Phrasing and organisation

Grammatical rules are not given. We did not discover rules of grammar; we identified patterns in how we speak, described those patterns, and called those descriptions rules.

(Note: grammarians and linguists would debate this, no doubt, some agreeing, some vehemently disagreeing. We needn't engage those debates here. Instead, we have to start somewhere. This is where we start.)

As you know, I hold Strunk and White's Elements of Style in the highest regard, but in the end, it's just a rule book. It so happens to be a very clear rule book, very concise, and this makes it easy to find the patterns that the rules pick out of our ordinary talk. Given all we've said so far about the ways that words' meanings change with usage, the ways we develop our own writing styles by fiddling with word arrangements, and so on, we see a different side of the trivially true point that:

Rules are made to be broken.

This doesn't simply mean that we learn rules and break them, or that the rules don't matter. In the context of what we've said here, it means that rules, insofar as they are based on observed patterns, can change. For example, in recent years, insisting on agreement between the quantity of a subject and the quantity of an object in a sentence has softened, especially in the following way: gender-neutral plural objects don't need to agree with singular subjects.

"Any student in the class should know their opinions are valued" breaks the agreement rule. Any student is a singular subject, and so we would expect a singular object, such as "his opinions" or "her opinions" (gender-non-binary considerations notwithstanding). Increasingly, many style guides not only allow for, but encourage the "any student / their" disagreement we see here. This could be from a shift in culture, or you might think it's part of a political movement -- but regardless, the point is that the old rule is changing.

I say all this because there are lots of rules about how to place phrases in sentences, where to put adverbs and adjectives, to definitely not split infinitives, and so forth. But there's nothing wrong with bending or breaking these rules in the service of style, and sometimes substance.. (Recall George Orwell's point that you should break any of the rules he sets out before you say anything egregious.)

Here's a simple example. Would you prefer: "They walked quickly down the street" or "They walked down the street quickly"? Rules aside, the first emphasises the street; the second emphasises the way they walked. Generally, when you leave the reader with the object, that's what will stand out to the them. When you end with a description, that stands out. You might say that in the first case, you suggest to the reader to picture the street, whereas in the second case, you suggest to the reader to picture the action. (Of course, both pictures have a street and an action; it's the emphasis that changes, and that's important.)

It is similarly important, of course, to consider where to place phrases.

Of course, it is similarly important to consider where to place phrases.

"Of course" doesn't actually do much work in the sentence, in terms of content. Here it functions as a conveyor of a conversational tone. Where is it best placed? Well, consider in your own voice where you would place the phrase? Go with that.

See, there's no particular rule. In the context of conversational writing -- though this course addresses is a serious topic -- you give words a "voice". The way you choose to break up sentences with phrases, or emphasise parts of sentences with descriptions or actions, all adds up to your style.

In the next activity, we'll address the passive voice. In this, you'll have to be sensitive to where you place subjects and objects and how to choose verbs carefully.

Last modified: Wednesday, 1 August 2018, 2:39 PM