Grammar Challenge: Reiterations of Some Explanations in the Now-Unwieldy Comments Section

Posted by @ 6:58 pm on December 4th, 2009

First, thanks so much to all of you who read/took/RT’d/linked to/commented on the Dave Wallace grammar challenge. I wanted to pay a small, quiet tribute to someone who did a great lot for me, and I am floored by the response. I’m beginning to feel like a broken record in the comments sections, though, as they are increasingly hard to navigate, and many readers have taken similar but separate umbrage with the idea of teaching or testing Standard Written English in the first place. Wallace addresses this in the essay I linked to in the answers post, but as the comments keep rolling in, I want to summarize some of what he taught me about this issue.

So. The quiz was intended to help writing workshop students spot errors w/r/t the current conventions of Standard Written English (SWE). The point is NOT to teach students to lord little rules over their friends; the point is to be more careful writers. And why does knowing the current conventions of SWE help us become careful writers?

Probably the most important reason is to avoid ambiguity. We want to make our meaning clear. Putting modifiers far from what they modify creates extra work for the reader, so we learn to spot this trouble area. Professor Wallace distinguished between good, rich ambiguity (even in grammar–cf the brilliantly dangling modifiers of Barry Hannah) and bad, distracting ambiguity, where we cause our reader to wonder whether we’ve made a calculated nonstandard choice (which is fine as long as our readers can tell) or merely don’t know the current accepted standards are in usage in grammar. He wanted us to avoid the latter kind of ambiguity.

Second, it pays to be consistent in tone and level of formality. A great example here would be the fiction of George Saunders. Many of Saunders’ narrators display various nonstandard narrative choices, amounting even to tics, which enriches our understanding of those characters. If one of those characters all of a sudden used a hyper-correct construction like an expletive that, we would wonder if Saunders made an oversight. But of course that never happens in a Saunders story because he knows the rules and lets his characters break them consistently and meaningfully. This is true even for a nonfiction narrator. Even though we all probably follow or break conventions pretty inconsistently in our everyday speech, it is less distracting for the reader, in most cases, to pick a level of formality and stick with it.

The biggest thing is that, as writers, we’re asking a great deal from our readers in terms of attention and trust. Wallace taught us that we owe it to them to make our prose (this was a prose workshop) as lucid, consistent, and context-appropriate as we can. Mastery of SWE helps us do that, even if we choose — consistently– to break every rule in the book.

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