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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Brown M&Ms

I tell my students I don't like the cliché "time immemorial" beginning to a paper. "Ever since Adam and Eve..." or "From the beginning of time..." Yet they continue to do this. I also don't allow them to use the word 'importante." Yet many insist on using this word.

We might call these my brown M&Ms. Van Halen stipulated in their riders to tour contracts a bowl of M&Ms without the brown ones. This has often been taken to be typical rock-band high-maintenance narcissistic self-regard and self-indulgence, but this clause actually served a deeper purpose, serving as a marker of attention to detail:
If brown M&M's were in the backstage candy bowl, Van Halen surmised that more important aspects of a performance--lighting, staging, security, ticketing--may have been botched by an inattentive promoter.

If students use the word "importante," if they haven't put a title on their paper, if they use the "time immemorial" beginning, then I know they haven't been paying attention to my very explicit oral and written instructions. Sure, an otherwise good paper might use the word importante in every other sentence, but usually this means that the student will also not apply recently reviewed grammar points in revising their writing. They will probably use the passive voice in a paper a week after I told them simply not to use the passive voice at all in Spanish.

Of course, the consequence of messing up a Van Halen concert might be very serious: death, if a stage collapses because a promoter has not paid attention to how much weight it has to support. The consequence of brown M&Ms is less severe. In writing, the consequence of messing up the small things is that the reader will lose faith that the writer is to be trusted in the communication of scholarly knowledge.


Clarissa said...

I especially love it when an essay begins with "everybody knows. . ." If everybody knows it, why write an essay about it?

Andrew Shields said...

Given Pullum's critique of the popular idea that "passive voice should be avoided," are there distinctly Spanish reasons to avoid using it in Spanish?

I'm particularly interested in distinctions between languages in this respect, as my students are mostly native speakers of German writing in English.

Jonathan said...

Yes, there are three or four main reasons.

1. Many passive constructions translate into reflexive ones. "It is said" = "Se dice..." So for those kind of expressions the reflexive is more idiomatic in Spanish.

2. The use of the passive is a source of additional mistakes for the students. Why not just avoid it completely in light of #1? The extra effort required to use it correctly seems pointless unless there is a student who has eliminated all other errors in voice and tense.

3. It serves as a brown M&M in the sense I explain in this post.

4. I want the students to use past particles as adjectives in phrases like "la puerta está cerrada." That is a more frequent use of the participle. This form looks very much like a passive, so I don't want to have to mess with correcting ser vs. estar errors. Students are left with three option: "La puerta está cerrada." "Paco cerró la puerta" and "Las puertas se cierran a las diez." They don't have to worry about "La puerta fue cerrada por Juan."

5. Inexperienced writers still depend on the passive as a default in a kind of unthinking way. A tiny bit of self-consciousness is not a bad thing.

Jonathan said...

The student could make many mistakes:

*La puerta se cerró por Juan (the door closed itself, by Juan.

*La puerta estuvo cerrado por Juan. (wrong verb for passive)

*La puerta fue cerrado" (failure to agree the participle and the noun).