Tag Archive: Writing

Believe it or not, in the history of the English language grammar and glamour were once the same word.  Derived from the same Greek and Latin roots, the two were connected through an association between learning and enchantment.  In his recent book The Glamour of Grammar Roy Peter Clark seeks to re-glamorize grammar for a modern audience.  Clark is a man of many hats: medievalist, journalist, writing coach.  As the “About the Author” section notes, Dave Barry has said of him, “Roy Peter Clark knows more about writing than anybody I know who is not currently dead.”  If The Glamour of Grammar is any indication, he knows more about writing than a good many dead people, too.

The book is divided into five parts, moving from the most basic units to the big picture.  Part I focuses on WORDS.  No element of composition is too insignificant in a writer’s attempt to communicate with readers.  In Clark’s hands, such seemingly minor distinctions as the definite and indefinite articles (“the” vs. “a/an”) take on a much larger role than their small stature would suggest.  Using well-known examples, Clark shows how even the slightest change to a title can have a drastic effect on the feeling it conveys: for example, change the title of the classic movie The Godfather to A Godfather, and you have a completely different mood.

In Part II (POINTS), Clark discusses punctuation marks.  The preceding sentence most likely elicited a yawn from most readers, but Clark manages to show in an engaging way just how much work something as simple as a period – or a “full stop,” as the Brits call it (and as Clark prefers) – can do for one’s writing.  From the period to the serial comma to the sexy semi-colon to the exclamation point, Clark teaches how to bring one’s writing to life with these little jots and squiggles.

Part III (STANDARDS) addresses what grammarians commonly refer to as “rules.”  Clark eschews the tendency to reify these standards into unbendable rules, finding an elegant balance between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of language.  Writers must learn the “rules” of grammar before they can bend or break them to good effect.  The “rules” thus become “tools” that can be deftly applied in the hands of a skilled artisan.

The final two parts of the book (MEANING and PURPOSE) tackle the larger questions of writing.  In Part IV Clark explores what makes for a good sentence.  Along the way he challenges some of the most common pieces of writing advice – avoid the passive voice, never use sentence fragments – while at the same time demonstrating the wisdom of standards such as keeping subject and verb together.  Part V addresses the reasons for writing and the complex social, cultural, and political implications of word choice, dialect, taboo language, and a host of other decisions a writer must make.  The final chapter discusses new technologies, showing how even a 140-character Twitter message can crackle with elegance and style.

The Glamour of Grammar is a good read for many reasons.  Clark presents his instructions with a hefty dose of humor, and he often models the style he is teaching.  To take but one example, the following paragraph appears in the chapter on the question mark:

“But who was Question Mark?  And how did he become one of the godfathers of the punk rock movement?  And why am I asking these questions in a book about grammar and language?  The answer has to do with the extraordinary power of the question mark.” (89-90)

I also found Clark’s advice to be practical and balanced.  Challenging the “grammazons” (his lovely neologism for hardline grammarians), he affirms the usefulness of standards, but also the freedom a writer must have to buck the rules – but only once the writer understands them.  Perhaps more impressively, he manages to explain these rules effectively without relying on grammatical jargon, no doubt a necessary tactic to restore grammar to its state of glamour.

Finally, Clark is not afraid to wander into the realm of theology, grounding the beauty and richness of language not only in human evolution but also in the divine.  He manages to do so without coming off as preachy (a hard charge to stick to a man who uses the movie The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet as an illustration), and yet it comes across as genuine, and therefore genuinely moving.  The Glamour of Grammar deserves to be on the shelf of any serious – and not-so-serious – writer.  Read it for pleasure, read it for learning, but, most of all, read it to make your writing glamorous.

Thirteen down, (at least) thirty-nine to go.  (1/4 of the way there!)


A Connoisseur of Fine Sentences

Recently a friend of mine sent me an article about a new book by Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.  Before I even read the article, I knew the book would be a must read.  Fish is a widely respected literary critic who has taught at UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, and who, more recently, has been a regular columnist/blogger for the New York Times.  While I don’t read his posts religiously, I do enjoy them whenever I get to them – both because he is a thoughtful man with an interesting perspective on the world, and because he is a consummate wordsmith.  If Fish has something to say about writing, it is worth listening to.

How to Write a Sentence did not disappoint.  Part how-to book, part literary analysis, and part appreciation of the art of the good sentence, the book leads the reader on a tour of some of the best-crafted sentences in literature and film, explaining how and why the sentences are so powerful.  Fish’s approach is considerably different than that of another modern classic, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (cf. the puckishly titled chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White”).  Rather than provide rules drawing on grammatical concepts foreign to many people today, Fish analyzes the logical structure of sentences, explaining the components essential to all sentences and then offering ways to expand on the basic unit.  He summarizes his approach concisely toward the end of the first chapter: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation” (11, italics original).  In order to write good sentences, one must understand and appreciate good sentences.  Going against received wisdom, Fish advocates imitation as an important way of learning to write well.

Along the way, Fish makes a number of important observations.  In the third chapter (wittily titled “It’s Not the Thought That Counts”), he argues that content alone is insufficient.  In order to write persuasive and compelling sentences, one must master the forms of writing: “It is true that you can’t get form from content, but it is also true that without form, content cannot emerge” (27).  Likening the writing of sentences about nothing to practicing musical scales, Fish recommends writing nonsensical sentences over and over again until one has mastered the forms.  Only once a writer has mastered the forms will he be equipped to convey his thought intelligently and eloquently.  By “forms” Fish does not mean the typical grammatical terms found in many books on writing, but rather the logical structures that make a sentence coherent and intelligent.  While these structures can be analyzed with grammatical terms, one need not understand the finer points of the gerundive or the pluperfect in order to put Fish’s lessons into practice.

The middle three chapters of the book explain and analyze three different sentence styles, the subordinating style, the additive style, and the satiric style.  Fish then moves on to discuss first and last sentences.  A final chapter before the epilogue focuses on “sentences that are about themselves.”  Throughout the book he treats the reader to some of the finest sentences ever crafted, thus delighting as well as instructing the reader.

What struck me most as I read How to Write a Sentence was some of the borderline theological implications of Fish’s argument.  My favorite sentence in the book, and one, in my humble opinion, that would be in good company with the sentences Fish analyzes, is the following from chapter four: “It is often said that the job of language is to report or reflect or mirror reality, but the power of language is greater and more dangerous than that; it shapes reality, not of course in a literal sense – the world is one thing, words another – but in the sense that the order imposed on a piece of the world by a sentence is only one among innumerable possible orders” (37).  I know Fish is not himself a Christian (though his work on Milton has given him profound religious sensibilities), but the idea behind this sentence in many ways resonates with the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Moreover, it speaks to the potential language has, both for good and for evil.

Despite his erudition and eloquence, Fish manages not to take himself too seriously, making the book all the more appealing.  Any academic who can call his approach to learning to write a sentence “the Karate Kid method” and who draws examples not only from fine literature, but also from the essay of a fourth-grader, is okay in my book.  At a brief 160 pages, How to Write a Sentence is a quick and delightful lesson in the fine art of sentence craft.  To borrow the words of the anonymous child in St. Augustine’s Confessions, “Take and read.”

Eleven down, (at least) forty-one to go.