Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism’

Pot, this is kettle… Sunday Times (W.A.) provides resource for English teachers. (3)

April 4, 2016

Sometimes I do tell the Sunday Times of the writing I have found annoying.  An example:

The Editor
The Sunday Times

In your B+S supplement (and, too often, the abbreviation letters are appropriate) of 03 April 2016 page 3, one of the suggestions for a healthier life is “Swap this… book for iPad.”

Reading on, one learns that sleep quality is likely to be better if one reads a paper text rather than reading on a tablet. In Standard Australian English, if I swap this for that, I dispose of this and receive that; if I substitute this for that I use this rather than that. Your paper often uses these incorrectly. In this case, the heading should have read “Swap this … iPad for book.”

This is one of a string of errors and malapropisms which have made your newspaper a valuable teaching resource. I believe that, in your efforts to cut costs, you have outsourced editing to people who are not truly familiar with English. My occasional telephone complaints have been brushed off with “You know what we meant,” and my written corrections have not changed your performance. This shows the general public that “You know what I mean!” is a valid response to criticism of one’s English usage. So why should students bother to learn correct usage?

Although I appreciate the chance to let primary school children correct adults’ published texts – ego-boosting editing practice – I think it is time you spent the money to employ literate editors. THEN you could complain about the quality of teaching in Australia.

What I wrote and what they printed 09 Nov 14

November 9, 2014

Mind you, I didn’t mind all their changes.  A few were good.  Guess which ones I would accept …

What I wrote:

Is terrorism the right word?

In response to the abuse of Muslim people and vandalism of places seen as mosques:

In my time, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians have oppressed and killed people for having the wrong religion – or the wrong branch of a religion.  Israeli soldiers stood by while Christians came and slaughtered mostly Moslem refugees in a refugee camp. The USA will not accept a non-Christian president, and say that atheists cannot be trusted. Should they be abused and their holy places vandalised?

Every belief system has extremists who (often from deep belief) attempt to force their beliefs on others.  Most religion have aspects of the holy texts and related traditions which evil can use to lead others to horrible action. Catholics and Protestants burned each other at the stake, remember.  Every religion also has people who use only the parts of the creed which lead to tolerance and the best human actions.

I think we could adopt the word “daeshi” to mean “bigot who imposes their views on others.”  (It helps that the Islamic extremists hate the word.) I think that the current “anti-terrorism” actions should be reworded to be “anti-daeshi”, thus making the offence one of promoting the denial of freedom of belief for those one disagrees with, not one of planning violence.  (Yes, a limitation – with criminal penalty – on freedom of religion and cultural tradition.)

Similarly, I think that members of any sect which oppresses others when in power, or which state that they will do so, should be denied refugee status unless they abjure the part of their creed which denies others equal rights regardless of religious belief.

What they printed:

changes in red

Every religion has its oppressors and bigots.

In response to the abuse of Muslim people and vandalism of places seen as mosques, in my time Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians have oppressed and killed people for having the wrong religion – or the wrong branch of a particular religion.

NP Israeli soldiers stood by while Christians came and slaughtered mostly Moslem refugees in a refugee camp.

NP The USA will not accept a non-Christian president, and say that atheists cannot be trusted. Should they be abused and their holy places vandalised?

Every belief system has extremists who (deleted: often from deep belief) attempt to force their beliefs on others.

NP Most religions have aspects of the (was “their”) holy texts and related traditions that (was “which” ) evil can use to lead others to horrible actions.

NP Catholics and Protestants burned each other at the stake, remember.

NP Every religion also has people who use only the parts of the creed which lead to tolerance and the best human actions.

Deleted all of para: I think we could adopt the word “daeshi” to mean “bigot who imposes their views on others.”  (It helps that the Islamic extremists hate the word.) I think that the current “anti-terrorism” actions should be reworded to be “anti-daeshi”, thus making the offence one of promoting the denial of  freedom of belief for those one disagrees with, not one of planning violence.  (Yes, a limitation – with criminal penalty – on freedom of religion and cultural tradition.)

Deleted:  Similarly, I think that) members of any sect who oppress (was:  which oppresses) others when in power (deleted: , or which state that they will do so) ,  should be denied refugee status unless they abjure the part of their creed which denies others equal rights regardless of religious belief.


This example free for use in discussion of style, Newspaper editing,  and the politics of free speech.

A Newspaper’s exam hints – (sigh.)

March 9, 2014

In “10 writing tips when sitting a written exam”  I read – yes, I read on despite the probable quality  given  the title’s poor construction – :

“Affect / Effect – Effect is a noun.  For example – Cyclone Connor had a great effect on the town.  Affect is a verb(doing word).  For example, – The virus affected Libby so much that she had two days off school.”

(Sunday Times “Chillout” NAPLAN liftout, 09.03.14)

This explanation is, to be polite, sub-optimal.  The explanation given means that the students are not prepared for real world uses of the words. Both words ARE  used as noun and verb.  The REAL difference lies in the prefix.

The root is the Latin facere, “to do or to make” – the same root as “factory”.  The prefixes are ex– (outward or out of) and ad-  (towards or onto)  which assimilate to the “f” of facere to make the words effect and affect.

The noun is the outcome of the verb.  Thus, when you effect a change in something, you have an effect on it – the change goes out from the one who is the centre of our attention.

Affect is the change from the point of view of the one changed: If you affect an accent or a style of dress, you put it on your self; the virus affects you when it has an effect on you.  It is usually used as a verb, but is also a noun.  The noun “affect” means feeling or visible emotional response: “The depressed man showed flat affect.”

This leads to different understandings of other words.  For example, consider “Affection”: feelings making one want to go towards a thing, a different play on the same root and prefix;   “Affectation”: a style or behaviour  affected for effect.

Explaining it this way leads to improved comprehension and spelling, as more words are analysed in terms of their prefixes, suffixes, and roots.  Seeing our words as Lego-like constructions is a powerful literacy approach – and a great tip to help with written exams.

How hard is it to get it right? If newspaper conglomerates can’t afford an academic’s consulting fee, how much does a literate journalist cost?  Remember, the ones most likely to read them are the ones who have few other sources to check.  Do newspapers have a social responsibility here?

When common usage leads to poor transmission of ideas

October 25, 2013

When I was learning English, “Substitute X for Y” meant that Y was the standard and X would be the substitute.   About ten years ago, newspaper cooking columns started to use it to mean the opposite – in a brandy cake you could “substitute brandy for your favourite liqueur.”   They ignored pedantic attempts to get them to change their ways.  (Hey, I teach small children: pedant by definition…)

Now a spokesman says that the National Heart Foundation guidelines recommend that we “substitute saturated for polyunsaturated…”  From context, I am sure that he meant the opposite.  (27.30 on )


Many dictionary-linguists have trained through Anthropology, and use its emphasis on cultural relativism – report what is done, do not make value judgements on others’ ways of being.  They  push for dictionary definitions and grammatical texts to reflect current usage (“…it means just what I choose it to mean,” said Humpty.) 

We teach literacy with concern for the transmission and reception of ideas.  How do we balance the push to Humpty with the need to transmit thought clearly across age groups, nations, and centuries?

Say what? Beyond jargon to brain pain

April 16, 2013

For the record:  I have university qualifications, starting my studies  in Medicine and ending with qualifications in Anthropology, Linguistics, Psychology, and Education.  Postgraduate included.  I can handle jargon from Anthropology to Zoology.

So I was impressed when a Literacy Education Theory article strained my brain.   I think it is worth examining, to see what took it beyond the usual run of jargon.  (As usual, I prefer not to name names when I find writing worth negative comment.)


To start with, my background awareness, summarized well by the OED:

Definition of semantics (noun)

[usually treated as singular]

  • the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning. The two main areas are logical semantics, concerned with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication, and lexical semantics, concerned with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them.
  • the meaning of a word, phrase, or text

Definition of reflexive (adjective)

  • Grammar denoting a pronoun that refers back to the subject of the clause in which it is used, e.g. myself, themselves.
  • (of a verb or clause) having a reflexive pronoun as its object (e.g. wash oneself).
  • Logic (of a relation) always holding between a term and itself.
  • (of a method or theory in the social sciences) taking account of itself or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.
  • (of an action) performed as a reflex, without conscious thought:at concerts like this one standing ovations have become reflexive
Definition of morphogenesis  (from Greek morphē ‘form’ + genesis beginning)(noun)  [mass noun]

  • Biology the origin and development of morphological characteristics.(i.e. physical structures)
  • Geology the formation of landforms or other structures.


morphogenetic  (adjective)

morphogenic (adjective)

(Please note the idea that the form being begun is considered to be pretty much unchanging, except by metamorphosis.)

The Text

The article was talking about teachers’ decision-making, and various things in the context of decisions which affected the final decision.

It referred to teachers’ “reflexive decisions”, meaning (I inferred, eventually) decisions made after careful consideration of a range of personal and external influences.  What most of us would call “considered decisions”.

It referred to “morphogenetic”,  defined in the article as meaning “transformative”.  This usage  confused me, as the term one would expect is “transformative” or -from metamorphosis “a change of form, a transformation” – metamorphic.

A major author in the references (this was a peer-review journal, so they drop in many references) was M. Archer.  This was the source of the jargon, I think, as ve was cited as using the root “morpho” to indicate that “society has no pre-set form or preferred state.”

This led me to wonder why  experts in literacy education would willingly use jargon which a literate reader finds both confusing and etymologically unsound.  Surely one would check that one’s proposed jargon did not clash with well-recognised usage from other fields?

Wondering still, I read on… “The relationship between writing, school instruction, and language cannot be underestimated.”  I deduced, from context, that an old-style editor would have corrected it to “should not”   or   “must not”.

Finally, I came to a diagram:

where would you put the arrows?

This raised more questions :  Would the “reflexive action” box be better outside the oval?  Could there be influence arrows from objective to subjective (considering Social Constructivist theory) and from the action box to internal and external headings?  Why do I always have to see things as being more complicated than proposed theoretical descriptions?  If this is the standard of those who educate teachers,  … Why does my brain hurt?

Oh, right.


Yes, I am a pedant.  Yes, I find semantic distinctions important.  Yes, I believe that jargon should be carefully crafted.

I believe that the increasing percentage of people using Engish as a second language calls for  more precise use of English:   people like me can translate poor writing,  but others rely on the correct semantics being there so that their support systems (such as the OED) can provide meanings the readers do not have as personal knowledge.

Decimate and exit linked to impoverished vocabularies

February 17, 2013

“Exiting” has joined  “decimated”  in the list of abused words.

Introduction: Postmodernism free zone

Before someone comments that it is now common usage to use “decimate” and “exit” in weird ways, and  that it is  therefore acceptable, I will argue that that approach is a sad combination of cultural relativism and postmodernism.  The end result of that approach I heard from a furious 16 year-old:

“The teacher used the wrong word, so I told her the right one, and she said it was “just semantics”.  What is good English without semantics?  I don’t think  she knows what that word means, either!”

I have seen an official Education Department document which said that students should understand texts which “infer” … the context made it clear that the students should infer.   What hope do the students have, if the Education Department’s proof readers don’t care about correct usage?

This is leading to difficulties in education.  Where teachers used to feel that  light romances were better than reading nothing, and that the newspapers were good reading practice, they now use these as sources for examples of errors to avoid.    It is much harder now for the weak reader, even with the teacher’s assistance, to develop from the sparse and faulty vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation allowed by modern editors to understanding complex texts :  the multitude of bad examples tends to outweigh the good, and leaves the reader confused when the language is used correctly.

Yes,  English is a living language, and like a garden will have new growths and mutations.

I believe that it is wise to weed and prune the garden, so that we can continue to be able to understand the patterns between words, as well as to read writings of people from all countries and eras with as little translation work as possible.  Some changes are welcome; changes which impoverish the language or confuse meanings are to be abhorred – and weeded out most enthusiastically.

What is wrong with the way they use “decimated” and “exited”?


Recently and increasingly used  to mean “almost annihilate”

“Decimated” is a vivid word for those who have read descriptions of the formal execution of one in each group of ten soldiers in a mutinous legion. The calculated brutality of having the one who draws the fatal lot clubbed  to death by their nine group-mates   is worth remembering.   Semi-iterate editors have permitted it to be used for killed half of,  almost exterminated,  ravaged …. check a thesaurus, perhaps.

One author (whose blushes I shall spare) used “decimate” incorrectly about ten times in 100 pages – and did not use other forms to give more precise descriptions of the depredations of an invading army.  “Decimate”‘ every time.

Another to-remain-nameless author had a character describe the situation of a group in a battle as like cattle in a corral. then described them as “decimated” .  Surely  “slaughtered” was the obvious word.

If people want a pseudo-latin term so that they can look clever, why not invent “Nonamate”?

Alas, no, just as they abuse the poetic “transpire” (the truth filters out slowly over time,  a metaphor from plant transpiration) to mean “happen, occur, take place, be seen, be reported”,  they abuse “decimate” and forget the other ways of expressing the concept.


This word is being used more and more often in light-weight writing, and is shifting from “a door” or “leave an area”  to mean “go out through”.


Sharon Latham “Miss Darcy falls in love”.

This book, like so much Austen fan-fic, fails the Austen benchmark both in style and in historical/social/emotional affect.  The repeated use of “exited” is one small part of this.  For example, I would prefer “descend from” a carriage to “exit” a carriage.

C J Cherryh 2012

New York: Daw Books

Page 296 2nd para
“He ordered a pot of tea and simply sat in his office, in the more comfortable chair, listening, after a time, to the mild disturbance of Lord Geigi and his bodyguard exiting the front door on their way to the dowager’s apartment.”

Ms Cherryh usually shows interesting and sound choices, which are well worth discussing to illuminate the range of ways one may use words and punctuation to describe emotions, situations, and events.  In this case, however, I am haunted by the image of Lord Geigi and his bodyguard being in the front door for such a time as to make that the thing they exit (as opposed to exiting the house).

At least she makes use of many synonyms.

I have even seen a newspaper article (P33 “Home” liftout, The Sunday Times, Western Australia, 17.02.2013)which warns against “letting your dog exit doorways before you”.  Why not  “letting your dog go through …”?  That even obeys Hemingway’s dubious rule for journalists.

Over the past few months I have done a lot of light reading and have noticed that, since  the 1990s, “exit” has become the Kudzu of departure words.  (For Australians, read  Carp or Water Hyacinth for Kudzu.)

“It’s just light literature”

Georgette Heyer’s early works were just light literature, published by Mills & Boon,but were well crafted.  Thurber’s “Further Fables for Our Time” were the lightest of literature, but used words correctly.   EVERY work, no matter its weight,  if it is worth hardcopy is worth attention to detail.  If the reader has to correct your English, the reader is doing the job for which you are paid and has a right to feel cheated.

Furthermore, the book full of impoverished and incorrect  vocabulary leads the inexperienced reader also to have a reduced usable vocabulary, limiting their ability to enjoy or create serious literature, rich poetry, and carefully accurate and comprehensible  explanations of that-which-is.

Conclusion: A request to editors.

In any one book or article, please restrict your authors to one use of “exited / exiting / etc” and one (unless correct) use of “decimated” – and only allow those after a strong defence of the need to use other words.  Our children need your support of their vocabulary.

Let’s revive Corrigenda – but do it online

February 13, 2013

I remember getting a new book and finding inside a piece of paper titled “Corrigenda”:  a list of corrections, in page order, so the user could update the book.  I have also seen one with a sheet titled “Errata”, but I prefer the former term: corrigenda (corrections) include changes required to meet changes in the world since the work was published, while the word errata (errors) holds connotations of fault in original form.

In modern publishing, this service has been abandoned.  I would like to see new books have, near the ISBN, the  net address of a site where readers can question word choice and grammar,  report typos and errors in fact,  and see a list of  reported and “confirmed” corrigenda .  The site should also have an address for snailmail contact by those with no email.

This feedback would be valuable for the publishers  as quality-control for editors and proof-readers,  as feedback on reader interest, and as a guide for changes to subsequent editions.  It might be even more valuable for authors, as many modern editors seem to have very poor grasp of the rules and guidelines of formal language. (Well, the English language editors- I have no experience other languages’ puublishing.)

Breaking Dawn Part I – target audience?

December 12, 2011

Twilight Breaking Dawn Part I is getting poor reviews in the local press, but they  assume that it is a serious film.

Listening to teenagers planning a trip to see it – and they go less than quarterly, so it was a major choice – showed a more complex reality.  These are teenagers who watch and read anime,  who enjoyed “Van Helsing“, and who are mostly strong  English Literature students.  They have strong visual literacy and literary criticism skills, and appreciated Movie Bob’s analysis of the series.

Last Twilight film, they found that it really was better not to go all together – though they all wanted to go.  Some of the group ( a minority) were going with other friends, as they wanted to enjoy the romance (and skim over the plot holes and social issues) ;  most were going for a good laugh.  Not a good mix.

After the film, one of those who went for the laughs reported that “It was a hoot! … A total satire on romance and monster genres.   A laugh at least every 3 minutes.”  Adding to the intrinsic humour, audience participation as per “Mystery Science Theater 3000”  was enthusiastic and (in their group) appreciated.

They were left with one question:  was the satirical quality

(a) Accidental   (Attack of the Killer Tomatoes)

(b) Deliberate   (Top Secret (1984))

(c) Freudian    (Can you think of a film where the director, script writer, and cast all tried to play it straight – but their subconsciouses rebelled in synch?   Suggestions welcome …)

One can imagine the feelings of the romantics elsewhere in the theatre …

So, to increase audience viewing pleasure for Part II:  maybe the cinemas could organise separate theme  sessions – one for those who love sparkly vampires and one for  those who prefer “Then Buffy Met Edward” t-shirts.

When is it time to introduce the colon, semicolon, ellipsis and dash?

June 21, 2011

Many  teachers are happy to see bright students reading authors like Paul Jennings.  I am not entirely comfortable with it, and here will explain why.  Then I get really prescriptive …

Most humans learn from example – this is so basic that I won’t bother to reference it.    Once a child has understood if not mastered the real basics – { . , ? !} – it is time for them to practice reading them, to reinforce the learning from example, and also to practice using them.  Again, I expect this is unexceptionable.

This is my contentious proposition:  If teachers are going to assess  writing using a marking format which includes complexity of sentences and punctuation, they hve a duty to make available the tools the child needs to produce the desired complexity.  If they have students who are capable of complex thought, they have a duty to equip them for self-expression as early as possible… regardless of age.  If the child reads only simple texts, where is the learning by example?

Do the above basic introduction, to be sure.   As soon as possible after this, I bellieve that any child who uses complex sentences should be introduced to the ways of punctuating them.   Any text with frequent short sentences (including newspaper articles and classroom books) should be looked at as a literary piece: are there examples ambiguities that could be resolved, repetitions that could be avoided, or relationships that could be made more clear by the use of “advanced” punctuation?  These can be used to demonstrate editing.  By year / grade 5 the class as a whole should be used to the idea of asking “Why has the simple form been used here?”   

Aside: I get the feeling that many writers underestimate (even patronise) their readers, assuming they cannot hold three related concepts in one sentence.

I have seen a (slightly above average) 10-year-old, two weeks after an  introduction to complex structures (and reading, with support, several examples of complex writing) start to talk about how one of these “simple sentence” stories could be made better by combining sentences and weeding out  a few words.

There is, of course, a downside:  an 11-year-old taught this way got into H.P. Lovecraft (try The music of Erich Zann , if you’ve not read any of his work), while ves agemates were into “Goosebumps”.

Choosing the texts

So, what sort of texts do I recommend?  For younger readers, mostly books from before the 1980s –  I give an exerpt from an  Andrew Davies Marmalade Atkins book below,  to give a feel for the level students age 8 – 11 have enjoyed.  His  books are playful yet challenging, so I use them,  but there are many other fine authors for this age whose works an older librarian could recommend.   For older readers, there is a multitude of works over the past 200 years from which to choose.   If you want some history / S&E, try comparing a translation of  the original Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” with the Disney book.  I like Cherryh at the moment, with examples below,  but there are other excellent authors.

 Do, however, check their pattern of punctuation.  Tom Holt is an entertaining writier (see Alexander at the World’s End) , but uses semicolons where The Penguin Guide to Punctuation would recommend a colon.  Indeed, such a style is preferred by some publishers now, to the extent that some teachers consider the older form incorrect.   Therefore, when an opportunity arises, I like to point out the existence of the two schools of thought, and allow the students to choose – and use only – the approach they prefer.   I also (as here) remind teachers of the existence of the two approaches.   (But I give out mainly examples of my preferred style, naturally.)

Examples of texts

In the first piece,  I begin with an Introductory Reference : The Colon and the Semicolon Compared, by Larry Trask .  We then see what CJ Cherryh does with them, and debate her choices.  I do not assert that her choices are always ideal,  but they are worth discussing.  (If students want to see a wider range of her style, I suggest the Russalka series.)

For older students,  small groups try to write their interpretations given those rules (they are expected to look up any words they don’t know, and figure out which words name an ethnic group/ nation / region names);   for younger students a more structured explanation sets the scene, the words are part of word study,  and it is a supervised small group or full class discussion.

CJ Cherryh  Fortress in the Eye of Time

p 246 .  [Heryn,  Lord of Amafel, has been found to have been careless to the point of being criminal concerning Prince Cefwyn’s safety.   Cefwyn, soon to be king of Ylesuin (by Heryn’s treachery), cannot prove the carelessness was deliberate action, or that Heryn has been taxing his people heavily and passing little on to the King.    Cefwyn sits in judgement – in Heryn’s castle.]

“I must bear that, then,” Heryn said, and where sarcasm might have prevailed, perhaps, there was no apparent edge to his voice, only anguish.

Something must be done with him; the whole hall waited, anxious, sceptical of Heryn alike, perhaps embarrassed in Heryn’s fall from dignity, perhaps thinking of their own weapons:  Cefwyn knew the volatility of the region all too well; but he considered rejecting Heryn and his offer, and his tax records, a moment of two longer than he might ordinarily contemplate a move to fracture the peace.

But after such a delay, enough to make Heryn’s face go to pallor, he beckoned the man to rise, and, still frowning, gave him the formal embrace courtesy and custom demanded after such an accepted capitulation.

p 382. [ Idrys is Cefwyn’s spy master, and often goes into danger for him;  Emuin is Cefwyn’s wisest advisor.  The Marhanen are the ruling family, Cefwyn’s family.  Cefwyn has become King, and has made choices that go against his land’s and his family’s traditions]

He cast a frowning look at Idrys, and knew that there was yet another danger that Emuin did not reckon of:  Idrys’ loyalty, and Idrys’ perception.  Idrys had taken an oath of homage to him.  Of fealty to him.  But in the challenge to the Marhanen that those oaths had never anticipated, he found himself without sure knowledge what Idrys’ attachment was: to him, as king; to the realm; to whatever man Idrys served – or to his own unexpressed sense of honor.  Idrys measured things by some scheme that had never yet diverged from his personal welfare.

[Note: from context, I suspect that the “his personal welfare” there is the king’s, and that she would have written “his own” had it been Idrys’ welfare. ]

p 399.  [People from a neighbouring kingdom are invading across Amefel – and the Lord of Amafel and some nobles have recently been executed for treason.  Cefwyn considers what his warlike and successful grandfather had taught him.]

It meant, of course, that the Elwynim disrupted their own harvest by taking men away from the farms, but if in years previous they had had the foresight to hold reserves of their grain, they could bring it from Elwynor, managing the extended supply that Grandfather had declared was the most important item to have secured: Never rely on the farmers for food, was another of Grandfather’s  rules; it makes the farmers mad, gives your enemy willing reports, and it never amounts to what you think it will once you most need it.

Grandfather was silent on the problems of feeding the farmers of Amafel while the armies of five provinces and all the enemy camped on their fields and their sheep-meadows – when the Amefin were farmers and shepherds of the chanciest loyalty in all Ylesuin.  As well the King did stand on their pastures;  holding Amefel otherwise would not be possible.

The next piece is good to read aloud, stopping if necessary to write up and define any unknown words.   There is then the opportunity to hand out an unpunctuated copy, for small groups or pairs of students to choose their own punctuation before seeing how Davies has done it.  This allows discussion of ways of punctuation, and thought about choices, before discussing how the piece was actually punctuated – and then discussing  how he gets away with breaking so many of the formal writing rules  (Lessons:  A  sentence can be very long and yet easy to read, if you punctuate clauses carefully.  A sentence fragment can be a paragraph – if you are writing in an informal style, and if you set up the situation correctly in your readers’ minds .)

Andrew Davies   Marmalade Atkins’ Dreadful Deeds

pp 18 – 19

Torchy was a fat white pony who went round with a secret smile on his face.  He was a very nice pony to ride if you didn’t mind stopping every few yards for him to have a snack.  The other thing he liked to do was roll on his back kicking his legs in the air, and most people found it best to dismount while he was doing this.

And then there was Rufus.  Rufus had come with the farm and nobody knew how old he was.  He wore an old straw hat that didn’t suit him but nobody had ever dared take it off, because although Rufus usually looked half asleep, there was a certain look about his half-shut eyes that warned you not to take liberties with Rufus or his hat.

After his hat, the next thing you noticed about Rufus was his coat, which was rough and thick, and several kinds of red in colour.  There were sandy tufts, and gingery tufts, and carroty whorls, and pinkish stubble.  His coat was of several different lengths, and grew in several different directions, and he looked as if he had just paid a visit to a drunken barber’s.  Despite all this, he seemed a nice old thing, and people who didn’t know him  would cry out: “Oh, what a sweet little donkey!  Isn’t he a love!” and people who did know him would clear their throats and change the subject, and Rufus himself would throw back his head and let out a sarcastic “Hee-haw!” in his very loud and vulgar voice, and if you looked into his sleepy old eyes you could see his crafty old brain ticking over, working out something bad to do.

Because Rufus was a pretty diabolical donkey.

Rufus liked to give people surprises.  One way of doing this was to come up behind them and give them a very gentle nudge with his nose.  Usually they would stroke his muzzle saying “What a sweet old thing!”  Then he would give then another nudge, a bit harder, then a very hard nudge indeed.  After about three nudges, most people fell down, and Rufus would stand on them.  Donkeys look small, but they weigh at least twice as much as your fattest auntie, and it is no joke being stood on by a donkey like Rufus.

Marmalade’s mother would try to smooth the situation over by whacking him with a twig and saying “Don’t be a bore, Rufus!” or “It’s only his way of showing he likes you!” but people who were stood on by Rufus wished he could show his affection in some other way; and those who looked up into his wickedly gleaming eyes thought, but didn’t like to say, that Marmalade’s mother was quite wrong and that Rufus did not in fact like them at all.

And in this they were usually right.

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Alexander at the World's End

Alexander at the World’s End

From Polygon Song to Michael Jackson

January 25, 2011

Thoughts on “Polygon Song” by Peter Weatherall

I was looking for ways to help children remember the polygons’ names, and was struck by a performance of “Polygon Song”,  (with students in costume singing and acting the parts) at an assembly.   At first I thought this was an unexceptionable, really  good teaching song.

Then I considered the subtext:

“Nah. nah nah, nah, nah, just a boring Square.

I wish I was a pentagon, but I am just a square.
I wish I was a pentagon, but I am just a square.
My sides equal four, but if I had one more
I’d be a pentagon and not a square

Nah. nah nah, nah, nah, just a boring Square.”

So far, not bad.

The song continues, with desire to have more sides (triangles are not mentioned) and dissatisfaction with the main player’s squareness repeated.

So, where does it go – to the amazing properties of the tesseract?  To the practical designer choosing the square above the rest?

“(Play act  the square going behind a screen with a surgeon, and bits of paper tossed out)

Well now I am a decagon, and not a square.
Now I am a decagon, and very rare.
I won’t complain again ‘cos my sides equal ten,
I am a decagon, and not a square.

When I was just a square, I thought it wasn’t fair,
So I had surgery to my geometry ….
Now look at me!

Nah. nah nah, nah, nah, not a boring Square.”

The subtext I see is :  strong social acceptance of plastic surgery to change a standard but socially less valued appearance – with bust enhancement and nose reductions being normalised, the full Jackson option anyone?

I think I may still  use the song, but as a piece to introduce the idea of subtext to older students.