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LINGUIST List 16.1802

Wed Jun 08 2005

Media: NYTimes: Devoid of Content

Editor for this issue: Steven Moran <stevelinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Laurence Horn, NYTimes: Devoid of Content

Message 1: NYTimes: Devoid of Content
Date: 06-Jun-2005
From: Laurence Horn <laurence.hornyale.edu>
Subject: NYTimes: Devoid of Content

An opinion piece of interest by Stanley Fish; full text can be perused at
(with free subscription) or downloaded from Nexis

The New York Times
Tuesday, May 31, 2005 Tuesday

SECTION: Section A; Column 2; Editorial Desk; Pg. 17

HEADLINE: Devoid of Content

BYLINE: By Stanley Fish.
Stanley Fish is dean emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

We are at that time of year when millions of American college and high
school students will stride across the stage, take diploma in hand and set
out to the wider world, most of them utterly unable to write a clear and
coherent English sentence. How is this possible? The answer is simple and
even obvious: Students can't write clean English sentences because they are
not being taught what sentences are.

Most composition courses that American students take today emphasize
content rather than form, on the theory that if you chew over big ideas
long enough, the ability to write about them will (mysteriously) follow.
The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a delusion, and it should be
banished from the classroom. Form is the way.

On the first day of my freshman writing class I give the students this
assignment: You will be divided into groups and by the end of the semester
each group will be expected to have created its own
language, complete with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for translating
the text and strategies for teaching your language to fellow students. The
language you create cannot be English or a slightly coded version of
English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions -- between
tense, number, manner, mood, agency and the like -- that English enables us
to make.

You can imagine the reaction of students who think that 'syntax' is
something cigarette smokers pay, guess that 'lexicon' is the name of a
rebel tribe inhabiting a galaxy far away, and haven't the slightest idea of
what words like 'tense,' 'manner' and 'mood' mean. They think I'm crazy.
Yet 14 weeks later -- and this happens every time -- each group has
produced a language of incredible sophistication and precision.

Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics

Subject Language(s): English (ENG)

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