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the origins of show-me-don't-tell-me in your writing class
Good morning. Yes, it’s very early, I know. But here’s your coffee, just the way you like it, in your favorite mug. Now just step outside on the front porch for a minute. No one else in the neighborhood is out of bed while you stand on the doorstep, just listening and looking. And since the morning commute hasn’t begun yet, you hear nothing but the cardinals in the Norway maple on the neighbor’s lawn. The sky is dark to your left, but a dim mauve to the east on your right, with the promise of a deeper and brighter blue only a half hour away. There is not a cloud in sight and the cool air is dry on your face. You take a deep breath, then exhale and say:
Is that a sentence?
In English, as in any language, the sentence is everything. The sentence is very much the fundamental unit of communication. It’s difficult to even think without organizing things into sentences.
But what about, Aaah, perfect!—is it a sentence?
That’s a question for the Standard English Country Club (click here to see their security policy), the answer to which has to be No. It is not a sentence by any definition in any grammar book. It certainly has no identifiable subject or verb. (There are several workable definitions of sentence other than the traditional “complete thought” definition. You can see them in greater detail in elsewhere on this website.) If it’s not a sentence, then it must be a sentence fragment. Now that it’s classified properly, the discussion is over. The security guards won’t let this sentence onto the golf course, because it isn’t dressed properly. Never mind that it just plopped down on the green off a tee shot.
As you take another sip of your dark roast coffee with one sugar and light cream, a sixty-something jogger in unflattering, royal blue spandex and a loose-fitting red knit cap appears from around the corner and passes by your house. You raise your coffee in a silent salute to this man who has less taste in clothes but more physical energy than you. He takes your gesture for an invitation to communicate, fixes you with a wild-eyed stare, and croaks, “Today, he puts it in the tree!” You have no idea what this madman is talking about. Fortunately, however, he’s not interested in anything you might have to say and jogs on, shaking his head and muttering.
Today, he puts it in the tree!
That’s a sentence—it has a subject (he) and a verb (puts)--but it’s not really a complete thought, at least to you. It’s a properly dressed sentence, though, so even though it sliced into the deep woods where nobody can find it, it will eventually be allowed on the Standard English course.
But after you think about it for half a minute, you realize that you do know this guy. It’s cranky old Weatherbee from the next block. He’s always complaining about the trash pick-up, the traffic, the weather—anything. Now you can make sense of his comment. He must be talking about the twelve-year old paper boy, who’s famous in the neighborhood for depositing the morning papers in less-than-convenient places. Yours even ended up on the porch roof one day.
What’s the difference between Aah, perfect! and Today he puts it in the tree!? It’s the discourse, that is, the conditions under which any communication takes place.
‘Immediate’ and ‘displaced’ speech
When we’re talking with someone, our spoken sentences need grammatical subjects just as all our written sentences do. It’s just that we can be a little more flexible about what kind of form the subject takes in our immediate presence.
We have more ways to clarify what we mean at our immediate disposal. There’s the physical presence of the other person, and often the presence of the thing we are talking about. If that slapdash paperboy is coming up the street, flinging bundles every which way, I can point to him as I say, “Uh-oh, Old Reliable.” You look in the direction I’m pointing, and see the topic of our discussion.
There’s also the continuity of time and reasoning to help us figure out what’s being said in our presence. The paper boy’s bicycle is moving toward us during our conversation. And since you live on the street too, you know everything about his special talents. It’s knowledge that we share before, during, and after our conversation. As for my shorthand sentence, both the subject and his verb are pedaling right past you.
Finally, because we are standing face-to-face, we get as many chances as we need to verify, clarify, correct, and change our meaning.
Could you repeat that?
What do you mean?
When the listener is in the immediate presence of the speaker, the chances of misinterpreting meaning can be reduced and effectively controlled as many times as it takes.
Writing, on the other hand, can usefully be thought of as displaced speech. There’s very little room for error, and all possible misunderstandings and misinterpretations must be dealt with on the page. Unlike a conversation, the writing and reading of a document almost never happen in the same place and time.
Instant messaging is a notable exception. When you text or chat online, you can indeed ask for verification, clarification, correction. You can even get someone to change her mind on the spot. But when the teacher reads the student’s paper at her home, he is not there to point, to explain, or to expand. He has to leave everything he wants to say on the paper, because the next time he sees it, there will be a grade on it, based on the ‘displaced speech’ he delivered to the teacher’s in-box. Regardless of who is doing the reading, there is no opportunity to clarify, correct, and change. There are countless opportunities, on the other hand, for lingering frustration and confusion. (Just think about that last e-mail you really wish you hadn’t sent, for example!)
Regrettably, the school practice of after-the-fact correcting with coded symbols—because that too is displaced speech—is not as helpful as we would like it to be. The student can’t ask the teacher what particular construction in the sentence is awk.