If you are one of the 1.7 billion users of the Web (25.6% of the world’s population as of today), chances are you’re a hyper reader. By “hyper reader” I mean a hyperactive, hyperkinetic hyperlink clicker. The speed of your movements around the Web makes Superman look like he’s moving in molasses. No matter whether you’re looking for the lowest price on a GPS device or deciding whether the H1N1 flu vaccine is safe to get, no one in the old world of print and paper can keep up with you. In the time it takes a print reader to open an old-fashioned news magazine and find the article he’s after in the magazine’s table of contents, you’ve already located your article as well as three other articles that look like they might be relevant. You’ve already skimmed two of those, and you’ve made three opportunistic Web side trips, one to Dictionary.com to look up the word vaccine and two to check out holiday movie ads that caught your eye.
But are you a paratactic reader or a hypotactic reader? Paratactic means, “arranged side by side, with each new item simply added to the others,” while hypotactic means, “arranged in terms of hierarchy or logical dependence.” In terms of grammar and syntax, a paratactic sentence is one with several elements but no conjunctions; in a paratactic sentence the elements simply accumulate, with no explicit indication of how they are related. A hypotactic sentence, on the other hand, is one that uses conjunctions and makes explicit how the items relate (using but, however, except, etc.). In terms of reading on the Web, a paratactic reader is someone who accumulates information and ideas in unsorted or only roughly sorted piles (think: someone tossing Lego bricks into a bag). A hypotactic reader is someone who frets over the connection between a given item and the items following it and preceding it (think: someone fitting Lego pieces together to make a box, a bridge, or a boat).
What kind of Web reader are you? A brick collector or a builder?
A widespread concern shared by many educators and researchers is that most Web readers, most of the time, are paratactic brick collectors. These readers may be quite adept at locating desired information (though many are not), but they are not inclined or prepared to pause between one piece of information and the next to ask whether the two are connected—or could be connected—with a moreover, an except, or an on the other hand, instead of just an implied and.
The challenge is different in the world of print texts. There, a typical reader spends much more time with each individual text, and the reader’s meaning-making activity is strongly shaped by the connections and conjunctions that are explicitly stated within each text. Thus, with print texts, the paratactic reader typically encounters a number of within-text hypotactic markers, and these markers to a lesser or greater extent shape his emerging understanding of the topic at hand.
Reading on the Web, however, the paratactic reader is left much more to his own devices. Presumably, he has a question or purpose in mind (to find the cheapest GPS device, or to find out if the H1N1 vaccine is safe). But when he clicks to a first webpage, quickly culls a relevant piece of information (a product price, say, or maybe an NIH spokesperson’s statement about the safety of the vaccine), and then clicks to a second webpage, the nature of the connection between the two is nowhere stated; the paratactic reader must provide it himself. Has he clicked on a new link with the intention of marking a however, a moreover, or a consequently? The reader’s capacity to use these kinds of words and make these kinds of connections—whether in a completely conscious and articulate way, or in an unspoken and tacit way—is decisive. If the paratactic reader doesn’t know these words and the concepts of relationship they indicate (causality, set membership, logical contradiction, etc.), or doesn’t use them, his reading experience will be impoverished.
The reality, of course, is that most of us, most of the time, are both paratactic and hypotactic. We follow paths of loose juxtaposition, association, and accumulation. And at the same time we flex our hypotactic muscles, hypothesizing connections, inferring them, testing them, rejecting them, etc. Our understanding of a topic deepens as we shift back and forth between the two approaches. And the two truly are interdependent and synergistic. If we never went off on paratactic rambles, we would get stuck within closed circuits of hypotactic logic and organization. The loose hypotactic addition of new information introduces new, possibly generative material into the system.
Everyone these days knows what a hyperlink is (superficially, at least), and that’s a tremendous thing. Hyperlinks have the potential to make knowledge-building much more rich and complex. At the same time, it’s worth noting that our everyday language for talking about what we’re doing as we click on hyperlinks and read across multiple pages hasn’t kept pace with the new landscape of reading and with our new reading practices. Words like paratactic and hypotactic are not part of our everyday lexicon (to say nothing of acronyms like LICRA that describe more advanced Web reading strategies [DeSchryver & Spiro, 2009]). In light of current trends we’re seeing in the ways people use and read the Web (lots of skimming and scanning, lots of fact harvesting, but not a lot of synthesis, argument, or analysis), there’s clearly a need to get these terms, and the awareness that goes with them, into the mainstream, especially at the K-12 level. Hypotaxis and parataxis aren’t a bad place to start. Just ask my two-and-a-half year old son. On the Web, he loves to click on pictures of elephants and hippos. And if you give him a minute, he’ll tell you all about the importance of hippos riding in taxis.