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On the Three Most Important Words in the English Language


How do you know you’re thinking?

This is the kind of question that stops you in your tracks. First, you think, who would ask about something so obvious? And then, well, then you’re left with the challenge of putting into words a central facet of your mental life.

When we discuss this question in class, we are soon deep in the murk: there’s mental activity, which takes place in any brain-equipped creature–the turtle sunning on the log is passively monitoring the surroundings, scanning for threats; there’s instinct, the lightning quick response to inbound data–the cat pounces on the rustling in the bush killing, as the common phrase puts it, without thinking. There’s dreaming; there’s daydreaming. There’s all this mental activity going on up there that one doesn’t control, at least not consciously.

But what about the mental activity one does have some control over? You can’t control what your eyes and ears take in, but you can exercise some influence over your own responses to that inbound data. So, while you can’t unsee what your eyes behold, unhear the sounds that enter your ears and you can’t unsmell, untouch, unfeel, you can change how you think about what your senses are reporting. And, while you can’t exactly unthink a thought you’ve had, you can change that thought by rethinking it.

We’re interested in that stretch of mental activity that you can influence. For the moment, we ask that you grant us the following proposition:

Thinking is the intentional act of making connections.

This act of connecting can take place in language, sound, and images; doubtless chefs would say it takes place in taste, perfumers in smell. We’re open to the medium; what we want to focus on is the array of connections available to the thinker.

Now, we are pretty sure that you’ll have reservations about this proposition, but we need you to suspend those reservations for the time being. Don’t worry, we’ll come back to qualify and to complicate this proposition by and by; we promise.

Beginning writers, like beginning thinkers, tend to rely on one connector: and. For the beginning writer, writing is the act of connecting like to like, with the thoughts or observations linked together via either the explicit or the implicit use of the coordinating conjunction “and”:

The house I grew up in had a garden. It also had a garage. It had two floors. And an attic.

In this additive mode of composing, the beginning writer can expand the composition as much as the assignment requires. All that the writer needs to supply is more of the same:

It had two chimneys. It had three bedrooms. And one bathroom.

In the hands of an experienced storyteller, this additive mode of composing can serve as the foundation for an episodic epic poem:

After the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus heads home. On the way back, he and his men sack the city of Ismarus. And then they sail to the land of the Lotus Eaters. After they escape, they encounter the cyclops, Polyphemus. And then, and then, and then . . . .

And in the hands of an experienced artist, the assumption that and links like to like can be exploited to create jarring juxtapositions that bring into being something unlike the two conjoined objects.


The piece above, Monogram, was made by 20th-century artist Robert Rauschenberg. The work brings together a host of elements that one does not associate with a painting, most notably a goat, a tire, and a tennis ball, and places them atop the canvas. Have the goat, the tire, and the tennis ball become part of the canvas? Or have the goat, the tire, and the tennis ball transformed this piece into a work of sculpture?

As you can see, when “and” is intentionally used to link like to unlike, surprising things can happen.

Beginning writers are more likely to make connections via addition (A and B and C) than via qualification (A and B, but not C). The machinery of the five paragraph theme makes no room for thinking of this kind; there’s just the thesis, the three supporting examples (A and B and C), and the conclusion. Qualification muddies the waters.

It’s not that beginning writers have no access to the word “but.” Indeed, when we conference with beginning writers, we often find their minds are abuzz with qualifications, exceptions, contradictions, and confusions. However, little of this mental activity makes it onto the page because our students have been told repeatedly that the goal of writing in school is clarity. Equating clarity with simplicity, beginning writers avoid presenting anything that might complicate their efforts to produce an argument that is straightforward and to the point. When this strategy of avoiding complications is rewarded, writing’s primary function is reduced to the activity of simplification and the goal of writing in school becomes nothing more than producing “arguments” that are clear, direct, and easy to follow.

Obviously, writing has a communicative function (moving idea X from point A to point B), but this isn’t writing’s sole function. Writing can also serve as a technology for thinking new thoughts–thoughts, that is, that are new to the writer. We believe that this use of writing, as a heuristic for venturing into the unknown, is as important as its communicative use. Indeed, it is through learning how to use writing heuristically that one comes to have ideas that are worth communicating.

Beginning writers start with a thesis and then find evidence to support their position: writing is the process of reporting what fits and ignoring the rest. The problem with such writing is not that it is unclear, but rather that it is, from the outset, too clear: it says what it’s going to say (thesis); it says it (three supporting examples); it says what it said (conclusion). Reading writing of this kind is like being plunged into the great echo chamber of nothingness.

This problem is easily solved.

We just insist that our students bring the coordinating conjunction but into their writing.

Things get messy right away and clarity, misunderstood as simplicity, gives way to qualification and complexity.

At the start, some of the qualifications are silly, others are improbable. But, over time, the qualifications become more meaningful and the prose begins to engage more productively with the complexities of lived experience. The writing begins, we say, to capture the shape of a mind at work on a problem.

But is the passkey for entry into critical thinking.

If you want to test out this assertion, we invite you to consider how different the Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would be if it ended after the second paragraph:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation: conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war — testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated — can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Lincoln speaks at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg for the Union dead. He invokes the nation as if it were one thing, but the nation is at war with itself. Those who have gathered for the dedication of the cemetery do so to recognize the sacrifice of those who died so that the “nation might live.”

If the speech ended here, it would end with the statement that recognizing the fallen is “altogether fitting and proper.” It’s clear what Lincoln intends: it’s appropriate to recognize those who have died in defense of the liberties of those who are still living. He’s saying aloud what everyone present already knows; the point he is making is obvious to all.

But the speech doesn’t end here, of course. Lincoln continues:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Everything hinges on the qualification that Lincoln introduces in the third–and final–paragraph of his speech. What those who are assembled are doing is “altogether fitting and proper,” but the living do not, in fact, have the power to do what those who have died have done.

With this qualification, Lincoln is able to shift the audience’s attention from dedication, understood first as a commemorative event bounded in time, to dedication, redefined as an open-ended activity carried out by the living in the service of a vulnerable ideal:

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people — by the people — for the people — shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln’s use of “but” at the beginning of the third paragraph of his address allows him to connect dedication as a noun to the ongoing activity of being dedicated. The connection is not like to like: coming to the dedication is not the same thing as dedicating oneself to the preservation of the action. Without the “but,” we have a speech that thanks people for coming to a battlefield; with the qualification, we have a speech that links the deaths that took place on that battlefield to a larger set of ideas, values, hopes, and aspirations.

How do you get from critical thinking to creative thinking?

Here’s a rubric that oversimplifies to the point of distortion:


We know this table can’t withstand rigorous critical examination. Indeed, we’d say the table predicts its own dismantling, since it assumes both a critical thinker who will respond to the clear-cut grid by qualifying the table’s assertions and a creative thinker who will imagine other grids or other ways of modeling the relationship between coordinating conjunctions and modes of thought.

So, just like the left/right brain distinction, our table doesn’t depict a neurological reality. It’s just a heuristic device for identifying different mental operations; it’s a way to get you to think about thinking as the process of making connections.

With those qualifications, we stand by this assertion:

Consciously introducing but and or to your mental activity is a surefire way to generate new thinking.

It really is that simple.

1. Find three images that are important to you. They can be of anything: they can be pictures you took yourself; pictures of you; pictures from the internet; pictures of historical events or pictures of historical importance; pictures of art objects; advertisements. They need not all be important in the same way.

Place the images before you. What are the implicit connections between the images as they are laid out before you? Is it A and B and C? A or B or C? A and B, but not C? A or B and C? The possibilities are not infinite, but they are multiple: write up your reflections on the implicit connections between the images as they are laid out before you.

When you’ve completed your reflections, re-order the images. What happens to the implicit connections? Repeat the exercise above with the newly ordered images.

When you’ve completed these two reflections about connections, write a third piece that reflects on what happened to the connections when you re-ordered the images. Why does the order make a difference?

2. We’d like you to select read an essay to read—either one of the three readings included in this book, one of the articles listed under Suggested Readings, or the essay above, “On the Three Most Important Words in the English Language.” Read the piece you’ve chosen through once; then return to it and mark where the writer makes connections. Make a list of explicit or implicit “and” connections that set information or ideas next to each other. Then list connections that explicitly or implicitly use the word “but” to make qualifications, exceptions, conditions, ambiguity, or uncertainty. Finally, list connections that explicitly or implicitly use the word “or” to point out alternatives or possibilities.  Write a reflection on the connections you listed in the category of “but” and “or.” Which connection is the most important? Which is the most surprising?


Suggested Readings


Roxane Gay, “Bad Feminist.” VQR  Fall 2012. Online.


Etgar Karet, “Car Concentrate.” Granta 02 Jan 2014. Online.


Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Post-Prozac Nation: The Science and History of Treating Depression.” New York Times 19 April 2012. Online.


Joyce Carol Oates. “Against Nature.” Antaeus 57 Autumn 1986. 236-43.


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