the contextual life

thoughts without borders

Books for Writers :: Fashionable Grammar

with 37 comments

To write is to communicate with the outside world. It’s how we explain ourselves and understand each other. In whatever form it takes, whether it be print, email, text, or tweet, writing is a representation of the self.

Incorrect grammar, or the simplification of sentences in fear of it, limits expression. Just as someone is turned away from a nice restaurant for not wearing a tie, a person without command of the English language is shut out of certain social circles. It’s with this analogy in mind that one can begin to think of grammar’s demands. As someone who would much rather wear jeans and a t-shirt than skirts and heels, and as someone who once struggled with grammar and who still has questions, I can understand the trepidation of someone who feels lost in the sea of rules.Unfortunately, sometimes a situation calls for the Editor Pants from Express. But not to worry, there will always be Casual Fridays and times when cutoffs and sandals are appropriate. Just as it’s important to know which clothes to wear and how to wear them, it’s important to have an informed writing style. And just as it is with clothing, once you know the rules, you’re in a better place to break them; or as Stanley Fish says in his book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, “you can’t depart from something with confidence unless you are fully practiced in the something you are departing from.”

There’s no denying that grammar can be daunting, especially for those who, like myself, attended public school at a time when the subject was on the wane. Sure, we learned that a noun is a person, place, or thing, a verb an action, that an adjective “modifies” a noun and an adverb “modifies” a verb but go beyond that and it starts to feel like a foreign language.

In his introduction to Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar of the Poynter Institute, calls on Americans to become a “Nation of Writers”. As part of his plea he refers to The National Commission on Writing’s report that warns about the “disastrous consequences of bad writing in America — for businesses, professions, educators, consumers, and citizens.” Apparently, “poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money.” It’s as if we all woke up one morning and went to work in our pajamas.

The good news is, through the ubiquity of handheld electronic devices and use of email for work, the majority of us write everyday—now we just need to do it well.

Clark offers a comprehensive—and comprehensible—guide to grammar, style, and practice, which he arranges into four sections: “Nuts and Bolts,” “Part of Speech,” “Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”. The first section introduces readers to the basics: the use (and overuse) of -ing endings, the difference between active and passive voice, the proper way to construct long sentences, and how to get a feel for punctuation. Unlike many grammar books that have come before it, Clark’s does more than merely list prescriptive rules—prescriptive grammar being the language that people think should be used (think: stuffy) as opposed to descriptive, how people actually speak and write (think: conversational). Instead, he pays homage to both forms, allaying fears of wrong use and putting the audience at ease.

In one of the most welcomed chapters in the book, Clark evokes strong visuals to explain the role of punctuation, a terrifying aspect of grammar suddenly made accessible to anyone familiar with the rules of the road: “If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks?” he asks. “The comma is a speed bump; the semicolon is what a driver education teacher calls a ‘rolling stop’; the parenthetical expression is a detour; the colon is a flashing yellow light that announces something important up ahead; the dash is a tree branch in the road.”

At the end of the chapter, as with each chapter in the book, Clark offers practical assignments. On punctuation he says: “Take one of your old pieces and repunctuate it. Add some optional commas, or take some out. Read both versions aloud. Hear a difference?” then, “Make conscious decisions on how fast you’d like the reader to move. Perhaps you want readers to zoom across the landscape. Or to tiptoe through a technical explanation. Punctuate accordingly.”

Just as Roy Peter Clark encourages us to dissect other people’s writing to see what works and what doesn’t, Stanley Fish, in How to Write a Sentence, urges the same careful study of sentences. But in comparison to Clark, whose book has the feel of “What Not to Wear,” the BBC reality show where the fashion-challenged are given basic do-and-don’t tips, How to Write a Sentence is Vogue. This philosophical treatise on language, like the upscale, glossy magazine, presumes the reader brings with them a sophisticated appreciation for the subject.

Fish, a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, frequent contributor to the New York Times Opinionator blog on legal matters, and self-described member of “the tribe of sentence watchers” says, “if you can add to your admiration of a sentence an analytical awareness of what caused you to admire it, you will be that much farther down the road of being able to produce one (somewhat) like it.” Using material from novels, films, and speeches, Fish finds sentences for imitation and, step-by-step, recreates their structure. He admits that quality doesn’t always follow but, as he says so elegantly while convincing us to focus on form rather than content: “verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.”

According to Fish, “without form, content cannot emerge,” which would explain why the former makes up more than the first half of the book. Wading deep into what could be considered a master class, he defines “forms” as the “structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings—lots of them—can be generated.” Logic, he defines, is the relationship between part of speech that make a statement and rhetoric the relationship between statements.

Fish highlights three “formal categories” and gives each their own chapter—the subordinating style: “the art of arranging objects and actions in relationships of causality, temporality, and precedence”; the additive style: a form that has “the effect not of planning, order, and control, but of spontaneity, haphazardness, and chance”; and the satirical style: “sentences that deliver their sting in stages.”

Although grammatical terms appear throughout, Fish criticizes rote knowledge: “You can know what the eight parts of speech are, and even be able to apply the labels correctly, and still not understand anything about the way a sentence works. Technical knowledge divorced from what it is supposed to be knowledge of, yields only the illusion of understanding.” Instead he speaks of developing a “sensitivity to the presence of a problem” by “performing exercises that hone it.” This is a not-so-veiled dig at the many conventional grammar guides on the market.

The criticism continues as he points out the flaws in the bestselling book Elements of Style: “Strunk and White’s advice assumes a level of knowledge and understanding only some of their readers will have attained; the vocabulary they confidently offer is itself in need of an analysis and explanation they do not provide.” Fish does a better job than Strunk and White in explaining the terms he uses but is at times guilty of the same crime.

How to Write a Sentence is not for beginners, or at least not the fainthearted newbie, but it is one of the more original books on the English language, a book that as you become familiar with introductory material found elsewhere you’ll long to read. In this respect, Fish’s short yet challenging exposition should be considered motivation for learning the fundamentals of grammar.

While Fish’s book delves into the first half of Roy Peter Clark’s book, analyzing the technical aspect of sentence structure, Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a companion to the second part.

In his chapter “Limit self-criticism in early drafts,” Clark says that in books like Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott he’s “less likely to find advice on technique than on living a life of language, of seeing a world of stories.” Through this lens, one can see the influence in part three and four of Writing Tools—“Blueprints,” and “Useful Habits”.

Clark’s chapters go from “Set the pace of sentence length” and “Vary the lengths of paragraphs” to “Work from a plan,” “Write from different cinematic angles,” whose subtitle, ‘Turn your notebook into a camera,’ is by far my favorite, and “Turn procrastination into rehearsal”.

In “Turn procrastination into rehearsal,” one of Clark’s tips is to “keep a daybook,” a place where you can jot down story ideas, key phrases, and momentary insights. Although it might seem like commonsense to some, many writers are often caught without pen and paper, often with disastrous consequences. Ann Lamott, in her chapter “Index Cards” talks about how she always keeps one folded in her pocket ready for use whenever anything strikes her.

If Clark is the host of “What Not to Wear,” than Anne Lamott is the friend who tells you it’s ok you wore white after Labor Day or that your skirt was tucked into the back of your pantyhose—because it happens and, despite her numerous bestsellers, these faux pas threaten her too.

Lamott’s own struggles, both as a writer and as a human, reduce the paralysis brought on by fear of failure and inadequacy. As if riffing on the biblical device of repetition, twice in this collection of essays she says, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” The book is full of these self-help observations, funny anecdotes, and clever one-liners; but they never feel cheesy—only poignant and inspiring. “Almost all good writing starts with terrible first efforts” is another mantra, simple yet liberating to legions of wannabe authors everywhere.

Anne’s willingness to expose her insecurities with biting humor and self-deprecation makes her harsh truths for aspiring writers seem like a shared experiences—wisdom from an elder—rather than a nasty take down.

Each author approaches the subject from a different angle: Clark as a journalist whose “practical tools will help you to dispel your writing inhibitions, making the craft central to the way you see the world”; Fish as a literature professor who believes sentences “promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world”; and Lamott, a fellow soul-searcher who wants you to “start seeing everything as material.” But all have the same goal in mind, to turn their audience into astute and confident writers.

Not all of us may be suited for the runway, or feel the need to aspire to it, but it’s worth knowing how to clean up when the situation demands. These three books are a great place to start.

Stray Questions for Roy Peter Clark on the NY Times Arts Beat blog
Interview with Anne Lamott on Big Think (opens with sound)
Interview with Stanley Fish on ABC Radio National’s Book Show

*please note that I am still a student of grammar and there may be some errors in this piece. be nice. 

Written by Gabrielle

May 17, 2011 at 8:02 am

Posted in books, grammar, reviews

Tagged with , , ,

37 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Thank you so much for calling attention to my book “Writing Tools,” and for your generosity in placing me in such good company. I appreciate it. Your readers may be interested to know that I drill down deeper into the subject in the sequel: “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.”

    Roy Peter Clark

    May 19, 2011 at 10:57 am

    • Thanks to you, Roy. I accost everyone in the writing section of bookstores with your book. And I agree about “The Glamour of Grammar”. I bought that one in hardcover–a rarity!


      May 19, 2011 at 12:04 pm

  2. […] Maud Newton’s Blog and then, if you missed it, you can check out my essay on three grammar books to help you write more […]

  3. […] Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark I can’t recommend Roy Peter Clark’s books enough. I loved Writing Tools and refer to it on a regular basis. It’s also my most recommended book of all time—fiction or nonfiction. You can read my essay about it here. […]

  4. Appreciating the persistence you put into your website and detailed
    information you present. It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted
    rehashed material. Great read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to
    my Google account.


    October 3, 2014 at 8:58 pm

  5. Hiya very cool blog!! Man .. Excellent .. Wonderful
    .. I will bookmark your web site and take the
    feeds also? I’m happy to find so many useful
    info right here in the post, we’d like work out more strategies
    on this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

    February 23, 2015 at 10:36 am

  6. They are usually equipped with seeders, plows and sprayers.
    The participants are given bonuses to upgrade the virtual players as they advance in the game,
    which may include power ups, extra lives, better armor,
    or to cut a long story short, stuff that you’ll probably be wishing for at the time.
    In the end, the best voices get chosen and that lends itself to truly finding
    great talent.

    rival knights cheats

    March 12, 2015 at 8:43 am

  7. One f th widespread video games n the web at the moment is Tanki n-lne Its popularity ha been massively elevated y te good gameplay nd epic story.
    Real: The Movie (2005)Real game footage is interwoven into a collection of
    five connected tales that pay homage to Real Madrid, Spain’s unparalleled soccer club,
    including the story of a jealous boyfriend whose lover is obsessed with David Beckham.
    Noonbory & The Super 7 – Season 1 (2009)This delightful animated series helps young viewers learn life
    lessons as it follows plucky Noonbory and his pals, who use their keen senses and special talents to thwart the schemes of Wangury and
    other foes in the colorful land of Toobalooba.

    tanki online hacks

    March 17, 2015 at 2:26 am

  8. This Stormfist Castle walkthrough covers everything you need to know about the castle
    — and how to return after you get kicked out. Wipe – Out 2048
    — SCEE Liverpool Studios — Hands-on Preview.
    Arx Fatalis has an easy player interface and a very nice
    spell casting system.

  9. Thanks for some other excellent article. Where else may anyone get that type of info in such an ideal approach of writing?
    I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am on the look for
    such information.


    March 18, 2015 at 3:57 pm

  10. I got this site from my buddy who shared with me about this web
    site and at the moment this time I am visiting this web page and reading
    very informative articles or reviews at this time.

    seniors homes Orillia

    March 19, 2015 at 3:03 pm

  11. Thank you for the auspicious writeup. It actually used to
    be a enjoymejt account it. Glance advanced to faar
    brought areeable from you! By the way, how can we kdep inn touch?


    March 25, 2015 at 3:59 pm

  12. It is actually a great and useful piece of info.
    I am glad that you simply shared this useful info with us.
    Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

    jeu ios rpg

    March 25, 2015 at 6:08 pm

  13. Some players who have both helms, use the Harlequin Crest for themselves, and put Andariel’s Visage on their mercenary.
    -Did I mention that you can play from the comfort of your
    own home. No Install Required: This type of program is 100%

    call of mini hack

    March 26, 2015 at 10:20 pm

  14. Having read his I believed it was rather enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this content together.
    I once again fimd myself personally spending way too much time both reading
    and commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!


    March 27, 2015 at 6:43 am

  15. I do consider all the ideas you’ve presented for your post.
    They’re very convincing and can certainly work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for starters.
    May you please lengthen them a little from next
    time? Thank you for the post.

  16. Greetings! Veery helpful advice in this particular post!
    It’s the little changes thqt will make thee most important changes.
    Many thanks for sharing!


    March 27, 2015 at 11:35 pm

  17. Right here is the right blog for anybody who really wants to find
    ouut about this topic. You know so much its alost tough to arggue
    with you (not that I personally wojld want to…HaHa).
    You definitely put a fresh spin on a topic thatt has
    been written aout for years. Excelleent stuff, just excellent!

    m88 สํารอง

    March 28, 2015 at 1:17 am

  18. I know this web page givrs quality depending content and other material, is there any
    other web page whjich presents such things in quality?


    March 28, 2015 at 3:43 am

  19. An interesting discussion is worth comment.
    I do believe that you should publish more on this topic,
    it might not be a taboo matter but typically folks don’t discuss these subjects.
    To the next! Kind regards!!

    facebook mobile news

    March 28, 2015 at 4:04 pm

  20. Excellent site you have here buut I was wondering if you knbew of
    any community forums that cover the same topics talked about here?
    I’d really like to be a part of online community where I can get opinions from other experienced
    people that share the szme interest. If you have any suggestions, please let
    me know. Thank you!


    March 28, 2015 at 11:03 pm

  21. It’s appropriate time to make a few plans for the
    long run and it is time to be happy. I have rea
    this publish and if I may I want to recommend you few attention-grabbing things or suggestions.
    Mayne you ccan write next articles relating to this article.
    I want to lear even more issues approximately it!


    March 28, 2015 at 11:29 pm

  22. Excellent article! We will be linking to this particularly great post on our site.
    Keep up the good writing.


    March 29, 2015 at 11:58 am

  23. you arre in reality a good webmaster. The website loading velocity iis incredible.

    It kkind of feels that you are doing any unique trick.
    Moreover, The coontents are masterpiece. you have one a excellent
    task on thijs topic!


    March 31, 2015 at 8:03 am

  24. This blog was… how do youu say it? Relevant!!
    Finally I have found something which helped me. Thanks a lot!


    March 31, 2015 at 6:40 pm

  25. Heya je suis pour primaire la première fois ici .
    Je suis tombé sur trouvé ce conseil et je à trouver utiles
    et il m’a aidé beaucoup beaucoup . Je espère
    pour donner une chose back et aide d’autres comme vous aidé moi.

  26. Because the admin of this site is working, no hesitation very shortly it will be well-known, due to its feature contents.


    April 14, 2015 at 12:55 am

  27. Hello my family member! I want to say that this article is awesome,
    nice written and come with approximately all important infos.
    I would like to look extra posts like this .

    son dakika haberler

    April 18, 2015 at 7:37 pm

  28. If somee one desires expert view concerning blogging and site-building afterwared i
    suggest him/her to visit this website, Keep up the nice work.


    April 28, 2015 at 5:50 am

  29. I every time used tto study post inn news paperss butt now as I am a
    user of net therefore from now I am using net for content, thanks to web.


    April 30, 2015 at 3:59 pm

  30. I was excited to find this great site. I want
    to to thank you for your time due to this fantastic read!!
    I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it and
    i also have you saved as a favorite to check out new things in your website.

  31. naturally like your web-site however you have to
    test the spelling on several of your posts. Several of them are rife with spelling issues and I find it very bothersome to tell the reality nevertheless I’ll surely come back again.

  32. Great blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my ownn blog soon but I’m a little lost
    on everything. Would you propose starting with a free platform like
    Wordpress orr go for a paid option? There are so many
    choices out there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any ideas?
    Appreciate it!


    May 8, 2015 at 10:27 pm

  33. Piece of writing writing is also a fun, if you know aftr tat you cann
    write otherwise it is complex to write.


    May 12, 2015 at 8:17 am

  34. Thanks for finally writing about >Books for Writers :: Fashionable Grammar | the contextual life <Liked it!

  35. It’s really a great and useful piece of information. I’m glad that you shared
    this helpful info with us. Please stay us informed like
    this. Thanks for sharing.

    domace vijesti

    July 2, 2015 at 4:08 pm

  36. Great info. Lucky me I ran across your site by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have bookmarked it for later!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: