Resurrecting Dead Words

By Jennifer Fletcher

In Teaching Arguments, I write about an activity I used for many years with my high school and college students: dead word funerals. I first learned about “dead words” when I was a student teacher back in the mid-nineties. At the time, it seemed like a clever and fun way to teach students about the importance of academic English.

We’d “kill off” a word that I thought was too casual or vague for academic writing—such as “get,” “go,” “thing,” “really,” or “big”—have a moment of silence, and then add the word to our list of deceased diction, meaning that students could no longer use that word in their argument essays. I even displayed a tombstone to drive home the point.

Learning about Linguistic Justice

After reading books like Other People’s English and Linguistic Justice, however, I’m more mindful of the ideological and instructional implications of telling students what words they can and can’t use in my classes. In Linguistic Justice, April Baker-Bell describes the emotional and intellectual harm done when Black students are “faulted, punished, and belittled” for “showing up to school with a language that was deemed incompatible with the literacy conventions expected in the academic setting” (5). Vershawn Ashanti Young, one of the co-authors of Other Peoples’ English, also examines the social costs of undervaluing students’ language resources. He calls code-switching “a form of linguistic segregation” since this practice requires Black students to only “use their language in appropriate settings and almost none of those settings are academic or professional” (3).

I now situate my dead words activity in relation to a tradition of educational approaches that seek to “eradicate speakers’ native/home language patterns from their speech” (Smitherman xv). What does the murder of a word accomplish if not its eradication? As Geneva Smitherman argues in the Foreword to Linguistic Justice, “We need a pedagogy that teaches us to explore why things are the way they are” (xv)—not one that unthinkingly perpetuates the status quo.

Beyond Academic English

Scholars such as Young and Baker-Bell have stretched my thinking about the conventions of academic discourse, including their sources, functions, and implicit social values. Assignment or activity directions that require students to use academic language as the communicative norm undermine students’ agency and interfere with their ability to leverage their linguistic resources. My goal as a teacher of rhetorical literacy skills should be fostering linguistic dexterity, not conformity.

What’s more, the academic language conventions we teach today won’t necessarily be the ones used by the scholars of tomorrow. Rhetorician Peter Elbow identifies a strong trend toward more casual, “vernacular” English across discourse communities, including academic ones. Elbow describes a “a newish world of writing”–the world of email, blogging, and social media–in which people compose in what Elbow calls “everyday vernacular spoken language” (4).

The vibrant, personable prose we enjoy in multiple forms of new media is having an impact on how researchers communicate in their fields. As Elbow notes, we’re all starting to write more like we talk.

Changing Our Instructional Approach

So where does that leave my dead words activity? For starters, I no longer kill off words. Making choices about language is the writer’s job, not the teacher’s. Each option needs to be evaluated in its unique rhetorical context. What counts as an effective word choice depends on the audience’s expectations for the genre and occasion, as well as the word’s function in the composition. (I know lots of scholars who use rhetorically effective profanity in academic prose.)

While I no longer give my students a list of “dead words” to avoid in academic writing, I do invite students to reflect on the rhetorical effects of different language choices, including the information communicated by their words. This activity can be especially helpful preparation for revising writing. Here are my updated directions:

Get Rid of Get 2.0

Directions to Students: In each of the following sentences, replace the word “get” with a different word or word phrase. Then identify the effect of your revision. Consider the list of “Revision Moves” below. If you think “get” is the best word in the context of the sentence, be prepared to explain why.

Possible Revision Moves

  • Toward precision
  • Toward concision
  • Toward genre conventions
  • ?
  1. What did you get on your test?
  2. I don’t get the joke.
  3. Your train may get in late.
  4. Did you get the assignment from Alejandra?
  5. Did your parents get you to do your homework?
  6. I can’t get enough of this chocolate.
  7. What are you getting your boyfriend for his birthday?

Given the casual nature of these sentences, it’s not surprising that many students think “get” sounds just fine in the above examples. I see this as a rhetorically justifiable view. And to be honest, now that I’ve resurrected words like “really,” “thing,” and “get” in my classes, I find that my students’ writing is often livelier and more authentic.

Zombie Fallacies

There is still one place in my curriculum where my old dead words lesson enjoys a lingering afterlife. When I teach qualifiers, I still like to use “zombie fallacies” as part of a lesson on critical reasoning. There’s value in helping students ask questions about the extent and implications of the claims they’re making. Some of those words I used to put on the dead words list were modifiers—such as always, never, all, every–that commit writers to extreme positions.

These are also the words that communication experts tend to see as problematic because they can misrepresent the behavior or viewpoints of other people (“You think you’re never wrong!” or “You’re always late for everything!”). I don’t bother teaching many logical fallacies these days, but I do teach the fallacies that interfere with ethical and effective communication.

Here’s the revised activity (adapted from Teaching Arguments):

Analyzing and Evaluating Claims: Zombie Fallacies

Purpose: To analyze and evaluate the effect of extreme modifiers in claims

Directions to Students: Write a claim in which you “resurrect” as many dead words as possible, using a minimum of four from the list below.  The “dead words” include modifiers, or describing words, that suggest extreme or universal conditions (e.g., “always,” “totally,” and “never”). The list also includes indefinite pronouns that are broadly inclusive (e.g., “everyone,” “nobody,” and “all”). Add some of the extreme modifiers and indefinite (or not specific) pronouns from the list to a claim you’re currently working on or one that you’ve already written with. See what you notice.

After writing your “zombie” claim, identify the logical fallacies you’ve created. Then answer the following questions:

  1. What kind of evidence do you need to reasonably make this claim?
  2. What are the assumptions behind this claim?
  3. Which words, if any, are undefined? How would you need to define these words in order to further develop and support this claim?
  4. How many people are affected by this issue? What do you know about them?
  5. What historical periods and geographical regions are relevant to this issue?
  6. Under what circumstances would this claim not be true?

Example: Because Algebra has always caused graduation problems for everyone, it should never be an admission requirement for any college. (logical fallacy: sweeping generalization)

Dead Words (extreme modifiers and indefinite pronouns): Always, never, everyone, everybody, everywhere, all, none, good, bad, no one, everything, anything, perfect, nobody, obviously, totally, completely, no matter what, absolutely, any

Logical Fallacies (partial list):

  • Band Wagon: Appeal to the popular (e.g., “Everyone is doing it.”)
  • Sweeping Generalization: Making a broad claim that doesn’t account for variations and exceptions (e.g., “All dogs are friendly.”)
  • Hasty Generalization: Drawing a conclusion without sufficient evidence and analysis (e.g., “I’m a boy who likes to play video games. My brother likes to play video games. Therefore, all boys like to play video games.”)
  • Appeal to Tradition: Basing an argument solely on long-standing practice (e.g., “We’ve always done things this way.”)
  • False Analogy: Claiming that something is like something else without sufficient grounds for the comparison (e.g., “Eating a French fry is totally like smoking a cigarette.”)

The Takeaway

As I revise my thinking as a teacher, I also need to revise my instructional approach. Activities that don’t serve students’ best interest need to be changed or retired. It turned out it was my prohibition against “dead words”–and not the words themselves–that needed to be laid to rest.

Jennifer Fletcher is a professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay and a former high school teacher. You can contact her at jfletcher@csumb.edu or on Twitter @JenJFletcher.

Works Cited

Baker-Bell, April. Linguistic Justice: Black Language, Literacy, Identity, and Pedagogy. Routledge, 2020.

Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Young, Vershawn Ashanti, Rusty Barret, Y’Shanda Young-Rivera, Kim Brian Lovejoy. Other People’s English: Code-Meshing, Code-Switching, and African American Literacy. Parlor Press, 2018.

One thought on “Resurrecting Dead Words

  1. Jennifer, this is so good. Of course we still use those “dead words,” so in addition to the points you make from Linguistic Justice, there’s an element of hypocrisy in telling students not to use certain words. I used dead word activities s couple times but generally preferred to teach students how to avoid redundancies in their writing (not to be mistaken for repetition). Sometimes students recognized their overuse of words and sought help moving past those.

    Your co
    me ts about code switching brought back some fond memories of my teaching days in Arizona w/ students who spoke both Spanish and English and the way their Spanish supported conversations in the classroom as well as their and their classmates English learning. I think teachers sometimes worry too much about what stuff ts are saying in their native tongues when it could be an opportunity for teachers to learn, too.

    Like

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