Friday, August 13, 2010

Seeing the English Language from the Outside In

I recently had the opportunity to write a couple of super short stories (about one page single-spaced each) to be used in a Master's thesis on English Language Learning. Compounded with the complications of writing such short stories (which I counted to be situations, not really complete stories), they were to include many non-count nouns. Non-count what? I asked.

Because I'm fairly certain I slept through most of English class in elementary school, I didn't remember what non-count nouns were. I had to look them up. Also known as mass nouns, they are nouns that can't be pluralized by simply adding an "s." And, as the name suggestions, you can't count them. Technically, we get around a lot of these nowadays: "coffee" is supposedly a non-count noun, but how many times have you said "I need to get a coffee" or "I nearly fell in the middle of the street trying to carry all these damned coffees"?
So I started as I start everything, with a blank page. I knew I had to be rather concise, and I also knew I couldn't be very stylistically fancy - I am a fan of dashes, semicolons, and. You know. Fragments. But these were students learning English for the first time, so style, sadly, was out. I had a list of non-count nouns to look at while writing. This helped, as I really didn't know what to write and had to base some of my narrative around what nouns I could use.

Three hours later, I had two mediocre scenes. I'm used to writing within parameters for the writing exercises I do every other week or so, but this kind of parameter was different. This time, I had to think about the English language in a way I never was required to before - it would be like having to think, Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Now that's a great exercise for Yoga, but not for all your waking hours. It's hard. And it was the same with writing these stories. I could work in the non-count nouns, but then my plot was weak. I could strengthen the plot, and lose some of the required nouns. I could think about every breath in and every breath out, but I might forget to brush my teeth in the process.

Ultimately, I had to tell myself that these were only short, easy-to-understand scenes for use on a questionnaire, not to submit to The New Yorker. They weren't great. I probably wouldn't work with them again. But the act itself was an exercise for my writing mind, and it made me realize how much about our mother tongues we take for granted, especially as writers.  Doing any of these kinds of assignments, I believe, can only strengthen style, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to buff up mine a bit.