There’s More To It Than Grammar Alone

One of the things that make writing difficult is that we forget we’re really involved in three projects at once, not just one. When we think about improving our writing, we probably think first of grammar—that’s the subject that has traditionally (or maybe I should say had traditionally) been regarded as the foundation, the dragon on the path no one could afford to ignore. Many of us (certainly I too) believe that’s true, but when we want to put our ideas into words, when we want to engage someone’s attention and convince them our ideas make sense, we need more than grammar alone. Onto that foundation, we have to build an attractive and solid structure; we have to present our ideas in such a way that others will listen and stay engaged, and we have to organize our ideas so that they make sense, that one idea we have doesn’t contradict another. The classical world called these the arts of rhetoric and logic, or to contemporize those names, style and critical thinking. We might have the next idea that will change the world, but if we can’t clearly and attractively explain and present it, we deprive ourselves and others of its benefits.

Here’s an example of what I mean. That last sentence I wrote in the paragraph above includes the clause if we can’t clearly and attractively explain and present it. My first version read if we can’t clearly explain it and attractively present it, but I didn’t like the singsongy rhythm that arrangement of verbs and objects produced. And when I then redesigned the clause with only one instance of the object it, I was able to bring the two verbs explain and present next to each other, highlighting the difference between clear thinking and style. Making changes like these in revision involves orchestrating the three arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. It’s something good writers worry about all the time.

Writing and speaking communicate, which means they are arts that make something we think or believe known. We share our thoughts with others, and that means sharing a civilized world with them—telling them how we see things and why we see them that way. I often tell my students that when we are writing and speaking, our audience is under only two obligations: they have to know the English language and they have to pay attention. The rest is up to us.

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If you are interested in private instruction in English grammar and writing, please visit my website, writingsmartly.com, for more information about my work, or email me directly at ultimo@writingsmartly.com. I would be happy to arrange a free consultation in person or by Zoom video conferencing to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

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