I teach writing, or I try to. My 8th grade students can prove fairly resistant to such time-honored techniques as revision, turning on spellcheck, and, um, that whole thing where you, like, don’t write run-ons and stuff because that would be wrong or something. Like that. Plus fragments.
I give up. I believe it was William Safire, the late, great lexicographer, who used to insist that usage determines convention. In other words, abusing the language like it was an NFL spouse eventually makes that particular transgression part of the language. “Ain’t” has been in the dictionary for decades — and hardly anyone uses it anyore.
This is how we end up with random, weird shit like “twerk”, which no one — not even my students — can say with a straight face.
But far beyond individual words, some of which, like “selfie” are actually useful, is the grevious bodily harm done to syntax. The following is a sentence taken from an actual essay. It doesn’t matter the subject. Even if I told you, it wouldn’t help and yes, the entire thing gets a giant [sic]:
They lay in each others blood of a great confusion, but felt happy inside of sacrificing themselves for what they believe in, love.
I asked the student if she could please put that through Google Translate for me. To her credit, she didn’t cry — at least, not in class. We worked on her phrasing for much of the year, but compound-complex sentences such as this abortive attempt remained beyond her ken.
What, exactly, is the big deal here? It’s not like she posted it on the Internet. She inserted it into an English essay, and we all know those are meant to be indecipherable, right? And isn’t “blood of a great confusion” kind of an awesome term? It could be the name of a death metal band or something. I half expect that to happen.
The problem is that we –teachers, parents, editors, Internet cat video fans — focus too much on the minutiae of mispellings, malapropisms, hilarious punctuation mistakes, and too little on what actually makes a sentence soar. We complain no one can write a simple, declarative sentence, but how many know what that means?
Which of these is the simple sentence?
1. My pet unicorn farts rainbows after she eats Skittles.
2. Frannie and Felicity love drinking pumpkin spice cappuccino, a type of Italian coffee, at their favorite outdoor cafe.
3. Zombies eat brains, so you’re safe.
If you guessed the second one, you actually know something about syntax. The first one is a complex sentence; number three is a compound sentence. Only the second sentence contains a single, independent clause — albeit with various phrases tacked on for extra bling.
Who cares? Why does anyone need to know this? Not knowing a phrase from a clause dooms you to writing incompletely. Not knowing simple from complex dooms you to writing inelegantly. Some of this, great writers teach themselves by instinct. They pull it off without knowing exactly how it works.
Chances are, you are not that writer. Sorry. Your cat still loves you, I swear.
Much of what lifts writing above the average must be taught. And I’m taking this on myself to do so. Consider this the first of many posts to come on the importance of the elegant sentence.
You don’t have to agree. Maybe your unicorn doesn’t like Skittles. Maybe your blood of great confusion doesn’t need sorting out.
But if it does, I’m here to help.