Singing Loudly: Misunderstandings, Language, and Personal Quirks

Singing Loudly

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Misunderstandings, Language, and Personal Quirks

Anthony Rickey posts an interestingly phrased reply the NYU law student's questioning of Justice Scalia. I really have no opinion on the Scalia thing (besides that I think many people who consider themselves intelligent seem to be using this as a way to show their homophobia), but I do have an opinion on the use of similes in critical writing.

Similes are very difficult to use well in critical writing or legal writing, and I think that Rickey's post makes a good demonstration on why similes are not only unnecessary but often dangerous in writing.

Rickey posts an ambiguous statement in his attack of the NYU student:

It's reads like something you'd expect from a high school sophomore
Why use a imprecise simile here when an adjective (in this case, sophomoric) would be much clearer? Let me show the full context of what Rickey was saying:

Following up on my comment on the tacky reception Justice Scalia got at NYU, the student involved, one Eric Berndt, has just had his rather histrionic justification outed at Wonkette. It's reads like something you'd expect from a high school sophomore:

Here we can see that the ambiguous simile is meant as some sort of an insult from the context. However, using an adjective would have made a clearer and more concise sentence if he had simply said, "Following up on my comment on the tacky reception Justice Scalia got at NYU, the student involved, one Eric Berndt, has just had his rather histrionic and sophomoric justification outed at Wonkette." That's all that would be needed and the adjective, unlike the simile, leaves very little room for any doubt or confusion as to what he is intending in his writing.

I have nothing against Rickey; I just wanted to demonstrate why similes are an literary trap in most situations, so I beg you to continue as you were without the unnecessary similes. Whether or not I agree with the assessment of the apology is quite another matter. I will say that I believe Law Dork has a more compelling commentary.
-x-

3 Comments:

Sadly, while "sophomoric" might mean what you'd like to say, it doesn't express what I meant. Mr. Berndt's cheap shot reminded me of the kind of stunt one would have pulled off as a student senator in my old high school. You may think it was "clearer" but it would have lost much of the meaning I wanted it to convey.

Obviously I chose "sophomore" because it has connotations of "sophomoric," but one expression can carry more meaning. I really don't think anyone missed the point from context: high school sophomores aren't known for a high standard of maturity.

By Anonymous A. Rickey, at 10:37 AM, April 19, 2005  

I have no doubt that you wanted more meaning, but you didn't explain how using a silly simile got you to that place. Of course the context makes the point clear, but I don't think relying on context is the best way to make sentences clear. It's just a personal preference and certainly not one I expect others to follow.

By Anonymous Curtis, at 8:17 AM, April 20, 2005  

Obviously. On the other hand, you did understand from context, and I've yet to find someone that didn't. Besides, I'm not sure how it's "ambiguous." I'm either stating that the rant is "like a high school sophomore," in which case Mr. Berndt is immature, overloud, boorish, and overly self-important, or hinting that he's sophomoric, in which case he's...

You get the point. ;)

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:40 AM, April 24, 2005  

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