ENC1101 Learning Unit 1
The Curious Crossings of Language And Life
Most of us think of language as a tool we use to help us function in the world. However, close consideration reveals that our relationship with language is a lot more complicated than we think. And a lot, weirder, too.
Consider a job interview, for example. Such a situation is highly stressful for a number of very obvious reasons, but one source of discomfort is especially revealing in regard to language and its connection to who we are or, perhaps, want to be.
When a job interviewee sits across from his or her potential boss or is surrounded by a hiring committee or even sits at home and speaks into a phone or computer interface for a phone interview, a strange thing happens; he or she becomes someone else. Suddenly words erupt from the interviewee’s lips that he or she rarely if ever speaks in casual conversation. Simple answers to questions become complex strings of formal prose as one seeks to sound “professional.” Lies about motivations, desires, hopes, and dreams intersect with half-truths and polite banter about nothing.
The entire meeting is to some extent a charade, of course, a shadow play; the interviewers have read about the potential employee and know all about his or her professional background in advance. The interviewee has read about the company and obviously wants the job. But something else is going on here that has nothing to do with the announced purpose of the meeting: a job interview is, in a sense, a test of one’s language programming. It is as much about the linguistic you, that enigmatic, spectral, secondary nervous system of syntax and diction that speaks, as it is about your corporeal presence in the room.
Yes, the job interview is a kind of Turing test for potential employers. Except this is a Turing test in reverse.
The Turing test was a screening experiment developed by Alan Turing in the 1950’s to test whether a machine was capable of demonstrating intelligent linguistic behavior. Variations of it have been depicted in science fiction movies like 1982’s Blade Runner and 2015’s Ex Machina as well as HBO’s new series West World ; in all of these cases an interviewer solicits answers from incredibly human-like robots to determine the degree to which they have personhood and should be granted the rights that go along with such status.
In the case of the reverse Turing test performed at a job interview, employers are seeking to gage the extent to which the interviewee has been properly programmed by his or her culture; they want to determine whether the potential employee has developed the language necessary to function in a professional environment, has learned how to verbally navigate through the professional world.
Job interviews are so uncomfortable precisely because, as much as one prepares for them, one is at the mercy of the situation on both an external and internal level. Externally because one obviously can’t control the room, the disposition of the interviewers, even to a large extent one’s body as it appears to others (the sweat pouring from forehead and armpits, the nervous stomach, the tics and twitches of the face, the wild gestures of the hands). Internally, because one’s language is itself largely out of one’s conscious control.
Think about it: the more you concentrate on getting your words right, the more they often fail you; many times just considering what one is going to say leaves one without words or at the very least stammering for time and repeating inanities. To speak well, to say what one “really” means, then, is to let go and let that strange linguistic nervous system pipe up in one’s place.
The strange case of the job interview reveals that far from being a common tool, language is in fact a symbiotic technology . In biology, symbiosis is the state of two organisms living together as one, either with one living off of the other or both surviving in a condition of absolute interdependence. If you’ve ever read Spider-Man comics, you’ve probably also encountered Spidey’s enemy Venom, who is a symbiote: reporter Eddie Brock is covered in a black alien substance that serves as a costume that gives him super powers but that forces him to eat people’s brains for sustenance.
Language is our alien symbiotic partner, though it generally lives “inside” us and (hopefully) doesn’t make us eat brains. It does, however, grant us super powers, enabling us to construct whole worlds in which we can communicate, engage in commerce, and suffer through job interviews. And in return we give it life, repeating it in sounds and on paper and on the internet.
Even if you are not exactly in control of this strange alien prosthesis that lives in and with you, that expresses you and sometimes even betrays you, you still have a great deal of influence upon it. And that’s what this class is all about: influencing the language in you in such a way that you can more actively participate in the world. Ultimately, if you practice enough and understand the expectations the world has for you in terms of your academic and professional programming, you can start to get a handle on your linguistic self and coexist with it in a more harmonious way. (1)
Taming the Technological Symbiote: Where to Begin
Now that we understand the complex relationship we have with our language, we need to consider how to approach influencing that relationship in such a way that we might exert a modicum of control over it. Because we are so used to communicating, to speaking with others or writing quick text messages or otherwise signaling our thoughts to the world, language just seems to happen, erupting from us as a natural expression of our inner existence. However, as the example of the anxiety of a job interview has shown, this natural relation to language sometimes appears strained depending upon our immediate situation. In other words, understanding the context within which we are communicating is the first key to understanding how to proactively influence the way we communicate.
Context means the circumstances we find ourselves in when we communicate. The more familiar we are with the context of a situation, the more at-ease we are with our language and the more spontaneous are our communicative acts (ironically, as we have seen, this means relinquishing control to our linguistic selves as we speak freely without worrying how we sound). When we hang out with our friends or spend quality time with beloved and trusted family members, we usually don’t worry so much about what we say or how we say it.
As soon as that context shifts to, say, the classroom or the boardroom, we suddenly have cause for concern, especially when those contexts are new to us. Suddenly the world imposes expectations upon us in regard to how we express ourselves, expectations which we may not have fully internalized. Recognizing this shift in contexts is key, and it’s the first step we take towards influencing our linguistic selves and taking control of the symbiotic technology of writing.
Thus, our first lesson is that context is key. Whether you are writing an essay for a college professor or a report for your business manager, you need to recognize the expectations placed upon you, the parameters by which your communication will be judged. If you related to the anxiety of the job interview situation discussed above, you are already well on your way to understanding the way context influences communication. Imagine someone who doesn’t recognize such context and who approaches a job interview like it’s just another everyday situation, perhaps one similar to a casual meeting with friends, and who communicates accordingly, perhaps cursing, telling off-color jokes, laughing, interrupting, and otherwise carrying on. Sadly, steady employment is not on the horizon for this ignorer of context.
The context differences between the boardroom and the bedroom, the classroom and the club, can be generally qualified as the difference between formal and informal communication contexts . Formal communication requires careful consideration of a set of rules for engagement, rules regarding tone (how one “sounds”), point of view (how one expresses perspective, or the position from which one is communicating), diction (the words one chooses), and syntax (the way one forms sentences). Formal communication also requires the logical ordering of ideas; a formal speaker makes a general point and then elaborates upon it with specific examples and details. Thus, the more formal the context, the more one is expected to be polite, correct, and coherent. Informal communication, on the other hand, refers to the kind of loose, easy interplay we enjoy with close friends and loved ones. (1)
The Context of the Composition Classroom
The whole point of a composition course is to teach you how to communicate effectively in the classroom in order to prepare you for expressing yourself in the professional world. This is an important thing to keep in mind; even if writing isn’t your “thing” or you have no interest in being an English major, learning to communicate on an academic and professional level is key to your success in the formal contexts of the world outside your inner circle of friends and family.
For the rest of the course we will be practicing how to live up to the formal expectations placed upon us by the institutions that govern our existence. As we go from module to module, we will learn strategies for organizing ideas and expressing them according to the formal parameters of the academic and professional worlds.
We will start at perhaps the most informal level we can in terms of academic writing by focusing on narrative writing, also called storytelling, in module two. Given its creative potential and the fact that storytelling is the most common and entertaining form of communication, narrative writing is probably the kind of writing that students enjoy the most. It also allows for more freedom of expression than other kinds of writing as one is encouraged to create a world for readers to enjoy.
However, narrative writing itself relies upon another kind of writing to make the events it recounts truly come to life. Indeed, a good storyteller doesn’t just relate events as they happen; he or she must describe the people who participate in the events and the places in which those events occur. Thus, before we write our first formal essay for the class (the narrative essay in module two), we will learn about descriptive writing and will put together a short descriptive paragraph to practice some of the formal writing principles to come.(1)
Descriptive Writing: Creating a World with Language
Descriptive writing is when a writer translates the five senses (touch, taste, hearing, smell, and sight) into language. Writers rely on sensory detail to describe their experiences and surroundings. When describing an experience to someone, writers use those kinds of sensory details to convey feelings about a place, a taste, a sound, a texture or sensation, a person, and even themselves.
Description lies at the heart of storytelling. Authors create believable worlds by describing the objects, places, and people that exist within them.
Effective description allows the reader to get “inside” the mind and spirit of the writer. When a writer does a good job describing a fine dinner, the reader should easily be able to imagine the smell, taste, and sight of each delicious bite. Likewise, when someone meets a person for the first time at the airport, that person should be able to spot the traveler in the crowd based on the description of features or characteristics, such as height, skin tone, hair color, or type of clothing.
One of the most popular ways to use description is to describe a person, place, or object—one that is filled with memorable thoughts or feelings, sometimes pleasant or sometimes poignant. Writers use places, people, and objects to convey personal impressions or, as in fiction, to create a mood. Writers do this through the use of sensory detail. For example, one technique to make the description of a place more lifelike for the reader is to close one’s eyes and imagine being in the place described. Another technique is to visit the place or look at an object and describe it as if one has never seen it before. (1)
Overall Impressions: How Descriptive Details Work Together
Arguably the most important thing to understand before developing any kind of writing is to consider the way in which general and specific ideas connect together, and descriptive writing is no exception. Simply put, academic and professional writers use a series of specific details and examples related to a topic—like the sensory details related to an object (how it looks, sounds, smells, etc.)— to convey a general point about it. In many of the more formal essays we will write later in the course, this general point will be explicitly stated as a sentence or series of sentences so that the reader knows exactly what the writer’s overall purpose is, his or her reason for writing.
Descriptive and narrative writing, though, often convey a general point without announcing it to the reader. Instead, the details the writer provides imply what that general point is without openly expressing it. This is because descriptive and narrative writing often engage the audience in a more playful exchange than more formal types of communication, relying upon the connotation of words as much or more than their denotation .
Connotation refers to the secondary level of meaning a word can have, its emotional or cultural significance. Denotation refers to its first level of meaning, the most basic way it can be defined (think of the “d” that starts “denotation” as the same “d” that starts “dictionary meaning”).
For example, consider the word “motorcycle.” Its first level of meaning might be something like “a two wheeled motorized vehicle.” However, if a character is described as riding a motorcycle, a whole host of meanings might enter the reader’s mind related to how motorcycles are understood by many of us in the Western world. Perhaps this character is an adrenaline junky, is affiliated with a group of outlaws, is a rebel or outsider; whatever the case, “motorcycle” is undoubtedly a loaded term, and its appearance can suggest a whole host of ideas that help express a writer’s point without explicitly stating it.
Regardless of the power of such connotative meanings and the fact that many effective descriptions don’t announce their general points, the writer of a description should himself or herself know what that general point is even if it doesn’t appear in the final description. This general point is called a description’s overall impression ; it’s the overall idea a writer wants the reader to understand about the person, place, or object being described.
Consider the following description of a place:
Shadows flickered against the cave wall as the dying fire coughed and spat embers like a sickly, sooty mouth. The wind moaned low as it passed through the cave opening, the very world itself crying for release. A stench hung over everything; decay and the sour sweat of bodies in decline congealed in a noxious haze.
This concise, consistent description never openly announces its overall impression, but it’s not hard to understand what the writer is trying to convey: hopelessness and despair. We can gather that this is the case based on the use of certain comparisons (“like a sickly, sooty mouth,” the inanimate world “crying for release” like a living being might) and other loaded words (the “dying fire,” a “stench” that is made up of the “decay and the sour sweat of bodies in decline’).
Directions: Select each example to reveal more information.
But consider the same passage with a few new descriptive details added:
Shadows flickered against the cave wall as the dying fire coughed and spat embers like a sickly, sooty mouth. The wind moaned low as it passed through the cave opening, the very world itself crying for release. A stench hung over everything; decay and the sour sweat of bodies in decline congealed in a noxious haze. A bright white vase of flowers, perfectly picked tulips and daffodils, sat nearby, luxuriating in the warmth of the space. Next to them Jackson the puppy happily snored, his perfectly groomed fur practically glowing with the shine of good health and happy tidings. And at Jackson’s feet sat a robust lettuce sandwich, perfectly constructed, its succulent, freshly baked bread housing vibrant green leaves promising nutrients galore.
Oh no! Suddenly the overall impression isn’t so clear. Is this a foreboding place of disease and suffering or a peaceful and inviting domicile? Though the contrast of details is interesting, the overall idea is obscured, and we would be justified in thinking that the writer is unsure of his or her general point.
Thus, it’s important to know your overall impression before you start putting together a description. What do you want your readers to carry away from your description? Are you describing a courageous hero or dastardly villain, a dangerous item or a token of love, a comfortable home or an intimidating office building? Whatever you want your reader to understand about the subject you are describing is what your description’s overall impression should be, and all of the details you provide should support that impression, whether or not you openly express the impression itself as an actual sentence in your writing. (1)
Prewriting Strategy: Listing
Throughout this course we will discuss various ways to generate ideas for a writing assignment; such methods for idea generation are called prewriting strategies. Every student prewrites differently, so you won’t be required to use a particular method, but you should always spend some time coming up with ideas and playing around with their connections before committing to writing a draft. Otherwise, your final product won’t be well-organized or well-supported.
For this first module, you are going to write a short descriptive paragraph conveying a dominant impression of a person or place in order to experiment with general and specific ideas and their interrelation. As we have discussed, effective descriptions have overall impressions that are conveyed through coherent specific details that complement one another. For such a detail-oriented assignment, listing is perhaps the most effective prewriting strategy one can use. Listing is exactly what it sounds like: you jot down whatever comes to mind about a particular topic for a few minutes, and when you stop, you look back at the list and pick out those details that are most interesting and relevant.
Keep in mind that prewriting can be performed at various stages before drafting. Thus, you might list a bunch of ideas to come up with a specific subject to describe and then list ideas again to figure out what your overall impression is going to be. On the other hand, you might know immediately what your subject and impression are going to be (sometimes an assignment just clicks for you!), so you might then use listing to come up with the specific ideas that will support the overall impression you’ve decided to convey.
For this assignment, consider the following list of questions to help guide your prewriting. Whatever you may be trying to describe, it is effective to break the subject into parts or lists to make the description easier to imagine. In order to do this, imagine what that subject might be and answer the questions that are applicable to it.
- What can one see?
- What can one hear?
- What can one smell?
- What can one taste?
- What can one feel (with hands, feet, etc.)?
- What emotions can one feel? (1)
(1) Content by Florida State College at Jacksonville is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License .