Thursday, September 25, 2014

Employing Grammar B to Make. A. Point.

Okay. I confess I’m guilty of doing the one-word sentence thing when I want to emphasize. It’s okay in small doses. But when you’re telling someone to Read. This. Book. Now. or you have No. Idea. What. You’re. Missing. . . well, it becomes a bit much, eh? Fragments are good. Every now and then ;)

Actually, the sentence fragment is just one of many devices that make up what’s called the alternate style of writing, or Grammar B. I researched and wrote my graduate thesis on Grammar B because when I taught writing to middle and high school students, I discovered they were using it. On purpose! Well, let me back up. Some were using it on purpose. Some really thought their sentence fragments were whole sentences (“Where’s the predicate?” I ask. Blank stare). In any case, I learned about Grammar B (without knowing it had an actual name) as an undergraduate English major long before my teaching and post-grad days.

So what is Grammar B? Some call it Standard English’s evil sister. Spawn of Satan. The most dangerous thing to happen to formal schooling since the advent of Montessori education. (I’m not knocking Montessori education. Calm down.) In any case, Grammar B is most often viewed as the antithesis of Standard English, but proponents of this alternate style urge educators and other writing professionals to see the two as friends, not stylistic enemies. Equals. Working together. Each purposeful to the audience it's addressing. (Are you digging these fragments? Hey hey.)

It’s a style of writing that breaks the rules of Standard English, coined by Winston Weathers in his now out-of-print book, An Alternate Style: Options in Composition. Think of it as everything your English teacher would slash, cross out, draw lots of exclamation points beside on your essay. With an angry red pen. It's rogue. So, naturally people like it. Where once a sentence fragment was looked on as a careless writing mistake, now writers (both aspiring . . . whatever that means, and professional) are employing it for purpose—to enrich the text by adding stylistic flavor. Same goes with other devices included under the Grammar B umbrella. I won’t name them all, but here are two of my faves (in addition to the fragment):

1.      The Labyrinthine Sentence – Really long ass, run-on sentence that twists and winds and curves and spins and goes up and down with the purpose of taking you on one hell of a literary ride. It doesn’t emphasize. It enriches. It lets you roll around in the description until you believe you are, in fact, that dew-dropped blade of grass that’s been dipping toward the earth for the last five minutes of your reading time.

2.      Repetition – Repeating a word or phrase over and over again. (That’s an easy one.) I tend to employ this at the beginnings of my sentences. You can see it all throughout my novels when I want to include a little extra emphasis. Usually repetition won’t be as abrupt-sounding as a fragment. It can be quite lyrical, actually. Like a literary orgasm. Example: “The leaves are falling. Falling away from their bluish-gray twiggy fingers. Falling away to a singsong, side-to-side rhythm of the wind. Falling away with a twirl and bow before floating to a graveyard ground.” A little extra goodness in that example? The fact that a different word was purposely employed after each “falling away”: from, to, and with. And there’s some alliteration thrown in as well for good measure.

The cool thing about Grammar B is that it’s not just restricted to creative writing. The alternate style is being utilized in professional, informational, and academic writing, too. There’s nothing wrong with that because it's not an inferior style of writing. However, the writer must consider and understand her audience and employ Grammar B devices effectively and correctly. No one wants a long ass, run-on sentence in a grant proposal. Fragments may be okay.

You probably come across Grammar B in a lot of the literature you read. Now you can identify it, and that’s kind of fun. Next time you pick up a book, be a Grammar B sleuth. Look for fragments and how they're utilized. Look for the labyrinthine sentence and repetition. Are these devices used well? Do they enhance your reading experience? You’ll know if you read and think, “Hot damn! This is some goooooood writing!”

If you’re interested in learning more about Grammar B, I’ve included the Works Cited from a past research paper. Not my graduate thesis. This paper was an experiment in whether it was a subject I was interested in researching. Turns out it was.

Further reading:

Atwell, Nancie.  In the Middle: New Understandings About Writing, Reading, and LearningPortsmouth: Heinemann, 1998.

Kline, Charles R. Jr., and W. Dean Memering.  “Formal Fragments: The English Minor Sentence.”  Research in the Teaching of English 11 (1977): 97-110.

Lanham, Richard A. Style: an Anti-Textbook.  Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2007.

Noden, Harry R.  Image Grammar: Using Grammatical Structures to Teach WritingPortsmouth: Heinemann, 1999.

Noguchi, Rei R.  Grammar and the Teaching of Writing.  Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991.

Romano, Tom. Writing with Passion: Life Stories, Multiple Genres.  Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1995.

Schuster, Edgar H.  Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers through Innovative Grammar Instruction.  Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003.

Weaver, Constance.  Teaching Grammar in Context.  Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1996.


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