The purpose of an essay is to show your understanding, views or opinions in response to an essay question, and to persuade the reader that what you are writing makes sense and can be backed up with evidence. In a literature essay, this usually means looking closely at a text (for example, a novel, poem or play) and responding to it with your ideas.
Essays can focus on a particular section of a text, for example, a particular chapter or scene, or ask a big picture question to make you think deeply about a character, idea or theme throughout the whole text.
Often essays are questions, for example, ‘How does the character Jonas change in the novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry?’ or they can be written using command words to tell you what to do, for example ‘Examine how the character Jonas changes in the novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry.’
It is important to look carefully at the essay question or title so that you keep your essay focused and relevant. If the essay tells you to compare two specific poems, you shouldn’t just talk about the two poems separately and you shouldn’t bring in lots of other poems.
a) An essay is a piece of writing in response to an essay question or statement.
b) An essay in literature usually involves writing about a text (such as a novel, poem or play).
c) An essay allows you to write everything you know about everything that happens in a text. Answer: c) This statement is incorrect. The essay question will tell you the topic to focus on.
Why won’t the waitress write down my order?
Some things make me crazy.
Not big things; I can handle a crisis. But little annoyances are what will finally kill me.
John and I are at a restaurant. The server brings our drinks and stands ready for our food order. I smile patiently and wait for her to pull an order pad from her black, food-speckled apron.
She stands tall and proud, as if waiting to hear an archaic word at a spelling bee. Her hands remain at her sides and tap out a “Come on, people” cadence against her leg.
After a few seconds, I realize she’s not going to write my order down.
She’s going to listen and remember.
Oh. How I hate this.
Somehow, the interaction between the eater and the server has turned into a power play to see who is best at their job. I feel pressured to articulate my order as carefully as possible, because I have no idea how well this person can retain information.
She smiles a practiced smile, knowing I don’t want to just TELL her my order. I want to DICTATE my order. And she’s not gonna let me. This moment can’t last forever; other people are hungry, too.
It’s my move.
My finger points to a glossy photo in the menu, and I begin ordering. But this is not ORDER talk. This is, “Please listen carefully; I will speak slowly and look to you for a nod of retention” talk.
It’s not as if I assume she is not capable of remembering protein, side, and salad words. There are just so many variables, and I want my variables to arrive the way I want them.
As my litany continues — “medium-well, no sour cream, salad dressing on the side” — I begin to feel as though I’m asking for too much personalization. Am I being too picky? Should I just say, “Number 3” and eat whatever comes? Does this server hate me for being so needy?
She is nodding now, as if I’m telling her the story of Uncle Jim’s lumbago woes. She’s heard it before and she can’t wait for it to end. But I’m sure she has already forgotten what vegetable I’ve asked for.
When I reach the end of my slightly whiny order, I don’t dare repeat myself; that would be rude and condescending. And for some reason, I don’t want to hurt her feelings. She has it all in her ears now, traveling to her memory center.
Then the server looks to John.
Oh, no. Different things to remember. My order will be covered by his. I don’t know how much room she has in there for more food talk. I should have gone after him.
John announces his selections in the slow cadence that accompanies all his communication. I want to reach over and grab his menu, shout, “Hurry up, before she forgets!” and shoo our server toward a computer that will make our order visible.
It’s finished. Our server smiles triumphantly; she knows we’re worried and she loves it. Off she saunters, stopping to grab an empty glass from a nearby table.
My eyes follow her to the computer. I pray she won’t stop to chit-chat with anyone or — god forbid — try to memorize another order. Mine is in her brain, and I won’t relax until it’s out of there and in the kitchen.
When she returns, many minutes later, she slings our hash and demands we check to see that “it’s all looking good”. I scan my plate, hoping for a mistake to justify my conviction that orders should be written down. It all looks okay. I smile and she knows she’s won. But she should’ve just written it down. Robin Garrison Leach is a freelance writer and columnist from Quincy, Illinois. Contact her at [email protected]
How Not to Write, What Not to Say
by LOUIS KRONENBERGER
I IMAGINE that book collectors who want mint copies of first editions would find few harder to come by than Fowler’s Modern English Usage. My own literally fell apart from so often enjoying pride of place on my night table or contriving the bliss of solitude in my bathroom. Clutched to a great many writers’ bosoms, kept within a great many more writers’ reach, Fowler — as his book very soon came to be called — acquired a kind of place in the literary life itself. Fowler became the writer’s grammarian, the one man in the annals of usage who knew enough that was invaluable, enough again that was not elsewhere obtainable, enough finally that was surprising or piquant or anomalous or recondite to add spice to tutelage, wit to chastisement, and lure to syntax. He was literary as well as learned, with something agreeably acid, donnish, high-tableish about him. He had the merit of making field beasts of a good many sacred cows, of splitting an infinitive in the very act of splitting hairs, of undermining stodgy pedantries while upholding highbred ones. He had, too, the gnarled charm of sometimes seeming crotchety, wrongheaded, immured, which never prevented his becoming an enlightened guide to good writing but did save his guidance from the claims of Holy Writ. A guide to good writing, he became a source of good reading as well; and so took his place above the salt with the Mencken of The American Language, the Greenough & Kittredge of Words and Their Ways, the Logan Pearsall Smith of Words and Idioms, the Farmer & Henley of Slang and Its Analogues, the Skcat of A Student’s Pastime — never with the college handbooks, copy editors’ manuals, or dry rot and tommyrot of pedagogues.
Modern English Usage first appeared in 1926, and though the announcement of a revised edition by Sir Ernest Gowers may have first inspired thoughts of sacrilege, plainly any second thoughts must have coupled revision with good sense. The past forty years have seen a multitude of forces crashing against the English language; a hands-off piety must in time have converted Modern English Usage into a period piece. Clearly, a much more practical form of deference is to separate what lias kept its sap from what time has blighted, to strike out what is needed no longer and introduce what was nowhere foreseen.
Sir Ernest has left much of Fowler intact and much less only slightly, and discreetly, revised. At times, indeed, Sir Ernest catches his predecessor’s very voice: “I must flee suggests the approach of an unwelcome visitor. I must fly suggests the recollection of a forgotten engagement.”But straight on from Fowler’s own memorable dedicatory preface, the great, signposts (Sobriquets, Number), the great landmarks (Split Infinitive, Elegant Variations), the famous warnings to trespassers (Cast-iron Idiom, Love ol the Long Word), the vexatious crossroads (Which, That, Who; Big, Great, Large), and the small inscriptions and scrawls (Misapprehensions, Superstitions) remain. Of Fowler’s larger efforts, only thirty pages on technical terms and eight on French pronunciation have been banished. A cautionary “then-and-now” between 1926 and 1965 is the listings of Literary Critics’ Words: banal, cachet, meticulous, mot juste ousted by ambience, dichotomy, seminal, ambivalent. Similarly, such 1926 “vogue words” as hectic, protagonist, unthinkable, idiosyncrasy have crumbled before adumbrate, integrate, implement, blueprint. One of Sir Ernest’s own contributions deals with the pronunciation of England’s trickier proper names, on the off chance that, after leaving Althorp with Freddy Pole Carew, you may run into Esmé Wavertree and “Bobo” Leveson Gower on the way to Woburn.
During the last forty years the greatest influence on words and their ways has come from America. Decided national differences persist: let us hope we never call garters sock suspenders, or barbers men’s hairdressers, as the English blanch at the thought of calling a lift an elevator or a jug a pitcher. And may we never be so U — or is it just vulgarly euphemistic? —as to talk of lavatory paper, or so worriedly snobbish as to refer to an organization’s “hon. secretary” to make plain that he draws no pay. Sir Ernest provides a long (if occasionally inaccurate) list of persisting differences. Actually, the English shop is as often shop as store with us; their boot is not our shoe but our high shoe; and in setting American vending machine against English slot machine, Sir Ernest has surely turned things about. He might have listed England’s vegetable marrow as our squash, and known, in praising their motorcar against our automobile, that automobile is dying out with us and car is almost universal. Our most helpful contribution to the Englishman’s language has come in the form of coinages to meet modern needs: commuter, baby-sitter, teen-ager, gimmick, double-talk, know-how. Our least helpful contribution to England has been such less-than-classical usages as aim to, such misusages as due to (as a preposition), and the perversion of various words like disinterested and presently.
Almost everything that Sir Ernest has introduced, as either replacement or supplement, seems in order. His instincts, like his predecessor’s, appear to be conservative, but his general awareness, for all that he is eighty-five years old, seems more firsthand. With Sir Ernest we are, so to speak, in a world that will settle for forceps as a plural but, happily, not yet for scissors as a singular. The new book may seem disconcertingly modern in spots, but no one need prefer Fowler to Fowler-Gowers the way people prefer the eleventh edition of the Britannica to the fourteenth; and no one with any tact in these matters, whatever his dissents, can possibly prefer any other book in the field.
THERE are a great many other books in the field: it abounds as never before with handbooks, manuals, guides, paperback preachments, and hardcover proclamations on correct, or elevating, or remunerative speech and writing. Sheer anarchists about language in one sense, Americans are quaking conformists in another, and are made to feel that saying “those kind of things” is almost like eating with your knife. This comes partly from fearing that if you bungle your grammar, you will botch your career, that an ill-timed “he don’t” may lead to all-time ruin, and that “this is they” will win a substantial promotion. It is unfortunate that, as against scrappy gains in grammar and syntax, there has been so steep a decline in a sense of idiom and traditional usage. In a field that could do with extended study, I have been looking at an old handbook, reissued a while back under notable sponsorship, and at a brand-new one by the author of two previous manuals.
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. (1869-1946), a professor of English at Cornell, belongs to a large family of manuals that were circulating some forty years ago. What sets it apart is an occasional trace of personality; what accounts for its successful revival is that E. B. White, who sat under Professor Strunk, became its devoted advocate (and amender). Certainly a good deal in the book is unexceptionable. But, granted Strunk’s vigor in the classroom, Strunk on paper is a mere schoolmaster about words and nowhere seems master of them. He quite lacks the quality stressed in his title: style. Style is an unwise word for him to have chosen ( Fowler sensibly speaks of usage), since to presume to teach style in its higher sense is sheer folly, and simply to equate it with effective writing gives it far too bleached and pinched a look. Actually, what Strunk went after was what most teachers bring down a whip on: violations of grammar, clumsy locutions, wobbly constructions, cliches, and “needless words.” Strunk sometimes brings down his whip with more pedantic ardor than literary warrant. Thus he states unconditionally that none “takes the singular verb.” None, it so happens, takes the plural verb times without number in excellent writers, who alone are the lawmakers in these matters; the Strunks are the policemen. No less unconditionally, Professor Strunk flays: “Every one in the community, whether they are a member of the Association or not, is invited to attend.” This he corrects to what countless good writers regard as out-of-thc-frying-pan: “Every one in the community, whether he is a member of the Association or not, is invited to attend,” Surely any alert sophomore would get rid, at one stroke, of needless words and a knotty problem with: “Everyone in the community, whether a member of the Association or not. . . .” Strunk’s word sense, moreover, kept pace with his prose instincts. He changed student body, which he thought “gruesome,” to studentry, which I think ghastly.
If I seem harsh, it is because, along with other defects and limitations, Professor Strunk didn’t even have a historical sense. In denouncing body here, he was tangling in a number of languages with one of the great symbolic and metaphorical words of Western culture, and virtually pledged to outlaw as “gruesome” the extended uses, in Latin and English, of corpus; not to speak of somebody, nobody, anybody, everybody, busybody, a body of men, a body oj laws, the body of an article, heavenly bodies, the body pflitic. to body forth, and of corps de ballet, esprit de corps, diplomatic corps, and marine corps.
For all their pedestrian talents and drill-sergeant methods, the Professor Strunks can be genuinely useful, but as nurses are with young children, or books of etiquette with wrong-fork-frightened adults. Beyond that, their value must be questioned. Anyone who writes, as Professor Strunk does in his own handbook, “Use this word only of matters of a kind capable of direct verification” has as much to learn as he can ever teach; and his famous pupil, whose additions to The Elements of Style are its chief adornments, would surely have been no less deft had he never sat under Professor Strunk.
PROFESSOR STRUNK is the Old School Tyrant. Of the new pontiffs, Theodore M. Bernstein, assistant managing editor of the New York Times, now follows up two successful manuals with a far more extensive work, The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Mr. Bernstein’s book differs spectacularly from Professor Strunk’s, and not just as the newsroom differs from the classroom. Mr. Bernstein has for years been circulating house bulletins to help the Times staff write better, and has no doubt enlivened his injunctions about usage with his injections of humor and wit. As an amiable man’s family joking, this may be all very well; as a formula — half jeslbook, half handbook —aimed at the general public, it seems to me deplorable, both in itself and as a sign of our culture. But before reviewing Mr. Bernstein’s vaudeville turns, let us watch him at the blackboard.
Here the yardstick is a word stressed in the book’s title: careful. Any word so stressed must, I think, imply more than conformity to reasonably educated visage. It must argue an informed concern for the best traditions of the language and a proper awareness of those who have fostered and formed them. Mr. Bernstein, however, very largely bases his decrees on dictionaries, earlier manuals, and unnamed “authorities,” despite the fact that dictionaries (the big Oxjord excepted) primarily record rather than regulate usage, and that manuals oftener repeat than revaluate their predecessors. Many of Mr. Bernstein’s specific findings and rulings are sound; much of what seems meant for newspapermen, copywriters, television announcers, and the like is very useful; and Mr. Bernstein does not meekly swallow a number of usage chestnuts, such as Professor Strunk’s none is. Mr. Bernstein performs a further service by indicating which prepositions follow a vast number of nouns, verbs, and adjectives. His limitation as a guide is his failure to keep to a consistent level of guidance —■ in this case, the announced level of the “carelul” writer. He tosses into his own text words and phrases, gratingly slangy to begin with, that by now are glaringly shopworn as well: pooch, pronto, upgrading, what makes it tick.
As for what he condemns or acquits among the more arguable matters of usage, we all have our particular crotchets and questionable freedoms of speech. In the matter of usage, moreover, we are all about equally opinionated. But I could wish that here, too, Mr. Bernstein kept to a definable level. He is sternly against blame it on — which is immemorial and well befriended — yet quite undismayed by very separated—which is intolerable and very new. He calls ad for advertisement as established an abbreviation as piano and auto; but piano is standard English, where auto was always hick and is now, surely, obsolescent. Despite his efforts to control prepositions, Mr. Bernstein is permissive about oblivious to (a perfect example of what the careful writer shuns), and he violates really cultivated usage by dotting his own prose with such things as predicate on, injused with, tinker with, in the cards. No careful writer that I know says, as Mr. Bernstein does, cannot help but or newly acquired or conform it to one’s person, or uses human as a noun or assure that intransitively. Mr. Bernstein also decries needless words, only to indulge in them, and condemns mixed metaphors, only to contrive things like weeding out coinages.
As handbook admonitions, Mr. Bernstein’s are in large measure sensible, and a book with Half the pages of this one might prove of real service. But in view of its offending half, I must question the value of a book that, written to raise today’s standards of writing, lowers its already low standards of taste; for beyond being intrusive, Mr. Bernstein’s joking is crude, sometimes cheap, and inexcusably familiar. His gags are not occasional but incessant, and often as battered as they are bad. I quote from the book pretty much at random:
1. “ Them conclusions simply aint got no justification.”
2. “[Gender] is not a substitute for sex (but then, what is?).”
3. Many phrases on the order of “every Thomas, Richard and Henry.”
4. Under the subhead ravish. “Keep your mind on your work, buster; the word you want is ravaging.”
5. Under the subhead laid. “Women laid down in the roadway to halt the Soviet tanks.” “Down,” comments Mr. Bernstein, “isn’t laid; it comes off a duck.”
6. Under the subhead, raise, rear. “We raise,” says Mr. Bernstein, “both pigs and children, and some parents will testify that you can’t always tell the difference.”
Mr. Bernstein’s probable success in ousting two or three dozen vulgarisms seems meager when set against so much self-congratulatory vulgarity. The atmosphere he creates, the television-script approach he encourages do more harm than violations of grammar. Yet Mr. Bernstein’s use of gags as a gimmick is in the end just one of many depressing symptoms of what ails contemporary language as part of contemporary life. Never before, I would think, have there been so many new objects, enterprises, processes, discoveries for which new words must he found; never before, so many trumped-up fads, instant-brewed attitudes, or professional users of words for whom language is a commodity or a sales device. Clearly, science and technology must night and day be inventing words; sociology, just as clearly, must disfigure and truncate them, and Madison Avenue go on designing its verbal junk jewelry. The speed with which new words appear hardly exceeds the speed with which we succumb to them; and if we do this often from negligence, we do it almost as often from need. Moreover, remembering how Swift objected to mob, Macaulay to gentlemanly, Richard Grant White to reliable, and Fowler to foreword, we might remember one man more: King Canute. Yet the question of language differs, I think, from the question of usage. The space age makes countdown indispensable overnight; the age of anxiety must perforce turn pressure into a verb. But on what reasoning need people “graduate high school” — and by what literacy test are they permitted to?
The continuing growth of language, with all the births and burials it ordains, scarcely calls for pointless hideous distortions of it, so that not only syntax falls apart but hundreds of fine distinctions too — everything that gives writing suppleness, ease, elegance, urbanity, a kinship with what is written about. Yet, however dubious a too-breezy style, it is not the greatest current danger. The greatest derives from those pedagogues and intellectuals who try to float a large, polysyllabic, jargon-cluttered vocabulary on a vexed sea of heaving solecisms and drowning syntax. And beyond how unkempt or overweight or impenetrable their own prose, there are all the vogue words, the critics’ words, the nonwords they bestow upon other people’s. Nowhere is the effect of such contamination-from-above more idiotically apparent than in student term papers. In one short paper, I recently encountered fragmented, conceptual, extrapolated, structured, charismatic, modalities, specificity.
The highbrows mangling the language, the hucksters debasing it, the Strunks dictatorial and dogmatic, the Bernsteins journalistic and gimmicky — what ultimately lumps them all together is a want of something civilized. And it is on obtaining just that that the health and trim look and inner strength of language in America must rest. Good writing owes its merit chiefly to little words, to light touches, to simple graces, to pungent idioms and a clean handling of the smaller parts of speech; lies in the set of a phrase, the hang of a sentence; belongs to those who have an unforced, unaffected way with language, a sensitive ear, a feeling for occasion. If it proves too laborious to learn about good writing from good writers, Fowler and Gowers, however odd at times or inapplicably British, are civilized, and do provide the sort of counsel and keep to the sort of standards that can be truly rewarding.