Henceforth and until further notice the word “this” is banned in all formal writings that graduate students undertake in my courses. The ban does not apply to the less formal writing of correspondence with the instructor, microthemes, or reviews. However, in the course’s lone formal assignment, the conference papers, the ban is total and will be enforced without mercy or humor. I encourage students to police themselves with the aid of the “Find” and “Edit” tools in the word processing software that they use to compose their papers. Nota Bene, I’m totally serious about “this.” Consequences for violations of “This Ban” will be negotiated with the students when we meet tonight, but my own leanings are toward penalties that are simultaneously petty and malicious (OK, not really on this last point).
Those who know me personally know that I’m not too often serious, and that I have a profound, blood-borne hatred for rules that I perceive to be arbitrary. Why then am I so suddenly issuing such a seemingly arbitrary and senseless and rigid decree? This ban is (notice, the ban does not apply to me, and I’m completely willing to be hypocritical THIS time around) admittedly a suddenly imposed rule that initially appears to bear all the hallmarks of tyranny and madness rolled up into one stupid moment. This rule, at the outset, seems to smack of our worst memories of the worst writing instructors, those humorless and rhetorically naive instructors we’ve all encountered in our pasts who harped upon pet grammatical peeves without any sense that grammar is a rhetorical and social and political construction, or that grammar is a fluidly drifting constellation of conventions, not a rigid and universal set of commandments.
So, then, why “this”? Why “this”? Why this? Why this ban on “this”? Why this ban on this?
Because it’s necessary. But neither is the ban actually arbitrary or capricious, or related very directly even to issues of correctness or a pet peeve. The ban is about encouraging precision in graduate student writing, and discouraging imprecision. For the past three semesters I have noticed a surprising tendency in graduate student writing. The tendency is for students to use the word “this” without specifying what the word demonstrates or refers to, as if the idea(s) it is intended to indicate are self-evident, when in fact (or, in rhetorical effect) those ideas are not self-evident and need to be explained or elaborated for the reader.
I’m going to go a little Wikipedia here. The word “this” is the “singular proximal demonstrative” in the English language. As the Wikipedia explains in terms easier to simply cite than to translate into my own terms:
In linguistics, demonstratives are deictic words (they depend on an external frame of reference) that indicate which entities a speaker refers to and distinguishes those entities from others. Demonstratives are employed for spatial deixis (using the context of the physical surroundings of the speaker and sometimes the listener) and for discourse deixis (including abstract concepts) where the meaning is dependent on something other than the relative physical location of the speaker, for example whether something is currently been said or was said earlier. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This)
The problem is occurring primarily in grad student discussions of abstract concepts, where the referent that the word “this” should point to has been left unstated, or has not been restated in a way that allows the reader to follow the writer’s logic. What is self-evident to the writer is not stated for the reader, and to confusing effect. The problem is not, typically, with the students’ logic or thinking in these cases (for some reason it only seems to be happening with “this” and not with the plural demonstrative “these), but with their written representations of their logic and thinking. I’ve spoken with many grad students about this issue in their writing over the past three semesters, and last spring I banned the word for one student in particular, and with positive end results. So, as a grand thought/writing experiment, I’m banning the word “this” for the entire class for the remainder of the semester. I’ll report back on the results.
As a last note, I’ll point out that in object-orient computer languages (Java, C++, etc) “this” frequently functions as a keyword (learned all this crap from the Wikipedia today) to refer to the object being worked upon. In these object-oriented computer languages, it is a word that indicates itself, and the object as a self, a me. That’s sort of the problem coming up in some cases with grad students–the word points to the selves of their own private thoughts, and not to externally articulated ideas that the reader needs to share access to in order to access the writer’s text(s). The result is that I as a reader feel like I’m falling off of someone else’s mental cliff, and I assume that other readers would feel similarly . . .