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!


  1. What i end up wondering is where Hemingway fits in. I think he may be a good chunk of the reason why simple prose might be seen as better. I suspect his syntax remains simple as well, though, i wonder about seeing a work of his as a whole v. just bits - if you take a work of his as a whole, does it become more complex?

    Another fun post, as usual!


  2. Interesting! I guess I'd never thought of it that way before. (I am one of those people who wished she'd paid more attention to all those pesky language rules in English; honors student or not, they just weren't that interesting to me at the time! Haha)

    Having learned to play a few instruments growing up, I tend to look at sentence structure and word usage in terms of music and go by the “sound” and “feel” of prose. If you play the same sequence of notes in the same way over and over, it’s going to sound monotonous. Recognizing and being able to achieve variation in music is a lot like doing so in writing. Both share concepts such as rhythm, tempo, harmony, etc. (I know that this is something Peter Orullian has been exploring and shares freely on his website.)

    I have a feeling that if I'd seen this connection back in junior and high school, my English classes would not have been as uninteresting to me, heh. Though, now that I’m older and writing a lot more it’s easier to appreciate. Thank you for sharing this!

  3. Sheik Yurbouti, if you read the article I link to, he analyzes Hemingway specifically. His point is that, while Hemingway's diction is simple, his syntactic use is complex and varied. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

    Tiyana, I think we can go a long way on instinct, but I've always enjoyed having analytical tools for when I need them (as when something doesn't "feel right"). I'll check out the link. Thanks for your comment!

  4. I'm right with you.

    Case in point: I'm a writer. I'm a developmental editor (book doctor). I'm no stranger to syntax. But in whatever grade they taught it, I could not diagram sentences to save my life.

    I hated it. Hated it with a burning passion. I remember thinking that the whole system they were using was arbitrary and strange and didn't actually help me understand anything. It was one of the strongest "why the hell are we learning this?" moments I can remember from primary education.

    In college, I took linguistics. And I learned X-bar theory, and a whole new way of diagramming sentences. One that, you know, actually _works_. One that makes _sense_. One that is logical, and consistent, and really does help you understand the structure of the sentence. And I loved it.

    In hindsight, this is not surprising. English teachers are not linguists. That is, they are not (by and large) scientists for whom language is their object of study. So it's no wonder that people who didn't really know what they were doing would come up with the crazy, senseless sentence diagramming system they teach in schools. It's what you get when you take people who can tell that there are some patterns in language, and want to be able to show them visually, but don't do the hard intellectual work of figuring out how language really works first. They just kind of threw together a haphazard system and called it good.

    The linguists, though, they got it right. And it's not really that hard, either. I found X-bar theory WORLDS easier to learn than sentence diagramming (in no small part, I think, because it actually makes sense). There's no reason at all why we can't or shouldn't be teaching linguistics in grade schools. Why not give kids tools that works from the start?

  5. Jason, sorry about your horrible experience with diagramming sentences! I do think X bar theory has some nice properties... though it isn't the only aspect of linguistics I'd teach if I had the option. I have nothing against English teachers - I think they're awesome, actually - and I am not sure who originally came up with the sentence-diagramming system. But regardless, English teachers are approaching things from a top-down perspective (the story, the sentences, the meaning) where linguists are going bottom-up from a really subconscious level (single words, phrasal patterns/elements). It would be easy to go too far with this and for students to think that the linguistics was unconnected with what they were learning. Connecting the two is key. But having analytical tools is a good thing to my mind - raising consciousness instead of just saying "memorize these rules and follow them."

  6. Yes. That was just a "case in point," after all. And no, I don't have anything against English teachers either, except when they try to pretend that they're linguists, when they're really not. :)

    X-bar isn't the only linguistic tool I'd teach either, it's just the first one I'd opt to replace an existing, crappy tool with. It would be a pretty clean, drop-in replacement. Other linguistic concepts I'd teach:

    * The way languages drift and change over time (e.g. what's "right" in language is entirely relative to a place and time)

    * The way different languages map semantic concepts (time/gender/place/subject-object relationships/etc) onto grammar. Broaden kids' minds to concepts English doesn't much use. Like infixes, so they can understand that neologisms like "un-f***ing-believable!" aren't really all that strange.

    * Phonetics, syllable structure, and word morphology. At least enough so that you could then convey to them how to spot and understand the many, many cognates English has with other romance and germanic languages. I think that would be super helpful in terms of helping kids recognize, analyze, and thus _understand_ unfamiliar words.

    It's not surprising that linguistics is still a college-level thing; modern linguistics hasn't really been around all that long, in relation to society as a whole and to the slow pace of change in education generally. But I see many of the core concepts in linguistics as being a) not that hard, really, and b) hugely useful for helping kids understand how language really works.

  7. You are one of the best proponents for making linguistics sound like a fun subject to study. Not easy, but interesting.

  8. Thanks, Jaleh! It is interesting. I always like digging into patterns that lie beyond the surface.