Quell the Exaggeration

A muchdiscussed study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that adolescents were reading fewer literary works, which may lead to a lower capacity for reading comprehension as well as writing ability.

These days I am particularly sensitized to the consequences of reading for writing ability because I am teaching a small writing-intensive seminar for graduating seniors. Some of the problems with students’ writing are grammatical, problems which could, in theory, be fixed with instruction in grammatical principles.

But other problems, in particular deviations from idiomatic usage, have no ready fix because they depend not on principles but on looser notions of what kinds of words “go together.” For example, a very smart student, who actually writes quite well, included this phrase in a recent paper: “quell the exaggeration.” I told him that exaggerations are not “quelled,” at least given how the word “quell” is typically used. This choice is not egregiously wrong—one definition of quell is “put an end to”—but it sounds off somehow.

It’s this kind of writing mistake that can only be minimized by reading. Over a period of time, reading will familiarize readers with the meanings of words, common usage, and thus how to put words together effectively in their own writing.

This is yet more reason to praise those who are trying to motivate reading.

5 Responses to Quell the Exaggeration

  1. toddgitlin November 26, 2007 at 1:57 pm #

    I’ve noticed the same surging of errors, and attribute it to a high quotient of online thesaurus use divided by books read.

  2. Paul Rosenberg November 27, 2007 at 9:31 am #

    I get your point in spades.

    But the sheer poetry of the phrase–it sounds a bit like Ferlinghetti riffing on e.e. cummings–leads me to bid no trumps.

  3. John Sides November 27, 2007 at 10:22 am #

    Todd, I hadn’t thought about the on-line thesaurus. I often find students using synonyms when the series of sentences would actually benefit from a little repetition of key terms.

    Paul, perhaps there is art in this phrase after all? If only I believed that students had read either Ferlinghetti or cummings…

  4. Ian November 27, 2007 at 4:14 pm #

    I think the conflict in the phrase comes from the implied physicality of the word “quell”, which has I think a sort of implied physicality. More traditional use goes beyond “put an end to” and suggestions a certain amount of force, if not an overwhelming amount. If the exaggeration in this case is of ridiculous proportions, r is an repeated offense, perhaps it might have some merit.

    That said, I’d put more money on the online thesaurus. Or, perhaps, its the result of a recent bout of studying for GREs (if this is a senior in your writing seminar)?

    Quell::Exaggeration, as…

  5. Ian November 27, 2007 at 4:15 pm #

    Oooof. The horrendous first sentence is due to browser reload issues…my apologies…