Archive for the ‘Grammar’ Category

I picked up a copy of Daniel Siegel’s book Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human (2017) to read and supplement my ongoing preoccupation with human consciousness. Siegel’s writing is the source of considerable frustration. Now about 90 pp. into the book (I am considering putting it aside), he has committed several grammatical errors (where are book editors these days?), doesn’t really know how to use a comma properly, and doesn’t write in recognizable paragraph form. He has a bad habit of posing questions to suggest the answers he wants to give and drops constant hints of something soon to be explored like news broadcasts that tease the next segment. He also deploys a tired, worn metaphor that readers are on a journey of discovery with him, embarked on a path, exploring a subject, etc. Yecch. (A couple Amazon reviews also note that grayish type on parchment (cream) paper poses a legibility problem due to poor contrast even in good light — undoubtedly not really Siegel’s fault.)

Siegel’s writing is also irritatingly circular, casting and recasting the same sentences in repetitious series of assertions that have me wondering frequently, “Haven’t I already read this?” Here are a couple examples:

When energy flows inside your body, can you sense its movement, how it changes moment by moment?

then only three sentences later

Energy, and energy-as-information, can be felt in your mental experience as it emerges moment by moment. [p. 52]

Another example:

Seeing these many facets of mind as emergent properties of energy and information flow helps link the inner and inter aspect of mind seamlessly.

then later in the same paragraph

In other words, mind seen this way could be in what seems like two places at once as inner and inter are part of one interconnected, undivided system. [p. 53]

This is definitely a bug, not a feature. I suspect the book could easily be condensed from 330 pp. to less than 200 pp. if the writing weren’t so self-indulgent of the author. Indeed, while I recognize a healthy dose of repetition is an integral part of narrative form (especially in music), Siegel’s relentless repetition feels like propaganda 101, where guileless insistence (of lies or merely the preferred story one seeks to plant in the public sphere) wears down the reader rather than convinces him or her. This is also marketing 101 (e.g., Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Budweiser, etc. continuing to advertise what are by now exceedingly well-established brands).


Over at Gin and Tacos, the blogger has an interesting take on perverse incentives that function to inflate grades (and undermine learning), partly by encouraging teachers to give higher grades than deserved at the first hint of pushback from consumers students, parents, or administrators. The blog post is more specifically about Why Johnny Can’t Write and references a churlish article in Salon. All well and good. The blog author provides consistently good analysis as a college professor intimate with the rigors of higher education and the often unprepared students deposited in his classroom. However, this comment got my attention in particular. The commentator is obviously a troll, and I generally don’t feed trolls, so I made only one modest comment in the comments section. Because almost no one reads The Spiral Staircase, certainly no one from the estimable Gin and Tacos crowd, I’ll indulge myself, not the troll, by examining briefly the main contention, which is that quality of writing, including correct grammar, doesn’t matter most of the time.

Here’s most of the comment (no link to the commentator’s blog, sorry):

1. Who gives a flying fuck about where the commas go? About 99.999999999999999% of the time, it makes NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER in terms of understanding somebody’s point if they’ve used a comma splice. Is it a technical error? Sure. Just like my unclear pronoun reference in the last sentence. Did you understand what I meant? Unless you were actively trying not to, yes, you did.

2. There’s are hundreds of well-conducted peer-reviewed studies by those of us who actually specialize in writing pedagogy documenting the pointlessness of teaching grammar skills *unless students give a fuck about what they’re writing.* We’ve known this since the early 1980s. So when the guy from the high school English department in the article says they can’t teach grammar because students think it’s boring, he’s unwittingly almost making the right argument. It’s not that it’s boring–it’s that it’s irrelevant until the students have something they want to say. THEN we can talk about how to say it well.

Point one is that people manage to get their points across adequately without proper punctuation, and point two is that teaching grammar is accordingly a pedagogical dead end. Together, they assert that structure, rules, syntax, and accuracy make no difference so long as communication occurs. Whether one takes the hyperbole “99.999999999999999% of the time” as the equivalent of all the time, almost all the time, most of the time, etc. is not of much interest to me. Red herring served by a troll.

/rant on

As I’ve written before, communication divides neatly into receptive and expressive categories: what we can understand when communicated to us and what we can in turn communicate effectively to others. The first category is the larger of the two and is greatly enhanced by concerted study of the second. Thus, reading comprehension isn’t merely a matter of looking up words in the dictionary but learning how it’s customary and correct to express oneself within the rules and guidelines of Standard American English (SAE). As others’ writing and communication becomes more complex, competent reception is more nearly an act of deciphering. Being able to parse sentences, grasp paragraph structure, and follow the logical thread (assuming those elements are handled well) is essential. That’s what being literate means, as opposed to being semi-literate — the fate of lots of adults who never bothered to study.

To state flatly that “good enough” is good enough is to accept two unnecessary limitations: (1) that only a portion of someone’s full, intended message is received and (2) that one’s own message is expressed with no better than adolescent sophistication, if that. Because humans are not mind readers, loss of fidelity between communicated intent and receipt is acknowledged. Further limiting oneself to lazy and unsophisticated usage is, by way of analogy, to reduce the full color spectrum to black and white. Even further, the suggestion that students can learn to express themselves properly once they have something to say misses the whole point of education, which is to prepare them with adult skills in advance of need.

As I understand it, modern American schools have shifted their English curricula away from the structural, prescriptive approach toward licentious usage just to get something onto the page, or in a classroom discussion, just to choke something out of students between the hemming ums, ers, uhs, ya knows, and I dunnos. I’d like to say that I’m astonished that researchers could provide cover for not bothering to learn, relieving both teachers and students of the arduous work needed to develop competence, if not mastery. That devaluation tracks directly from teachers and administrators to students and parents, the latter of whom would rather argue for their grades than earn them. Pity the fools who grub for grades without actually learning and are left holding worthless diplomas and degrees — certificates of nonachievement. In all likelihood, they simply won’t understand their own incompetence because they’ve been told all their lives what special flowers they are.

/rant off

A never-ending debate rages between two camps: language mavens who are dedicated to preserving standards and language modifiers who embrace change of any sort. The characterization of one group by the other is less charitable. Mavens are called school marms, Nazis, and keepers of pointless detail. Modifiers are called philistines and ignoramuses. Can you guess which camp I’m in?

Undoubtedly, language is fluid and undergoes change as particular usages dominate or decay with time. Further, some details matter more (or less) than others. A raging debate was sparked by a recent change to the Associate Press style sheet. Many publishing organs compile style sheets to bring consistency out of chaos with respect to how certain terms are used. For example, which is correct, Web-site or website (or some further variation)? The current debate is over e-mail vs. email. Although this is not a detail worth arguing at length, it is probably worth deciding for the sake of consistency. Whereas I prefer e-mail, the Associated Press decided to change to email. Neither determination is borne out of ignorance as to how compound words are formed, but loud, vehement cries of “Who cares?” no doubt are. Those are the ignoramuses who can’t believe such detail warrants the slightest bit of attention. The keepers charge that if we don’t care about this, then why care about spelling or punctuation at all?

Even more unsettling, perhaps, is the decision of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the self-proclaimed definitive record of the English language, to include initialisms, namely, LOL, FYI, and OMG. (I was a little surprised by the word initialism, but it apparently has a long period of use.) If the OED is trying to be all inclusive, then sure, throw everything in. But if it’s trying to be definitive, admitting new words to the lexicon needs to be quite conservative. No doubt its editorial board has conditions for inclusion that lie beyond my scrutiny.

Changes in usage do not necessitate decline, but the preponderance of changes now occurring stems not from any need to express ideas better but from liberalization of expression. Shortcuts taken to accommodate texting efficiency or to meet Twitter character limits do not enhance language, though their ubiquity cannot be challenged. And as we transition from a reading public to a viewing public (as I’ve argued here, among other places), the loss of ability to decode subtle usage and indeed think sophisticated thoughts is guaranteed when our lexicon is littered with thoughtless though hip and efficient nonwords.

My first impression of this article at MSNBC about grammar geeks boiling over was that it’s more muckraking by the media: a pointless story about a nonissue (not that all stories must be life-and-death serious). Upon reflection, maybe there is something there worth considering. Although littered with clever and silly terms (language lovers, spelling snobs, grammar grunions, grammar vigilantes, grammar vandals, word nerds, word warriors, etc.), I was rather surprised not to see word rage or grammar rage used, or for that matter, the rather obvious grammar geek. In a story about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage, it’s also gratifying to note that the author did not commit a series of her own blunders (as I’m prone to do). I wasn’t proofreading, but I found only one error:

But these newly hip word warriors are doing more than writing odes to apostrophes and posting tips for people who don’t know their like or as from a hole in the ground.

When referring to words as words, one should quote or italicize as follows:

… people who don’t know their like or as from a hole in the ground.

That could be a simple HTML error, but I rather doubt it.


Peccadilloes of Prose Punctuation

Posted: January 11, 2007 in Grammar, Writing

A writer friend of mine pointed me to a blog post linking to another blog post praising the serial comma. The comments threads on both posts are relatively brief, but I’m struck that none of the commenters really get to what seems to me the underlying wisdom behind focusing one’s attention on the peccadilloes of prose punctuation. Perhaps it will be helpful to digress into a short grammar lesson first (that ought to scare away the readers).