Committing things to memory is not really a burning process


An English teacher in Iran, Farhad H., recently sent me this intriguing question:

“Is there any difference between the following two sentences, and if there is, what is it? (A) ‘I cannot say I enjoyed Heart of Darkness, but it is burned into my memory for all time.’ (B) ‘I cannot say I enjoyed Heart of Darkness, but it has been burned into my memory for all time.’”

Only very rarely am I asked complicated questions like this, for they deal not so much with grammar but with the use of language to express deeply felt feelings—that is, with literary expression. As a form of exercise, however, I will analyze those two sentences only from the standpoint of word choice and tense, particularly with respect to the verb “burned.”

(For context, let me point out that Heart of Darkness here evidently refers to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel on racism and imperialism, which if I remember right was required reading in English literature many years ago.)

I think the intended sense of the two sentences is the same—that the first-person speaker found Heart of Darkness not exactly enjoyable but unforgettable reading. I would say though that their use of the figurative expression “burned into my memory” is semantically defective and questionable. In that context, the intransitive verb “burn” means to force or make a way by burning, as in “her words burned into his heart,” a destructive process that causes injury and pain to the object of the burning. There was no such damaging aspect when the Heart of Darkness was read, so I don’t think that “burned” is the right verb for that sentence.

I get the feeling that the first-person speaker used the figurative expression “burned into my memory” in those two sentences in the modern, digital sense of “burn,” which is to record digital data or music on an optical disk using a laser, as in “Let’s burn the whole Beatles’ song collection into an external drive.” I doubt very much though if this kind of digital burning, which destroys and replaces all earlier information recorded on the disk, is precisely the same thing that happens to the human mind when something very memorable gets committed to memory. I think memories get implanted and remain in the mind through a more benign process.

If “burn” is not the right verb for those sentences, what might be a semantically appropriate replacement for it? I would suggest the verb “etch,” which means to delineate or impress clearly, as in “scenes etched in our minds.” That verb would be more in keeping with the sense of powerful remembrance intended by the two sentences in question. So let’s use “etched” to make it clear that the process involved was a completed action. The two sentences will then read as follows: (A) ‘I cannot say I enjoyed Heart of Darkness, but it is etched in my memory for all time.’ (B) ‘I cannot say I enjoyed Heart of Darkness, but it has been etched in my memory for all time.’”

Now let’s check if simply replacing the verb “burned” with “etched” has made the two sentences beyond reproach. I don’t think so. Both in their original and revised constructions, and whether the verb is in the present tense or present perfect tense, the qualifier “for all time” actually throws those sentences out of whack. For in real life, nobody can claim that one’s memory, no matter how powerful, will last foreover. So we need to get rid of “for all time” to cure that logical disconnect.

I thought of using the adverb “indelibly” instead of “for all time” and came up with this rewrite: “I cannot say I enjoyed Heart of Darkness, but it is now indelibly etched in my memory.”

Think about it.

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  1. “indelibly etched in my memory” may be more accurate, but I find “burned into my memory” more vivid, more vigorous.

    • I thoroughly agree with you, manque, but only as a figurative expression in itself. In the particular sentence in question, however, is the usage of “burned into my memory” grammatically, semantically, and logically defensible? What then is the proper tense of the linking verb? And as I pointed out in the essay, nobody can really say that what’s “burned into one’s memory is “for all time”–meaning forever. Even figurative language must avoid contradictions in its premise and have a logic of its own.

  2. Frank A. Tucker on

    NOTE: The term, “burned into my memory,” is acceptable and practically as old as the English language itself. Google it !

    • Frank, you’re absolutely right that “burned into my memory” is acceptable as figurative expressions go, in much the same way as the hyperbolic song lyrics “fly me to the moon” and “let me play among the stars.” But that’s for native speakers of English who know the idiomatic character of such expressions quite well. This is why I served notice that I would analyze the two sentences presented to me by Ms. Farhad only from the standpoint of word choice and tense, particularly with respect to the verb “burned.” This is actually where I was coming from.