Monthly Archives: June 2012

diagramming

Okay, this is my last free New York Times article of the month, so I’d better write about it while I still have it open in my browser.  My mom (probably like your mom), has a penchant for sending me articles I might find interesting, but not without the underlying, “If I don’t make you read the paper, you will never be a cultivated person.”  Here is her most recent contribution.

My immediate reaction: I want, need to learn how to diagram sentences.  The closest I ever got in school was underlining different parts of speech in different colors or with squiggles and dashes.  It’s the perfect alternative to sudoku for people who are bad at sudoku (like me).  Numbers couldn’t possibly motivate me the way understanding a complicated sentence motivates me.  (If you know of a good website or book that teaches diagramming, please bring it to my attention.)

My response to the content of the argument: I have always believed that understanding grammar makes it easier to write well.  Good writing has very little to do with being articulate or having a good vocabulary.  Once the writing is already good, such attributes will help a writer make a stronger argument with more colorful language.  Good writing starts with grammar because written language is distinct from spoken language (this is literally the only information I retained from Anthropology 102).  Countless times, articulate, thoughtful students would visit the Writing Center with no understanding of the passive voice, your English teacher’s greatest, most mysterious nightmare (right up there with the comma splice).

Of course, the rules of grammar still apply to spoken language, but we usually figure out the basics as babies.  Our natural exposure to spoken language teaches us how to form a sentence.  We also more willingly forgive grammatical errors in spoke language because we can use tone of voice, body language, and environment to extract what people mean from what they say.  Written language, on the other hand, is isolated, and grammar is the only structure we can depend on as a guide to meaning.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that they learned more about English grammar from studying a foreign language than from their English classes.  You likely experienced a similar revelation in middle or high school.  When learning a foreign language, we willingly acknowledge that we don’t know what’s going on: we don’t know the rules.  So, we learn the conditional in French more easily than in English because we can’t explain the difference between “If I were” and “If I was,” but in French we are told which tenses are appropriate without hearing much natural use of the conditional before the day we learn it… which isn’t to say I think language can be learned by rote!

Any assumption that written English is something we should know before we learn the grammar can prevent us from learning it.  Teaching written English as a foreign language or alongside the grammar of a foreign language would pull out the plug of “I should know this” and let everything we don’t know come flooding in (if this bathwater analogy works for you…).  I’m not sure if a similar methodology already exists, and I wouldn’t really know where to start, but I think sentence diagramming accomplishes the important task of rendering written English foreign to us.  It breaks us down while simultaneously breaking language down, and then builds us both back up.  Or that’s the idea, isn’t it?

I certainly understand when Ms. Florey says that “diagramming is not for everyone,” just like calculus or the fall of the Roman Empire isn’t for everyone, but even if you’re not a writer, I think you deserve to know how written language works.

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missed connections

Ignoring the fact that it has taken me over a week to post a new update: I had a beautiful day today!  A Fitzgeraldian romp on Governors Island complete with hats, pie, and the charleston.  There was literally a parade (of hats) and literally no rain.  Anywhere.  We find ourselves in a quandary, then, because I’m still a little sad.  Mainly, sad for the English language.

What. Is. This.  Actually, that’s a silly question, isn’t it?  This is one of a series of PSAs the MTA has released to let New Yorkers know about all the good work they’re doing these days.  As if we hadn’t noticed.  (Really, you can’t miss it… you can hardly cross a street in this town anymore!)  Cute, colloquial turns of phrase – “That’s a lot of minutes.” – pepper the campaign, and I’m all about language experimentation, but the buck always has to stop somewhere, and today, it is here.

Here, grammar loses yet another battle to brevity.  Nevermind that the grammatically correct version – “New switches. Fewer hitches.” – includes a charming internal rhyme, WE HAVEN’T A SYLLABLE TO SPARE!  Apparently.  I realize that just about every medium we communicate in these days requires a terse, catchy approach to the English language (because if we can’t watch a YouTube clip for longer than 5 minutes, how can we possible be expected to read complete sentences!), and I also realize that widely-criticized advertising slogans (Apple’s “think different, for one) can sometimes innovate and/or celebrate American diction, but sometimes it’s just not worth it.

I once interned for someone who would correct, or more accurately, incorrect email blasts I wrote to have grammatical errors.  “This is too formal,” she would say, practically patting me on the head.  Since when does informality equate to incorrectness?  Can we trace it back to George W. Bush’s “nukeyaler” or does it have even deeper roots in America’s dark past?  I was beginning to understand why her TV series hadn’t aired on PBS for several years.

Because I am a genius and master of the English language, this entire train of thought flashed through my mind in less than a second, and I traversed the empty subway car to take a photo of the ad to post here (because this blog is really the only thing I think of constantly).  The only other passenger in the car was sitting directly underneath.  Really, it would have been weird if she didn’t ask me what I was doing, so I explained: “less” is a word that refers to unquantifiable entities, “less water,” “less time,” “less pleasure,” while “fewer” implies countability, “fewer rain drops,” “fewer minutes,” “fewer… you get what I mean.  The MTA, of all things, shouldn’t make simple mistakes like this.

“Wow,” she said, “that’s really irresponsible.”

life inside parentheses

I learned the correct way to use parentheses my junior year of high school.  As we received our first graded papers and surreptitiously flipped directly to the last page, bypassing any marginal commentary, our teacher began to talk through a list of common mistakes and stylistic faux pas she had noticed in our papers.  Parentheses were at the top of her list: containers of nonessential information, and not, for example, dates.  She continued to tell us that parentheses could (and should) be used for the kind of commentary that could liven up a paper, but did not necessarily contribute to the argument.

I didn’t realize it at the time (how could I have?), but I had just received my first lesson in metacommentary.  Fish, meet water.  Why I have not received more recognition for my innovative twitter hashtags (twinovation? twitovation? standing ovation?), I do not know.  Over the past six years of my life, I’ve been able to keep my use of parentheses down to a minimum in my formal writing, but in other more relaxed forms of communication, parentheses are the motor of my ideas.

An oft referenced fact in my unwritten style guide: sign language has a sign for open parentheses.  In fact, sign language has a few different signs for open parentheses so that a tangent can have tangents.  The benefits of having a visual, spatial, and physical language include an integrated gestural and mental idea tracking system.  Similarly, I need parentheses to keep my trains of thought organized.  What I love about signed parentheses, though, is that they don’t signify “ignore contents;” in fact, they acknowledge parenthetical ideas as important enough to require an intricate organizational system.  A lot of my best thinking occurs inside parentheses and during my quasi-structured digressions.

But now, I’m worried.  I’m worried because parentheses, as most of us know them, do still invite readers to “ignore contents.”  I’m worried that parentheses are becoming my typographical equivalent of the word “like” or the statement that sounds like a question – the linguistic ways women undermine their own ideas.

On the other hand, linguists have also touted women as innovators of language; new words and constructions tend to arise from female use and invention.  The stereotypically female “like” interjection, as explained by Muffy Siegel, is actually a way for all of us to say, “I’m thinking out loud right now” or “This is a new idea that I’m still figuring out how to explain well.”

I hope I’m innovating, but I also know I’m insecure.  I use parentheses to toy with ideas that I’m putting in print for the first time, but I also use them to comment on and criticize my own ideas as they spew onto my computer screen.  I’m reluctant to edit them out and smooth my writing out to the point that it doesn’t need the extra commentary.  I like exposing my experimental thought process.

But what if parentheses have had a permanent effect on my brain?  What if I’m allowing myself to be a lazy mess right now because I’m just figuring that this parenthetical part of my life will ultimately find its closing arc?  Have I even thought about the fact that I might just come to another opening and then another, burrowing further and further away from clear and confident articulations of myself and what I want?

I’m bad at analogies and I need to go work on my resume.