Category Archives: grammar

Fear Catch Me

For the sake of the archive! Here is the last article I wrote for CASE on how one sentence in Pidgin English reframed the way a group of Americans thought about fear. Also note the exchange of comments at the end… defending your own work is maybe one of the most terrifying tasks. (On the other hand, I am realizing that I am sometimes a little too timid to state the things I think I know with conviction either because I’m intimidated by people or afraid of being wrong. Rats.)

Okay, anyway, here’s the piece. And there will be a new one from me in just a few hours. Golly.

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Language Wars

This PBS “Language Wars” report paints a somewhat balanced picture of the debate on bilingual education in this country… and it drives me absolutely insane.  I was planning on writing another ranty post about this, but I’ll spare everyone because what I want to say boils down to this: it makes me feel icky.  I love grammar, and I think learning it provides us with a powerful tool for communication, but quashing a student’s native or heritage language seems wrong and reactionary.

Being bicultural is enough of a struggle without a school system telling you that speaking your language makes you stupider.  Heritage languages can be hard to preserve because parents and children feel ashamed of the culture they are transmitting or learning… and anti-bilingualism reinforces that feeling of shame.

One of the toughest but most important tasks a language teacher has is to create a safe space.  Language is experimental and intensely personal.  A student may feel more at ease in a classroom of rules and diagrams, but that’s only because the rules become walls and the adherents have no incentive to explore.

when casual becomes sloppy: a rant

To be fair to us all, let’s open with this disclaimer: this rant is going to be about as unstructured as they come… unplanned aside from the fact that this rage has been welling up in me for a while.  On the other hand, I suppose that’s why I’m calling this a rant and not an essay or a post or a rumination or something else, in which case my initial sentence was both unnecessary and redundant.  Rats!

At various points in my life, I have been asked to write on behalf of other people and I constantly come up against the criticism that my writing is “too formal” and that I should be more “casual,” or “familiar,” or “friendly” in what I write.  And, sure, when I’m writing for a professional or academic audience, I sometimes can’t quite control how elevated my register becomes.  I blog and allow myself occasionally to have unbridled ranting sessions precisely so that I don’t forget what it’s like to just write in my own voice as the sentences form in my brain… more or less (I did just go back and insert/excise a few words from this sentence tee hee).  I appreciate when people call me out for writing in a way that seems artificial because above all I want my writing to be authentic, but not at the cost of style.

Here’s my problem.  When people edit my work to be “less formal” that often means less correct or less precise.  I don’t want to alienate readers by using unnecessarily elevated vocabulary or opaque syntax (that’s not good writing, anyway), but I don’t want to forgo incisive language just because “make” seems more casual than “establish.”  Maybe that’s not the best example.  One of the first style rules I ever learned was about revision: if you can find a way to say it in fewer words or fewer syllables, do it!  Don’t waste time with clunky, pedantic language just to make yourself sound smarter; DO take the time to write with force and precision.  Sometimes that means using more specific, slightly less run-of-the-mill words.

I realize now that I’m running the risk of sounding elitist or self-aggrandizing.  I don’t think writing should be exclusive, and I know I’m not the best writer there ever was, but words are what I have.  They’re the tools I feel most comfortable working with, so I struggle when people are willing to sacrifice clarity for the sake of sounding off-the-cuff.  I’m really not talking about a literary vocabulary, here; I’m talking about understanding the rules of written English and using them to write clearly (or as clearly as a person can when they like parentheses and asides as much as I do).  Knowing how to write doesn’t make me (or you!) a more articulate or intelligent person than the next guy, it just means that you’ve got a knack for structure (and also were probably lucky enough to have an awesome English teacher at some point).  Spoken and written language aren’t the same; they follow different rules, so “speak-writing” can often lead to ambiguous communication.  Gestures, intonation, and suggestive trailing off disappear, and we need to replace them with syntax, diction, and punctuation.

Welp, now that I’m pretty sure that I have definitively established myself as a huge asshole, I’ll just get to what I think I’ve been trying to say… or what I want to say… or something.  Clear writing levels the playing field; in an ideal world, writing that exists in any generally accessible forum makes its content comprehensible to a broad reading public without “dumbing it down.”  Words and sentences can be precise without being academic or exclusive; they can be comprehensible without being simplified.  Heck, oversimplification can often breed sentences so vague that they might as well be written in academese.  Without context, the sentence “It is over there” probably means as little to you as Lacan’s assertion that “The fact is that the total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as Gestalt, that is to say in an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted, but in which it appears to him above all in a contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him.”

Good writing enables learning, and I guess I don’t really need to prove that, but sometimes I feel like I do.  And it is almost definitely incredibly pretentious to say that I know what good writing is (look at all them adverbz!), but we all know what it is, because we can all tell when writing is easy to understand and when it’s not.

So there.  I’m really over the “too formal” criticism because it implies that there’s no place for careful writing anymore.  But there is.  Because there has to be.  And we take it for granted.

save the drama for your comma

You can find the latest candidate for an #instagrammar update nestled in the “Mugglemarch” article in the October 1, 2012 issue of the New Yorker.  This deserves the attention of a full-length post, though.  Jo Rowling, apparently, “lives here [in a 17th Century Edinburgh house] with her second husband, Neil Murray, a doctor, and their children.”  Although you may know that Neil Murray is both a doctor and Ms. Rowling’s second better half, this sentence begs for an alternate reading: in her infinite kindness (and beyond-royal net worth), the eccentric but lovable Ms. Rowling has, with her second husband’s blessing, opened her home to Neil Murray (whoever that is) and a doctor, along with both of their children from previous marriages.

In an rare instance of syntactical alchemy, a series of appositives has taken on the appearance and properties of a list.  This is literally the only conceivable situation in which a belief in the Oxford comma obscures the intended meaning of a sentence.  I have waxed (and waned) poetic about commas before, but as a perennial advocate of the Oxford comma, I take this sentence as a troubling assault on my personal beliefs, and find myself, yet again, poised atop my soapbox.

First, allow me to consult my two favorite style guides: The Elements of Style and Woe Is I.  Strunk and White include the Oxford comma as an essential element of style, advising in Elementary Usage Rule #2, “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”  “Red, white, and blue” is their preferred example.  O’Connor, on the other hand, advocates a writer’s right (write?) to choose: “The final comma […] the one just before and, can be left out.  It’s a matter of taste.”  Nevertheless she admonishes, “But since its [the comma’s] absence can sometimes change your meaning, and since there’s no harm in leaving it in, my advice is to stick with using the final comma.”

Rule #3 for Strunk and White appears thusly: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.”  Our offending sentence, no matter how you read it, conforms beautifully to standard English usage, but still, it makes no sense!  Troubling.

Of course, at this point, some of you are probably screaming, “Context context context!”  This always happens when I complain about misplaced modifiers, and you’re right.  Context can sometimes salvage meaning from the wreckage of poor grammar, but we should never assume our readers will know what we’re talking about.  Even when it comes to Harry Potter.

More urgently: we can’t depend on good punctuation to improve shoddy syntax.  Following the rules won’t always lead to clarity.  Over the past few days, I have had to explain to various people I have been tutoring in French how a grammatically correct sentence can still be wrong… even if all the words line up to say exactly what my student wanted to say.  Natural language sounds natural thanks to the nuances of syntax and diction, and even when we write we still have to keep our audience’s ear in mind.

#instagrammar take 1

Voilà! The first installment of Instagrammar: an Instagrammed tour of grammatical oddities around New York City. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate this larger than average text message.

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Semicolons: A Love Story – NYTimes.com

Semicolons: A Love Story – NYTimes.com.

Presented without comment.  Well, maybe just the one: AMEN.

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.