Much of my work life was spent sharing what I'd learned about language with students in Freshman composition classes, drawing attention to errors in punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, grammar, and diction. I was drawn to the profession because language interested me from a very early age. I loved learning new words. I loved reading, an activity often discouraged even by my mother who feared I'd turn into a "book worm."
My love of language led me to a life that involved reading large quantities of very bad writing. Over the course of some 40 years, I read tens of thousands of student papers, millions of words committed to paper largely by young people who would rather have been doing almost anything else.
Over the course of some 40 years, I read tens of thousands of student papers, millions of words committed to paper largely by young people who would rather have been doing almost anything else.
Reading those words was often the most tiresome sort of drudgery, but I kept faith with what I saw as my duty to those young scribblers, always reading what they wrote, pointing out mistakes, writing comments meant to be useful. It's called teaching, and I never could figure out a way to tell students how to write better without first diagnosing what they were doing wrong.
Some of my colleagues, however, found ways to rationalize not assigning much writing in writing classes, or not reading that writing if they did. I always thought they were cheating, and that students were the ones being cheated. What I knew about writing had come, in no small part, through the diligence of my own teachers, men and women who circled my misspellings, underlined the words I was using without fully understanding their meanings, or writing sentences that were garbled, even though they made perfect sense to me when I wrestled those words onto the page.
Reading those student words with care and using their gaffes to nudge them toward improvement was driven by gratitude to the teachers who had done the same for me. I was paying it forward, to use a common expression.
And speaking of common expressions, I also urged students to avoid clichés. If a student wrote that it was "raining cats and dogs," I'd dutifully underline the cliché and write "trite" in the margin. If they sprinkled their prose with adjectives like "incredible," or "awesome," I advised against those tiresomely overused words that deadened their writing. My battle against bad writing was a largely quixotic one, but I always thought it worth doing.
I had a compendium of catch phrases and homilies freely and probably tiresomely dispensed to a couple of generations of students. Good writing, I told them, is clear thinking made visible. Cliches are signs of lazy thinking. Easy writing makes for damn hard reading. If you don't care about what you're writing, it's a guarantee your reader won't, either. Avoid repetition. Trim fat, save muscle. Proofread. Readable writing requires rigorous re-writing.
The good it did probably didn't amount to much. Some people left my classes having improved their writing and language skills, of that I am sure, though I'll never know how many or how much. At this time in history, however, my concerns for precision in language now seem quaint, even to me. The language-limited Donald Trump is president, emoticons rule, thoughts that require more than 140 characters aren't likely to be read by more than a few, and those clichés I preached against for so long seem more ubiquitous than ever, as in: "At the end of the day, the bottom line is that we should be careful of the optics and avoid the slippery slopes because it is what it is, and it's a no-brainer that the American people deserve better than they're getting from the lamestream media."
As bad as that is, the phrase "going forward" or "moving forward" is even more outworn, heard on the news and commentary shows in almost every sentence. "From here on, we're going to need more sustainability, going forward," or "We'll have to see how this plays out going forward." It has begun to take the place of a period. No comment is complete without it. Almost as bad is the vapid and hoity-toity inclusion of "if you will," as an alternative way to complete a thought. "Going forward, we've got to stand up for our bedrock American values, if you will." Or, "it's going to take a lot of work to unpack all this collusion stuff, going forward." Or, " the bottom line is that the Democrats are going to try to stop us from going forward, going forward." Or, Obamacare is a disaster, it's collapsing, and the American people just don't want it, going forward."
Going forward, it's enough to make an old English teacher queasy. Such empty verbiage is more evidence, if needed, of the dumbing down of a nation drowning in sloppy diction and careless clichés.
But, in trembling new 21st century world, clichés are just one of the antiquated concerns we no longer care to care about. You know, going forward, if you will.