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Books for Writers :: Fashionable Grammar

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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

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vocab:: f is for . . .

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fastidious (adj.): hard to please
fatuity (n.): something foolish or stupid
feckless (adj.): feeble; ineffective
fettle (n.): state of health or spirits
filigree (n.): ornamental work especially of fine wire of gold, silver, or copper applied chiefly to gold and silver surfaces
firkins (n.): a small wooden vessel
foist (v.): palm off as genuine
frisson (n): a brief moment of emotional excitement
fug (n.): the stuffy atmosphere of a poorly ventilated space
fulsome (adj.): cloying; offensively excessive; insincere
fussbudget (n.): someone who fusses about insignificant things

Written by Gabrielle

May 3, 2011 at 7:20 am

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vocab: e is for . . .

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ebullition (n.):
a boiling or overflow of liquid; an outburst of feeling, passion
elide (v.): to suppress or alter by elision; to omit
elision (n.): the omission of an unstressed vowel or syllable in a verse to achieve a uniform metrical pattern
ephemeral (adj.): lasting a short period of time
epistolary (adj): written in the form of a series of letters
eponymous (adj.): of, relating to, or being the person or thing for whom or which something is named
ergo (conj.): therefore
ethereal (adj.): not composed of matter; celestial, heavenly
etiolate (v.): to grow pale; weaken

Written by Gabrielle

February 23, 2011 at 8:26 am

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vocab :: m is for . . .

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macabre (adj.): having death as a subject; dwelling on the gruesome
manacle (n.): a shackle for the hand or the wrist; something used as a restraint
manifold (v.): to mulitply; to make copies of
maudlin (adj.): drunk enough to be emotionally silly; weakly sentimental
metonymy (n.): a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated
mellifluous (adj.): having a smooth, rich flow; filled with something that sweetens
miasma (n.): an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt
modal (adj.): of or relating to a structure as opposed to a substance
moue (n.): a little grimace

Written by Gabrielle

January 26, 2011 at 8:03 am

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vocab :: p is for . . .

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patois (n.): a dialect other than the standard or literary dialect.
perspicacious (adj.): of acute mental vision or discernment.
predigitation (n.): slight of hand.
precipitous (adj.): a very steep, perpendicular rise or fall.
prolix (adj.): unduly prolonged or drawn out; too long.
pedantic (adj.): of, related to, or being unimaginative; narrowly and pretentiously learned.
paucity (n.): smallness in number or quantity.
palaver (v.): to talk profusely or idly.
palaver (n.): a long conversation between people usually of different cultures or sophistications; misleading or beguiling speech.
parvenu (n.): one that has recently or suddenly risen to an unaccustomed position of wealth or power and has not yet gained the prestige, dignity, or manner associated with it.


Written by Gabrielle

January 12, 2011 at 8:00 am

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vocab :: a is for . . .

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appellation (n.) :: an identifying name or title
acicular (adj.) :: shaped like a needle
aplomb (n.) :: complete and confident composure or self-assurance
apotheosis (n.) :: elevation to divine status; the perfect example
abstruse (adj.) :: difficult to understand
anamnesis (n.) :: a recalling to mind
antediluvian (adj.) :: of or relating to the period before the flood described in the bible

[sources] ::
words: the petting zoo by jim carroll
definitions: merriam webster

Written by Gabrielle

January 6, 2011 at 6:24 am

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the em dash—continued

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my guest, stephanie, works in publicity and as someone who spends a lot of time communicating through writing, i thought she might have a favorite punctuation mark. it turns out that stephanie is yet another em dash fan. her use of the em dash has, admittedly, increased over the years. its versatility and largely-unchallenged usage is at the root of her love for the mark.

the em dash, she feels, is there to set something off, to highlighting and emphasis what you’re about to say next. because the writer chooses what to highlight, stephanie feels that no other punctuation mark has as much freedom. plus, she says, “they look elegant”—especially when you leave out the space in between.

stephanie mentions the non-abstractness of the em dash, that it’s there to stop you in your tracks—a typographical speed bump—and that it’s function matches its appearance. although i look at it from a slightly different angle: that the em dash is there to lead you along—like the straightaway of a racetrack—we both seem to have come to the same conclusion: the em dash has a visual component that matches its meaning and that its meaning is varied.

as with mariam and rebecca, stephanie feels that the em dash evokes drama. interestingly, she has a theory that there might be a link between a person’s favorite punctuation mark and their personality. for example, she wonders if semicolon users are more refined and subtle than the em dashers who, like their chosen mark, might be a bit more dramatic. to test her hypothesis she plans to look out for big hand gestures.

listen to what else stephanie has to say about the em dash

If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? 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.

roy peter clark, writing tools: 50 essential strategies for every writer (2006)

Written by Gabrielle

November 13, 2010 at 10:42 am

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where you @?

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The glamour preposition of the last two decades, without question, is not a word but a symbol—specifically, the @ sign. It is the one common component of every e-mail address on earth. . .Of course, @ predates e-mail.. . .It eventually became a commonly understood symbol meaning “at the price of”—so common that it was included on the first typewriter keyboard in the late 1800s.

Fast-forward a hundred years or so, to 1972. Ray Tomlinson, an engineer at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, was working on a project in which staff members at the company would transfer files and send messages among a series of networked computers around the country: in other words, e-mail. To indicate where the sender was “at,” Tomlinson decided to use the @ sign to precede the name of the host computer.

In an interview not long ago, he said the decision was pretty much a no-brainer.

“If you look at the keyboard, there really aren’t a whole lot of choices. the one that really stands out is the at sign, because it indicates where a user might be. It’s the only preposition on the keyboard.”

—ben yagoda, when you catch an adjective, kill it (2007)

Written by Gabrielle

October 31, 2010 at 9:37 am

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Something about and—probably its utter indispensability—has made it prone to being expressed by other means than just the standard three letters. The plus sign is a favorite of instant messengers, note takers, hip hop songwriters, conglomerates (Gulf + Western), and people demonstrating eternal love by carving their initials into trees. A little more elegant is the ampersand (&), which dates from the first century and is a ligature, or combination, of the letters e and t (and in Latin) into a single symbol. It was included in systems of typography starting in the fifteenth century, and ever since has been the character into which a type designer can inject the most artistic flair. the word “ampersand” didn’t come into being until the nineteenth century. At that time & was customarily taught as the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet and pronounced “and.” When school children recited their ABCs, they concluded with the words, “and, per se [i.e., by itself], ‘and.’ ” This eventually became corrupted to “ampersand.”

—ben yagoda, when you catch an adjective, kill it (2007)

[soundtrack] :: matmos // exciter lamp and variable band // supreme balloon (2008)

Written by Gabrielle

October 24, 2010 at 7:15 pm

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the drama that is the em dash

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emily dickinson: poet, em dash lover

when you understand something, it becomes less frightening: less esoteric. grammar illustrates this point perfectly.

my first active encounter with grammar was Strunk & White’s Elements of Style–the widely-read, much-loved, and sometimes contested style and grammar guide. i flipped through the slim 4th edition a few times but didnt have enough experience to know how to use it, or reason enough to use it for that matter. when i first picked it up, i felt i should read it cover to cover–like a novel. i was writing at the time but was only in the early stages; i hadn’t developed a “bigger picture,” a sophisticated understanding of the art, and was trying to cram years-worth of information that i should’ve learned in grade school into a few sittings. while i wasn’t quite ready to use the guide for tips, tricks, and inspiration,  i knew i was missing an important piece of information indispensable to an educated class.

zadie smith: em dash user

as early as 10th grade i came across writers who used punctuation–or refused to–boldly. The Beats, mainly jack kerouac, were my informal introduction to these grammatical demarcations. kerouac’s experimental approach to fiction, memoir, travel writing, and journalism was exactly what i needed in my anarchic and angsty teen years. milan kundera, possibly to be placed on the opposite end of the spectrum, used grammar elegantly–like a school boy fearing a ruler across the knuckles–and through him, i viewed punctuation as precise, as if it were a road map–guiding readers through a terrain of words.

when it comes down to it, regardless of how the masters use it–or don’t use it–punctuation is an art: commas, colons, periods, and dashes. they all mean different things; they all set the tone, pace, and beauty of a work.

i asked around to some literary friends what their favorite punctuation mark was and was surprised by how many of them, without pause, mentioned the em dash. it’s one of my favorites too, especially when writing informal emails.

Here is what a few of my fellow grammar-nerds had to say about this versatile mark:

[rebecca discusses her affinity for the em dash, how she uses it, and the way emily dickinson did]

[mariam talks about her use of the em dash and zadie smith’s perfect placement]

in the spirit of my favorite grammarian, Roy Peter Clark, who always gives his readers great exercises at the ends of the chapters in his books, i offer some of my own for em dash usage:
1. find examples in your daily paper and see why the journalist chose that mark of punctuation as opposed to a comma or a colon.
2. find an example of comma usage that could be more effective if an em dash were used.
3. write a sentence where an em dash at the end is used for dramatic effect.

Written by Gabrielle

October 5, 2010 at 5:06 am

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writing tools

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Writing Tools by, Roy Peter Clark  i’m one of those lucky people who loves their job. most of the time, it doesnt feel like work. what i do is creative and, within reason, i’m given a lot of freedom to explore new ways of doing things. i spend a lot of time thinking of ways to improve on what it is i do, which happens to be book publicity. increasingly, my job, and most of the jobs that take place in an office, rely on the written word; every day i’m writing press releases and emails and every day someone is receiving those press releases and emails, along with hundreds of others, all vying for the same space. the way i see it, i have about a paragraph to capture someone’s attention so that paragraph better be good. in my case, i’m publicizing professional writers through people who also work with professional writers, and who might be professional writers as well. a daunting situation if you think about it. so, one must be just as good, if not better, than the professional writers.

this is why i decided to pick up Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, the Vice President of Poynter Institute, a well-regarded school for journalists. many writing reference books can take on a self-helpy air so when i saw Roy’s credentials i knew he’d skip the fluff. he hasnt let me down yet.

Writing Tools is an amazing collection of useful writing tips and lessons on analysis. the book is split into four parts: Nuts and Bolts, where you get the rundown on basics such as grammar and sentence structure, Special Effects, which digs a bit deeper into how to liven up your work, the third section is Blueprints, which offers some thoughts on structure, and finally, Useful Habits, which, as the name implies, will help you form some good practices.

from that last section, i really liked Clark’s tips on how to read other people’s work:

  • read to listen to the voice of the writer.
  • read entire books when they compel you; but also taste bits of books.
  • read on topics outside your discipline. . .
  • read with a pen nearby. write in the margins. talk back to the author. . .
  • pg. 212

    at the end of every short chapter is something called a ‘workshop’, a collection of 4 or 5 assignments geared to help the reader implement the previous pages. from the same chapter on how to read other’s work, Clark says:

  • find an author to admire. read several works by this writer with a pen in hand. mark passages that work in special ways. show these to a friend and x-ray them together. what writing tools did you find?
    pg. 213

    Aside from this book being chock full of writing techniques that many of us who didnt go to school for English or writing have never before been privy to, Clark peppers his tips with some really great examples from fiction, essays, and news reporting. if you’re like me, always looking for more reading recommendations, you’ll be writing down names and titles every chapter.

    a must read for today’s writing-heavy generation of workers.

    other links:
    a recent review of Clark’s latest book, The Glamour of Grammar
    and a q&a on the Paper Cuts blog

  • Written by Gabrielle

    September 1, 2010 at 5:53 am

    Posted in books, grammar, reviews

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