I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I write – especially because I’ve been writing regularly lately – I find myself using the same syntactical patterns all the time. I seem to find rhythms and structures that I live, but then I can’t vary them. It’s kind of like I’m writing in iambic pentameter (that stuff that Shakespeare uses) without any of Shakespeare’s flare for changing it up at crucial moments.
Recently, I’ve been stringing together lots of gerunds (forgive the English teacher speak – those are the words that end in -ing), layering phrase upon phrase, piling idea upon idea – like I did in that sentence. Yikes!! And I like the effect of that structure the first two or three times I use it, but then it gets tedious and begins to look like I have no control over my sentences.
Another thing I’ve been struggling with is the use of hyphens. In case you haven’t noticed – I overuse them. Somehow in my mind I think they’re like strong commas – which they can be – but not all the time.
This morning as I wrote I found another problem in my writing – I drift into cliche often now. These aren’t those cliches that I see my students use often – I haven’t worked “the early bird gets the worm” into my writing, thank goodness. But I do find things like song lyrics (for all your Christian music fans, I wrote “I can only imagine” in something recently) or the same turn of phrase over and over again.
I’m not sure how to overcome these things, and I probably shouldn’t worry about it too much since I’m revising first drafts now. I do find it a bit troubling, however, to see these patterns in my writing, especially when I spend so much of my time telling my students to watch out for those things. But then again, I take the time to revise, which is something my students don’t often do, so I guess at least I know that much.
Do any of you struggle with these things? How do you overcome them? Do any of you have any great books on grammar and syntax that you’d recommend for writers? My friend Sarajane Woolf (her wonderful essay “Bog Ritual” was in the Alaska Quarterly Review a while back) has done some great work on this; she looked at sentence patterns and lengths to see the effect that they had on writing. So I’d like to read more stuff like that – any suggestions? I should reread Strunk and White for sure, and I would recommend that to anyone interested.
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in the way some of us butcher the English language, I highly recommend Richard Lederer’s Anguished English series. As a teacher, some of my favorites are those gems that students write. Here’s an example from his book The Revenge of Anguished English – Student blooper: The four gospels are written by John, Paul, George, and that other guy. Priceless.
So in honor of Richard Lederer and the start of school (classes start for me tomorrow), I’m soliciting – and will continue to do so throughout the year – your best student gaffs. Send them to me at andilit at gmail.com, and I”ll post them here periodically. Please don’t send your students full names – initials are fine. And if context is important, please send that as well. I look forward to laughing hard this year . . . . and to enjoying the pleasure of seeing how versatile our language can be.