How to Say Nothing in Five Hundred Word

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Paul McHenry Roberts (1917-1967) taught college English for over twenty years, first at San Jose State College and later at Cornell University. He wrote numerous books on linguistics, including Understanding Grammar (1954), Patterns of English (1956), and Understanding English (1958).

Freshman composition, like everything else, has its share of fashions. In the 195Os, when this article was written, the most popular argument raging among student essayists was the proposed abolition of college football. With the greater social consciousness of the early '60s, the topic of the day became the morality of capital punishment. Topics may change, but the core principles of good writing remain constant, and this essay as become something of a minor classic in explaining them. Be concrete, says Roberts; get to the point; express your opinions colorfully. Refreshingly, he even practices what he preaches. His essay is humorous, direct, and almost salty in summarizing the working habits that all good prose writers must cultivate. -- Editors' note from JoRay McCuen & Anthony C. Winkler's Readings for Writers , 3rd ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980

It's Friday afternoon. and you have almost survived another week of classes. You are just looking forward dreamily to the weekend when the English instructor says: "For Monday you will turn in a five hundred-word composition on college football." Well, that puts a good hole in the weekend. You don't have any strong views on college football one way or the other. You get rather excited during the season and go to all the home games and find it rather more fun than not. On the other hand, the class has been reading Robert Hutchins in the anthology and perhaps Shaw's "Eighty-Yard Run," and from the class discussion you have got the idea that the instructor thinks college football is for the birds. You are no fool. You can figure out what side to take. After dinner you get out the...
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