Monday, September 9, 2013

Practical Grammar Instruction For The Non-Grammarian

I ran across a great article in The Chronicle of Higher Education where the author discusses the practical side of grammar.

Rachel Toor, the author, starts out discussing the confusing nature of sentence structure instruction -- things that we all learn in grade school but most of us forget. "Once someone starts talking about verb moods, dangling whosits, and misplaced whatsits, I squirm. When I try to struggle through their prose explanations, my brain hurts. I've learned enough to be able to explain basic things to my students about common writing mistakes, but I can't get technical. I refer to words ending with "ing" as "ing words." (I know that they can be gerunds or participles, and that there's a difference.) When I tell students that adverbs are not their friends, I explain I mean words with "-ly" on their tail. (I know different kinds of adverbs and adverbial phrases are essential, and they don't all end in "-ly." Whatever.)"

It wasn't until I started teaching Scholarly Writing that I gave myself  a crash-course in the things I had forgotten. I instruct on misplaced modifiers, nominalizations, present participles, etc..., and these are not hard-to-understand concepts. However, as soon as the students heard these terms, their eyes seemed to glaze over, and they miss the point of the grammar instruction -- "[w]e need to scrub dirty, flaccid bits from our sentences if we want to be read."

So, Rachel Toor has come up with a more practical way of weeding these things out of her manuscripts.
"Nominalization, in case you weren't aware, turns verbs into fuzzy nouns. 'Investigate' morphs into 'investigation'; 'applicable' dresses up as 'applicability.' In order to weed them out I've learned a trick. I scan my manuscripts for words that end in -tion, -ism, -ty, -ment, -ness, -ance, and -ence. Then I grab a more muscular verb and slip in a concrete noun (when it makes the sentence better)."

She also looks for unnecessary words in a similar practical manner. "When Strunk and White urge me to 'omit needless words,' I appreciate the reminder and use the tools in my little bag of tricks to identify and delete those words, when appropriate. How many unnecessary uses of 'this,' 'that,' and 'there' can I lose? I won't say removing them forces you into less passive constructions—because I would be taken to task for not knowing what a passive construction is. But they often drag down prose. So in my merry way, I go on search-and-destroy missions for the forms of 'to be.' Write with strong nouns and verbs, say Strunk and White. I say, CNTL+F the incarnations of 'to be' and kick the suckers to the curb (when it makes the sentence better)."

This is a great way to go about making a manuscript stronger and more readable. Forget the proper nomenclature of sentence structure. Know what kinds of words to remove or reformulate and read specifically for that purpose when editing.

I'd also like to point out that Ms. Toor is also a fan of Strunk & White's Elements of Style and George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language."

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