Here’s my maiden post. So far, the sign-up page records me as “unknown,” which would be okay by me but probably not okay with Hamline MFAC. Nor can I find Ron’s post that I read last
week, where he mentioned something so nonchalant about sentence
fragments and grammar in general that our Hamline student Sherryl Clark
was impelled to reply. Since I can’t find Ron’s post, I can’t quote Sherryl’s comment directly either, but she observed that students whose grammar
and punctuation are foggy are also students who can’t express clear meaning. Inept
grammar and lack of clarity are causally related.
careful reader will have seen that Ron’s grammar is impeccable. Writers
who know grammar can afford to be nonchalant. They can break “the rules”
intentionally, for a purpose, creating meaning by doing so. They can line up three fragments in a
row or follow several long, complicated sentences with a single word, for the purpose of emphasis. They can write
either colloquial or academic English.
A long time ago, I taught in the University of
Minnesota’s General College (now defunct), whose mission was to teach
any applicant who had a Minnesota high school diploma, no matter what the grades on the
transcript were. When a middle-aged student came to my office to ask for
tutoring, I asked him why he had enrolled at the U. He was a welder, he
said, in a shop where a metallurgy professor sometimes solved
some complex problem of mixed metals. He spoke to the shop owner in one kind of
English, my student had noticed, but to the welders in another kind. My
student wanted the freedom to adjust his own language to the
situation. He wanted to be a citizen, too, of more than one world.
Mastery of grammar and punctuation enables writers to say what they mean intentionally, purposefully.
We have to live in a world where our elbows don’t bend backward.
Where, if we can’t swim, we sink. Where agents and editors who receive
thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year will probably not read
further if the first pages expose inexperienced writers who don’t care
about the shape of their sentences. (The previous two sentences are
incomplete. Purposely. I could write them all kinds of other ways, if
I had different purposes.)
One of my favorite books about language is Kenneth G. Wilson’s The Columbia Guide to Standard American English (MJF Books). Wilson isn’t a snob who hews without thought to the rules of his eighth grade teacher. He comments on alphabetized topics, such as the use of “all right” versus “alright,” or agreement of subjects and verbs. These remarks reflect the fact that language is always in flux.
No doubt Wilson the linguist also knows the linguists’ assertion that Marsha Qualey recently quoted here: “meaning is fundamentally indeterminate.” (The meaning of this idea is indeterminate in my simple mind.) One example of confusion was reported this week, when the mother of James Holmes, the Batman shooter, told the reporter who notified her of the massacre, “You have the right person.” Everybody has assumed that she meant her son committed the crime; now, however, she says she meant that she was indeed James Holmes’s mother. Thus are linguists sometimes called as trial witnesses to sort out meaning for the court.
However fundamentally uncertain meaning may be, people certainly abide by customs of usage and judge others by the way they talk and write, so Wilson distinguishes among spoken, standard, and publishing English. Our job is to make meaning as difficult to misunderstand as possible. His book is at my side when I write.
Jane Resh Thomas, unknown