More or less

Or less or more.

I’ve more or less been on holiday this week. Officially, less; and unofficially both more and less. Unofficially, I’ve been on holiday this week. We didn’t have to teach the usual classes, and the IELTS class never happened; but because this term has been so long, I seem to be unable to quite put it all behind me.

We got sent a new curriculum, which was kind of a revised version of the old one, but the whole thing’s been given cohesion across all levels. I was perusing it when I noticed an error and, like any good pedant, dispatched a mail message back to Central Command. The reply came along with a revised version of the new curriculum, which I also perused, and found that the writing section was ill-formatted and, frankly, badly organised.

In all honesty, the whole thing is also overwrought. Our pupils are never required to produce a piece of writing above the length of a (short) paragraph, assuming that they produce anything at all. The writing curriculum could be reduced to

  1. Understanding the topic.
  2. Planning.
  3. Writing.

Step 1 would involve me explaining for the nth time the necessity of under­standing what they’re meant to be writing about instead of latching onto the solitary word they understand and writing about that.

Step 2 is optional. In some cases, it may be optional because they know what they’re going to say and don’t have to plan it; in other cases, planning requires thinking, and thinking results in neurological trauma.

Step 3 ranges from a halfway decent attempt to derisory scrawling to paper that’s only less blank than the mind of the pupil who should be writing on it.

They mostly write paragraphs, so formatting is largely not an issue, but the internal structure of a paragraph is. They can use punctuation, but they do it Chinese style which, no matter how often you correct them, they’ll do again the next time and the next time, and the next time etc. The register seldom departs from semi-formal since the genre is typically formal in nature.

All right, we reach the ultimate paragraph. The point isn’t really any of the above. The point is that I’m even thinking about this stuff when I don’t need to be thinking about it. Perhaps it’s just me being me. I observe that there’s a flaw or error in something and find it hard to resist the urge to correct it. I’ll calm down eventually, but I need some sort of diversion.

[10.08.14. For a long time, this was my philosophy of writing. Nothing that my pupils had to write was more than about 200 words, and thus the process required little real planning. The problem is that they are inimical to reviewing and revising, partly because they just don’t have the competence even with extensive guidance. (As for peer reviewing, the phrase “the blind leading the blind” springs to mind; it works even less well among groups who have only attained partial competence.)

On reflection, pupils seem to start out by writing paragraphs of topic sentences, which will eventually evolve into paragraphs with fewer topic sentences before the little darlings more or less grasp the ideal structure of a paragraph. At that point, it’ll be done with dull, robotic competence, without the slightest regard for the suffering audience.]

Fulsome

But not too full.

Every so often, I learn something about English that I never knew before. Usually, it’s something about a word or words such as the -c- for nouns and -s- for verbs thing (thus, practice (n) ~ practise (vb); prophecy (n) ~ prophesy (vb) etc.). That’s one I didn’t learn of until I was in my twenties. Again, I was in my twenties when I found out that the phrase “even although” wasn’t actually written as a single word.

Then there are those words which I know, but rarely use and may not use them correctly because I don’t really know what they mean. In this category used to fall the word “compunction” which roughly means “prick of conscience”, but which I think I took to mean something like “compulsion”.

Today’s word kind of falls into this last category. Language Log has a story The Queen’s English (I thought she was a bit German, actually [And once again the comedy ever ends. –ed.]) which is about the use of the word “fulsome” in the film The Queen. I know of the word, although it belongs to that set of words in English which I’d regard as obsolete. If “gay” hadn’t acquired other meanings, it’d merely be some quaint word used by elderly dowagers trapped in 1933. I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word “fulsome” myself either in speech or writing. If you were to ask me what it meant, I’d say “generous” and add that it has positive connotations.

Apparently, this is not so.

Apparently – and here’s the part I never knew – “fulsome” has anything but positive connotations. It’s meant to mean “offensively flattering or insincere”. How, therefore, do I come to see it in such a positive light? The word is clearly dying. If I were to use it, then it’d probably be in the clichéd phrase “fulsome praise” where, I think, the positive connotations of “praise” coupled with “full” have perhaps generated the sense I understand. I can think of no instance where I’d have any reason to assume that “fulsome” had a negative sense unless I knew that it was being used to damn someone with faint praise. “Fulsome” may not quite be dead in English, but I’d guess that for most speakers it has the same sense that it has for me.

I also wonder whether this is one of those instances where speakers of American English have retained a usage that has dropped off the radar of British English. (06.08.14. Wouldn’t surprise me because as I’ve said else­where, American is a museum.)

Anyway, it just goes to prove that even native speakers can learn something new about their languages, although I’m not about to dust “fulsome” off and start using it either in its current sense or, for certain, in its obsolete one.