Thursday, July 26, 2012

Grammar and Meaning

Here's my maiden post.  So far, the sign-up page records me as "unknown," which would be okay by me but probably not okay with Hamline MFAC.  Nor can I find Ron's post that I read last week, where he mentioned something so nonchalant about sentence fragments and grammar in general that our Hamline student Sherryl Clark was impelled to reply.  Since I can't find Ron's post, I can't quote Sherryl's comment directly either, but she observed that students whose grammar and punctuation are foggy are also students who can't express clear meaning.  Inept grammar and lack of clarity are causally related.

A careful reader will have seen that Ron's grammar is impeccable.  Writers who know grammar can afford to be nonchalant.  They can break "the rules" intentionally, for a purpose, creating meaning by doing so.  They can line up three fragments in a row or follow several long, complicated sentences with a single word, for the purpose of emphasis.  They can write either colloquial or academic English.

A long time ago, I taught in the University of Minnesota's General College (now defunct), whose mission was to teach any applicant who had a Minnesota high school diploma, no matter what the grades on the transcript were.  When a middle-aged student came to my office to ask for tutoring, I asked him why he had enrolled at the U.  He was a welder, he said, in a shop where a metallurgy professor sometimes solved some complex problem of mixed metals.  He spoke to the shop owner in one kind of English, my student had noticed, but to the welders in another kind.  My student wanted the freedom to adjust his own language to the situation.  He wanted to be a citizen, too, of more than one world.

Mastery of grammar and punctuation enables writers to say what they mean intentionally, purposefully.  We have to live in a world where our elbows don't bend backward.  Where, if we can't swim, we sink.  Where agents and editors who receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year will probably not read further if the first pages expose inexperienced writers who don't care about the shape of their sentences.  (The previous two sentences are incomplete.  Purposely.  I could write them all kinds of other ways, if I had different purposes.)

One of my favorite books about language is Kenneth G. Wilson's The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (MJF Books).  Wilson isn't a snob who hews without thought to the rules of his eighth grade teacher.  He comments on alphabetized topics, such as the use of "all right" versus "alright," or agreement of subjects and verbs.  These remarks reflect the fact that language is always in flux.

No doubt Wilson the linguist also knows the linguists' assertion that Marsha Qualey recently quoted here: "meaning is fundamentally indeterminate."  (The meaning of this idea is indeterminate in my simple mind.)  One example of confusion was reported this week, when the mother of James Holmes, the Batman shooter, told the reporter who notified her of the massacre, "You have the right person."  Everybody has assumed that she meant her son committed the crime; now, however, she says she meant that she was indeed James Holmes's mother.  Thus are linguists sometimes called as trial witnesses to sort out meaning for the court.

However fundamentally uncertain meaning may be, people certainly abide by customs of usage and judge others by the way they talk and write, so Wilson distinguishes among spoken, standard, and publishing English.  Our job is to make meaning as difficult to misunderstand as possible.  His book is at my side when I write.

Jane Resh Thomas, unknown


  1. Hey Jane, here is Sherryl's comment, which you were looking for:

    "I'm all for clarity, and I find my students who are bad at grammar actually don't realise how hard it is to read their stories when the grammar is poor. It's not even about being pedantic with apostrophes (I can do that anytime!), it's that their meaning is unclear, their style is all over the place and their voice is "foggy". Sentence mastery is no bad thing."

  2. Dear Jane,

    You are far from unknown, and so much more memorable than most! So glad to see you on here--I just returned from a workshop in New York and I quoted you to my class--they were duly invigorated, impressed, and charmed, as is anyone lucky enough to hear your words! Keep posting, from wherever you may be!



  3. Welcome, Jane! We all look forward to your wise words!

  4. Happy to see you here, Jane! As writers, the only way we can break the "rules" is if we know the "rules." Emily Jenkins had discussed this in her lecture on using punctuation, etc. as artifice, a way to create startling effects in our writing. But the only way to achieve these effects is to first know the rules, to study them, sleep on them, etc. so that they seep into our bones and emerge from our fingertips in new ways. Otherwise, as Cheryl claims, and I agree, meaning is unclear and confusing for the reader. Imagine a gymnast who does not nail the basic skills--the "rules" of her art. If she does not know the basics, pointing her toes, strengthening her core to prevent those bobbles that lead to deductions--then her routine would be sloppy, unclear and likely not yield anything new, or surprising even. Hours, days, months and years in the gym and at our desks, honing our craft--our art-- will produce clearer, interesting, even risky prose. And the world needs risky.

    Love this post, Jane!

  5. Welcome, Jane, well known to us all. And thank you for your wise words.