Saturday, April 18, 2009

Grammatically Speaking

The misconceptions about grammar posted on the 'Net are at least as bad as the misconceptions about evolution, presumably because American public schools do an equally bad job of teaching both. ~ Raphael Carter

I have a vague recollection of having heard of The Elements of Style. Evidently, this guide to grammar and, naturally enough, style was published in an updated form in 1959, and its standards have been foisted on unsuspecting students ever since. Geoffrey Pullum writes a scathing indictment of this baseline reference guide that has apparently been using to drive writing skills into the heads of students for fifty years this month.

I may not have actually come into contact with the volume, but I certainly felt its effects. Mr. Pullum speaks of it as being used to teach college students, but reading his critique and looking at some of its points, I know that my high school (and even earlier) years of English were shaped heavily by Elements. Based on Mr. Pullum's analysis, I'm not sure I'm the better for it.

For instance, the business of avoiding the passive voice resonates clearly. That always seemed like dumb advice. After all, why did we have passive voice if we were never to use it? Actually, Strunk and White (Elements authors) meant mostly never use passive, not always avoid it. The problem is that not all teachers were willing to try to figure out when it was right to do so and when it wasn't. It didn't help much that the examples in the book of what not to do weren't even good examples of the use of passive voice (as Pullum points out).

I also recall being told repeatedly not to use the first person, which turns out to be another Strunk/White-ism. One teacher did point out that she didn't need to see "I think" or "In my opinion" in an essay because she could infer that because she had asked for the student's opinion in the first place, making the use of the first person rather redundant. Oh, redundancy or the use of too many words is another no-no.

Of course, expressing an opinion is also frowned upon in Elements, so it would seem that our teachers were forcing us to violate good style by expressing an opinion in the first place.

I recall one teacher mentioning the use of the first person and making the point that it can't always be avoided. She said one student had attempted to complete an assignment to write an autobiographical piece without ever using "I". It must have been as painful to read as it was to write.

Of course, today, professional athletes live in the world of the third person, occasionally drifting into the royal "We." Then again, I suspect not many of them ever had to worry about grammatical style too much as long as they could score points, gain yards, or block shots.

I'm sure Elements says something about commas, but beyond such obvious examples as the one in the sentence before the word "but", I don't think anyone really knows where to put commas. Personally, I regard them as small, cheap, and easy to use, so I sprinkle 'em around liberally. I never got seriously gigged for too many commas.

The problem I see with blindly following guides to grammar and/or style is that what passes for an acceptable style in one format may positively stink in another. In fact, one teacher's idea of perfect style can be another's nightmare. In college, my first semester freshman English teacher took half a class period to rake us over the coals for writing in a formalistic style, which included an introduction, summary, and conclusion. He was amazed that so many high school teachers had pounded that into impressionable heads like ours. He said, "I don't need an introduction because I asked the question, so I know what it is. I don't need a summary for a simple answer to an essay question. And I can figure out what your conclusions were without you telling me. After all, I just read the damned thing!"

So, we all started writing tighter essays, which was great until the second semester when the teacher told us we really should be summing up and writing a conclusion to make it absolutely clear what we thought.

Then there's business writing. After years of being beat about the head and shoulders about how bad short choppy senences are (another Elements style point), you now find that long sentences just confuse people. And they want the conclusions up front so they don't have to read the rest of the report if they don't want to (which, most of the time, they don't).

Fortunately for me, my aborted foray into physics came in handy here, because that is exactly the way you write a lab report: Short explanation of the problem followed by the brilliant conclusion followed by pages and pages of obfuscation designed to support the conclusion. I was always in demand as a lab partner because I could rescue the most botched experiment with a beautifully crafted pile of hand-waving disguised as a lab report.

So, there are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes proper style and even grammar. Frankly, if people will get their spelling, basic grammar, and syntax right, I don't really care if they use passive tense, first person, and/or choppy sentences. The objective should be to produce a piece of writing that communicates to the reader what you intended to communicate. If you fail to do that, then all the style points in the world won't rescue the writing. On the other hand, if obfuscation is you intention, find an old physics major to lend you a hand.

Or, at least, use a lot of commas.

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