The parts of speech we may remember from school—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and all the rest—are meant to help us get organized as we take a moment of experience and try to put it into sentences and paragraphs. And I say try because putting a moment of our lives into words is no small matter, and chances are that our first attempt, our rough draft, will not have hit the mark. So what to do with that lump of words? Shape and mold and fit—all actions that give our living thoughts form. The parts of speech, then, are categories or classes
Here’s a sentence that sounds a lot like the way we talk: I told him the good news and he looked at me in disbelief and then he smiled and he shook my hand wildly. So what’s the difference between that version and this: When I told him the good news, he looked at me in disbelief; then he burst into a smile, shaking my hand wildly. The short answer: composition. Our conversational voice is spontaneous. Ideas come to our mind and we speak them. This happened and then that happened, I told him the good news and he looked
Grammar is often considered a rudimentary study, something necessary in its way, we’ll admit, but important more for avoiding mistakes than for helping us say what we really mean to say. Grammar’s for beginners, we think, not for those who just want to write. It’s basic, elementary. But what is an element? Strange to say, the dictionary makers don’t know where the word element comes from. Latin has it and uses it in the plural to mean the first principles of a subject, the beginnings of a study, and even the individual letters of the alphabet. Lexicographers of English define
Many of the old textbooks on grammar and writing were unabashed in their belief that the arts of language were essential to how clearly we think. Here’s a short passage from a work entitled Introduction to Theme-writing by Jefferson Fletcher and George Carpenter. The work was published in 1893: We need perhaps to cultivate our imaginations, but we need above all to make sure of the guiding faculties of life—the reason and the understanding…. In acquiring habits of intelligent and coherent thought, nothing, we shall discover by experience, is more helpful than practice in written Exposition. For, unless we can
Something happened and you want to write about it. You put some first thoughts down and then you realize that the same scene, actual or imaginative, can be observed from more than one angle, that you can change the way your reader sees what you are depicting. How can a little grammatical knowledge about sentence construction help you make these changes more insightfully? Let’s say you want to write about two friends who have not seen each other in a good number of years. One visits the other, and they go for a walk. In your first draft you write
Would you continue to read this post about writing if I told you that studying grammar would improve your overall linguistic environment? I hope not. What if I said that I know someone who is in the middle of the interview process for an additional engagement? Or that it seems to me that people today show a decreased capacity to empathize with the situations of others? What’s wrong with these sentences? Nothing technically grammatical: subject and verb agree, and pronouns are in the correct case. What’s wrong has nothing to do with sentence structure but everything to do with what
In a recent post (Airy Abstractions), we took up the topic of nouns that name ideas we perceive in our mind, not concrete objects we see or taste or touch in the world. We saw that using too many such abstract nouns, as they’re called, mystifies both our sentences and our readers by pointing to notions rather than to real things in the world. And though you may argue like a good philosopher, and I would agree, that ideas are nowhere else but in the world, the frame of mind we have on when we’re reading expository prose is one
I don’t think we can remind ourselves often enough that writing means reading, more reading more slowly and more closely. Modern culture moves very fast, and the recommendation to read slowly and attentively would seem to be swimming against the stream. But speed can come at the expense of thoroughness, and that can be a very high price to pay when we’re trying not only to appreciate good writing, but write well ourselves. Slowing down and reading more attentively are the goals behind keeping a commonplace book. In an earlier post (Keeping a Commonplace Book), I have explained the practice,
Not minding my own business the other day, I overheard someone say to a friend, He’s one of those annoying persons who pays a bill the day he receives it. Something is amiss here, and a brief explanation might be in order—if only to help keep our thinking straight. We remember there are three kinds of sentences in English: simple, compound, and complex. Simple and compound sentences have only independent clauses; complex sentences include at least one subordinate clause. In a sentence like He’s one of those annoying persons who pays a bill the day he receives it, the section