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And Yet Another But. . .

November 12, 2009

“But can you do that?“ my friend asked, trying to give me advice about my blog, “Start a sentence with a but?“ After I pointed out that she had done just that, started her sentence with a but and she told me that that was different–she was talking, not writing in a public forum–I explained that there is a difference between my writing here and the writing I would turn in to a teacher. My voice as a writer is different in these posts, less formal, and while I am aware of the rules of grammar, I don’t necessarily adhere to all of them in ways I might if I were writing a research paper.

Most of us have to learn to use multiple voices in our writing and the ability to codeswitch, or move between two languages, is becoming an ever more important skill to develop with the explosion of tech-mediated conversations. The truncated and abbreviated writing of text messaging isn’t appropriate for coursework, but most of us wouldn’t write to our friends in the ways we’d answer a question on a test. This isn’t new. It’s just that the ways we share our informal language are much more public.

I recently found notes that my best friend Tammy and I passed back and forth when we were freshmen in high school in Detroit. (This was a LONG time ago!) HN4U!, she wrote in a note she slipped through the ventilation slots in my locker, adding CU and DBL8 about our after-school meeting to try out for water ballet. We were obsessed with potential boyfriends who might take us to the winter dance and our notes were often filled with speculation about various boys we’d like to try to get a date with. HN4U—he’s not for you—was our shorthand for “forget about him.” CU is obvious, as is don’t be late. Acronyms and abbreviations are not new, but they change over time and can change even more rapidly if an adult world adopts them and younger people search for new kinds of slang to baffle their elders. By the time you get to college, you are rapidly becoming an elder, so it’s good to master traditional writing.

Once you’ve mastered traditional grammar, however, there is something beyond it that you’ll often see in the work of experienced writers. Traditional writing uses Grammar A; the additional techniques are known as Grammar B. I found this in Tom Romano’s (1995) Writing with Passion as I was trying to understand my own writing style better. Romano cites Winston Weathers‘ (1980) out-of-print work, An Alternate Style: Options for Compostion, as his source. Grammar B includes the following from pp. 74-90 in Romano with my additional explanatory information:

Repetition: Rhythmic writing filled with the repetition of sounds, phrases, sentences, or other patterns. This includes things like deliberate alliteration (the repetition of the initial letter in a word: crisp and crunchy croissants), the deliberate use of rhyme in a sentence, or the deliberate repetition of words or phrases or sentence beginnings. Notice that I said deliberate. Not all repetition is deliberate. Often writers fall into patterns of beginning many sentences throughout an essay, for example, with the same words. This is often boring and dull and doesn’t fall into the Grammar B category. Reading your writing out loud to a critical (in a good way!) friend can help you tell the difference.

Sentence fragments: These are words or phrases deliberately used as complete sentences. You must know how to do this for effect. Really. Otherwise, the reader is left. Generally sentences need a subject and a verb at a minimum, but sometimes, sentence fragments work in the context of a piece of writing.

Labyrinthine sentence: This is a finely-crafted and quite lengthy sentence that goes on and on and on and on and on and on. This is actually a fun writing exercise. I used to limit my students‘ journal writing to one sentence a day and by the end of the year, the sentences were definitely labyrinthine. This takes practice and a good grasp of punctuation and shouldn’t be overdone.

Orthographic variation: This is a big word for playing with words, combining them and altering them to achieve some kind of heightened meaning. I love to do this. Neologisms—new words like braindancing from an earlier post—are one form of orthographic variation; another I’ve used recently in a post is care•full, meant to emphasize the need for student work to be full of care. New words enter the dictionary this way every year. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (revised eleventh edition) includes definitions for celebutante, crunk, and hoody, and my favorite given yesterday’s post: bahookie, Scottish for a person’s buttocks.

Double voice: Speaking with two voices at the same time. This can be difficult to pull off, since it is meant to convey two perspectives at once. I’m not even going to try to explain further here. Get assistance if you want to try this!

The list: I love the list and this is just what it says: a list that can often appear poetic and that conveys multiple bits of information quickly.

You can begin a sentence with a but or an and. You can use sentence fragments. You can make up words. You can do lots of things to increase the power of your writing once you know what you’re doing and have mastered the basics of Grammar A so that your Grammar B choices are made deliberately. There is power in knowing how to write well, and while there are some people who will write better than others, there are also many others who could be playing the writing game if they were willing to practice. It always surprises me that we understand quite easily why the football team is back on the field in the heat of summer, practicing every day, yet we fail to understand that skills like writing take practice too. No sports team would take the field for a big game without significant practice beforehand. If you want to write competently, remember that.

How can you improve your writing?


Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture, but to save themselves, to survive as individuals.
• Don Delillo

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