Style / PowerPoint: For Students

We utter sentences as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and the very naturalness of this activity makes it difficult to see that syntax (or sentence structure) is a technology. When I instruct my three-year-old not to say, "I it have," I'm not just teaching her how to talk, I'm teaching her one way to think. Sentence structure isn't neutral: it puts ideas in relation to each other, sometimes even insisting that ideas can ONLY be related in certain ways. Latin orders language differently than does English: ancient Romans had a different worldview than we do today, and, insofar as some of their ideas are untranslatable without drastically chainging the form, we don't really have access to that worldview. Moreover, within any given language, there are ways of speaking that differ dramatically from others. Some "styles" of speaking and writing dominate at different historical moments, as George Orwell's essay shows us dramatically. In my lifetime, I personally have seen some changes: over-use of nominalizations in the 1970s to 1990s, as consumerism ran rampant (to nominalize a word is to turn it into a thing, a commodity), current preference for strong verbs as our society believes that self-realization comes from (hyper-)activity.

But no worldview will dominate our thoughts if we PAY ATTENTION to style. The philosopher Stanley Cavell always analyzes what he is "tempted" to say: we can analyze whatever sentence structures come out in a first thought or first draft and then alter them in order to better understand our own thought processes.

While Williams is discussing bad sentences (as well as how to fix them) and Tufte is discussing bad PowerPoint presentations (I think Tufte wants us to throw out the PowerPoint program, don't you?), both share something in common: they feel that these bad products have cut out the story. "What story is your sentence trying to tell?" Williams wants you to ask. After you have figured that out, then you will be able to place all the story elements in a carefully crafted sentence. Tufte similarly finds the story buried in PowerPoint presentations. In the cases he analyzes, the case of the Challenger, some people don't really want to tell the story and others don't really want to hear it.

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