Exercise in

Adam Cruge

Banned
India & Bengali
What is the meaning of this sentence: "a dispiriting exercise in good people failing"

Context: The USA is concerned about their students poor result. So they hired a consultant to improve their student's ability to score good marks. But they still failed to do so. The consultant went on from one school to the another, where the pictures are all the same. So he told the above written sentence to describe it.
[N.B: It is an extract from New York Times. Click here to read the full story.]
 
  • JamesM

    Senior Member
    "Dispiriting" is similar to "discouraging". Another way to think of it would be the opposite of "inspiring".

    "An exercise in X" is an expression meaning that it is a process with a predictable negative outcome (at least, as far as I have heard it used.) "Talking to her is an exercise in frustration" means "If I/you talk to her, I/you will get frustrated. It is the predictable result." "Suggesting any type of change to management is an exercise in futility." If you suggest any type of change to management, it will lead nowhere.

    Another way to paraphrase the phrase would be:

    "A discouraging process of good people failing (at what they are tryng to accomplish)".
     

    Adam Cruge

    Banned
    India & Bengali
    So what is the meaning of this sentence:
    "That match - a dispiriting exercise in great effort from the good coach in vain..."

    Does this mean the coach did real great effort but it was a dispiriting match and the side lost and all the effort from the coach went in vain?
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Where did you find this sentence? It's definitely unusual to me.

    I agree with your interpretation but I'm surprised by the construction. "An exercise in great effort" sounds very odd. Usually "an exercise in " is followed by the negative result, such as "an exercise in futility by a good coach making a great effort with only a mediocre team."
     

    Adam Cruge

    Banned
    India & Bengali
    I wrote this sentence. "An exercise in" is followed by a negative result here as well and that is - "great effort from the coach in vain".
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    I wrote this sentence. "An exercise in" is followed by a negative result here as well and that is - "great effort from the coach in vain".
    The underlying idea is negative, but "a great effort" itself is positive. The usual way would be to have something negative as the immediate object of in, like JamesM's "exercise in futility".
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    In real life, we want to understand each other, and we will probably understand what you have in mind.

    However, the sentence has a curious effect; because we are used to seeing "an exercise in" followed by something negative, in your sentence, our first impression is that "great effort" is something negative. Once we hear the whole thing, we rethink it and work out what you mean.

    That is why I would suggest that you not use this construction, so that people will understand you easily and clearly.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Surprised by the general message that "an exercise in..." is usually followed by something negative, I went to look for some in context examples and for examples from COCA and BNC.
    Below are the first from each source. Sure enough, there are negative examples, but not only negative examples.

    "in context"
    and this case would be an exercise in futility.
    or even treat it as an exercise in Middle East bazaar diplomacy,
    became an exercise in last ditch tackles and terrific turnovers
    this entire season has been an exercise in patience
    trying to get to one on a backed-up street can sometimes be an exercise in frustration.
    American Idol's ninth season has played more like an exercise in shock and awfulness
    Perhaps this is all just an exercise in wishful thinking
    that was not an exercise in fiscal responsibility.
    That was not an exercise in deficit reduction
    an exercise in emotional control that chimes with his own mechanical demeanour on the course.

    What about COCA?
    What this boils down to is an exercise in self-help economics.
    It'd be good, I thought, rewarding; an exercise in service and duty
    The week that followed was an exercise in inexorably building tension,
    functions as an exercise in Gegenwartsbewltigung, or mastery of the present.
    For some, this season will be an exercise in nerve


    ... and BNC?
    the whole of the White Paper is an exercise in putting up ideas but then not doing anything about them,
    As an exercise in pornography
    Their relationship seemed to be increasingly an exercise in one-upmanship:
    As an exercise in the skills of understatement and of giving the wrong impression without actually lying
    An exercise in brinkmanship

    BNC - British National Corpus
    COCA - Corpus of Contemporary American English


     

    Adam Cruge

    Banned
    India & Bengali
    So Panjandrum, what about my last sentence? I think it is all right and well understood and usual of course...
    Would you please explain the meaning of "an exercise in..."?
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Have a look at exercise in nostalgia

    Your fragments of sentence:
    "That match - a dispiriting exercise in great effort from the good coach in vain..."
    ... are a mixture of conflicting comment.
    - dispiriting -> negative
    - exercise in great effort -> positive
    - good coach -> positive
    - in vain -> negative

    That creates problems.
    Then I wonder what a "dispiriting exercise in great effort" might be. It coes not make sense to me.
    And finally, tagging "in vain" onto the end just adds further confusion.
     

    Adam Cruge

    Banned
    India & Bengali
    Consider my first sentence in Post 1: "a dispiriting exercise in good people failing"
    It's taken from New York Times.
    Here also "exercise in" is followed by "good".
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    Here, 'exercise in' is followed by [good people] failing.

    'Good people' only tells us who is doing the unfortunate thing.
     

    Adam Cruge

    Banned
    India & Bengali
    Isn't it confusing?
    My second sentence also do the same thing. In that sentence "great effort [from the coach] in vain" works as a unit. Isn't it?
    [I am sorry I am taking time to understand you.]
     

    Cagey

    post mod (English Only / Latin)
    English - US
    The immediate object of the preposition in your sentence is "great effort". It takes two more prepositional phrases to get to "in vain"
    "That match - a dispiriting exercise in great effort / from the good coach / in vain..."
    I think "That match - a dispiriting exercise in great effort in vain..." might work. However, "in great effort wasted" (or something like that) would be better, in my opinion.
     
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