Monday, June 6, 2011

Syntax and Flow (Should we learn linguistics in school?)

Yesterday I came across a really interesting, long, detailed article in Writer's Digest which tried to analyze the concept of "flow" in writing. It was so interesting that I have to pass it on - the article is here.

Essentially the analysis put forward by the writer here is that readers feel the text "flow" well when the author keeps a high level of variety in the syntactic structure of sentences. That means sentences aren't just simple subject-verb constructions, or even subject-verb-conjunction-subject-verb ones (compound sentences) but also use subordinate clauses in various ways and keep everything mixed up. I highly recommend you read the entire article because it gives extensive examples of how famous authors do this.

It's fascinating. I've definitely noticed in my reading that there's a contrast between syntactically complex and simple prose. I agree with the author of the article that there is often an unfair distinction drawn in which "simple" is supposed to be better. However, simple words/concepts and simple syntactic structure are not at all the same, and don't come across the same way. What makes certain types of academic writing hard to digest is partly complex syntax, partly complex vocabulary, and partly the assumption that people already possess a large amount of previous knowledge.

It's worth learning your sentence structures, folks. It's worth having them under control, so they work for you and not the other way around.

I remember writing papers and having my parents' help back when I was in school. I remember the way they used to coach me, and how every so often I would think, "Is this wrong? Are they helping me too much?" But thinking back on it now I realize that they weren't really working with me on the concepts or vocabulary so much as they were coaching me to use more complex syntax. Suggesting, for example, that I start a sentence with "If.." or "When..." or "Because..." upon occasion rather than always starting with the subject. I can tell you that their contributions were very valuable to my internalizing complex syntax, which was really not something we dealt with much in class!

Sometimes I wonder how one might take English classes and move them a step or two closer to being linguistics classes. I know I've often wished that I could have learned in junior high or high school what I finally learned in graduate school about patterns of structure in language (including repetition and the sense of cohesion), and how they influence our perception of a story. The thing I would change first is that constant sense of "teaching the right way to do it." Prescriptive grammar irks me no end.

In our life and our reading, we're exposed to all kinds of language use. All kinds of dialects, dialogues, and discourses. Just about every social group has its own special language use that it uses to mark membership and get its jobs done. We should - we should - be trained to engage in discourses beyond the casual. But for me it's like the question of learning languages. Teach me a language, and another language, and I know two languages. Teach me how to recognize and understand the differences between the languages I know, and I can not only recognize new ones, but learn as many as I want, and choose how to put them into my own mouth and into my writing. I can write an academic paper, or write a casual email, or sit down and write a story that involves aliens and mark their language as unique by how they use English syntax.

That's when it gets fun, people.

I also wrote about syntax in my article How Syntax Can Help You!