Effective Formal Writing University of New Brunswick
Topics • Grammatical Bugbears • Diction: Clarity vs. Clichés • Sentence Length: Coherence and Purpose • Argument and Evidence • Logic • Thesis Statements and Essay Structure
Bugbears(illus. Sir John Tenniel, Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.)
What Are Bugbears? • Grammatical howlers, frequently merely conventional or formal errors • Many do not impair the effectiveness of the communication • Do we have to judge them? • Consider:
Hamlet was suppose to chastise his mother and kill his uncle, but his essentially contemplative nature prevented him from taking effective action until events outpaced him. suppose to
A Sad History of Prejudice • Some bugbears are artificial— • beginning a sentence with “because” • “splitting the infinitive” • Language is constantly changing • HOWEVER, a minimal level of competence is necessary to ensure a fair hearing for your work • “Status markers” will overshadow a writer’s accomplishment . . .
Where Writing Places You In an office making decisions . . . ? On a porch playing the banjo . . . ?
Grammatical Bugbears • Cannot be ignored (“use to,” “should of,” “with regards to”) • Will always overshadow genuine achievement to some degree • Technology cannot yet save us--
2. Diction • By this point, writers have completed an apprenticeship during which expansiveness and dilation have been emphasized over precision and economy • It is time to require them to choose • The right words and • Words they knowand can use well.
Clichés • At the end of the day • Fairly unique • I personally • At this moment in time • With all due respect • It comes down to • Absolutely • It’s a nightmare • Shouldn’t of • 24/7 • It’s not rocket science • The bigger picture • “The bigger picture”
Vague Phrasal Verbs “Of course, the heartbreaking lyrics of dying love are something to which almost everyone can relate.” • “relate to” • What can it mean?
Novelty & Vocabulary • “make it new” is not the always best advice for selecting words • Accuracy and familiarity (of individual words, not phrases) are crucial • The evil comes from overly familiar phrases and unnecessarily obscure words
Complex Diction • What do people REALLY think of overly complex diction? • D. Oppenheimer, Stanford U (2003): • people who use unnecessarily complicated language are viewed as lessintelligent than people who use more familiar language Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems With Using Long Words Needlessly
Effective Diction Diction should be . . . • As simple as the subject permits (but no simpler!) • As fresh as possible • Exact and concrete • Appropriate to the audience and the writer The aforementioned contretemps makes Cordelia feel really bad about things.
Ready‑Made Phrases • Like Frankenstein's monster, "ready‑made" writing is stitched together out of dead parts. • Avoid phrases that “sound appropriate” • Use only words you need—and your audience understands
Basic Inflation • Based on the fact that • Due to the fact that • Exhibit a tendency to • For the purpose of • For the reason that • In spite of the fact that Because Because Tend to For Because Although
Ready-mades • to the extent that • plays a leading role in • on a daily basis • the fact that • in the event that
Other Types of Repetition Pointless bifurcation: • basicandfundamental • lastandfinal • issuesandconcerns • fullandcomplete
Other Types of Repetition Redundant Phrasal Verbs: • erode away • continue on • circulate around • enter into
Other Types of Repetition Redundant Adjectives/Adverbs • future plans • consensus of opinion • especially unique • potential hazard • final outcome
Why Wordiness? • Most of these choices are the result of “length anxiety” • From early grades, length is the measure of achievement • Students learn to pad—to be honest, we teach them to do it
3. Length & Coherence • Students are urged to vary the form and length of their sentences • Length in the wrong place is dangerous • Proceed with caution • Selecting length with a clear purpose is one challenge • Coherence is another
Why Variety? • There should be a relationship between the length of a sentence and its purpose • Variety for its own sake is not enough • A long sentence should be long for a reason. . . .
Length: Accumulatio Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox withthe pudding in his belly, that reverend Vice, that grey Iniquity, that father Ruffian, that Vanity in years? 1 Henry IV, 2.5.409-14
Accumulatio—and Contrast Falstaff is not evil because of his ambition, but because of his gluttony, his sloth, his skill at concealing the truth, his reluctance to recognize his vice, his inability to reform himself, and his ability to make all of this seem humorous and attractive. He makes a bad companion for Hal.
Contrasting Brevity Macbeth seeks out the Weird Sisters, hoping for certainty in the face of the growing chaos that threatens to destroy his tumultuous newly-stolen kingdom. He does not find it. Sentence 1 is sentence 2 squared (25 versus 5 words)
Variety in Length • More gradual variations in length are possible • A number of short sentences in succession can create a feeling of urgency in a narrative or passion in an argument • Increasing length of successive sentences can build to the climax of an argument • At the higher levels, variations in length should always reflect the rhetorical goal
Long, Graceful Sentences • A long sentence should still be readable • Key tactic: Move from subject to verb quickly • Avoid delaying the subject-verb progression with long intervening elements • A sentence which moves from subject to verb rapidly will still be readable even when it is quite long
Too Long Subject Explaining why Shakespeare decided to have Lady Macbeth die offstage rather than letting the audience see her die has to do with understanding the audience’s reactions to Macbeth’s death.
Long Subject Explaining why Shakespeare decided to have Lady Macbeth die offstage rather than letting the audience see her die has to do with understanding the audience’s reactions to Macbeth’s death. 18-word subject—in a 29-word sentence !
To the Subject and Beyond Because Shakespeare wanted the audience to focus on Macbeth’s death, he decided to have Lady Macbeth die offstage. • Turn a long subject into an introductory clause • You do not have to state “explaining why” Just because you ARE explaining why! • Don’t waste time telling the reader that you WILL say something—later.
Improving a Long Sentence Not extreme—14/36—but awkward Evidence in the dialogue between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, for his incestuous feelings included the authority he assumes over her, the bitterness of his manner, and his focus on her sexual relations with his uncle. The list itself is fine—good, parallel items.
Improving a Long Sentence Evidence in the dialogue between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, for his incestuous feelings included the authority he assumes over her, the bitterness of his manner, and his focus on her sexual relations with his uncle. Some unnecessary overhead—”evidence in the dialogue”—and a weak verb (“included”)
Trimming between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude, for his incestuous feelings the authority he assumed over her, the bitterness of his manner, and his focus on her sexual relations with his uncle. Now make Hamlet and Gertrude ACTORS in the sentence. . . .
Making Hamlet Act Hamlet shows his incestuous feelings for Gertrude through the authority he assumes over her, the bitterness of his manner, and his focus on her sexual relations with his uncle. Now make Hamlet and Gertrude ACTORS in the sentence. . . .
Good and Long • Long sentences can be highly readable—especially if the subject of the main clause is brief and clear • Get the reader to the verbquickly • Coordination and subordination can extend the readable length • Skilful parallelism uses the reader’s expectations to extend the sentence intelligibly
How to Ruin a Sentence • Counterintuitive exercise • Take a good, clear sentence—and ruin it by relying on nominalizations • Nominalizations are nouns created from verbs
A Good Start Hagar first fails her father, Jason Curry. STRONG VERB ACTOR as SUBJECT
A Good Start Hagar fails her father, Jason Curry. failure NOMINALIZATION Rebuild the sentence around “failure”
. . . Turned Bad The first failure that Hagar experiences is in regard to her father, Jason Curry. failure Six-word subject before weak verb “is” Clumsy “in regard to” link
How Bad Is It? • Turning 7 words into 14 words is not the end of the world, BUT • habitual nominalization destroys good, clear writing • DOUBLING the length without increasing the content is unforgiveable • Remember George Orwell’s old joke. . . .
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Passage 1: • 38 words of 90 syllables • vocabulary: educated (18 from Latin roots, 1 from Greek) • no clear images • Passage 2: • 49 words with 60 syllables • vocabulary: everyday life • 6 simple, vivid images
4. Argument & Evidence (in essays) • Close work with the text is crucial • Three basic techniques: • Block quotations • Embedded quotations • Paraphrase
144 words— my goodness! Block Quotations • As this passage reveals, the description of the setting of "The Lottery" is deceptively pleasant: • The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner. (782) • There is no indication of the dark meaning of this gathering.