Category Archives: College writing

You Probably Don’t Fear Adverbs as Much as You Think You Do.

Every now and then, I just can’t resist a rant about hyper-devotion to “rules.” The many lists of THINGS YOU MAY NOT DO and surprising admonitions from writing-group colleagues (Eeek! A sentence that ends with a preposition!) remind me that such hyper-devotion thrives.

My topic today is adverbs. We’ve all been scolded about our adverbs, especially those frightful -ly words. I’ve been sensitized to the point that those two letters set sirens blaring in my writerly mind—even as here when the -ly word is not an adverb. The spirit of Stephen King will haunt you. Strunk and White will be over to flog you this afternoon.

Like all writing rules, this one should be applied judiciously. (Or should I say “with judicious attention?” Whatever for?) The slightest perusal of some excellent fiction reminds us that even the cursed -ly words have a place. For example, here’s a short passage from Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch. Theo is describing horseplay he and his close friend Boris indulge in:

I knew people would think the wrong thing if they knew, I didn’t want anyone to find out and I knew Boris didn’t either, but all the same he seemed so completely untroubled by it that I was fairly sure it was just a laugh, nothing to take too seriously or get worked up about. And yet, more than once, I had wondered if I should step up my nerve and say something: draw some kind of line, make things clear, just to make absolutely sure he didn’t have the wrong idea. (pages 300-301)

I could say a lot about this excerpt, not just about its use of -ly adverbs but also about how blithely it runs afoul of all sorts of rules. But here I want to note one quality that the passage owes to its adverbs: how natural, how human, how conversational, it sounds. The expressions sinfully adulterated by -ly adverbs are examples of the way people actually talk.

Yes, you could take out three of the four and lose very little. But these are common expressions by which we normally, instinctively, express exactly what Theo is grappling with. The emphasis added by “absolutely” and its counterpoint, the qualification inserted by “fairly,” lace in Theo’s discomfort, his lack of confidence in his own judgment. We’re all often “fairly sure” about some things, we all often want to be “absolutely sure” about others. The nuances differentiating those attitudes, so common in our everyday handling of our emotions, are the “very little” we lose.

The value of what’s lost by a too-pious fear of adverbs comes through even more vividly in a delightful short article I recently summarized for my other blog, College Composition Weekly. In this blog, I report on scholarship about teaching college writing from major journals in the field. My latest entry was Peter Wayne Moe’s “Inhabiting Ordinary Sentences” from the journal Composition Studies.

Moe, who teaches at Seattle Pacific University, urges writing teachers to look beyond the gems produced by the “greats” to value the day-to-day work that unremarkable sentences do and to recognize how even first-year college writers naturally and skillfully use the tools such everyday language supplies. The article explores how choice of subject, insertion of parenthetical asides, the use of “and” and “but” all convey how the writer “places” ideas in relation to each other. His short section on adverbs I found particularly rich.

He deals only peripherally with the -ly words, focusing instead on the kinds of adverbs that disguise themselves. Adverbs, he notes, are the stuff of context. They are the scene-setters, the clarifiers, the words that position the content in the nexus from which meaning derives. He provides a striking illustration of the work that adverbs do.

Here’s a student sentence. The student is writing about classroom activities following the 2016 election:

Often times we talk about race, gender and identity and my professor is always willing to share her opinions on these issues. After the election, she firmly expressed her political views to our class.

Setting aside views on whether this teacher should have expressed her views, firmly or otherwise, here’s what Moe does that speaks to a writer’s craft: “These sentences could be pared of their adverbs and prepositional phrases [all of these prepositions are adverbial] and would remain grammatically sound—”

We talk and my professor is willing to share her opinions. She expressed her political views.

When we strip these adverbial elements, including “firmly,” Moe writes, “everything is lost. The sentences are decontextualized, devoid of urgency, devoid of relevance, devoid of exigency” (page 88). And I would suggest that in the subtle context that the adverbial components supply, we can see a hint of how the student feels about her teacher’s actions, a hint missing from the denuded lines.

I suppose if this student were John Updike, she could have come up with a single, forceful verb that would do the work of “always willing to share,” including the delicate emphasis embedded in that “always,” and we would applaud her, call her the next Updike. But I love Moe’s attention in this article to how we all speak and write everyday and how much work that ordinary writing can do if we use all the resources it provides.

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Clauses and Conjunctions–Oh, My!

Ball of letters tangled, like grammar rules

“Grammar rules” can look like this!

I came across this nice post from Deborah Lee Luskin over at Live to Write—Write to Live that lays out the rules governing various kinds of clauses and the conjunctions that attach them to each other.

What this post supplies is “meta-knowledge”: knowledge ABOUT knowledge, that is, about the kind of knowledge writers need. We also need an inner grammar that allows us to construct functioning sentences instinctively in a language that is our native tongue. Growing up with a native tongue allows us to internalize the ways sentences work in our linguistic world. (When we learn second or third languages as adults, it takes a while to develop this internal grammar because our minds are pre-programmed to acquire grammar when we are very young, from listening to and interacting with those around us.)

This inner grammar serves us for speech, even if we don’t know “the rules” from book-learning—all the names of the things we’re doing. It functions less effectively for writing.

Why is this so?

First, writing is not a pre-programmed activity the way spoken language is. Writing is a LEARNED activity. Stanislas Dehaene argues in Reading in the Brain that vision and sound operate in different parts of our brains; our synapses have to remodel themselves to make the connection between visual symbols and the sounds that carry meaning.

Second, the punctuation that connects sentence parts varies between arbitrary conventions like putting a comma after the name of a state and important signposts for meaning like using commas to set off nonessential elements. Both the conventions and the signposts have to be overlaid on our spoken language awareness, requiring new coordination between parts of the brain.

Finally, written language demands a big burst of cognitive energy, especially when we haven’t had a lot of practice and have to think about every period and every modifier.

All these issues separate writing from speaking. They make the process of learning to convert our native language to writing into a secondary process more burdensome and harder to learn than simply learning to speak.

On the one hand, I think every writer should know the information in Deborah’s post: the parts of a sentence and the ways they work together. On the other hand, after twenty-five years of teaching college writing, I believe what the research into the acquisition of grammar “rules” tells us: people don’t learn these skills from lists of rules. Even the ability to recognize “a complete sentence” has seemed unteachable more often than not. A writer either has it or she does not.

Ironically, every indication is that we learn sentence structure and the conventions and signposts the same way we learn to talk: from being widely exposed to written language from a very young age. Reading comes first. Practice in writing to communicate is also vital. When we start trying to use writing to express needs or ideas we want taken seriously, we revise and work until we develop multiple strategies for making ourselves understood. That means acquiring a lot of rules.

To be fair, teachers can never tell just how much effort any given college student has put into learning the strategies for successful “grammatical” writing. This kind of knowledge is notoriously boring. Yet I have seen isolated examples of people who seemed almost illiterate and then somehow just figured it all out (for example, a young man I knew who joined the Army and emerged a totally different writer).

Does all this mean I think aspiring (and successful) writers shouldn’t learn the information in the post I’m sharing? Not at all. But just as important: keep reading. Watch how the writers you admire use clauses, conjunctions, and punctuation. Copy their styles to see what your book would sound like using their methods. Play.

At the risk of angering indie authors everywhere, I suggest you look for your best examples of these rules applied correctly in books, articles, and essays that have been traditionally published. Lord, no, editors in traditional houses aren’t right all the time, but more eyes have examined the writing and the more egregious errors have been winnowed out.

And don’t rely on Grammarly or other so-called editing bots. (Yes, I can start a sentence with “and,” thank you.) They don’t know what a complete sentence is, either.

Or when it’s okay not to use one. The grammar you can ignore if you want to, and why—that’s the kind of knowledge you really need!

How did you learn “the rules”? Share your strategies!

 

 

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Commas and how to use them (Part 1)

Do you need the Oxford Comma?Hi! Back from an extended adventure. I’ve missed being part of the blogging community.

Below, I’ve shared the first of a really, really comprehensive set of rules about using commas from over at the Story Empire Blog.

I personally love commas; they control emphasis and sentence rhythm and serve as simple traffic signs to tell readers which part of a sentence they’re currently in and when they are changing directions. I’ve posted a bunch about commas on this blog because I love them so much (for example, in “What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?”

And “Commas Control Emphasis. Here’s How!”

My own experience teaching college writing for 25 years led me to believe that reducing the number of “rules” people have to remember is better than trying to explain everything in great detail. Rules tend to make our eyes glaze over.

So, in What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?, I reduced the number of “rules” to five, noting that in some cases, even applying the rule is a judgment call (e.g., note the missing comma after “post” in this sentence and the use of one after “cases”). My five rules for when commas are needed are:

  • After introductory elements (usually)
  • Around interrupters (including nonessential modifiers; always)
  • In direct address (always)
  • Before “and” or “but” (and other coordinating conjunctions) in a list of hree or more items (Long live the Oxford comma!)
  • Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**). (usually)

I note that if you think you might need a comma and it doesn’t fit one of these categories, don’t insert it. Observance of that caution will eliminate a lot of commas between nouns and their verbs!

Stroll over to Story Empire to check out Parts I and II of this post on this most useful and most misunderstood punctuation mark!

Story Empire

Hello SErs! Harmony here 🙂 I hope this finds you all well. Today, I’d like to take a look at commas. For such a small punctuation mark, it has a big impact on how well or not our sentences read. Though we use commas a lot of the time, few of us understand them fully.

What is a comma? What does it do?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.’

The different types of comma: Listing (Standard or Oxford), Introductory, Joining, Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.

One thing that can make commas so confusing is that sometimes you have options, especially with the Listing and Gapping commas.

Because there is a lot to cover on this topic, I have split it…

View original post 797 more words

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“That” or “Which”? What Would You Choose?

Buble quote speech on cloud space for text

A New Yorker editor writing in the Times Literary Supplement debates a grammar textbook writer! Loads of fun. I personally think the “which” in the sentence under scrutiny should be “that.” It clearly refers to the “sourness” and “relentlessness,” and yes, these are appositives, and yes, the point following “which” is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Do you agree?

Aren’t words a hoot?

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How Much “Grammar” Do You Really Need?

Put Your Editing Nightmares to Bed!

Across the online landscape for writers, there’s a lot of anxiety about producing that error-free query, synopsis, or draft. With reason—the first letter in “professional” is “p” for “perfect.” There’s no wiggle room on this one, is there? It’s got to be capital-R Right.Sad Editing!

As someone who taught college writing for 25 years and as a published novelist, I’ve been on the front lines of the effort to spread “good grammar.” The fact is, the whole question of what’s Right is more complicated than you think.

In the next few posts, I’m going to make an argument that we don’t need to obsess quite as much as we do. In fact, there are some “grammar rules” we can even trash!

Yes, You Have to be Able to Edit Your Work. . . .

I’m not for one minute telling you that your command of English syntax and usage is not important. It’s vital. But writers can all too easily get bogged down on trivia and even on myths (“OMG! I ended a sentence with a preposition! :-0”). One common cause of writer’s block is thinking that every comma is radioactive, ready to explode and destroy the known universe if mishandled. So for us writers, a little bit of a reality check is a good thing!

Today’s topic: What is good grammar? Answer: Depends on whom you ask.

(Yep, whom you ask. Why? Because it’s the object of the verb “ask.” Eeek! Relax. Nine times out of ten, “who” would be just fine in that line. Hang around; later I’ll explain why.)

Linguists, people who study how languages work, generally agree on three things: Continue reading

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Comma Power

I have been thinking about the inordinate power of commas.

I had an intuitive understanding of this power from my manipulation of my own prose as a fiction writer. But I credit Martha Kolln’s textbook, Rhetorical Grammar, for making concrete, as an object of explicit study, what my instinctive ear told me. I never succeeded in passing on to many students a real, self-conscious understanding of how vital such a simple little mark can be to communicating precisely what we want readers to hear: there never seemed to be enough time to think much about style in the classes I taught. But if I had it to do over again, I would indulge myself by finding that time. I’ve worked hard not to be the natural Grammar Curmudgeon I am, but by golly, punctuation is a tool! We’ve all seen those fun exercises where simply moving a few little marks around completely changes meaning (a simple example is “Woman without her man is nothing,” which, with just a few tweaks, comes to mean its opposite). But punctuation also controls rhythm and emphasis, and in this regard, the comma’s a tough little drill sergeant, lining up every word in its place.

So: some disquisitions on commas. Rather, on what I think is going on with commas, with thanks for Kolln for systematizing these observations for me.

Today, emphasis. Read this sentence aloud:

There is in fact a reason for what happened.

Now add the commas in the most obvious places, around the “interrupter,” which grammar books tell us commas should, actually, set off:

There is, in fact, a reason for what happened.

To my ear, and Kolln substantiates this, the commas change the intonation and emphasis. In the second sentence, as in all uses of commas in this way, the emphasis is cast on the words before the commas. So the sentence now reads

There IS, in FACT, . . .

So we get increased attention to the “facticity” of what’s being claimed. The meaning hasn’t particularly changed, but the way we hear it has. We get a beat on the FACT of this utterance.

But that’s not all that happens. The commas break up the flow of the sentence, I would assert, in ways that reinforce meter. In this case, it’s our old favorite, iambic pentameter, the most ubiquitous meter for English speakers (Shakespeare’s meter). And that not only asks us to hit “is” and “fact” with extra emphasis, but also “REAson.” So that the sentence reads,

There IS, in FACT, a REAson for what happened.

This effect is, in part, due to what Kolln calls the “it cleft,” which I’ll investigate in a later post. But the commas hammer home the shift to emphasis on “REAson,” telling readers that this reason is going to be the focus of the ensuing follow-up.

I want to look more in upcoming posts at the comma’s power to break up sentences and direct utterance as words transfer from page to mind. For now, do you have examples of how commas control words in your own writing? Decisions you’ve made about how to re-organize sentences to take advantage of this little power tool?

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The Answer is 42

Having had the benefit of a nice road trip during which I was able to contemplate the issue I’ve been exploring in the last few posts—the virtues or lack thereof of letting learners figure things out for themselves—I’ve arrived at an unexpected conclusion. The answer to the question of whether this is the ideal pedagogical method, for teaching writing or many other things, is—drum roll—42!

No, seriously, the definitive answer is yes and no. Or, put differently, it depends. Or: on one hand, on the other. Or possibly: sometimes.

A quick recap: I’ve always wanted to learn programming. Told that Python was useful and accessible, I bought a $35 book. Within hours, I was just barely resisting the urge to hurl the book at the stupidly blinking computer screen. The author adopted the “throw them in and they’ll teach themselves to swim (or not)” school at its most extreme. He provided readers with code they were to dutifully copy, producing a simple game called “Find the Wumpus.” I copied, I played, I found the Wumpus. But throughout, I had to puzzle out for myself what different commands meant—for that matter, even how to write and run a command, which was one of the numerous things this author assumed I already knew how to do!

I showed this book to a mathematician friend adept at programming. He told me to go to Louisville and throw it off the Big 4 Bridge. “This is completely wrong. The way to teach programming is to provide short bits of code that illustrate specific commands and functions. Get another book.”

I already had, being a Very Smart Girl. I bought two on my Kindle. I perused the first one. Within just a few screens, I knew what operators were, and what some major ones did. I knew what functions were. (I already pretty much knew what variables were.) I knew the difference between a number and a string! (It’s just a matter of punctuation. If it’s inside quote marks, it’s “text” and it’s a “string,” Ain’t that cool?)

And yet.

I learned how to tell the computer to add 2 and 3 and get 5. I learned how to convert the price of an Apple computer into euros using functions. I learned how many spaces I could insert before a decimal.

No doubt there are people out there who need to do these things. Who want to do them. It was unclear to me why I would want to do them.

Here’s the upshot. The Find-the-Wumpus game, maddening though it was, Continue reading

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