Wednesday, December 21, 2011

That awkward age

I probably use the word "awkward" more than most English speakers.  That's because it's one of the words I write most often on student papers.  My high-ability freshmen suffer from chronic overwriting; they use twenty words when two would do, and twist them into the most convoluted and often nonsensical students you can imagine.  "Awkward construction" I write on a sentence that contains three unnecessary dependent clauses.  "Awkward pronoun usage" I write on a sentence that turns itself inside out trying not to commit to the gender of a hypothetical person.  "Awkward" I write, just plain "awkward," on any sentence that would cause someone reading aloud to stumble or backtrack.

On the last day of school before the winter break, both kids were invited to wear their pajamas to school.  I drove Cady Gray there, as I usually do.  "This feels awkward," she kept saying in the back seat, referring to the sensation of wearing inside clothes outside.

This afternoon, Noel enlisted Cady Gray's help with some holiday baking.  She sampled the batter for some primal cocoa and nut bites.  "This tastes awkward," she giggled, unfamiliar with the texture of unbaked batter and non-flour-based treats alike.

I'm not sure where she's picked up that word, but it strikes me as the perfect adjective for the situations where she used it.  Awkward is not fitting into the usual categories, the well-worn tracks of our lives.  Awkward is out of place, square pegs in round holes.  But awkward isn't necessarily wrong.  It should be noticed, but maybe sometimes it should be embraced.


J Michael said...

What would be the least grammatically offensive way to avoid the embarrassment of "Awkward Pronoun Usage"? I usually start off with a gender neutral noun like “person”, but then commit to male pronouns until I theorize another “person”, when I often, if appropriate, switch to female pronouns for that part. Is it acceptable to switch pronoun genders when referring to a single person? Using s/he seems forced and weird.

Donna Bowman said...

I hate "he or she" and "s/he" -- they don't read aloud well, and so many people will also trip over them when reading subvocally. The strategy adopted by the humanities is to use the feminine gender on the first hypothetical person, then alternate thereafter. Using the feminine first eases the mind of alert readers that the writer is not stuck in the mid-twentieth century on pronoun usage.