May 2010 Newsletter

College Focus:
  Univ. of Southern California
The Right Word:
  Disinterested vs. Uninterested
Strunk & White Tip:
  Rule 3, Part One
  Recommended.Reading:   Jane Austen’s
Pride and Prejudice
  SAT/PSAT PREP    June 14 - 25

    June 28 - July 2
University of Southern California

The University of Southern California’s legendary Trojans have won 24 state football championships—more than those of all other California colleges combined. Its grateful alumni give more money to their beloved school than do the graduates of Stanford, Berkeley, or any other California college.

By the way, some people confuse UC and USC. In California, UC means the taxpayer-supported university whose flagship is Berkeley; USC is the private institution in downtown Los Angeles.

The social and economic advantages of a USC degree, with its instantly recognizable name and loyal alumni, are considerable. Youthful USC students praise its congenial dormitory life and aging graduates recall their years there with great fondness. After all, who wouldn’t appreciate lifelong friendships, four sun-drenched years rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, and the thrill of cheering on the best athletes in California?

For example, one former Improve Your English student from Palo Alto writes, “People are warm and friendly here at USC.” She describes meeting a friend from UC Berkeley on campus. A USC student invited them to share a table and another volunteered to take a picture of the pair on “the beautiful campus with classy brick buildings” in the background.

Steven Shee, a product of USC’s well-regarded Marshall School of Business, calls USC’s alumni program “robust,” noting that Hewlett Packard has an internal Trojan network of its own. “The last time I attended an event, the dean of the business school was among those who took a road trip before the Stanford game.”

Shee, an Improve Your English parent, says he makes two or three business and social contacts a year from the alumni database.

The “Trojans helping Trojans” program illustrates not only the bond between alumni and students across generations but also the potential benefits of attending a school to which California’s wealthiest families have been sending their children since 1880.

USC has striven in recent years to diversify its wealthy student body. The campus now leads the state in the number of Pell Grants offered to low- and moderate-income students, who now make up one-fifth of the enrollment.

Make no mistake, however; another one-fifth are SCions—legacy admissions with family ties.

Members of the USC family are proud of their sports teams, and they should be. In addition to completely dominating California football, USC’s men and women student athletes have won more individual championships than has any other college in the United States. And the school has trained 362 Olympians, who have brought 236 gold, silver, and bronze medals back to California.

USC can also take pride in its above-average academic programs. USC is particularly strong in practical and applied disciplines: journalism, business, film, and many others. USC’s engineering program is one of the top ten in the entire nation.

Of special interest to the editors of this newsletter is that the college offers a master’s degree in professional writing—the only such degree in the state. As with any MFA program, students advance their creative skills with the help of award-winning writers such as T.C. Boyle. But at USC they also learn and practice the skills necessary for any serious writer who plans to make a living with a word processor.

Characteristically, its Viterbi School of Engineering takes its name from alumnus Andrew Viterbi, whose $52 million gift pays for top experimental equipment and some of the best and highest-paid faculty. Helped by another $85 million in donations, the school has reinvented itself in this century to lead most of the nation in engineering research.

Fueled by the generosity of ex-Trojans, USC’s graduate engineering department trails only Stanford, Berkeley, and CalTech among California colleges.

Nine billionaires call USC their alma mater.

One, filmmaker George Lucas, single-handedly spurred the rapid growth of the USC film school with an eye-popping $175 million gift.

Students say that USC’s friendly and informal lifestyle dissolves social barriers. Nearly every student takes part in the rich social life of the campus.

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Strunk and White’s Rule #3
Part One
Steve High,

by Steve High

In 1920, William Strunk boasted that he had reduced the number of punctuation rules from “a score or more” to four—three for the comma and one for the semicolon.

Rule 3, “Enclose Parenthetic Expressions with Commas,” epitomizes his largely successful effort to inscribe the rules of grammar on “the head of pin,” as E.B. White wrote.

One of the biggest takeaways from Rule 3 is the use of two commas or no commas, but never one:

Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in. (Two commas)

Sheriff Pat Garrett… (No commas)

I’ll sing you a true song of Billy, the Kid. (Never)

Marjorie’s husband, Colonel Nelson, paid us a visit yesterday. (Two commas)

Strunk, a onetime math teacher, may have remembered the algebraic prohibition against unbalanced parentheses. In sentence diagrams, you surround appositives with parentheses, just as in sentences you usually surround them with commas.

Next month, in Part Two, you’ll learn more about punctuating which and that in restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses.

For answers to specific writing questions, email us here. Who knows? Your question may inspire our next article on Writing Tips.

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Disinterested vs. Uninterested

What’s the difference between a senator who is bored with a debate and a senator who observes the debate objectively, trying to learn the truth? The English language has two words to capture these two states of mind: uninterested and disinterested.

Use uninterested to mean “not caring for the issue at hand.”

We tried to make our kids excited about visiting Stockton, but they remained uninterested.

Use disinterested to mean “objective, free from personal bias.”
EX: I didn’t consult my friends because I wanted advice from a disinterested party.

We can see how these different meanings arise by examining the prefixes un- and dis-.
Un- means “not,” as in ungrateful (not grateful), unfortunate (not fortunate), or uneducated (not educated).

On the other hand, dis- carries a variety of meanings. It can mean “not” (disagreeing means not agreeing), but it can also mean “away” or “apart.” For instance, if my thoughts are disjointed, the joints that should connect my ideas are broken apart.

It’s true that according to the dictionary, both uninterested and disinterested can mean “not caring for the issue at hand.” However, this definition of disinterested is secondary. To take advantage of the resources of the English language, you’ll want to preserve the distinction between the two.

For answers to specific writing questions, email us here. Who knows? Your question may inspire our next article on The Right Word.

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Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Nat Crawford,
director of tutoring

by Nat Crawford

Pride and Prejudice is a collection of good humor, charming wit, devastating satire, and serious moral reflection. A portrait of upper-class British society at the turn of the 19th century, the novel depicts characters familiar to many societies today. Readers willing to take the time to understand Austen’s language will discover in this work one of the funniest and most enjoyable comedies ever written.

American audiences, their appreciation for humor dulled by slapstick comedy, often fail to grasp Austen’s subtle satire. The author has a gift for understatement: “Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society.” In another passage, she undercuts the genteel patronizing of Lady Catherine and her daughter, members of the English aristocracy: “When they parted, Lady Catherine, with great condescension, wished them a good journey, and invited them to come to Hunsford again next year; and Miss de Bourgh exerted herself so far as to curtsey and hold out her hand to both.” Austen’s skill at the subtle putdown recalls John Dryden’s praise of satire over mere name-calling: “How easy is it to call Rogue and Villain, and that wittily! But how hard to make a Man appear a Fool, a Blockhead, or a Knave, without using any of those opprobrious terms! … There is still a vast difference betwixt the slovenly Butchering of a Man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the Head from the Body and leaves it standing in its place.” In Pride and Prejudice, Austen leaves a fine row of decapitated heads resting neatly atop bodies.

From time to time, though, Austen shows that she can sling a handful of mud, sweetly scented though it may be. Elizabeth can hold her own against Lady Catherine’s hauteur: “And is this all?” cried Elizabeth. “I expected at least that the pigs were got into the garden, and here is nothing but Lady Catherine and her daughter.” Austen also dips her pen in caustic ink when having Mr. Bennet sum up Mr. Collins: “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped.” At other moments, Austen is witheringly succinct, as when she describes the company at a card game as “superlatively stupid.”

Austen shifts easily from the absurdities of characters to the absurdities of their actions. The development of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s relationship takes nearly the whole of the novel; that of the buffoon Mr. Collins and the kind but mousy Charlotte Lucas takes all of several minutes:

Miss Lucas perceived [Mr. Collins] from an upper window as he walked toward the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane. But little had she dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her there.

In as short a time as Mr. Collins’s long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both.

Here, Austen delightfully combines the absurdities both of “accidental intention” and of long speeches on a forgone conclusion. For more such scenes, read nearly any chapter of the novel.

Though she writes with humor, Austen does not merely mock idiots and poke good-humored fun at foolishness; she also encourages self-reflection and reform. Austen initially called the novel First Impressions because her hero and heroine, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, must seriously rethink their initial impressions of each other. Each begins the novel as a critical observer of the human condition—Darcy scornfully, Elizabeth with more lightness of heart—but turns that criticism toward the self. A letter from Darcy forces Elizabeth to rethink her opinion of herself: “‘How despicably I have acted!’ she cried; ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment … and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! … Till this moment I never knew myself.’” Later, Darcy reveals how Elizabeth’s criticism forced him to change: “my behaviour to you at the time had merited the severest reproof. … I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to.” The best criticism of society, suggests Austen, comes from people unafraid to occasionally criticize themselves.

When first reading Pride and Prejudice, readers may find it helpfulto know how Austen intends us to regard her characters. Modern readers will find them familiar. Elizabeth’s sisters Kitty and Lydia prattle away like unrestrained teenagers of the modern day, their speech touched with slang and grammatical error, their minds occupied with gossip, boyfriends, and hopes of outshining their sisters. Mary, another sister, resembles the modern striver obsessed with adding lines to a college resume: she glibly recites words copied from essays (rather than undertaking the cut and thrust of real conversation), and she eagerly shows off her meager musical talents to uninterested company.

Even Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marriage should appear familiar, viewed in the right light. Today, as the feminist movement has dissolved the old norms for personal relationships, young women are nearly as free as men to develop independence and find worldly success. In such a climate, it’s easy to laugh at Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with finding the right husbands for her daughters. But great literature outlasts its immediate circumstances; substitute “college” for “marriage” and Mrs. Bennet’s obsession becomes contemporary. Marriage was indeed to Austen’s society what college is to our own: a promise of financial stability and social prestige, an apparent confirmation that the parents had raised their children “right.” When Mrs. Bennet and Charlotte Lucas discuss the dancing partners of their daughters at the previous night’s ball (Chapter 5), it’s easy to picture two mothers discussing their children’s prospects for Princeton or Yale.

For this society, Austen creates two types of heroines. Jane is the conventional heroine who might appear in an 18th-century guidebook entitled How to Get into Marriage: Five Steps to Landing the Household of Your Dreams. A kind, gentle daughter who correctly follows the rules of her society, she eventually achieves success as her society defines it. But while no reader has ever begrudged Jane her happiness, her story would hardly be worth rereading centuries later. Fortunately, Austen created a second heroine to keep the pages turning. Elizabeth, possessing “something more of quickness than her sisters,” has decided that marriage should unite hands, minds, and spirits; she demands a husband who will respect her and receive her respect.

But she has a long road to travel before she finds him, far closer to hand than she could ever have suspected. It’s a road worth walking with her, even if you have already seen one of the many movie versions. For while the love story of Pride and Prejudice translates well to the screen, no movie script will make you laugh the way Austen’s words do.

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