Unnecessary? (Essay appropriateness question)

Today was the day that we (myself and my fellow English 124 students, that is) brought in drafts of our first essay of the semester for peer evaluation. It’s pretty far beneath my level, and I only really have to take the class because of a technicality about how my English credits transferred from other schools. But I’ve decided to make the most of it, and strive to turn in the finest writing I can muster.

To that end, I wasn’t bothered by most of the (little) criticism my paper received. Most of it was off-target anyway, like the helpful reminder to underline my title and put a period at the end of it (no need, according to Purdue University’s acclaimed Online Writing Lab). Other marks pointed out a pair of run-on sentences, which indeed have been my bane for a long time.

One mark somewhat baffled me, though.

Bolding added here for emphasis. My reviewer emphasized that segment with brackets on each side, then drew an arrow pointing to a single word:

Granted, I don’t have a cite for it, but it’s absolutely true in my experience. (I’m working on finding a reputable cite, and I’ll remove it if I can’t, but hey, this is the first draft.) If “some poor women are addicted to celebrity gossip magazines” is appropriate, then what’s inappropriate or “unnecessary” about “I’ve never seen that industry make more of a killing than in a minimum-wage break room”? I didn’t get a chance to ask my reviewer about it, and I’m curious about the Dope world’s opinion. Do you think he was just trying to cut out fluff from my (admittedly long) paper, or did I cross a line?

Unless this particular analogy is essential to the point of your essay, I’d change it.

Whether true or not, sarcastic asides about the reading tastes of the poor are going to distract some readers from the main thrust of your argument.

Yes, minimum wage break rooms are necessary.

Not if you don’t know that it should be “my fellow English 124 students and I.”

[history major]
What’s this paper about, anyway? I would never say either of those things without a cite. Do English majors get to do that? [ETA - well, I hope you guys have better reading comprehension than I do … I see that you vow to delete this should you fail to find a cite.]

The two remarks seem to be about the same level of appropriateness. If you aim to be concise, the parenthetical addition is unnecessary because it conveys exactly the same information as what came right before it.

Also, maybe I’m just a hater, but I learned that parentheses say “there’s nothing important inside of me, please feel free to skip on ahead!” Whenever you think you need parentheses, semicolons, or dashes, think again just to make sure.
[/history major]

When I write for fun, personal letters or Dope posts, for example, I like to use parentheses for little asides like that (as fans* of my posts will note). But in academic writing they get nothing but hate. In academic writing, use parentheses only when they are required by the style guide, like (Brilliant and Nurdy, 1976). Use of parenthetical asides is a sign of writing how you talk. In general, academic writing is not conversational. That’s not to say it should be wordy and pretentious, but concise and precise.

  • OK, probably at most, “the fan.”

Ah, prescriptivism rears its ugly head once more! Next you’re going to tell me that “their” isn’t acceptable as a singular possessive determiner.

Fair enough.

To be fair, it is a little different in English than in History. (I’m actually a linguistics major, BTW.) But you have a point.

I can’t imagine how we could judge the appropriateness of your aside without context. Was this a factual report, an opinion piece, or a chatty essay about personal experience? And what was the analogy–in other words, what was the same as poor women being addicted to celebrity gossip magazines? Maybe the aside was necessary, or maybe the analogy could have stood on its own, or maybe it shouldn’t have been made at all–but I can’t say which without knowing the context.

Are you sure that the reviewer wasn’t questioning whether the parentheses themselves were necessary, rather than the entire sentence?

Closer to “a chatty essay about personal experience”. Specifically, the assignment is to define “necessities”, “comforts” and “luxuries”, and how those definitions have changed over time. My particular essay strays a little further into “opinion piece” (which we have license to do). Using a Pew Research Center report which asked the same questions in 1996 and 2006, it establishes that Americans tend to view specific technologies as more necessary as time goes on, and argues that our culture’s definition of “necessity” is too expansive in general. It branches off for a while into some discussion about how television tends to portray a life of material excess as normal, and pays much more attention (in everything from drama to news) to the issues of the rich than to issues of the poor, to the extent that the existence of American poverty is barely acknowledged. The poor watch a lot of TV, and I argue that the way material issues are presented on television can worsen the sense of isolation and dejectedness that comes with being poor in America in the first place. (I do have cites for all that stuff, and I also use my personal experience with poverty and television addiction, which is extensive–to put it mildly.) To give more context:

Original quote bolded. I’ve actually taken out the entire bolded region in the master copy of the essay, and it’ll stay that way unless I stumble upon a sufficiently convincing link between the two phenomena in my research.

I think your writing is interesting, and the parenthetical statement you included was appropriate because it supports your main point rather than distracting from it. Though I think you should change:


I’m not an English major, but I think the parenthetical is considered a part of the preceding sentence, not a whole other, separate sentence. This makes the parenthetical much less jarring and less likely to distract. It’s probably the reason the person wrote, ‘‘necessary?’’

My $.02

Before I address your original question, I’d like to note a transition that I found a little jarring. It’s the sentence that reads, “The poor find this world fascinating; it was when I descended lowest on the social ladder that I was introduced to a roommate obsessed with Frasier reruns.”

At this point you switch from commenting on an academic study to relating personal experience. There’s nothing wrong with that–it’s appropriate for this assignment, and anecdotes and experience can flesh out a skeleton of academic statistics. Be aware, though, that it gives the reader the sense of watching the camera jerk in a movie, and more of a transition might be in order.

At a minimum, I’d begin a new paragraph. (Possibly you elided the paragraph breaks when posting; if so ignore this.) Also, I might add a transition sentence: “The poor find this world fascinating, and my own life experience corroborates what I read in the Pew study. It was when I descended . . .”

To the analogy–I think it’s a good analogy in this context, and I think you’re right to recognize that it needed a little elaboration. Unadorned it would read like so:

You’re right to feel that this doesn’t stand on its own. The concept that poor women are addicted to gossip magazines isn’t a well known cultural archetype. My likely reaction upon reading that sentence, by itself, would be, “Huh? They are?” The connection to the visual image of gossip magazines strewn around a break room makes it more clear what you’re talking about. Most of us worked at a low-rent job at some point in our lives where we saw that, and even if we haven’t, the image of fan mags in a waiting room or bus station or any sort of public area is ubiquitous enough to illustrate your point. Even though I may not agree that “poor women are addicted to celebrity gossip magazines”–for that I would need a cite–I at least knew what you were talking about when I read the parenthetical comment.

However, having said that, I think the parenthetical comment could have been better phrased. Your wording is,

The reference to the industry “making a killing” is distracting and sort of irrelevant and not entirely accurate. They don’t sell the magazines and “make a killing” right there in the break room; it’s just that workers read the magazines there. I think you would have made your point more clearly and simply with, (I never saw more of those magazines than when I worked in a minimum-wage break room.)

Well, I guess I’ve written an essay about your essay. Feel free to critique mine in return!

Welp, you could start by considering that this group “the poor” which you’re so generous in painting with a homogeneously wide brush, might be made up of actual people. As a most-of-my-life impoverished individual, and (except for the X-Files) a television hater, I find your entire essay to be of dubious necessity.

The part that you quoted just seems overy informal/casual to me. Is it really necessary for your argument? If not, I’d take it out.

It’s not like I’ve never been impoverished, myself. Remember the part about how I lived in a tenement house? I paid the lowest rent of just about anyone I know, yet I still regularly raided the couch cushions, my roommate’s car, etc. for dimes and nickels so I could buy enough gas to get to work the next day. My sustenance depended almost entirely on the generosity of others. You can’t tell me I don’t know anything about being poor.

However, your point is well taken; I could stand to use narrower wording, and refer to the specific group of people I’m talking about.

ETA: Thanks to all of you guys for the input, it really does help. And I swear I didn’t come here for a free proofreader, I just wanted to hear Doper opinions on that parenthetical–but it’s much appreciated nonetheless!

Sure, I’ll be happy to.

And if you want to argue that either of these is okay – argue away. But which of us has been working as a professional editor for more than 15 years, and which of us is taking remedial English?

Nobody here’s taking remedial English, thankyouverymuch. I’m taking the last of my general ed classes, which I put off for a long time because they were so boring. But your attitude makes it clear that any discussion of English grammar in this thread is going to find its way in the Pit, and I’ve fought enough language battles in there for the year.