Grammar is…Beautiful

Read this first…

Before you read one more word, please click on this link and read this essay, an excerpt from the novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Do it now. I’ll wait. I’ll even wait while you order the book. The rest is as fabulous as the excerpt. Clicking on the title or picture of the book above will whisk you to Amazon via my affiliate link. Just don’t get shopping and forget to return!

Now that you have Paloma’s marvelous take on grammar as “a way to attain beauty,” I’d like to add my own comments to the mix. I could barely sit still when I first read this essay, as I am a grammar maven. I’ve always thought that was a strange-sounding word, maven. It means “expert or connoisseur.” I’m by no means an expert, but I’m certainly a connoisseur.

Though perhaps not as classically beautiful as Fibonacci’s golden spiral in a rose or nautilus, each of grammar’s innate structures is attractive in its own way. Below are a few of my faves…

It’s All in the Details

I love the precision of spelling, even though English has so many different ways to spell the same sound. I used to present my writing students with the conundrum “ghoti” and ask how such a word might be pronounced. The answer, of course, is /fish/: /f/ as in laugh, /i/ as in women, and /sh/ as in motion.

Asthma is a tough one to pronounce, let alone spell. You have to remember the “o” in jeopardy. Onomatopoeia and conscientious have all those vowels tripping over one another. And so many English words really aren’t—English, that is. Zucchini—you have to know a little Italian to spell it, and hors d’oeuvres is French.

There are a few words whose spelling I take issue with, however. If acknowledgement has an e, judgment really should, too. Full disclosure: I won my school’s 7th/8th grade spelling bee when I was a seventh grader. In eighth grade I went down on indict, spelling it i-n-d-i-t-e. Since no definition was given, it should have been accepted. However, I failed to ask the monitor to check the dictionary when it was called incorrect.

I Can See Clearly Now

Punctuation is beautiful because it clarifies meaning. Nobody gets commas, but where would we be without them? A fake version of a Tails magazine cover is making the rounds on the Internet. With certain commas removed, it reads: “Eat, Ray, Love: Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” I saw a sign on a pickup that said, “C’mon let’s ride boys!” Consider the gustatory difference between “Lets eat, Grandma!” and Let’s eat Grandma!”

Tails Magazine Covers
Real and fake Tails Magazine covers: with and without commas

Apostrophe abuse is tragic. Help stamp it out. An elegant apostrophe makes all the difference between “A business that knows its shit” and “A business that knows it’s shit.”

Grammar Gets a Bad Rap

We humans hate grammar because we don’t like to be told what to do–we don’t like to follow rules. We want to do what we want. If we could get out of our own way for a moment, we might realize most grammar rules exist to help us! Take misplaced modifiers, for example. That’s fancy talk for phrases that have gotten lost. Consider this sentence:

Upon entering the doctor’s office, a skeleton caught my attention.

The way the sentence is structured, entered the doctor’s office describes (modifies) a skeleton. A skeleton is entering the doctor’s office. We could correct the sentence to say,

As I entered the doctor’s office, a skeleton caught my attention.

Or,

A skeleton caught my attention as I entered the doctor’s office.

Putting the Puzzle Together

As a writer, I love nothing more than constructing a beautiful sentence. I can work for an hour to find just the right order for the words. Consider these three sentences:

The artist did not paint realistic figures.

The artist did not use bright colors.

The artist brought the world to life.

Playing with sentence structure lets us combine the common elements so we can make one single sentence that flows, rather than three choppy ones. Yet still there is not just one correct version:

The artist neither painted realistic figures nor used bright colors, but brought the world to life.

The artist did not paint realistic figures or use bright colors, but she brought the world to life.

Neither painting realistic figures nor using bright colors, the artist brought the world to life.

Which version is grammatically correct? All of them. The better question is, which version is most effective? It depends on the context. What sentence structures precede and follow the sentence? Is this formal or casual writing? Do I want the focus to be on “bringing the world to life” or on the artist’s part in it?

Change Your Focus

Similarly, I can take a simple sentence—

The university has been facing pressure from all sides to cut its budget, and today slashed spending across all colleges and announced heavy staff layoffs.

and vary its opening in a variety of ways to change its focus or emphasis—

The university,which has been facing pressure from all sides to cut its budget…

Pressure from all sides to cut its budget, which is something the university has been facing…

Facing pressure from all sides to cut its budget, the university…

Pressure from all sides to cut its budget is something the university…

Something the university is facing from all sides is pressure to cut its budget…

The university, facing pressure from all sides to cut its budget…

From all sides, the university is facing pressure to cut its budget…

Today, the university slashed spending across all colleges…

If I write a complex sentence,

In all its sand-swept, sunburned glory, it’s the season I most look forward to, bookmarking barbeque and cocktail recipes and lining up beach reads; when it finally arrives, we sweep the porch at the beach house and hang the hammock under the big palm tree, ready for days and nights of nothing but summer.

I can restructure it by beginning with nearly any one of the clauses. This lets me decide what to feature. For example:

It’s the season I most look forward to…

Bookmarking barbeque and cocktail recipes…

When it finally arrives…

We sweep the porch at the beach house…

Under the big palm tree…

Ready for the days and nights of nothing but summer…

Within the sentence, I can rearrange clauses, as well. I get to decide the order in which the reader receives the sensory impressions:

Under the big palm tree, we hang the hammock, ready for days and nights of nothing but summer in all its sand-swept, sunburned glory…

I can change the images to make them stronger. I can split the sentence in two.

In all its sand-swept glory, summer is the season I most look forward to, bookmarking jerk chicken and strawberry margarita recipes and lining up scorching beach reads. When the temperature finally sizzles, we sweep the porch at the beach house and hang the hammock under the big palm tree, ready for days of sunbathing and nights of bar-hopping.

Imagine that with no punctuation.

So I’m with Paloma. By themselves, words may sound lovely, but grammar makes communication beautiful.

What do you think?

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