We agree, I hope, that writers work in words. Words are the writer’s raw material, and like the sculptor’s clay, words have to be shaped into meaning. Choosing words and arranging them is the sum and substance of the practice of writing. This is why some of the fine old grammars of English said that the whole subject can be studied neatly under two headings: the parts of speech and syntax.
We’ve discussed here before what is meant by the parts of speech. Grammar, at least the grammar of English and many other languages, works by the presumption of naming up the world: nothing can pass through our experience without having a word applied to it, and thereby saying what it means to us. Quite a presumption that is, and certain reaches of philosophy will have nothing to do with it. But we make and live our lives with words, so it’s better to know how we do it than have it done to us. The parts of speech give us a way to understand every word we use by its grammatical function. And when two or more words come together as we compose sentences, we involve ourselves next with syntax.
The word syntax may look familiar. The computer scientists took it from the grammarians and the grammarians took it from the generals in ancient warfare. It comes to us from classical Greek meaning put together in order, so programmers must arrange their code correctly and generals must station their troops effectively. For us as writers it means our words must be placed and ordered in such a way that our sentences convey exactly what we intend.
All of this points up the idea that writing is designing. Shape is meaning, and it is the better part of valor to accept the fact that we almost never compose a draft that needs no revision. But how do we revise efficiently? By seeing the structure of what we’ve managed to get down on screen or paper and redesigning what isn’t working. Take this simple sentence which at first glance may pose no problem at all:
Flying at night, the sky always seems so vast and terrifying.
Let’s keep our attention on the word flying. One of the parts of speech, we know, is the adjective, a word that describes a noun. We revise by asking our sentences questions, so here we ask, what is it that is flying? An idle question, perhaps, because I surely mean that when I’m flying at night, I am awed and afraid. But that is not what the syntax of this sentence conveys. The adjective flying refers to the noun sky, so I am telling the reader that the sky is flying, a notion that flies in the face of our everyday logic. So in realizing now what is wrong with the structure (there is no I for flying to modify), we can redesign the sentence to say what I really intended:
When I fly at night, the sky always seems so vast and terrifying.
By knowing the parts of speech, we know how a word can act grammatically in any sentence. By keeping an eye on the syntax of what we’ve actually drafted, we can revise it more efficiently. The two work together, in complement and cooperation. Writing always means rewriting, and writing by design can produce more accurate and compelling work.
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