One of most impressive forms of argument (which is not really an argument at all) is to use examples of whatever it is we're talking about. It is also one of the most common forms of discourse and we use it constantly, even in the most informal discussions. Ask people what they mean, and they will surely answer with an example, an illustration. The Guide to Grammar and Writing is practically one example after another.

When writing an illustration or example assignment, we will have to decide how many examples will be enough to make our point and then, if we use more than one, in what order should we use them. Do we work up to the most persuasive point or illustration or do we begin with that and then fill in with more details? No one pattern will work all the time, and it's going to depend on the argument we choose to back up with examples. You'll also have to decide when to stop. If you're trying to define what it means to be a good teacher, how many examples of good teaching do you have to give before you make your point? You need enough examples to make a valid point, but not so many that your reader will put down the essay and walk out the door.

Be careful of the Transitions you use to connect your examples. It is too easy simply to number them, but then our essay begins to sound like a mathematical exercise. If it helps to organize your paper, you can number your examples at first and then go back over the paper and provide other transitions (another advantage of word-processing). Get in the habit of providing steps, though, from one piece of the puzzle to another.

Speaking of examples, let's look at one now, an essay that illustrates the writer's suspicion that news programs are getting longer and longer and offering less and less actual news. It was written by a student, Geton Hamurd, who gives us permission to use his paper. Brainstorming for this essay is easy, Mr. Hamurd says: sit in front of the television for an hour and take notes, keeping score of the things that are news and the things that aren't. To be completely fair, Hamurd adds, we should probably do this over the period of a week or on random nights over a month (to make sure that we didn't catch the news on a bad night), and it would be fun to use a stopwatch to time the ads, too, but we'll let you do that for your own paper.

What Happened to the News?

When television news started out, back in the 1950s, it occupied less than a thirty-minute slot. Ten or fifteen minutes would be granted to local stations for their news, and then the networks would say all there was to say about national and world news in the remaining fifteen to twenty minutes. There were very few advertisements during the news; it wasn't regarded as appropriate to sponsor news about floods and fires and political disasters. Life must have been simpler then.

Nowadays many television stations set apart ninety minutes for local news alone, and that's just for the early evening news show. On March 17, 1998 (St. Patrick's Day), we watched a local news show in Hartford for one hour, from 5 to 6 p.m., and kept track of what seemed to be really news and what was — well, not news.

First of all, during this one hour of news, there were 35 advertisements. Among other things advertised, there were ads for cars (sometimes competing car companies would follow nose to tailpipe), lots of pharmaceuticals (with dreadful warnings about side-effects), fast-food chains (no warnings about side effects), mutual funds, feminine hygiene products, cheese, utility companies, phone service, shampoos, and deodorants. Most of the ads were fast paced, colorful, slick, and sometimes funny. They seemed to do a lot in their thirty seconds. Graphically, they were the most interesting part of the hour. In addition, there were ten advertisements apparently produced by the television station itself that advertised programs and services of the station — sometimes featuring what was coming up later that evening, sometimes touting the virtues of the station's news team and weather forecasters.

Besides these self-advertisements, the news program was also littered with eight very brief "teasers" (we'll call them) announcing that "This is Connecticut's Newstation" and telling us what will happen "at the top of the hour," or "on LateLine, tonight at 11." "Wait'll you hear this" preceded more than one break for ads. In both half-hour segments of this one-hour news program, there were "Forecast First" moments where the weather forecaster was apparently awakened from a nap to tell us that later on he was going to give us his weather predictions. He told us, right then and there, that it was sunny outside now, but look out for later on tonight! (Details to follow, fifteen minutes later.) Incidentally, the weather forecast itself, when we finally got to it, was exactly the same (with maybe a degree difference) at 6:20 as it had been at 5:50. It could just as well have been videotaped, but it wasn't. There were also teasers for the sports commentator. He announced at two different times what he was going to tell us about fifteen or twenty minutes later. At least the sports news was different in the two half-hour segments./

Perhaps the most annoying moments in the news hour are the little moments of conviviality and chit-chat between members of the news team, the little asides of mutual congratulation and gratitude and commiseration (with the various victims in the day's news) that are supposed to make us see how wonderfully human the newscasters are. What must the fifteen-minute, get-it-done-and-get-out newscasters of the 50s think of all this?

Surprisingly, only one portion of the news this evening from 6 to 6:30 repeated exactly what we had already seen during the 5:30 to 6 segment. Billed as a "follow-up," it was a videotaped redundancy. There were, however, several features that didn't exactly feel like news. "Covering Connecticut" amounted to several five- or ten-second blurbs on what prominent people had done that day across the state. "People in the News" was mostly about the shenanigans of Hollywood types, about a new film called Primary Colors that seems to mock the White House scandals and about the star of Titanic being upset because some pictures of him, naked, were being published by a magazine. There was the nightly announcement of the winning Lottery Numbers (perhaps this is, indeed, important news for some people!), and two segments about St. Patrick's Day parties going on in the capital city — lots of people drinking lots of beer. A "Health Beat" segment told us about pheromones and perfumes and "Business Beat" told us something about Kathie Lee Gifford's sweatshops.

Finally, the news broke and there was a solemn and clearly labeled Editorial Comment, complete with the suggestion that the news station was willing to entertain opposing viewpoints.

Whatever happened to the news? What we need to do now is to take a stopwatch to the news hour and determine how much of the time is spent actually reporting "hard news," the kind of thing that was put into that fifteen-minute segment during the early days of television news. We're willing to wager that over a one-hour news show there is considerably less than the fifteen minutes that used to be devoted solely to news. We can't say that our lives were simpler back then, but apparently we had less time to spend watching nonsense.


Points to Ponder:

  • Does the writer convince you of anything?
  • What structural elements holds this essay together? Try printing the essay and connecting structural elements with circles and lines.
  • Do you think the writer goes overboard with his illustrations? If so, can you say what you would leave out?
  • The writer insists on a difference between "hard news" and the kind of thing he sees on the news program. Is it clear what the writer means by "hard news"? Would it be more fair if the writer provided us with a good definition of what "news" really is?
  • Should the writer do a more scientific or statistical survey of news programs — using a stopwatch, perhaps, watching other channels and sampling the news on several different evenings over a period of weeks or even months?

Here is a brief essay developed by means of a series of examples about how language has changed so dramatically in our century. Try to point to that place in the essay where you know what the writers want you to believe and what they want you to do about it.


What a century this has been. A century that took us from horseback to fuel-injected horsepower, from gaslights to sodium-vapor streetlights, from crystal radios to digital television, from compasses to global positioning satellites, from wood stoves to microwave ovens, from Victrolas to DVD players, from poultices to computed tomography.

While those and many more innovations were accompanied by the introduction of new terminology and additional meanings for existing words, technology was not alone responsible for the metamorphosis in meaning of a substantial number of existing words that changed dramatically over the course of the century. Some alternative terms supplanted once-dominant names. Other terms declined in usage and gradually vanished from the common lexicon. In some cases, shorthand reference to specialized terminology eclipsed traditional meanings of certain words.

Language is dynamic, and certainly many of the changes introduced during the 20th century constitute logical progressions in usage. But a disturbingly large quotient of modern terms result from grotesque mutations in meaning—the illegitimate progeny of ignorance and lack of respect for etymology and history.

Just as a person awakening today from a century-long Rip Van Winkle doze would be bewildered by our modern world, we would be confounded if we could somehow travel back in time to the early portion of the 20th century. Consider how confused you'd be to learn that the shop down the street was having a sale on waists, and how people feared consumption. During the early part of the century, "waist" was the term for a blouse or the bodice of a woman's dress. While today we laud "consumption" as a symbol of affluence and an indicator of a healthy economy, this term connoted anything but health a century ago, when it commonly referred to tuberculosis. Today we gawk at spectacles, but back then that was the term for what we call eyeglasses or, in even more abbreviated fashion, glasses.

Some words have all but disappeared during the past five decades. Few people refer to pants as "trousers" anymore. Ask the clerk in a clothing store to sell you some dungarees and you'll likely leave empty-handed. Few people, including that clerk, realize that "jean" is really the name for a heavy-duty twilled cotton fabric used in manufacturing dungarees—itself the name of a denim fabric. While people use the verb form of the word "spoon" to indicate a scooping or lifting motion, few remember that word had romantic connotations, referring to caressing or kissing.

As a result of news media habits, social change or politicization, many words were assigned new meanings that suppressed previous denotations. The word "solution" is now widely used in reference to computer software applications. While the word "legacy" has long been used to indicate a financial bequest, or an ideology or tangible property handed down from an ancestor, it is now a term for a large mainframe computer system within which incremental modifications have been made over time. Likewise, computing administrators are fond of calling a computer network an "enterprise"—a term that traditionally means a substantial undertaking or a business organization. Instruction manuals today are labeled "documentation," and illegal aliens are now called "undocumented immigrants." Although in its traditional sense the verb "molest" means to disturb, bother or annoy, it is now almost exclusively identified with a specific type of molestation—sexual assault. Once used to designate exuberance or merriment, the term "gay" is now understood exclusively as an indicator of sexual orientation. Although in its literal sense the term "affirmative action" would suggest an activity that is declarative or true, it has been inexorably associated since 1964 with legal mandates to provide equal employment and admissions opportunities for members of minority groups and women. Likewise, derivative programs have all but subsumed the word "diversity," a term that traditionally refers to difference or distinctiveness. Lacking in the contemporary use of the word is the modifier "racial and ethnic," which not only would provide clarification, but also would have left the traditional meaning of the word undisturbed.

But such is the nature of contemporary use of language, which is becoming truncated in our pursuit of speed and efficiency. Our speech today is peppered with cryptic appellations: CEO, IPO, EIR, MOU, APR, 401 (k), LLP, UPS, FEDEX, LAX, NBA, NFL, MLB, ALCS, ESPN, SUV, ABS, MSRP, IRS, HMO, PPO, PLO, OPEC, FDIC, NASA, EPA, CD, DVD, MP3, PCS, GPS, RAM, URL, Y2K. Ironically, however, the zeal of our society to abbreviate language through creation of acronyms and short-cut terminology only short-circuits understanding and engenders confusion. The term "CD," for example, can refer either to a financial investment medium (certificate of deposit) or to a digitized storage medium for sound or data (compact disk). Likewise, subjects of political strife and financial security share another abbreviation, "IRA," which can refer either to the Irish Republican Army or to an Individual Retirement Account.

This essay, then, is a plea not only for reverence of the language, but also for speed reduction. Spell out the meaning of acronyms on first reference. Include modifiers necessary for understanding. Go slower to increase the efficiency of communication. Rip Van Winkle would thank you.

By Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March
co-authors, Echoes of the Sixties (Billboard Books)
Partners, EditPros marketing communications
Davis, Calif., U.S.A.
Used with permission