May 5, 2010
Sin More Boldly!: Grammar B and Personal Expression
in Punctuation in Advanced Academic Papers
Good advice though it may be, I am choosing to ignore all of it, since I have created a personal grammar that adheres to my needs both moral and punctuational.
-Sirius Black to Remus Lupin, August Twenty-fourth, Summer of 1975
The Shoebox Chronicles
The use of style and voice in an academic paper is often limited to the realm of content rather than technical execution. Unusual or non-traditional choices about punctuation and grammar are considered appropriate only in the field of creative writing, and consequently graded as "incorrect." The hypocrisy in upper level expectations for expository writing lies in the dichotomy of urging for a mature creative voice while simultaneously limiting the methods in which this can be developed. In reaction to this trend, Winston Weather's Grammar B argues for a co-existing alternative that is, in certain situations, consciously chosen for enhanced communication. While never achieving wide spread popularity in academic circles, Weather's theory of alternative style can add valuably to the debate over the role that individual style plays in formal writing.
Well-crafted prose cannot be defined as only the prose that adheres to prescriptivist writing standards. Instead, well-written prose should focus on clarity and functionality of communication--however that is achieved. Weathers says "much of what I wish to communicate does not seem to be expressible within the ordinary conventions of composition as I have learned them... I sense that many of the things I want to say do not always 'fit' into the communication vehicles I have been taught to construct." (1) He continues with
I have been taught to put "what I have to say" into a container that is always remarkably the same, that--in spite of varying decorations--keeps to a basically conventional form. . . [a]nd I begin to wonder is there isn't somewhere . . . some sort of container (1) that will allow me to package "what I have to say" without trimming my "content" to fit into a particular compositional mode, (2) that will actually encourage me to discover new things to say because of the very opportunity a newly-shaped container gives me (even though I can never escape containers--e.g., syntax--altogether), (3) that will be more suitable perhaps to my own mental processes, and (4) that will provide me with a greater rhetorical flexibility, allowing me to package what I have to say in more ways than one and thus reach more audiences than one. (1-2)
The ability of the writer to express ideas within the text of a paper should not be limited by the manner in which he or she is forced to communicate. An early exploration of Grammar B theory was published in part under the title "The Grammars of Style: New Options in Composition" and said
Many writers believe that there are “things to say”... that simply cannot be effectively communicated via a traditional grammar; that there are “things to say” in a highly technological, electronic, socially complex, politically and spiritually confused era that simply cannot be reflected in language if language is limited to the traditional grammar. (qtd in Direnç: 4)
The new grammar should be "a variegated, discontinuous, fragmented grammar of style [which] corresponds to an amorphous and inexplicable universe and mentality.” (qtd. in Direnç: 4) If alternative grammars such as Weather's Grammar B can enhance the writer's craft in an appropriate way, then their use and acceptance in academics should be revaluated.
Creative writing is often seen as the only appropriate realm to emphasize the creative voice through the manipulation of writing technique and grammar. In the provocatively titled Sin Boldly! Dr. Dave's Guide to Writing the College Paper author David Williams says, "Faulkner could not have written without semi-colons. But you are not Faulkner, and Faulkner was not writing for a college class." (182) He sums up this stance a few pages later saying "so play it straight and use regular punctuation. Plenty of opportunities to be creative will occur if you graduate." (185) This unfortunate position of most of the academic community is truly detrimental to the developing writer. At an advanced level of expository writing, growth focuses on techniques to improve nuances of clarity and logic-- often using that creativity that Williams so abhors. This sort of perverse monopoly Williams and other leading academics hold on creative voice over the undergraduate writer is hypocritical (for one could hardly say that Sin Boldly! is a traditional grammar handbook, and was certainly produced and marketed with this concept in mind). To ask on one hand for a more mature level of writing without allowing the student to pursue that advancement in ways most beneficial to themselves makes little comprehensible or instructional sense.
A similar standpoint within the academic realm is the idea of understanding correct grammar to later break the rules when needed. Edgar Schuster's text for instructors titled Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers through Innovative Grammar Instruction acknowledges the frequently taught "First know the rules, then you can break them--sometimes." (xiii) While is this is an improvement over the rigidity of very formal writing, this concession still implies the "correctness" of Standard Edited English. The very wording itself holds this implication. Advocating in this way the breaking of grammatical rules does not free the writer from the inherent "error" such actions represent. In contrast, Grammar B is a completed grammatical system, and therefore has internal infrastructure similar to Standard Edited English. There are characteristic devices of sentence structure used consistently throughout Grammar B, including crots, lists, extreme sentence length variation, parentheticals, dashes, forward slashes, ellipses, font differences, variegation, double voice, etc. In Grammar B, inherent error is negligible because the writer is not, in fact, in error at all.
Grammar B does not advocate breaking traditional writing rules because it offers an alternative set of grammatical rules that co-exists with Standard Edited English. For the purposes of length, this paper will only examine the device called a crot. The crot in Grammar B is the alternative to the sentence fragment. While maintaining the same terse brevity of the sentence fragment, the crot deliberately omits key components of the standard sentence structure (subject plus verb). The crot, however, is "fundamentally an autonomous unit" (Weathers 14). It is characterized by the "absence of any transitional devices that might relate it to preceding or subsequent crots," creating a "general effect of metastasis" (14). Crots are intended to present events in a non-linear, non-chronological manner. As Tom Wolfe says, "it tends to make one's mind search for some point that must have just been made--presque vu!-- almost seen! . . . in will have you making crazy leaps of logic, leaps you never dreamed of before." (qtd. in Weathers 14) Thus, crots cannot be viewed as simply glorified sentence fragments, but rather a new grammatical device with a defined purpose within the infrastructure of Grammar B.
Weathers' theory of alternative grammar is not deliberately bad grammar, nor grammar that ignores convention, but rather grammar that pays attention to functionality instead of prescriptivist standards. In his text, Grammar B is presented as second option for communication based on need, rather than a "better" or "more fit" grammar. In this sense, Grammar B is not arguing against the use of Standard Edited English, but rather argues for a broader scope of expression within formal academic writing. Thus, writing instructors and consultants should revaluate the conventions of academia to include options such as Grammar B in the development of a mature and advanced expository writer.
Direnc, Dilek. "Didion's "On Going Home": The Rhetoric of Fragmentation ." Journal of American Studies of Turkey 6 (1997): 35-42.
Schuster, Edgar H. Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers through Innovative Grammar Instruction. Portsmouth : Heinemann, 2003.
Weathers, Winston. An Alternative Style: Options in Composition . Rochelle Park: Hayden Book Company, INC, 1980.
Williams, David. Sin Boldly! Dr. Dave's Guide to Writing the College Paper. Cambridge : Perseus Publishing , 1992.