Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Writing { and reading and publishing } ~

Tag Archives: Grammar

Our Conversation Moves through Grammar toward Learning and Magic . . .

We’ve been having a conversation on this blog for 5 of the last 16 days—every Monday and Wednesday… Blog Conversations

The last go-round went into the shades of meaning of two phrases and how they lend themselves to explaining different approaches to our experience of reading.

I ended up saying:

Reading, with concentration and empathy, will help you escape into books as well as escaping with books—you can live inside the book; and, you can internalize the book’s world to help shield you from
“The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…

Which lead on to two comments, the first from Australia, the second from England (I’m over here in the U.S.A.…):

“The only grammar I learnt at school came from learning a foreign language. I learnt how to write by reading a lot and then under the care of a wonderful teacher, who, every day of my school life, asked for a paragraph of creative prose from each member of the class. We always wrote it in class and then read out what we had written. One day a student stood up and asked: ‘Why do you make us write such unhappy pieces?’ The teacher smiled and said: ‘I have never given you any topic to write about. You have written what you are feeling.’ It was true: we were confused adolescents. We escaped into our own little worlds and the rest of the class escaped into the small worlds we had created…we had never heard of transitive or intransitive :-)”

“I suppose I knew about transitive and intransitive when I did A level English but those phrases about books can be interpreted just as well without understanding grammar. After a while some readers just seem able to feel how to write, and read, without knowing too much grammar, which is why the new emphasis on grammar rules in Junior School English is a waste of time. By all means teach punctuation and discuss nouns, adjectives and adverbs, but what else do most people need? I agree with reciting tables (and poetry). Children will find that useful when, like me, they have forgotten most of the grammar they learned at school.”

So, before I add to the conversation proper, I’ll explain the title of this post—Our Conversation Moves through Grammar toward Learning, and Magic . . .

I got “learning” and “magic” from the etymology of Grammar:

“late 14c., ‘Latin grammar, rules of Latin’, from Old French gramaire ‘grammar; learning’, especially Latin and philology, also ‘(magic) incantation, spells, mumbo-jumbo'”


Both of those comments (from Australia and England) came from accomplished authors…

The first noting that grammar was only an experience related to learning a foreign language and the second putting grammar in the closet of things not worth a tremendous amount of attention…

I’ve even heard, from an English teacher in college, that the grammar we use in English is taken directly from Latin—weird, eh?

Yet, the first commenter brought up a glowing remembrance of writing creative paragraphs (an implied use of grammar) and the second made reference to understanding the structure of language by Feel, through experiencing it, while forgetting any grammar learned…

I am certain there are folks who spent many hours of their lives studying grammar, and continue to think about it for hours, and use what they learned and pondered—building a written piece from its bare skeleton out—applying the flesh as a mere necessity to hold the bones…

And, there are a flock of folks who are somewhere between that last group and our two accomplished authors…

Then, there are the crowd who one might call language fundamentalists—blowing themselves up in public over rigid ideas of what words are for…

Sure, there are some who write things poorly—concatenations nearly impossible to read—swerving all over the highway of meaning…

And, finally, those who put words down because something Magic, deep inside, moves them to relate creations that can enspell us into other worlds…

So, from confused and sad adolescents, pouring out their hearts, paragraph after paragraph, to those who’ve “forgotten” their “grammar” yet still tell stories—moving through Grammar toward Learning and Magic…

By the way, my favorite definition of Magic, from the Oxford Dictionary of English is:

very effective in producing the desired results

I’m sure I’ll eventually move away from so much etymologizing…

Still, once again, we’ve had some sort of “conversation” here…

And, if you feel like adding your thoughts and/or feelings to it, do, please, leave a comment :-)
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What’s Wrong with #Selfpublishing ?

Three years ago I wrote what I consider my most important post; and, that’s most important out of 1,400-some posts… 

It’s called, What About All The Authors Whose Books Don’t Sell Very Many Copies?

One of the main points in the post was how wrong some writers’ opinions can be when they only look at authors who’ve sold thousands or millions of books.

They seem to cling to what those authors have said about how to be a “success”—they usually find no success

Naturally, “success” can come in many colors and knowing that the book trade these days is in rapid and confusing transformation can lead some writers to quit and others to redefine what “success” really means

Part of my point in today’s post depends on what the differences are between Self-publishing and Traditional publishing <— those links will show you posts I’ve written about these seemingly contradictory methods of publishing (This post will show up in those links since I’ll be tagging it with both terms :-).

So, I’ll now introduce you to the author Ros Barber.

She had an article in The Guardian this month called For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way.

For me, that title is a little ball of mystery and contradiction

I found out that The Guardian wrote that title because she wrote a blog post—“You” = “One” = “Me”—that tries to excuse her from what she wrote in the article.

The blog post was a big ball of mystery with a different blend of contradictions

I’ll share some excerpts from her Guardian article, as well as my opinions.

Under the topic heading, “You have to forget writing for a living”, she says, in part:

“If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living….if your passion is creating worlds and characters, telling great stories, and/or revelling in language, you might want to aim for traditional publication.”

I must mention her blog post about The Guardian article to let you share in some of the mystery of how this author expresses herself.

She got quite a bit of negative feedback from The Guardian article

In the blog post, she says her biggest mistake was using “you” as an “indefinite pronoun” since she didn’t want the article to be full of the word “I” and that “one” was “too posh”, etc….

In spite of what the received “wisdom” of Grammar might say, if “you” read the words, “If you self-publish your book”, do you think the writer is talking about themselves or about “You”?

And, there are plenty of ways to let folks know about a self-published book without intensive “marketing”—just one being to put it on Wattpad in serialized segments and interact with folks a bit—it doesn’t, by any means, have to take more time promoting a book than writing more of them.

And, the second half of that first excerpt is Way out there

Is it absolutely impossible to create worlds and characters, tell great stories, and/or revel in language in a self-published book?

Is to “aim for traditional publishing” going to magically make a writer create worlds and characters, tell great stories, and/or revel in language??

Let me excerpt only her other topic headings (so I don’t have to become entwined in her mysterious manner of justification) and comment a bit on each:

“Self-publishing can make you behave like a fool”

Now, if I could have read her blog post before I read her Guardian article, I would have known that she meant she had acted like a fool

Simple little logic question here:

Because she acted like a fool in her self-publishing adventures (or, because she feels she would act like a fool—it’s hard to know since she has self-published but she claimed in the blog post that “you” means her, so why does she show someone else’s “foolish” twitter behavior?)

Sorry, have to start over since I tried too hard in that last sentence to be fair to an author who says one thing but certainly appears to mean another

This is the logic question: If someone who’s self-published has acted like a fool in their promotion efforts, does that mean everyone who self-publishes will act like a fool?

And, let me try to be yet more fair with this logic question (since she claims “you” means her): If Ros Barber acted like a fool about self-publishing, does that mean most folks will?

Next topic heading:

“Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego”

“Gatekeepers” is a word for various people in the Traditional publishing industry; but, I’m wearing myself out trying to be fair to this author, so I’ll just ask you to read my past post, Are Readers Going To Be The New Gatekeepers?

Next topic heading:

“Good writers become good because they undertake an apprenticeship. Serving your apprenticeship is important”

“Your apprenticeship” in that heading refers to writing a number of books and having them turned down by traditional publishers.

What’s to stop a person from writing a whole bunch of books, self-publishing them, finding out that each time they published their books were a bit better?

And, if they’re worried that publishing a string of “bad” books might harm their reception when they’ve reached a point in their personal apprenticeship where they have a fairly decent book to offer, they can just self-publish to a select audience (Wattpad come to mind again…) until they feel they can hit the major self-publishing channels.

Why not learn how to interact with an audience of readers as you improve your work instead of waiting for the opinion of one traditional publisher to shine on your effort with God-like grace?

Next heading:

“You can forget Hay festival and the Booker”

“Hay” and “Booker” are the award programs that seem to me like riding a merry-go-round and waiting for someone who might happen to walk past throw a gold ring at you

Next heading:

“You risk looking like an amateur”

If I tried to rationally deal with what she says in this section, I’d need a vacation in Australia to recuperate

This section tries to make people believe that to “look like” a “professional” author you must entrust the editing, cover, marketing, and publicists to a traditional publisher.

And, the magic belief that “proves” her point is that it will cost a fortune to do all that as a self-published author.

Do I really need to explain that, as self-publishing has gained market-share, entrepreneurs in all those areas have devised relatively low-cost ways to accomplish all those tasks?

In fact, because I’ve been researching and writing about the book world for the last five years, I’m sure there are more options for editing, cover production, marketing, etc. than ever before and they will only increase—when a market is expanding, people rush to take advantage of it (naturally, one must use common sense in judging the trustworthiness of people—I won’t mention the lack of trust many authors have from their experience with traditional publishers—oops, Damn!, I mentioned it…)

“70% of nothing is nothing”

Here she’s referring to a very common royalty percentage offered to self-published authors.

She’s also expressing her opinion of the odds of selling scads of self-published books.

As an argument for never self-publishing and entrusting your writing career to traditional publishers, that heading takes no account of the sales histories of most traditionally published authors (Please read this particular post…).

And, please, also, don’t forget the title of this author’s Guardian post: “For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way”.

And, even though in the blog post about the Guardian article she says The Guardian wrote the title, I feel the article (along with the blog post) more than justifies what the title claims

I usually encourage folks to read the complete article I’m reporting on

If you can stand peculiar, one-sided “logic”, go ahead and read Barber’s article; but, also, to be fair to her, read the blog post she wrote after the article appeared

I’ve said it before and I stand up and shout it now:

Words are slippery critters; and, sentences are slipperier—God save us from paragraphs and longer written works!

You do know I’m “somewhat” kidding, right…?
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Which Is More Important, The Art of Writing or Its Craft?

I’ve written many times about all the bad advice for writers that’s out there… 

I’ve also written about some of the vast confusions about the purpose of writing.

But, when it comes to the Art of writing, a bit of Craft goes a long way.

And, learning the Craft of writing is more bearable if one is devoted to its Art.

Some might even say that the Art is constructed from the Craft.

And, naturally, there are those who don’t have time for either

Back in 2012, I wrote two posts about diagramming sentences (something I found intriguing and well worth learning back in my pre-college days):

Diagramming Sentences ~ A Lost Art?

What’s The “Best” Way To Learn “Proper” Grammar?

The post at the first link has some fascinating comments from the readers

But, in case you’ve never heard of this tool of the craft of writing (and, didn’t take that link up there), let me show you the diagram of the first sentence of George Orwell’s 1984 :


Some folks might see that as completely confusing.

Some might say, as one of the commenters I mentioned did, “diagrams are such visual word art, a bit like the electric circuitry of language laid out on the page

Now, take a look at the diagrams for the first sentences from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice :

The Great Gatsby

Pride and Prejudice

Those three images are from an aesthetic project by the designers at Pop Chart Lab, and you can see 23 more famous first lines rendered as grammatical diagrams if you visit their post, A Diagrammatical Dissertation on Opening Lines of Notable Novels   ( plus, if you hurry, you might be able to grab {at the bottom of that last link} one of 500 signed prints of this work of Crafty Art :-)

Did you learn sentence diagramming in school?

Did you like it?

If you didn’t learn it, do you think it might be helpful?
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What’s Grammar Good For, Anyway?

I heard, many years ago, and have had it somewhat proven in the meantime, that the English grammar taught to us is actually Latin grammar.

I’m sure someone has written all this up nicely and I’m sure there are now books proclaiming to be Real English Grammar

I, honestly, don’t care.

As long as what I write is understood by most of the folks who read it, I’ll be happy with my knowledge of how words “should” go together.

I’ve learned what I know about wordsmithing by being a voracious reader—perhaps some of the authors of all those books knew their grammar

But, there are places where “proper” “grammar” might be called for:

— certain classes in certain schools

— a few resumes offered to select companies

— grammar blogs (only certain ones)

— various grammar books

Obviously, I’ve learned how to put words together—just ask my friends :-)

So, I suppose I use some sort of grammar

If you think what I’ve written so far in this post is drivel or worse, please let me have it in the Comments.

If you sort of agree with some of it, watch this video

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Select as many as you like:

What’s The “Best” Way To Learn “Proper” Grammar?

Everyone who reads regularly knows quite a lot about grammar, even folks who don’t think they do.

Of course, not everyone can state the rules of grammar; and; even those who can might disagree.

Every aspect of language changes over time—it’s a normal consequence of human social evolution.

If a writer were to conceive of a book written in the style of a young woman in the England of 1325, they certainly wouldn’t do their research with a recent book on grammar.

Then, of course, there are the language mavericks who bring consciously purposeful mutations into the flow of language evolution.

Naturally, there are places for “proper” grammar and places it would sound silly—just like wearing a tuxedo to a beach party.

Fiction is one space that lends itself to grammatical mutations.

In that regard, Martha Brockenbrough, in her role as Grammar Girl, explores grammar in fiction (including Jane Austin), noting considerations of each character’s unique expression and knowing the rules so you can break them effectively, in the article Bad Grammar :: Good Fiction. Here’s one cool sentence:

“I’d go so far as to say that correct grammar might even keep aspiring writers from publishing their work, and that correct grammar in the wrong place might diminish the reading experience.”

Then, there’s the consideration of how best to learn proper grammar even if you intend to twist it

One way is to read, as widely and deeply as possible. This supports my opening sentence: “Everyone who reads regularly knows quite a lot about grammar, even folks who don’t think they do.”

Another way is to read grammar books, at the risk of never finishing since you continually fall asleep

I wrote about yet another way in a post back in March, Diagramming Sentences ~ A Lost Art?

If you’ve never seen a diagrammed sentence, check these out:

I quoted Kitty Burns Florey in that March post, from an article she’d written for The New York Times. She’s written a follow-up article, Taming Sentences, where she says, about the first article, that she received, “…more than 300 comments (and close to 100 personal e-mails) in response…”.

Some love it, some hate it. Some saw value in diagramming sentences, some could care less.

Kitty, herself, had a well-balanced view:

“Obviously, I recommend diagramming…”

“…diagramming is not for everyone.”

“…it involves mastering not one skill but two: the rules of grammar and syntax and the making of diagrams…”

“Even if it enlightens us about the parts of speech and how to use them, it teaches us nothing about punctuation, and it can’t help with spelling.”

“Probably the best way to learn the technicalities of language and usage is not to diagram but simply to read books that are full of good sentences.”

And, the real kicker: “…it is like broccoli: it’s good for you only if you can stomach it.”


Whether you read voluminously, study grammar books, or learn diagramming, do visit Kitty’s last-linked article, if only to see how she diagrammed this sentence from Henry James’ The Golden Bowl:

“The spectator of whom they would thus well have been worthy might have read meanings of his own into the intensity of their communion — or indeed, even without meanings, have found his account, aesthetically, in some gratified play of our modern sense of type, so scantly to be distinguished from our modern sense of beauty.”
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