But the Sentence is Grammatically Correct . . .

Girl Writing

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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.

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6 responses to “But the Sentence is Grammatically Correct . . .

  1. Thanks for this message, Carrie! So insightful. One question: could you explain here in the comments a little more about the hippogriff image/metaphor in juxtaposition with the one-eyed ogre and the butterfly? I’m not familiar with that term, and I’d love to know more.

    • Carrie Hannigan

      Molly, the images were to represent sentences that just went too far over the edge and end in unnecessary complications that aren’t as attractive as a delicate butterfly. (A hippogriff is a mythical creature (also represented in Harry Potter) that I feel is majestic, but some writing does not need “majestic” as much as simple and down to earth.) I hope this helps. –Carrie Hannigan

      • Absolutely! Thanks, Carrie. I was just in Melody’s presentation on assessing student writing and one of our Criminal Justice instructors was remarking how important it is in the field of CJ to be brief- “Just the facts, ma’am!” Now I have a good mythical image to share with students when their sentences get unwieldy. The hypogriff sounds like a compliment, and then I can say “save your majestic hypogriff for this other rhetorical situation” and then I am still affirming the student’s hard work.

  2. Interesting. Working with some of my Arabic-speaking students caused me to have a similar realization. They’ve told me that sentence customs are quite different in their language — long chains, joined with commas, some of which are grammatically “correct” in English while others are not. With a couple of these students, I’ve started talking about function/meaning more than form/grammar. I explain that English speakers are accustomed to reading shorter sentences and getting a chance to breathe in between. I say that we get confused and distracted when asked to focus on too much at once. It’s probably an oversimplification, but it seems to make sense to my students, and it’s more about audience expectations than about a particular grammatical rule.

    • Carrie Hannigan

      Great insights! Your explanation to students makes sense, especially explaining that certain types of readers may not process the sentence information as well as other types of readers. I agree that writing needs to meet the needs of audience expectations, even if these expectations don’t line up with a writer’s style or way of thinking. –Carrie

  3. Pingback: Do you really put a comma where you pause? | Kaplan University Writing Center Faculty Blog

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