Simple Phrase Grammar

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  1. #1

    Simple Phrase Grammar

    I'm going to self-publish my short book on Simple Phrase Grammar. I call it the hidden grammar of English. Is anyone interested in beta-reading?

    The first chapter is below. Believe it or not, you need to read this book to understand grammar. It can/should help with writing, and it's a tour of easy-to-understand writing and a unique look at the formal rules of grammar.

    There's a copy on my website, or you can IM me.
    English is a good language for people who like to be creative and expressive, not for people who want words to fit into boxes and stay there.

    Hidden Content -- Hidden Content

  2. #2
    There's no Atlantis, no perpetual motion machine, and you're probably thinking there can't be a whole grammar of English that no one has ever mentioned. Statistically unlikely, right?

    But the proof is simple and logical. A language first constructs words.


    Not following the conventions for constructing words leads to nonsense.

    nadd er ho rald gruwnt

    You knew that. Second, a language constructs conventions for putting those words into meaningful clumps, which I will call phrases.

    He kissed me
    I wish I was in Paris
    Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water

    Not following the rules for constructing phrases accomplishes nothing and just leads to difficult reading.

    Spout spider up water bitsy the itsy went the

    You knew that too. Third, and lastly, a language constructs conventions for connecting those phrases. For example, two independent clauses can be connected with a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction. For short I will call those rules for English Grammar EG.

    Without that third step, a language would be just a sequence of unconnected phrases. Would that make communication difficult? No.

    I'm stunned
    He has a crush on me?
    That's unfathomable
    I just wanted someone to like me
    I couldn't even imagine that

    Ladies and gentlemen, that's the hidden grammar of English -- meaningful phrases, one after another, with no rules or conventions for connecting them. I will call it Simple Phrase Grammar -- SPG for short.

    In a sense, SPG has to exist -- how can the absence of rules not exist? But the existence of EG -- and the fact that readers expect EG -- could (at least in theory) make SPG irrelevant. Fortunately, there's a simple empirical test for the use of SPG: Will an ungrammatical passage be understood if it follows the principles of SPG? The answer is yes, always. From my own writing (with the phrases now being separated by commas):

    Walking into the house after school, ah shit, I forgot about my father's wife, I never expected her to be waiting for me, an ambush, isn't she supposed to be working?

    I'm walking in a crowd in the school hallway, a hand rubs my butt, someone laughs. I turn around to see who did it, all the guys are smirking, all the girls are looking at me with contempt, everyone thinks I deserved that, I don't know who did it, someone behind me whispers trash, I whirl around, I can't tell who said that either.

    So, your readers all have SPG inside their head; as long as your writing follows SPG, your readers will understand it.

    This raises two important (and recurring) issues: understandability and power. There would be no reason to use SPG if it wasn't understandable or had less power than EG. As noted, something that follows the principles of SPG is always understandable. EG does not make the same promise:
    The book the girl whom the boy whom a father scolded kissed liked ended well.

    Of course, writers don't write sentences they can't understand, but they do write sentences that are difficult to understand. For example:

    It has been related how, in the crowd that witnessed Hester Prynne's ignominious exposure, stood a man, elderly, travel-worn, who, just emerging from the perilous wilderness, beheld the woman, in whom he hoped to find embodied the warmth and cheerfulness of home, set up as a type of sin before the people. (Hawthorne, Chapter 9, The Scarlet Letter).

    Of course, sentences that follow the rules of EG can also be easy to understand. But that's only when they also follow the rules of SPG:

    I shake my head and try not to smile. They'll take it as a weakness and keep pushing. (The Tyrant's Daughter, Carleson page 62).

    That of course looks ordinary, but notice how extraordinarily different it is from Hawthorne's sentence.

    Now consider power. The rules for connecting phrases in EG are too limiting. Most writers seize the increased flexibility offered by SPG -- for the sake of power in communication, they break the EG rules (but follow SPG):

    He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway)

    As already mentioned, in EG there's supposed to be a comma before and. But Hemingway wanted the meaning that comes from leaving the comma out. Solution? He simply left the comma out.

    So, for the sake of understandability and power, writers have been drifting towards SPG for over 140 years and breaking rules for at least 80 years. Better communication is their motive; SPG is their means and opportunity.

    Some rule-breaking is now so common that it would not be jarring -- few readers would be bothered by Hemingway's lack of comma. Or Stephen King's extra comma after fat:

    She's as skinny as her brother is fat, and regards Hodges with a watery, suspicious eye. (Mr. Mercedes, page 219)

    Or Green's extra comma:

    ... and then all of them would touch the coffin instead of touching him, because no one wants to touch the dead. (The Fault in Our Stars, Green, page 26

    In fact, those ways of breaking rules (and others) are so common and well-accepted that we have to talk about Writer's Grammar (WG). That's the grammar that writers commonly use and almost no one would object to. It's somewhere between EG and SPG.

    But modern writers are still finding new ways of breaking rules -- sentences that make sense because they follow SPG. Trying to capture the mood of a bakery on a Saturday morning:

    My customers are in sweats and heavy sweaters, their hair unbrushed, lazy Saturday, the week peeling off of them. (How Lucky You Are, Lewis, page 33)

    There's no grammatical justification for lazy Saturday, but it's perfectly understandable. You might have been bothered by it -- you are reading a grammar book, and that easily puts you in the top 1% for grammar awareness. I suspect most readers would not even notice.

    Oh, ugh, duh, stupid me.
    The body was on its back, had an arm in a sling, and a hole in its head. (Evanovich, Tricky Twenty-Two, page 162)

    All of that seemingly chaotic rule-breaking is simply authors following SPG. In fact, if SPG was considered to be part of the grammar of English, all of the passages above would be following the rules and be perfectly grammatical.

    You can use SPG to be modern or edgy, but it's also really good for emotional scenes and any scene that's a sequence of events, so it works well for action scenes. In the following, I was deliberately trying to be ungrammatical:

    Someone with a gun. Down the far end of the hallway, to my left. What? Who? I'm frozen -- wasting a second. CRACK! a bullet chips the wall near me and ricochets down the hallway.
    My body JOLTS into motion, running away! away! away! A second bullet CRACKLES off the wall to my right, shocking me, I trip and almost fall, bouncing clumsily against the left wall. Run! run! until I reach the end of the hall. Duck around the corner.

    The choices in SPG have subtle effects, but there are so many choices, with so many subtle effects, that SPG ends up being more powerful than I expected. Staying with the theme of long sentences, the following SPG has a different style:

    Then she asks if I know why I'm here, and I just shake my head no and I'm ashamed, but it's no big deal to her and she just gestures and I guess I'm supposed to follow her, so I do, but she's limping like something's wrong with her leg, and suddenly I think maybe I'm here cos I like guys, but that doesn't make sense either.

    If you mistakenly think fiction writing should be EG correct, you probably don't know the rules of EG. It's a difficult-to-negotiate desert; as far as I know, no one follows all of the rules when they write. Yes, some writers come close, but most writers don't leave the first page without breaking at least one EG rule. And when they do, no one cares.

    You can write well if you restrict yourself to familiar ways of breaking the EG rules and you do not substantially break the rules of SPG for understandability. Um, that's the WG I mentioned.

    But you can probably write better if you add to your toolbox the slightly ungrammatical constructions which, even if unfamiliar, almost no one will notice. SPG is fun, powerful, and, as noted, even modern or edgy:

    I feel it like a magnetic force, a malevolent presence lurking in the dark behind the wall, close enough that I can almost smell it, an acrid edge, a dirty electrical odor like something old shorting out. What people smell when they're about to have a seizure but I'm imagining it. (Cornwell, Dust, page 56)

    That might break the rules of SPG once or twice -- Cornwell did not have this book to guide her. But that passage shows no intention to write EG or even WG -- it's a powerful sequence of phrases.

    This book is organized around writing, but it has several other important advantages. First, a discussion of SPG is an exploration of the principles of easy-to-understand writing.

    Second, this book is essential to understanding the grammar of writing. If you try to understand the grammar of writing without SPG, you will give up and call it chaotic rule-breaking. I did. Everyone else does. With an understanding of SPG, the grammar of writing makes sense.

    SPG also provides a unique perspective on EG. This book discusses grammar problems that most grammar books don't consider. Because they are useful in SPG, this book also will consider some rarer constructions in grammar.

    And the concepts needed to understand SPG are so basic and primitive that they apply to any language. Coordinating conjunction is not a fundamental concept of human language, it's just a word grammarians constructed to describe English. (And, as will be discussed, that concept works poorly even for English.) Connector, a term from SPG, is a fundamental concept of human language. If you want to understand any language, you have to understand the basic concepts of SPG.

    This book can also help you enjoy reading more. You can put on your traditional grammar hat while you read and be offended by ungrammatical passages. Or, you can learn to take off that hat and not be bothered by those passages. In fact, you can learn to appreciate the author's skill in writing a powerful yet ungrammatical sentence.

    So, if you could read only three books about the grammar of English writing, this should be one of them. A third piece of evidence for SPG will be it's sheer usefulness in understanding modern writing.

    Yeah, that's a lot to promise. I know that. But from my perspective, I'm telling you that the world is round and revolves around the sun. I explain things logically; I give examples. I'm even being empirical -- I'm not asking you to trust me, I'm asking you to test what I say. You don't need a DNA sequencer or time on the Hubble telescope, you just have to read and write to test every claim I make.

    I don't even want you to trust me. Except this once: If you don't read the next chapter because your still skeptical, you're making a big mistake.
    English is a good language for people who like to be creative and expressive, not for people who want words to fit into boxes and stay there.

    Hidden Content -- Hidden Content


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