I am not a grammarian but I love words, their arrangement and sound, the infinite combinations and uses, their impact.
Words are responsible for founding our country, We the people; for ending a war, Tear down this wall; for perhaps the most intimate and familiar of all, the vows uniting two into one, I do.
There is a force or person behind words which when spoken change a message’s tone and meaning. But words are what we hear, what we read, and when the moment is gone, all that remains are the words.
As you return to work, to school, to the routine and the daily grind, consider improving your writing for it can be one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox. Sharpening the axe (Back to school parable link) in the Age of Information has a lot to do with writing, because many and maybe even most of our interactions with people in our career and life will be through written communication.
WARNING. If you get queasy at the thought of grammar, do not fear; this is not a grammar lesson. If you do NOT wish to improve your writing, then stop here. However, if you seek personal improvement and wish to write effective and elegant sentences, then read on.
Professor Brooks Landon from the notable writing institution University of Iowa has taught some 30 years and teaches a popular writing course, Building Great Sentences. One can write short sentences and learning to do so, is simply that, by doing. Jane ran. Birds Fly. Short sentences are powerful and compelling: Jesus wept.
Building great sentences, “master sentences” as Landon calls them, is more involved. And it is this course which I found more valuable and immediately impactful than any writing class, program, or book.
Understanding these concepts help you sharpen your writer’s axe.
The Difference Between Grammar and Rhetoric
Machinery of a sentence How sentences work, their motive and impact
Landon said, “Effectiveness and elegance in writing are both rhetorical issues and grammar alone can lead us to neither.” Grammar is how a sentence operates, but the rhetoric is how we express ideas and how they make an impact.
I will share this again, “Effectiveness and elegance in writing are both rhetorical issues and grammar alone can lead us to neither.”
A Sentence Reflects Three Choices
Sentences are the building block of all writing, if you master the sentence then your writing improves. So it’s important to understand that a sentence reflects three choices.
- What we want to say/accomplish (propositions)
- Which words to use (vocabulary)
- What order to put them in (syntax)
“Invisible God created the visible world.” Port Royal Grammar 1660
There are 3 underlying mental realities to this sentence. The words on the page are only what we physically see. Propositions are basic elementary statements that can’t be broken into constituent parts.
1) God is invisible
2) The world is visible
3) God created the world
These three propositions are made using six words. The words used are precise and the syntax or order is artful and balanced.
Gertrude Stein said, “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?” If we change the order or the words, this question is not as elegant or effective. Think of a few of the many, many different ways she might have written this sentence:
Why should a sequence of words not be a pleasure?
Shouldn’t a sequence of words always give pleasure?
Words in sequence should always give pleasure.
We should always find pleasure in a sequence of words.
And so on. Stein advances a number of propositions, but these alternatives are not as effective or elegant.
Consider this sentence from Mark Twain’s The Prince and Pauper.
Mark Twain: “Kings cannot ennoble thee, thou good, great soul, for One who is higher than kings hath done that for thee; but a king can confirm thy nobility to men.” (Prince & Pauper, p. 175, ch 28 “The Sacrifice”)
What is Twain saying? Here are the propositions of this sentence.
1) King can’t honor thee (refers to Miles )
2) Miles has a good soul
3) Miles has a great soul
4) One (or God) is higher than kings
5) God has honored thee
6) King can honor Miles to men (on earth)
Word choice is precise. What other vocabulary or substitution would be as powerful to support these propositions?
Order: Proposition #1, 2, & 3 lead to 4&5, ultimately 6.
*** This sentence is effective AND elegant. ***
|The Sacrifice: Miles Hendon takes the prince’s lashes|
Now Sharpen Your Axe
When reading, look at sentences, especially of writing you like. If something resonates with you in particular, whether it made you laugh, cringe, or think, ask yourself what the writer is saying in that sentence, why those words, and the specific order she used them.
When you write your next letter, note, or report, consider first what it is you wish to say, second what are the best words to use, and third what order to use.
After completing Landon’s course, for the first time I understand why a sentence is good, great, or even masterful. Doing so makes me a better reader and writer.