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The Problem with Form

I have a problem with people who are obsessed with form and can’t get it past it to the spirit of the thing. A long time ago a man named Mahaffey wrote a little book called Conversation that carried some wonderful counsel on how to be a good conversationalist.

In it he said:

The man who parades his logic is one of those poor and narrow thinkers whose over attention to form mars his comprehension of the matter and so leads him astray.


That is why I want students to learn form early in life, mastering as much of it as possible during the middle school years.

Otherwise one of two things will happen: one, they’ll disregard it more or less completely or two, they’ll overly attend to it.

For example, contemporary writers and readers are obsessed with form. If a sentence extends beyond two clauses they lose their minds. To use hyperbole (a little bit): every joint in the skeleton of a modern book is swollen with arthritis and you are made to stare at the joints when what you want to see is graceful movements.

You can’t. You have to stop for the period. After each clause. Or you will have to think too many thoughts. Too fast. And your mind can’t take it. You need a commercial break. Your brain has arthritis too.

This overly scientific and analytical mind, lost in its lack of self-awareness, is the plague of the common grammar class.

On the other hand, early training in form enables the student and writer to internalize the forms, to attain second nature reflexes, and thus to transcend mere form and follow it to the spirit of the idea expressed.

It my seem ironic, but the neglect of form in schools leads people to an obsession with form even as they think they are free of it. It’s a bit like a person who dresses like his peers to show that he is independent.

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