Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Note on Grammar: A Personal Reflection

I learned to write first—still learning of course—and ultimately learned grammar mostly intuitively which I grappled with as part of the process of striving to improve my writing. I concentrated most on finding an idea that evoked some stimulus in my imagination and wrote from the unleashed impulses.  Grammar came slowly; a skill I still work at it even after publishing a fairly significant body of professional work in which professional editors helped a great deal particularly at the direct copy editing level. Though I was unaware of formal work on writing theory or grammar pedagogy while studying at the PhD level in U.S. History, I implicitly embraced the view of grammar instruction as  a patch-up process as detailed by Peter Elbow in his 15th chapter of Writing with Power.

 Slowly, things changed, but not in graduate school in that the history professors were not sticklers for grammatical perfection, though they did not appreciate error strewn texts.  Rather, their primary concern focused on cogent written argumentation, which included a strong accent on logic, effective use of evidence, and overall persuasiveness. Only in my professional life after graduate school did I become more deliberately focused on grammatical accuracy, seldom as a first-order concern, but more as a resource in reinforcing clarity, particularly in the realm of syntax at the sentence level.  My emphasis on sentence clarity, served, in turn, a broader objective in contributing to coherent paragraph writing as part of a broader objective yet of constructing a persuasive extended written argument.  Thus, I was less motivated by the quest for grammatical accuracy, than the search for optimal clarity in expressing complex ideas in a manner that could be clearly grasped by some defined reading audience.

Some years back, I took a major step in my writing evolution in committing myself not to write sentences of more than 60 words.  That was something I had been guilty of in the seeming convoluted need to string idea after idea in what I took as a single thought pattern that included many clauses and (often misplaced) commas.  This self-imposed editorial standard helped a great deal at a certain phase in my writing history in the effort to link an emerging public voice to some definite set of identified readers in the various writing contexts in which I was engaged. My writing contexts included published texts in the field of adult literacy studies, online written classroom lectures, extended listserv discussion posts, and various texts at work, including emails, memos, training materials, and planning documents.  Grammar was seldom at the forefront, but such matters as word selection, sentence clarity, paragraph cogency, and overall textual persuasiveness were very much at the forefront of my concerns.  As a budding author, I relied heavily on the use of active verb tense, precise word selection, and effective paragraph transitions.

Thus, I was not thinking of formal grammar at the time, but clarity, with my abiding grammatical instinct being, to rely on what sounds right to the ear.   It was necessity—that mother of invention—which drove me toward more concentrated mastery of formal grammatical basics (a) when called upon to teach transition to college courses in English, (b) when studying for formal English tests needed for professional certification, and (c) when helping adult students master the language portion of the TABE test. It was only with these cumulative responsibilities that I began to internalize more formal grammatical knowledge.  

 Still, my knowledge of formal grammar remains far from proficient, though I draw upon an array of compensating strategies. At one level, I’m quite sympathetic with Elbow’s claim that “for most [people, nothing helps their writing so much as learning to ignore grammar as they write” (p. 169).  Yet, I wonder, given the excellent editing function of the computer, whether such work on grammar and related structural matters should always be put off till later.  In my own effort I like to get some basic text down in a manner that resembles free writing.  Then I do a good deal of tinkering in the areas of word choice, sentence construction, and fine-tune paragraph reshaping often before moving on toward what might be considered initial draft completion. 

Nonetheless, I take Elbow’s approach that such editing may not always be constructive in that it may bog me down into the intricacies of micro-expression and set up a psychology of perfectionist striving that could impede the free flowing dynamic of continuous writing and discovering some of the more innovative ideas that might emerge in the spontaneous creation of constructing a written text. Perhaps that is so, but I do like to tinker, whether that has to do with grammar, syntax, or broader paragraph construction. 

 At least part of me seeks a more rigorous approach than that which may come across in an initial reading of Writing with Power even while acknowledging that in its totality, the book brims with critical insight on the dynamics of mastering a broad range of powerful writing techniques in support of personal voice and authorial power.  That is, I do not categorically  subscribe to Elbow’s assertion that “Learning grammar [or more broadly, language structure necessarily]… takes crucial energy away from working on your writing,” nor the assumption that “for most people, nothing helps their writing so much as learning to ignore grammar while writing” (169).  At the same time I take his point that we can get too easily caught up in matters of structure and technical form and lose the point of what it is we are seeking to communicate.

 Still, I have no desire to make an absolute of “free writing” even as Elbow’s urging may serve as a goad to take a more experimental attitude and more risks into my written constructions even as I appreciate there is much value in Elbow’s process approach to writing pedagogy.  In this I would include his approach to grammar, which I am seeking to define in a broader, metaphorical way in discerning the role of language structure in contributing to the effectiveness of a coherent written argument.  The thought that comes to mind in reading Elbow is that of taking in his ideas through an attitude of critical—and imaginative—appropriation.