Devoid of Content
New York Times
May 31, 2005
By STANLEY FISH
WE are at that time of year when millions of American
college and high school students will stride across
the stage, take diploma in hand and set out to the
wider world, most of them utterly unable to write a
clear and coherent English sentence. How is this
possible? The answer is simple and even obvious:
Students can't write clean English sentences because
they are not being taught what sentences are.
Most composition courses that American students take
today emphasize content rather than form, on the
theory that if you chew over big ideas long enough,
the ability to write about them will (mysteriously)
follow. The theory is wrong. Content is a lure and a
delusion, and it should be banished from the
classroom. Form is the way.
On the first day of my freshman writing class I give
the students this assignment: You will be divided into
groups and by the end of the semester each group will
be expected to have created its own language, complete
with a syntax, a lexicon, a text, rules for
translating the text and strategies for teaching your
language to fellow students. The language you create
cannot be English or a slightly coded version of
English, but it must be capable of indicating the distinctions - between tense,
number, manner, mood,
agency and the like - that English enables us to make.
You can imagine the reaction of students who think
that "syntax" is something cigarette smokers pay,
guess that "lexicon" is the name of a rebel tribe
inhabiting a galaxy far away, and haven't the
slightest idea of what words like "tense," "manner"
and "mood" mean. They think I'm crazy. Yet 14 weeks
later - and this happens every time - each group has
produced a language of incredible sophistication and
How is this near miracle accomplished? The short
answer is that over the semester the students come to
understand a single proposition: A sentence is a
structure of logical relationships. In its bare form, this proposition is hardly
edifying, which is why I
immediately supplement it with a simple exercise.
"Here," I say, "are five words randomly chosen; turn
them into a sentence." (The first time I did this the
words were coffee, should, book, garbage and quickly.)
In no time at all I am presented with 20 sentences,
all perfectly coherent and all quite different. Then
comes the hard part. "What is it," I ask, "that you
did? What did it take to turn a random list of words
into a sentence?" A lot of fumbling and stumbling and
false starts follow, but finally someone says, "I put
the words into a relationship with one another."
Once the notion of relationship is on the table, the
next question almost asks itself: what exactly are the
relationships? And working with the sentences they
have created the students quickly realize two things:
first, that the possible relationships form a limited
set; and second, that it all comes down to an
interaction of some kind between actors, the actions
they perform and the objects of those actions.
The next step (and this one takes weeks) is to
explore the devices by which English indicates and
distinguishes between the various components of these
interactions. If in every sentence someone is doing
something to someone or something else, how does
English allow you to tell who is the doer and whom (or
what) is the doee; and how do you know whether there
is one doer or many; and what tells you that the doer is doing what he or she
does in this way and at this
time rather than another?
Notice that these are not questions about how a
particular sentence works, but questions about how any
sentence works, and the answers will point to
something very general and abstract. They will point,
in fact, to the forms that, while they are themselves
without content, are necessary to the conveying of any
content whatsoever, at least in English.
Once the students tumble to this point, they are more
than halfway to understanding the semester-long task:
they can now construct a language whose forms do the
same work English does, but do it differently.
Stanley Fish is dean emeritus at the University of
Illinois at Chicago.