Slight Deviation Wednesday, Mar 31 2010 

My project for this week has been to create a soundslide presentation, but my blog topic doesn’t really lend itself to this format, so I’ve slightly deviated from my normal subject matter.  Ok, maybe more than slightly.

My soundslide project is  how to knit a scarf.  While unrelated to grammar and writing, it is another area that I enjoy, so hopefully you’ll find my presentation informative.

I’ll try to keep it on-topic in the future.

The Law of Confusion Monday, Mar 29 2010 

Oh the joys of legal writing. Reading cases in my Constitutional Law course at La Salle gives me a taste of the type of writing I will see next year in law school, as well as the type of writing I’ll potentially encounter for the rest of my professional career. To say I have sometimes have moments of true horror would be an understatement. Though I admit that legal writing is type of technical writing containing techniques all it’s own, that’s no reason to throw good sense out the window. Take for example part of the opinion written by Chief Justice Taft in Bailey v. Drexel Furniture:

“Grant the validity of this law, and all that Congress would need to do, hereafter, in seeking to take over to its control any one of the great numbers of subjects of public interest, jurisdiction of which the states have never parted with, and which are reserved to them by the Tenth Amendment, would be to enact a detailed measure of complete regulation of the subject and enforce it by a so-called tax upon departures from it.”

Ok, so technically this sentence is grammatically sound so I can’t completely blast it as completely terrible. But look at it. Really look at it. It’s one sentence! Could it be split into two or more sentences for the sake of clarity? Sure! Does Justice Taft get a prize for keeping it as one sentence? Nope! I have my work set out for me trying to clarify the gunk that is legal writing, but I do think that clarity is contagious. Next year, I’ll be completely surrounded by legal writing, most of which will make me want to scream. But if I can be one less lawyer who avoids this confusion in my writing, I’ll consider my efforts a success.

Source: Mason, Alpheus Thomas, and Donald Grier Stephenson, Jr. ed. American Constitutional Law. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009.

Direction of writing Wednesday, Mar 17 2010 

This week, I talked to some people about the direction of writing and how text messaging and instant messaging has affected the way they and those around them write.

Allegory of Grammar Monday, Mar 15 2010 

Though I can appreciate the beauty of a well crafted painting, I usually miss the deeper meaning behind most works of art.  Drifting through the galleries at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore I finally found a painting that speaks a language I can understand.

Allegory of Grammar, painted in 1650 by Laurent de La Hyre, depicts the art of grammar as a woman watering flowers that represent ideas.  The artist’s objective is to show how grammar and clear writing allow ideas to bloom and prosper.  I may be no art connoisseur but I certainly understand the merit of the artist’s work.  The most intelligent ideas are worthless without a clear, coherent organization that allows them to be understood.

This is why celebrities hire ghost writers to help write their autobiographies.  The heart of the book comes from the person who lived the anecdotes, but these anecdotes are not marketable if they are not expressed in a clear, interesting, clever way that captivates an audience.

The art of writing gives ideas their sophistication.  For example, adolescence is a memorable time in many people’s lives and while some will say there are unique qualities to being an adolescent, few can verbalize their experience in a way that others will understand, even if these feelings are universal.  In Catcher in the Rye, the late J.D. Salinger developed the characteristics of adolescence through his words, sentence structure, and organization so that the adolescent experience could be felt by his readers in a way that though many felt, few could express themselves.

Apostrophe Abuse Wednesday, Mar 10 2010 

In her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, grammar-enthusiast Lynne Truss explains the eight acceptable uses for apostrophes, one of which is the use of apostrophes to signal omitted words (47-48).  Eight uses total.  That is, unless you frequent the St. Miguel Townhouses common room where you’ll find a ninth use for an apostrophe, though I’m still not sure what that use is.  On a sign posted above a circle of chairs and sofas is written, “tha’ nook.”

Huh?  I understand the sentiment that this is a relaxed atmosphere, so the sign is supposed to be informal.  The person who posted the sign probably wanted the apostrophe to make the sign show that relaxation.  As if the people who hang out here are too busy being awesome to fully say words.  Okay, I get it.  But what are you shortening?  “The” is a 3 letter word.  Adding an apostrophe to the phonetically spelled word makes it longer.  And a little confusing.   Are we shortening “that”?  I doubt it.  There’s one nook in the room; it hardly seems like someone would get it confused with another. 

I fully believe that language can be stretched, bended, and molded to fit a particular audience or convey a particular message.  In the dialogues of Huck Finn, Mark Twain used vernacular English that chopped words to pieces, frequently used slang words, and paid little attention to grammar.  Twain’s purpose was to authentically portray his uneducated characters and enrich the experience for the reader.  Though even with the liberties that he took, Twain still followed the proscribed ways of shortening a word, for example, using apostrophes to indicate missing letters.  Twain stretched, bended, and molded standard English into his dialogue because it helped his reader better understand his characters and their circumstances. 

The sign in the St. Miguel Townhouses doesn’t do that.  I admire the intentions, but if the purpose of language is to communicate, then don’t get so mixed up in trying to sound cool that you lose what you’re trying to say.