Monday, January 26, 2015

Le Mot Juste - Diction and the Three-Word Poem

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightening bug and the lightening - Mark Twain

Ol' Sam Clemens' "words" of wisdom regarding diction are a great bit of insight to share with students when teaching them to edit and think carefully about word choice.  Far too often, students will stick with the obvious word - the first word to pop into their head - rather than expanding their vocabulary.  Either that, or they will immediately head to the dictionary and resort to the grand mistake of putting five dollar words in two dollar sentences.  As a colleague once told me, the thesaurus is where you go to meet old friends, not pick up new ones.  To that end, I am committed to increasing my students' command of language through better word choice.  And, a great exercise regarding this came to me from another colleague years ago:

The three-word poem.

Each year I begin second semester of my AP Lang & Comp class by introducing the French phrase le mot juste - the right word.  I share with them Mark Twain's quote and we discuss different examples they can generate regarding effective word choice.  And then I assign them an exercise in diction - the three word poem.  The requirements for the three-word poem are that they must have at least three drafts, and their final draft must include a short paragraph explanation of their editing decisions.  We actually take a couple days for this - with other activities intertwined - as I require them to get some peer advice/feedback.  I also share with them one of the best examples I've encountered:


Years ago a student presented this poem, and gave an excellent analysis and explanation.  He began the poem by writing "I Hate Algebra."  He then chose to eliminate the word "I," as it detracts from the poems emphasis which is algebra.  And putting himself as the first word de-emphasized his subject.  Thus, his next draft was "Algebra Really Sucks."  It was certainly an improvement, as the word "sucks" clearly expresses his feelings.  And, I've found that when the word is used judiciously, it has great effect.  However, the student realized the word "really" is a truly weak and almost meaningless modifier, and it weakens the poem.  Thus, he arrived at "Algebra Sucks Bad."  The use of the adjective  - and the artistic license of mis-using the adjective - enhances the effect of the poem.  It truly speaks to the angst the speaker has regarding algebra.  (No offense to math teachers :-) ).

This little exercise is a great way to start the year and kick off a discussion of word choice.  I appreciate the effort the kids put into this, and it really establishes a student's effort, creativity, and willingness to play with language.  Some kids really run with it - others just get by.  But it makes for a nice intro to "diction."  And, of course, I require the students to "perform" their poem.  Each student goes to the front of the classroom and reads his poem.  Then, after a pause for effect, the students goes through his thought process.  It's a great intro activity to the idea of ...

Le mot juste.

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