Linguistics

Language holds power. When I was a freshman at Pitt, an English professor introduced me to close reading. He coached me through writing my first real university level paper–something I wrongly believed I had done before. I was a cocky kid at seventeen. Professor B still managed to get through my thick shell of my own awesomeness that the minute points of a sentence hold immeasurable power.

Usually I hear people talk about the power of language in a general way: the power to inspire or scare, warm or cool, bring anger and bring happiness. Words and ideas can do these things, but there is a much quieter power in the comma.

Close reading is all about reading closely. It’s as though you’re reading with the book to your nose and can only see so much at a time. Examining the structure and order of sentences, even word choice, and attempting to find meaning within these. New Criticism, a literary theory movement that peaked in the 40s, was all about using a text as a self-contained piece and then breaking it apart–or breaking parts of it apart–what effectively came down to character by character. While New Criticism liked to view a text as autonomous, Professor B loved to draw on anything he could find that could be considered even remotely relevant. Context, context, context. The fact that Bram Stoker is Irish–and a Dubliner!–a monarchist, and a believer in Home Rule, must at least be in our minds when looking at Dracula, even if we’re discussing the sentence when Jonathan Harker stabs the count with a kukri knife. Well, if we’re looking to create meaningful, well developed and informed criticism.

One way the meaning of sentences is affected is the order of clauses. Conjunctions and disjunctions (or disjunctive conjunctions) are one such way to organize clauses. Recently, it was pointed out to me how different the choice of order and connection change the meaning of sentences:

It’s hot and I’m happy
I’m happy and it’s hot.
I’m happy, but it’s hot.
It’s hot, but I’m happy.

My analysis:

“I’m happy and it’s hot” has a connection that can be argued, but it’s easy enough to ignore it. These can be two separate ideas. They can both be good things–and I believe this is implied–but they are not causally related. I am happy. It is hot.

“It’s hot and I’m happy” implies a connection between the two clauses. Because it is hot, I am happy is what this is saying.

“I’m happy, but it’s hot.” This is really want I am trying to get at. Even though I am happy, it is hot [and that negates the former]. Having a positive clause followed by the disjunctive ‘but’ and a negative clause says that the former has less value than the latter, possibly to the point of the former not mattering at all.

The counter to the third example is the fourth: “It’s hot, but I’m happy.” Even though it’s hot, I’m still happy. This is a little assuming (that heat is a bad thing), but inspiring. It can be a bad thing, but I can still be happy. That’s kind of cool.

After thinking about this for a few days, I began to try and be more conscious about how I spoke when using the word “but” in reference to other people.

“I love SGM and EK, but they keep sleeping on the couches, tempting me to return to my own slumber.”

is now

“SGM and EK keep sleeping on the couches, tempting me to return to my own slumber, but I love them.” Anyway can be tacked on or implied. SGM does this thing that bothers me, but it’s okay because I still love her. (SGM and EK do, in fact, sleep on the couches during the hot hot heat. And it does make me want to go back to sleep. Sleep looks so nice.)

I am not always successful. I am trying to do this in order to create a more positive environment for those around me. I don’t want to remove criticism, but I want to separate it from praise. (Similarly to how it is important to criticism companies for bad practices, but cheer them for good ones even within the same company.) I think dropping “but” altogether would be great. “When I see SGM and EK sleeping on the couches, I want to go back to bed because sleep sounds so nice” is a much better sentence, and idea, in and of itself. It doesn’t need much more to justify it.

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