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.


Alexandra said...

This is great! Just got a stack of papers full of unqualified "this" - a bunch of "this shows", "this is important"... I'm even annoyed with some qualified "this" such as "this document" without telling me which document...

Added it to my list of general comments...

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Shapath Das said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fernando P. Ortiz said...

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