Reduction of language

Sometimes, I am fearful for the future of writing. We are not exactly converting to “newspeak,” But, there’s a trend of eliminating some words or even parts of speech from usage. I’ve read questions on a writing forum in which it was assumed that grammar meant the same as style, organization or even content. This assumption appeared too frequently for my comfort.

One person submitted a sample bemoaning that it was graded low by a teacher despite having no errors. A commenter, who should have known better, claimed it had “poor grammar” and “run-on sentences.” Then, he rewrote the sample in his own style. The problem was actually a mix of organization and voice, such as weak connection of ideas between the clauses. My reply to the commenter indicated that he diagnosed the sample incorrectly. There were no run-on sentences and no errors in grammar. Student often fail to understand when people try to force writing into their own style. Only the teacher could explain what style was expected.

Some teachers can be inflexible in this matter of style. However, the same is true of many contest judges, agents, and publishers. This second group is not required to explain what they seek and sometimes cannot even do it. A teacher, however, should be able to. When I taught language arts, I used one rubric for content/organization, and another for spelling, grammar/usage. When students made these second kinds of errors I underlined them and asked the student to figure out what was wrong. However, telling students how to create good content was more difficult.

Another person asked which books would be half of their current size if the author had better grammar. I cringed at this blatant attempt to absorb writing style into grammar. Then, I crafted an answer (not in my typical style).

“There would not be any books half their size if the author had better grammar, because correcting grammar rarely reduces the amount of words, and sometimes it adds them. Correct grammar is using the parts of language—nouns, verbs, etc. appropriately as determined by the majority of the educated speakers. In the case of French, it is determined by an actual institution, “l’Académie Française.”

I recall when we used to differentiate between the terms grammar and usage. Grammar referred to the rules and usage referred to whether or not rules were applied. This question implies that you assume grammar is the same as style.

In my answer, I have digressed, giving you a lot more information than you probably ever wanted. But, this is not a matter of poor use of grammar. This is a matter of style, which is very subjective. When correcting grammar, I make sure that all the cases for the nouns and verbs match, that words are spelled correctly, and that punctuation is appropriate. There is more to grammatical editing than these things. However, this kind of editing does not mean chunking out words because I feel they are extraneous. That is what I do when editing the style of writing.”

As writers who judge and critique we should remember that style and content are subjective. We use our own criteria for assessing these, and a book that teaches grammar does not contain them. We can make suggestions for improving style and content, but these are never rules.

This entry was posted in Education trends, Style and voice, Teaching writing skills, Writer's resource and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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