To write is to communicate with the outside world. It’s how we explain ourselves and understand each other. In whatever form it takes, whether it be print, email, text, or tweet, writing is a representation of the self.
Incorrect grammar, or the simplification of sentences in fear of it, limits expression. Just as someone is turned away from a nice restaurant for not wearing a tie, a person without command of the English language is shut out of certain social circles. It’s with this analogy in mind that one can begin to think of grammar’s demands. As someone who would much rather wear jeans and a t-shirt than skirts and heels, and as someone who once struggled with grammar and who still has questions, I can understand the trepidation of someone who feels lost in the sea of rules.Unfortunately, sometimes a situation calls for the Editor Pants from Express. But not to worry, there will always be Casual Fridays and times when cutoffs and sandals are appropriate. Just as it’s important to know which clothes to wear and how to wear them, it’s important to have an informed writing style. And just as it is with clothing, once you know the rules, you’re in a better place to break them; or as Stanley Fish says in his book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, “you can’t depart from something with confidence unless you are fully practiced in the something you are departing from.”
There’s no denying that grammar can be daunting, especially for those who, like myself, attended public school at a time when the subject was on the wane. Sure, we learned that a noun is a person, place, or thing, a verb an action, that an adjective “modifies” a noun and an adverb “modifies” a verb but go beyond that and it starts to feel like a foreign language.
In his introduction to Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar of the Poynter Institute, calls on Americans to become a “Nation of Writers”. As part of his plea he refers to The National Commission on Writing’s report that warns about the “disastrous consequences of bad writing in America — for businesses, professions, educators, consumers, and citizens.” Apparently, “poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money.” It’s as if we all woke up one morning and went to work in our pajamas.
The good news is, through the ubiquity of handheld electronic devices and use of email for work, the majority of us write everyday—now we just need to do it well.
Clark offers a comprehensive—and comprehensible—guide to grammar, style, and practice, which he arranges into four sections: “Nuts and Bolts,” “Part of Speech,” “Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”. The first section introduces readers to the basics: the use (and overuse) of -ing endings, the difference between active and passive voice, the proper way to construct long sentences, and how to get a feel for punctuation. Unlike many grammar books that have come before it, Clark’s does more than merely list prescriptive rules—prescriptive grammar being the language that people think should be used (think: stuffy) as opposed to descriptive, how people actually speak and write (think: conversational). Instead, he pays homage to both forms, allaying fears of wrong use and putting the audience at ease.
In one of the most welcomed chapters in the book, Clark evokes strong visuals to explain the role of punctuation, a terrifying aspect of grammar suddenly made accessible to anyone familiar with the rules of the road: “If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks?” he asks. “The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a ‘rolling stop’; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.”
At the end of the chapter, as with each chapter in the book, Clark offers practical assignments. On punctuation he says: “Take one of your old pieces and repunctuate it. Add some optional commas, or take some out. Read both versions aloud. Hear a difference?” then, “Make conscious decisions on how fast you’d like the reader to move. Perhaps you want readers to zoom across the landscape. Or to tiptoe through a technical explanation. Punctuate accordingly.”
Just as Roy Peter Clark encourages us to dissect other people’s writing to see what works and what doesn’t, Stanley Fish, in How to Write a Sentence, urges the same careful study of sentences. But in comparison to Clark, whose book has the feel of “What Not to Wear,” the BBC reality show where the fashion-challenged are given basic do-and-don’t tips, How to Write a Sentence is Vogue. This philosophical treatise on language, like the upscale, glossy magazine, presumes the reader brings with them a sophisticated appreciation for the subject.
Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, frequent contributor to the New York Times Opinionator blog on legal matters, and self-described member of “the tribe of sentence watchers” says, “if you can add to your admiration of a sentence an analytical awareness of what caused you to admire it, you will be that much farther down the road of being able to produce one (somewhat) like it.” Using material from novels, films, and speeches, Fish finds sentences for imitation and, step-by-step, recreates their structure. He admits that quality doesn’t always follow but, as he says so elegantly while convincing us to focus on form rather than content: “verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.”
According to Fish, “without form, content cannot emerge,” which would explain why the former makes up more than the first half of the book. Wading deep into what could be considered a master class, he defines “forms” as the “structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings—lots of them—can be generated.” Logic, he defines, is the relationship between part of speech that make a statement and rhetoric the relationship between statements.
Fish highlights three “formal categories” and gives each their own chapter—the subordinating style: “the art of arranging objects and actions in relationships of causality, temporality, and precedence”; the additive style: a form that has “the effect not of planning, order, and control, but of spontaneity, haphazardness, and chance”; and the satirical style: “sentences that deliver their sting in stages.”
Although grammatical terms appear throughout, Fish criticizes rote knowledge: “You can know what the eight parts of speech are, and even be able to apply the labels correctly, and still not understand anything about the way a sentence works. Technical knowledge divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” Instead he speaks of developing a “sensitivity to the presence of a problem” by “performing exercises that hone it.” This is a not-so-veiled dig at the many conventional grammar guides on the market.
The criticism continues as he points out the flaws in the bestselling book Elements of Style: “Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.” Fish does a better job than Strunk and White in explaining the terms he uses but is at times guilty of the same crime.
How to Write a Sentence is not for beginners, or at least not the fainthearted newbie, but it is one of the more original books on the English language, a book that as you become familiar with introductory material found elsewhere you’ll long to read. In this respect, Fish’s short yet challenging exposition should be considered motivation for learning the fundamentals of grammar.
While Fish’s book delves into the first half of Roy Peter Clark’s book, analyzing the technical aspect of sentence structure, Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a companion to the second part.
In his chapter “Limit self-criticism in early drafts,” Clark says that in books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott he’s “less likely to find advice on technique than on living a life of language, of seeing a world of stories.” Through this lens, one can see the influence in part three and four of Writing Tools—“Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”.
Clark’s chapters go from “Set the pace of sentence length” and “Vary the lengths of paragraphs” to “Work from a plan,” “Write from different cinematic angles,” whose subtitle, ‘Turn your notebook into a camera,’ is by far my favorite, and “Turn procrastination into rehearsal”.
In “Turn procrastination into rehearsal,” one of Clark’s tips is to “keep a daybook,” a place where you can jot down story ideas, key phrases, and momentary insights. Although it might seem like commonsense to some, many writers are often caught without pen and paper, often with disastrous consequences. Ann Lamott, in her chapter “Index Cards” talks about how she always keeps one folded in her pocket ready for use whenever anything strikes her.
If Clark is the host of “What Not to Wear,” than Anne Lamott is the friend who tells you it’s ok you wore white after Labor Day or that your skirt was tucked into the back of your pantyhose—because it happens and, despite her numerous bestsellers, these faux pas threaten her too.
Lamott’s own struggles, both as a writer and as a human, reduce the paralysis brought on by fear of failure and inadequacy. As if riffing on the biblical device of repetition, twice in this collection of essays she says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” The book is full of these self-help observations, funny anecdotes, and clever one-liners; but they never feel cheesy—only poignant and inspiring. “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts” is another mantra, simple yet liberating to legions of wannabe authors everywhere. Anne’s willingness to expose her insecurities with biting humor and self-deprecation makes her harsh truths for aspiring writers seem like a shared experiences—wisdom from an elder—rather than a nasty take down.
Each author approaches the subject from a different angle: Clark as a journalist whose “practical tools will help you to dispel your writing inhibitions, making the craft central to the way you see the world”; Fish as a literature professor who believes sentences “promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world”; and Lamott, a fellow soul-searcher who wants you to “start seeing everything as material.” But all have the same goal in mind, to turn their audience into astute and confident writers.
Not all of us may be suited for the runway, or feel the need to aspire to it, but it’s worth knowing how to clean up when the situation demands. These three books are a great place to start.
Gantzky admires Portland from afar and has fond memories of her visit to the city years ago. Living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, she pushes books on people for a living–whether they like it or not. When she doesn’t have her nose in a book, Gantzky can be seen wandering the streets listening to a variety of podcasts and taking pictures of wacky things that cross her path.
You can follow Gantzky on Twitter @contextual_life and check out her daily picks at www.thecontextuallife.com. If you’d like to send feedback or nerd out about books, Gantzky can be contacted at [email protected].