Whatchamacallit

The only explanation I offer for the title of this post is that I can’t think of anything else!  

Writing is not easy. And I don’t mean just titles. Writing five sentences on nothing in particular can be tough, too. This was an exercise I gave my students in one of their introductory syntax classes for the semester. Saves me the trouble of hunting up examples for syntactic analysis, of course! But the idea behind the exercise was to get real sentences for analysis rather than text-book ones.

I’d have thought writing five English sentences would be as easy as ABC for postgradute students of English. Well, not quite! 

Some of them said the difficulty was due to the self-consciousness that the exercise induced. We don’t usually make up sentences that have no specific communicative or expressive purpose.  Like the toy sentences in grammar books: John is a boy. She is a girl. Seriously, does anyone ever say such things in real-life conversations?!

 The exercise reinforced my fascination for the creativity and ease with which we  string words together into sentences. All the time. Spontaneously. Without pausing to ‘construct’ them in our minds! It’s almost as if we’re programmed.

 Oh, that reminds me.

The other day I had to fill out a form on-line. After I hit the Submit button, the machine gave me this message: “We’re not convinced you’re human . . . ” And went on to describe how I could ‘prove’ my human-ness – by typing a word inside a box exactly as it was displayed. You know, the kind one often gets when creating e-mail IDs.

It set me thinking. How would I prove to a machine that I’m human? I mean, just how is a machine even qualified to judge my human-ness? Gave me the goosebumps, it did.

The seduction of the machine is nowhere more evident than when it breaks down. Like yesterday when, thanks to the Internet outage, the electronic catalogue in our university library was inaccessible; and since, in their zeal to appear modern and high-tech, the library had stowed away their manual catalogue, I was reduced to rummaging painstakingly through the bookshelves.

I love it though – not the dust on my hands and face, but the browsing. Because that’s when you stumble upon some gems. And that’s how I found Mike Sharples’ How We Write: Writing As Creative Design: a fascinating study of the mental processes involved in writing.  (Sigh. The disbelief is quite uncalled for. Condemned, as I am, to read and mark student writing for a living, I cannot help but find such books interesting.) 

Sharples draws attention to the rather mechanistic metaphors that we use in talking of the writing process:

The hydraulic metaphors – well up, flow, dry up;

The pyrotechnic metaphors – fire the imagination, burning with ideas;

The exploration metaphors – searching for ideas, finding the right phrase;

The bodily function metaphors – writer’s block.

But the last word on metaphors of writing is Freud’s: “Since writing entails making liquid flow out of a tube onto a piece of white paper, it sometimes assumes the significance of copulation.”

Hmmm. Where does that leave one half of humanity, I wonder? The female half?

And to wind up, here’s an absolutely hilarious piece by Dennis Baron on the hazards of handwriting. And you thought computers and e-mail had made handwriting a thing of the past? Ha!

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