An Essay by Any Other Name ...

Contending With the Robot Reader

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The word "essay" is much too inclusive. It is used to refer to almost all kinds of writing.

The recent announcement by the Educational Testing Service that its Graduate Management Admission Test would employ a machine--the E-rater--to help rate answers to "essay questions" has caused considerable consternation. Foreseeing the day when such a machine will be used in the rating of writing done for other ETS exams, in particular the SAT, many educators lament the introduction of a robot as a reader of essays.

Much of the dread and confusion among educators is caused unnecessarily, and is the result of habitual loose use of the word "essay." The GMAT examiners really do not want essays. They want those who take the test to provide examples of their skill in expository writing. The examiners want to see how well the test-takers can explain themselves and why they believe something should be done or not done.

As it is used today, the word "essay" is much too inclusive. It is used to refer to almost all kinds of writing except what is obviously meant to be poetry. Even some highly educated people will sometimes, without a blink, refer to highly technical writing as essays.

When Michel de Montaigne retired to his ancestral estate in 1571, at the age of 38, he intended to devote himself to a pursuit that would make anyone envious. It was his intention to spend the greater part of his time inquiring into, in a leisurely way, whatever aroused his curiosity. He found that his curiosity was particularly aroused by the way in which his own mind and the minds of others worked.

Montaigne thought about himself, his acquaintances, and characters in literature, and came to the conclusion that each human mind shapes the world in which it exists in accordance with its own peculiarities. He wrote down his thoughts, not at all reluctant to revise them from time to time, and called them essais, by which he meant trials, attempts, ventures of discovery. And from his use of that word, "essay" came into English.

Francis Bacon, born 28 years after Montaigne, is considered the first great essayist in English. Bacon, who knew of Montaigne, was not much influenced by him. His cast of mind was dramatically different. Bacon wanted his writing to contribute to the "relief of man's estate." In his essays, he used his prodigious analytical power most often to examine closely the differences among various concepts and actions that seemed alike; unlike Montaigne, he did not write in the first person. Were Bacon alive today, he would be most upset by the blanket use of "essay."

In the minds of literary people, it is Montaigne's essays, not Bacon's, that are the standard. To literary people, the essay is an original and creative piece of writing, a piece of writing with a distinctive tone and vocabulary. To literary people, a superior essay is one that is not quiet and orderly but calls attention to itself. Indeed, disregard of the conventions of logic and grammar is a sign of the writer's creativity.

And so we have the scorn of some of today's prominent essayists for the idea of essays read by machine. Consider, for example, Cynthia Ozick's response to news of the ETS essay-rater. An essay, she says, is "a stroll through someone's mazy mind," in which the writer should feel free "to hop from thought to thought, to begin with the finish and finish with the middle, or to eschew beginning and end and keep only a middle."

Yet if examiners are trying to determine how well applicants can explain a position or a process, it is not necessarily a bad move to get help from a machine. For the E-rater can determine whether the beginning is at the beginning and not at the end, whether some thoughts have been made subordinate to others, whether transitional expressions are used to signal readers about what is coming next.

Everyone--from university admissions people to editors of technical journals--likes the word essay. I say, in the interest of clarity, let the literary people have the word. There are others that have far less baggage.

Words like "commentary," "analysis," "article," or "report" may not have the classy sound and associations of "essay." But if it's clarity, and order, and logic that is wanted, and not idiosyncrasy, the less inclusive the word the better.

The intent of what is written here is to explain and clarify. Should a reader, however, wish to refer to this piece as an essay, the writer will be flattered.

Vol. 18, Issue 30, Page 38

Published in Print: April 7, 1999, as An Essay by Any Other Name ...
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