Grammar Booty Call: ‘Does This Make Sense?’ 0 Comments

Grammar Booty Call: ‘Does This Make Sense?’

One of the questions I often get asked by writers is Does this make sense?, followed by Is this right? Unfortunately, language isn’t always clear-cut and sometimes there aren’t any ‘rules’ to be adhered to. It’s also important to distinguish comprehensibility and clarity on the one hand, and ‘correctness’ on the other.

Correctness versus Convention

Linguistic prescriptivism aside, language is fraught with variations and exceptions and contextually appropriate ways of being used. The ‘correct’ way to spell certain words, for example, can change depending on what variety of English you’re employing. Similarly, how Voiceworks presents numbers (spelled out to one hundred, then numerals for 101 and over) may differ from, say, a newspaper (which, conventionally, would use numerals for 11 and over). So, what’s the deal here?

It’s worth understanding the difference between correctness and convention. Whereas certain things are always the case in the English language (e.g. the present-tense conjugation of the verb play is plays), others are dependent on circumstance. Collective nouns such as family, for instance, can be either singular or plural, depending on whether the family members are being discussed individually (plural) or as a unit (singular). Similarly, Australian English generally doesn’t use the Oxford comma—whereby a comma is used before and in a series of nouns—unlike American English, yet this convention can be flouted to avoid ambiguity (e.g. I bought carrots, milk, and macaroni and cheese).

If you’re submitting your work for publication, be sure to check for a style guide, which will give you an idea of what is ‘correct’ where that publication is concerned. The contents of these style guides also largely align with advice given by books on usage, such the Australian government’s Style Manual and The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage. And then, for more rigidity/certainty, pore over your local dictionary (the Macquarie, for Australian English) and brush up on your grammar (here’s a headstart: look up pronoun cases, apposition and modals).

Use the Clearest Order Word [sic]

There are times when sense can be maximised not through choice of words but, rather, word order. Apart from plain bad phrasing (which usually arises from being verbose and/or attempting to sound more formal or authoritative), two common issues include:

(1) Dangling modifiers

Modifiers often take the form of participles acting as either an adjective or an adverb. As the name suggests, participles involve a verb that is in a participle form, either past or present (e.g. the verb draw has the past participial form drawn and the present participial form drawing). For example: I like the picture drawn on the wall [modifier underlined; it describes picture].

Other modifiers include prepositional phrases, as in: I went to the store [adverbial phrase describing went] around the corner [adjectival phrase describing store].

When using modifiers, make sure they are situated as close to the word they are describing as possible, preferably with no other content words (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) in between. Compare:

John saw the dogs and sat with their owners, digging holes on the ground.
[Which was the one digging: the owners? Or the dogs? Or John?]

and

John saw the dogs, digging holes on the ground, and sat with their owners.
[Now, it’s definitely clear that the dogs are the ones digging holes.]

(2) Missing antecedents

The role of pronouns is to take the place of nouns to increase fluency—imagine if we had to write: I met Mary at school and Mary has been my best friend since then. Mary will be visiting later. Thus, writers must ensure that readers are immediately clear about who or what the pronoun used is referring to. This can be particularly problematic when there are multiple individuals of the same gender in a sentence (e.g. John met up with Joe, and he gave him a present—who gave whom the present?). This also often happens in academic/formal writing, especially in the case of the ‘dummy pronoun’ it, as in: It is obvious that grammar is cool [what is it referring to, i.e. what is obvious? Who says it’s obvious? What evidence is there?].

All Pigs Fly

Of course, there are some facets of language that are just plain wrong—especially when it comes to logic. Here, we’re moving beyond lexical (words) and syntactic (sentences) territory and heading into semantics.

Below are some common logical fallacies writers commit:

(1) Faulty analogies

Just because you’re convinced that Snape is a bit sleazy and slithers around Hogwarts, doesn’t automatically mean he’s like the Biblical serpent and will betray you.

(2) Cherry picking

Our only options are not just (a) to recognise gay marriage and destroy the nuclear family; or (b) uphold the existing definition of marriage and save all families (this is known as a false dichotomy). And just because you got sick from ordering from your local fish and chips shop once doesn’t automatically mean that the place harbours bacteria (concluding from anecdotal evidence and/or a small sample size).

(3) Post hoc ergo proper hoc

I’ve used the name of the fallacy in classical logic terms, but it’s also known as confusing correlation and cause. Bad things happening in Town X after the arrival of the Joneses doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re witches with a pair of evil eyes each.

 

By Adolfo Aranjuez

Adolfo Aranjuez is the deputy editor of Voiceworks. He is also the editor of the annual anthology Award Winning Australian Writing, whose 2013 edition is currently in production. If you’d like to send him a Grammar Booty Call, you can contact him via Twitter on @adolfo_ae.

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