Using grammar for writing vs. literature

As discussed in a previous blog presenting an overview of the history of grammar instruction, there is no agreement on the method of studying grammar, much less on the effectiveness of learning grammar, especially when it comes to improving writing.

Writers might not need to know grammar. As a matter of fact, in English Grammar Mark S. LeTourneau points out that it is possible to revise or edit a sentence without describing what you have done in grammatical terms.”  In writing workshops and editing practices, we call this re-working a sentence that doesn’t sound “right” or isn’t clear.

LeTourneau also acknowledges the old adage that if you want to be a writer, you need to read a lot. He believes it is possible for people to develop an intuitive knowledge of the varieties of grammatical and syntactic constructions available. (Though understandable for an author of a college grammar text, he seems to make a contradictory claims: “To decide whether to change a sentences requires being able to say why it ought to be changed, and for this at least a rudimentary knowledge of grammatical terms is useful” [7]).

In the post “What is Grammar,” we looked at possible and impossible or ungrammatical sentences: Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” vs. “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.”  With stylistic grammar, we consider possible and effective sentences. This is similar to Martha Kolln’s approach in her book Rhetorical Grammar, often referenced in this blog; in particular, in the post on sentence structure and rhythm: variations in presenting items in a series will result in different emphases.

The three applications of grammar to style LeTourneau enumerates are the following:

  1. stylistic analysis – characterizing “a piece of writing objectively, in terms of its grammatical features” with regard to the rhetorical situation.
  2. stylistic revision – identifying a “default style” to correct stylistic faults, such as excessive use of the passive, and to “widening the range of voices or personae” in the writing.
  3. stylistic choices – enlarging “the repertoire of syntactic structures” to increase syntactic fluency or syntactic maturity.

This third application can be accomplished by sentence combining, in which student writers are given short simple sentences (one clause) and asked to combine them into other constructions, such as compound (coordination) or complex (subordination) sentences – depending on the cues given (often in square brackets) Here’s the example LeTourneau provides (447):

John has not called you in five days. [the fact that]

You are not going steady anymore. [that]

Combined sentence: The fact that John has not called you in five days should tell you that

you are not going steady anymore.

He cites studies that sentence combining has proven an effective method of using grammar to teach style because through “guided manipulation of grammatical structures” (stylistic grammar), writers directly access their unconscious grammar, thus increasing their repertoire of syntactic choices for writing (448).

In the last decades of the 20th century, sentence combining became popular as an alternative to more traditional methods of teaching grammar. At the same time, the increase in standardized testing produced a swing toward traditional or prescriptive grammar instruction. As we saw in the overview of grammar instruction, there is still no agreement on what type of grammar should be taught and what methods should be used.

What’s a writer to do? You can begin by considering your motivations and preferences.

Are you happy with your writing? If not, you could analyze your rhetorical style: What kind of language do you use? What is your voice (or persona)? What stylistic faults do you want to correct?

What would the study of English grammar accomplish: Do you want to learn stylistic grammar to increase the range of your syntactic choices (sentence variety)? Do you want to learn traditional grammar and usage in order to increase your credibility and authority with instructors, editors, publishers, and readers by being able to produce error-free writing?

As with most of the topics in this blog, it comes down to your preferences and your own style.

(References: Mark S. LeTourneau, English Grammar and Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar found in WritingEssentials Resources.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.