Life Moves

Here is a beautifully written passage about the ocean coast by Rachel Carson, the pioneering and influential American nature writer. Carson is probably best known for her book Silent Spring, which in the early 1960s was instrumental in bringing attention to widening environmental dangers. The passage here is from her work The Edge of the Sea. I offer it as a model of fine writing, and as an illustration of a grammatical point I will make a few comments about:

The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same. Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow, as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental margins warps up or down in adjustment to strain and tension. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.

Writing like this is not a quick read, nor should it be. But if we aspire to write more vigorously, it behooves us to examine how good writing is put together (and that is what the word composition literally means) so we can learn to do it ourselves. Understanding structure can be the answer to a lot of difficulties we have.

One such observation we can make here is about what can be called the dynamism of the language. The paragraph contains 18 verbs, of which only five (about one-quarter) state some kind of identity: is (used three times), has been, and remains; the other 14 state an action of some sort: have broken, rises, shifts. This preponderance of verbs of action gives the passage its vigor; the paragraph is alive because it’s moving, things are happening: waves have broken and tides have pressed; glaciers melt and the earth’s crust warps. When we’ve finished reading, we feel as if we too had been swept up in all this natural unrest.

To analyze our verbs like this—and it’s nothing more complicated than asking ourselves in revising whether we can write what the subject is doing rather than what it simply is—can quickly transform our language from a static photo to a dynamic film. Strong, brisk language is more interesting because it stays close to life, and life is movement and movement is action.


If you’re 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.

Remarkable

It is remarkable to realize just what language is trying to do. Think about a situation you found yourself in recently, and then think about trying to relate that experience to someone else. Almost any circumstance you can remember involved countless things—all the almost innumerable objects and events and emotions and thoughts that made the experience what it was. Realizing how complex even a simple everyday experience is can stun the mind, and sometimes even overwhelm us to the conclusion that it’s just not possible to put it all into words. And in that despair, we settle with just giving our general impressions, not making sharp descriptions or exact explanations.

But there’s a difference between complexity and hopeless complication, and the arts of language enter the stage to say, “No problem, we’ve got a word for every last thing you experienced in that situation. All you have to do is take a perspective on what you’re trying to relate, name what you see, and say what one thing has to do with another.” Think about that for a moment: a word for everything last thing you experienced. That really is remarkable. Now you’ll have some serious philosophical problems to explain if you take that statement literally, but there is nonetheless a lot of truth to it. After all, writing involves words, so what are most of those words doing if not identifying what we see in a circumstance, real or imagined? Some words, like nouns, name things; some words, like verbs, name actions; and still others, small but important words like prepositions and conjunctions, name how things are connected together. And all these words work together in a sentence to define—to put a border around—a portion of our experience of being alive in the world. Putting a word to something—putting just the right word in just the right place—carries an experience out of our memory or imagination and into the mind of someone else. Words follow our direct experience of life, and they have the remarkable (or should we say almost magical) ability to recreate what we have experienced in order to share a portion of it with someone else.

And it’s right there, in defining and delimiting our direct and seemingly unlimited experience, that language does for us what it does so well. We might think of words as units of energy that create and carry meaning so that someone else can feel the effect of our thoughts and emotions. When we employ language, we’re trying to give someone else a piece of our mind, as it were. And what is truly remarkable is that the complexity and richness of human experience can be caught for a moment in nouns and verbs and all the rest of the apparatus of grammar and thinking. Far from overwhelming us, that should inspire us to become ever more skillful in the arts of language, just as we would with any other art we’d like to use and enjoy.



If you’re 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 conference in to discuss what you’d like to achieve.

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.