Friday, December 15

A Stickler For Syntax

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I have an international background.  I was born in Israel of French and Tunisian parents.  My grandparents were Turkish and French.  My husband is Japanese.  To say that I enjoy languages is an understatement.  Indeed, I enjoy studying different cultures, as well as their languages.  I learned English when I came to the States at age 13, and have studied it intensely, without the advantage of growing up with the vernacular to which all children are exposed.  I have therefore developed a keen understanding of English.  Moreover, I work with a specialized lexicon (medicine), and have learned to analyze and edit the written word.  Language has a rhythm and cadence, and there is an elegant mathematical symmetry to sentence structure which I find fascinating.  Children learn to diagram sentences in American schools, which we did not have to do in school in Israel or in France when I was a child, but unfortunately, there seems to be a pervasive resistance to anything mathematic.  That’s sad, because grammar, syntax and spelling do not have to be the dry subject they are made out to be.  They can be as exciting as a good debate, or a good game of chess.  There are many moving parts which make the game exciting – verb tenses, moods, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, all of which contribute to a sound construction of a language, but which unfortunately have proven quite confusing to many of us.

I write a blog called Sticklers for Syntax.  My original purpose in writing this blog was to clarify my own understanding of the language.  Theories of learning have shown that the act of researching, reading and then distilling that information by writing it down in one’s own words cements that knowledge in the brain. 

Grammar is composed of many technical terms, which I believe that those are odious to most of us.  Is it a conjunction or a preposition?  Should I use an adverb or adjective?  Is the subjunctive mood more appropriate here?  I can hear you say, “Who cares?!”  With such technicalities, no wonder we are confused, not to mention downright overwhelmed and would rather admit defeat and simply resort of colloquialisms.  I have therefore tried to explain those very technicalities within the context of an entry, and am working on an index as well.  Where appropriate, I have included mnemonics (techniques used to aid memory). 

As the name of this blog implies, I am a stickler for correct English grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation.  But I am not the language police.  I firmly believe that speaking correctly distinguishes us in the professional world, keeps us competitive in the world, and improves our image.  I also believe that our schools should pay closer attention to educating our students before launching them into the world.  The current political landscape does not seem to support education, all the rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.  Teachers ought to be paid more, in order to attract better-qualified people; budgets should reflect a stronger emphasis on basic education; and the school year should be longer.  But this is also not a political forum.  

The rules of grammar help to bring order to language.  For example, how did the gh in laugh or tough become an f when spoken?  Why does women sound out as weamen?  And why is motion not written as moshon?  It follows, then, that rules that govern the written word ought also be applied to spoken language.

The purpose of this blog is to provide a simple guide to the more confusing aspects of English, as much for my own edification as for yours.  Ultimately, the purpose of language is to communicate.  To that end, I believe Thoreau said it best in his iconic “simplify” (though he said it in a different context).  To communicate effectively, one needs to be straightforward, avoid “big words” that might label you as pretentious, and learn to say what you need to say correctly.  See


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