kitchen table math, the sequel: writing by ear

Sunday, September 16, 2012

writing by ear

On the question of 'picking up' grammar through reading, Jean writes:
I think many people--like you--can learn general grammar rules by reading. I am also one of those people, BUT I have always felt insecure in my writing. There are many fine points that I did not absorb and that I make mistakes in. I have also noticed that my daughter, who reads no more than I did at her age but who is made to do a rigorous grammar course, can read at a higher level than I could at her age.
Reading Jean's comment, I'm thinking ... I probably would have been insecure about the fine points of grammar IF I had ever thought about the fine points, or cared. But I didn't! I didn't think about grammar at all, I thought about writing (comma splice intentional).*

I write by ear. I don't recall ever consulting a grammar book, not once in an entire career of professional writing. In fact, I didn't even own a grammar book until a little over 10 years ago, when an editor told me that all the editors in New York liked The Grammar Bible. I bought it, but I didn't read it. (Hope to do so one of these days.)

I always wanted to be a writer, from the time I knew what writing was, and I was an obsessive reader (and still am). And I simply never gave grammar a second thought. I learned grammar through reading, and I practiced grammar through writing.

I wish now I had been taught grammar -- sentence diagramming in particular -- as I would have loved every minute of it, and I think formal instruction in sentence syntax would have made me a better writer sooner.

But I wasn't taught grammar, and I learned to write without thinking consciously about grammar and punctuation.

Back to the question of missing the fine points: I distinctly recall, from time to time (especially back when I discovered my affection for the semicolon) not knowing what 'the rules' said to do. But uncertainty about the rules never caused me to think I ought to actually go out and look up the rules.

Basically, I had just one ironclad rule: does it sound right? If it didn't, I rewrote; and I rewrote over and over and over again. One of these days I should count how many versions some of my sentences (and passages) go through. It has to be in the hundreds. Many hundreds, in some cases.

I'm sure that, like Jean, I was making subtle errors all those years. In fact, I know I was. After I finally started to learn the formal rules, just 2 years ago, I discovered one in particular that I hadn't picked up through reading, which is the prohibition against placing a comma between an independent clause & a dependent adverbial clause.


I went home because I felt sick.


I went home, because I felt sick.

I had never heard of this rule, and never conceived of it, either. (I had also never heard the rule about using a comma after a FANBOYS, or the rule about not putting a comma after "rule" 2 sentences ago.) Where commas were concerned, I had always followed my own rule, which was to use a comma if it sounded right. So sometimes I used a comma, and sometimes I didn't use a comma, depending.

After I learned the No Commas Before Subordinate Adverbial Clauses rule, I started to follow it .... but then, not too long afterward, I stopped. The rule doesn't work! Sometimes a sentence needs a comma, rule or no rule, and there's an end to it.

All of this said, I feel pretty strongly today that I would have been better off if I had learned formal grammar, including sentence diagramming, in K-12. But that is a subject for another post.

* The fact that writing is grammar, pretty much, escaped my notice.


Jean said...

Ha! Maybe, then, it's partly because I have never in my life wanted to be a writer. To me, writing has always seemed like a treacherous swamp I have to navigate without a map. When I started learning about classical education, I was completely stunned to find out that people had, in fact, produced maps for this swamp!

Nowadays we would probably consider all that classification and stuff to be too restrictive, but I have often thought that it might help out the analytical engineering types a lot.

(You said you weren't taught much grammar, but I was taught even less. I learned nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but never knew what an adverb was until well after college. It never occurred to me to look things up; I think I was too intimidated. Now I'm learning along with my 12yo and know much more.)

Anonymous said...

How does one get through a college composition course without being taught any grammar?

I had to purchase a grammar textbook as one of the required texts for my freshman composition course. When my instructor graded papers she would mark the errors on the paper with a reference to the specific section in the textbook that dealt with the rule that I had broken. For example, if there was a comma splice in my paper, then she would circle it and mark a big red "S 3.2" in the margin of my paper. She never wrote "comma splice". No, I had to go look up my error myself and then remember not to commit that error in my next paper. If the majority of the class was committing the same error, then she would have a mini-lesson on that topic in class.

This is how we were taught to improve our writing. I thought that this was standard procedure. Maybe it used to be, but I guess it isn't anymore.

ChemProf said...

It definitely isn't standard anymore. Heck, my department's English department broke out a separate course in "academic grammar" because they do so little of that work in freshman comp.

Katharine Beals said...

I'm guessing there are two dimensions here. One is that some people are better able to pick up written grammar by ear. Another is that some written grammar rules are more intuitive and/or noticeable and thus more easily picked up than others are. For example, some rules about comma placement (e.g., using commas in a series; not using comma splices) correspond neatly with the natural pauses and rising intonations one would (or would not) make during an expressive oral reading of the sentence in question; others are more arbitrary and obscure don't map neatly to pauses and intonation changes (these are ones I haven't picked up by reading and can't recall to cite as examples here--but am reminded of whenever a professional editor proofreads my work!).

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Catherine Johnson said...

then, it's partly because I have never in my life wanted to be a writer. To me, writing has always seemed like a treacherous swamp I have to navigate without a map.


My guess is the fact that you never wanted to be a writer is an important part of the reason why writing seems like a treacherous swamp!

You're a terrific writer. I don't recall ever seeing you make a mistake -- OR write a Comment that wasn't crystal clear and enjoyable to read!

What you lack is confidence, or conviction.

'I'm a writer, so Stuff it': that kind of conviction.

You know what you need!?!

You need the Wizard of Oz to give you a Credential!

(I hope to heck this doesn't sound obnoxious or condescending --- I don't mean it that way at all!)

Getting serious again, I think you've raised an interesting question, which is: Why does a good writer feel unsure?

(I have a hypothesis that good writers are more likely to feel unsure than not-so-good writers, by the way. I suspect that good writers have developed more ability to 'hear' or 'see' flaws in their writing...or to have questions arise in their minds. In other words, the fact that you experience writing as a treacherous swamp is a side effect, or symptom, of being a good writer.)

Would formal instruction in written grammar and style change your uncertainty?

I bet it would.

You don't need formal instruction in written grammar & style to write well.

***But*** formal instruction in written grammar and style would almost certainly allow your conscious mind to recognize that you write well.

Which I think is valuable. As I keep saying (have yet to write a post explaining myself) I believe formal instruction in written grammar and style would have been terrifically useful to me (although A-B-C-D-F grading would not have been useful in my case).

I stayed away from graded courses in writing for precisely that reason. I knew I wanted to be a writer, I knew instinctively that the grading of writing is highly subjective & inconsistent, and I knew I didn't want Bs and Cs on papers to put me off my goal.

I knew I was vulnerable.