Articles about "Grammar and style"


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Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two.

When I fight this anxiety, when I advise writers to “Fear not the long sentence,” my encouragement inspires looks of alarm from teachers as if I were advocating taking all the garter snakes out of high school terrariums and replacing them with anacondas.

Care must be taken with the long sentence of course, the care of craft, because mastery of the long sentence is an arrow in the quiver of almost every writer I admire. As always, the exercise of craft begins not with technique but a sense of mission and purpose. By my count, there are three main reasons to cast a long sentence:

  • To take a journey through a physical or emotional landscape.
  • To create a catalogue or inventory.
  • To build a mosaic of logic or evidence.

Let’s test an example of each, beginning with this excerpt from one of my favorite novels, Herzog by Saul Bellow:

The wheels of the cars stormed underneath. Woods and pastures ran up and receded, the rails of sidings sheathed in rust, the dipping racing wires, and on the right the blue of the Sound, deeper, stronger than before. Then the enameled shells of the commuters’ cars, and the heaped bodies of junk cars, the shapes of old New England mills with narrow, austere windows;  villages, convents; tugboats moving in the swelling fabric-like water; and then plantations of pine, the needles on the ground of a life-giving russet color.

Think of yourself as riding northeast on a train through Connecticut, as is the protagonist in Bellow’s novel. You chug along slowly (with a seven word sentence); then accelerate (with 31 words); by the time you reach your highest speed  (50 words), you are rattling between the landscape and the seascape with the detritus of civilization flying by you. With that longest sentence, the author takes us on a journey. We see what he wants us to see in the order he wants us to see it.

There is a bit of an inventory in Bellow’s sentence, a list of things that fly by you on a moving train. That effect is magnified in this controversial sentence that begins David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-​brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-​print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

I describe this 88-word sentence as controversial because I have found it listed among the best and worst sentences ever written, and it does convey a look-at-me quality that some critics find self-indulgent. But make believe, for a second, that you love it. Take a ride across a symbolic American landscape, populated by (count them) 19 species of weed and wild plant – each with a wonderful name – all headed for the verb “invaginate,” DFW’s pregnant synonym for “enclose.”

Take a journey, review an inventory, or, if you prefer, follow the path of an argument. Consider this example from Robert Caro’s biography of LBJ describing a plan of action immediately after the Kennedy assassination:

No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability – to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head – and to legitimize the transition:  to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to move, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation;  to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.

Caro has proven countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence. His description of the second that changed LBJ’s life forever – and America’s — during the motorcade through Dallas is told in a single sentence, serving as a paragraph, just six words long:  “There was a sharp, cracking sound.”

Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above. Notice that it contains the two qualities we have already described as characteristic of long sentences. It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape now, but across a plan of action. And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes. It adds a final element though, and that is a body of evidence. The case is framed early and late in the sentence: that the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony. Every word between those frames is designed to persuade.

From my study of the long sentence, I have concluded that:

  • It helps if subject and verb of main clause come early.
  • Use the long sentence to describe something long.
  • It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
  • Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
  • Use the long sentence as a list or catalog of products, names, images – saving the most important for the end.
  • Long sentences need more editing than short ones.

By contrast to some famous sentences written in the 17th century – “sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortege in their sheer ceremonial lavishness” as novelist W.G. Sebald described them — contemporary long sentences seem modest in their ambitions: to take the reader on a little journey of discovery amidst an endless sequence of 140-character bits of language. Read more

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Why AP style doesn’t use ISIL or ISIS anymore

Just two weeks after the Associated Press explained why it referred to the Islamic militant group laying siege to Iraq as “ISIL” rather than “ISIS,” the rebels complicated matters by declaring a new “Islamic caliphate” and changing their name to “the Islamic State.”

The English translation for the group’s former name previously used by the AP was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. News organizations like The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, referred to it as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Now the question for news organizations is whether to go along with the group’s rebranding efforts and potentially grant it undeserved legitimacy, or to keep using an acronym that’s familiar to readers but is arguably out-of-date. Read more

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oxford

AP Style should adopt the Oxford comma

It’s great to see that Nate Silver’s 538 is finally hitting its stride. Stepping aside from the conflicts of politics and sports, the data site has decided to weigh in on a controversy that truly ignites the passion of partisans. Forget Red States versus Blue States, campers. Forget Brazil vs. Argentina in the World Cup. Want to see the fur fly? Debate the Oxford comma.

The Oxford or serial comma (which I prefer) is the one that comes before the “and” in a series such as: “Kelly, Al, Kenny, Ellyn, Jill, Butch, and Roy teach at Poynter.” AP style, which Poynter follows, omits that final comma, leaving “Butch and Roy” attached like “Siegfried and Roy.”

I devote a chapter in my book “The Glamour of Grammar” to my preference for that final comma, and now believe that AP style should now include it. Here is a condensed version of what I had to say. Since I’m quoting from a book, the serial comma will be preserved throughout.

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Advocate use of the serial comma

I have spent my career navigating between literature and journalism, trying to learn from both worlds. From my training and experience as an English professor, I carried into the newsroom the power of close reading, a respect for narrative, and a theoretical understanding of the writing process. From years of working with reporters and editors, I’ve gained a sense of craft, a respect for readers, and a compass that points me toward mission and purpose.

Though I embody these two language traditions in equal amounts, I have preferences, and some of them are passionate, even about the little things. So I say with the certainty of inevitable contradiction that when it comes to the serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the literary folks have it right, and the journalists have it wrong. The reader needs that final comma before “and” in a series. I need it.

Despite their common heritage in language, analysis, and storytelling, journalists and the literati belong to two different “discourse communities.” I learned that phrase from scholar Carolyn Matelene, and have found it one of the most useful concepts for understanding language. A simpler way to think of a discourse community is as a “language club,” a place where members share the same lingo.

Philosophers form a language club; so do baseball players; so do jazz musicians; so do trial lawyers, tax lawyers, and estate attorneys; so do medical doctors and witch doctors; so do scientists and Scientologists; so do drug dealers and gang bangers; so do straights and gays; so do Buddhist monks; so do kindergarten kids; so do runway models.

Believe it or not, we are back to the serial comma. For three decades, I have included that final comma in a series only to watch helplessly as my journalism editors pluck it out with tweezers. The absurdity of this situation will become apparent:

  • I will write an essay like this one, inserting serial commas wherever necessary.
  • Mallary Tenore, my former editor at the Poynter Institute, which follows AP style, will take them out for our website.
  • Tracy Behar, my editor at Little, Brown, which favors serial commas, will put them all back in for the book version.

When Mallary writes for her blog, she includes them. “I like them,” she says. “They make things clearer.” So the editor who took out my serial commas fights to keep her own. It’s like being a Yankee fan married to a Red Sox fan. You can’t win.

To own a preference is one thing, to peddle it another, so let’s test the value of the serial comma in a paragraph that contains two of them, from author Michael Paterniti:

But the Mississippi isn’t open for baptisms today. A momentary upriver thaw has set it loose with high water, and by the time it’s made St. Louis, by the time it’s been birthed from its first trickles out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, picked up speed and caught the blue pulse of the St. Croix River south of St. Paul; after it’s already borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri, it’s one pissed and frothy mother rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre- history. (from Driving Mr. Albert)

I count 97 words in that passage. The first sentence contains only eight words. That means the author is asking the reader to manage an 89-word sentence, a clever, flowing description, the length of which mimics the actions it describes. Just as a river needs banks, a sentence like this needs just the right punctuation to keep the meaning from flooding our ability to comprehend. That semicolon in the middle provides visual relief and lets the reader take a quick breath. The commas help the author organize two great lists: “borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri” and “rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre-history.” Deleting the serial comma leaves holes in the trousers of the story. When I see that final comma followed by “and,” it alerts me that I’m coming to the end of the list and prepares me for the next one.

Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post thinks there’s more at stake here than just a few missing squiggles on the page: “If all this involved only grammar, I might let it lie. But the comma’s sad fate is, I think, a metaphor for something larger: how we deal with the frantic, can’t-wait-a-minute nature of modern life. The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes PAUSE. It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and then move on. We don’t have time for that. No pauses allowed. In this sense, the comma’s fading popularity is also social
commentary.”

An alternative view comes from the punk band Vampire Weekend when they ask the musical question “Who gives a f— about an Oxford comma?” The answer, boys, is “I do.”

Apparently, so do the readers of 538. A majority voted to include it. There is hope for this democracy yet.

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Pollard

The ‘cinematic slow-motion effect’ of Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Seabiscuit’

[What we all need leading up to a Triple Crown horse race is an essay about the rhetoric of punctuation. So here it is, adapted from a chapter in my book The Glamour of Grammar. Don’t worry, there is an actual connection to horse racing. I have chosen to analyze a special passage from a special book, Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. A close reading of her prose will reveal how a champion among writers uses every trick in the book to create special literary effects.]

Whenever we concentrate on the rules of grammar and punctuation, we run the risk of veiling the creativity and flexibility available to authors who think of them as tools of meaning and effect.

Let’s take as an example a splendid passage from Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book Seabiscuit, a stirring narrative history of one of America’s legendary racehorses. In this scene, Hillenbrand describes the mystical glory of Seabiscuit’s last great stretch run in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap: Read more

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Journalists react to AP’s state-names change

On Wednesday, the Associated Press announced another style change that seemed to cause more teeth-grinding and head-shaking. Starting May 1, the news co-op said, we’ll spell out state names within the bodies of stories rather than abbreviate them.

In March, Poynter wrote about the news that the AP removed the distinction between over and more than. Here’s how that one went over.

I gathered some reactions across Facebook, Twitter and our comments section on the state names news.

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How did you/will you remember the spellings of state names?

Now that we’ll be spelling state names out in full, perhaps this is merely a way to remember that there was, once, another way.

Do you have any tips or tricks that helped you remember the shortened version of state names? (Before I came to Poynter, most of my reporting happened in Missouri, which was easy with just Mo.) But what about Pennsylvania (Pa.)? Wisconsin (always Wis., never Wisc.)?

And now that things are changing, do you have any tips or tricks that help you remember how to spell those names out correctly? Other than consulting the AP Stylebook, the dictionary or Google?

My editor, Andrew Beaujon, uses this Sammy Kershaw song to help him remember how to spell Tennessee.

And of course, there’s “Oklahoma!”

Tweet your ideas to me @kristenhare or email them to khare@poynter.org. Read more

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states_small_depositphotos

AP: Spell out names of states in stories

AP is not done rocking the journalism world with style changes.

The following guidance went out on the AP wire Wednesday: “Effective May 1, the AP will spell out state names in the body of stories.” You will still use abbreviations in datelines, photo captions, lists, etc.

The change “also applies to newspapers cited in a story,” the guidance says. “For example, a story datelined Providence, R.I., would reference the Providence Journal, not the Providence (R.I.) Journal.” (For what it’s worth, you don’t have to call that jurisdiction the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Rhode Island works fine.)

Full note: Read more

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pencils over black_depositphotos

AP Stylebook update: A sign of our times

People are freaking out over an update to the AP Stylebook, the equivalent of canon law for journalists. AP Style now tells us that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable. It’s as if Big Brother has just suggested that what was true yesterday, is no longer true today.

Not all people are freaking out, of course. But a lot of people are, especially journalists, and also English majors. The people who love word craft are visibly upset. You can tell by tracking #ACES2014 on Twitter.

For the uninitiated, until this update, “more than” was used when referring to numbers. “Over” was appropriate when talking about the physical relationship of two objects.

On this issue, you could divide the world into three categories of people. There are those who believe that words are tools and that if you are going to craft something substantial you must use the right tool. You wouldn’t pound a screw in with a hammer, would you?

Then there are those who are aware of these nuanced differences, but they believe that words are flexible and democratic. I count myself in this category. While I prefer to build something eloquent, I don’t always get there. And I’m not above using a blunt object when I can’t find my drill.

Finally, there are a lot of people completely unaware or unmoved by this debate. They have a toolbox, they use it when they need it, and it gets the job done.

Whichever category you are in, it is impossible to not see this alteration of standards as a sign of the times.

“It is a license to cut corners,” Tim Stephens wrote in a lively conversation on my Facebook page. A former newspaperman, he’s now the deputy managing editor of CBSSports.com, as well as the current president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association. “It is an admission that there are no copy editors left to ‘fix’ it, and thus it is therefore OK to let slide, so the overworked ‘producers’ who now handle copy can focus on more essential tasks such as adding video or honing the SEO fields.”

That’s probably right. We have lowered the barriers to production and allowed more voices into our democratic spaces. As the volume of content available for consumption has grown, it seems logical that we have altered the precision with which we use our words.

The change in the AP Stylebook is merely an acknowledgment of that fact. And if you want to remain a relevant and effective influence, you cannot insist on enforcing standards that large numbers of people ignore or misunderstand.

And yet there will always be a need and an appreciation for finely crafted prose. In the cacophony that now exists, such words will rise over the noise.

The AP Stylebook is for everyone, not just the sophisticates. Western civilization won’t come to an end because of this change. If anything, getting rid of widely disregarded standards will make the remaining standards stronger.

Words are like wine. Consumption is up dramatically. Our options are greater than ever. There’s an entire supermarket aisle filled with choices. We find what we need. And every once in a while, we taste the great stuff. Read more

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Grammar

Let grammar know who’s boss

So Tuesday is National Grammar Day. The first time I heard of that celebration, I thought that Poynter’s Vicki Krueger had said “National Grandma Day.”  I’m not sure it’s a good thing that grammar – especially in New England – sounds something like grandma. I prefer to remember that at one time in the history of the English language the words grammar and glamour were the same word! (That deserves an exclamation point, don’t you think?)

But even as we spend the day recognizing the importance of grammar, the question remains, “Which grammar?” Is it prescriptive grammar day, where we would mark people off for violations of standard English? Or is it descriptive grammar day, when linguists get all huffy about the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the language scolds among us.

My inclination is to split the difference. If I had to place myself in a particular camp, mine would be rhetorical grammar.  As the name implies, I’m less interested in the rules than the effects of language use.

Let’s take a common language framework applied to writing: the difference between the active voice and the passive voice. As a refresher, if the subject of the sentence performs the action of the verb, we call that “active.” If subject receives the action, we call that “passive.”

I am suddenly reminded of a thought I had as a fifth-grader, when I first learned this distinction: “So what?”

So plenty. Active verbs require fewer words and reveal the players. That’s why a century of writing experts prefer the active. In other words, they prefer a kind of usage because of its effects on the audience: clarity, economy, directness, transparency. Too often, that leads to disparagement of the passive, which is a foolish and counter-productive mindset.

Yes, politicians use the passive to avoid responsibility as in “mistakes were made.”  Or to portray themselves as victims as in “I was blindsided.”

But active verbs can be used in support of corrupt intentions too: “The protesters got what they deserved.”

Think instead of how both active and passive can work for you and be expressed in vivid language. If you want to place attention on the receiver of an action – even a victim of it – the passive should be there on your workbench.

So please join our webinar, Tuesday, March 4, 2 p.m. ET, to learn more strategies of rhetorical grammar. Register here. At the end you will be able to say that grammar works for you, not the other way around. Read more

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Taser is not a verb, says Taser

KATU morning producer Jennifer Kubus asked a good question on Twitter:

 

And Taser replied.

 

Nobody asked me, but I went ahead and said that I thought it was too late to put a lid on that usage. Read more

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