patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

a simple sentence

I just sent my student Sam a paper back all marked up in tracked changes. It was a powerful little essay on the subject of Sam’s regret over never having shared the good news about the One God Sent to a friend who died an atheist. “[P]erhaps a simple sentence could have changed his fate,” Sam concludes.

A simple sentence. It is so interesting to me, as a teacher of writing, how resolutely we resist simple sentences. Most writers will do anything to avoid them, complicating them with clauses and qualifiers and all manner of rhetorical hesitations and joining them to other sentences in every way possible, habits that land them in the myriad punctuation errors that are the pests of college writing instruction.

Case in point: Sam. Though only in his first year of college, he already has a strong voice as a writer. He’s insightful, funny, genuine, interesting. Occasionally even concrete. He has an overwhelming aversion to periods, though—an aversion to which many of my brightest students are prone. In lieu of periods, Sam loves the old-fashioned semicolon. (An idea: Figure out some way to force him to read Sartor Resartus or some other Victorian monstrosity over Christmas break. That will surely cure him.) He also joins sentences together with commas—a punctuation error called a comma splice that plagues many beginning writers. In a nineteen-sentence essay, Sam joined four sentences unnecessarily together by semicolons and four incorrectly by commas. Goodness me.

In any case, I spent thirty minutes or so of my breakfast hour trying to convince Sam to embrace the simple sentence.

“[L]earn to love periods,” I summarized at the end of his paper, after commenting on semicolons and commas all down the right margin in track changes before emailing the paper back to him:
Consider the powerful sentence in John 11, “Jesus wept.” Would it have been better if John had said, “Jesus hung his head and cried long and loud, making the Jews think he loved them”? Or if John had written it this way: “Jesus wept; then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” No. Instead, John separates these sentences, not merely with periods but with paragraph indentations. You need to separate your sentences more, not join them.
I love that simple sentence, “Jesus wept.” In two words—an unadorned subject and verb, the most essential sentence there could be—John encapsulates the whole story of the One God Sent: God sent himself as a human like us. Knowing the whole truth of existence and capable of raising others and himself from the dead, Jesus nevertheless cried, as we do, to lose a friend. Wow.

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