An English Teacher Falls to the Floor

I’ve been waiting to write about something that comes up frequently in my writing group. The problem was that I couldn’t come up with a good example. I finally found one in a gardening column I was typing for my husband.

Charlie was writing about resurrection plants that dry up and look dead – sometimes for years – until a rain shower revives them. One plant in this category – Selaginella lepidophylla, aka “spikemoss” – has an even more remarkable quality. Here’s what my husband wrote about it. Notice anything?

Interestingly, even wholly dead specimens uncurl when moistened because the cells responsible for rehydration continue to expand after death.

I had doubts about that “wholly dead” – but before I could say anything, Charlie raised the point himself. “Dead is an absolute term,” he said. “You can’t be wholly dead, can you?” (In fact I just raised that point in a recent post.)

My thoughts exactly. But after we talked about it for a couple of minutes, we agreed that “wholly” should say in. Why? Because he wanted to emphasize that he was talking about plants that really, really, really were dead.

It’s an issue that comes up all the time in my writing group. Rules are rules, aren’t they? Don’t good writers have to follow them 24/7?

Instead of giving a direct answer, I usually raise another question: Which came first, rules or language?

The answer – of course – is that language came first. Rules were an attempt to pass on what good writers were doing so that the rest of us could follow in their footsteps.

My standard advice is to write the problematic sentence both ways – following the rules and breaking them. Then set the sentence aside. After some time has passed, read both versions and decide which one feels better. Use it without apology. If someone raises an objection, say – loudly – I like it this way.

(I always picture an English teacher falling over dead when I say this. Sorry!)

I’m going to leave that unfortunate English teacher lying on the floor (in the spirit of this “resurrection” post, I’ll bring her back to life in a minute). I want to explain why I voted for “wholly dead.”

Every book of writing advice ever written urges writers to aim for brevity. “Omit needless words!” is the solemn advice from Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well has a whole chapter about avoiding verbal clutter.

The problem with this sensible advice is that it sometimes clashes with other essential writing principles: Be emphatic. Be clear. Sometimes an apparently unnecessary word can be useful and should stay in. Our language is full of redundancies (the lofty term is “overdetermination”). They’re so much a part of our everyday lives that we never notice them.

Take a look at this sentence:

He takes his car to the dealership for an oil change twice a year.

How many times does this sentence tell you he’s male? Not once but twice: He/His.

And how many times does it tell you that we’re talking about just one person? Three times! He/takes/his.

Everyday communication usually takes place in less-than-perfect surroundings. The TV is on, an ambulance siren is blasting, other people are talking. But even if you miss big chunks of a conversation, you’re likely to know exactly what was said: The redundancy in our language ensures that you won’t miss anything important.

(Surprising fact: Much of this research was done by telephone companies. Their studies showed that static and interference don’t cause problems with most phone conversations. The redundancy built into our English language has saved phone companies from wasting a lot of money on unnecessary upgrades.)

Let’s bring that English teacher back to life and talk about Charlie’s column. He wanted to make sure his readers got the point: Even a dead-as-a-doornail spikemoss specimen can revive – slightly, for just a few moments – when it’s given some water. How do you show that you’re no longer talking about the specimens that lie dormant for years and dramatically spring back to life?

That two-syllable word does the job nicely: Wholly dead. Nobody is going to miss the point – even if the kids are squabbling in the background, the microwave is beeping, and the dog is barking.

Spikemoss is amazing. So is our language!

Selaginella lepidophylla - the common name is "spikemoss"

Selaginella lepidophylla – the common name is “spikemoss”




2 thoughts on “An English Teacher Falls to the Floor

  1. AvatarGustavo A. Rodríguez

    I loved your post, as usual.
    My wife, a biologist, loved the fact that you capitalized the genus, but not the species in “Selaginella lepidophylla.” There are some rules, after all.

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