Learning to Love the Sentence: Prepping ENG 105 (4)

The two best writing teachers I’ve ever had were Sallie Sears, who taught a course in the contemporary novel, which I took during my junior year, and June Jordan, who led the poetry workshop, my first, which I took that same year. Professor Sears taught me how to revise my prose with an eye towards clarity and coherence, but, more than that, she taught me a profound lesson in humility. Before Professor Sears got hold of the first essay I wrote for her class, a paper on Andre Gide’s (the revised version of which I still have), I had been pretty much a straight-A writer. I’d even gotten an A in the writing class that all English majors had to take, the one taught by the professor who informed us the first day–I have long since forgotten his name–that he’d gotten his PhD at Yale, that he intended to hold us to the high standards he’d acquired at that institution, and that, since no one our age knew how to write a sentence anymore, none of us should expect to get an A in his class. I was, in other words, pretty full of myself as a writer and as the intellectual I presumed to think I was when I was all of twenty or twenty-one years old. So you can imagine my surprise and indignation when Professor Sears handed me back my paper not just filled with her red-ink, chicken scratch comments and corrections all over every page, but also with a big fat C-, also in red ink, on the front.

Who the hell does she think she is? I actually remember thinking to myself–a memory that now makes me look with (an admittedly amused) compassion and tolerance on the students I’ve had over the years who have, sometimes to my face, said the same thing about me. (I remember in particular the straight-A honors student who came to my office in tears to tell me that she didn’t get C’s, that I must have made a mistake, and who steadfastly refused for most of the semester to try any of the strategies for improvement that I offered her. When she finally did, she turned out to be one of the strongest writers I have ever taught.) Anyway, there was no way I was going to let that C- stand, and so I went to Professor Sears’ office, well-prepared in my young arrogance to show her a thing or two about writing, or at least about my writing.

Things did not, as you might imagine, go as planned. Before even I had a chance to roll out my first argument, she was showing me, at the level not of reasoning or logic, but of the sentence, where my writing lacked clarity and focus. How, she wanted to know, could I expect a reader to give my thesis any credence when I had not even had the courtesy to make sure that he or she could follow the simple meaning of my sentences? She was right, of course, and I knew it, and I left her office humbled but determined; and when I was done revising my essay, what had been a superficial five pages had transformed into a substantial fifteen page analysis that earned me one of the most important A’s of my academic career.

The lessons I learned from June Jordan were less about the sentence–I was taking a poetry workshop with her, after all–and more about how to craft a poetic line, one that had rhythmic structure, whether it held to a traditional meter or not, and in which that rhythmic structure moved not just the language forward, but the meaning as well. Central to this kind of line, she insisted, were strong, concrete verbs. Indeed, one of the best exercises she gave us was to write a poem in which we did not use any form of the verbs to be or to have. I have given this exercise to different kinds of writing classes over the years–creative writing, composition, even technical writing–but I never connected what I’ve alway thought of as a straightforward matter of word choice to the actual structure of a sentence, to what it means to make the simple meaning of a sentence clear, until now.

The next two chapters of The Well-Crafted Sentence are called “Well-Focused Sentences: The Subject-Verb Pair” and “Well-Balanced Sentences: Coordination and Parallel Structure,” and what I like about them is that they connect what are normally taught as the kind of thing you just have to learn to matters of style that are really very important for writers to pay attention to. English, she starts out by explaining, is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language. We say Cats eat mice, not Cats mice eat, as they do in subject-object-verb (SOV) languages like Persian or Korean. For writers, she goes on

the SVO order has particular significance because it represents the norm. Without really thinking about it, readers develop an expectation that, as they approach a new sentence, they’ll encounter first the subject, then the verb, and then the object. [As a result], I want to make a case for choosing subjects carefully, taking full advantage of the subject position. Because readers intuitively expect the first noun phrase in a clause to be the subject, they pay attention to that noun phrase. A wise writer will direct the reader’s attention to the key player, using the subject position to name the person or thing that the clause is really about. A sentence is well focused when the most important actor and action appear as the subject and verb. (36-37)

Bacon then goes on to illustrate both the semantic and stylistic importance of clear subjects and verbs by taking passages from some of the readings she’s included in the text and rewriting them in ways that resemble (though she doesn’t say it this way) the kind of writing my students most often produce: paragraphs in which most of the sentences have some version of the the subject-verb structures It is, It has, or There are. I have, of course, taught lessons designed to show students the weaknesses of these kinds of sentences, but it had never before occurred to me to tie those lessons explicitly to the subject-verb grammatical structure, and I like the idea of doing so because, at least potentially, it gives students a more or less objective conceptual framework on which to hang the stylistic principle I want them to learn. Whether this will work, of course, is a whole other question.

The chapter on coordination does something similar. Bacon begins by explaining the rules of coordination and parallelism, something my students often have trouble with, and I like the way her exercises hone in on identifying not just the coordinating conjunctions themselves, but also the parallel structures that are required for coordination to be done correctly. Where this chapter really shines, however, is in the exercises that ask students to imitate the authors of some of the sample readings she has chosen, providing analytical practice–if that phrase makes sense–in producing the stylistic effects of long coordinate series, as well as the various flavors of what she calls the echo effect. Here she focuses on President Obama’s speech, A More Perfect Union and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s essay Sin Boldly. Here, for example, is the sentence she uses from Obama’s speech to illustrate the echo effect of pairing:

What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part–through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience, and always at great risk–to narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time. (70)

And here is the paragraph by Gates that Bacon uses to illustrate the echo effect of repetition:

My speech was about Vietnam, abortion, and civil rights, about the sense of community our class shared, since so many of us had been together for twelve years, about the individual’s rights and responsibilities in his or her community, and about the necessity to defy norms out of love. (73)

These are structures that my students have a notoriously hard time handling. I am excited to see how they do with the imitative exercises.

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7 Responses to Learning to Love the Sentence: Prepping ENG 105 (4)

  1. 1
    Amnesia says:

    This new learning amazes me. Jaded as I am by the essay-regurgitating format of so many past English classes, your series inspires in me the desire to consciously improve my writing. Well done.

  2. 2
    IvyKllr says:

    HIS exercise? Am I missing something? Was it not June Jordan’s exercise?

  3. Ivykllr:

    I’m not sure what this comment is referring to.

    And thanks for the kind words on your comment on the other post.

  4. 4
    closetpuritan says:

    I think Ivykillr is referring to this paragraph:
    “The lessons I learned from June Jordan… Indeed, one of the best exercises she gave us was to write a poem in which we did not use any form of the verbs to be or to have. I have given his exercise to different kinds of writing classes over the years…”

    I think I assumed when I originally read it that “his” was intended to be “this”.

  5. Thanks, closetpuritan. I actually read through the piece twice and didn’t see that. It’s fixed.

  6. 6
    lauren says:

    Because readers intuitively expect the first noun phrase in a clause to be the subject, they pattention to that noun phrase.

    Should this read “pay attention”?