In Do I Make Myself Clear? (2017), his book on how to write well, Harold Evans comments that “writing is like thinking. It’s hard.” Yes, writing is hard, not because it is like thinking, but because it is thinking. Of course, as an editor of long, and in good, standing, Evans has had to wrestle with the prose of thousands of writers to turn flab into muscle and to pin the squishy, twisted, and flailing to the mat of coherence and purpose.
Editing itself has a noble purpose. Evans tells the reader early on (p. 22) that he sought to bring clarity and concision to the writers in his charge. Clearly that endeavor is worthwhile. No one wants to wade through stodgy or viscous prose in search of a point. Clarity and concision help communicate the point, and proper grammar disambiguates.
But communication is not the goal of writing. Thinking is. As I preached to my colleagues and taught to my students, if you want to know what you think about something, then write about it. How does writing work this magic? Because writing is structured thought. There is nothing more logical. The writer tries to move from point A to point B clearly and concisely. If the writer doesn’t or can’t do that, then the reader can’t either.
“What really matters,” Evans concludes, “is making your meaning clear beyond doubt” (p. 29). Still, you first need to know what your meaning, what your point, is, before you can hope to make it clear. Writing is first and foremost, then, the exercise of discovering and determining the meaning or point.
There are techniques in writing that ease that discovery and determination. I’m going to introduce and expand upon several of those techniques here. I also need at this juncture to point out that the proper use of grammar clarifies our thinking as we write. That might seem an odd, and unnecessary, claim. The rules of grammar appear to be little more than the arbitrary predispositions of authoritarians foisted on the young trapped in classrooms at all levels and on writers eager and even desperate for editorial approval. This view, I think, is misguided, and I shall spend time—inordinate time to many—arguing that the rules of grammar put on paper and thus into action are the rules of ordered thinking.
A THEORY OF GRAMMAR
My first job right out of college was teaching English literature and composition to seventh, ninth, and eleventh graders. This was a major challenge, since I had little background in either literature or composition. In college I fell in love with the plays and political activism of Bertolt Brecht. Soon I found myself taking eccentric courses on German playwrights, European novelists, and French Romantic poets. I was mostly drawn to the instructors of the courses, who had stellar reputations as teachers. As I result, when I applied for teaching jobs, I invented a minor for myself in “Continental Literature.” Who checks on a student’s minor? The minor, apparently, gave me an opening with the administration at Evansville Day School in Evansville, Indiana. But truth be told, they wanted a soccer coach, and I had played intercollegiate soccer. Thus did everyone exchange winks, as “Continental Literature” provided cover for both of us.
Because I knew that I had to teach grammar as an integral part of teaching composition, and because I was woefully ignorant of the rules of grammar, I thought that I’d better bone up before the fall semester began. But in looking over the rules, I discovered that there was little in the way of explaining WHY the rules were as they were. Grammar books informed readers of what the rules were, but not why they existed and functioned as they did. Thus, I discovered about myself an essential fact: in order to teach something, I had to know the theory behind it. Because I couldn’t find such a theory—certainly because I didn’t know where to look—as with my minor in Continental Literature, I made one up.
The theory amounted to this: Grammar exists to establish the relationships among and between words and phrases within sentences and relationships among sentences in paragraphs. What does that mean? Why is that important? How does it work? Stay tuned.