Green ink and the rulebook

Friday, July 8, 2016

I was never certain why Joe Barone used "green ink" to grade our English IV essays. The term grade, barely describes the totality of his assessment process, for each of our offerings. If in this column, I display any modest writing ability, I owe him all I possess of that technique.

In the Nevada of my youth, the Barone family was what one would refer to as "Prominent!" Dr. Barone was the director at the Nevada State Hospital No. 3. It is hard to describe to younger people of today, the immensity of that facility, and its contribution to our entire region.

There were more than 2,000 psychiatric patients residing in the hospital, in the late 50s and early 60s. This was in a time before the development of medications, which curbed the effects of mental illness. The hospital employed well over a thousand staff and service personnel.

On Saturday mornings, Dr. Barone hosted a radio show that offered performances by some of the patients. You have to be a senior citizen to remember the totality of the close relations that our community and the hospital shared.

Maratha Barone was equally important to Nevada. She was the director of nursing at the Nevada City Hospital. Her rule over that facility was strict but efficient. I have heard the impressions about Martha from many former employees. They all remember her formidable and imposing presence, but also her tender and caring heart. The hospital under her tutelage was first rate.

In my sophomore year at NHS, Joe Barone was my English II teacher. I honestly don't remember too much about that period. I do recall, that I was disappointed to have been assigned to his class, instead of to Mrs. Songer's. Marcia Songer was a beautiful young English teacher. Every 15-year-old 10th grade boy wanted to be assigned to her class.

Joe returned to the University of Missouri the following year, to complete his master's degree in journalism. The University of Missouri School of Journalism is considered to be one of the very best in the country.

Joe returned my senior year where I was assigned to his English IV classroom. That year would prove to be one I would remember for the rest of my life.

In all my years of education, I do not think I have ever had as much material assigned during a single school year. We were asked to read huge amounts of poetry, short stories, and a few books. We were also assigned to take quizzes (often daily) over the material, as well as write countless papers on each subject.

Joe was adamant regarding our writing, and the use of the English language. Each of us was required to purchase a small handbook titled, "The Elements Of Style," by E.B. White. This simple set of rules and guidelines, has been the writing "bible," for generations of English writers.

When one of your essays was returned to you following a grading session, it would be covered in "green" ink. That was always the color of Joe's pen. If you had a spelling error, he would simply place a small "sp" near the word. It was your responsibility to find and correct the spelling, before offering it again.

If you made grammatical errors, the green ink would list a rule number, taken from the Elements handbook. Again, you were expected to correct the errors, then present it once more.

In every other available space or margin, your essay would be covered in the same green ink, with Joe's assessment of your writing style. He would address simple structures such as -- topic sentence, topic paragraph, body, and concluding paragraph. He especially endeavored to have us write in what he called a "concise" method.

Here is a quote from E.B. White's handbook, regarding that very subject. "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell."

Joe and I had a running battle over this area of my work. I would submit and resubmit essays, until he had forced me to remove unnecessary words, he considered were not concise.

When I think of my current writing style and ability, I realize that that remains an ongoing issue. Each week when I edit my column, I do my best impression of Joe Barone, and try to eliminate that which is not concise.

I have some friends who missed their calling to be an editor. When I send them my column, and ask for them to check for errors, it is a rare case when they don't find several. I am sure when they read this, they will realize I am speaking of them. I hope they also understand, that I appreciate their critiques, and need their input.

That's at the heart of the English language and writing. It is a living ongoing process. Unfortunately, we are loosing our very skilled writing ability, in this modern cyber world.

There is no "Elements of Style" handbook for cell phone texting. About the only offering is an automatic spell checker on most phones. No one uses a thesaurus these days, to check their own spelling or find synonyms. There is no Joe Barone to evaluate your writing skills and technique. People today text and post immediately, with no filters or oversight.

It makes me wonder, are NHS seniors reading "Moby Dick" or "All the King's Men?" Is there a Joe Barone, asking them why Ahab sought the "white whale?" What was the symbolic meaning by Robert Penn Warren, of the long straight highway? We need Joe Barones, to keep teaching us the "Elements of Style!"