Friday, June 24, 2011

The Shadow of Your Style

 Not too long ago, one of your students, in a surprise move, asked you to give an example of a dangling modifier.  "Sure,"  you said.  Then you paused, trying to conjure one forth.  "Er," you said.  And then you paused some more.  "Well, let's see," you said, now an official entry into the Big Zone of Uncertainty.  A splendid contrapuntal theme began to play against your desperate search for a dangling modifier; it was the theme of relief that you had so insulated yourself against the use of this solecism that you had to struggle to call it forth in example.  You ultimately found one; it came in a sentence you constructed that began with a gerund, thus separating yourself in your mind from the United States Supreme Court Associate Justice who could not define pornography but knew it nevertheless when he saw it.

This is preamble to your Three-Words Issue. So far as you are able to determine, there are three words you will go out of your way not to use when beginning an essay or, for that matter, a blog post.

1.  Issue word number one:  one, as in "One thing you will never do is begin a lead paragraph with the word 'one.'"

2.  Issue word number two:  it, as in (sorry, Jane) "It is a truth universally acknowledged..."  Beginning an essay, a paragraph, and most sentences with "it" depersonalizes the sentence by moving it off at arm's length from the reader, allowing you to slither into the remote present rather than the immediate moment of a character being on stage.  If it was so late that the character had to look at her watch in order to place the time, then register impatience, that character is placed under a handicap of not being the kind of person you'd want in a story in the first place and, in the second place, is the kind of character you'd expect to be stood up.  Beginning with "it" when you encounter such tropes causes you to reflexively ask "What?"  It was late?  What was late?  Thus you've been pulled out of the story or narrative.

3.  Issue word number three is "that."  You have for some time had a revulsion toward "that."  You find yourself cringing when you say something along the lines of "That's what I mean."  As opposed to "One" or "It," your specificity of why "that" is so grating to you is more rooted in idiosyncrasy.  There is a clunky, extra syllable feel to it.  "That is the book I was telling you about" sounds accusatory rather than attribution.  Even such elegance of finality as "That tears it." or even "That's it." are tropes you go out of your way to avoid to the point where, in revision, you have to bite the bullet, remove the substitution, then put that back where that belongs in that sentence.

There is some grim satisfaction in knowing this about your self and your preferences; these three matters contribute even in their not being used to the quirky literary DNA now resident in your style, and should anyone wish to do so, they could identify you with greater certainty by tracing your style.

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