Friday, December 9, 2011

Language, Metaphor, and 2nd Grade

Today I present, for your consideration, three seemingly unrelated incidents:


Perusing the AbsoluteWrite message boards for a chance to offer one of my brilliant, life-changing opinions, I came across a person who asked if he had been justified in correcting a friend’s grammar on her website, where she claimed “over 20 years experience.” He believed an excess over a numerical value should be expressed with "more than."

Cranky responders pointed out that good grammar never makes you as popular as you think it will. I can vouch for this. I didn’t end a single sentence (written OR spoken) with a preposition in all of high school, but the boys never came a-knocking.

The friendlier replies were along the lines of, “Technically, you’re right, but it really doesn't matter.”

Somehow the answer seemed incomplete. I love rules, I love grammar, I love precision, and yet... And yet. I could only think about how fluid language is, how much awesomesauce you can miss by trying to put every word in its proper place.

Oh, the Humanity

My recipe guru, Aviva Goldfarb of The Six O’Clock Scramble (, has a recipe for savory sweet potato pie that is sublime. I have never liked sweet potatoes, but I can barely stop myself from eating this entire pie in one sitting.

Earlier this week, dinnertime crept up on me and I had nothing in the house except baking ingredients - flour, butter, sugar, eggs - and 3 sweet potatoes. It was the perfect excuse to serve savory sweet potato pie for dinner, along with a side of boxed macaroni and cheese I found at the very back of the pantry, which may or may not have been past its expiration date; I wasn't going to ruin everything by checking. I declared this, “Orange Night.” I presented Orange Night with great fanfare, despite the fact that the oven sprang a gas leak halfway through cooking the pie and it was a miracle we neither exploded nor passed out from the fumes.

In retrospect, I should have turned the oven off and ordered in. But that's not my point here.

THIS, I would have understood
Kid #1 is my picky eater. He's getting better, but this was a bad day. He was in a sour mood, and that sweet potato pie was the most disgusting thing he had ever seen. EVER. When he finally tasted it, the gagging started immediately. After a few false alarms, he managed to swallow the first bite, but not the second. He regurgitated that and subsequent bites into little piles of masticated sweet potato, amply seasoned with salty tears. We gave up and sent him to bed.

No One Understands Genius

Yesterday was my volunteer day in my older son's second grade class, where I helped out by correcting papers. One worksheet was a simple vocabulary test, in which the children were told to fill in the bubble with the correct definition for each word.

Now, an aside for shameless braggery: Kid #1 is my literary kid. He would rather read than do anything else, including eat, sleep, go outside, or interact with people. He's currently on his second run-through of the Harry Potter series because we failed to provide him with new books fast enough.
Sometimes he’ll ask me what a word means and I’ll have to look it up, because vocabulary has never been my strong suit. I've been figuring when he gets to the pesky analogies on the SATs, he'll do just fine.

The words were really basic. For example, "to taste." What 2nd grader doesn't know the meaning of taste? That's hardly a vocabulary challenge.

Except... The possible answers were:
  1. to feel 
  2. to wait for
  3. to take a bite of 
I bet you see where this is going. My brilliant, literary, vocabulary-master kid got the definition of “taste” wrong. He chose #1, “to feel.”

When I was a kid, other kids used to try to convince each other that trees scream when you cut them down, and humans just can’t hear it. I sometimes tried to imagine what a tree’s terrified scream would sound like. Well, now I know. It’s the sound my heart made when I marked this problem wrong.

Every word has a meaning, or a range of meanings, that we try to encapsulate in definitions. It is always thrilling to find just the right word for what you want to say. Precision is everything in communication; "navy blue 2000 Honda Civic hatchback" gives a much clearer image than "car." What's magical about language, though, is that you don't have to be literal to be precise. Words have associations, images, and metaphor built right into them. When I say that after my second baby was born I looked like an old mattress tied around the middle, isn't that a more precise image than saying I had thirty pounds to lose?

For my son, taste is a feeling. That sweet potato pie felt like a nightmare in his mouth. The texture made him gag more than the sweetness or any individual reaction of a taste bud. Certainly for him, “taking a bite of” something doesn’t convey the horror of tasting it when it’s sweet potato pie. The bite isn’t the problem, it’s the chewing and the swallowing - and all the feeling that goes on during that terrible ordeal between teeth and throat.

Did I write more than two thousand words of my novel yesterday, or did I write over two thousand words? If I want grammatical precision, I wrote "more than." But what if the joy of creation was like flying away on a magic carpet into storyland, and what if paragraphs and chapters were the foothills and mountains in a fertile landscape of words? In that case, “over two thousand words” isn’t just an acceptable mistake. It’s exactly, precisely right.

Unless you’re in second grade.


P.S. I edited this post from the original when my husband vetoed "The Beav" as a nickname for our son. He doesn't veto much, so I try to be accommodating when I can. That's what makes me such a GREAT WIFE. Just saying, honey. Christmas is coming...


  1. No kidding! Kids have such natural voice and grade school tends to massacre it! Loved the "to taste" - "to feel" answer.

  2. Aviva Goldfarb is MY recipe guru also! Just last night we had Rigatoni with Roasted Red Peppers, Walnuts and Basil--except without rigatoni because I didn't have any. We used elbow macaroni instead and it was still amazing. Just don't ask my son, who would also gag on sweet potato pie. That crazy kid.

  3. Margo, yes, grade school can squash creativity - though I suspect in this case he didn't read the question very carefully :)

    Melanie, you made my day! I tell everyone about the Scramble and they always look at me like I'm speaking in tongues. Have you TRIED the sweet potato pie? It's seriously amazing. (But not a dessert pie. It will taste weird if you expect it to taste like dessert.)

  4. I think your son should've at least got half credit if not full.

    If he is building his vocabulary from reading, I can see where he is coming from. So often writers mix the senses for a poetic affect. "To taste freedom" really means to feel freedom.

    And the definition of taste really isn't "taking a bite." Tasting happens after the bite is taken. But perhaps I'm just too pedantic. :)

    You've got a smart boy, too smart for the question IMO.

    I love the fluidity of language too, and how some words are emotionally charged that they convey so much more then their definition.

    Awesome post.

    I gotta check out The Scramble. I'm always looking for new recipes. :)

  5. I haven't tried the sweet potato pie--yet.

  6. Oh man, a new recipe place! I'm thinking of signing up for their free trial - would it work for a single lady as well as a family?

    I'm personally a fan of epicurious and all their recipes, though they're not really budget focused.

    I have to admit, I'm a texture person too; I can't stand anything with the cream-cheese type texture. So I also regard this sweet potato pie warily, unless one of you wants to bring some over.
    (Sarah, you just live in LA, right? I'm here in San Diego any time you have extra! Trade you chocolate chip cookies... XD)

  7. Fab post! I'll definitely have to try out the recipes. They sound wonderful.


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