Ten things you should know if you are an English professor

by Tom Ingram

  1. “Ring Around the Rosy” has nothing to do with the Black Plague. It’s true that it sounds ominous if you intone it a certain way as foreboding music plays in the background, but so do most children’s rhymes.
  2. Legal systems have been around for a long time. The idea of presumption of innocence goes back as far as the code of Hammurabi. If torturing a suspect until they confess to a crime seems absurd to you, chances are it did to people a thousand years ago, too.
  3. The value of a theory is in what it excludes. If you’re too liberal about what constitutes a phallic or yonic symbol, then suddenly everything mentioned in a piece of literature becomes one or the other. This quickly devolves into what might be called genital calculus, a form of criticism even less useful than the baseline. Remember that scene from A Clockwork Orange? Yeah, that one. If it’s not like that, it’s best not to mention sexual organs at all.
  4. Looking for Christian symbolism in HP Lovecraft is a fool’s errand.
  5. The number 3 is very convenient. It’s the smallest number in which a pattern can be set up and broken, which is why it turns up so often in jokes. Three days is “a few” but not “a bunch”, in a way that four or five really aren’t. Three knocks on the door are enough to be heard, but not so many that it’s annoying. This convenience is probably why it’s so common. Nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. Just say no to numerology.
  6. There is no “y” in “hubris”.
  7. “Make love” meaning “have sex” is a fairly recent thing. If it turns up in Balzac, it means “flirt”. When a character in Doyle says “he made most odious love to me”, it does not mean that they had nasty sex on the floor of a crowded pub.
  8. The supposed rule about split infinitives has never been followed consistently by any writer of note. English does not really have an infinitive form and it’s silly to act as if it does. While in many cases the sentence that doesn’t split the infinitive is superior, it’s not consistent enough to make a rule and sometimes split infinitives are grammatically required. Besides, any writer worth his salt will tell you that “to boldly go” is stronger than any unsplit alternative.
  9. You are supposed to be a scholar of English. If points 6 through 8 are news to you, there is something you should be thinking very hard about.
  10. If criticism is to have any value at all, it should either inform writing, inform reading, or be entertaining in itself (ideally all three). The penises-and-Jesus style of criticism practiced in many English departments is useless to writers except as an obstacle. If anything, it makes stories less clear to readers. It’s occasionally entertaining, but only in the same way that Sandy Frank movies are. If you are in this tradition, you are taking up precious office space that could be used by people with an actual field of study.

Edit: Remembered that the business with John Dryden was about prepositions at the end of sentences, not split infinitives. Number 8 modified accordingly. By the by, I think the reason that “to boldly go where no man has gone before” sounds so much better than “to go boldly” or “boldly to go” is that it forms a line of pentameter. “To go boldly” breaks up the meter, weakening the rhythm of the phrase. “Boldly to go” does too, but it has worse problems: who actually positions their adverbs that way?