Deep Grammar

Grammar was never invented to separate people “in the know” from the rest of us or to keep teachers and proofreaders in a work. In fact it, was never “invented”. It is intrinsic to language and fundamental for communication.

A new piece of research, published in the May 8 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that bad grammar is not only noticed by the English teacher or the pedant in the office but also at a neurological level by your bog-standard brain – yes, YOUR brain (and mine).

Laura Batterink, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oregon, recorded event-related brain potentials (ERPs) as study participants were presented with sentences, some containing grammar errors. In the majority of cases, subjects processed the errors without awareness.

Participants in a study were presented with short sentences, one word at a time, and their brain activity was monitored using a non-invasive technique. A mixture of good and bad sentences were used and the participants were asked to mark them correct or incorrect as well as to respond to an auditory tone that was played at some point while they were reading each sentence. Thus their awareness (of errors and tones) could be checked against actual brain activity.

When it was all shuggled out, the results showed brains responding to errors even when the participants did not register their awareness of them. The brain appears to pick up and correct errors of syntax without us noticing. However, this unconscious process demands neurological resources.

English: Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky....

The Jabberwocky – Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914)

Helen J. Neville, one of the paper’s co-authors from the University of Oregon, points out that children often pick up grammar rules implicitly through routine daily interactions with parents or peers, simply hearing and processing new words and their usage before any formal instruction. This has implications for second language acquisition; grammar should be taught implicitly, without semantics. In other words, she suggests that nonsense poems, such as Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, are ideal material for this approach – syntactically sound, yet virtually meaningless.

For me, this research underlines the importance of syntax, and word order in particular. The logical flow of a sentence should be such that the reader does not have to re-read it (consciously or unconsciously). I find that about 30% of my editorial tweaking tackles this issue.

I often recommend that people who want to improve their writing read as much good copy as they can, in order to internalise the language; read their own writing out loud, to hear how it works; lead the reader by the hand, making sure that the meaning stands out from the surrounding qualifiers; and assume that if their meaning can possibly be misconstrued, then it will be.

Links:
Audio: Study summary by Laura Batterink: http://bit.ly/13FRBmC
Institute of Neuroscience: http://uoneuro.uoregon.edu/ionmain/htdocs/index.html
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More UO Science/Research News: http://uoresearch.uoregon.edu

A Dragon at the Core of Literature: 1,500-year-old writing advice from China

Wanglongsi zaoxiang

Wanglongsi zaoxiang (Via Wikipedia)

Liu Xie (c.470-539 AD) was a literary critic during the Liang Dynasty, a time and place where to become a writer was a matter of a long apprenticeship in courts or monasteries and even bureaucratic documentation was a work of art. His great work “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” captures both the mysticism and asceticism of the writer’s craft in all times and in all places. Although this work is about fifteen thousand years old, I go back to it repeatedly for a fresh vision and, at times, a stern talking to, in the great tradition of far eastern masters.

My translation (by the brilliant Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang) is in a rare volume of assorted prose and poetry from the Han, Wei and Six Dynasties, published in Beijing by Panda in 1986. I found this book and appropriated it from my parent’s bookshelves a long time ago. It still contains scribbled marginal notes in my 15-year-old’s handwriting – from my Buddhist phase.

The tract as good as opens with these fine words, enough to bring anyone back to the page with fresh expectancy:

“Thoughts shaped in silence can reach a thousand generations to come.”

Liu Xie is a proponent of an immersive, intentional and disciplined approach to writing that involves every level of an author’s being:

“A man should cleanse his heart, purify his spirit, amass knowledge to store up learning, use reason to increase his capabilities, study things carefully to improve his powers of observation, and train himself in the use of the right phrase. Then the mind, pre-eminent, can seek out rhythm to guide the pen and like a skilled craftsman give fitting form to ideas.”

He goes on to give “fancy” its rightful place as “the prime requirement in writing”, assuming that the previous stipulations on spiritual purity and training have been fulfilled, of course:

“When we give rein to our fancy, innumerable paths open up ahead; we plot any course we please, inlay any invisible pattern. Would we climb a mountain? Our spirit soars above it. Survey the ocean? Our ideas reach over the sea. Whatever talents we have seem to race with the wind and the clouds; we take up a pen, inspired beyond all telling, but the work when written may express only half of what was in our hearts. This is because an idea not yet formulated may easily seem striking but it is hard to set down skilfully in so many words. Thoughts pass into ideas, ideas into language, sometimes corresponding so closely that no discrepancy exists, sometimes so loosely that a thousand li stretch between. An argument may be at hand while you seek it at the horizon; an idea may be hard by yet hid from your mind as if by mountains and rivers. So to improve his writing a man should train his mind and not count on simply cudgelling his brains. Once he knows the right way to express himself, no undue exertions are needed.”

Next, he suggests that some thinkers are slow and spend years conceiving, executing and polishing their work, while others are quick and discharge treatises between waking and taking breakfast. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between these extremes, you must embrace it.

I am very thankful to be closer to the fast end: I’m already almost bored with writing this post (in my lunch break). In a few minutes, I’ll hit “publish” without reviewing it, and I’ll move on to the next thing. I’ll probably never produce a great work like Zuo Si who spent a dozen years on his essay on the Three Imperial Cities, but I can live with that.

I get the impression that Liu Xie is telling us that, as long as the work of studying the classics, “delving into changes in style, and understanding the forms of literature” has been done “, we can “give birth to new ideas and fashion striking images” according the speed of our thought, but almost unconsciously.

Learning to write well is like learning to drive skilfully, it becomes a matter of muscle memory and reflex, with long practice and deep immersion in the canon of all ages.

Later in the work, he attacks those who “counterfeit feeling” for the sake of art. He points out that the composers of old folk songs genuinely gave voice to their anguish but that many later poets feigned sentiment for the sake of a dazzling turn of phrase. It’s a timely reminder of the need to write what we know, from the heart. This is absolutely one of my values as a wordsmith; when we tell lies, we do it with words, and yet we also propagate truth, clarity and revelation with words.

There is a sense throughout “Carving a Dragon at the Core of Literature” of the office that writers hold and the service that writers provide to society, and of the seriousness with which this must be taken. This was ever the way in less literate times and places, where even the ability to reproduce and comprehend the shapes of alphabets and pictographies was for an elite. In spite of the great syndication of the scribe’s art that has taken place since Caxton, I think there are still those who are entrusted with the continuation of this special role in relation to how humanity thinks aloud about itself … on paper.

“We cannot meet the men of old face to face, but by reading their works we can see into their hearts … A man of deep understanding and keen observation will have the same pleasure in his mind as a crowd of revellers on the terrace in spring or travellers stopping for good music and food. Just as the orchid, king of fragrant flowers, becomes more fragrant when worn; so books, which are sovereign flowers too, reveal their beauty when studied and analysed. Let men of discrimination ponder this!”

Fictional Literary Crushes

One of the highlights of my week is hanging out with the 14-17 year olds in our Church youth group on Sunday evenings. The little glimpses I get into the world of young people today are worth their weight in platinum. For instance, I learned from them that it is entirely unnecessary to tie your shoelaces – you can just tuck the trailing ends into the shoe. I have also had the opportunity to familiarise myself with Harry Potter fan-fiction lingo (do you know for instance, what “headcanon accepted” means?).

someecards.com - I'm sorry, but I only date fictional characters. In my head.This week’s insight bore down on me on the back of a couple of comments, overheard. Here’s a fact: a significant number of teenagers have an agonising, unrequited crush on Mister Darcy. This is definitely headcanon non-accepted stuff but it is real enough to invoke quite strong emotions.

I remember it well.

Yes, before I was old enough to have real girlfriends (and for a while after that, too), I confess I had a few romantic attachments to literary characters -  never to more than one at a time, which suggests that these were fairly serious relationships. So this blog post is a tribute to those unreal beauties I loved between the ages of 9 and … er … about 17 if I’m honest!

Arrietty Clock

Cover of "The Borrowers"

Cover of The Borrowers

(from The Borrowers series by Mary Norton)

Wow, this must have been the first cut; it still smarts to think about it. Arrietty was about 14, brave, redheaded with plaits and freckles. She kept a diary, she was an avid reader. She drove her parents crazy but I admired her adventurous spirit and she wasn’t judgemental about people. We spent hours together. I think it was awfully handy that she was small enough to fit in my pocket and knowing she was there sometimes gave me the chutzpah to scare my own parents by being adventurous – although I think my headcanon made a magical allowance for me to shrink down to her size sometimes too. I actually hit it off quite well with her parents, which was just as well.

I’m not sure how any of these “ended”, or even who came next, but at some point my heart moved on to …

Kira

(From Jim Henson’s “Dark Crystal“)

Although not strictly a “literary” character, Kira deserves a mention. I grew up without television and we went to the cinema about once a year so I never saw the “Dark Crystal”. In fact, I met Kira in 3D, on a set of view-master slides (that’s a thing I’ll bet the youth group have never heard of). I fell for her pale complexion, rosy cheeks and elfish ears, and her sense of adventure. I watched the Dark Crystal for the first time a few years ago and was amazed to discover that my gelfling childhood sweetheart also had wings! She kept that a secret. In fact I think there was always a distance in our relationship. As much as I admired and adored her, the gelfling-human thing was never going to work out, and there was always that scruffy “Jen” lurking in the background.

Perhaps I grew up a little at this point and realised I needed to date more human girls. But I couldn’t resist at least a little magic. Perhaps that’s why I gave my heart to …

Dorrie the Witch

(from Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs)

She was a young witch, as vividly illustrated in the books, with a crooked hat and unmatched stockings. It was her endearing clumsiness that won me over. Dorrie and I hit it off because we were both misfits who always ended up doing things differently to everyone else. In fact, she was a proper disaster area! Being with her was so exciting, I never knew what was going to happen next. She always meant well but her spells hardly ever did what they were intended to. In spite of this she always came out on top of the day. I seem to remember she had a spell that made my bicycle fly, and she used to ride on the back of my bike with her cat, Gink. It was flipping romantic (headcanon non-accepted)!

We were pretty inseparable, but we must have grown apart eventually. I suppose, these literary characters never age with us so, at some point we outgrow them and find more age-appropriate sweethearts such as …

Polly

(from “The Dean’s Watch” by Elizabeth Gouge)

Polly was a humble maid who served Mrs Peabody, the wife of Mr Peabody, the watchmaker. I wanted, so very badly, to be Mr Peabody’s apprentice, “Job” and to whittle beautiful birds from scraps of wood to give to her as gifts. I wanted to sit in the pew across from her at church and catch her eye, like he did. I became extremely interested in horology and wood carving, and possibly even in going to church, on the strength of my fascination for Polly. She was brightly optimistic, in spite of Mrs Peabody being pretty harsh (as I recall) and she was simply kind in her thoughts towards those whom others were inclined to mock or ignore. There is no doubt that the time I spent with Polly made me a better person.

cider with rosie

The same probably couldn’t be said for …

Rosie

(from “Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee)

Yes, well, ahem … This was definitely one of those coming-of-age crushes. I don’t think anyone can read that scene with the cider and the kissing under the hay cart and not fall in love with Rosie. I guess she still haunts my summers, whenever the hedgerows are hot and fragrant and the beech woods are filled with secret green light and the chaff-dust of threshed wheat hangs in the air …

How about you? Did you give your heart away to someone you found in a book? Or is it just me?

One Big Story … Part I

This month, I have the joy of working with 300 year five and six pupils from Durham City schools  to turn their ideas into One Big Story: an epic and imaginative tale that will be published in paperback in October.

Scary? No, this is just my storytelling face (Photo: Robyn Trainer 2012)

This one of the most exciting things I have done for a while; it ticks about a hundred boxes for the things I love doing: creative writing, stimulating other people’s imaginations and helping them to realise their creative ideas, being able to say the magical word “story” about 50 times a day and share my passion for the written word.

I’m working as part of a team alongside Christina Maiden (Off The Page Drama) and Robyn Trainer (Floral Footsteps), running whole day workshops in primary schools, getting children to invent and develop ideas for stories and working collaboratively to forge them into a coherent narrative.

Remarkably, it turns out to be quite possible to take the ideas of 30-40 children at a time and guide them into creating a story together as long as you think on your feet and prepare yourself for almost anything to happen. Not to give too much away, but we are half way through the project already and have five out of ten chapters mapped out. The children have taken us beyond our own imaginations into their own world where there are a lot of fights involving food and an awful lot of ghoulish characters in which the malevolent and comedic are theatrically blended.

It has been very encouraging to see that literacy is alive and kicking in every school we have visited so far; I’m the one getting educated.

In less than a month, we will be holding the book in our hands and you, too, will be able to read what happens when children create the sort of story that they would like to read … watch this space …

Going Public with Thomas Carlyle: “Know Thy Work”

Thomas Carlyle

I like Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). He’s one of my rugged 19th Century romantic existentialist individualists. I don’t buy the whole package of his thought (women never seem to get a mention, for instance), but he can be forgiven for being a man of his time as much as I will need to be if any of my thoughts survive me.

Apart from anything else, Carlyle wrote 21 volumes of the history of Freidrich II of Prussia; and he didn’t even have the Internet! This suggests that he had one thing nailed: he knew how to knuckle down and get on with his work – probably because he didn’t have the Internet.

So, as my contribution this week to the #GoingPublic audio project, here is an excerpt from Book III of  Carlyle’s “Past and Present” that gives us a clue about the root of his productivity, his attitude to work. It amuses me, the way he dismisses “Know Thyself” with a disdainful sweep of his hand and then goes on to expound “Know Thy Work” with increasingly dizzy conceits. But I also find it invigorating. How about you?

The full text is available here.

Check out a wealth of other great audio clips from the Going Public Project.

A Poem: For James

I have a folder with maybe an hundred poems in it; most of them were written between 1994 and 1999 and covered the span of time from GCSEs to my final year at University. In the last thirteen years my poetic productivity has died to a trickle. I have lost my way a bit. I feel embarrassed by the panting romanticism of the early stuff and the technicolour emotions and tangible intimations of immortality that fueled my late teens are not  as keenly felt as I approach my mid-thirties.

When I was at school, I was surrounded by poetry.  There were three of us in my A level English Literature class where poetry was inescapable, there was an annual poetry prize, there was even a Dead Poets Society and there was a library with a well stocked poetry section. With some friends and some support from the English department, I started a small literary magazine called “Apex”. These days I have to fight to make space in my life for reading poetry, let alone writing it, but there has been a modest output. Here’s one I wrote for a friend a few years ago:

For James
 
there’s a person i know i could be
theres a woodsman and a soldier in me
a weather beaten soul that’s rarely seen
i know he’s there because he’s been in my dreams
 
there’s a monk called brother somebody
who leaves his cell to cross the sea
he doesn’t fear and he doesn’t flee
but stands on the weatherdeck scorning the lee
 
i have felt his anger and desire to be free
his feelings and mine always agree
his indian name is strong-man-going-boldly
god’s breath must be in him or he couldn’t breathe
 
a strong man this woodsman must be
to fell the hulk of my family tree
a bold soldier too and armed to the teeth
gallantry and loyalty stirring beneath
 
his bayonet gouges mediocrity
and the monk steps out on a distant beach
salt on his lips that are burning to preach
and he speaks of my soul and who i could be

More poetry postings from this blog can be found here.

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