The Infinite Power of Grammar

(The is not an excellent example of writing but an exercise for me at the present moment to try out my writing app and embedding videos in the blog, but I hope to turn this draft into a well-written essay.)

”All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind. The picture dictates the arrangement. The picture dictates whether this will be a sentence with or without clauses, a sentence that ends hard or a dying fall sentence, long or short, active or passive. The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”

The quote above is from Joan Didion. Didion’s essay can be found here.

I am taking a MOOC course from the University of Michigan available from Coursera. Patrick Barry, a lawyer currently at the University of Michigan, teaches the writing course. Also, he has taught undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago and other places. He attributes much importance to words and has examples of how a lawyer can win or lose a case depending on the words he uses. ”The words under the words” is an expression he uses quite often.

One student describes the ”words under the words” this way:

”So what I learned from, The Words Under the Words, is that people don’t choose between two options of things or two different arguments or positions, but they’re actually choosing between the descriptions of those two options, of those two arguments. So it’s really important to figure out what words you’re using in order to frame a certain argument, because that’s what they’re choosing. Not necessarily the substance of the argument itself, but its description.”

Of course some of us write essays to get across a point of view, to change a readers opinion, to give a reader another point of view. Barry says how we frame our sentences and how we choose our words is important as the substance itself.

Barry says the following about good writing:

“Good writing is the best words in their best order;”

“Good writing is getting something right in language;”

“Good writing is making order out of chaos.”

Write enough sentences, as most people have done on WordPress, and you will see what shifting a clause from the middle to the end or from the end to the beginning will do or, for that matter, a word.

Barry started week one by just talking about the power of words. He talked about sports, about a football game, giving two teams as an example, and how their respective newspapers would write the articles differently since one lost and one won. You won’t publish the same headline for the home team as you would the visiting team.

Consider these headlines about the same football game, considering how specific words were chosen for the particular group being addressed:

“South Carolina Beats Michigan 33–28 in Thrilling Outback Bowl.”

“Gamecocks’ Big-Play Capabilities Produce Bitter Ending to Wolverines’ Season.”

The previous five quotes came from Berry’s book: The Syntax of Sports.

The same author in another book —Good with Words: Writing and Editing — talks about the best way to learn is to explain to others. My explaining is my attempt to understand better what I am learning and to share things from the writing course I am taking.

2 thoughts on “The Infinite Power of Grammar

  1. “Good writing is getting something right in language” (Patrick Barry, from above) — I assume it means: get your thoughts clear, and then try to say exactly what you wish to say.

    “To improve the style, that is to improve the thoughts, and nothing else at all.” –Nietzsche, NF-1883, 12[1], 176.


  2. The above Nietzsche quote should say, “To improve the style, that is to improve the thoughts, and no more at all.”. (Die Stil verbessern — das heisst den Gedanken verbessern — und gar nichts weiter.”)


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s