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· Good, Better, Best ·

"The following passages, though differing some in substance, differ widely enough in style to merit critical ranking — say, good, better, best."

With those words, I have long asked my English students to pass critical judgment on three short passages included below. A colleague years ago introduced me to the helpful classroom exercise, and my mother — everyone should have one so judicious — to my chosen criteria: "Good, Better, Best," she said: "Never let it rest, till your good is better and your better best."

Good,   Better, Best Since La Rochefoucauld once remarked that "everyone complains of his memory, none of his judgment," my students typically disagree on their styleful choices, but after brief discussion they come at last to some agreeable consensus. Today I thought to share my exercise. You might even be willing to share your own opinions:

Three Passages

Judgments:   Good # ___   Better # ___   Best # ___

  1. A formal course in writing can be a revelation to an undergraduate, opening up new powers of thought and expression, as if one were given new eyes for keener sight and a new tongue for more fluent speech. But it can also be a futile exercise in the degrading art of conformity. Students can learn to create sentences that flow in rhythmic patterns, or to avoid grammatical errors; they can be encouraged to discover the solid shape of real ideas, or to follow mass-produced blueprints for paragraph development; they can find how to make sense, or how to make an end at 500 words.
  2. What's the use of English 101 anyway? More often than not you'll find a frustrated teacher droning on about participles and non sequiturs and deadwood and stuff. While the class is thinking: this guy is the deadwood and I wish he'd sequitur his participle somewhere else. Keeps interfering with my serious dreaming. True enough, sadly, more often than not. But occasionally, just every once in a while, some kid in the back row thinks: "Hey, I get it! Sentences are sounds that make sense, that make sense gracefully. That's all. Like a good song or a good joke or a great Ted Williams' homerun." And that, that moment of revelation, is one of the uses of English 101.
  3. The process of learning how to write is one of the unique facets essential to a successful career in college. Because of this fact, it is important that the purpose and motivation for a course in writing be made perfectly clear at this point in time. Sometimes this is not done with adequate thoroughness, with unfortunate consequences for the one who is involved in the problem. Therefore the unique purpose of the course should be clearly stated at the beginning, so that every student is motivated to succeed in this important aspect of his career.

Naturally, Mom — paleo-matriarch that she was — could have nixed my final pronoun here, but she might also have overlooked, I think, such obviously politically-incorrect behavior. Of course, I'll leave that substantive judgment to you. It's judicious style I'm after now.

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Nice exercise, Styles. I struggle with saying passage 3 is "good," [I might say "adequate"] but in relation to #3, I can easily say #2 is better and #1 is best.

I'll be using "good, better, best" and "bad, worse, worst" tomorrow in Linguistics to illustrate one of the few forms of inflection in English — comparison in adjectives.

Posted by
John on April 14, 2004 06:09 PM

Thanks, John, for your comment. I concur totally with your assessment. My trick is making students see the three passages as a small "set." #1 is "best" because it's, as it were, in the "middle," giving access to adjacent "low" and "high" styles. #2 is of course fine, but, as you sense, #3 is even "inadequate" because it is so substantively empty.

Today my students are busy rewriting #3 — trying to substitute decent "characters" and "actions" for its heavily-nominalized passives. I'll see how they do tomorrow.

Posted by Styles on April 19, 2004 05:49 PM

Unless you are younger than you seem, Styles, I doubt that your mother could have seriously objected to the use of the word he as a neutral singular pronoun. It's politically incorrect, you say? To whom? For what?

Let's bring back brevity, clarity, and — here and there — tradition. Thanks for doing your part!

Posted by Huldah Marguerite on April 20, 2004 12:30 PM

To someone so aspirantly attuned to a generation of strong women named Clara, Thelma, Selma, and Anna, I'll just say this.

They were — don't you think? — a real sisterhood. Often making their way in the world alone, they as often changed it.

Think of me in the humble character of Harry Burn, who rightly understood them in the person of his own mother.*

Posted by Styles on April 20, 2004 02:17 PM


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