Fantastic paragraphs (and sentences) (iii)

It’s been a while since I last posted at all, let alone in this series of posts on fantastic paragraphs and sentences. It’s not that I haven’t been reading a lot–I have, and a lot of it has been great. But this series of posts is on those rare paragraphs that can stop me in my reading tracks, and those are very few and far between.

But last night I finally encountered one. It’s about halfway through Helen DeWitt’s supremely strange novel Lightning Rods (2011). Here is the paragraph:

For the next couple of days Joe tried to put a brave face on things. He tried not to think about the PVC with a slit in the crotch which the Equal Employment Opportunities Act was going to force him to implement. If he thought about it he was just going to get depressed, and in sales you can’t afford to get depressed. You can’t afford to go around thinking. What’s the point? That negative take on the product will communicate itself to the customer, and before you know it all the hard work you put into getting your foot in the door will be down the drain.

Helen DeWitt. Ligthning Rods. New York: New Directions, 2011. p. 183.

I must say that this paragraph is rather less bizarre in the larger context of this consistently bizarre book, but even so this one stood out. Actually, it was really the second sentence in particular that stood out, making me stand back and reread the whole paragraph a few times–after I laughed, that is. Anyway, this entry really falls under both fantastic paragraphs and fantastic sentences.

What makes the second sentence a great sentence? Well, the fact that there was no way anyone–including a reader accustomed to the weird logic of DeWitt’s novel–was going to predict where it would go based on the beginning is one part of the answer. There’s something about the juxtaposition of PVC pants “with a slit in the crotch” and the “Equal Employment Opportunities Act” that is hilariously surprising, let alone the fact that in the character Joe’s head, the latter is somehow forcing him to adopt the former as a business strategy. There is also the word “implement,” which is amusingly out of whack with the register of the rest of the sentence, making it end on a discordant note.

I have more trouble accounting for what makes this a great paragraph. Its construction is unremarkable, actually, and in the context of the novel pretty much par for the course. I think it gets its greatness from elements that make the narration in this book so great in general, and that fantastic second sentence gives it something extra. I do love how DeWitt infuses her narrator’s language with the cliches and clunky idioms of business-ese, and it is the mixing of two such metaphors (“getting your foot in the door” and “down the drain”) that leaves the reader on such a funny note right at the end.

If I had to generalize what makes the second sentence and the whole paragraph fantastic then–so we might pick up something useful from an example that may appear too eccentric to teach us anything–I would say that DeWitt knows exactly that the power of a sentence and paragraph lies in the ending. An unexpected ending can make you re-view the whole, getting you to pay attention or perhaps allowing you to savour the shifts that got you to that particular end–all details you might have overlooked as you moved through them the first time around.

This is Frank Kermode’s “sense of an ending” applied to the level of sentences and paragraphs as opposed to larger units like novels–or human lives, or historical epochs.

Fantastic Paragraphs (ii)

In my last post in the “Fantastic Paragraphs” series, I considered a paragraph from a novel, whose construction–and deviations from our expectations of what a paragraph should do–reveals a lot about the mind of the narrator. Here, I quote a paragraph that I credit with driving home to me the genius of James Joyce.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was the first Joyce book I read, and the one I have read the most. I have a chapter about it in my book, as well as a short article about it in James Joyce Quarterly. Though many people find it less charming than Dubliners and less humorous than Ulysses, I still love this novel. I also love to teach it. But on my first reading, I struggled through the first pages. To be honest, I barely understood anything. But when I reached the paragraph where the hero Stephen Dedalus, still a young boy at boarding school, lies in his bed in the dormroom and tries to imagine where the prefect goes to after putting him and the other boys to bed, I suddenly realized why James Joyce is so often considered one of the best stylists in English:

The prefect’s shoes went away. Where? Down the staircase and along the corridors or to his room at the end? He saw the dark. Was it true about the black dog that walked there at night with eyes as big as carriagelamps? They said it was the ghost of a murderer. A long shiver of fear flowed over his body. He saw the dark entrance hall of the castle. Old servants in old dress were in the ironingroom above the staircase. It was long ago. The old servants were quiet. There was a fire there but the hall was still dark. A figure came up the staircase from the hall. He wore the white cloak of a marshal; his face was pale and strange; he held his hand pressed to his side. He looked out of strange eyes at the old servants. They looked at him and saw their master’s face and cloak and knew that he had received his deathwound. But only the dark was where they looked: only dark silent air. Their master had received his deathwound on the battlefield of Prague far away over the sea. He was standing on the field; his hand was pressed to his side; his face was pale and strange and he wore the white cloak of a marshal.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

More than anything, it’s the repetition–reminiscent of a folksong–that gets me. “He wore the white cloak of a marshal; his face was pale and strange; he held his hand pressed to his side” halfway through the paragraph is mirrored by “… his hand was pressed to his side; his face was pale and strange and he wore the white cloak of a marshal.” I have never been able to account for the effect this repetition has on me, but it was profound and immediate. My marginal note in my copy of the novel is, for the last sentence of this paragraph, “best line in the novel.” It’s not just repetition, obviously. It’s a pretty typical example of one of Joyce’s favourite rhetorical figures: chiasmus, or crossing-over. Rather than repeating the same elements in the same order, Joyce repeats them like this: A B C D | D C B A. He does this all the time in his early fiction, but to me this paragraph’s last sentence is the most memorable instance in his writing.

Now it might sound like I’m not talking about a fantastic paragraph but, rather, a fantastic sentence. But I think this fantastic sentence, coming at the end of the paragraph, makes the whole paragraph so suitably strange and spooky, filled with the awe, fear and curiosity of a young boy at night in a strange place…

Bumble bees, richness where some just see “bugs”

I could have written this post about just about any living thing, but I’m predisposed to notice and care about bumble bees, which I studied during my MSc in Ontario and Colorado. This spring, worried about the lack of bumble bees in my area, I contacted a former lab-mate, now a professor at York University, about what I could do to help pollinators beyond making my garden more hospitable. By coincidence, she had just posted these recommendations on Twitter, and drew my attention in particular to participating in the Citizen Science project Bumble Bee Watch. The data such projects provide to conservation biologists is invaluable, I’m told; and I’ve found it strangely addictive to generate such data for them.

It’s become a bit of an obsession, actually. I now walk around with a camera and exasperate my family by stopping everywhere to take multiple photos of bumble bees. Some are reproduced here, all the photos above and below having been taken since July 2021, across Ontario and Quebec (for IDs and locations, look up my name on Bumble Bee Watch). I also have bumble bee photos dating back to 2002, from my field work and my subsequent ability to care about and notice bumble bees, the many species that coexist and differ subtly in colour pattern and behaviour, and the plants they visit. Bumble bees strike me as the most personable and psychologically interesting of insects, but maybe that’s just because I’ve paid attention to them.

It’s a particular thrill, when something that was just generalized (“bees” or even “bugs”) becomes particularized (“bumble bees” or even “Bombus impatiens,” and beyond that “Bombus impatiens male, or worker, or queen”). I can imagine a Borges short story, in which a character develops the ability to see everything in its absolute particularity. No doubt that would be a curse, and a problem for science. But seeing species only generically–such as my friend who can’t differentiate roses from daffodils, seeing them both simply as “flowers”–is also a curse, both for the beholder and for their community.

I remember playing in the lawn in the backyard when I was about 7 years old, and noticing, quite suddenly, that what had seemed like a uniform carpet of self-same grass was in fact a patchwork of many greens–not just grass, but moss, creeping plants (Creeping Charlie?), and other plants with tiny leaves and flowers.

Comfrey, sage, and fennel, and thyme

I have been ruthless in removing non-native plants from my garden, even those I planted myself in past years. There are some exceptions, though. Some of these non-natives either flower when little else is there to feed pollinators (forget-me-not, Forsythia), while others are so obviously valued by bees and butterflies that they clearly perform an important role in maintaining and feeding insects. Comfrey (Symphytum asperum) is one of these, an attractive (though prickly) plant whose hanging bell-shaped flowers are favoured by bumble bees (who use “buzzing” to get at its pollen). A bunch of comfrey flowers are in the picture at top left, below. Another non-native I foster is fennel, which I don’t cook with but plant because it seems to be the favourite food plant for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars (they also like Queen Ann’s Lace, but they ignore that if there’s fennel around). Thyme and other minty herbs (oregano, basil, mint) have small flowers that small bees and flies like.

But my favourite, and the biggest draw for bees in my garden, is sage. It flowers in late May and over continues to do so for weeks. Bees of all sizes come for the nectar, and looking down at my big sage plants yesterday I could see the busy traffic of dozens of bees. These include honey bees (Apis mellifera), like the one seen taking off after feeding at a sage flower, top right; Osmia sp., second down from top left; Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens), second down from top right, using its front leg to hold up a leaf; Bicoloured Agapostemon (Agapostemon viriscens), third down on the left, seen here approaching a sage flower on the wing; the Polyester Bee (Colletes inaequalis), third down from the right; and several others too small for me to recognize. There are also ants feeding on sage nectar and several species of fly, as well as Cabbage White butterflies (Pieris rapae), bottom left. The surfeit of insects also attracts parasitic wasps, one of which I captured in a fuzzy image (bottom right).

Apart from sage, this week’s major draw for bees was my honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos), which I planted in 2009 as a seedling and which is now taller than the house. It’s the first year that it’s produced a lot of flowers, and the bees are all over it. They also love the Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), which is going through a second round of flowering. As the honey locust stops flowering, the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is about to flower; I never imagined that these interesting-looking inflorescences (a bit like Romanesco brocoli) could be appealing to insects, just because they’re green and not showy–but I was wrong. Bees love them:

Fantastic Paragraphs (i)

When it comes to paragraphs in academic writing, I can think of no better approach than Joseph Williams’s as explained in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. I often teach a distilled version of Williams’s model for coherent and cohesive paragraphs, but his explanation is far more nuanced and capacious than what I cover in workshops.

But for this series of posts what I’m interested in is primarily the ways that creative writers use and abuse the form of the paragraph for effects of various kinds: humour, surprise, reflections of a character’s deranged mind, etc. These strange and interesting paragraphs get much of their power from how they deviate from our expectations of what a paragraph should do.

My first “case study” is a paragraph early in one of the most incredible novels I’ve read recent, Gerard Murnane’s Border Districts (2017). Impossible to explain, this novel is one of my top-ranked books of recent years, generally similar–but only very generally–to other amazing novels including Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy and Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. I think you can get a fairly good sense of the novel from the paragraph I quote, in which the elderly narrator reflects, over the course is many paragraphs, on his Catholic upbringing. Here it is:

The Holy Ghost, called nowadays the Holy Spirit, was sometimes referred to as the forgotten person of the Blessed Trinity. Not only did I never forget him; he was by far my favourite of the three divine persons. When I was in my tenth year and attending a school conducted by a different order of brothers from those mentioned earlier, my class teacher was a young layman who was in love with the Virgin Mary. He claimed no more than to have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin, as he mostly called her, but I, who was continually falling in love with personages known to me only from illustrations in newspapers or magazines or from fictional texts–I never doubted that my teacher was truly in love. More than thirty years later, while I was reading some or another passage in the fiction of Marcel Proust about the odd ways of some of another character in love, I remembered that my teacher of long ago would use any pretext for bringing the name of his beloved into classroom discussions. I sensed that my classmates were embarrassed by our teacher’s special devotion, as he called it, but I felt a certain sympathy for him. I was not in love with Mary, but I felt as though I ought to have been so. Of course the name Mary hereabout denotes a mental image. My trouble was that I had never seen on any picture or statue of Mary such a face as I was apt to fall in love with. More than ten years later, I saw too late just such a face as would have won me over earlier. I have not forgotten that this paragraph began as an account of my liking for the Holy Ghost.

Gerard Murnane, Border Districts (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2017): 25-6.

The small things…

Spring is always a time of anticipation. I find myself checking on the growth of my plants many times a day, always astonished to find visible changes in the height of a common milkweed shoot (Asclepias syriaca) or the surprisingly scarlet first growth of dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). My wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) are doing very well, and both redbuds (Cercis canadensis) are about to burst into flower. I’m particularly psyched about the many giant hyssops (Agastache nepetoides and A. foeniculum) that have taken hold. No plant got more bee visits last year than them.

Yesterday I saw a few Dunning’s miner bees (Andrena dunningi) making holes in the bare ground at the base of my burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa). I had never noticed these bees, let alone seen their nests, which look like ant holes. The bees are a bit smaller than a honey bee. In the photo to the left (below), you can see two bees: the fully visible one and also the head of another one poking out from a tunnel. The image on the top right is a new lupine (Lupinus perennis), with its gorgeous star-shaped first leaf. I have yet to succeed in growing a lupine beyond this early stage. Let’s hope for better luck this year. Under the lupine is a cluster of redbud flowers, and at the very bottom is a closeup of one of redbud’s main pollinators, the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria), though so far it seems to prefer visiting forget-me-not flowers (Myosotis scorpioides), one of the few non-native plants I am not actively trying to eradicate from the garden because it flowers abundantly in the early spring, when small bees and flies have few other options.

There’s been something new this year. Along with the usual movement of migratory birds–the most exciting of which is always hermit thrushes–I’ve been hearing a white-throated sparrow singing in the neighbourhood for a few days now. This is an instantly recognizable song for anyone who’s spent time in the Norther (see a version here, though this is rather different from the one I’m hearing); in fact I’ve always associated this song with canoe trips. I’ve never heard it in Toronto before. Who knows that it means, but I couldn’t help find it uplifting.

Essay contest for PhDs or Postdocs

Here is a fantastic publication opportunity for doctoral students and postdocs for whom English is not the first language. In addition to the book prize and the publication of the essay, this opportunity enables an emerging scholar to expand their impact beyond their primary field and to gain some significant editorial experience with a journal. In today’s dismal job market, these experiences could give an extra boost to a strong research and teaching record.

See the prize website for details. Basics are reproduced, slightly abridged, below:


Language Teaching announces the award of an essay prize which honours one of the founding editors of this journal. PRIZE The winner will receive a £500 credit to be used to purchase books available in the current Cambridge University Press catalogue. The winning essay – revised where appropriate in line with referees’ comments – will be prioritised for publication in the first available issue of the journal. The winner will be nominated for a one-year period as a member of the Language Teaching Editorial Board and designated in all outlets of the journal as the “Christopher Brumfit Award Winner”. 

Write an essay which presents an argument of relevance to second/foreign language learning or acquisition. This essay essay should not be a research report, with its standard format of literature review, methodology, results, and conclusion. What is required is something different.  Like all academic work, it should be rational and scholarly. The chosen topic should ideally be handled with aplomb, seeking to engage and entertain readers as well as inform them, and stimulate ideas. The essay might also reflect on, challenge, or question any number of ideas and assumptions. It may therefore be speculative, provocative, personal, or controversial.  Above all, it should be interesting.

See the prize website for details.

Communicating scholarship from left field

The results of the 2020 “Dance Your PhD” competition are in (for info, see here; for some of the videos, see here). The overall winners this year have won extra approval from 100% of preteen boys in my house. Not bad for atmospheric physicists who do simulations.

There’s so much to love about this competition, starting with the fact that it exists at all. But of course this kind of eccentric approach to communicating research is not just whimsical. Like the 3MT competition (3 minute thesis), Dance Your PhD can be hugely productive for researchers not despite but because of its constraints and creativity. I once asked a group of PhDs in chemistry to draw their research in a single cartoon panel, and the results were surprisingly information–not just to me but also, apparently, to them. Part of this may be due to the freedom to relax and just try something new, but I think more is gained from the constraints that these activities impose. By disallowing researchers from using the same old explanations, you can help them find new and often better ways to reach their various audiences (whether general or specialized).

The more I try these activities, the more I believe they actually work. I’ve often had grad students write their dissertation in six words (a version of the classic 6-word novel, not actually invented by Hemingway, by the way). It’s a quick but surprisingly challenging experiment that often yields clarifying results. One version for my own current project is this: “Science uses (and creates!) narrative forms.” I’ve also seen some fantastic results from having students write up their project as the blurb for a limited series that people would actually want to watch. Another trick I tried–perhaps my most interesting yet–was to get students to invent the perfect epigraph by whomever they want for their own dissertation; it was incredible to see how well these invented epigraphs got at and even uncovered the key concerns of the project. (I’m going ask my students for permission to reproduce some of these experiments here; stay tuned!).

I don’t imagine I’ll be asking my students to dance their dissertation, but I will certainly encourage them to watch the winning entries. Now, I’m going back into that rabbit hole myself.

Northern wildlife

After years of canoe-tripping in northern Ontario and Quebec, I have come to find the flora and fauna of boreal regions impressive in ways that nature documentaries tend to reserve for tropical rainforests and coral reefs. There are obviously major differences, not just in biodiversity but also in vividness. But the colour palettes of the north are pleasing in their own ways, and these ways are not only subtle. The photos below, from a road trip in 2019 starting near Sudbury then heading into the mountains north of the St Laurence and west of the Saguenay and then east to the Gaspe peninsula, give a glimpse of this beauty and variety.

From top left: a Gray Tree Frog (Dryophytes versicolor) on a willow leaf; a katydid by the roadside; a monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in a Joe Pye-weed (Eupatorium maculatum) inflorescence; a fly on an aster flower; the landscape about 45 minutes north-east of Quebec City; fire-weed on the roadside; Sheep Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia); a gentian (likely a Closed Bottle Gentian, Gentiana andrewsii); Joe Pye-weed by a slow-moving river; a porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum); unidentified caterpillar on Mountain Maple; the maritime forest; a meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus). All photos (C) D. A. Newman.

Academic Writing Pattern # 2: “with-linked phrases”

Like the “and is” pattern covered in AWP #1, this common pattern is not incorrect. Nor is it even necessarily awkward or otherwise undesirable. But it is used by some writers, especially in sciences, uncritically and too often. As a case in point, the examples I quote below were all taken from articles I already happened to have in my hard-drive; of all the papers I opened searching for the “with-link” pattern, only two (2) didn’t use it at least once.

From my observations I’d say this pattern, like “and is,” tends to appear early in papers, when authors are trying to get a load of background covered before getting to the real matter of interest. But it can appear anywhere. Here is an example from an article on

Variants recently identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil are transmitting much more easily than the original strain, with the first estimated to be at least 56 per cent more transmissible.

Adam Miller, “How the spread of coronavirus variants could completely change the pandemic in Canada.” (16 Jan. 2021).

In this pattern, the preposition “with” serves as the connection between the main sentence and a new piece of information contained in a phrase.

Here are a few more examples, these from scholarly articles:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, with significant emphasis placed on EC design and on discovery of improved CO2 reduction (4, 5) and H2O oxidation (6) catalysts based on nonprecious earth-abundant elements.

Kunene et al. “Solar-powered synthesis of hydrocarbons from carbon dioxide and water.” PNAS 116.20 (2019): 9694.

Coot eggs in a nest hatch asynchronously, with an average of 9 to 10 eggs hatching over a period between 2 and 11 d, depending on the nest (median 6 d).

Lyon and Shizuka. “Extreme offspring ornamentation in American coots is favored by selection within families, not benefits
to conspecific brood parasites.” PNAS 117.4 (2020): 2057.

The PPA is thought to represent the basic geometry and content of a scene, with these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (Epstein, 2008)….

Douglas et al. “Perception of Impossible Scenes Reveals Differential Hippocampal and Parahippocampal Place Area Contributions to Spatial Coherency.” Hippocampus 27 (2017): 61.

As you’ll probably agree, these sentences are fine. Fine: that is, not bad, not ungrammatical. But could they be better? My first observation is that these constructions sound very unlike the way people actually speak, even when they speak to fellow specialists about their research. So: is the “with” actually helpful; it is actually necessary? More to the point, what alternative arrangements does it conceal?

In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete “with,” leaving the sentence otherwise unchanged. This isn’t always possible, but when it is it’s worth a try. I suspect that the “with” can be removed this way when the phrase it introduces contains a verb ending in -ing. The second and third examples above are exemplary:

Coot eggs in a nest hatch asynchronously, an average of 9 to 10 eggs hatching over a period between 2 and 11 d, depending on the nest (median 6 d).

The PPA is thought to represent the basic geometry and content of a scene, these representations being intolerant to low-level shifts in information (Epstein, 2008)….

In other cases, you can replace the “with” with a verb (ending with -ing or not, as the case requires. For example, here is a revision of the first part of the first quotation:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, which has placed significant emphasis on EC design…

Why is this better? Well, whether it is better is a matter of taste, I guess. I prefer it because the new verb (“using”) adds action to and therefore clarifies the relationship between various parts of this short sentence. “With” represents the same relationship but less evidently, less actively.

Look at a sentence I wrote earlier: “In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete ‘with,’ leaving the sentence otherwise unchanged.” I could have used the “with-link” arrangement instead: “In many cases, the simplest alternative is just to delete ‘with,’ with the sentence otherwise unchanged.” I hope you’ll agree that the original just sounds more natural (and not just because the revision ends up repeating “with” twice in a row). Instead of “with,” my original sentence uses a verb ending with -ing: leaving. Action!

The benefit of such a strategy becomes clearer when you’re dealing with a longer, more complex sentences, as in the second quotation above:

Development of improved systems for CO2 conversion has been an area of intense activity, significant emphasis being placed on EC design and on discovery of improved CO2 reduction (4, 5) and H2O oxidation (6) catalysts based on nonprecious earth-abundant elements.

I would actually recommend dividing this sentence into two sentences–not because it’s that long, but because as I read it it really does address two ideas (1 = this is an area of intense activity; 2 = within this area of activity, special emphasis is placed on X). But if it’s one sentence I think this revision is clearer, more active and (not unrelatedly) more like spoken English.