Friday, August 04, 2006

A Further Note on Grammar

Some would say that complaining about changes in grammar, spelling, and general construction of language is useless, even counterproductive; as our language is constantly changing, both progressing, and unfortunately regressing, with every new day.

I acknowledge that there is truth to this, but I strongly believe that there is a very important reason why grammar remains relevant, in fact critical; even considering the rapid evolution of our written and spoken language.

If one does not write grammatically, one will have difficulty making ones self understood. The rules of grammar are, at least in theory, intended to allow one to read a language such as you would speak it, to be clearly understood.

Dangling participles and preposition placement aside; basic punctuation, capitalization, and reasonable sentence structure are rather important; in fact rather more so than spelling, in my opinion.

The proscription against preposition placement itself was a silly thing; because a single 18th century grammarian decided he didn't like the way it looked, and as luck would have it, his manual was picked up by Oxford. More modern manuals of style note that in spoken and written English, prepositions are naturally placed at the ends of sentences, and clauses; and in fact always have been, both before, and after, this proscription was promulgated (Please forgive the alliteration which appears several times throughout this piece. It is not for effect; simply, it is the appropriate word choice which compels it).

Commas, semicolons, colons, and general punctuation on the other hand; always have been, and continue to be, important to the proper understanding of the written word; which is itself a reflection of our spoken language.

Witness what I have just written: Yes, that was a perfectly legitimate sentence; not a run-on. All the clauses but the primary were subordinate to it, and separated by semicolons, as was the extended comma separated list. The sentence was a paragraph long, but was properly constructed, readable; and importantly it was speakable. If it had been read aloud, it would have been clear and easily understood.

A sentence is a single statement within a conversation, framed within a paragraph. It is entirely appropriate to separate sentences into clauses; rather than creating new sentences out of subordinate clauses, as is the current fashion. Instead however, colloquial writing has us creating sentence fragments throughout our paragraphs. If you spoke these "sentences" as they were written, your speech would be oddly disjointed. Instead we construct our own "run-on" sentences out of these fragments, ignoring their superfluous or misplaced punctuation; thus further reinforcing the error.

The elements of writing are no different than the elements of speech. Phrases and clauses, are subordinate to the sentence. Parenthetical expressions are aside from the sentence, and are to be taken as additional, rather than intrinsic to the structure of the sentence. A sentence is a single statement within a larger expression of a thought, and a paragraph is the complete expression of a single thought or related group of thoughts.

I find this incredibly simple to understand, as this is how the vast majority of humans speak (leaving aside the numerous "uhmmmm"s, "ahhhh"s, and the ubiquitous (and truly evil) "like"s. (note that I leave out the trailing apostrophe in the French and English style. In fact I am more often given to English style punctuation than American; and it seems that America is rapidly coming to this same point of view)

If one does not write as one intends to speak, how is the reader supposed to understand what has been written?