Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Lying About Writing

My baby is taking the PSAT today. For those of you who aren’t Americans, PSAT stands for Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test. Of course, he’s not really preliminary yet—that would be next year when he’s a junior. So this is a practice preliminary SAT. Which seems kind of redundant to me. But we take testing very seriously in the US. Though not as seriously as Europe.

Matt’s spent the last two weeks preparing for the PPSAT. (Not to be confused with the SSAT—secondary scholastic aptitude test, which is given to junior high students hoping to get into very academic high schools. Or at least it was when I was young.) Anyway, Matt was preparing by taking a PSAT prep writing quiz. He got an answer wrong and called me over.

Basically, he was supposed to read a sentence and then decide whether the sentence was correct as is, or if one of four other sentences presented the same information but in a better way. I read the sentence. I paused. What?? I re-read the sentence. I paused again. It was a piece of crap sentence with more clauses than Santa. Hmm. At least I knew it wasn’t “correct as is.” Then I read the four other sentences. Whoa. They were worse. Misplaced clauses. Weird verb issues. Parenthetical tripe.

Me: Uh, Matt, the right answer was “correct as is.”

Matt: But it doesn’t even make sense.

Me: It sort of does.

Matt: scowling and thinking “If I wrote that, you’d lecture me and make me rewrite it.”

Me: Okay, you’re right. The sentence is terrible, but it’s better than the other choices.

Matt: These tests are stupid.

Me: Yeah.

Part of me understands why they test the kids on these kinds of sentences. If you’ve ever read a college textbook, you know too. Academic writing isn’t too concerned with clean writing. (I know, I worked in the Academic Press division of Harcourt.) For example, Luke is taking Scientific Writing for Chemists this semester, and all he does is give Powerpoint lectures on really exciting stuff like Acid-Base Theory. I understand that they’re preparing him to be a professor or a researcher because unless he was forced, Luke would never learn to use Powerpoint. But maybe, writing classes should encourage clean writing. Crisp sentences communicate clearly. Stuffy, pedantic writing isn’t smarter. It’s just stuffy.

If they did that, then the PSAT could have examples of good writing. And Matt would be happy. And I wouldn’t have to explain why a terrible sentence was really not terrible. I hate lying.


  1. Is it really lying? Sounds more like you were trying to make sense of it for him.

  2. I agree,I never saw such convoluted sentences. I am heading out to drop the youngest off for the PSAT this AM too.

  3. I think it's less teaching good writing as trying to make sure in the trickiest way possible that you know your grammar. Some of the most confusing, ugly sentences I've ever read have been from SAT writing sections, and it's all there to make sure you know a dangling modifier when you see one...even if the rest of it doesn't make any sense. :P

  4. Krispy,

    I think you're absolutely right--it's all about odd grammar. Sigh. I'm sure Matt's going to be very "excited" to discuss dangling participles and misplaced modifiers.

  5. That sounds like it was a nightmare question for a writer like you! I remember my PSATs. Glad that's over.

  6. Yeah, I saw a Nobel laureate in Physiology and Medicine use two passives in quick succession "It has been seen that it has been shown..." when he really should have just said "I'm right. You know it."

  7. Was there an option to choose "none of the above"?

  8. Maybe PSATs prepare a soul to deal with IRS forms? :)

  9. You're right, I'd never have learned to use powerpoint if I hadn't been forced.