretty good idea of a ukelele's appearance...but not those who have never seen a guitar. Don't get complacent and assume that others' experiences are identical to yours.

Another mistake that writers sometimes make is to forget that the good old axiom "Show, don't tell"**** does not simply apply to short stories. Take the following "description":

Robert was angry.

We all know what it means to be angry, right? When you're angry, you smash china figurines in the fireplace and rant about how much you hate your mother.

...Or you close doors very gentle and firmly behind you, and when you speak, your voice comes out in a flat, dead-sounding tone.

...Or you smile and pretend to be delighted while you clench your fists so hard that your knuckles whiten.

...Or you bottle it all up inside and let loose hours later in a profanity-laden e-mail to your sister.


"Angry" is an abstract word. It means something slightly different to every person who uses it. "Beautiful," "huge," "contemptible," "soft," "terrified," "horrible," "ridiculous": all of them are telling words, not showing words. A planet can be huge. So can a house. So, in fact, can an ant...compared to other ants. Some people see flowers or trees when they think of "beauty"; others see certain types of women; yet others see guitars or buildings or eighteenth-century shoes. If you want to describe Robert's anger, describe it. Tell your readers what he does or says or looks like. As a description, "Robert was angry" has about as much value as "The building was tall." Angry in what way? How tall? Compared to what? If you use an abstract term, follow it up with an explanation.

As well, don't forget that you actually have five senses, not one. If you describe the bleeding hell out of an alpine meadow but forget to mention the smell, you are neglecting an essential element of the scene. Such an omission is just as serious as the one a student of mine made when she described the yellow flowers in a painting but forgot to mention the human figure in the foreground. Give the reader the whole picture, not simply the portion of it you noticed when you were only looking and not seeing.

A good example of a description that successfully mixes subjective and objective elements to create a memorable picture in the reader's mind is this passage from Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White (1860):

My first glance round me, as the man opened the door, disclosed a well-furnished breakfast-table, standing in the middle of a long room, with many windows in it. I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window--and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps--and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer--and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted--never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression--bright, frank, and intelligent--appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete. To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model--to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended--was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream. (58-59)*****

Collins was writing his serial novel right after--and for the same periodical in which was published--Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities,****** so the extreme length of this description is probably not surprising. What is interesting about it is how Collins creates the picture of the "ugly" woman, Marian Halcombe. He begins with a brief but clear description of her surroundings, then effectively "zooms in" (this was before film, but the effect is similar) to the woman framed against the window. The subjectivity of the description comes through in the sequence in which the narrator describes the scene; he does not move objectively from left to right or top to bottom, but starts large and then focusses on the element he views as being most important. He also doesn't describe Marian all at once. His description is limited by the angle from which he can see her, and his first impression of her is summed up both in the abstract terms "beauty," "grace," and "perfection" and in the narrator's descriptive elaborations on these abstractions. By withholding the detail of her face, he centres the reader's anticipation and attention upon it and creates a certain mild suspense, which is relieved when he finally reaches that surprising abstract word: ugly.

At this point in the description, every reader should visualise what is, to him or her, an ugly woman. The shock value lies not in Marian's actual appearance but in the unexpected introduction of a subjective word that holds a specific personal meaning for each individual. However, the narrator doesn't leave it there; he outlines Marian's looks in detail, in the process showing us what she actually looks like and what he considers ugliness to be. He ends with a subjective but memorable comparison of Marian's contradictory beauty/ugliness to a dreamer's inability to reconcile the dream world with the real world. This final comment does not add to the description, but it does contribute to the reader's overall impression of the encounter by positioning this beautiful-ugly woman as almost monstrous: an unsolvable nightmare conundrum who is trapped between categories.In other words, every word counts. It's sometimes a little too easy to regard essay writing as "functional" and believe that as long as it gets your general point across, any combination of words will do. Descriptive writing demonstrates the falsity of this idea. Word choice, word order, sentence construction, order of ideas, emphasis of words and phrases, repetition, punctuation, figurative language: everything works together to draw a picture. Different configurations create different pictures. Using more words is not always ideal, either; remember how horribly boring the huge objective description above was. Concise and evocative is often the way to go.

You think I'm talking out of my rear end when I say that "Since the dawn of time" is not an acceptable phrase with which to begin an essay? Stop thinking out of your rear end. Words are important. "Since the dawn of time" means "since the dawn of time"; it is not code for, "Don't pay attention to the first sentence of this essay, which is formula and not really important." If you use stupid words and phrases, your writing will seem stupid. If you use vague words and phrases, your writing will seem vague. If you jumble words and phrases together any old how, your writing will be confusing, and your markers will tear out their hair and eat it.

The descriptive mode is a good one in which to work on preciseness of expression because it is, in a way, the mode behind many of the other modes. A pure description is not an analysis, but it is often a jumping-off point for analysis. When my art students begin to learn to analyse works of art, their first job is to describe these works; only when they have learned to see do they move on to meaning. An incomplete description makes for an incomplete analysis. The student who missed the human figure for the flowers would have had problems analysing the painting without acknowledging that figure; if she had, her interpretation would probably have constituted a misreading. Clear and accurate description is more likely to lead to clear and accurate analysis.

Descriptive essays are often termed "expository"--they are meant to inform the reader rather than to argue a point--but the truth is that even descriptions can contain arguments. They are not, however, always as structured as the arguments in persuasive papers; a descriptive thesis is sometimes implied rather than stated outright. Some of my students have just been asked by their prof to provide descriptions of imaginary rooms that they themselves must design. These rooms must make their occupants feel safe. Each student will therefore have to create a thesis revolving around why and how her room's design conveys safety; this thesis will be stated in the introduction. However, other students with a different prof are going to have to describe significant experiences in their lives: experiences about which they felt differently years later. These students will probably embed their theses in their descriptions themselves, conveying why and how their feelings changed through subjective details about their reactions. Descriptions allow scope for creativity. Adhering to sandwich method will not help you here; you would do better to fall back on your creative-writing skills. Remember that your main objective is--for whatever reason--to create a clear, memorable picture.

The next time I somehow manage to get my butt in gear and write in this blog, I'll probably be dealing with the narrative mode, which is quite like the descriptive mode, except with more action scenes. I may take a grammatical detour first, but we'll see.

*I can't ask you if she is because I am once again months ahead of myself, and she won't be appearing until November.
**Assuming you hadn't seen it yet, of course. If you had, you would probably say, "What an amazing coincidence! I was just reading this blog that went on and on about a photo of a person sitting on a log between two cliffs. I think our minds are connected." Then I would hit you.
***Me included. I once failed to recognise my second cousin when we met accidentally on a bus perhaps two days after we had had dinner together. The poor guy talked to me for twenty minutes before I was able to discern from hints in our conversation exactly who he was.
****Writers of fiction have been bludgeoned over the head with this one almost literally since the dawn of time.
*****For the full reference, see the bibliography, which I am about to create.
******The novel with the famous opening. You know: the one that goes on and on and on and on and on and on and on about times being good and bad and wise and foolish and light and dark and all sorts of other stuff that basically adds up to absolutely nothing at all, deliberately.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Put Your Hands in the Air and Step Away from the Semi-Colon

One of the things about the sandwich method that makes me want to scream and tear out other people's hair* is that it fools writers into believing that there is only one type of essay. While sandwich theory is relatively sound in essence (many good papers are structured sandwich-fashion, with an introduction and conclusion bracketing a number of body paragraphs), in reality, Devotees of the Sacred Sandwich often rely so heavily on the formula that they don't know how to react when asked to write a type of essay that does not work as a sandwich. These people then panic, break down, and write off-topic essays.

You do not want to write off-topic essays. Your markers will bludgeon you with C minuses if you write off-topic essays. Write on-topic essays. They are much prettier and will not enrage your profs.

For the next little while, I'm going to be dealing with the modes of essay-writing: the different varieties of essay that you may eventually have to try, whether you like it or not. You should note, however, that in a sense, these "modes" are artificial categories. A professor may ask you specifically for a cause-and-effect essay or a process paper, but she is just as likely simply to hand you a topic and expect you to work out for yourself what kind of essay you need to write. Generally, only first-year writing instructors demand certain modes. These instructors also may neglect to explain that the modes can be mixed together or conflated. The categories are nice to have, but don't mistake them for rigid, unbreakable rules.

From this point onwards, I am also going to be bringing more external sources into the blog. I can't keep making up stupid little essays about The Fellowship of the Ring forever; I want to show you some examples from published papers. Unfortunately, I don't have permission to reproduce any of these papers in full unless they are no longer under copyright. I can quote short passages from them (for the purpose of critical comment) as long as I include a bibliography.** I shall therefore be providing examples at the sentence or paragraph level rather than the essay-as-a-whole level.

I'll be dealing with the first of these modes--the descriptive--in my next post. I want to save a whole post for the descriptive mode because I expect I'll be doing quite a lot of yelling about observation and learning to describe what is actually there instead of what you think you see. However, never fear; I have some ranting for you this time as well. I hereby bring you another grammatical interlude, this one dealing with:


That felt good. That felt very good. Let me do it again:


Why am I writing "the semi-colon"**** in great big bright red capital letters?

I am trying to impart to you the importance of this misused and much maligned piece of punctuation! I am trying to return the semi-colon to the position of greatness it deserves! I am mad with power because I can turn my words different colours and make them all pretty! Insert evil laugh here!

I have had the following conversation, almost word for word, with several different first-year classes:

Me: What role does a comma have in a sentence?

Student 1: It marks a pause.

*I try not to develop the power of super-strength and leap furiously upon Student 1*

Me: Okay...what role does a semi-colon have in a sentence?

Student 2: It marks a longer pause.


I'll deal more thoroughly with commas later. For now, I'll just say that they bloody do not denote bloody pauses. Well...sometimes, they do. They also have specific grammatical functions that cause those pauses. If you inserted a comma every time William Shatner paused, you would get:

I, am the, captain, of the, Starship, Enterprise, and I, am now, going, to make a, speech about, how, noble my, purpose, is, especially, since you, are a hot, alien, babe, and will probably, die, in, my, arms.

I don't freaking well think so.

For now, just take it from me: those commas you are flinging madly about are actually in your sentences for a reason. Stop sprinkling them randomly over your essays. Better yet, read up on the comma rules. Yes, you! Yes, you can! If you know what a sentence is, they really aren't that difficult.

The problem is that a lot of people don't know what a sentence is. The semi-colon suffers from this gap in knowledge; it may suffer even more than the comma.

Look! Look! I just used a semi-colon! Why did I? Was I pausing? Was I doing something other than pausing? What does it all mean?*****

To answer this question, I must return to How to Write an Independent Clause 101. In a moment, you will see why.

An independent clause consists of two bits: the subject and the predicate. The subject is the element that does stuff (usually a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase). The predicate is the verb (i.e., what the subject is doing) plus everything else (i.e., words and phrases that modify the verb). An independent clause can (and often does) stand on its own to form a sentence. No other type of construction can do so. A phrase (a collection of consecutive words lacking either a subject or a predicate) cannot be a sentence. A relative clause (a clause--containing a subject and a predicate--that begins with "whom," "which," or "that": for instance, the bit including and following "that" in "I had to protect the carrot that I had eaten") cannot be a sentence. A subordinate clause (a clause that can't stand on its own but depends on the rest of the sentence for its meaning: for instance, the bit including and following "while" in "He ate breakfast while she took a nap") cannot be a sentence.

In this clause:

John ate the cat.

"John" is the subject; "ate the cat" is the predicate.

The predicate has to contain a verb (in this case, the third-person singular past-tense version of "to eat"). Everything else is just window dressing. A predicate that contains no verb is not a predicate at all. If a construction lacks either a subject or a predicate, it is a phrase, not an independent clause.

The shortest sentence in the English language is probably:


It is in the imperative, meaning that the subject, "you," is implied; the speaker is giving a command to the listener. "Go" itself is the predicate.

Yes, I am about to return to semi-colons. Watch me. Here I go:

A semi-colon is not a bloody long pause. In fact, it can only be used in two situations:

1) To separate two independent clauses.

2) To separate the items of a complex list.

The first situation is both the most straightforward and the one that people mess up the most. Think of it this way: if the words to the left or the right of your semi-colon cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, your semi-colon is incorrect. For instance, in this sentence:

Danielle went to the ball; because her mother forced her to do so.

the semi-colon separates an independent clause and a subordinate clause. "Because her mother forced her to do so" is not a complete sentence. You don't actually need any internal punctuation in this sentence at all. However:

Danielle went to the ball; her mother forced her to do so.

is fine, as both parts of the sentence form independent clauses.

In other words, the semi-colon is rather similar to the period. Some people call it a "weak period"; it functions more or less as a full stop, but it also implies a connection between the words that precede and follow it. The following sentence:

Danielle went to the ball; on Saturday, James had a date with Meredith.******

is not problematic grammatically, but content-wise, it seems jarring. Though the semi-colon implies a connection between the two statements, no connection appears to exist.

The second use of the semi-colon is a less common one, though it can be quite useful at times. Usually, the elements of a list are separated by commas. If you are a Sandwich Devotee, you'll know about this rule, as your thesis statements generally consist of lists. A typical list might be:

James is stupid, lazy, and slow.

Commas work perfectly fine here. However, not all lists have single-word elements. A list whose elements themselves must contain commas needs more than simply commas for separation; otherwise, the list can become just about this confusing:

Janet needed a new bed, which she was planning to buy on Thursday, a refrigerator, though not the one her sister wanted her to get, since it was fairly expensive, and a potted plant, for which she had been saving for years, she claimed.


Yes, it's just generally a horrible sentence. Yet if you really needed to write it, it would probably work a bit better with semi-colons:

Janet needed a new bed, which she was planning to buy on Thursday; a refrigerator, though not the one her sister wanted her to get, since it was fairly expensive; and a potted plant, for which she had been saving for years, she claimed.


Semi-colons do nothing else.******* They are not pauses...or not only pauses. Use them wisely, and don't go on about how the rules surrounding them are tooooooooo haaaaaaaard to leeeeeeeaaaaaaaarn. They are not too hard to learn. They are not hard at all. If you are not writing a list, make sure there is what could be a complete sentence on either side of your semi-colon. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. The end.

Next time, there will be Description. I am not entirely certain when next time will be, as my TAing year officially begins tomorrow; however, it will come.********

*Not mine. That would hurt.
**Guess what the next blog entry but one is going to be? That's right, boys and girls: a bibliography!***
***And there was much rejoicing.
****"Semi-colon" is also sometimes spelled "semicolon." I like the version with the hyphen because the other one sounds like some sort of rare and rather embarrassing disease.

******You'll notice that the second clause here begins with a short introductory phrase. It is not a clause in and of itself, but it is, in fact, a modifier in the clause that follows it.
*******Except maybe the winky emoticon.
********If you build it. Sorry. A lot of you were probably actually not born when that movie came out. I was fourteen. Yes, I am older than you. Shut up.