“I Meant What I Said When I Said The Soup Was Good,” I Ejaculated Most Fizzily


I am sick with some kind of plague, so you will have to endure the reek of my crankypants.

ENDURE IT.

*shakes crankypants at you, bathing you in rage-stink*

Anyway.

I read an article. (God, it always starts that way, doesn’t it?)

Many of my kind have shared this article.

You can read this article here. It is dumb.

The tl;dr of that article is kids being encouraged to cut out simple words in favor of more complex ones. “Expressive” words. Showy words strutting their butts around like pretty pretty peacocks. Sometimes they’re not just encouraged, but rather, punished for failing to do so.

I CALL HORSESHIT AND SHENANIGANS. HORSCHTNANIGANS.

Listen, I get it. I love language.

Language is a circus of delight. It’s like a buffet of food. You don’t always want to eat meat and potatoes. You want to try new things, and encouraging kids — or adults! — to find new ways to express themselves is a win. The breadth and depth of our language is a rich garden with loamy soil. All manner of things can grow up and out of that bed of linguistic nutrients.

Here, though, let me quote a few passages from the article:

English teachers were once satisfied if they could prevent their pupils from splitting infinitives. Now some also want to stop them from using words like “good,” “bad,” “fun” and “said.”

“We call them dead words,” said (or declared) Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull.

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

and

Now he automatically hunts for more picturesque language. “Rather than saying, ‘This soup was good,’ you can say something like, ‘The soup was delectable,’ which really enhances it,” Josh instructed. “It gives it sort of this extra push.”

One recent afternoon after school, Josie and Josh agreed to take a stab at editing famous authors, starting with the closing words of James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “….yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Head down, her pigtails brushing the paper, Josie examined the phrase and then suggested a small amendment: “…yes I hollered yes I will Definitely.”

and finally, oh god

Robert C. March, a writing teacher at Atkins High School in Winston-Salem, N.C., stands by his list. He has banned “I,” “you,” “we,” “why” and “it,” among others. Mr. March makes clear on his Web page that he means business: “Any banned word, or contraction, that appears in a work submitted to me will count as -5 (minus five) points off the total grade.”

Holy shit, what.

The gall to edit James Joyce.

The ego it takes to claim that simple words are ‘dead’ words.

The cruelty of punishing kids for using common, everyday, essential words.

This isn’t about expression.

This is about elitism — about embracing some faux-literary divide and stepping over one-penny blue-collar words so you can instead reach for the five dollar words in the jar on the high shelf.

The problem here is that it assumes our expression is limited by the simplicity of our language. It is not. You can express complex ideas with simple words. You can tell whole stories or give voice to complicated emotions with language that is clear, direct, and confident. The soup is good is a fine fucking sentence, I’ll have you know. It is clear. You don’t need to say ‘delectable’ because delectable is a fancy-pancy froo-froo word, one that is arguably redundant. You’d be better off directing kids to learn how to express themselves not with more complicated words, but rather with complicated images, metaphors, ideas. If a teacher feels that “the soup is good” fails to go far enough, have them describe how good, or how it makes them feel. Why is it good? Why do you like it? How does it make you feel and to what does it compare?

Context is more meaningful than painting up your words to be pretty.

Pretty words are often very nice, indeed, and also very hollow.

Characters say things and do things and nothing about that limits the power of either. What a character says and does is far more significant than how that character says or does it. The language is there to serve the idea, to give it clarity and beauty. The idea is not there to serve at the pleasure of the language. Don’t let the words gum up the meaning of what you’re trying to say.

I mean, for fuck’s sake. Sure, once in a while a character will yell or bark or spit a word out like it was something foul on the tongue. Once in a while a character will be pompous enough to believe food should be called ‘delectable’ because a word like ‘good’ could never be sufficient. Certainly big words are not to be avoided just because they’re big words — but we should cleave to them because they are the right words, not simply large and fancy and ever-so-precious. I’m using some fancy words here in this post. I do it because I like them but more because I think they are appropriate. They serve me. They create and enhance meaning.

Most of the time, simple words will do.

Simple words can be strung together to form complex sentences and complicated ideas. Some of the most astonishing poetry is the most straightforward — not the showiest, not the splashiest. That is what we should be striving to teach kids — and, further, to teach upcoming writers. Expression is more than the sum of word choice. And word choice is not garish makeup to slather across your paragraphs and pages just because you think it was too crude and not pretty enough. Don’t punish kids because they aren’t high-falutin’ enough for you. Sophistication is not well-demonstrated by purple prose. Work harder. Think bigger. Eschew the elitism of language.

Otherwise, fuck you.

Is that simple enough for you?


142 responses to ““I Meant What I Said When I Said The Soup Was Good,” I Ejaculated Most Fizzily”

  1. Oh, for fuck’s sake, indeed. As someone who has wrangled with both middle schoolers and language, I’d like to ask several of you to take a deep breath. Are the teaching practices referenced in the original post crap? Yes, I think they are. Do they generally come from a place of good intentions from intelligent teachers who recognize good writing from bad? Most of the time, yes to that, too. Teachers resort to these kind of end-run teaching practices because teaching writing well is as hard as, well, writing well.

    The answer to most writing questions is: It depends. Good or delectable? It depends! On so many things.
    And guess what? The same thing is true about teaching! What’s good teaching practice? It depends! On so many things. There is absolutely a context in which a teacher might ask students not to use particular words for the point of–duh!–teaching something about how language works. So, can we all agree that wholesale word banning is bad practice and will likely create damage that some other teacher will need to fix AND that many of the teachers who do these kinds of things are are neither terrible teachers nor assholes determined to destroy a literature they cannot appreciate?

  2. I teach first-year writing at a university very, very close to the nexus of stupidity quoted in the WSJ. My colleagues have actually produced the handouts given to their children (or children of their friends) with the lists of dead words. We mock them (the handouts and their authors) in staff meetings; then we go forth and try to undo the damage to our students. Because yes, HOW and WHY the soup is good is more important than “good” or “delectable” or wtf-ever. You can’t shorthand details with a fancy-pants word.

  3. Wow!! Your posts always elicit comment, but this one really earned it. It’s hard enough to get kids interested in writing down their thoughts, but to demand they think in language most of us don’t use every day is just INSANE. Where do people get these ideas. And who lets them practice them on our kids?

  4. Ha, this JUST came up in our household the week before Thanksgiving. Our youngest teen was struggling to write a two-page story of one fictional person interviewing another and the students were forbidden from using the word “said.” They were also warned not to reuse too many words like exclaimed, questioned, etc. The end product sounded as forced and uncomfortable as it was for her to write. She did not enjoy it and it certainly did not increase her desire to write. I predict more rants to come when your little guy gets into some of the other crap they’re doing now to make kids hate to read. Go ahead…say the word “Annotation” to me!!!!!

  5. I know this has been stated over and over, but there’s a difference between choosing different words because they more precisely communicate what you’re trying to say and simply using longer words for the sake of doing so. Using the simplest language required to state exactly what you’re trying to get across is a virtue. Using long words to make yourself seem clever is like counting to a trillion: It’s not only pointless, but you’re making yourself look kind of sad.

  6. People incapable of using the word “said” as a dialogue tag (like, ever) really come off as a pompous dildos.

  7. Should not educators be permitted absolute liberty in employing whatsoever pedagogical strategies that buoy their individual naval vessels?

  8. If I were to express how I feel about the “‘Said’ Is Dead” movement, I’d have to use cussing and creative insults of truly Wendigian proportion, and I’m just not up to that.

    • That’s one response. My response to things I felt were bad pedagogy was to engage the teacher and discuss them. Sometimes they changed. Sometimes I decided they had a point. Eventually I joined the school board so I can have a meaningful say. I will now start looking to see if any of my teachers are using this bull-pucky. Seriously, I had teachers in high school who did me he favor of teaching me just the opposite–use simple language, use he exact word, and don’t try to show off your vocabulary just because you know a lot of ten-dollar words.

  9. Damn you, Chuck! This is bringing back suppressed memories. Horseshit like this is why I steered well clear of creative writing until rather late in life. OK, some folks will say that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t alter the fact that I will now probably need therapy.
    *Curls into a little ball and whimpers*

  10. *Standing Ovation* You sir must take a bow! This is the most pretentious article I have read in quite some time. Thank you for pointing out all the silliness behind it. In short, THIS JUST CHAPS MY ASS.

  11. “Have I told you lately that I love you
    Have I told you there’s no one else above you…..”

    No but seriously. Never before has someone so neatly summed up what has been running through my head on this subject, right down to the cuss words.
    When I was in high school my teachers were all about minimum word counts. If an essay needed to be 500 words long, 499 meant an automatic F. So I learned how to write puffily, with long phrases and needless modifiers. It took years to undo the damage. Years and many, many bewildering rejection slips.
    Shit like this is why writers drink.

  12. Banning the use of certain words is not good. Getting kids to swap out good for delectible is madness. They do not mean the same thing, it also does not add any extra information about the subject.

    This is poor teaching. If a child’s vocab is limited then it is the teachers responsibility to help them explore new words and their appropriate use.

    I used to get marks removed for not writing to the margin, slanting my letters to much and using the wrong cursive writing techniques.

  13. I teach high school. I’m also a published author. Every year, I do the “Said is not dead. Said has risen from the grave. Long live said” speech. Tomorrow, English teachers in my junior high have asked me to present about “said.” I will strive to not ejaculate fizzily.

  14. I can’t wait for this hot new teaching method to create a generation of writers purple-prosing to Lovecraftian lengths. “It’s not just *big*, it’s *cyclopean*!”

  15. NOT anything that happened in MY classroom when I was teaching writing, thank you VERY much. From my experience suffering through godawful teacher in-services, though, the in-service trainers (I REFUSE to call them teachers!) and curriculum directors Have. No. Clue. About. Effective. Writing.

    Oh, can I insert a fucking Common fucking Core fucking rant? Because fucking this fucking is fucking what fucking Common fucking Core fucking writing fucking teaching fucking is fucking about.

    And if you think this is bad, just look up “close reading.”

    Sincerely,

    A Former Middle School Teacher Fucking Fed Up With Fucking Nonwriters Who Haven’t A Fucking Clue About Writing And Shouldn’t Be Teaching It.

  16. This has been going on for a while. I’ve run into a number of people (of varying ages) on writing forums who insist that their teachers taught them they’re not “supposed” to tag dialog with said, for instance. I think it’s probably an exercise teachers give younger kids when they assign creative writing (and sadly, older kids are rarely assigned creative writing in school, since from junior high on it’s all about learning how to write essays about novels, plays and poems someone else wrote).

    I think this practice is intended to vocabulary build, which is fine. It may even be fun to get kids to try and write the purplest prose they can in order to practice all their five-dollar words. The problem is, these teachers never sit the kids down and tell them the truth: this is for practice only, so don’t use this style of writing in something that you’re actually hoping to publish. I think they assume the kids will naturally segue into writing like the real, published authors they read some day. But some people actually remember the rules they were taught in school and actually enshrine them to the point they’ll spend the rest of their life insisting everyone else is wrong.

  17. How does someone ban the words “I” and “You”? Are we all to speak in the third person now? I understand banning them from essays and other academic writing, for very valid reasons, but banning almost every widely-used pronoun too? There’s a pretty important reason why words like “it” and “they” exist. The constant repetition of phrases would become annoying if we had no pronouns to refer to them after they’re said the first time. The previous sentence alone had two such pronouns.

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