Sunday, August 7, 2011

Last blast from the past

I was on vacation the past week; consequently, I'm sure you are all suffering from Valerie- and Galorious-Galaxy- Withdrawal. Of course, while I did a lot of fun things on my vacation and will soon have a few (not many this time) pictures to show you and perhaps even blog about, right now, I am lacking in topics and yet consumed with the desire to provide you with your literary fix.

Good thing I've still got some of my stockpile of blog posts from my old Words and Images class. This is the last of them, so enjoy it. No, relish every word!

October 22, 2007
Be your own Grammar Guru
or, Making the Rules up as You Go

So, we're not reading about writing right now, but I've still got a few rants about Sin and Syntax. [Editor's note: The grammar book we were reading in class at the time.] I might as well let them out...

In our class, we've now read quite a collection of selections on trimming the fat—eliminating the pointless meanderings of writings produced in the "official style."

Sin and Syntax presents several pointers on accomplishing this feat: jettison weak adjectives in favor of descriptive verbs and nouns; avoid clichés like the plague; and for God's sake (emphasis mine), rid your prose of prepositional phrases wherever you can...the mushiest abstractions and the greatest circumlocutions tend to be expressed as prepositional phrases...

Right. We got it. No prepositional phrases. But what happens when prepositional phrases are essential to developing a "voice?" We're in the "Sentences" section now, and - surprise! - it contains several more pointers on helping your sentences succeed: Relish every word, Take risks, Seek beauty, and Find the right pitch.

Following all these suggestions means occasionally employing a "forbidden phrase." Somewhere in this class, I read something about making your sentences "sing." Nothing can sing if you always strip it to the bare minimum—then it croaks.


I must admit I was disheartened when I read the admonition, Don't go 'visit with chums,' just 'visit them.' To visit with has very different connotations from a mere to visit. To visit implies that all the action is on the part of the visitor. I could visit my comatose sibling (fortunately I have none); or I could visit a historic cathedral; or I could visit my arch-nemesis and be chased away by security guards carrying tasers (fortunately I have no arch-nemesis, either). But if there is to be any interaction involved - if my no-longer-arch-nemesis were to welcome me into his domicile [Editor's note: "Domicile" italicized for rhetorical effect. See this post.] and have tea with me - I would have to visit with him. Huge difference. The single verb is not a substitute for this prepositional phrase. Likewise, another example from Sin and Syntax, "I'll see Fabio" may be just as exciting as "I'll meet up with Fabio," but it is not equivalent in meaning. I can see Fabio from afar. I can meet Fabio and maybe get his autograph. But until Fabio and I have a good-friends relationship, we will not be doing any "meeting up."

Shall I continue? I found other examples that raised my hackles (Reducing Put in an appearance to appeared is like replacing graced them with my presence with was there— and, eww, the dreaded is-are-was-were rears its ugly head), but I think you get the idea. Not everything can be sacrificed for conciseness.

Now that I've spent something like 3 hours on these last three posts about English, I think it's time to retire. But I do advise you read the title of this post one more time. I'm not a prose princess, and neither is Constance Hale the Queen of Communication. Every syntactical suggestion ever uttered has likely been countered by someone with credentials. Grammar is not like gravity; no one is forced to obey its rules. If I've learned one thing from Sin and Syntax, it's that rules are not so much rules as guidelines. In many ways, good grammar is a matter of getting rid of guilt. So I suggest to everyone who writes, simply try to write right. And if that's not alliteration overkill, then I don't know what is.