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Friday, November 22, 2019

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Making Sour Soup

During the late 1940s and 50s a gnome-like Literature professor at the University of California-Berkeley began a project that involved counting the different parts of speech poets employed in their poems: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and so on. Her name was Josephine Miles, and she was herself a fine poet in the Emily Dickinson line, as witnessed by her Collected Poems: 1930-1983. Her word-counting project may have been arduous, but the results were anything but dull. She discovered that the very great poets constructed their poems from a very high percentage of concrete nouns and active verbs. At the top of this list was William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. Whitman used the highest percentage of nouns—not surprisingly because many of his greatest poems were enumerations of the things he found beautiful about America at its common physical roots. Shakespeare used a combination of vivid nouns and verbs, and it was the directness and energy those produced together that make him, after 400 years, the greatest practitioner of the English language.

Down the quality list, Miles also discovered, mediocre poets used a sour soup of adjectives, adverbs and copula verbs to inflate the ordinariness of their thought. Mercifully, Miles died in 1985, long before the 21st Century brought us the fractured purple of George W. Bush and his speech-writers, or the gray bureaucratese of contemporary public life. I’m not sure how many people took Miles’ painstaking word counts seriously, but I’ve certainly never forgotten them or the lessons about good writing that are implicit in them.

I was reminded of them a few days ago while watching an educational television program with my five-year-old daughter. On the screen, one of the network’s children’s hosts was impersonating Shakespeare to dramatize the proper understanding and use of adjectives and adverbs. The segment, presumably, was trying to lead children toward writing stories, which is a laudable goal. But it was suggesting, with the Shakespeare impersonator as the celebrity pitchman, that the road to good and colourful writing is paved with lots of gleaming adjectives and shiny adverbs. That’s wrong, and using William Shakespeare to pitch it is more wrong still.

Fortunately my daughter wasn’t paying much attention, so I was able to spare her the lecture I brought up her two older brothers on. The short version of that lecture is that everything you watch on television is a lie, and everyone you see talking on it is an idiot, usually reading lines on a TelePrompTer written by even bigger idiots. The desecration of Shakespeare was annoying and depressing in several ways, but since she’s still too young to understand that or my lecture, I let it go.

The segment is annoying because it is wrong about Shakespeare’s use of language, and wrong about how parts of speech should be employed to make effective writing. It is depressing because there’s no reason for either error except that whoever wrote the segment is either poorly educated or a nitwit. That this is being shown on an educational network generally recognized as the best on the continent isn’t exactly uplifting, nor is the probability that the segment will be rerun dozens of times before it is declared stale.

I used to say, to anyone that would listen, that educational television is an oxymoron. Then I fell in love with and married a television producer, and had to rethink my position—or at least shut up unless I had something really entertaining and witty to illustrate it with. At this point, I guess I’d say that educational television tends to be an oxymoron, with some gorgeous exceptions—not all of which involve my wife. But I think that this parcel of misinformation that has Shakespeare pitching my daughter the right way to write badly is characteristic of television as well as egregiously wrong. It points precisely at the way that television misreads the world, which is filled with concrete things and precise actions, particularly when life is worth living. By contrast, television is all about adjectives and adverbs; about hype, exaggeration, and about false drama rather than effective or situationally accurate action. If educational television has a mission to fulfill, it is to change that characteristic.

690 w. November 1, 2002

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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