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Archive for the ‘Functional Grammar’ Category

Using Words to Create Worlds

My students seem to struggle with using words that have a strong impact on their audiences, words that evoke an emotional response by their vividness or clarity. My theory is that most of us have not been given permission during our school years to write from our hearts and have not been taught to use language to do anything but define our meaning. To help us break through to a more glorious use of our language, to give more visionary views of what we mean by what we write or say, I have compiled a short list of suggestions:

I. Create rhythm through parallel structures

  • Arrange similar words together.

The girl was ill-bred, ill-advised and ill-mannered.

  • Arrange similar phrases together.

It’s much easier to watch an action movie than a narrative movie.

  • Arrange similar clauses or whole sentences together.

The coach told the players that they should get a lot of sleep, that they should not eat too much, and that they should do some warm-up exercises before the game. [This and other examples can be found at this link: Purdue OWL]

II.  Create rhythm with repetition using same word/sets

Use the same words or phrases at the beginning or end of clauses.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true  meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” (I Have a Dream by MLK, Jr.)

III.  Create rhythm with alliteration (repeating initial consonants)

“I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet/When far away an interrupted cry/Came over houses from another street”
(from Acquainted with the Night by  Robert Frost)

IV.   Create imagery with word pictures using similes & metaphors

Similes  – compare things that are essentially different but have something in common (use like or as)

    • Example: My love is like a red, red rose that’s newly sprung in June, My love is like a melody that’s sweetly played in tune.

Metaphors – similar to similes but without using like or as

    • Example: Politicians should darn the holes in the ragged economy before we all start to feel the cold.

Examples of similes and metaphors from Romeo and Juliet can be found here: Figurative Language written by Wm. Shakespeare

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The Gettysburg Address–Better with Vivid or Clear Language?

I have prepared a brief language lesson using the Gettysburg Address to prove that rhythm in written language determines whether writing will stand the test of time.

First, the lesson….

Dos for Communicating Clearly

  •  Use words accurately
  • Choose words that capture ideas most precisely, and define accurately what you mean
  • Use short, sharp, familiar words (takes longer to prepare, but worth it to your listeners!)
  • Choose concrete words (details) to be clearer, more interesting, and easier to remember than abstract (easier to misinterpret)
  • Throw out unnecessary words (avoid flabby phrases!)

 Dos for Communicating Vividly

  • Concrete Words (call up mental impressions of sights, sounds, touch, smell, and taste) pull audience irresistibly into speech
  • Imagery – create word pictures with concrete words,
    • similes  – compare things that are essentially different but have something in common (use like or as)
    • metaphors – similar to similes but without using like or as
  • Rhythm – combination of sounds (almost musical)

       Basic Stylistic Devices to Create Rhythm

  1. Parallelism – pair or series of related words, phrases
  2. Repetition – using same word/sets at beginning or end of clauses
  3. Alliteration – repeat initial consonants
  4. Antithesis – placing contrasting ideas side by side

Now, the application…

I believe the beauty of the Gettysburg Address is in its vivid, rhythmic language; to help my students understand the difference between vividness and clarity, I rewrote a portion. To fully appreciate the difference between Lincoln’s version and my attempt to show the difference when stripped of much of its melodic sound, please read both versions aloud.

The Gettysburg Address by Abraham Lincoln (Nov. 19, 1863)


“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”


Revised on Nov. 19, 2006 by Joyce Elferdink (sorry, Mr. Lincoln!)

.…We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for the soldiers who were killed here. It is certainly appropriate that we do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, consecrate, or hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here did it better than we could. The world will quickly forget our statements, but it can never forget the fighting that occurred here.

It is for those of us still alive to commit to finish the work begun by the deceased. We can honor their sacrifice—and prove that they did not die needlessly—by our devotion to greater freedom and democracy for all Americans.

Which version do you prefer? Do you think my version will be read 148 years from now?

Travel into the Twilight Zone…to Encounter Parallel Structures

Have you read (or watched) science fiction to learn grammatical structures? If not, reconsider!

Parallel structures, especially when paired with repetition, can be nearly as awe inspiring as parallel universes. When we create balance in our writing–balancing similar words together; balancing similar  phrases together; balancing similar clauses together–and repeating words for emphasis, we create sound through written language as beautiful as the sounds emanating from musical instruments in the hands of masterful musicians. Come with me to the twilight zone for a wonderful example (I love this exercise from the CD accompaniment to Image Gramar by Harry R. Noden):

An experiment in sound can be created using any of the many introductions from Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone series. To begin, read the excerpt below and try to identify examples of repetition and parallel structures in Serling’s introduction.

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears, and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call … THE TWILIGHT ZONE. (Zicree 1989, 31)

Now it’s your turn. Please fill in the following template of Rod Serling’s classic introduction:

The _________________________ Zone

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as

___________________ as ______________ and as ____________________ as

__________________. It is the __________________ ____________________

between _______________________ and ________________________, between

________________________ and ___________________, and it lies between the

__________________________ of ______________________________, and the

___________________________ of his/her _____________________________.

This is the dimension of _______________________.  It is an area which we call …

THE   _____________________________________________ ZONE.

Tomorrow I will compare Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address with my updated version to argue beauty vs clarity of language.  

Phrases: the source of memorable and persuasive sentences!

Noun phrase, Prepositional phrase, Appositive phrase, Absolute phrase, Infinitive phrase, Gerund phrase, Participial phrase!  Which modifies nouns; which renames a word that precedes it; which modifies the entire sentence, which….

This rather typical lesson in the use of one of the most wonderful writing tools, the one that allows readers to clearly visualize what we are describing–the phrase–is enough to make adults take the long way around grammar instruction and just write!

Yet a well-turned phrase, bringing a foldout spectacle to what otherwise could be just plain-jane words on a page, is necessary to all good writing, non-fiction as well as fiction. Producing a message is much more fun and fulfilling than labeling words according to the part they play in each  sentence. So how can we do that without learning which phrase does what? Think about what you see, hear, feel; use all of your senses to describe for readers what’s in your mind or your line of vision. If you’re not sure of the best layout for your thought, pick up a book by your favorite author and see how she/he does it, where does she place words in her most compelling sentences.

If you need more advice, pick up Harry R. Noden’s book, Image Grammar, and be awed by grammar. I’ll share two examples from published authors, and then I’d love it if you would offer a sample or two from your own reading or writing.

And then, suddenly, in the very dead of the night, there came a sound to my ears, clear, resonant, and unmistakable. — The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle

Shifting the weight of the line to his left shoulder and kneeling carefully, he washed his hand in the ocean and held it there, submerged, for more than a minute, watching the blood trail away and the steady movement of the water against his hand as the boat moved. — Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

By using phrases more effectively, our voices as advocates for change will intensify. Critiques of our work may include the phrase: a message more memorable than the parting statement of Rhett Butler to Scarlett \”Frankly, my dear, I don\’t give a d_ _ _!\”    and more persuasive than the challenging words of  JFK to the American people. Inaugural address, 1961

Punctuation: Emphasis, Clarity, Mystery

I was taught punctuation by the rules, but when I tried to teach adults that way–guess what–it didn’t work! Not only did they not improve when measured by standard tests, they also didn’t understand why published writers were not following those often irritating rules. What does a teacher say…”Don’t question why, just do it?” That doesn’t work, at least not with adults.

Reasoning with adult students about what punctuation does for their writing frees them to make punctuation their palette, not their yoke. An article published in 1995 by the Boise State Univ. Writing Center suggests thinking of punctuation as a system with levels that allow a writer to choose a sentence’s effect by choosing the degree of separation and emphasis between its parts.

Style manuals and handbooks “have it all wrong,” argues John Dawkins in a recent article in College Composition and Communication. A startling claim, but Dawkins is serious. All the manuals, he points out, tend to fragment punctuation into an incoherent body of instruction by dealing with each mark separately: a section for commas, a section for semicolons, a section for colons, and so forth, each with its own set of rules for proper use. They fail to present punctuation as a hierarchical system, one that Dawkins calls “surprisingly simple. . . [one] that enables writers to achieve important — even subtle — effects.” [retrieved from http://www.boisestate.edu/wcenter/ww81punc.htm%5D

Now here’s an example by Dawkins found in Noden’s Image Grammar:

Maximum Separation (the period, question mark, and exclamation mark)
Example: I looked up. And there she stood!

Medium Separation, Emphatic (the dash)
Example: I looked up—and there she stood.

Medium Separation, Anticipatory (the colon)
Example: I looked up: And there she stood.

Medium Separation (the semicolon)
Example: I looked up; and there she stood.

Minimum Separation (the comma)
Example: I looked up, and there she stood.

Zero Separation
Example: I looked up and there she stood.

To add a little mystery, we might insert an ellipsis before the punch line; then again, some may prefer to trade the ellipsis for a colon or even an em dash…

Friday Photo

When I taught English Composition, I had students write a paragraph or two on what they saw in an abstract painting.  Few saw the same thing, but what each wrote was absolutely correct for their perception of the image–as long as they wrote vividly enough to  create a similar image in the mind of the reader.

It could be fun to use that same concept to describe my amateur photographs. Here’s one I took Sunday near Saugatuck (MI). I’ll write a couple of lines of what I see in it, and then I hope you will comment, describing what it conjures up in your mind.

Beware the Metal Man, parts riveted in place, ruins of some more important purpose; he rises up to take his place on the shore. With tool box in hand, he will accomplish his purpose. He cannot be moved. Beware the man of metal, he has no heart for our suffering. He’s only made of metal, not of steel.

Commas – A lesson for adults only

The six rules listed below will eliminate nearly 98% of all your comma errors!

Why is this knowledge for adults only? Only because young people are supposed to learn all the rules for comma usage. As adults we don’t need to memorize all those terms, we just need to know how to write so our readers understand our intent. That’s why punctuation, especially the common comma, is not only necessary but a thing of beauty.  Knowing what to call the part of speech (when you won’t be tested on it) is virtually useless; instead, pay close attention to the examples following each rule.

Place a comma after each introductory word, phrase, or clause.

  1. Finally, he got in his car and drove away.
  2. Under the new government, every citizen over 21 is allowed to vote.
  3. Once the parking tickets have been paid, you’ll get your license back.

Place a comma on each side of a nonessential element.

  1. My brother, who is younger than I am by five years, likes to work puzzles.

Place a comma before the coordinating conjunction when you combine two independent clauses into a single sentence.

  1. Her mother holds a doctorate from MIT, and her father teaches at Purdue.

Place a comma after but not before a dependent clause.

  1. When the fire alarm sounded, the children paraded out of the school building.
  2. The children paraded out of the school building when the fire alarm sounded.

Place a comma between items in a series.

  1. When you come over tonight, bring your sleeping bag, your pillow, and a few bags of popcorn.

Use a comma to separate a direct quote from a signal phrase such as “he said” or “she replied.”

  1. “I think you’d better put your hat back on,” she said laughing.

Now for your quiz: Which is correct?

Our friend the panda (immortalized in Lynne Truss’ book) eats, shoots, and leaves.
(OR) A panda eats shoots and leaves.

Rules retrieved on 10-9-2008 (but no longer available) at http://owlet.letu.edu/grammarlinks/punctuation/punct1.html

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