Vague Writing

My students constantly amaze me. Some of their emails make my head pound harder than after an ice cream eating contest. Others take my breath away by cleverly switching the video of “Super Size Me” with gay porn. And others still catch me off guard with the things they actually write in their essays.

Like the young writer’s paper I graded this afternoon.

I had given my students an article to read about the dismay in the business sector over the poor writing ability of recent business school graduates. In the article, the author examines the ways in which electronic communication, such as email and IM, are contributing to the degradation of our society’s ability to write intelligently. One the examples in the article describes how some clown at Radio Shack thought it would be appropriate to layoff roughly 400 people via email. That’s where this student comes in. In writing about this example, this student wrote:

For example, that incident with Radio Shack telling about 400 workers that they were being laid off was much easier and faster than telling them face to face. But, it is harsher, because if I got an email saying that my job was being terminated I would be pretty pissed off, because excuse my language, but I think that’s a pretty fucked up way to find out that you are being fired.

Hmmm. Now look, I’m no prude. In fact, I committed the seven words you aren’t allowed to say on television to memory. You know, just in case I somehow get on TV and decide that I wanna break me some rules. See: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Can’t say those, but I say’em anyway! That’s the way I roll.

But I don’t say them in class. Well, not all at once anyhow. The major problem I had with what that student wrote was that the word “fuck” is too vague. One of the tasks I’ve set out for myself is to encourage my students to avoid cliches and unnecessarily stilted language, because I want them to write as specifically and as clearly as possible. And I’m sorry, but “fuck” can mean far too many things. Don’t believe me? Watch this little grammar lesson (warning: “fuck” is every other word, so don’t watch this at work. Or if you do, turn down the volume. I won’t be responsible if it angers your boss):

See? “Fuck” is almost like a euphemism turned inside out. Instead of a mild, less offensive word that conceals a meaning considered too harsh, it’s an offensive word used to conceal a meaning that’s considered too pedestrian. Saying, “I thought that was fucked up,” could actually mean any number of things. I thought that was blatantly unfair and hypocritical of them. OR: I thought that was rather racist and offensive. OR: I thought I was cheated and treated poorly through the course of that exchange.

Now that I think about it, I should write up a lesson that focuses solely on swear words. That would be a fun day.

Categories: Teaching | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Vague Writing

  1. It pisses me off that you can’t say “tits” – but you can say words like “bitch”, which I do find offensive (unless of course I am the one using the word), willy-nilly… what’s offensive about tits? Everyone’s got them, most people find them perfectly nice, and saying tits doesn’t hurt anyone. Tits, tits, tits!

  2. You ain’t hearing any arguments outta me on that.

  3. Pingback: » Shell Shock

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