Teaching composition exclusively leads to (1) a greater appreciation for the pedestrian complexity of correctly subordinated clauses and (2) a bone-tiredness for the unmerited praise of student peer reviews. As someone with a penchant for paragraph-length sentences, I find (1) wholly salutary; but (2) irks me endlessly. Why? In one of my undergraduate History of the English Language course, the professor handed out slips of paper on which he had written a single sentence and told everyone to decipher what it meant, because he wanted us to present the sentence and the paraphrase to the class in ten minutes. My sentence read:
Another thing there is that fixeth a grievous scandal upon that nation in matter of philargyrie, or love of money, and it is this: There hath been in London, and repairing to it, for these many years together, a knot of Scotish bankers, collybists, or coine-coursers, of traffickers in merchandise to and againe, and of men of other professions, who by hook and crook, fas et nefas, slight and might, (all being as fish their net could catch), having feathered their nests to some purpose, look so idolatrously upon their Dagon of wealth, and so closely, (like the earth’s dull center), hug all unto themselves, that for no respect of vertue, honour, kindred, patriotism, or whatever else, (be it never so recommendable), will they depart from so much as one single peny, whose emission doth not, without any hazard of loss, in a very short time superlucrate beyond all conscience an additionall increase to the heap of that stock which they so much adore; which churlish and tenacious humor hath made many that were not acquainted with any else of that country, to imagine all their compatriots infected with the same leprosie of a wretched peevishness, whereof those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets have given of late such cannibal-like proofs, by their inhumanity and obdurate carriage towards some, (whose shoe-strings they are not worthy to unty), that were it not that a more able pen than mine will assuredly not faile to jerk them on all sides, in case, by their better demeanour for the future, they endeavour not to wipe off the blot wherewith their native country, by their sordid avarice and miserable baseness, hath been so foully stained, I would at this very instant blaze them out in their names and surnames, notwithstanding the vizard of Presbyterian zeal wherewith they maske themselves, that like so many wolves, foxes, or Athenian Timons, they might in all times coming be debarred the benefit of any honest conversation.
That would be from the EKΣKYBAΛAYPON of Thomas Urquhart, best known for his translations of Rabelais.* In Urquhart, Rabelais found less a translator than a kindred spirit; but in Urquhart’s prose, I found an unparaphraseable wall of words, before which I stood befuddled but impressed. Granted, I should have been impressed, so the analogy to peer reviews is imperfect; but my comprehension and subsequent paraphrase of Urquhart amounted to what I abhor in peer reviews: salivation at the sight of a dependent clause containing multiple polysyllabes and a “Good!” slapped in the margins—as if knowing big words and including them complex sentences means someone’s saying anything meaningful. But now that I teach composition exclusively, I see similar instances of unmerited praise everywhere:
When most former major leaguers write memoirs, you wonder why they bothered; with Ron Darling—Yale graduate, former New York Met and Oakland A, and current Mets broadcaster—you wonder why it took him so long. What other former athlete could write a sentence like this even with assistance from a professional writer (Daniel Paisner): “This right here [his legendary college pitching duel against St. Johns star Frank Viola**] was one of the great epiphanies for me as a competitive athlete, only it took a while for it to resonate.” Most former pitchers can’t resonate even with help.
Just so you know, my love of béisbol knows no limits; moreover, my love of the Mets generally, and Ron Darling in particular—both as a player and announcer—is unimpeachable. But for the San Fransisco Chronicle to praise a Yale graduate who double-majored in French and Southeast Asian history and who speaks both Chinese and French fluently—to praise him (if it was him and not his co-writer) for using the words “epiphany” and “resonate” makes me want to quodlibetificate into demission this clusterheaded intelligentry, the miserable baseness of whose expectations ought to debar them from the profession of letters.
*But who should be remembered for titling the second volume of his Logopandecteision; or an Introduction to the Universal Language thus: Chrestasebeia; or, Impious Dealing of Creditors Wherein the Severity of the Creditors of the Author’s Family is Desired to Be Removed, as a Main Impediment to the Production of this Universal Language, and Publication of Other No Less Considerable Treatises.
**The bracketed link takes you to 95 percent of Roger Angell’s “The Web of the Game,” a contender for the best essay about baseball ever written.