Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
I'm coming to the end of another semester at my university, so I'm feeling very teacherly as well as writerly today. Since all of us write and are writers, I hope those of you who don't teach writing will find in this post a reminder of writing advice (good or bad) you may have gotten along the way.
So tell me:
Which of the sentences below is a good sentence?
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
[Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960]
“It was October 23, 2008.”
[Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise, 2012]
“Why are there so many robots in fiction, but none in real life?”
[Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, 1997]
“I am ten years old and I know every crack, bone and crevice in the crumbling sidewalk running up and down Randolph Street, my street.”
[Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run, 2016]
“Too often, the word rhetoric implies empty words, manipulation, deception, or
persuasion at any cost.”
[Cheryl Glenn, The New Harbrace Guide, 2018]
“Not long ago we attended a talk at an academic conference where the speaker’s central claim seemed to be that a certain sociologist—call him Dr. X—had done very good work in a number of areas of the discipline.”
[Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, They Say/I Say, 2017]
“On the fifteenth of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing . . . enjoying the jungle’s great joy . . . When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.”
[Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who! 1954]
“Written genres have been described in metaphors as seemingly contrary as straitjackets and playgrounds, tools and life forms, institutions and constellations.”
[Christine M. Tardy, Beyond Convention, 2016)
“One of the most central notions in this book is that of a formal system.”
[Douglas R. Hofstadter, Godel, Escher, Bach, 1979]
Each of these sentences is the first sentence (after prefaces and introductions) of a book sitting on a bookshelf in my study.
And each is a good sentence.
Of course, you say. They’re all written by professionals, published authors. So of course they’re good sentences. I'd be happy to write sentences like that.
Agreed. But, believe it or not, they contain some elements that some others have described as making bad sentences. Less readable. And even though they are all good sentences, these sentences differ from one another, in part because they come from different genres. You knew genre had to be in there, right?
My topic—and this list of sentences—is prompted by two things happening this week. One is that it’s the last week of teaching my undergraduate course on English Grammar, in which we analyze sentences and discuss rhetorical effects of different sentence structures. The second is an unfortunate column in The Washington Post that trashes writing teachers for not teaching students how to write good sentences.
I don’t want to join the mob of writing teachers commenting on his less-than-well-informed piece (and Doug Hesse has written for the Chronicle of Higher Education a knowledgeable summary of what writing teachers do that’s worth reading). But there’s no need, because his column and the textbook he's selling simply repeat what some others have written before him.
The little book Elements of Style written by Strunk & White is among the best known and widely shared. My personal favorite is Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup's Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, especially because their advice is based on research into how readers process sentences. These style guides and others advise writers to craft sentences that focus on agents and actions, so they share these bits of advice:
Williams and Bizup even offer a chart that matches advice to grammatical structures. They advise making the grammatical Subject an Agent, a doer of action, and matching it with the sentence’s Topic and Known Information. The Verb (or Predicate) then should be the Action and be New Information. So . . .
Grammarians study how sentences work. Those sentences also act rhetorically.
Well, Williams & Bizup and Strunk & White would all probably have written better example sentences, but mine roughly fit the rules.
But take a look again at the good sentences I offered at the beginning. All of them violate the advice for good sentences.
Check out all the “to be” verbs! The first four and the last sentence all use a form of “be” as their main verb. The first sentence, by Harper Lee, even goes on to use an informal passive—“got broken.”
Nate Silver starts with the empty opener “It was,” and Glenn’s textbook begins with lots of abstract nouns—“manipulation, deception, or persuasion.” But hers is a textbook, with a purpose of explaining abstract concepts and how to use them. So don’t abstract nouns make sense? The next sentence, by Graff and Birkenstein, begins another textbook, but is this one with agents and actions a better opening for a textbook? It’s longer than the others, too, and the advice usually suggests shorter sentences. And it contains a fair number of what some call “empty” words and could be made more concise.
And how ‘bout that Dr. Seuss, starting with all those opening adverbial prepositional phrases! He should just have written, “Horton heard a noise.”
OK, enough. There’s a long history of criticizing style advice by showing examples of professionals violating that advice, so I’m both in good company and don’t need to go on about it.
But there are a couple of points here.
There’s no one type of good sentence. No style prescriptions can apply to all or even most sentences. All sentences work—or don’t—in their contexts, for their meanings, along with other sentences.
I honestly did not go looking for sentences that would break these rules. It was the other way around. I pulled off my shelves books that I knew were written well and then picked the first sentence so I'd be consistent. They just happened to demonstrate the fallacy of prescriptive style advice, as though crafting sentences in one way would always make better sentences.
They also demonstrate that sentences differ in different genres. That part was deliberate. I pulled from my shelves novels, trade nonfiction, textbooks, scholarly books, autobiographies, and children’s books. I don’t think I can always tell which genre it is from the first sentence. That’s part of the point, too. Even though style varies from one genre to another, the genre doesn’t dictate a certain style. Oh, maybe you can tell the scholarly books, and certainly the children’s book—or can we just tell Dr. Seuss?
Writers write sentences. But they don’t write only sentences. They write whole texts, whole pieces of discourse, whole books. The vagueness and emptiness of Graff and Birkenstein’s opening sentence is part of the authors’ point, soon to be explained in the rest of the paragraph. Within that whole piece of writing, writers’ sentences fit their writer’s meanings, contexts, desired rhetorical effects.
That’s how we write ourselves. And that's what writing teachers should teach students. If I taught an entire writing course made up solely of crafting sentences, as the misguided columnist proposes, I wouldn’t be teaching writing. In the form he proposes, following those prescriptions for good sentences, the course wouldn’t even be teaching style or sentence craft. It would be teaching one type of sentence that writers use some of the time.
Why should we treat students as anything other than writers? Developing writers, but writers nonetheless.
Now is when I confess that I also like and teach many of the same principles of sentence crafting. I do sometimes find that the fix for one of my sentences can come from focusing on the verb or the topic. And I do like helping students learn about how readers process sentences cognitively, how sentence emphasis works, what the different effects are of passive and active voice, what relationships among parts the “to be” verbs establish, and that very short sentences "emphasize certainty and determination," as others have pointed out. I make students rewrite their own sentences in multiple ways, increase their syntactic repertoire and flexibility, and hone their perceptions of rhetorical effects.
That's a fancy way of saying I ask students to write lots of different sentences differently and see if they can figure out what they prefer and why—in the context of their own, whole piece of writing. We’ve been doing a lot of that here at the end of the grammar course.
But I rarely make significant improvement in something I'm writing just by revising sentences. So I also ask writing students to try out different points for their whole papers, to see and fulfill the promises they’ve made to their readers from the first paragraph, to shuffle paragraphs and sections around to discover different logical paths, and to listen well to responses from their peers and other readers. In other words, to think rhetorically about all elements of their texts.
And to think rhetorically about their sentences, to craft their sentences for the rhetorical effects they want.
And I ask them to do that in different genres, for different purposes, with different readers.
The students in my grammar class tell me that learning grammar is hard, and connecting grammatical form to rhetorical effects is complicated. Just like grammar, writing is complicated, and writing is hard. I know that from my own writing experience, and I respect students too much to pretend otherwise.
It would be nice if I could give students (or myself!) a magic formula and suddenly, in one semester, they would write well in all genres for all situations. But learning to write is less like reading a textbook and more like learning from Yoda, like learning how to control the force. It takes years of practice to control the force of writing. Learning a few tricks for sentence style gives you a few tricks, maybe how to pick up the light saber and even turn it on. But if that’s what you know, you’ll get killed in a real battle.
If concise, action-oriented sentences are what you know about writing, you’ll be lost when you really need to write something for real-world situations to achieve real goals. Good sentences are more than one type of sentence. And good writing is more than good sentences.
As Yoda says after battling one who knows only a saber trick, "Much to learn you still have."