It is not entirely correct to talk about theory being one thing and practice another. It’s closer to the truth to say that theory and practice are two sides of the same coin, obverse and reverse, complementing each other in whatever we do. Which would mean that to study the theory of grammar is inevitably to worry over its effects in the real world, in the writing we produce and read day in and day out—even in so common and consequential a form as headlines in the news. Word broke recently that Sirhan Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Senator Robert
The term written voice refers in writing instruction to the personality a writer presents through the wording, phrasing, and construction of the language we are reading. I say personality deliberately, because it is not so much a question of knowing who the author is in actual, personal detail, but rather of discerning another human being present in relationship to certain ideas being communicated. This is important because we are readier to trust others who are frank and open, and that in turn determines how likely we are to accept and act on what they are saying—the very reason writers write.
In the study of music, an étude is a short composition written to practice technique. Musicians play études to exercise their skill and improve their proficiency. Writers can do something similar by revising one short sentence for a few minutes over and over, knowingly changing structure and design to see the different effects that result. Here’s an example. I go for a walk (on a stunningly beautiful afternoon, in fact) and I let my imagination open into the almost cryingly beautiful blue sky above me. There appears after a while, who knows from where, the sentence If it’s sunny again,
In an earlier post (Got Five Minutes?), I suggested that a quick revision of a single sentence can be a good exercise in clarifying the first thoughts we put down on paper or screen. The difficulty many of us have in moving from mind-work to word-work—I know what I want to say, but I just can’t get it into words—is in the very nature of composition, and the way over that high hill is practice and practice. Here’s another example. Imagine you’re writing about a recent job interview you endured. You recall the scene and you write this sentence: I
Words and how we compose them are about all we have in written language to produce the thoughts and images that will carry our experience and reflection to others. That is why many teachers and critics are so conservative—or better, conserving—about the proper use of words: language is a surprisingly blunt instrument for conveying the subtleties we think and feel, and so to grind down the distinctions and definitions of words is to work against ourselves and the voice we’d like to have in our world. I came across recently a curious example of what I’m referring to in an
Not everyone believes what many of us quite likely think about the world: What we see is what there is and that’s that. Let’s move on. We can call that the hard-bitten, common sense view of things, and that view of life is responsible in large measure for all the busyness (which is the derivation of the word business, let’s remember) that makes up and takes up our days. Scholars who think about these things will point to the fact that it is language that makes such coordinated effort possible. With language we presume to name all the things we
Let’s see what we can say about one of the knottier knots that tie modern English grammar together: when do we combine the words in and to and write into? Which of these, for example, is the better choice: never give into temptation or never give in to temptation? The words in and to can each work as a preposition or an adverb, so let’s begin by recalling what these two parts of speech do and how they are composed. A preposition begins a phrase (which is a group of words without a subject and verb) that will end with
Is this sentence correct? Many countries now require that one have substantial savings in the bank before retiring there. The word one is a singular pronoun, so shouldn’t the verb be has, not have? It should not and here’s why. The sentence illustrates what is called the subjunctive mood, and before that imposing terminology tempts us to conclude that it’s just not practical to consider, let’s note that if one wrote that one has substantial savings in this sentence, one would not be writing standard English. That standard may change, but it hasn’t yet. The subjunctive is one of three
A friend of mine tried his hand recently at writing a short story, a focused and well-constructed four pages about a young man’s preoccupation with beauty and the meaning its unexpected displays might reveal. Here are his opening two sentences: Done properly, stocking shelves can be the work of an artist. In the morning Michael would look down each aisle, each can fronted exactly right, at the shelf edge, labels aligned, boxes of rice and pasta proudly displayed in a solid wall, even the odd shapes of the various detergents were ordered. Let’s observe that first sentence closely. Grammatically simple