In a post last year called There’s Some Problems Here, I pointed out a common grammatical slip illustrated in that title: the subject of the sentence is the plural noun problems, and so the verb should be the plural are, not the singular is hidden in the contraction. This blunder has been around for a long time and it’s more common in speech than in writing. Go listening for it one day and you’ll be surprised by its prevalence. It’s always the same old tension in the body of language, tension in the fundamental sense of maintaining a balance between
Doing something well, like writing a good sentence, involves two things: theory and practice. They are two sides of the same coin. We can write all day every day, but without some understanding of what constitutes standard English, we could very well end up writing a language all our own. By the same token, all the theory in the world won’t by itself produce good writing. We have to write, to practice, for all that theory to come alive. Theory, so to speak, is passive and practice is active. Between passive theory and active practice, though, stands what we can
It would not be unusual to hear a grammar teacher (I know one personally) warn students not to rely on their ear in deciding whether a certain construction is correct. Between you and I is a famous example of this. A good number of people would say that phrase is grammatically correct, and a good number would as well (I hope) say no. At the level of grammar, the ear is merely recording what it hears, so we could say that it will be as grammatically correct as are the people it listens to. The ear can alert, certainly, but
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It’s rarely a good idea to shy away from unfamiliar terms when we’re trying to learn something more thoroughly. The dragons that hide on the path have one trick they play over and over: they whisper (if dragons can ever be said to whisper) that all those technical terms are useless and that we’re better served to just do it and call it done. Ironically, that can end up being the long way home. And if there’s one subject with its fair share of terminology, it’s grammar. Writing a good sentence or paragraph involves what is called cohesion. Most of
It can be instructive to remember that the written word follows the spoken word. We speak before we write; we encounter one another, come to know and understand someone else most surely in speech, and that primacy is probably one reason we value so highly a natural and straightforward style in writing: the writer is being real, and feels little need for pretense and self-important distance. Natural, though, does not necessarily mean casual. Just as there is a scale in dress from jeans to formal wear, so there is a scale from easy to careful in writing style. We can
One of the reasons traditional writing instruction puts so much emphasis on sentence structure is that most of the ideas we’re writing about can be seen from many different angles. In that sentence I just wrote, for example, I’m talking about reasons and traditional writing instruction, emphasis and sentence structure, ideas and writing and angles. I chose to launch out broadly (and some good writers might say not too adroitly), beginning with the indefinite pronoun one instead of cutting to the chase with the real subject and presenting all those many ideas more directly: Traditional writing instruction emphasizes the importance
I have never met anyone—perhaps somewhere such a person lives—who will cheerfully exclaim, I enjoy drafting an outline before I begin writing. There are persons who enjoy crossword puzzles and math games of every sort, but when it comes to putting our thoughts into a grid, most of us shiver and just start writing to get the whole difficult business finished. The observation to be made here is this: outlining is both planning and discovery. It begins with a subject, or theme, and it proceeds by sectionalizing that area of investigation into topics. The derivation of the word topic is
The author Joan Didion died last week, and a number of appreciative essays remarked on the quality of her writing style. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times said Didion’s work was “distinguished by its spareness, its surgical precision,” and Frank Bruni, also in the Times, called Didion “a sorceress of syntax.” Estimations like those can’t be ignored, because observing masterly work is essential to improving our own attempts. They can draw us on in the right direction if we too can see what they’re doing. In an essay entitled “Georgia O’Keeffe” in her collection called The White Album, Didion
For this final post of 2021, I thought it might be a good idea to recommend some works on the study of language and literature that have proved helpful to students and teachers alike. Of the making of books, of course, there is no end, so this is but a handful of titles which have come into my orbit. The field is vast, time short, and discernment a must. The point of grammar is literature, and I can justifiably make such a grand and general statement if I lean on the first definition of literature: writings in prose or verse.