By Carrie Hannigan, M.S.
Having taught composition and technical writing courses for over eight years, I feel I have a pretty good grasp on grammar and mechanics, though I freely admit that commas will throw me from time to time. As a first-year writing instructor, I have seen the English language morph into a one-eyed ogre or a butterfly, and sometimes in the same piece of writing. Writing my PhD proposal, though, has brought new “good writing” concerns to light, as seen in this brief dialogue with the poor soul I cajoled into reading my draft.
Poor soul: “You have really long sentences.”
Me: “Yes, but grammatically correct.”
Poor soul: “But, I forget what you started talking about when I get to the end of the sentence.”
Me: “They aren’t run-on sentences. I use a semicolon appropriately. The ideas are related.”
Poor soul: “Just use a period, and pick up where you left off.”
Me: “But, the sentence is grammatically correct the way it is.”
Poor soul: “Okay.”
Although the reviewer seemed to relent, she opted to put large question marks next to offending sentences, which is much like an instructor putting “awkward” in a student’s essay. When I pressed her for an explanation, she said she was confused…..in other words, it was grammatically correct, but still didn’t effectively express the message.
Upon reflection, I began to wonder how I address similar issues with students’ writings. Do I just focus on grammar? If I lose my way in the middle of a sentence, how do I convey that to the student? Sadly, I suspect that if it is grammatically correct, I let the sentence exist as a hippogriff with appropriate punctuation, as it is better than a one-eyed ogre. Realistically, though, it takes more than grammar to get your point across to readers.
There are too many hippogriffs in my writing, and not enough butterflies. I suspect students would also prefer more butterflies in their own writings. It then comes down to two choices…bully our readers into accepting grammatically correct, but overly complicated sentences, or limit ourselves to how many semicolons we can use in one paragraph.