Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Yes, Formality Matters, Damn It

I promised some grammar ranting, and I'll get to that in a bit. First, I should probably include an explanation of why I'm ranting about grammar.

Students love to whine. I am a student, and I love to whine; most of my friends are students, and they love to whine. I'm speaking from experience here. However, over the course of an academic career, the focus of the whining changes. Upper-year grad students whine about their lack of funding, inability to afford rent or food, indifferent supervisors, and slow progress. Mid-term grad students whine about their huge but apparently inadequate stipends, inability to afford three new DVDs every week, absentee supervisors, and complete lack of progress. Beginning grad students whine about their enormous stipends (subsidised by showers of parental monetary bounty), inability to afford private jets, tough courses, and qualifying or comprehensive exams. Upper-year undergrads whine about living with Mommy and Daddy, having to work part-time to subsidise their tiny scholarships, course load, and boys.*

Lower-year undergrads also complain about such things, but most of all, they complain about grammar.

I don't understand it. No one ever taught me about it in high school. What's an adverb? How should I know? Why do you stupid markers have a problem with me sticking in a comma to indicate a pause? A comma does indicate a pause! That's what Mrs. Ritchie taught me in grade four, and she was right about everything else, including that stuff I was doing behind the school with Stephen! Why does it matter whether I know what a misplaced modifier is? You can understand what I'm writing, can't you? Well, can't you? What's the point of me learning all these moronic ruuuuuuules?

Mrs. Ritchie was wrong.** Your other teachers were remiss. There aren't actually all that many rules. Stop freaking out and learn what a bloody comma does.

Native speakers of a given language learn many grammar rules intuitively. For instance, speakers of standard British/Canadian/American English know that when they want to use the pronoun "I" and the verb "to be" (in the present tense) in conjunction with each other, "to be" takes the conjugated form of "am." Dialects can vary, of course, but in standard English, "I am" is acceptable, whereas "I is" and "I are" sound rather strange. Most people never realise that when their brains automatically conjugate "to be" and attach the correct form to the subject in question, they are applying the rules of grammar. When students do the Grammar Whine, they are not complaining about these basic rules (which non-native speakers have to learn from scratch, by the way. Do you still think you're hard done by?). They are complaining about the less intuitive rules of written English: specifically, those of formal English grammar.

The dividing line between formal and informal writing is not always obvious; there are degrees of formality. I am writing this guide in what you might call a semi-formal style. I use complete sentences (except now and then for effect); I don't begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions; I tend to use what many people would see as too many commas because I am inserting them at all the syntactically correct spots. However, I am also addressing the reader as "you"; I am using contractions and colloquial words such as "freaking" and "bloody"; my tone is much more subjective than it would be in a true formal essay. Newspaper columns and works of fiction are often written informally, with writers relaxing rules of grammar that they have learned and could apply if they wanted to do so. This last point is key. I'm sorry, undergrads, but it really is possible for readers to tell the difference between writing that breaks the rules "for effect" and writing that breaks the rules because the writer doesn't know the damned things. Experienced writers are allowed to use sentence fragments. You're not.

Yet even an experienced writer who used a sentence fragment in a piece of truly formal writing would probably deserve to be hit upside the head with somebody's Strunk and White.*** Save the edginess for your latest novel, Experienced Writer; when you write an academic paper, you follow academic style.

Academic essays are formal. They do not contain contractions. They do not address their readers as "you." They do not use the words "guys," "awesome," or "stuff." They do not employ sentence fragments, even for effect. They do not--ever--contain any variation on the following "sentence":

And there's one more interesting thing here: the narrator has killed his wife!

No. No. Bloody. No. That "and" is a coordinating conjunction; it does not belong at the beginning of a sentence. The word "thing" is vague and could mean, well, anything (the words "anything," "something," "everything," and "nothing" should also be avoided in formal writing, by the way).**** "There's"? No! Contractions! Ever! What is that exclamation mark doing there? I hate exclamation marks! I am a hypocrite and use them a lot, but I also hate them! Exclamation marks are out of place in formal writing, in which the writer is trying to convince readers, not scare the hell out of them.

Formal writing is measured, sober in tone, and grammatically correct. Students who simply can't resist being funny should note that humour in a formal essay should be there for a purpose; it is not forbidden, but neither should it appear simply for the sake of appearing. Recently, one of my students, a brilliantly funny man with a talent for hilarious phrasing, submitted a comparison essay in which he dealt with one text very logically and intelligently, then wrote a parodic analysis of the other. The parody was nicely done; it just didn't fit. If he had retained the parodic tone for his discussion of both novels, he would have been on less shaky ground.

It may be worth saying a couple of words about the "no contractions" rule:

No contractions.

That is all ye know, and all ye need to know.***** Contractions do not belong in formal writing. Save them for your blog.

Some profs will allow you to relax the rules of formal English in their essays, but since most won't, it's safer to assume (unless someone explicitly informs you otherwise) that you need to be ultra-formal. Ignore the majority of recent essay-writing guides, too; they tend to provide sample essays that use contractions. These guides are geared towards high-school students, many of whose teachers allow them to write informally. In university, profs will crucify you if you use "isn't" and "wouldn't" and "can't" and "there's" and "I've" and "should've." Formal English--without contractions--allows a writer to project a certain professional, authoritative tone. You may not like this tone, but it is conventional, and refusal to use it will lead to your readers (and your profs) taking you less seriously. Suck it up. Formal writing can be painful to produce, but once you've mastered it, you will be able to write almost anything.******

I'll be covering various rules of formal grammar as this guide progresses; I certainly can't deal with them all at once. For now, I'm going to rant for a bit on a grammatical rule that haunts my dreams and occasionally tempts me to stab student essays with a tiny knife of pain.

The Difference Between "That" and "Which"

Yes, there is a difference. Yes, it is an important difference. Yes, I am obsessive-compulsive. Why do you ask?

"That" and "which" are both relative pronouns: words that introduce adjective clauses (clauses that modify nouns and pronouns). "That" introduces restrictive or essential clauses. "Which" introduces non-restrictive or non-essential clauses. Any grammar guide will explain this simple fact to you. If you are Canadian, I recommend Jack Finnbogason and Al Valleau's A Canadian Writer's Pocket Guide, which I have open in front of me right now so that I can be sure I get all the terminology right (my definition above is a paraphrase of Finnbogason and Valleau 89).

Why did I refer to the grammar guide? Why didn't I just tell you the difference between the words? Well...see...I can never remember the bloody terminology. I don't expect you to remember it either. If you are not gazing upon the paragraph above this one in bitterness and despair and crying aloud in the night, "Does she really think that's simple?", you probably have a very ordered mind. Forget the terminology. The difference between "that" and "which" can be demonstrated clearly via some examples straight out of a grade one reader.

The cat that sat on the mat was black.

The cat, which sat on the mat, was black.

Note the surface differences between the two sentences. One uses "that" and one "which," of course, but the second also includes two commas. These commas are not optional. If you are using the word "which" as a relative pronoun introducing an adjective clause, you are preceding it with a comma.******* If you read over a sentence you have just constructed and find that you have used "which" without a preceding comma, you need either to add a comma or to replace the "which" with "that." What is not always easy is figuring out which option to choose.

Look at the silly blue sentences above again. Try not to kill me for using these examples; they're useful ones. Ask yourself: in each case, how many cats are in the room?

In option #1, there is probably more than one cat in the room. The "that" is essential; without the "that" clause, the reader wouldn't know to which cat the writer was referring. The "that" clause identifies the cat.

In option #2, there is only one cat in the room. The "which" is non-essential; without the "which" clause, the reader would still know to which cat the writer was referring. The "which" clause provides unnecessary but interesting details--parenthetical details--about the cat.

Say you write the following sentence, then notice a bit later that you have not included a comma in front of the "which":

The dog which I bought on Tuesday later bit me.

How you correct this sentence will depend on its context. If you are here identifying the dog--if "The dog later bit me" does not give the reader enough information on its own--you should have written, "The dog that I bought on Tuesday later bit me." If you have identified the dog earlier in the passage and the statement about you buying it on Tuesday is there simply to provide some additional information about the dog, you should have written, "The dog, which I bought on Tuesday, later bit me."

So...first, find all your relative "which"es and make sure they have commas in front of them. If they don't, figure out whether or not they actually need to be "that"s. Live happily ever after to the end of your days. The end.

Tomorrow (or Friday if I find myself drowning in horrible marking tomorrow), I'll discuss brainstorming and why it is not simply a catchword thrown out by tired, desperate high-school teachers who want their students to stop asking them stupid questions.

*Or possibly girls.
**Though not about that stuff you were doing behind the school with Stephen.
***A well-known American writing guide. Its real title is The Elements of Style; Strunk and White are the authors. Interesting fact: "White" is actually E. B. White, author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Plus he once co-wrote a book called Is Sex Necessary?, but that's probably not relevant here.
****Luckily, I'm not writing formally.
*****Hello, John Keats. As I told Mr. Pratchett yesterday, I only steal from the best. I would ask you to curb the florid imagery in your next poem a bit, but as you died in 1821 at the age of twenty-five, there likely wouldn't be much use.
******Except sonnets.
*******"Which" can be used in other contexts: in the expression "that which" ("He was destroyed by that which he had created"), as an interrogative adjective ("Which twin do you prefer?"; "I don't know which albino rabbit is prettier"), as an interrogative pronoun ("Which of you deserves to die?"; "You must say which you want"), or as a relative adjective ("during which time"). "Which" also appears in the expression "to which" ("the country to which he was travelling"), a rather convoluted construction that allows a writer to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition (it replaces the phrase "").


Christine said...

This is lovely! Do you mind if I direct my engineering students here for labs? Many many of them think that knowing how to write isn't worth their time.

Also, aren't Canadian and American conventions for commas different? Or is it just that Canadians like to write more formally, and that's why we use more commas?

Kem said...

Christine (yes, I know I'm months late commenting on this): direct away.

I'm not sure about the comma conventions. I know I'm pretty strict about them, but my theory is that it's better to learn ALL the rules and then break certain ones with knowledge than it is to learn NONE of the rules and then break them all through ignorance.

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