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“You Know What I Mean”

August 4, 2008

One of the more commonly used phrases I’ve heard since I began teaching has been “You know what I mean.” Typically, a student will be trying to explain him or herself, and, for whatever reason, will attempt to end with this statement — implying, of course, that the problem is the us, the audience, and not the person speaking, if we don’t happen to know what is meant. Typically, though, I end up responding “No, I don’t. Why don’t you explain it to me?” Then, the student will usually shoot me a look of frustration or exasperation (or both) and dive back in.

Most of the time, when people use this phrase, it’s for all the right reasons. Sometimes people get nervous when they are speaking in front of people on a subject that they are not confident in; for example, when the subject of politics comes up in my classes (as it inevitably does, since I teach argumentative writing) some students, who are not politically aware, tend to want to hide behind this phrase or similar phrases. Sometimes, people who think they understand politics but never talk about them (out of some parental imperative, no doubt. I, too, was raised to avoid discussing controversial topics in general conversation.) will, when they first attempt to articulate their views, get tongue tied and confused. At this point, the inevitable phrase spills out, “You know what I mean!” and this, they hope, will end the conversation.

I have spent a great deal of time trying to convince my students that it is their responsibility, not the audience, to make sure that the message is clear. An audience’s job is to listen/read, comprehend, critique, and respond; but, in order for the audience to do this, the writer/speaker must make sure that all the language is clear. As a writer, I am aware of this responsibility. It is the heavier of the two; to be a writer is to carry the weight of intention. To be a reader/listener is to carry the obligation of genuine intelligent response. Intention is the heavier of the two because, regardless of the form, word choice matters. One of the mistakes that inexperienced writers make is filling their work with “fluff.” For example: say an assigned essay must be a minimum of 1500 words (around 5 pages typed and double-spaced). The inexperienced writer feels he makes his argument adequately in 750 words — so he fills the rest with blathering nonsense to make the length requirement.

This is a tactic that many students learn in high school. High school English teachers teach six or seven classes a day, with usually 30+ students per class. As someone who has taught a similar schedule as an adjunct (part-time) instructor, I can tell you that it’s hard to muster the consistent energy necessary to respond adequately to each and every essay; but public school teachers have more paperwork, concerns about state testing, and the added pressures of No Child Left Behind (which is leaving more behind than simply the children, by the way.) Another problem is that the basic skill sets that high school writing emphasizes are fundamentally different from the skills we expect in college writing. Please understand — teachers are not to blame for this; but neither are the students. Teachers are doing their level best to fulfill their obligations and meet their educational goals, and students are doing their level best to survive the educational experience. If anything, I think we need to have more inter-disciplinary discussions between secondary and college educators — but that is another claim for another time.

The result of this situation is simple: students learn to write in 2500 words what they would normally write in 750. The end product, of course, is not a better essay; it’s the same weak essay made even weaker by intentionally confusing language. One of the first things I tell my ENG 101 students is to throw out the thesaurus. As someone who loves language, and who loves the subtle nuances of words, this is always a difficult thing for me to do; but the option is far worse. Students learn to use what my dad called “$20 words” thinking that it makes the writing more intelligent or “mature.” But they fail to recognize that a different word, even if the definition is similar may have a different connotation.

Lately, though, I am finding that this attention to language is becoming something of an obsession with me. this shouldn’t be too surprising; after all, I am a writer. But I am increasingly aware that language is as abused and misused as the environment. I yearn for specificity and am always frustrated when I don’t find it. I don’t mind this so much in student work. After all, they’re students. But I am more frustrated when general conversations lack the necessary nuance — or, when the nuance is intentional but the general public doesn’t seem to hear it. And since this is a political year, the language of our cultural discussion is littered with all kinds of nuance. It would be easy to dismiss it as sophistry, spin doctoring, fluff. I submit that this is part of the intention — the people who control the language want us to hear sound bites but ignore the nuance. The speakers/writers aren’t fulfilling their obligation to clarify the message — which means that we, the audience, must take on the extra responsibility of throwing out the fluff.

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