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Beware sweeping generalizations

As a general rule, "throughout history", "throughout time", and other sweeping phrases about the entire course of existence should be banned from history papers. They're nearly always incorrect. In fact, as a history student, you're more likely to be factually correct if you just avoid those phrases altogether.

Thus it is with some chagrin that I find myself unable to tell my current students to avoid "throughout history", because, for once, they're all using it appropriately. I'm proud and relieved - but it's still a dangerous phrase to throw around.


( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 19th, 2007 03:40 pm (UTC)
I remember reading once (in a book on heraldry, most likely) that in certain specific contexts, the phrase "time immemorial" does have a carefully-defined meaning - usually the period before 1066.
Nov. 19th, 2007 04:21 pm (UTC)
"Since the memory of man runneth not to the counter" goes back, if I recall, as far as the reign of Henry II

Same basic principle. "Sorry, sunshine, if you're basing your case/claim on what the situation was before Us Normans got here, forget it."
Nov. 19th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
I wonder what causes folks to use the "since the dawn of time" chestnut so often. I don't think that I ever had a high school English teacher encourage me to open an essay with it, and it was certainly never part of any undergraduate writing instruction. I'm pretty sure the same holds true of Canadian and UKan High Schools, and yet somehow, that awful cliché just keeps oozing to the surface.
Nov. 19th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
When did time dawn?
(no subject) - taldragon - Nov. 19th, 2007 10:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 19th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I found myself v. uncomfortable when editing a recent paper, since I kept having to say things like "over time" or "through the centuries". Problem was, it WAS centuries I was talking about, and in a very specific, appropriate, unavoidable way—but my inner history professor kept going, "NO! NO! Don't do it!"
Nov. 19th, 2007 04:23 pm (UTC)
It was very interesting, when you were reading ch. 1 of my book, to see how strongly you disapproved of the phrase 'throughout history' (although I'd only used it in two or three places). The thing is that my book is doing exactly that: its scope is precisely all of history from the beginning of written records to the present, so I didn't find it objectionable. I did, however, remove or alter it, because of the potential ambiguity in its meaning 'throughout the history of written records' and 'throughout human existence'.
Nov. 19th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Yes, that ambiguity is precisely the problem: just where the boundaries of history lie. It's funny how we develop our own particular irritants; mine lie more strongly with phrasing than, say, punctuation.
(no subject) - mithent - Nov. 19th, 2007 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - forthright - Nov. 19th, 2007 08:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sollersuk - Nov. 19th, 2007 09:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mithent - Nov. 19th, 2007 09:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Nov. 20th, 2007 08:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 19th, 2007 04:24 pm (UTC)
Ummm... how about "throughout history until recent centuries around half of all children died before their fifth birthday"?
Nov. 19th, 2007 05:30 pm (UTC)
This particular book they're writing about is about the history of food - since before recorded human history to more-or-less to the present. Throughout history, people have eaten food.
(no subject) - eulistes - Nov. 19th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Nov. 19th, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lazyknight - Nov. 19th, 2007 07:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sollersuk - Nov. 19th, 2007 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - owlfish - Nov. 20th, 2007 08:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 19th, 2007 06:40 pm (UTC)
In the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written, every now and then someone asks "What are the best science fiction novels of all time?"

I have fun answering such questions.
Nov. 20th, 2007 08:38 am (UTC)
Do you try to give representative bests from each billion years?
Nov. 19th, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Just Yeah.
Nov. 19th, 2007 08:06 pm (UTC)
Oh my gosh, I feel your pain. Why do students feel the need to start at the dawn of time??
Nov. 19th, 2007 08:52 pm (UTC)
"Throughout history" and "ever since the dawn of time" must be eradicated. We must also destroy any undergraduate sentence containing the words "human nature" or "human spirit."
Nov. 20th, 2007 08:41 am (UTC)
I'm deeply ambivalent about permitting "interesting", myself. It's too easily abused.

(But it's only human nature to use "throughout history" in the vast majority of papers. Apparently.)
Nov. 20th, 2007 12:58 am (UTC)
I've also found that conventional wisdom, at least when it comes to material culture, is wrong more often than note.

Viz: patchwork did NOT start with thrifty housewives stitching their scraps together to create bedding. It started with a bunch of Serbian saints wearing pieced vestments, continued with Italian mercenaries showing their heraldry, got even worse with German aristocrats wearing patchwork wedding gowns, and was only domestic until the 18th century.

But we still see those thrifty peasant/colonial housewives popping up in textile histories over and over and over and over and over.....
Nov. 20th, 2007 12:58 am (UTC)
Make that "only rarely domestic." *bleah*
(no subject) - geesepalace - Nov. 20th, 2007 09:17 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - ellid - Nov. 20th, 2007 11:52 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - geesepalace - Nov. 20th, 2007 02:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 21st, 2007 01:35 am (UTC)
Throughout history we have used that phrase in our papers! I see no reason to stop now!!!! Tradition!!
( 32 comments — Leave a comment )