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Quell the Exaggeration

- November 26, 2007

A muchdiscussed study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that adolescents were reading fewer literary works, which may lead to a lower capacity for reading comprehension as well as writing ability.

These days I am particularly sensitized to the consequences of reading for writing ability because I am teaching a small writing-intensive seminar for graduating seniors. Some of the problems with students’ writing are grammatical, problems which could, in theory, be fixed with instruction in grammatical principles.

But other problems, in particular deviations from idiomatic usage, have no ready fix because they depend not on principles but on looser notions of what kinds of words “go together.” For example, a very smart student, who actually writes quite well, included this phrase in a recent paper: “quell the exaggeration.” I told him that exaggerations are not “quelled,” at least given how the word “quell” is typically used. This choice is not egregiously wrong — one definition of quell is “put an end to” — but it sounds off somehow.

It’s this kind of writing mistake that can only be minimized by reading. Over a period of time, reading will familiarize readers with the meanings of words, common usage, and thus how to put words together effectively in their own writing.

This is yet more reason to praise those who are trying to motivate reading.