Monday, June 20, 2011

Deep and Interesting: Two for the Price of One!

Today's post has two important things: a deep thought, and a piece of information that will make you a bit smarter than you were when you woke up this morning.


I work as an editor, so I spend a lot of my time with words. I wrestle with commas and modifiers and typesetting and irate authors. But every once in a while, I come across a grammatical debate that reveals how we as a society view the universe. Last week, the debate was over "who" and "that." You probably never notice when you use "who" compared to when you use "that." The rule of thumb has typically been to use "who" when referring to people and "that" when referring to things. See here:

I wanted to go to the store with someone who would buy me a new red dress.

I went to the store to buy a new red dress that would look good on me.

Yes, people often mess this up. Usually, they use "that" to refer to people. The rules seem pretty straightforward. However, I work with manuscripts on animals and insects and plants. What should we use then? If we use "who," are we putting plants and animals on the same level as humans?
There's a scary thought.

If we use "that," are we categorizing them as things? Consensus among usage experts is that "who" is sometimes used for animals. Sometimes? What does that even mean?

And what would happen if we were writing about robots? What about Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation? He acts like a human, but he is not a flesh-and-blood human.

There are so many fuzzies! I did not know that my position as an editor involved dissecting worldviews and universe-ending paradoxes! Be careful what you write because you never know what message you are really sending.

If you are wondering, I chose to use "who" to refer to the stonefly detritivores in the paper I was editing. When I read the sentence to my boss, she said that she was picturing little sentient stoneflies with faces beaming up at her. (We were later horrified when the paper read, "For tests, individuals were sacrificed.")


No more universe problems. Instead, I'm going to introduce you to the palimpsest. The palimpsest is something that authors use. Knowing about palimpsest will probably make your reading experiences so much more valuable!

Historically, the palimpsest is a piece of vellum (animal skin [I swear I'm not going back to the DEEP THOUGHT here]) that monks would use to write on. But the palimpsest is no ordinary vellum. It had already been written on. To conserve writing materials, monks would scrape the ink off of obsolete documents and use them again. However, the ink had often sunk deep into the pores of the vellum and would reappear within a few years. Thus, we can now read two documents on the same page.

Now, that is interesting and all, but the best is yet to come. The term "palimpsest" nowadays refers to the use of an older text to illuminate a new text.

Huck Finn wants to illuminate, too!

Let me provide an example: in A Dance for Three, the main character is a pregnant teenager in a mental facility. In the story, she reads The Scarlet Letter. Both books focus on forgiveness as one of their central themes, and they also follow similar storylines. Louise Plummer, the author of Dance, used a classic novel to illuminate the meaning of her book, to point to the theme of forgiveness. Palimpsest.

Usually, the other text is not blatantly referred to in the book. This makes it more interesting to read through and try to recognize what story is being used for illumination. Can you think of any palimpsests? It's often when you go, "Hey, this reminds me of...."

Voila! Treasures beyond imagining!

And there you are: you are smarter than when you got up. Go forth and use thy new knowledge!


Amy said...

I know the world's stonefly expert...I should ask him whether he refers to them as who's or that's. I definitely think Horton would refer to them as Whos...they're awfully cute, although I did sacrifice some on Friday.

Toni Elise said...

You sacrificed stoneflies! Amy, how could you? Were you at least disturbed by their little silent screams?

And you're spot on with Horton. He would certainly call them Whos. :)