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Friday, September 25, 2020

Sentence Structure Importance (Mailbox)

How important is sentence structure?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox." I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I usually do one a week, but we might step it up for a few weeks while I get my mojo back.]   

Cindy asks:

How critical is it to get sentence structure right these days? 

I recently relocated to Belgium for my husband's job. We are renting a house in the middle of nowhere. It checks all the desolate writer boxes: alone, abandoned, rainy weather and no job. Oh, and intermittent internet. So after decades of waiting to find time to write, here I am. But I lay awake at night fearing I won’t be able to construct a sentence. All I see is editors murdering my work with a red marker. 

Advice for the people afraid of grammar police, please and thank you. 

My reply:

Well, you did just fine on this question, Cindy, so I think there's hope.

I have to ask, though, did you mean "sentence structure" as in SENTENCE STRUCTURE or did you mean "sentence structure" as in all kinds of grammar? So I'm going to take this one bit at a time, but I actually see three things here worth discussing.

1-Sentence Structure

The structure of English is generally pretty intuitive to native speakers and reasonably so eventually to folks who immerse themselves as second language learners (rather than trying to translate in their head). It's always the same pattern (for any given language), which is why a five-year-old might make vocabulary errors but mostly gets the structure right. To give a sentence more detail, you add phrases in an order that might be difficult for a native speaker to ARTICULATE, but that almost all will intuitively know how to do.

Having flashbacks. So thanks for that, Cindy.

I took a class on this ("The Structure of English") in college, and I did it for the worst reason imaginable for someone with A.D.H.D.: because it fulfilled a credit and fit into a T/Th schedule--giving me five days off per week. My interest in linguistics is non-trivial but is very casual, and this was A) not casual and B) clearly designed by someone who thought there wasn't enough math in English. To make matters worse, there was one test. One. That was the whole grade. We technically had a mid-term, because department policy required our grades be based on at least two assignments/tests, but it would only count if the grade on our final was worse. Otherwise the entire class was this one test grade. I learned somewhere around that midterm (on which I got a C) that this was only "technically" an undergraduate class. It was "actually" one of those classes that satisfied a prereq for the linguistics master that MOST people never took as undergrads, so they ended up taking it during their first semester of master's coursework. There I was, sitting in the room with a bunch of linguistics graduate students who were themselves confused out of their heads.

This class could not have been more my nemesis if I had designed it myself with the express intention of thwarting me. I had no interest in the subject. It happened at 8am. The teacher had the inflection modulation of a white-noise machine. And I was not taking any Creative Writing classes, so the whole semester felt like this huge waste of the entire reason I was in college to begin with.

But it was outrageously hard. And while that would trip up most people, I am one of those mutant weirdos who get all fucking stubborn and stimulated when something is a plausible but "very difficult" challenge. So fuck that "graduate class" right in its boring ear. I was going to kick its ass.

My college experience was many things, and I put in a lot of work on some of the papers I turned in, but because of my major (English), and the classes I would take if given the choice, I didn't really have a lot of tests. So this was, by several orders of magnitude, the hardest test I had in my entire college career. With papers, you write them, and you can look at them and say "this isn't good enough" and go make them better. And usually you have a rubric, so you know exactly what the paper is required to do. And you can just keep making it better. With a test....you never QUITE know if you've studied enough. I basically locked myself in a room with some snack food for FOUR DAYS and put in the biggest, best, most unbelievable study session I had ever done or would ever do in my ENTIRE LIFE. And I rocked that test. To this day, that class was one of my proudest A's. 

Okay, that was way too much story time. Sorry Cindy. Let's get back to your question...

How important is this structure? 

Pretty goddamned important.

It's the reason people who are just translating in their head sound WRONG when they say things in English. It's also the reason automated translators (like most of the online ones) still sound pretty clunky. The words are all out of order. Because other languages have a different grammatical sentence structure. It's the reason we make jokes about how Yoda talks. Because in English we basically always put a subject before the verb--even if the subject is a filler (It is raining), the subject is implied (imperative case), or the subject is NOT the agent (passive voice). You don't need to understand that last sentence to know that Yoda sounds funny, but I'm telling you it's because his sentence structure always puts the Verb Phrase before the Noun Phrase acting as the subject.

If you know what you're doing when you break the sentence structure, you can earn it.  Annie Proulx won a U.S. National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for The Shipping News and, like, half the sentences in it did not have subjects. (They weren't in imperative case either, if you're wondering.) You could tell what the subject was because it was borrowed from the sentence before (or before that or before that), but it was a very jarring read for several chapters, as English pretty well insists on subjects to the point of putting filler subjects when discussing weather or time. Annie Proulx isn't just making mistakes, though. She knows what she's doing.

If you're a native speaker or a fluent second language speaker though, I'm pretty sure you're going to be fine or mostly fine. In that whole class I did not learn how to write* so much as learn how to label, understand, and categorize things that I, as a native speaker, intuitively understood already.

*I will also say this. Because of that class I have a MUCH greater understanding of high school grammar (and its limitations). Particularly because of its introduction to the concept of "agent," I finally, comprehensively, definitively understand passive voice. 

2- General Grammar (*salute*)

Now if you're asking me about general grammar (*salutes*), things get dicey. You need to know it. But you probably already DO know about 90% of what you need to know. You just don't KNOW that you know it. Sure, it sometimes helps to know the difference between a subordinating conjunction and a conjunctive adverb, but I promise it doesn't really come up when you're actually writing (and sadly not at parties when I'm chatting up the ladies either!). 

It's LESS important that you get this stuff absolutely right than actual "sentence structure." I make enough money to live (outside of the Bay Area and a few other cities) with nothing but my writing income, and I start sentences—even PARAGRAPHS—with coordinating conjunctions all the time (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). I have also read enough to know mostly what I can get away with and what I can't. Some rules are archaic dinosaurs that need to be taken out back behind the chemical shed (ending a sentence with a preposition is totally something modern readers will put up with), some are hard and fast and will make you look pretty foolish if you break them (like use the wrong form of a word), and some are highly contextual (like when to boldly split an infinitive and when it sounds awkward to unthinkingly and while being unaware of the ramifications do so).

Notice that I didn't say I'd "studied enough grammar" to know which ones I could get away with. That's because that's not what gives you a SENSE of what you can get away with. You have to get that from reading. A lot. 

But once you have a good intuition of which rules are more flexible, you'll only ever annoy blue-hair English teachers. And the chances are, you already know most of what you can get away with. 

3-Editor Fear

You're afraid of editors, Cindy.

As gently as I can put this: stop that.

Editors are your friends. As a general rule, editors do not murder work; they breathe life into it. They are the healer in your raid party. They are the medic in your platoon. You can't do it without them. (You technically might be able to, but you shouldn't. I mean you really really really shouldn't. If you want to be published traditionally or—if you self-publish—read by more than a few friends and family, you shouldn't.) I can't stress enough how important they are for even a veteran writer. We all have ideas we could be expressing better.

Editors read your work, figure out what you MEANT, and help you to say it even BETTER. My editor takes my jumbled thoughts that are sometimes a disorganized splat and spins them into gold. I am SO much better a writer because of her efforts. Not just because of the commas I forget after introductory dependent clauses (although, yes, also that), but because she pays attention to what the subject was when I'm writing one of my prolix sentences and tells me when the verb and subject don't agree. And even MORE because she says, "I think you meant this" or "this isn't clear." (And even more more more so when she says "I'm really not sure this is what you want to be saying about this topic," but not every editor is going to be able to content edit while they line edit and/or copyedit.)

Still, the days of red ink meaning that you're getting a worse grade are over, Cindy. Now it's just a color that you can't miss as your eyes flick over the page. Think of your editor like the single best professional colleague you could ever hope for. They are there to make you better. (And if they're any good, they so, absolutely, unbelievably will.)  

Now I will mention one thing because it's a very ubiquitous misconception. You have to carefully edit BEFORE you submit. A publisher's editor is there to polish your silver, not notice your six mistakes on page one. That shit will just get your submission round filed. But editors are absolutely worth the investment, and you can probably find someone who will trade or work a deal if you can't afford one outright. 

This is the round file, in case you didn't know.

So yeah. Depending on what you mean, "sentence structure" is either important or VERY important, but you might have a better sense of it than you think you do, and even if you DON'T, I'm going to sing "Don't Fear the Editor" to the tune of "Don't Fear the Reaper" where I try to crassly cram "editor" down into two syllables so it will scan. 

But there will be so much cowbell, you won't even notice.

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