Category Archives: Grammar

The Language of Middle Earth

“In the beginning was the Word.”

LANGUAGE AS THE FOUNDATION OF MIDDLE EARTH

If you are not yet sufficiently awed by the profound depths of which the human mind is capable through the mystery of human creativity, ponder the fact that you have just successfully read this sentence. It has quite a complex structure, with an independent clause and three subordinate clauses, plus four prepositional phrases. It contains thirty different words used thirty-seven times.  The odds that you have ever seen them before combined in precisely that order are, for all practical purposes, zero. I could spend a whole chapter just analyzing that one sentence without taxing my own patience (yours is another matter). Yet I created the sentence effortlessly, and most of you probably understood it with little or no conscious effort.  Both of those facts are just plain stupefying.  And usually we do not even waste the adjective creative on expository prose of the kind I am writing now!  But without this almost indescribable human capacity for creativity, language could not work.  Without consciously doing any of the formal analysis (until after the fact), I spontaneously created a structure that allowed you to recreate with some accuracy in your mind the fairly complex and sophisticated meaning I was attending to in mine.

Where Shakespeare learned his grammar

Where Shakespeare learned his grammar

Where does this astounding ability come from? Man’s creation in the image of God is the source of the difference between us and the rest of the animal creation.  But what is the imago Dei (image of God)?  Is it our amphibious nature combining matter and spirit, our rationality, our moral (or immoral) nature, our capacity for relationship with God, or is it simply the position we occupy as His regents, representing Him as stewards and governors of creation?  None of these attributes is irrelevant to the imago, but neither is any of them its essence.  Theologians can spend interminable pages debating the details to no purpose, because they have never bothered to read Genesis for its narrative flow in context.  When we do, the answer is very plain.

Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar

Where Lewis and Tolkien practiced grammar

The first statement that God intends to create Man in His own image occurs very early, in Genesis 1:26.  We are in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.  So let us start from scratch.  So far we have only seen two attributes of God in action; they are all that has been revealed to this point, hence all we know of Him.  First, He is creative; second, He is articulate.  And these two facts are related:  He uses language as the means of His creativity, first declaring things into existence and then giving them both form (separating light and darkness, water and land, etc.) and value (it was very good). 

And God said, "Let there be light."

And God said, “Let there be light.”

So if we are then told that Man is going to be “like” God, one would think that this likeness must refer to the only attributes that have so far been introduced into the narrative.  Man too will be creative and articulate. And this reasonable assumption is confirmed by the story.  Adam is the first creature to be personally addressed by God’s speech; after a long string of third-person “let there be’s” he is called “thou.”  And he immediately starts talking back.  His first official act is to create the first human language:  God brings the animals before him, and whatever Adam calls each one is its name. So Man, like God, is creative because he is articulate. The core of the imago Dei is language.

Calvin abuses the gift of language.

Calvin abuses the gift of language.

Language allows us to contemplate things not immediately present in the physical environment and then to manipulate them in our heads.  It is therefore the foundation of our capacity for abstract thinking and reason. Language allows us to render an account to God of our stewardship of His creation.   It is therefore the foundation of the fact that, in a manner not true of the other animals, we are accountable for our actions, i.e., have  a moral nature.  That accountability allows us to function as His regents, the stewards of creation. We see then that all the major facets of our uniqueness that have traditionally been related to the image of God find their unity in language; it is the characteristic we share with Him that makes all the others possible.  Like Him, we are creative and articulate, articulately creative and creatively articulate.  We are language users because we are language makers, made in the image of the Word.

One who used the gift of language well.

One who used the gift of language well.

It is therefore no accident that the greatest story teller of the Twentieth Century, who propounded as well as practiced the theory of Secondary Creation, began the creation of the most believable, consistent, and compelling imaginary world ever known with the ultimate act of human creativity:  the endeavor to create a language.  Tolkien discovered that in order for Elvish to have a convincing sense of reality as a language, it required a people to speak it, a world for them to live in, a history and a mythology for them to remember, and other languages (spoken by neighboring peoples, who would have all the same requirements) to be related to.  And that is both how we got Middle Earth and one reason why it is so convincing.

Tolkien-Sam'sSong

For more on the gift of language and how we may best thank the Giver by using it well, see Dr. Williams’ book Inklings of Reality, available in the Lantern Hollow E-Store!

InklingsofReality5c

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Wordy Wisdom: Very, Very Verbose

Last week, I wordily confessed my wordy sins.  I tend to over-express things.  I want to make absolutely sure that the reader understands just how funny a scene is in my story.  I want my vision of a character’s expression or the sound of their voice – how they say something – to come through so that the reader shares my experience when I imagined up my world and my characters and my adventures.

I want them to see the details.

pos-adverb The problem is that no matter how detailed I am, every reader is going to see something different.  If I describe the trees as deepest emerald green, arching their branches majestically over the stone path like a cathedral ceiling, a hundred different readers are going to envision a hundred different emerald, branchy , arching, cathedral tree ceilings.  One of the key differences between a book story and a film story is that the reader’s eyes are given a picture in the latter, but in the former, the picture is created in the minds of both author and reader, and that picture changes as a result.

The question is, how much information does a reader actually need to get the general idea?  If we authors have conjured up a scene in our heads, we want to guide our readers as close as we can get them to that image.  What can we say to get them there?

My imperfect solution is often a succession of adverbs and adjectives, descriptive words that define and direct the scene.  I want my characters speaking angrily or dramatically, quietly or excitedly, impulsively or thoughtfully.  For instance: “Don’t touch that.”  How is the character saying it?  Why?  What does it sound like in my head?  I want my reader to know.

mark twain

Mark Twain always looks like he just stepped on an entire family of adverbs.

Mark Twain said that if we see an adverb or adjective, we should kill it.  My response is on the defensive side.  First of all, what did adverbs ever do to Mark Twain?  Secondly, I don’t think someone with a pen name has any business telling anyone else that they are being excessive.  And thirdly, sometimes an adverb creates exactly the right feeling we want to express, and removing the word removes the feeling.

What I think Twain may be getting at in his extreme way is the virtue of moderation.  I have begun to go back through my story, and one thing I am looking for is how often I use descriptive words, particularly adverbs, that can simply easily be removed.  If I take it out, will the meaning change? Do I need it?

Words like “excitedly” and “obstinately” and “incandescently” are large and dramatic and easy to spot.  I love adding “rather” to sentences to convey instant irony.  Everything can be “rather” something.  Of course, if everything is “rather” something, “rather” doesn’t mean anything, at all.  I have to be very careful to eliminate excessive “rather”s from my stories.

One of the sneakier adverbs that catches me is “very.”

And now I’m paranoid.  Have I used it in this post?  Is it lurking somewhere nearby?

Yep.  Found it.

I am afraid to admit the number of times I have gone through a story and found a whole host of “very”s living within it. If Twain thinks that adverbs are the enemy, then he would probably say that “very” is their leader.   “Very” is not just its own problem.   “Very” always has friends –  modifying friends in the forms of adjectives and adverbs and more adverbs.  “Very” can become “Very, very”, which can then be added to another adverb, another adjective, stretching on and on until the sentence is nothing but a whole lot of “very”s and nothing else.

This is, needless to say, very, very bad writing.

I cannot agree with Mr. Twain that all “very”s are bad.  Adverbs have their place, as do adjectives.  We must describe and define in order to give our pictures life and depth.  There is, however, a great deal to be said for strong, meaningful words that need no trimmings.  Something very, very bad is awfulhorrid, despicable, or vile.  Something said excitedly is blurtedexclaimed, or gasped.

We have at our disposal enough word that are defined in themselves that we do not so often need crutches.  Adjectives and adverbs have their place.  They need not be always killed.  But they will be more effective if used less often, and the story will move all the more swiftly and surely if there are fewer words wandering around in the middle.

(Who wants to count how many adverbs I used in that last sentence?)

Wordy Wisdom: Too Much of a Good Thing

It’s the month of March, which means all sorts of things.

  • It means that the weather feels the need to act like a cantankerous lion for the next few weeks before retreating into wooly, warm spring.
  • It means that there are Ides to beware (which could be good or bad depending on whether or not you are an emperor.)Beware-the-ides-of-March-730709
  • It means that for just one day, everyone will suddenly believe in leprechauns (which impresses the leprechauns not at all).
  • It also means that the days are ticking by, and there is a great, long manuscript awaiting editing on my digital desktop.  Editing is not my favorite thing, to be quite honest.  I like creating new material more than I like niggling over the old stuff.  And it’s never done.
    Never.

Because I must suffer through this editing process, I thought that I would allow our faithful readers to suffer a bit, too.  I’m just nice like that.

So, while March grumbles and blunders toward April, I am going to discuss one of the areas in which I struggle the most when it come to writing: wordiness.

I love words.  This is a good thing, since I also like to write. Words are fun.   They can be played with and manipulated and built one atop the other into grand and glorious statements of deep meaning.  I can make my readers laugh with them.  I can shock and dismay with them.

Unfortunately, there is such thing as using too many words, and I have this problem.  Case in point, let’s take a look at how long it took me to get to the point of my post.  I’d like to say that I made my post wordy on purpose as a teaching exercise, but this is actually just my problem with using too many words.  Like “actually.”  “Actually” didn’t need to be there.  Sorry.

I think many times, we writers get so excited to see words appearing on the page in front of us that we forget that quantity is only a partial triumph.  We become so enthralled with a delightful turn of phrase that we don’t realize a much shorter sentence might do the trick just as well, and our readers would thank us for it, too.   We add the perfect adjective, and the sentence starts to shake.  We carefully nudge an adverb into place, and it begins to tip.  We throw on a semicolon so we can keep going; the sentence tumbles over in a heap of excellent, frustrating words.

wordiness calvin and hobbes academia writing

For the next few weeks, I’m going to talk more about words – misused words and overused words and ways that we could let our words serve our purposes better.  In this struggle of mine, I’d like to explore our options. How can we create something beautiful with our words without stepping over the line of what is good into something florid, exaggerated, or dull?  When is that extra word necessary and when have we said enough?

I should probably stop writing now before this wordy post on wordiness gets any wordier.

Left or Write: A Resolution

As an educator, I hunt the internet for websites and blogs that can help me with my instruction or my students with their work. As I searched, I stumbled across a comic. The first frame showed a young woman sitting at her computer, thinking aloud her strategies for writing. Behind her hovered a “writing fairy” (really–that’s the best thing I know how to describe it) who in a tiny voice kept telling the author to write. The author kept listing everything she planned to do–brainstorm, research, organize notes, contemplate the meaning of life–everything, but writing. Finally, the little fairy grew tired of telling the author to write, and she shouted (in all caps) for the author to write. In the last frame, we see the young woman busily tapping on the keyboard and the writing fairy hovering contentedly behind her. 

Perhaps this comic sounds familiar. Not because you have seen this comic on the internet but because you find this cartoon illustrating your own aversion to writing–paving the road with good intentions that really lead you to nowhere. I found many comics on the same site that make the same joke as this one: writers to almost everything in the world that relates to writing–but they never produce anything substantial. 

These cartoons are particularly convicting as an educator and a writer. I instruct my students to create works of composition while I sit at my desk and scribble a note or two about my story or essay I have in mind. I teach them to formulate ideas, draw several drafts, and revise and edit substantially, yet my fingers really only touch a keyboard when I am writing comments to friends on Facebook.

However, I have quickly diagnosed my own problem: I really just do not feel like writing because I find it difficult. This craft requires time and precision, the former element I have little of and the latter I generally avoid practicing out of laziness and hesitation. I have found it difficult to arrange time for actual writing, an irony I hope to correct, and my hesitancy to improve precision comes my lack of awareness of both language and action. I want to create characters, put them in a setting, and develop a conflict that generates a story, but every time I start, I find myself erasing everything and starting with the blinking cursor on a stark, white page. Essentially, I want to tell a story, but do not know how or why I want to tell the story. My lack of conviction thus stifles my creativity, and my characters and their story are left as images in my brain or notes on random page.

Perhaps you find yourself like the author in the cartoon, always writing but never creating. Maybe my situation sounds similar to yours. So, shall we make a pact? Let’s not allow this year to become another year of wasted attempts to formulate something, but rather a year to produce a grand work, something to stand proudly behind and share with the world around us. Below, I have devised some ideas that can help us escape this slough of despond that ensnares our creative minds.

First, let’s resolve to write a thousand words a day. Sure, that seems excessive, given the amount of time some you do not possess. However, this does not have be something you master at once. Try writing one hundred words and work up from there. I tell my students writing is like playing a sport or instrument: you start out with the basics; practice, practice, practice; and then you are ready to go pro or play first chair. Writing a thousand words a day will help you translate your thoughts to a page and hopefully see your story envisioned concretely.

Second, let’s resolve to read more. Stephen King suggested in his book On Writing that inspiring authors need to read successful and creative works to acquire a strong command of language and capture an understanding of good storytelling. Therefore, blow the dust off that favorite novel, make a run to the local library or bookstore, or download the audiobook version, and start reading. Set a goal: a novel per week or an author-of-the-month. The more you read what’s good, you can see your writing habits improving and your stories taking shape.

Third, let’s resolve to spend less time researching and more time writing. There’s nothing wrong with research. Many a good story developed by what the author read in a book. Research is necessary when authors need to fill in gaps or tie loose ends (or not offend historical or cultural purists). It also established credibility and adds weight to your story. Nevertheless, fledgeling writers spend more time browsing through history volumes and internet databases than time at their keyboard. Procrastination becomes worse on the internet where social media and blogs can distract wandering writers. Therefore, use research when appropriate. Maybe include a work of nonfiction in your readings. Read a volume here or there, but research should supplement your writing, not take away your time (and sometimes your voice).

Fourth, let’s resolve to follow a process. As I am writing now, I am tempted to scroll above and check for style improvements and grammar errors. I confess I have already consulted the dictionary several times to spice up my vocabulary and confirm a spelling rule while writing this post. Yes, checking your language is important to the writing process. However, writers should be more concerned about having something to say before they can say things well. As stated previously, I struggle with precision of language–I want to say the best word that conveys they intended meaning. But at the end of the day, I have written maybe a paragraph. It is the most beautifully worded paragraph–then I realize I have to fill twenty pages. The concern, then, should come after your initial rather than making it a priority. Therefore, begin your day’s work by getting your thoughts down on paper. Write your thousand words or full page and then go back and check your language. I advise my students to wait until the next day to rework their structure and word choice (which implies scheduling enough time to actually have a day later to revise and edit). The writing process is fluid and will work for an author according to his or her own idiom. Thus, you should try what works for you, but please consider holding style and grammar checks until the end. As I tell my students, writing with bad grammar is like talking to someone with bad breathe, but writing with a lack of contend and organization is like talking to someone who is naked. One is obviously more distracting.

Finally, let’s resolve to budget our time wisely. As you look through our list of resolutions, you may notice that all these ideas require a central element: time. Ah, time, our greatest enemy. No wonder Rick Roirdan made Kronos, the god of time, the antagonist in his Percy Jackson series. It’s one of the things we desire most many because we cannot add to it or correct it. Or have it to begin with, as some of you are probably thinking right now. Yet, many of these suggestions overlap and some of them can be accomplished doing other tasks. For instance, you need to write a thousand words but do not have any ideas. So, keep a journal or write a description about a person you met that day. Perhaps consider reading a book and then rewrite some of the chapters putting yourself or your own character in the story. Do you have lots of errands and are the distressed taxicab driver for small children going to soccer practice, ballet lessons, and band rehearsal? Consider downloading an audiobook and play it in the car while you drive or lesson while your kids are at practice. Children love to be read to, so make listening to an audiobook or reading aloud a story yourself a family event. Maybe go to the library and pick up a book about a culture you have never heard of and write a story based on a hero or deity in the book. Consider keeping a vocabulary word bank or “banded words” list to improve your writing. I make my students create sentences based on their vocabulary lists. Time is precious and challenging, but it does not have to discourage your creativity. You can master this monster.

As the new year approaches, consider your own resolutions. Perhaps there are some that I have not considered. Let’s band together as a community or writers and leave comments about how to improve our writing this year!

How NOT to Write: Problematic points of view

During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates.  These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis.  What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask?  Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by.  Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with.  So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction.  I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!

__________

“Point of view” (POV) is a powerful thing.  It obviously determines how we interact with the world around us, and how other people approach us.  It is a basic part of all knowledge and experience.  Even the great sage Obi-wan Kenobi observed to Luke Skywalker that much of what we believe about the world “depend[s] greatly on our own point of view.”  While I strong disagree with Old Ben about our POV determining truth, I agree that is too important to be overlooked.  It is ironic then that one of the most common problems I see in my courses deals with authorial POV.

POV would seem to be a simple thing in the academic context.  Generally, an author writes from his or her own perspective and that is that.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the goal of formal, academic prose is to communicate ideas as clearly and accurately as possible.  So, the author speaks to his or her audience, coaxing them down an intellectual path to (hopefully) reach the intended conclusion.  Good academic writers can get most people from point A to point B.  The best can make them enjoy the trip.  So what problem could there be?

It comes when we forget to read from someone else’s perspective.  What makes perfect sense to us doesn’t always seem so clear to someone else.  Take the following examples*, if you will:

  • (On a World War II poster) Save soap and waste paper!–So how much paper should we throw away, on average?
  • People across the country were shocked when Teddy Roosevelt had an African American for dinner.–I can see the book title now:  The Presidential Cannibal
  • The ship was christened by Mrs. Coolidge.  The lines of her bottom were admired by an applauding crowd.–I imagine that would provoke her husband and our 30th president, “Silent Cal” into a few choice words.
Right.  What all these examples have in common is the fact that whoever wrote them forgot to look at what he/she had written from the perspective of the reader as well as from that of the author.  After all, I’m sure that the author knew that the “her” in that last example referred to the ship and not Mrs. Coolidge.  Can’t everyone else see that?!

No, they can’t.  They can only see what we put on the page, and they will read into it the most obvious interpretation they can (and even a few that they can’t).

The only way we can hope to prevent this is to read our work from as many different angles as possible.  Leave time between drafts to relax and pursue other interests.  This lets your brain “reset” itself, and you’ll be better able to see what you actually put on the page…as opposed to what you wanted to put there and so now expect to see.

In fiction, POV is incredibly useful.  If you keep the distinction between author and reader in mind, you can have all sorts of fun manipulating your audience and make them like it.  I myself am only just now beginning to play around with it on my current project–a  series of first person novellas telling how a diverse group of people all arrive at the same place.    Whatever you might think of his later movies, M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense is a brilliant POV thriller where they audience does not even realize it has been tricked until the very end.  Winton’s POV in 1984 is another brilliant example.

When not mining them for ideas, we can apply the same advice on POVs to our fiction that I make my students apply to their formal prose.  It is never enough to stop with just the author’s POV.  The first step is to go beyond and anticipate the reader’s.  The next (and perhaps the most fruitful) is to get to know your reader so well that you can control their POV.  When you can do both at once, the possibilities are endless.

Next Week…a fresh perspective from July’s featured author on Fridays!  I’ll be around in my Sunday feature, “Meditations with C. S. Lewis,” and I’ll be back on Fridays in August.  Here’s hoping I can think of something new by then….

__________

*These aren’t original to me.  I believe I first read them in David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies, though I’m sure they weren’t original to him either.

More in the How NOT to Write series: