Working the Wonkets

I was once the director of an undergraduate creative writing program granting a true liberal arts degree. The freshmen were intelligent, gifted, and willing, but entirely innocent of grammar, syntax, or etymology.

Either the high schools don’t teach these subjects or they do a bad job. Most of my students were puzzled when I asked, so I assumed the former.

If they’re helpless falling into college, they have to be walking disasters by the time they stumble into grad school. Grammatical incompetence worsens with altitude, like a decaying trajectory that’s off just a hair at the outset.
Let’s face it—there’s no such thing as a good writer who doesn’t have excellent command. How many successful writers can you think of, in whatever categories you wish, who mangle sentences as a matter of ignorant routine?

My student writers understood the situation. They fell on the few crumbs I offered, devoured them greedily and gladly. They preferred real knowledge, as it turns out, to bullshit assurances, however frequently repeated.
The problem is that I am writer, not a grammarian. My feel for grammar is just that, a feel for it. I can say, Nope, that’s wrong a lot easier than I can explain how I know it is wrong. I mean, I can reconstruct the problem, but it takes a lot of time, and I am better at watching motion; and anyway I have explained to students for years why their sentences are broken without seeing much improvement in performance, so I doubt the approach.


Something of a tatty little secret, what, the linguistic ineptitude of our pupils? A matter we’d best not discuss frankly in public though we may groan among ourselves in the coffee bar. Teaching the stuff is not in the job description thank god, and where would we find the time anyway after our other classroom responsibilities? We must praise fire and heart, and hope for the best.

What a sad attitude.

The inner structures of language are beautiful, like the pulse of fluid in the translucent veins of the leg of a wasp in the sun. All that continual arrangement and rearrangement, all those mirrors and hallways and windows branching into the bluest of distant possibilities and the strangest of thoughts.

I can’t imagine being passionate about language and not being fascinated by its workings and waybelows and wonkets.
So this is how language fascinates me, and grammar. As living systems, always adapting and creating. I am not a grammarian because I am not a classifier. But this doesn’t mean I don’t like grammar.

Consider that we begin decoding sentences in subunits and recombining the subunits into more and more refined levels long before we know what we’re doing, so that meanings flower whole at our first awareness.
Since there is an initial period when we are deciphering a sentence unawares, time and meaning are mysteriously and cunningly related. With regard to comprehension, time runs backward—we get the whole first and figure out the structure later if we figure it out at all.

There’s no “right” grammar, of course, no absolute grammar. Every dialect and speech has its own innately correct grammar: So goes the modern truism, too self-evident to argue. Grammar on the page is another matter and yet the same. Grammar on the page ought to be understood as an overgrammar, a usable synthesis, a set of convenient mutual agreements.

Its purpose is the same as any other grammar’s purpose: Communication.

Grammar on the page subsumes all or many of the spoken variants of a language. As with spoken grammar, it’s a matter of conventions and of clarity of intent. Grammatical signals—punctuation, parallel constructions, imbedded constructions, et cetera—ought to be understood as plain and simple switching devices. The closer our agreement with a mutual convention, the clearer and more quickly we can communicate. I trust we all understand the vast difference in skill between deliberately contravening conventional grammar or syntax for specific effects and being unable to control one’s sentences. But to illustrate:

I once wrote a short story which pretended to be an essay from a freshman English class (“Without Any Ears,” from the collection Hawk Gumbo and Other Stories). It wasn’t a snotty attack on lack of standards, by the way—it made fun of the teacher and praised the spirit of the colloquial student.

Naturally, the copy editor corrected all my “errors,” and wrote an incensed note to the main editor for accepting such a misbegotten piece. I took this as praise of the highest sort—I had gotten “wrong” right.

Grammar on the page is also a transcription or scoring of grammar for the voice. In voice, there is no punctuation. We use pitch, pause, emphasis, rhythm, duration, and other vocal cues to indicate distinct units of meaning. For this reason, every English sentence is a tune. It can be a good tune, harmonized and rocking, or it can be a clumsy broken tune—but it will be a tune.

Unfortunately or not, there is no precise scoring system for the tunes that sentences make. We cannot readily indicate pitch on the page, or duration, or timbre—much less the dynamic marks so useful to musicians.

The transcription we use records the logic of our statements rather than their music. (Though the transcription is logical, it is neither simple nor linear. As I say year after year, for example, story after story: “Every comma implies a pause, but not every pause requires a comma.”)

This is the hardest part to get clear: That the marks on the page refer to a system of meaning and not a system of sound—but that the system of meaning translates to a system of sound. Think of the laser cutting pits into the DVD, which another laser will translate back to what our eyes take as the original scene.

When we make words vocally, the cutting laser is our thought, and the material we cut into is sound itself. Another brain can use the same system in reverse to translate sound back into thought—a thought from somebody else.

Musical recordings can now mimic with more sensitivity than our ears can distinguish the sound of a full orchestra playing, say, Scriabin’s Etudes. They do not yet present the complete physical illusion of the orchestra.

All transcriptions leave something out.

Now consider written language. Its medium is not sound. In this case, the laser is sound and the written page is the recording which can then be translated back into sound by the skillful.

Notice I said the skillful.

That is, there is a two-stage translation. We have little doubt that language evolved as a spoken system and not a written system—a system coded for the sense of hearing. With the evolution of written language, what was originally coded in sound gets coded again, into voiceless marks on the page.

The trick is this. In spoken language, we have a system of sounds to indicate meaning. In written language, we have a system of marks. And the two systems do not entirely harmonize. It is part of the skill of the good writer to intuit the most harmonious joinings of the systems, language in which there is no contradiction between meaning and music.

Since this odd split between our spoken and written systems can be harmonized, grammar is not a dull dry study, but a fascinating examination of the singing dynamics of the language. Comprehensible syntax is quite literally music, and grammar represents the bones and intelligence of that music.

It mystifies me that poets who will study the ways of birds, animals, plants, societies, or humans, will balk at studying the life of language. Language is equally rare, equally mysterious. Language is the flesh we share. I pity the poets who have lost this faith. What can they make their poems of but ashes?

So I would feel unconscionably derelict if I didn’t address the problem. My students were people who wanted to be writers. But without mastery of grammar and syntax, they were like broken-legged dancers: However much innate grace and dazzle they possessed, it could never be expressed.

I would tell them that we’d talk about grammar when it came up. I would tell them that unfortunately they were pretty much on their own, that the schools had failed them. (No doubt a lot of the students had failed the schools, too, but there seemed little point in making that observation.)

I tried to give them a usable conceptual basis for individual study.

I told them what I have said here, that until by some means they came to mastery of their language, they would be severely handicapped. Their development would be stunted, and they would find themselves out of the loop and not understanding why (maybe this principle doesn’t apply to screenwriters).

I told them that when they studied grammar, they should study generative or transformational grammar, and not the old useful but logically miscontructed parts-of-speech approach. There are few if any words in English which cannot be used as more than one part of speech. Many of us have been mother-in-lawed, for example. The secret to the infinite variety of the English sentence is its recursive, imbedded structure. (Forget about kernel sentences, though. The rules of transformation are beautiful, but there are no kernel sentences. That was an unnecessary invention, like the ether in physics, from the beginnings of transformational grammar.)

And finally, I would mark their stories and poems carefully and faithfully, not merely with regard to the usual subjects, but with regard to grammar and syntax. I looked upon these marks as an available resource for the interested student (nobody can help the bored student). Students were not required to use my grammatical and syntactical commentary, but it was there if they wished to. Most of them were delighted to have the additional suggestions.

Like many teachers, I found it necessary to telescope my grammatical or syntactical comments. This was not my chosen subject, after all. The teaching load was already too heavy, without using extra energy on grammar.
Nevertheless, like a track coach who finds that all of his or her stars have sprains, breaks, and torn ligaments, I had to deal with the situation. So for years I resorted to a list of abbreviations which I handed out to the students, and which covers the more frequently occurring sorts of mistakes.

I believe it was Ben Kimpel, a former teacher whose every scrap of comment was worth noting, who inspired me to attempt condensation.

Such a list would be worse than useless unless it engaged the humorous intelligence of its users. And how are students to master an abstract concept unless they have vivid and concrete examples to hand?

I came up with a single solution for both problems, which I present below.

It seems clear to me that writers and teachers of writing must do something to improve the situation, if only because no one else knows how any more. To that end, I offer my abbreviations and examples.

If you can use them, feel free.


awk = writing that does not have a smooth flowingness to it, but trips itself up in a clumsy awkward kind of manner

red = a phrase or a word which is redundant and repeats the sense of another phrase or word in the same construction

unn = a word, phrase, sentence, or passage which, although it has been written by the author and placed in the paper, is unnecessary to the sense of the paper

coll = This here mark means that the got-dang passage is inappropriately colloquial, if you know what I mean.

dict = Diction: The level of this diction is either rather too Plebeian to consort appropriately with the more elegant passages in close proximity, or is too funky for serious babes and dudes.

inx = This passage is just so inexpressive. I mean, I can’t really put the way I feel about this passage into words, but it’s just so kind of, I don’t know, sort of lame.

ww = Wrong Godzilla: This Godzilla doesn’t mean what you think it means.

wc = Word choice: This semiotic device is approximately correct, but not the best sound-sign for the effect you wish to create—close, but no cigarette.

logic = There is a logical flaw in this passage, and since you wrote this passage, and since you are a human being, it is apparent that there is a logical flaw in all sentences written by human beings. And since logic is the finest creation of God, the fact that we cannot write logically accurate sentences proves that we are all sinners and doomed to live in hell forever.

rep = This word, phrase, sentence, or passage is repetitive. You keep repeating it—or words, phrases, sentences, or passages that are very similar to it—over and over. Long after we have gotten the message, you are repeating the same tired words, phrases, sentences, or passages. It’s really repetitive.

conj = There is an error involving either a coordinating but a subordinating conjunction, where the conjunction is the wrong one.

cf = Comma fault: You have used a comma, in the wrong way or not used one when grammar that set of signals for comprehensible language dictates that you should have used one or more.

cs = You have committed a comma splice, you have joined two main clauses with a comma but no coordinating conjunction.

fs = You have committed a fused sentence it is just like a comma splice without the comma.

run = This sentence is a run-on sentence which can never seem to make its mind up about where it’s going or how to conclude but instead just continually keeps dithering around and spooling out phrases and clauses and all sorts of fuzzy ideas and I guess it’s really the Energizer sentence if you think about it because it just keeps going and going . . .

dm = Writing a dangling modifier, the word or phrase that is supposed to be modified isn’t there.

mm = A misplaced modifier can make a teacher tear his or her hair out, being an affront to good sense and good syntax.

ref = reference: usually a pronoun with no antecedent or this is a confusing one which she doesn’t understand.

agr = Agreement: This are a problem with singular and plural. Sometimes it happen with a subject and their verb, and sometimes they happens with pronouns and its antecedents.

contr = Contraction error: Its often confused with possession, because possessions also a grammatical device that uses apostrophes.

poss = This is an error in indicating the possessive case of you’re nouns or pronouns. Sometimes it happens because your confused about contraction and possession, and sometimes it happens because you are confusing plural noun’s and pronoun’s with possession.

st = Sequence of tenses: When you had finished writing the sentence, you are proud of it, because it will not contain any errors in the way you use the tense of your verbs.

use = Usage: The English, she are not wrote like how. If you continue on with this error, you will make the teacher up to throw.

// = Parallel fault: Using one grammatical or syntactical structure as part of a series, but then to use a different structure, or you use several different structures, in the rest of the series.

gbl = Garbled: You have confused two or more gramtactical structures, therefore being not sensible, which is a hard act to follow.

sp = You have speeled this Gordzilla wrong. Their are several possible reasons: Perhaps you have mistaken it for a soundalike word; perhaps the mispelling is a typo; perhaps you have spelled the Godzilla phonetically, altho it is not phonetic. Do not rely on spellcheck. Spellcheck is an idiot.

/ = A strikethrough indicates you have inappropriately Capitalized a letter.

/ = looks like the strikethrough mark, but is used between letters to indicate that alot of the time you are writing two words as one, and that this is not alright

= =  failure to capitalize a letter. You will remember that capitalization should be used only for the initial letter of a complete sentence, the initial letters of proper nouns—as, for example, new mexico—and appropriately in titles.

Note: The marks below are standard printers’ copy-editing marks, but I don’t know an easy way to insert them on the computer, since they’re manual. You could find them somewhere online, no doubt. Or you could tell me how to do them on the computer.

= paragraph: a new paragraph is needed here

= positions of letters or words need be to reversed

= insert the indicated material

= delete this material

= join these two words into one word

Another Note: There are many other errors which may be too complex for a mere abbreviation, and which require fuller marginal comment. Do not omit to notice these errors. And remember that in grading, an instructor also thinks about organization, clarity, effectiveness, style, et cetera.


2 thoughts on “Working the Wonkets

  1. Dear Buzzard,

    That is beautiful. I’m now inspired to search for the notes from Larry Frost’s transformational grammar course that I enjoyed 83 years ago.

    You are a dandy.


    Omar Link

    • Hey, Omar!

      Thank you a bunch. I always thought transformational grammar was the first sensible grammar I ever heard of. The parts of speech approach was just dumb. Back then, though they were talking about “kernel sentences,” seeming to think there was an essential set of basic sentences which got “transformed” into all the rest.

      I started saying to myself (and anyone who would listen), transformational grammar is right, but there aint no kernel sentences, in the same way there’s no smallest unit of space or time. Sure enough, Lynnika, who is working on her Ph.D. dissertation in linguistics, says that’s the way it is.

      You make me feel good. I had fun with the examples.

      Love, Jack

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