English is Not Latin, People!

Yet some of our fussiest grammatical rules were woodenly borrowed from that language.

Every language has an internal logic of its own. Ideally, rules for formal writing should be in harmony with this internal logic. These rules can be stricter than the rules for casual speech or dialects – every language needs a way to mark formal from informal speech – but they should not actually violate the internal logic of the language.

Let me give you an example of a sentence that is grammatically incorrect but sounds like natural English:

Me and Liam are going to play Minecraft for 12 hours.”

Technically ungrammatical, but still a natural English sentence. Not only can you easily tell what it means, but it sounds like it was uttered by a native speaker, albeit a native speaker who is not trying to sound educated.

Contrast that with this:

Recently I go Vancouver.”

This sentence was spoken by a non-native English speaker, and you can immediately tell because it gives that jarring sense that it violates the language’s internal logic.

Here’s another pair:

“There is a vast right-wing conspiracy trying to destroy my husband and I.”

vs.

Again the same it felt.

The vast right-wing conspiracy sentence commits a grammatical error (an overcorrection), but it’s still a natural English sentence. The second one has perfect subject-verb agreement, but it is jarring and not natural.

The following are three ways that Latin grammar has been imported to English when it probably should not have been.

Noun Case

In Latin, case on nouns is super important. It’s how you can tell who is doing what to whom. So if someone is the subject of the sentence, you would never call them “me.” And you would never call them “I” if they are the direct object.

In Latin, every single noun has an ending that matches its number (singular or plural), grammatical gender, and one of five cases. This ending tells you exactly what is going on. So, if you like, you can scramble the word order in the sentence for effect. Cool trick, and it follows the internal logic of Latin.

English mostly doesn’t have case. (Just on our pronouns.) Instead, we indicate part of speech (subject noun, direct object, etc.) with word order. In fact, this word order rule is so strong that you can even put the wrong case on a pronoun (as in the examples above), and it still sounds natural. The word order rule overrides the case rule. This shows that English as a language doesn’t really care about case.

It also shows how important word order is in every English sentence. “Again the same it felt” sounds weird only because it violates English word order.

Splitting Infinitives

This one is such a simple misunderstanding that it earns a forehead slap.

Latin infinitives can’t be split because they are just one word. “To dance” in Latin is saltare. You cannot say salta-tarde-re (“to slowly dance”) because it violates the internal logic of the language and it wouldn’t even sound like coherent words to a Latin speaker.

Other other hand, English infinitives are two words. This allows us to split them and put an adverb in there, for effect. This is a move that English allows, just as Latin allows scrambled word order.

After all, what could be a more natural-sounding English phrase than,

To boldly go where no man has gone before”?

When you split an infinitive, you are not violating the internal logic of English. You are employing an English superpower that Latin does not have.

On this blog, when I post I try to put adverbs before or after the infinitive so that I sound more educated. Educated people’s ears have been trained that not splitting an infinitive sounds more elegant. But this is a marker of formal versus informal speech, not of native versus non-native grammar.

Ending Sentences with Prepositions

German has this feature called separable verbs. A separable verb has a preposition as a part of it, and when you speak, you are required to move the preposition to the end of the sentence. That is what these verbs do. If the preposition is not put at the end, it will not sound like a natural German sentence.

For example (courtesy of my German-scholar father):

Paul kommt morgen an. “Paul arrives tomorrow.” (From ankommen, to arrive.)

Paul reiste gestern ab. “Paul left yesterday.” (From abreisen, to depart.)

Ruf ihn an! “Call him up!” (From anrufen.)

Du ringst ein Beispiel von mir ab. “You are squeezing an example out of me.” (From abringen.)

Very funny, Dad!

Notice in the last example that you can and should put all kinds of things between the parts of the separable verb, including direct object and any prepositions you happen to need. This used to cause me trouble when I studied German. I’d be tracking a sentence but couldn’t find out until the end what the actual verb was.

Now, English is a Germanic language and it has this feature too. Examples:

“I am going to see this journey to Mordor through.”

“You guys have ten seconds to to start cleaning all this Silly String up.”

“And that one fateful tweet brought her entire career down.”

In English, the only thing you can put between the parts of the verb is the direct object. Some verbs allow you to put it there or after the preposition:

“And that one fateful tweet brought down her entire career.”

“Start cleaning up the Silly String.”

Some English phrasal verbs don’t allow you to put anything between the verb part and the preposition part:

“I like to hang out with Lord of the Rings fans.”

I like to hang Lord of the Rings fans out with.

I like to hang out Lord of the Rings fans with.”

But even with these, the preposition(s) is/are part of the verb. Which means that where the verb goes, they go, even if that is all the way to the end of the sentence:

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people I like to hang out with.” (Yes. Natural English sentence.)

“Lord of the Rings fans are not the only people out with whom I like to hang.” (No! No! No! This sounds like a person who is so concerned with sounding educated that they’ve wandered off the broad highway of the internal logic of English and proceeded to get themselves all tangled up in the bushes of grammatical work-arounds, producing a sentence that will be as appealing and intelligible to the the hearer as a bad case of poison ivy.)

If you must use these work-arounds in your writing in order to show off your erudition, or even just to earn the respect of your readers, I understand, although I would humbly suggest you avoid trying to formalize phrases like hang out with. But if you train yourself to speak like this, and especially if you look down on people who don’t, you will not only come off sounding snobby, you will also cut yourself off from a good bit of English’s natural range of expression.

Funny Grammar Quote of the Week

Fussy grammarians needs friends too, and so you may seek out and encourage them. Drop them a little note, telling them that they are your very favorite fussy grammarian, out with whom you like to hang. And if anybody winced there at my use of a plural pronoun for an indefinite singular, then may I suggest counseling?

Douglas Wilson, Wordsmithy, p. 100

Hey Young Writers, Don’t Expect your Significant Other to Read your Stuff Necessarily

Hi young writers. This post is going to be loosely written (and it’s late going up) because this week was … whew. Well, it was a week.

This is just a little tip for how to be happy (happier, at least) in your life as an artist or novelist.

You may or may not end up having one of those amazing literary marriages where the person you married is also a writer, or at least an avid reader, and where they “get” books and specifically your genre, and where you get to bounce ideas off them, they read your drafts, and they are your harshest, most loving critic and your biggest fan.

Such marriages do exist, I am told. Stephen King has said that his wife does this for him. I think it would be tremendous to be in such a relationship, and when I hear about such marriages, I admit I am a little jealous.

But this is not a must-have for your writing life.

Some people are readers and some just … aren’t. If the person you are with does not happen to be a person who reads fiction for fun, then trying to force them to read your stuff is a ticket to misery.

Unless they are conversant in fiction (and preferably in your genre), they won’t get out of your novel what you were hoping. And you won’t know whether this is because your novel has failed to communicate as you had hoped, or whether it’s because your s.o. is not among your intended audience. So you could end up in despair over a novel that’s good (or has the potential to be good) because your s.o. didn’t enjoy it, or you could end up discounting legitimate criticisms on the basis that “he/she just doesn’t get me.”

Which leads to the second point. Showing your work to close family members puts an awful lot of pressure on the relationship. We all know how much of ourselves we pour into our works of art, how emotionally charged they become. We all know how hard it can be to accept criticism from people we see only occasionally, let alone people we have to live with. Even if your s.o. is capable of giving informed feedback, do you want to make the relationship about his or her opinion of your work? Are you that emotionally strong, that capable of detachment?

Some people are, apparently. But, “know thyself.” Perhaps you aren’t. This is especially true if you are younger rather than older, and it is especially true in the early days right after you have finished a manuscript (or while you are working on it). I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to show my work to others too soon, at which point it is still a little rough and also I am still a little too excited about it to think clearly.

Another potential problem: if your s.o. is concerned about what other people think, then your work may be emotionally loaded for him or her as well. They may be thinking, “What if this is published before the world? Will it be misunderstood? Will it make my spouse look bad? Will it make me look bad?” This might always be an issue, but it’s going to be exacerbated if you are showing them early drafts, when all they can see is the roughness, not the glory that is in your head.

But, you ask, why in the world would you date or marry someone who doesn’t “get you”? Well, first of all, while your work is very important to you, it is not all there is to you. Secondly, it’s possible that the same s.o. who does not “get” your work when he or she sees it in draft or idea form, will manage to enjoy it when it has been vetted and edited by people who know what they are doing, published in all its glory, or made into a Hollywood blockbuster (ha!).

Thirdly, consider that if you are an author or an artist, there might be benefits to marrying someone who has a different calling … perhaps one at which it is actually possible to make a living, for instance.

I always kind of assumed that I’d meet some poet type in the English department in college and marry him and we’d go on to live a Bohemian poet life together. I’m frankly really glad that didn’t happen because I am happy not to be in academia right now. The man I married does share my values and many of my interests, and he does enjoy a good story, but he is not a reader. He’s got social skills and practical skills that I don’t have. I am happy to have him. We like each other. We can build a life together, raise our kids, go on camping trips without bonding over my writing. (He also doesn’t get the point of visual art. He is never going to rave over one of my paintings. I don’t expect him to. I hope for that from other visual artists.) When I do publish my books, maybe my husband will read them or maybe he will wait for the audio book, but I don’t expect him to get super excited because he does not normally go around reading sci-fi or fantasy or any fiction, really. He takes in stories through audio and movies. He is not part of my intended audience.

I hope this is helpful to you.

And to any family members who have read my drafts and are now trembling in your boots: It’s OK. I’m over it. I’ve moved on.

Video: the Author of Ender’s Game Dispenses Writer’s Wisdom

Ben Shapiro interviews an eclectic grab bag of people each week on his Sunday Special. (Their main common factor is that they were willing to come on and be interviewed by him.) The interview embedded below is my favorite of all the ones he’s done so far. It’s super long, but if you are interested in the fiction industry or the writing process or the sci-fi and fantasy genres or identity politics or religion, then it will be worth your while.

Orson Scott Card is the author of the super popular sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. I tried to read this novel when I was way too young and I did not get all the way through it. It was hard for me to keep in mind that Ender and his co-trainees were kids when in some ways they acted like geniuses.

Card is also a Mormon, or LDS (Latter-Day Saint) as many of them prefer to be called. This gives him a unique perspective on religion, specifically on what it’s like to be misunderstood as a religious person.

Highlights:

AT 4:18, Card clears up what exactly counts as sci-fi versus fantasy: “The usual is that science fiction is stuff that has not happened but is possible, and fantasy is stuff that doesn’t happen and isn’t actually possible but we can imagine it. And that almost works except for the fact that it’s considered science fiction if you do things like faster-than-light travel or time travel. And those can’t happen. Time travel especially, because the string of causality is unbreakable. … So it’s arguable. But I learned the practical definition right away. The covers of fantasy books have trees. The covers of science fiction books have sheet metal with rivets. So it’s rivets versus trees. If your story is illustratable with rivets then it’s sci-fi, and if it needs trees to be effective, then it’s fantasy.” (N.b.: This is why my books are fantasy even though they feature no wizards.)

11:35 On the fact that fantasy magic systems have rules too: “You can’t just throw magic on the page and make it fantasy. You have to make it fantasy that would pass muster with a science fiction writer, because that’s who’s writing fantasy now.”

At 15:00, he addresses Pantsing versus Plotting: “I try to think ahead. Mostly milieu development. Then I’ll think of obligatory scenes, things that have to happen. And I’ll have to then set up those scenes so that they mean something. So there’s some planning that goes into it. I know writers who think like screenwriters, and their thought is all on the [outline]. I can’t do that, because anything I wrote for anything after chapter two is going to be discarded as soon as I find out what’s going on in chapter one. The process is pretty flexible, because by the time I’m nearing the end of any novel, the outline is now a relic … And I’ve seen, for example, an early novel by Dean Koontz, where it was obvious to me that after developing an amazing cast of characters that readers cared about, he caught up with the point in the outline where they all go into an alien spaceship together, and at that point he was just following the outline and it didn’t matter who any of the characters were.” (N.b.: Card’s method is plantsing, and it is the method I use as well. )

At 37:00, he starts talking about religions in fiction: “If you are going to create a character that has an existing religion, you have a responsibility to make it plausible. In America, we have two generic religions. If you need a hierarchical religion, you use Catholic. If you need a congregational religion, you use generic-Protestant-but-really-Baptist. Those religions are available and we all have some experience with them by watching movies. Jewish, not so much. I would feel a great deal of trepidation making a character of mine Jewish, especially orthodox, because I’ve known enough orthodox Jews to know how rigorous the demands are, what has to be kept in your head all the time. And I do that as a Mormon. I know all of our rules by heart, I don’t even have to think about them any more. But whenever I watch somebody’s fictional treatment of Mormonism, no one ever gets it right. No one even comes close. Getting somebody else’s religion wrong is a terrible faux pas.”

41:56: “That’s one of my minor messages: people have religion, and the fiction writer who retreats from that is cheating himself and his readers.”

43:51: “There are smart people in Hollywood. There are good people in Hollywood. They just don’t have the power to greenlight a film.”

At 52:00, he starts talking about the move towards identity politics in sci-fi: “And many of them, whom I know, are people who are simply writing their conscience. But their conscience is ill-informed.”

55:20 and following, on race: “When every white person in America knows that they are labelled as racist, that means why keep trying? Because no matter what you do, you are going to be labelled as white privileged and as racist. … But I know that now, all white people are getting more and more nervous that no matter what they say, it’s going to be turned on them and used to call them the ugly name racist. And that is pretty much the ugliest name that we have in our vocabulary right now. If you’re looking for your Tourette’s list of words that you should not speak, words which will wound, the f-word is way way low on the list. We are used to the f-word, we hear it all the time. Compared to racist. Wow! That’s serious. That’s savage.”

Another Meta Quote about Writing from Rich Colburn

“Yeah maybe,” Heather said. “I think we’re speculating. It seems like whenever we have a conversation like this, it’s almost a guarantee that it’s not how things are going to happen. Like the writers of our lives are trying to be intentionally unpredictable.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Ace said. “It does seem uncanny how true that is. So, if you were a writer and you wanted to mislead your readers so the story would be filled with unexpected twists, would you write your basic story with an outline and then go back and insert conversations like this one to intentionally mislead the readers or would you write the book as you go and change the plot as the characters figured out what’s going on?”

“Neither,” said Heather. “I would know all the characters, know their personalities and abilities, then throw it all together and see what happens. Even I would be surprised at how the events play out.”

“I think that would make for a completely chaotic story,” Ace considered. “I suppose if the characters were likable or made a lot of smart remarks, people might read it anyway even if it did seem like the author had no idea where the story was going.”

“I would totally put this conversation in the book,” Heather said.

Formulacrum by Rich Colburn, pp. 326 – 327

The Most Unkindest Cut of All

“Maybe you’re right,” [said the main character]. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living out some demented writer’s attempt to package his pet philosophy in an outrageous sci-fi novel filled with contrived, unrealistic events, bad dialogue, and flat characters who use far too many vocabulary words. Have you ever felt that suspicion?”

The Author’s face twitched a little. He seemed a bit put off by the comment.

The Resolve of Immortal Flesh, by Rich Colburn, p. 52

Two Indie Authors to Check Out

What’s your stereotype of “indie” (independently published) books? Is it a tame memoir that would interest only the author’s family? A bitter rant where the author finally gets to have their say? An amateurish sci-fi filled with cringe-inducing grammatical errors?

I’ve read all of these types. (And, for the record, my opinion is not the same about all of them. The family memoirs, in particular, will be valuable historical records one day.) But in case you didn’t know it, there is so much more to the world of indie books. Here are two indie authors I’ve discovered, both worth reading and each weirder than the last.

Spectre

Specter by Katie Jane Gallagher

I discovered Katie right here on WordPress. She likes horror, which I didn’t think was really my speed, but I just had to buy her book to see the results of her self-publishing. The book is, in a word, professional. The cover, the formatting, the editing … it all looks and reads just like any high-quality YA paranormal book you’d pick up in a bookstore (or, in my case, a library). And no, it’s not a paranormal romance where the ghost is the girl’s love interest. (Thank God.)  It just features a normal, smart high schooler who starts seeing ghosts. And, refreshingly, her parents are all right, unlike in so many YA books where the parents are either dead, clueless or part of the problem.

And the horror? Well, there are some horrible revelations at the end … but they didn’t turn out to be anything I couldn’t handle. Perhaps I’ve been toughened up by watching Stranger Things.

The Collision series by Rich Colburn

Full disclosure: I knew Rich before he wrote these books. He’s weird. (I honestly don’t think he’ll be offended if he reads that.)  When, having not seen him for years, I heard that Rich had indie published a couple of books, I eagerly bought them. They are exactly the kind of books I would have expected from him, which makes them a little hard to describe.

From the Amazon blurb: “What if the spirit world was rampant with technology sophisticated beyond anything mankind has imagined? What if a sociopath got his hands on a powerful piece of this technology? What if you couldn’t die no matter how much damage your body sustained?
“Join a reluctant hero on his quest to discover what the heck he should do with his time now that he has unlimited power and the world as he knew it collides with the unseen world. Will demon-possessed biomechanical monsters kill everyone? Will there be enough coffee to last through to the end of the world? Will that play into our hero’s decision whether or not to bother saving it? These are questions we’ve all wondered about. Explore these and other important philosophical questions as you follow the adventure that was contrived to do just that.
“The Collision series offers a technological explanation for the supernatural. Human psychology, questions of life and death, and the nature of the supernatural play a critical role in the story of a man who becomes aware of the technology used by beings existing in higher modes of reality.”

The Collision books are slightly less professional than Specter. They could have used a second pass with an editor. But they are a joy to read because they are just so darned clever. To take a sampling of the chapter titles from Resolve:

Chapter 34: When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object, It’s Best If They Avoid Eye Contact

Chapter 35: Omnipotence: It’s There When You Least Expect It

Chapter 36: I Love the Java Jive but the Java Jive has Found Me Wanting

Chapter 37: Seriously? Another Plot-Thickening Thread?

Chapter 41: It Came From My Parents’ Basement

Believe it or not, these titles are not just one-liners. All of them make sense when you read the chapter. I really don’t think a traditionally published book could have gotten away with chapter titles like this.

So now you are probably thinking that the Collision series is like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And it sort of is, if that book had been written by a Christian. But it’s not just metaphysics and humor. The book also becomes surprisingly poignant (in the context of all the weirdness), and also very horrifying and tense. Especially the scene in the parents’ basement. Also, be it noted that the monster made out of corpses in Stranger Things was familiar to me because an even more horrifying version had already roamed the pages of Formulacrum.

Two Short, Clever Books on The Writing Life

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Black Irish Entertainment, 2002 and Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson, Canon Press, 2011.

Both these books are pamphlets (165 pages and 120 pages respectively). Both have short, punchy chapters that are easy to dip into or re-read as desired. Wilson ends his sections with a takeaway point and recommended reading. Both, as they are written by seasoned pros, have plenty of self-deprecating humor, laugh-out-loud moments, and pithy bits of wisdom. I aim to keep them on hand (as a writer should) as reference books, to be dipped into when I need good quotes about writing or need to have some starch put into me.

The authors are professional writers and also manly men. Pressfield is a former Marine; Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor. Interestingly, it’s Pressfield whose writing-about-writing is more mystical by far.

Pressfield’s The War of Art

The main thrust of The War of Art is that an aspiring writer (or, really, anyone aspiring to do anything good) will encounter Resistance.

The following is a list, in no particular order, of those activities that most commonly elicit Resistance:

1) The pursuit of any calling in writing, painting, music, film, dance, or any creative art, however marginal or unconventional.

2) The launching of any entrepreneurial venture or enterprise, for profit or otherwise.

3) Any diet or health regimen.

4) Any program of spiritual advancement.

5) Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals …

In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity.

The War of Art, pp. 5 – 6

Pressfield then discusses the characteristics of Resistance, the fact that everyone experiences it, and ways to combat it. This is extremely helpful, because we tend to think we are the only person experiencing it.

When I began this book, Resistance almost beat me. This is the form it took. It told me (the voice in my head) that I was a writer of fiction, not nonfiction, and that I shouldn’t be exposing these concepts of Resistance literally and overtly …

Resistance also told me that I shouldn’t seek to instruct, or put myself forward as a purveyor of wisdom; that this was vain, egotistical, possibly even corrupt, and that it would work harm to me in the end. That scared me. It made a lot of sense.

Ibid p.30

About two-thirds of the way through the book, you get some Jungian explanations and you find out that according to the author, God, just like Resistance, is Within. Obviously Pressfield can’t develop all these ideas in this little pamphlet, so I’m still not 100% sure precisely what he means by some of his short essays. But you don’t have to completely buy Jung to benefit from this book because it tells us some shrewd psychological truths and confronts us about our character. The things it says are true, whether or not you also think (as I do) that God and Resistance both exist not only within but also outside of us. Some day I may do a post that explores more deeply how my understanding of Resistance compares and contrasts with Pressfield’s.

Doug Wilson’s Wordsmithy

Wordsmithy, being less Jungian than The War of Art, is aimed at a more specific audience. It addresses young people who want to be writers about the various things they need to do in order to become one: read widely, get some life experience in something besides writing, practice, play the long game, accept criticism, familiarize yourself with English grammar, vocabulary, and classics, learn at least one other language and more if you have opportunity, etc. It has much more content than War of Art (which is really just about one topic), despite having a lower page count. War of Art employs a lot of white space, sometimes with only a few sentences on a page. Wordsmithy is packed.

Much of what is in Wordsmithy is stuff that I have already been doing for years, some of it by accident, some of it by design. Some of it is stuff that I do, but not in the exact way that Wilson recommends. (For example, he suggests writers keep a “commonplace book” in which to jot quotes and ideas as they come to you. This is something I’ve done from time to time, but don’t currently feel the need for.) So in some ways, I’ve moved past the need for this book. However, I still plan to keep it around to mine for gems like these:

Read books of complaints about the decline of our language by word fussers and who-whomers, and read the hilarious refutations of those word fussers by word libertines. You can learn a lot from both. Anyone who can’t learn from a word fusser ought to have their head examined. A word fusser is anyone who would have a problem with the previous sentence.

… [perhaps] the reason your query letters are all getting round-filed is because of that apostrophe in the return address. It would violate a decent editor’s conscience to mail anything to “the Smith’s,” even if doing it with a self-addressed, stamped envelope. The Smith’s failed writing career is not stated, merely implied.

Wordsmith, pp. 54, 56

They say a city in the desert lies …

“… the vanity of an ancient king.

The city lies in broken pieces,

where the wind draws and the vultures sing.

These are the works of man, this is the sum of our ambition!

You’d make a prison of my life

if you became another’s wife …”

When I was a teen, a friend called me up and said, “You HAVE to get the new Sting album. The songs sound exactly like your writing!”

Now, I did not have much disposable income and I did not often buy albums. But I managed to get it. And darned if it didn’t. Something about the songs on it matched the tenor of my imagination. This, below, is one of my favorites.

Can We Continue to Make Art in the Midst of a Pandemic? C.S. Lewis has the answer.

[We] must ask [ourselves] how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. To admit that we can retain our interest in learning under the shadow of these eternal issues, but not under the shadow of a European war, would be to admit that our ears are closed to the voice of reason and very wide open to the voice of our nerves and our mass emotions.

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.

The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on the scaffold, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-time,” a speech given in Oxford in autumn of 1939

Read the whole thing here.