Please Avoid “Gotten”

“Gotten” is, technically speaking, a past participle of “get.” “Get” is a fine word. It is short and direct, and it is particularly useful when we want to be clear and declarative. “Get away!” “Jeez, dude, get a life.” Or, as my uncle likes to say so affectionately, “Get your damn hands off that banjo!”

If I do, in fact, remove my hands from the banjo with its apparently hypersensitive tuning pegs that only my uncle and God know how to manipulate, and if I want to communicate as much to this beloved uncle, then I have a number of choices. “Jeez, dude, get a life,” might be one option. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say I want to speak in a more formal register. If so, I might say, “I have gotten my hands off the banjo.” My response simply took the verb my uncle offered, “get,” and employed a past tense form to demonstrate the accomplishment of his imperative.

And if I said that I would immediately want to wash my mouth out with a Leinenkugel. “Gotten” might be the ugliest word in our language, but thankfully, it’s also one of the most dispensable. It always surprises me when I encounter it in the works of writers I respect. Here is a sentence from a fine writer, David Rothenberg, from his book on the music of whales (a book I strongly recommend):

“In the seventies, Paul Winter went down to Baja California three years in a row, where the gray whales in their winter calving lagoons have since gotten more and more interested in human whale watchers.”

It’s like biting into a muffin and crunching some wooden sliver from a broken spoon. Why not, “have since become”? Or simply substitute “are” for “have since gotten”?

 “Gotten” is never necessary. There is not a single situation where another word, and a better word (I think they are all better), can’t replace it. Let’s get rid of it.

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The NFL, ESPN, and the Decline of All That Was Once Good

Anyone born before about 1982 knows that the National Football League has ruined a perfectly good sport. I feel pity for the younger generations who think it is normal to spend the afternoon watching an alleged football game that consists mostly of over-paid and over-concussed players standing around waiting for the result of a booth review. The NFL has, over the last couple decades, managed to produce a product that is longer but somehow contains much less action than it did in, say, 1976. I now prefer to spend my Sunday afternoons dumping trays of ice onto my driveway and watching them melt.

Anyway, hand it to the product of such a deteriorating institution to come along and have a go at wrecking our language, too. I am referring to Chris Carter’s ESPN segment, “Where You At?”

“Where you at?” Well, if I happen to have used this expression in a job interview, I’m probably back at the local unemployment office.

Okay, I get that it is a slang expression, that it has its own significant history in urban culture, and that it is quite possible this post will open me to the charge of cultural insensitivity. But it is simply a fact that making this expression the title and recurring motif of a major media broadcast will have consequences. Chris Carter and ESPN are now forever associated with grammatical embarrassment, not to mention reinforcing the stereotype of the “dumb jock.” The consequence is loss of respect. Hell, I even lose a bit of respect for myself just watching it.

The idea of the segment is to call players out on their underperformance. Essentially, it is an exercise in public humiliation. In this spirit, I call out the folks at ESPN. Quit making yourselves look stupid. It’s embarrassing, or at least it should be. And if it’s not, then go watch some reruns of football games from the sixties and get a better idea of how things are done right.

Longer is (Usually) Not Better

With all due respect to those who labor in cinder block halls, high school can reasonably be characterized as mostly unfortunate. For starters there are those awful prom dress choices, and then there is that seemingly universal and senseless compulsion to forgo jackets and hats in sub-zero weather. But there is also the impression left by your well-meaning English teachers that longer is better. It isn’t.

Don’t try to fit a whole paragraph or even an entire paper in one sentence. Here is an example:

When the serpent shed its skin, it is as if it had been in some way born again, and is somehow associated with the tree and has apparently enjoyed its fruits since it can slough its skin and live again.

Slow down. Present your points in clear and manageable units, preferably units known as simple sentences:

The serpent shedding its skin suggests rebirth. Symbolically, it may be associated with trees that similarly shed their leaves. The serpent of the garden myth probably ate the fruits of the tree of life. Thus both the tree and the serpent seem to die and yet live again.

We are taught the structure of English in stages of increasing complexity. This leaves us with the notion that complexity is better. This simply is not the case. Clarity is the key to good writing. As a general rule, clarity is proportional to simplicity.

The Rhythm of Sentences

My friend Matt and I have a reading competition every summer. Last year he beat me by a couple books. I have three weeks of vacation left and, at thirty-one books, I’m well behind schedule. I suspect he will win again this year (even though I stocked up on a pile of the best and shortest books available from your standard online retailers).

Yesterday I finished A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke, a fine memoir that comes in at a longish seventy-six pages. There are plenty of good reasons to read his work, but I want to emphasize his pacing. Here is a typical passage:

In this life of misery, my mother lost her country-round cheeks and achieved a certain chic. She carried her head high and acquired a graceful walk. Whatever she put on was becoming to her. She had no need of fox furs. When her husband sobered up and clung to her and told her he loved her, she gave him a merciful, pitying smile. By then, she had no illusions about anything. 

It is not a particularly cheerful memoir. But the writing is beautiful. Diagramming sentences is fine entertainment, but it should probably be combined with diagramming passages and paragraphs if we want to fully understand and emulate good writing. I am going to forgo the diagramming today and get right on to the emulation. In this case, I am going to simply recount an event from a couple weeks ago, making every effort to match the structure of Handke’s passage.

On this July morning, my uncle discovered the pain of hornet stings and the wonder of explosives. He caressed his aching foot and complained about his nephew’s stupidity. Steve was the source of all the calamities of his life. Yet Dan depended on his nephew. As Steve packed the blaster cap in the hornet nest and ran the ignition wire to the battery, Dan cowered behind the truck, whimpered of his sore foot, fibrillated shamelessly. Indeed, he actually yelped at the explosion of wings and stingers.

To my ear, even as banal an exercise (by U.P. standards) as packing a live hornet’s nest with dynamite blaster caps achieves a certain loveliness by the rhythms of Handke’s prose. But you may judge for yourself.

 

The Apostrophe

The apostrophe is the roadkill of language. Glance anywhere from the streets and sidewalks of America and you see (sometimes nearly smell) the slaughter: womens’ clothing (women is always plural, so you never add an s and put the apostrophe at the end), or, as in the sign outside the window I am looking through, homemade pie’s. Homemade pie’s what, you might ask? Its (not it’s) cherries? Its crust? But this apostrophe misuse is so ubiquitous that I suspect most of us are either too numb or too confused to even bother noticing.

There is really only one rule to apostrophe use, but, unfortunately, the rule’s usefulness has been lost to history. The apostrophe represents a missing letter or missing letters. Thus cannot becomes can’t, she has becomes she’s.

But here is what has been lost to history: English, back in the day, represented possession with an “e” in the suffix, not just an “s.” Sam’s screaming solo would have been written Sames (or, more likely, Sammes) screaming solo. We would have Markes breathing rhythm, Anthonyes anger management seminar, Mattes plush lawn, or Jennes perplexed look.

But we don’t. We rid ourselves of that “e” because we are a hasty and lazy people who have, evidence suggests, failed to adjust to the consequences.

Why the Passive Really Does Suck

This has been the busiest semester of my career. I have never been further behind in my grading. I try to avoid looking at my desk. In fact, I can’t really see the desk itself, at least the surface of it. It is covered with suffering.

I just fished out one piece of misery, an essay on Dracula and the Freudian uncanny, and found this sentence:

The unsettling feeling from the castle is given in the form of a remarkable place with dark corridors which eludes to a place of evil.

Yup.

Here is a sentence in the active voice with the relevant grammatical units identified:

Steve (subject) can fix  (verb) all our grammar problems (direct object).

Here is what the passive does to this perfectly clear sentence:

All our grammar problems (subject) can be fixed (verb) by Steve (prepositional phrase).

I think it is safe to say that all of us generally prefer to be subjects rather than objects. That is, we generally (though there are a host of exceptions, some of them licit) prefer to act rather than be acted upon. Steve certainly does. But look at what happened to him in the passive sentence above. He was reduced to the lowly object of a preposition (not, alas, a proposition). The passive voice obscures action and, in direct proportion, it obscures clarity.

The most obscure of all passive constructions removes the actor altogether, which is what our writer above has done. Here is how it might be repaired:

Bram Stoker describes a remarkable castle filled with dark corridors (not to mention succubi) to suggest an unsettling feeling of evil.

The key to clear writing is active subjects. Subjects that can act force a writer to use expressive verbs (rather than virtually meaningless linking verbs). Steve likes clear sentences.

Grammar: The New Bottom Feeder

I have been reviewing “paper checklists” that often appear on writing center web pages. Many instructors hand them out with paper assignments. These checklists can be useful, especially when they don’t end up a crinkled mess in the bottom of a backpack. But, on the whole, I find them unfortunate.

One problem is the evident (and probably neurotic) obsession with the technicalities of citation. Neglecting to put a colon between the place of publication and the publishing house is apparently a sound indicator of your likelihood to be serving pimply teenagers rancid beef patties in perpetuity.

I have looked at eight of these checklists. On seven of them grammatical concerns appear as the last item. On one the matter of grammar does not appear at all. On two lists the very term is anathema. They call the g-word “conventions” or simply “language.” One school in California implies that matter of grammatical competence is so petty you should leave it to others. Under the heading “Conventions (grammar and punctuation)”–the parenthetical is in the original–they ask that you check off “I have visited the […] writing center for help editing and proofing my work before submission.”

I would like to submit, without apologies, that if you can’t put a sentence together you can’t write a clear thesis (usually number one on the checklist); you can’t formulate a persuasive argument (usually number two); and you certainly can’t properly introduce and analyze the arguments of others.

Try thinking in butchered grammar. Grammar is quite simply the very foundation and expression of reasoning. The other points of the checklist come to nothing without it.