Of all the arguments technical writers enjoy having, few beat the ones about grammar for sheer vehemence of point of view. Grammatical arguments suffer from a problem of authority. Because English does not have a really clear authority on usage, an argument on right and wrong often comes down to a contest of manufacturing authority — one technical writer flourishes complex syntax categories with impressive names, while another points out the arbitrary rules of a revered style guide. There are still quite a few who refer to the authority of an impressive early teacher, and some of us who are forced to fall back on “I know what sounds right.” Whether you’re on a technical writing team that serves up corporate style guides for lunch, or a lone writer trying to find consistency and clarity, perhaps it’s time to take a new look at how you approach grammar.
Comprehension and Language Learning
If you think about it, even without a clear authority we English speakers and writers manage to achieve almost perfect comprehension almost all of the time. This is because of the remarkable power of our language-oriented brain, which works out the way that things are done, in our native language, simply by taking in enough examples. Obviously, this doesn’t happen through formal grammar instruction. It happens through absorption: small children learn words by hearing them, and they learn the rules of grammar by hearing those too.
Let me give an example: we’ve all heard small children use irregular verbs wrongly. What we may not realize is the incredible analytical power this implies: my own daughter told me once that she runned to the tree and looked at a bird. This is an unremarkable error – until we realize that my daughter had created a word, based on the rules of past tense. She has never heard the word runned before. So, where did it come from? Well, she created it, having learned the word run and having learned the rules of past tense. So she took the verb run and inflected it based on the rules of grammatical tense. Correctly. I think that’s pretty remarkable, but not enough that I failed to teach her the exceptions.
And we all have the same remarkable skills. I’m going to stick to English in this article, because it’s the working language of most technical writers who frequent Techwhirl.com, but obviously infants in other languages absorb the rules of those languages too. Presumably ancient Roman babies picked up the rules of Latin, which is a humbling thought.
Anyhow, this absorption ability should be a central point when we’re thinking about grammar. Our brain already knows how to understand complex grammatical structures, we are primed to learn them in our early childhood, and this is why we all speak and understand the same way: we already know the complexities of grammar, long before it’s taught to us.
So even professional language users (even those in technical writing) don’t need to have arbitrary authorities to guide us—not really—because the truth is that we have the structure of the language clear within our minds, so we just need to shine a light on the machinery that’s already working.
Dr. Ed Vavra, an American professor of linguistics, first published his grammar teaching methods in the 1980s as an attempt to combat the anti-grammar policies of the NCTE. It’s based on genuine neurolinguistic research: when a reader of English hears a word, it stays in processing, not comprehended, until its meaning in context is understood…and then the entire context transfers all at once to short-term memory. This is empirical, not just assumed. It’s based on real science and so it has a genuine authority behind it, rather than the arbitrary authority of those technical writing style guides.
From these experiments, we can derive the minimal concept of a phrase. The research shows that the words in a phrase are not truly understood until the phrase is finished. A similar , and stronger, phenomenon occurs with the clause – our brains have ways of knowing when we’ve understood a communication, and that doesn’t happen until a clause is completed. The definition of phrase and clause come very close to the traditional grammars we all learned in school, luckily, so most of what we learn from our authorities is correct: phrases and clauses actually do correspond with the true structure of English, the structure that our brains learned by absorbing the conversation around us as children.
Implications for Learning Grammar
But this still puts a new spin on learning our grammar: rather than choosing from one of the many grammar systems available, and grimly learning it from scratch, we can take the neurolinguistic responses that are demonstrated experimentally, and use them to confirm what the structures of English grammar really are… not what the Victorians thought they are, not what Strunk & White thought they are, and certainly not what Mr. McIntyre, my grade 6 teacher, told us.
Many technical writers are in the position of an athlete who knows very well how to run, but doesn’t have a medical knowledge of the muscles and tendons and bones that extend her leg and retract it at the right moment. X-rays and ultrasounds, and, err, other medical research tools are going to provide her with expert mechanical knowledge. Learning about the body mechanics isn’t essential for someone who just wants to get around the neighbourhood — and like language, those people just figure out how to do it on their own. But any person who aspires to be a professional will nowadays have to develop the technical knowledge beneath the surface. That technical knowledge should come from experiments (MRI, there’s another useful tool! ) and not just from the advice of other doctors, no matter how senior.
Which of the mechanical systems that work the body are most important? Probably the bones and muscles. In grammar, the most central of the systems is the clause.
Mechanical Basics: The Clause
By far we express ourselves most often in statements (the other winners are questions and instructions) and the clause is found most clearly in statements. Philosophically, a statement is simply an assertion about some thing. Some thing, which we can easily remember as the subject, has an assertion made about it – it is something, or it did something, or thought something…whatever. The basis of a statement is subject-plus-assertion. There are several different grammatical terms for that assertion, and the oldest is the predicate, a term that’s also used in the philosophy of logic.
Memorizing terminology won’t help us, though, because if we decide to learn the term predicate we’ll wind up in a bar fight with a Chomskyite insisting on the expression VP. Nobody wants that. (Nobody is the subject here, and wants that is the assertion being made about nobody.)
The important thing is what’s happening in the brain: we hear the subject, we keep it in our working memory, and we listen to the next words one after another until we hear what the subject has done. Then it goes into our short-term memories, and we can begin to contemplate the actual statement. If a clause is begun — and we’re suddenly distracted by a flash and an explosion, we don’t actually remember the words that we heard. If a clause is completed just before the explosion, our brain understands it, and stores it away in memory, and we’ll remember it when we get our heartrate back down again.
Another aspect of intelligence is deciding to leave the area because of all of the explosions and flashes going on. I’m not sure how they managed to keep these experiments going on for as long as they did.
We can also understand a smaller unit of words that clearly live together – for example on the webpage or the blue “delete” button. These are widely called phrases, and phrases are widely argued among grammar authorities. For neurolinguistics, though, we simply ask this question: do the words all chunk together? If so, they’re a phrase. (Many errors occur when the reader thinks a phrase is finished but the writer didn’t mean to end the phrase there.)
With those two basic concepts in place: the clause (statement) and the phrase (chunk) we can take a look at sentence analysis. The basic principle of sentence analysis is: find out what the statement or statements are, and then you’ll know how all the rest of the words fit in.
Everything else major is just a spin-off of statements: punctuation is a way of clarifying the details of the statement, tense is just how we place the statement in the stream of time, and even the weird concepts like mood and mode and voice are all just different nuances in how the statement is made.
Analyzing Easy Sentences
This is the last basic step. Yes, there are incredibly complex nuances in English grammar, but remember this: you can already craft them. Even young children can use category-bending words like participles and gerunds, without being anywhere near to analysing them. When we re-learn basic grammar analysis, our ability outstrips our understanding by a long way, and will continue to do so for a long time. It’s fair to consider yourself “expert” at grammar when you can fully analyse everything that you can create.
When analyzing sentences, it helps to start with the prepositional phrase. You probably already know what a preposition is and a prepositional phrase is simply a preposition plus its object (Some people call the object a complement, which is another example of how authorities can’t even agree on their jargon). A preposition indicates a relationship, like below or within, and its object is simply what we’re looking under, or within: below the html code, within the same box. And a prepositional phrase is always a modifier. Always, 100%, no exceptions, which is nice to hear. Finding these modifiers first allows us to wrap up huge parts of the sentence; prepositional phrases make up very large portions of most of our sentences–even the simple, clear sentences we strive for in technical writing.
After that first step, we look for the verb, which is a category of word we must simply learn to recognize, then we ask ourselves the subject of that verb (the verb is what’s being asserted, remember, so who or what is doing it?) If the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, we are asserting that something jumps – the verb – and then ask ourselves what’s actually jumping…the fox is. The assertion is that the fox jumps. All else is just modification – details.
In those three simple steps – prepositional phrases, verbs, then subjects – we have re-learned the basic science of analysing a clause. Simple sentences have only one clause in them, and we often write sentences with two clauses, but we’ll rarely find more than three in them. Assertions of that sort are simply too convoluted to remember.
Expansion into Complexity: Familiar Technical Writing Territory
You’ll recognize that I’ve glossed over a lot of nuances here. English is a complicated language, and there are plenty of off-kilter alternatives that let us approach our sentence-making from an odd direction. For that matter, we don’t always speak in sentences. Nor even questions and commands. But when we first learn to speak, we learn simple declarative sentences, like I runned to the tree. Then later we learn to transform and mutate them.
Then when we become technical writers, we have to learn once again how to simplify what we’re writing, and gradually we return to the straightforward structures. Relearning the underlying structures of grammar, from a perspective that is based on experimental proof rather than arbitrary authority, is a good way to get back to basics.
And it turns out “I know what sounds right” is a lot more reasonable than it first appears.
Steven Pinker The Language Instinct Harper Perennial, 1994.
Steven Pinker Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language, Harper Perennial, 1991.
Ed Vavra KISS Grammar Website <http://home.pct.edu/~evavra/KISS.htm>