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!