Although this is supposed to be a ‘writers blog’ it tends to be a repository for the things I don’t write: the stuff I do when I should be writing. When I do find the time to actually do some writing (for myself), I often find all my brain wants to do is mess about and compose nonsense. I find this incredibly easy and profoundly satisfying.
Really, ‘nonsense’, of the sort that Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear gave us, leaves a much wider space for readers or listeners’ imaginations to play in. It harps upon this beautiful feature of human languages: with syntax, sound and context we are more than half way to understanding meaning. Who the hell needs vocabulary?
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).
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.
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.
I am ashamed to admit that I found a copy error on the back of the business cards I have been using for the last three years. When I started freelancing in 2010, I didn’t know how to use a colon. At worst, dodgy copy makes things downright confusing for the reader: at best, it makes you look like a numpty – especially when you are selling your writing and editing skills.
Here is the offending item:
I’m always recommending that people don’t use a colon to introduce a list in this way. It is unnecessary and it often leads to confusing sentences. I think that must be the reasoning behind the fact that it is plain wrong. Nevertheless, this use is extremely common. If you want to go for an “A” grade, make sure that what precedes the colon is a proper sentence. Yes I’ve just re-ordered my cards with a rewritten blurb; that colon cost me £20.
So, having admitted one of my many faults, am I permitted to share a giggle over some other people’s, from my collection?
This invokes visions of staff swinging into the toilet, Tarzan style, on the disabled alarm cord (and possibly landing with a splash of toilet water).
Here is some classic apostrophe abuse, compounded by inconsistency. If there are Coffee’s, why aren’t there also Tea’s, Breakfast’s, Cocktail’s, Wine’s, Spirit’s and Beer’s?
I was very disappointed that I didn’t see any old vehicles being smashed at the museum in Alston; I wouldn’t mind smashing a few exclamation marks, though!
Grammar Patrol! Grammar Patrol ‘ten’SHUN! Turning to the right in threes disMISS! Carry on!
I like well modulated grammar. I appreciate the clarity and accuracy that comes from applying the rules. I also enjoy seeing those rules creatively and consciously broken. Language lives; usage comes and goes and I embrace innovation. But (and, yes, these days it is fine to start a sentence with “but”), there are some things up with which I will not put:
A BIG THANK YOU
“A big thank you” what? It hangs there like “a wrinkly elephant”.
Okay so, “A big thank you to all our supporters …” from whom? What are people trying to do with this phrase? It is so passive that the wonderful verb of thanking someone has become a wrinkly elephant of a noun that nobody will claim to own.
Fine, then, “We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters.” Better, but that’s still a bit like saying, “we’d like to say a wrinkly elephant to all our supporters.” And why the conditional? Is there a problem?
“We would like to say a big thank you to all our supporters, but it sounds silly.” I agree with that.
Maybe if the big thank you is what you want to say then it should be in quotation marks? “We would like to say ‘a big thank you‘ to all our supporters.” That doesn’t make sense either, it just adds a dollop of sarcasm.
I’m reminded of the parson in church, “Lord, we pray for all the people in the world and we especially pray for the widows and orphans.” That’s not praying, that’s just telling God that you are praying – WHAT do you pray for the orphans?
Maybe expressing the wish to issue “a big thank you” is a way of avoiding actually thanking anyone in the same way that the parson who prays for widows and orphans never actually prays for them.
Well, I just want to say “a big wrinkly elephant” to all who read this blog.
Thank you for reading it, thank you for commenting and interacting with me. I’m grateful to you all and I just wanted to express that somehow.