Tag Archives: Phenomenology of Error

“Secret Writing Rules” and Why to Ignore Them…

A great post from Anne R. Allen via Chris the Story-Reading Ape. Thanks, Chris!

Actually, some of my *favorite* rules to ignore! Especially 1, 3, 5, 6–gee, all of them.

But I do have several cents worth of addenda from my own experience in writing groups and classrooms.

Number 1 is among my favorites because so many critiquers in my current online writing group just HATE “echoes” to the point that they are tone-deaf to the power of repetition for emphasis and rhythm. Anne’s examples beautifully illustrate this point.

And I love #3 because of the many times I’ve been scolded for using “passive voice” when in fact I was using a progressive tense, which requires “to be” as an auxiliary. I agree that progressive tenses can be overused, but there’s a big difference between “He ate when she came in” and “He was eating when she came in.” Again, check out Anne’s examples.

As for #5, I’ve often started to write a post on the consequences of cutting “all” adverbs. Idiocy. You could never use a “when” or “before” or “after” clause if you tried to do that. You could never use “often” or “never.” Okay, some adverbs don’t add any information. Cut them. But stay sane. I have discovered in myself a tendency to pile up adjectives, and I appreciate having that lapse pointed out. And I do believe in the power of strong verbs. But just the right adjective, in just the right place, can be magic.

As for the passive voice, the wonderful book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace by the late Joe Williams (latest editions co-authored by Greg Colomb) has a terrific discussion of the uses and abuses of the passive voice—and actually clarifies what that critter is! Check it out.

As for point of view, in the comments Anne clarifies that she means using multiple points of view in different scenes, not in the same paragraph or even sentence, as I’ve seen writers do. I’ve become paranoically sensitive to accidental POV slips, almost to the point, I fear, of annoying some of my fellow critiquers. But I’ve been re-reading some Tony Hillerman, and he “head-hops” all the time. So what to do? Make a deliberate decision that head-hopping really serves your text. My guess is that the practice will interfere with the close identification you want to build between reader and character.

Also in the comments, Anne touches on the “that/which” option. In my view, these are clear-cut, with “that” opening an essential modifier and “which” a non-essential one. But as Joe Williams pointed out almost forty years ago in his classic essay, “The Phenomenology of Error,” even the most rabid promoters of the distinction ignore it all the time. So we can, too.

My bottom line (note cliché, rule #7): Writing is about making choices. Knowing why readers sometimes object to style choices helps you make good decisions. But sometimes those decisions are to ignore.

 

 

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

by Anne R. Allen

Somerset Maugham famously said, “There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.”

But pretty much everybody you meet in the publishing business will give you a list of them. (One is “never start a sentence with ‘there are’” —so watch yourself, Mr. Maugham.)

Some of the rules show up in any standard writing book or class, but others only seem to get circulated in critique groups, conference workshops, and forums.

They’re a secret to everybody else.

But you’ll run into them sooner or later. In a forum or workshop, somebody will tell you with schoolmarmish assurance that you MUST follow these secret writing rules to be a successful novelist.

Nobody knows exactly where these rules come from, or why so many great books have become classics without following a single one.

Don’t get me wrong: many “secret writing rules” involve useful tips…

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Which Grammar Rules Do You Ignore?

Typewriter publishAs I noted a few posts ago, in his article “The Phenomenology of Error,” Joseph Williams categorized errors by type. Among his more interesting categories, in my view, were those errors that the experts make even as telling us not to (and nobody notices). He also had a category of grammatically correct constructions that sound so odd when we use them that we generally prefer the error.

These categories change with time, since language and usage do, of course. But his discussion of them made me think about the kinds of errors we can and maybe should ignore and, in fact, the kinds of rules we should ignore.

Here are three of my “rules I can ignore” (if I want to). Do you agree with me on these? What are yours?

Three question marks printed on a typewriter

The “that/which” distinction.

Okay, I don’t ignore it, but from what I’ve seen, a whole lot of people do. It’s the one Jacques Barzun didn’t catch himself ignoring, as Williams documents. It depends on knowing the difference between a restrictive and nonrestrictive (or an essential versus nonessential) adjective clause (which you can read about here), and yes, I’m using “which” correctly here:

The house, which had just been painted and re-roofed, sat on a cozy cul-de-sac. (Nice info but you could lift if out and not miss it.)

The house that had the new paint and new roof was the best deal of the three. (Allows you to distinguish the best deal from the others; take it out and see how much is lost.)

The point is, only a very few termagants (like me) would even notice if you replaced the “that” in the second sentence with “which.”Typewriter and flowers

The “whom” challenge.

I call this a challenge because the error is a lot less noticeable when people commit it than when they try to get it right and get it wrong. Simply speaking, only the above referenced termagant will rage if you just use ‘who” ninety-nine percent of the time.

After all, doesn’t it sound more natural to say, “Who did you give that to?” than “Whom did you give that to?” The “whom” in the second is correct because it’s the object of the preposition “to” and objects have to be in the objective case (like “him,” “her,” “us,” and “me”). But our minds these days just aren’t trained to worry about all such distinctions.

A sign of our downfall? Actually, putting that “m” on “who” is an “inflection,” and English has been discarding inflections when they don’t really add any information for centuries.

Actually, the only time most people will want the “whom” form is when it directly follows its preposition, and that usually happens in a question that’s been re-ordered: “To whom did you give it?” “With whom were you going?” “For whom did you buy that hat?” Do you have to write these particular sentences? In my view, not unless you feel compelled.Happy editing

The problem arises when people assume that because “whom” sounds so much more formal, it is compelled whenever one wants to sound formal. So I’ve actually encountered sentences like “Whom is going with us?” Ouch, that really grates.

The messier­—and understandably more confusing—situation occurs when the who/whom pair has to be sorted out at the beginning of a dependent clause acting as an object. The handbook rule is that you choose “who” or “whom” depending on what it’s doing in its own clause, not in the larger sentence.

“Did you say who is going with us?” (correct) and “Did you say whom the hat is for?” (again correct–note that little preposition “for” controlling the choice). But “hypercorrectness”—going gaga over sounding upmarket—leads to “Did you say whom is going with us?” As a sort of sub-termagant, I submit that more than a few of the erudite people writers hope to impress WILL notice that one (though I’m willing to be corrected).

In my view, you should go ahead and make the “mistake” of the perfectly natural-sounding “Did you say who the hat is for?” and just kick “whom” out of your vocabulary rather than sticking it where it doesn’t belong (here’s a wise soul who agrees!).pile of letters

Singular “they.”

This one is a lost cause. It’s been a lost cause, according to Dennis Baron of the Web of Language, just about forever. English simply has no singular, gender-neutral pronoun—except “it,” of course; just try choosing “it” in this sentence: “Everybody should bring his/her/its lunch to the meeting.”

The conundrum, of course, is that “everybody” wants so badly to be singular; we say “everybody is,” not “everybody are.” Certain people who shall not be named think there’s really no problem. Just pick “his,” and who’ll care? After all, everybody is a “he,” n’est-ce pas?

For quite a while, “he” and “his” were the preferred options among those who got to do the published writing. Because more kinds of people get to do published writing now, the masculine singular won’t do. As Baron points out, efforts to creatively solve this problem of a singular “antecedent” with no acceptable gender-neutral singular pronoun have gone nowhere.

And “his or her” (or “her or his”), the only option that is even remotely close to acceptable, gets old in a hurry (“Everybody should open his or her notebook and take out his or her homework. . . .”). Baron writes that Vanderbilt University has actually declared singular “they” perfectly acceptable in its formal documents. So ignore this baby at will.

letter scatter novel

Those are a few of the rules I think we should ignore a) because people notice them less and less and often never; and b) trying to follow them results in sentences that will offend even people with certified tin ears.

So what are your rules to ignore?Woman writing

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How Much Grammar Do You Need? Part IV

Here are some “grammar” rules you DON’T need!

That is, rules that aren’t even really rules. And even if they were rules, they’d fall into that category Joe Williams created of “rules” that are more noticeable and disruptive when they are followed than when they aren’t, because they’re alien to the way most of speak and write.Man worrying about his writing

Of course, if you could see into the innermost grammar hearts of all those agents and editors to whom you direct your missives, you would find people who cringe every time you fail to observe one of these mythological rules. My point is that convoluting your prose to avoid them, or obsessing over them to the point that your creativity begins to ice over, is counterproductive. In these cases, let your natural ear as an English speaker rule.

Here they are (I’ll probably come up with others and invite you to submit your candidates):

Beginning a sentence with “because.”

Williams says that there’s no sign of this prohibition in any handbook he ever saw, and I echo that. Yet, even thirty years after Williams debunked it, my students would still cite this “rule” to each other in their peer reviews.

In my view—a pure hypothesis, I admit—this instruction arose from some teacher’s worry that clauses prefaced with “because” all too often were never connected to the necessary independent clause and thus end up as fragments. We do talk this way: “Because I said so.” “Because I don’t want to.” “Because I like it.”

It’s a fact that the minute you put the word “because” in front of a sentence, it becomes “dependent,” in need of a crutch to make sense. In conversation, the missing information is already present in the ongoing conversation. In formal Standard Written English, the missing components should be supplied in an independent clause attached to the “because clause.” “Because I like it, I often swim in the lake in winter.” (Or because I’m a glutton for punishment.)

It’s probably more natural to reverse the clauses: “I often swim in the lake in the winter because. . . .” But there’s nothing grammatically wrong with starting with the “because clause.” It’s a stylistic choice, not a grammar/moral-fiber choice.

Ending a sentence with a preposition.

I was startled years ago when, at my university, the speech communication people presented the writing faculty with a list of the things students ought to be learning in first-year writing, and the list was just a bunch of grammar “rules,” this one prominently among them. Honestly, I thought anyone teaching writing in college would have a more nuanced idea of what “writing” consists of than that list.

In order to follow this supposed rule, you have to become so rigidly formal that your efforts wave and shout from the page. “Who were you talking to?” becomes “To whom were you talking?” Or say you’re synopsizing in a query and you need a sentence like, “His daughter was the only person he’d confessed to.” Is it really better to write, “His daughter was the only person to whom he’d confessed”? It depends entirely on how “formal” you want to sound. Personally, I’d probably find a way to “write around” this conundrum, but I’m making a point. (We’ll get to the who/whom issue soon enough.)

There’s a very famous example of the preposition-at-the-end issue often attributed to Winston Churchill. Supposedly he responded to an editor’s efforts to eliminate terminal prepositions with a note: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.” (My dad loved to quote this at me.) For a lively discussion of this supposed quote, see this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum at The Language Log. This post claims, from a reputable source, that the rule that you can’t end a sentence with a preposition “was apparently created ex nihilo in 1672 by the essayist John Dryden.” The post gives several other examples of smart choices in which the preposition stays where it wants to, including a discussion of the kind of English verb that includes words generally defined as prepositions, such as “put up with.” Separate these at your peril.

Splitting infinitives

I’m old enough to remember expletives fired at the epithet for Star Trek as it shifted into warp speed: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Eeek! Split infinitive—separating the “to” from its partner, “go,” which together create the “infinitive” form of the verb, which in English is created exactly this way: a main form of the verb plus “to.” To eat. To see. To write. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language, say Spanish or French, you also learned about infinitives, the more-or-less “base” form of the verb: estar, hablar, manger, sortir.

You’ll note that these infinitives belonging to “romance languages” (not because they’re sexy but because they come from “Roman” or Latin ancestors) are one-word infinitives, not two-word infinitives as in English. At some point, some upmarket grammarians decided that Latin was a more “advanced” or “noble” language than English; English needed to be elevated by becoming more like Latin. You can’t split an infinitive in Latin, for obvious reasons; so you shouldn’t split one in English either. I guess you’ve noticed how much better English sounds as a result of this rule.

Or does it? Does “To go boldly where no man has gone before” really sound better? Not to my ear. One of the reasons the revised version clunks is that the original, “to boldly go,” is in “iambic pentameter,” the poetic meter most natural to English—in fact, the one used by Shakespeare. Here’s a nice account of the rule and advice about (not) applying it.

The upshot: listen to your sentences. Put the adverb (the “boldly”) and the preposition where they most want to go.

Send me your candidates: Rules we don’t need!

Happy editing!

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How Much “Grammar” Do You Need? Part III . . . .

Questions?I’m picking up on my last post, in which I discussed Joe Williams’s “Phenomenology of Error,” published in College Composition and Communication in 1982, where he ably demonstrates that even the most erudite language mavens only find errors when they are explicitly looking for them, and thus miss bunches, even in their own work.

Williams developed his own rather complicated categories of errors. Of course, he’s an academic writing for other academics, and the essay is more than 30 years old, so his examples may not be the ones we’d pick today if we wanted to duplicate his categories.

But a couple are.

Briefly, his categories are

  • Rules we notice and respond to with a shriek when they’re violated. (“Shriek” is my word, equivalent to the reactions from experts Williams notes in his introduction, people who label such things as “OK,” “hopefully,” and “He invited Mary and myself to dinner” as examples of an “atrocity,” a “detestable vulgarity,” and “garbage.”) In this category of noticeable rules, Williams places basic violations of Standard English structure, such as “I seen” and “He don’t.” Note that these locutions don’t impede understanding. They’re perfectly clear, and perfectly acceptable in many contexts. (In some dialects, such as Black English, ways of talking that violate Standard English are actually rules of that dialect, with their own influence over such matters as time and continuity of action. See the resources here and here to understand this point better.)
  • Rules we really don’t notice even when they’re violated—despite knowing that the rule exists. Williams specifically offers the that/which distinction, which (see, I used it right) even such eminences as Jacques Barzun cheerfully violated within a page of telling us not to. Later I’ll have a little to say about this rule, since it falls clearly into one of my own categories.
  • Rules we notice when they’re observed because they call attention to themselves, a small class. His example is “It is I,” which is indeed “correct” but which jumps off the page at most people. I suspect that “between you and me” is rapidly becoming such a conspicuous instance of correctness (yes, it is correct) for many. I actually heard someone say “between he and I” this morning on a news show. Looks as if the subjective case after a preposition is coming into its own.
  • Rules that, when violated, actually elicit a favorable reaction from individuals. Williams offers an example of a rule he actually prefers to see broken: using “than” rather than “from” after “differently” when what follows is a clause and not a noun. I think there are more rules like this, rules that, if broken, improve prose. I’ve already pointed out one possible candidate: choosing to start a sentence with “but” (assuming you think this violates an actual rule). I’ll propose more soon.

This is possibly the best place to remember that languages change. Effort like those the French have made to freeze the language are flung down and stomped on on every street corner, in every hostel. All you have to do is read something written in the 1700s—oh, say, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal“—to appreciate how punctuation, spelling, and diction have shifted since then. Students required to read such texts complain mightily about how badly written they are. English is, as we speak, in the process of losing the apostrophe (a vagrant and an intruder to start with).

I actually regret this loss; I’ll horrify my college-writing colleagues by siding just a little with Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, agreeing with her that it might sometimes be helpful to know how many people we’re talking about in a sentence like “The travelers bags will fit in the overhead bins.” A simple apostrophe would tell you, and this Wikipedia article gives more examples of useful clarifications an apostrophe can make. But I am not going to emulate the folly of the French.

I’m approaching the task of establishing my own categories of errors. My main concern is to keep things reasonably simple, and not to get tangled up trying to explain things handbooks or sites like the Purdue Owl explain pretty well. I’ll set up the categories here, and then clarify and defend them in upcoming posts:

  • Rules you really don’t need to worry about
  • Rules you absolutely must obey
  • Rules that are actually judgment calls. Breaking one of these rules (like starting a sentence with “but”) is a gamble. If you absolutely hate what following the rule does to your prose—well, you pays your money and you takes your chance.

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