Tag Archives: Syntax

Syntax and Instinctive Grammar Rules #amwriting

Syntax is defined as the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language. English has certain standard rules of speech that are learned so early on in life that they are instinctual.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemNo matter the level of our education or the dialect we speak, we use these rules and don’t realize we are doing so.

Several years ago, I found three delightful quotes on these rules from linguist Steven Pinkereditor Stan Carey, and Tim Dowling, a journalist for The Guardian.

The Jolly Green Giant rule:

The rule is that multiple adjectives are always ranked accordingly: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Unlike many laws of grammar or syntax, this one is virtually inviolable, even in informal speech. You simply can’t say My Greek Fat Big Wedding, or leather walking brown boots. And yet until last week, I had no idea such a rule existed. Tim Dowling, for The Guardian, 13 September 2016. [1]

My editor often finds and points out words whose order must be rearranged to sound natural. Some sentences seem clumsy when she reads them because when I first wrote that section, I was going too fast and put my words in the wrong order.

I didn’t notice it during the revision process. Some hokey phrasing goes unnoticed by me through upwards of six revisions.

Why do we overlook typos and errors in our work? StudySkills.com tells us:

… the more familiar our brains are with the content in print, the less we are able to focus on details. It’s how our brains are designed to work. We often cannot see our own writing mistakes. (Susan Kruger Winter, CEO & Founder of SOAR Learning, Inc. Why We Can’t See Our Own (Writing) Mistakes, 22 July 2018) [2]

It happens because, in the first draft, I am madly getting the words out of my head. My ability to use a pen or run the keyboard can’t keep up with the stream of words falling from my mind.

  • (Wrong) My red large Cadillac is fun to drive.
  • (Right) My large red Cadillacis fun to drive.

Actually, my small blue KIA Soul is fun to drive. (Grandma’s imaginary red Ferrari would be a lot more fun, but no one would be safe on the road.)

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Muddled phrasings often slip by when I revise my work because my mind sees the words as if they were in the correct order. This is the writer’s curse—the internal editor knows what should be there, and the eye skips over what we actually wrote.

This ability to see our work as if it were finished is a necessary aspect of creativity. We have an image of what it should look like and know what needs to be done to shape it that way. However, after so many hours of laboring on a manuscript, our brains can trick us into seeing what we intended to write, overlooking the flaws.

When I first began writing, I had a naïve belief in the perfection of my work. I was soon shown differently, and (once I grew a thicker skin) I found a good editor.

In every language, native speakers automatically order their words in specific ways. In English, we order them this way:

  1. opinion,
  2. size,
  3. age,
  4. shape,
  5. color,
  6. origin,
  7. material,
  8. purpose

Stephen’s dark blue wool jacket was left behind.

Another rule I love is the Mishmash rule:

“Reduplication” is when a word or part of a word is repeated, sometimes modified, and added to make a longer term, such as aye-aye, mishmash, and hotchpotch. This process can mark plurality or intensify meaning, and it can be used for effect or to generate new words. The added part may be invented or it may be an existing word whose form and sense are a suitable fit. (Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012.) [3]

mish-mash-ruleI adore mishmash words. They’re poetic and musical and roll off the tongue with a satisfying rhythm. Sadly, while I regularly bore my grandchildren with them, I hardly ever get to write them. Mishmash. Hip-hop.

The Hip-Hop rule:

Have you ever wondered why we say fiddle-faddle and not faddle-fiddle? Why is it ping-pong and pitter-patter rather than pong-ping and patter-pitter? Why dribs and drabs rather than vice versa? Why can’t a kitchen be span and spic? Whence riff-raff, mishmash, flim-flam, chit-chat, tit for tat, knick-knack, zig-zag, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, criss-cross, shilly-shally, seesaw, hee-haw, flip-flop, hippity-hop, tick-tock, tic-tac-toe, eeny-meeny-miney-moe, bric-a-brac, clickey-clack, hickory-dickory-dock, kit and kaboodle, and bibbity-bobbity-boo? The answer is that the vowels for which the tongue is high and in the front always come before the vowels for which the tongue is low and in the back. (Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994:167) [4]

Verbs are power words. The order in which we place them affects how readers see our work. Sometimes we frontload our sentences like this: In any situation, Charlotte runs toward danger.

Moving the action to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger. Nouns followed by verbs make active prose: Charlotte runs toward danger, never away.

First drafts are the place where we might write something like: Running toward danger, Charlotte was happy. This kind of awkwardness says what we mean but does it poorly. It might slip through many revisions because the internal editor rearranges them correctly, and we don’t see it as written.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543“Ing” words are a terrible temptation to those of us raised on Tolkien. He was writing a century ago, but that style of lush prose has fallen out of fashion. We open the gate to all sorts of verbal mayhem when we lead off with an “ing” word at the front of a sentence.

So, you now have a mishmash of words and a bunch of rules that native speakers of English use without consciously thinking about it. Wonky word order is one more thing to watch for when revising our manuscript.

But it’s easier to notice strange syntax when we are reading another author’s work.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

[1] Tim Dowling, Order force: the old grammar rule we all obey without realizing, © The Guardian 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/sentence-order-adjectives-rule-elements-of-eloquence-dictionary (accessed 13 January 2023).

[2] Susan Kruger Winter, CEO & Founder of SOAR Learning, Inc. Why We Can’t See Our Own (Writing) Mistakes, 22 July 2018 (accessed 13 January 2023).

[3] Stan Carey, A hotchpotch of reduplication, MacMillan Dictionary Blog 2012 © Macmillan Publishers Limited 2009-2023. http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/a-hotchpotch-of-reduplication (accessed 13 January 2023).

[4] Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: HarperPerennial.

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#amwriting: getting lost in translation

The question about using foreign languages in dialogue recently arose again, so it seemed appropriate to revisit a situation from one of last year’s posts.

The quote that started it all was posted in a writers forum: “I have a main character in a fantasy novel who speaks no English. She speaks several other languages, though. Should I put the translations for her dialogue in italics or in parentheses?”

The answer to both options is a resounding no. We write in our native language for people who read in that language.

We can add a slightly foreign flair, but translations should not be necessary at all. We don’t put the reader through that kind of torture, wading through a language they don’t understand, and then giving them the translation in italics. (Or large chunks of whatever in parentheses.)

The writer whose question had begun this was writing a fantasy novel, and there are certain conventions readers expect authors to adhere to in this genre. When writing genre fantasy it’s a generally accepted practice that thoughts are set off with italics, not parentheses (aka Virginia Woolf), and so brackets have no place in the fantasy narrative.

Too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the em dash or ellipsis has the function of setting portions of the narrative aside or giving it emphasis.

Italics, parentheses, and foreign dialogue are like cayenne—a little goes a long way. It’s all right to include an occasional foreign word or phrase, as long as it is done in such a way that the reader who most likely does not speak that language is not completely thrown out of the book.

My next thought when I was told about this particular conversation was, does the writer speak the languages she is writing, or is she getting her Russian (or Spanish or German) from Google Translate?

If that is the case, this author has a hot mess on her hands and her readers aren’t likely to finish her book.

Original sentence in English: “It appears as if my dog may have fleas.”

Google translation in French: “Il semble que si mon chien peut avoir des puces.”

Re-run that French phrase through Google translator: “It seems as if my dog can have fleas.”

Note the slight change in the translation—one word has been shifted, “may” becomes “can.” While these words are sometimes interchangeable in English, they don’t always mean the same thing:

  • May sometimes means might or perhaps; or sometimes may gives permission.
  • Can gives permission or enables.

That slight switching out of the word “can” for “may” changes the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence with “may” suggests it is possible the dog has fleas. The second translation to French assumes the word “may” is permission and gives the dog permission to have fleas.

These are two entirely different concepts.

English originally developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.  So, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. Basically, we speakers of English speak a version of Dutch.

I hear you now: “But I don’t understand Dutch!”

This is because even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax.  English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, specifically word order.

How do you know that the Google translator understands syntax? The answer is: it doesn’t.

Imagine this situation: Your character from Amsterdam has bent a spoke on his bicycle wheel. He speaks Dutch. Filtered through the translator, it goes like this:

English: “Oh no. My bicycle has a bent spoke. How can I fix it?”

1st Dutch translation: “Oh nee. Mijn fiets heeft een gebogen sprak. Hoe kan ik dat op?”

2nd English translation: “Oh no. My bike needs an bent. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: When we retranslate it back to  English, the second translation makes no sense.

Google Translate is an extremely useful tool, but it is not intended to be used to translate an entire book into a foreign language. You need to hire a translator for that.

So, now we know that texts translated via Google Translate often emerge slightly twisted and make no sense, which is not what we want. If you do use the occasional foreign word or phrase, it’s no big deal as long as it is used appropriately and in a context that will be understandable to readers who don’t speak that language. It lends a certain realism when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just don’t rely on Google Translate to help you write your Russian spy novel’s love scene.

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