How writers can use grammar for revision

The previous post focused on how writers can use grammar to improve their writing style. Called stylistic or rhetorical grammar, writers can use their knowledge of grammar stylistic analysis, choices, and revision. Mark S. LeTourneau, in English Grammar, enumerated these three applications of grammar to style, with a focus on sentence combining to create complex, more mature sentences. In the post on sentence structure and rhythm, we also presented examples from Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar to illustrate the use of stylistic considerations affect meaning and rhythm; in particular, how variations in presenting items in a series will result in different emphases.

Although LeTourneau sees the value of grammar in for rhetorical purposes, he also believes “that knowledge of grammar is most helpful at the stages of revising and editing sentences because these are the units with which grammar is concerned” (7). He is speaking of line and copy editing, what he calls local revision and others call microediting.

As discussed in the post What is the difference between editing and revision?, there are varying terms and understanding of what is meant in the composing and revision processes. Author, editor, and writing coach Qat Wanders, points out that all editing is subjective and editors have different terminology.

When I was hired to develop and deliver curriculum on writing to NY State agency workers, the contract company was presenting a 5-step writing process, a pretty standard approach. To make this process easy for participants to recall, I created an acronym Pre-DEEP, consisting of the stages they identified.

The Pre-DEEP Method©
     Editing for Content
     Editing for Mechanics
       ©E. Higgins & Clear Communications

Writing handbooks usually deal with the writing process, too, offering strategies for composing, such as considering the task, purpose, and audience of a piece, as well as exploring and ideas through brainstorming, mindmapping, looping, and asking questions. This is the “pre-writing” stage in the acronym above.  In the drafting stage, a writer organizes information and ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

While many resources talk about “the writing process” – over 3 billion results in one internet search – they do so to greater and lesser degree of clarity and substance. For instance, though one webpage substituted “revising” for step 3 (editing for content), it paid no attention to revision and gave simply a paragraph to editing (which talked vaguely of “checking a piece for errors”).

Revision is the process of rereading a text and making changes (in content, organization, sentence structures, and word choice) to improve it. As The Everyday Writer asserts, “revising involves taking a fresh look at the draft” in order to be sure that it includes all the necessary information and it presents it clearly and effectively (51). This certainly aligns with the focus on content in step 3 of Pre-DEEP. It is also the stage some people refer to as developmental editing or global revision or macro-editing.

The Everyday Writer describes the editing process as “fine-tuning your prose” by paying attention “to details of grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling,” while proofreading is the process of producing a perfect copy for publishing (51).

Again, the terminology and emphases differ, but what can writers do to improve their work through revision?

The revising vs. editing post discussed that at the global level you revise and redraft to get your text right. LeTourneau claims that stylistic grammar is relevant to drafting and global revision, while he cites Constance Weaver’s contention that usage grammar is relevant to the final stages of the writing process, local revision and editing (468). At this level, the goal is to clarify meaning within and between sentences.

In Line by Line: How to Improve Your Own Writing, Claire Kehwald Cook addresses lexical semantics, which deals with word meanings and word relations: “To get your meaning across, you not only have to choose the right words you have to put them in the right order(18).”

We’ve already discussed in this blog how English depends on meaning first by word order, and then by inflections, unlike highly inflected languages like German and Latin. Consider the contrast between Latin and English we examined:

In Latin, Caesarem interfecit Brutus means the same thing as Brutus interfecit Caesarem with the inflections or word endings telling who is the actor and who is the object of the action.

This is not true in English: Caesar killed Brutus does not the mean same thing as Brutus killed Caesar. The Subject-Verb-Object word order of English tells us who is the doer and who is the receiver of the action.

Cook further elaborates on her assertion about right words and right order by providing a jumbled sentence:

Him stick with the before chased boy the that dog big had the attacked.

While most of us know the meaning of these words, the order produces nonsense.

She provides examples of different arrangements of those same words that do produce coherent sentences:

The boy with the big stick attacked the dog that had chased him before.
The big dog chased the boy that had attacked him with the stick before.
Before, the big boy with the stick chased the dog that had attacked him.
The boy that had chased the big dog before attacked him with the stick.
The big dog chased the stick with the boy that had attacked him before.

All of these sentences make sense, they have meaning. Sometimes there are lots of ways to arrange the same words, but the best combination or order of the words will depend on the meaning you intend.

For LeTourneau, local revision also involves clarifying the meaning between sentences. Here he focuses on cohesion, the connection of ideas at the sentence level, “in senquence to one another so that they form a text rather than simply a disconnected series of sentences” (468). As  with word order, sentence order matters because sentences have a segment of given information (GI), known from a previous sentence, and a segment of new information (NI) to be communicated to the audience. Thus the pattern of information in a sentence would be “GI NI.”

In isolation, most sentences follow the principle for ordering given and new information because of the normal word order in the sentence. However, when put in the context of other sentences in a text, the ordinary word order may not follow this preferred principle of presenting information and so, cohesion suffers. LeTourneau (468) provides a simplified illustration by presenting a pairing of sentences with increasing (effective) cohesion.

KEY: Given information is identified with GI and italics. New information is identified with NI and bold italics.
GI                                       NINI                              GI
1. Emily is the new chairperson of the committee.Its members elected her.
Here, new information precedes given information in the second sentence, rather than the preferred order of given information followed by new information.
GI                                       NIGI                              NI
2. Emily is the new chairperson of the committee.She was elected by its members.
Here, though the new information now follows given information in the second sentence, this sentence is passive and the improvement in cohesion is slight.
GI                                        NIGI                                NI
3. The new chairperson is Emily.She was elected by the committee members.
Here, the given information of the second sentence is the new information of the first sentence, making the cohesion stronger and more obvious.

While the meaning of these variations is clear, the smoothness and cohesion improves the writing. When the last few words of one set up information that appears in the first few words of the next, we get the experience of a connected sequence or flow.

By understanding the grammar of the English sentence – the importance of word order and of the order that information is presented (GI NI) – writers can apply their knowledge in revising their text so that they communicate the meaning they intend as effectively and pleasingly (flow) as possible. Thus, grammar knowledge can not only improve their style, but also their message.

(Material and information form Mark S. LeTourneau, English Grammar; Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar; Qat Wanders, Wandering Wordsmith Academy; Constance Weaver, Teaching Grammar in Context; and Claire Kehwald Cook, Line by Line.)

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