Monthly Archives: November 2007

Crossing Fingers

The “wish list” of courses for adjunct professors came out yesterday, and I gave Joe (Santa?) my picks.

I am having such a remarkably wonderful time teaching my literature course that I’m desperately hoping to score another one next term.  While I very often feel like a legitimate teacher in front of my other classes, nothing has felt quite so right as this lit. section; I really feel as though I’m in my element in this class.  Our discussions are rich and lively, my students – some of them, anyway – are starting to take risks with their thinking and are coming to recognize that there may not actually BE any right answers.  One of them – the only man in the course – has found a particular joy in the work and has really hit a stride in both the conversations we have in class and in the work he does on his own.

The students are starting to see, I think, what the point of literature classes is (or, at least, what the point of MY literature classes is): the shared experience of a story (or a poem or a play or a film or any piece of “literature”) gives us a common vantage point from which to interpret not only that piece of literature, but also other things in our world.  Rick used Frankenstein to think about advances in modern science.  Punkin’ Pie used Monty Python to better understand a book she was reading.  I used what I knew about Dante’s Inferno to help me figure out the lyrics to Sting’s The Soul Cages.  My point here is that literature classes – MY literature classes – aren’t about learning literary periods or how to discern the narrative style or how to reproduce iambic pentameter; for me, lit classes are all about how to make lit meaningful out in the world.  I leave my job energized and excited – I really feel like I belong leading discussions about books, stories, and poems.

The upshot is that I really, really want to keep teaching this class.  The downside of this desire is that it’s likely to turn into a broken heart: one of the full time professors takes all the literature courses (I’m pretty sure that this person doesn’t actually teach anything BUT literature.  There may be another post in here somewhere about how I don’t agree with the bosses’ decision to allow that to happen – I think there should be a range of teaching styles offered to TCC students, but we’ll get into that later…maybe).

There’s ONE class being offered that I have a shot at getting:  it’s on Monday nights from 8:15 to 10:30.  The person who takes the lit classes doesn’t take night sections, so there’s the possibility that I might be able to keep teaching my beloved  course.  I won’t know for a while, though – I’m hoping to hear from Santa soon.  Until then, I’m crossing my fingers and sending up wishes to the Universe.

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Grammar Wednesday

Wow, you guys! I’ve been lazy about posting here, and I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better, I promise. There really is a lot going on in my professional life – I just haven’t made the time to write about it.

Okay; here’s this week’s Grammar Wednesday edition. Last week, Frumteacher asked about the distinction between “that” and “which” (and, by the way, you should go read her when you’re done here – she’s one of my (many) favorites).

I spent a decent bit of time this past week thinking about this question, and trying to discern if I had ANY clue about what the difference is between these two structures. I tried to be mindful of the things I said when I spoke or the choices I made when I wrote, and I found that the word that I use is determined entirely by my sense of aesthetics – I use the word which feels or sounds more correct (see? I did it there, even – I could have said “the word that feels or sounds more correct” but, for me, which works better there).

John, one of my linguist buddies (I LOVE my linguists! I learn so much from them!) sent me an email with a couple of links to check out during my investigation of the that/which question. While I suspect him of trying to head off at the pass any kind of prescriptivism on my part, I was really grateful for the information. One of the links he sent me was this one – Geoffrey Pullum writes on Language Log that:

There is an old myth that which is not used in integrated relative clauses (e.g. something which I hate) and that has to be used instead something that I hate). It is completely untrue. The choice between the two is free and open. The people who repeat the old story about which being banned do not respect the prohibition in their own writing (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out a book by Jacques Barzun which recommends against it on one page and then unthinkingly uses it on the next!). I don’t respect it either — re-read that last parenthesis. As a check on just how common it is in excellent writing, I searched electronic copies of a few classic novels to find the line on which they first use which to introduce an integrated relative, to tell us how much of the book you would need to read before you ran into an instance:

  • A Christmas Carol (Dickens): 1,921 lines, first occurrence on line 217 = 11% of the way through;
  • Alice in Wonderland (Carroll): 1,618 lines, line 143 = 8%;
  • Dracula (Stoker): 9,824 lines, line 8 = less than 1%;
  • Lord Jim (Conrad): 8,045 lines, line 15 = 1%;
  • Moby Dick (Melville): 10,263 lines, line 103 = 1%;
  • Wuthering Heights (Bronte): 7,599 lines, line 56 = 0.736%…

Do I need to go on? No. The point is clear. On average, by the time you’ve read about 3% of a book by an author who knows how to write you will already have encountered an integrated relative clause beginning with which. They are fully grammatical for everyone. The copy editors are enforcing a rule which has no support at all in the literature that defines what counts as good use of the English language. Their which hunts are pointless time-wasting nonsense.

I also looked the question up at Bartleby.com and found this:

that / which (restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses). The standard rule requires that you use that only to introduce a restrictive (or defining) relative clause, which identifies the person or thing being talked about; in this use it should never be preceded by a comma. Thus, in the sentence The house that Jack built has been torn down, the clause that Jack built is a restrictive clause telling which specific house was torn down. Similarly, in I am looking for a book that is easy to read, the restrictive clause that is easy to read tells what kind of book is desired.
By contrast, you use which only with nonrestrictive (or nondefining) clauses, which give additional information about something that has already been identified in the context; in this use, which is always preceded by a comma. Thus you should say The students in Chemistry 101 have been complaining about the textbook, which (not that) is hard to follow. The clause which is hard to follow is nonrestrictive in that it does not indicate which text is being complained about; even if it were omitted, we would know that the phrase the textbook refers to the text in Chemistry 101. It should be easy to follow the rule in nonrestrictive clauses like this, since which here sounds more natural than that.

Some people extend the rule and insist that, just as that should be used only in restrictive clauses, which should be used only in nonrestrictive clauses. By this thinking, you should avoid using which in sentences such as I need a book which will tell me all about city gardening, where the restrictive clause which will tell me all about city gardening describes what sort of book is needed. But this use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose. If you fail to follow the rule in this point, you have plenty of company. Moreover, there are some situations in which which is preferable to that. Which can be especially useful where two or more relative clauses are joined by and or or: It is a philosophy in which ordinary people may find solace and which many have found reason to praise. You may also want to use which to introduce a restrictive clause when the preceding phrase contains a that: We want to assign only that book which will be most helpful.

One thing that I, personally, have a problem with is the use of that to apply to people. I KNOW it’s perfectly acceptable and has been going on for centuries now, but I much prefer “the woman who ran the red light was lucky to avoid an accident” to “the woman that ran the red light…” It’s a personal preference thing for me, and I’m standing by it.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!

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Grammar Wednesday

A day late is better than never…

A few weeks ago, Organic Mama, being a native English speaker of the Canadian variety, confronted me with the very United States American practice of starting a sentence with the adverb “hopefully.”

“Why do you do that?” she asked, “the adverb isn’t actually modifying anything in the sentence. It doesn’t make sense!”

I said something akin to, “WELCOME TO THE USA!! Exactly where on your citizenship application did it disclose that we always make sense?”

Once I got past my snarky response (trust me; she’d have worried if I didn’t say something wise-assed and sarcastic), I started to really ponder the question. It’s a good one. O’Mama is right – when we say something like:

“Hopefully, the rain will hold off until after the parade.”

it’s clear to see that the adverb isn’t really modifying anything in the sentence. Even if we rearrange the words and say:

“The rain will, hopefully, hold off until after the parade.”

we’re still not modifying anything in the sentence with the adverb; the rain isn’t hopeful, and neither is the holding 0ff of said rain. It’s obvious to native U.S.A American speakers that the “hopefully” in these sentences is expressing the speaker’s (or writer’s) wish, but strictly speaking, the adverb is misplaced in the sentence.

My thinking about this led to the consideration of a bunch of other adverbs that we commonly use to start sentences:

Thankfully, there was someone there to unlock the gate when we arrived.

Clearly, you should get a couple of dancing lessons before you go to the audition.

There are, obviously, a number of reasons why you should consider skipping dessert.

In my above sentences, no one in the first was thankful, nothing in the second was clear and while the reasons may be obvious, obviously is not an adjective. This led me to thinking about how we close letters, as well: I end my correspondence most often with “warmly,” and I’ve seen people write “sincerely” or “affectionately,” as well.

My final analysis (though I hope it goes without saying that, for me, no analysis is ever final) is that these words are used to convey tone and mood rather than to modify a specific element of the sentence. When I say that “hopefully, the rain will hold off until after the parade,” I am expressing my wish that it do so – I’m adding a layer of meaning to the sentence, and to my intention for speaking or writing it – by my inclusion of that adverb, just as closing a letter with “warmly” conveys to my reader my affection and kindness toward them.  At least, I am hopeful* that my closing leaves my readers with those feelings…

Does this make any sense?

Thank you for your patience in letting me turn in my Grammar Wednesday a little late, by the way. We had a VERY successful trip to IKEA so, for me, it was worth the wait.

Happy Thursday, Everyone!

Warmly,

~Chili

*didja catch that?  Tricky, aren’t I?

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