Thinking about Lists

Lately I’ve been thinking about what sets English apart from other languages (especially Latin, which I studied in both high school and college). For centuries Latin has been held up as a model for good writers. Recently I’ve begun to question that notion.

Mixed in with those doubts about Latin has been curiosity about how our brains process language. Schools and textbooks tend to present writing skills as if students had no experience with words and sentences – a huge mistake, in my opinion.

Last week while I was typing a gardening column for Charlie, both thoughts came together in a sentence he had written. While you’re reading this, pay attention to what your brain does with the sentence. Notice anything? (I did.)

Such plants include azalea, cape honeysuckle, camellia, tea olive, Carolina jessamine, and tabebuia trees.

It’s like a magic trick – every plant in the list turns into a tree!

Such plants include azalea trees, cape honeysuckle trees, camellia trees, tea olive trees, Carolina jessamine trees, and tabebuia trees.

But only the tabebuias are trees. So Charlie and I rearranged the sentence:

Such plants include azalea, cape honeysuckle, camellia, tea olive, tabebuia trees, and Carolina jessamine.

Now you have a sentence that a horticulturist could love.

Charlie’s original sentence is a wonderful example of the amazing things our brains can do. We get to the last word in the sentence – trees – and our brains go back and add it to every item in the list. (Does Latin do this to lists? I don’t know. If you know the answer, please leave a comment – I’m interested!)

Back to my original point. I’m not sure I really explained myself. Let’s try this sentence:

I need to buy salt, bacon, and sugar substitute.

Your brain will automatically change the sentence to “I need to buy salt substitute, bacon substitute, and sugar substitute.”

But if you reword the sentence, you’ll be buying real salt and real bacon:

I need to buy salt, sugar substitute, and bacon.

(I’m wondering if you could demonstrate this principle in a sentence diagram. Would you have little arrows jumping backwards?)

Amazing thing, this language of ours!

Here’s my big point: Our brains do this kind of processing constantly in the course of our everyday lives. Shouldn’t we incorporate those processes into the way we teach writing skills? Why approach a roomful of students as if they knew nothing about our wonderful language?

In Central Florida, tabebuia trees put on a spectacular display every January.

In Central Florida, tabebuia trees put on a spectacular display every January.

 

 

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