Jim Miller on talking vs. writing

Teaching English 109, I’m often struck by the fact that talking is easy, but writing is hard.* Why is that?

Here is linguist Jim Miller on the subject:

Many kinds of spoken language … have a syntax that is very different from the syntax of formal writing….[T]he differences exist not because spoken language is a degradation of written language but because any written language, whether English or Chinese, results from centuries of development and elaboration by a small number of users – clerics, administrators, lawyers and literary people. The process involves the development of complex syntactic constructions and complex vocabulary.


The syntax of spontaneous spoken language has been ‘designed’ or ‘developed’ to suit the conditions of speech – little planning time, the possibility of transmitting information by loudness, pitch and general voice quality, and support from hand gestures, facial expressions and so on (what is known as ‘non-verbal communication’). …[T]he syntax of spontaneous speech overlaps with the syntax of formal writing; there is a common core of constructions. For instance, “The instructions are useless” could be spoken or written. However, many constructions occur in speech but not in writing, and vice versa. “She doesn’t say much – knows a lot though” is typical of speech, but typical of writing is “Although she does not say much, she knows a lot.”

The special syntax of spontaneous spoken language is not produced just by speakers with the minimum of formal education. One of the most detailed investigations of spoken syntax was carried out in Russia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The speakers recorded on tape in all sorts of informal situations were doctors, lawyers and academics, but their speech turned out to be very different in syntax from written Russian. Moreover, their syntax had general properties which have turned up in bodies of spontaneous spoken English, French and German.


People learn the syntax and vocabulary of formal writing from books and in school in a process that lasts into the early twenties for university graduates and can continue much longer. In general, the more exposure speakers have to formal schooling, the more easily and frequently they use in speech the syntax and vocabulary that are typical of formal writing.

Miller, Jim. An Introduction to English Syntax. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. xii-xiv. Print.

And see: a transcript of a conversation.

*Obviously, talking isn’t easy for everyone. People with autism have trouble talking; people who’ve had strokes may have trouble speaking; etc. And talking in a foreign language takes years of practice to do well.

How Winston Churchill learned English

I continued in this unpretentious situation for nearly a year. However, by being so long in the lowest form [at Harrow – see below] I gained an immense advantage over the cleverer boys. They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell–a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great–was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing–namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence–which is a noble thing. And when in after years my schoolfellows who had won prizes and distinction for writing such beautiful Latin poetry and pithy Greek epigrams had to come down again to common English, to earn their living or make their way, I did not feel myself at any disadvantage. Naturally I am biased in favor of boys learning English. I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat. But the only thing I would whip them for is not knowing English, I would whip them hard for that.
(My Early Life: A Roving Commission, Thornton Butterworth [UK] and Charles Scribner’s Sons [US], 1930)

The first five years of English secondary schooling were previously known as forms. Pupils started their first year of secondary school in the first form or first year, and this was the year in which pupils would normally become 12 years of age. Pupils would move up a form each year before entering the fifth form in the year in which they would have their sixteenth birthday. Those who stayed on at school to study for A-levels moved up into the sixth form, which was divided into the Lower Sixth and the Upper Sixth.
Sixth Form

Richard Nordquist on parsing sentences

How Ben Franklin taught himself to write

There was another bookish lad in the town, John Collins by name, with whom I was intimately acquainted. We sometimes disputed, and very fond we were of argument, and very desirous of confuting one another, which disputatious turn, by the way, is apt to become a very bad habit, making people often extremely disagreeable in company by the contradiction that is necessary to bring it into practice; and thence, besides souring and spoiling the conversation, is productive of disgusts and perhaps enmities where you may have occasion for friendship. I had caught it by reading my father’s books of dispute about religion. Persons of good sense, I have since observed, seldom fall into it, except lawyers, university men, and men of all sorts that have been bred at Edinburgh.

A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake. He was naturally more eloquent, had a ready plenty of words, and sometimes, as I thought, bore me down more by his fluency than by the strength of his reasons. As we parted without settling the point, and were not to see one another again for some time, I sat down to put my arguments in writing, which I copied fair and sent to him. He answered, and I replied. Three or four letters of a side had passed, when my father happened to find my papers and read them. Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I owed to the printing-house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method, and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remarks, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.

About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator – I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned then into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

S.M.’s cohesive passage

Here is a terrific passage from one of S.M.’s papers:

In “ Mercury and The Woodman,” we meet a very hardworking woodsman, and a jealous woodsman as well. In “ The Milkmaid and The Pail,” we are introduced to a girl who wants to accomplish her dreams just like most of us want to do today. Last but not least, in “ The Old Man and Death,” the old man is so horribly poor that he wishes Death upon him and ends up regretting what he has wished for.

Remember: Martha Kolln, in her book Rhetorical Grammar, explains three methods of creating cohesive paragraphs:

  1. The subject of all or most sentences in the paragraph is the same.
  2. In each two-sentence pair, information included in the predicate of the 1st sentence becomes the subject of the 2nd sentence.
  3. In paragraphs of description, a list of details follows the topic sentence.

S.M. has used a variant of #3 to link her first two examples. Then she  uses the expression last but not least to signal her 3rd and final example. Very nice!

Coming up: the known-new contract. Each sentence begins with the known and ends with the new.

Sentence Cohesion – excerpt from Rhetorical Grammar
Kolln, Martha J. Rhetorical Grammar:
..Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects.
Coherent paragraphs & the bride on her wedding day

Present-tense summary of “The Lost Horse”

A horse belonging to a man in northern China runs away, and when everyone consoles the man his father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Months later the horse returns accompanied by a “splendid nomad stallion,” and when people congratulate the man his father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Later, when the man breaks his hip falling off the horse, and people again try to console him, the father says, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” A year later nomads attack and slaughter nearly all of the able-bodied man who must fight them. Because the son is lame, he and his father survive “to take care of each other.”

Blessings turn to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes have no end, and the mystery cannot be fathomed.

Past-tense summary of “The Lost Horse”

The “literary present” in English papers

X-1-2-3 at Cost of College

My friend Grace, who writes the Cost of College blog, has written several posts about William J. Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3 method:

The Kerrigan method of ‘Writing to the Point’


Step 3 – Completing the ‘sentence stack’

Step 4 – Being SPECIFIC


Step 4 – Going into DETAIL

Step 4 – Using EXAMPLES


Step 4  Function of a Paragraph

AND SEE: Writing, writing, writing

Change past tense to present

INSTRUCTIONS: Rewrite this summary of “The Lost Horse” in the present tense.

A horse belonging to a man in northern China ran away, and when everyone consoled the man his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” Months later the horse returned accompanied by a “splendid nomad stallion,” and when people congratulated the man his father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?” Later, when the man broke his hip falling off the horse, and people again tried to console him, the father said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?” A year later nomads attacked and slaughtered nearly all of the able-bodied man who had to fight them. Because the son was lame, he and his father survived “to take care of each other.”

“Blessings turned to disaster, and disaster to blessing: the changes had no end, and the mystery could not be fathomed.”

Tales of Wonder from Many Lands: A Reader for Composition. 4th ed. Edited by Howard Canaan and Joel N. Feimer. Deer Park, NY: Linus Publications, 2009. 72. Print.

Present-tense summary of “The Lost Horse”

The “literary present” in English papers

A coherence test for papers

How to test your paper for coherence (Catherine’s summary):

  1. Write your rough draft.
  2. Pull out your thesis statement and write it on a separate piece of paper (or screen).
  3. Pull out ALL of the topic sentences in ALL of your paragraphs, and list them below your thesis statement.
  4. PARAGRAPH-LEVEL COHERENCE: Read each topic sentence, and make sure it is a strong introduction to the subject of the paragraph it appears in.
  5. PAPER-LEVEL COHERENCE: If asked, could you write a single coherent paragraph using your thesis statement and all of your topic sentences (rewording as necessary, of course)?

How to test your paper for coherence (“Legal Writing Tips” summary):

[Terri] LeClercq offers a very helpful technique to check for coherence in a multi-paragraph text: As you edit your rough draft, separate each topic sentence from your text and examine each one to make sure it is a strong introduction to the main idea of that paragraph. Then examine the coherence of the topic sentences as they relate to the overall thesis set-up by seeing whether the topic sentences form a coherent paragraph.
Writing Good Paragraphs with Topic Sentences.” Legal Writing Tips 1.8 (2005). Web.

fyi: I’m looking at my copy of LeClercq’s Guide to Legal Writing Style, and I don’t see mention of this test. Strange. Perhaps I’ve missed it.

In any event, I like this approach, and I think it works well with William Kerrigan’s X-1-2-3 method.

Could you write a coherent paragraph using Kerrigan’s Power corrupts sentence stack? (Yes!)

X Power corrupts.
1 Power corrupts the weak.
2 Power corrupts the strong.
3 Power corrupts every relation between the two.

Sentence fragments

A sentence fragment is a word, a phrase, or a dependent clause used (and punctuated) as a sentence.

during lunch (PHRASE)

I’m going to call her during lunch. (CORRECT)
I’m going to call her. During lunch. (INCORRECT)

when the sun comes up (DEPENDENT CLAUSE)

The rooster crows when the sun comes up. (CORRECT)
When the sun comes up, the rooster crows. (CORRECT)
The rooster crows. When the sun comes up. (INCORRECT)

A dependent clause cannot stand alone as a complete sentence.

AND SEE: Sentence fragments: pro and con

*NOTE: There are several different kinds of phrases.

Sentence fragments: pro and con

AND SEE: Very short post on sentence fragments

Generally speaking, you should use only complete sentences in formal writing, which includes the writing you do in college. However, writers often use sentence fragments intentionally. (I often use the fragment “Like so” on this blog.) Here is a short discussion, con and pro, of sentence fragments that appeared on the New York Times web site:

For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in.

I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate): The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.


When a sentence lacks one of its two essential parts, it is called asentence fragment. Like the flotsam I mentioned earlier, fragments are adrift, without clear direction or purpose.

Playing with sentence fragments can be fun — the best copywriters use them for memorable advertising slogans (Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop plop, fizz fizz”). But there are plenty of competing Madison Avenue slogans to convince you that a full sentence registers equally well — from Esso’s “Put a tiger in your tank” to The Heublein Company’s “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” While sentence fragments can be witty, they are still shards of thoughts, better suited to hawking antacids than to penning the Great American Novel or earnestly attempting to put inchoate thoughts into indelible words.
The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative
March 19, 2012, 9:30 PM

I’d like to make a case for the sentence fragment, though. In all kinds of business writing (reports, proposals, blogs, articles), fragments add punch. After medium to long sentences explaining something complex, a fragment can introduce a twist or wake up the reader with a bold comment sandwiched between white space (which the eye welcomes too). Used sparingly, it’s a dandy addition to the writer’s toolkit.
Linda McDaniel – comment left in reponse

2 tenses in English

from Hunter College:

Most people think of English as having three main verb tenses: Past, Present, and Future, and grammar books identify a total of twelve tenses, including a Perfect, Progressive, and Perfect- Progressive tense to go along with each of the three main tenses. But most linguists agree that English actually has a two-tense system – Present and Past. Looking at the verb system of English this way is both simpler and more suitable to the actual structure of the language. English sentences are framed around a time frame of either THEN (the Past) for actions that are completed or NOW (the Present) for actions that are not completed. All the other verbs, including perfect, progressive, and future forms are expressed in relationship to one of these two time frames; they refer to BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER the main time frame, and they all contain either a past tense or a present tense form.

Read the rest: The Two-Tense Verb System Text

William J. Kerrigan on learning to swim and learning to write

I suspect that what lies behind this [X-1-2-3] method is my experience with swimming. Efforts to teach me to swim, beginning back in my grade school days, had time after time proved utter failures. In crowded municipal pools, in small private pools, and in swimming holes in rural creeks, my friends told me to do this and do that, gave me one piece of advice and then another, held me up as I waved my arms and legs, put water wings on me, demonstrated for me again and again. No use. I couldn’t learn to swim a stroke or to keep myself up in the water for one second.

But one day when I was in my twenties and was paddling my hands in the water in the shallow end of a pool—while other people swam—a friend of mine got out of the water and said, “Walk out there ten or fifteen feet, and turn and face me on the deck of the pool here. OK. Now raise your hands above your head, take a deep breath and hold it, close your eyes if you want to, and just lie face down in the water. You absolutely can’t sink. Then, when you’re out of breath, stand up again.”

I followed his directions and, to my surprise, I didn’t sink.

“Now,” he said, “when you lie down again in the water, just kick your feet up and down. You’ll come right to me at the edge of the pool.”

I did as he told me. When my hands met the side of the pool and I stood up again, I realized that after years of vain effort, I had—in less than five minutes—learned how to swim.

It was the simplest kind of swimming, to be sure; and I need not take you through the steps that followed, in which I moved my arms, lifted my head to breathe, and developed various strokes. Let me say only that today I have an acceptable swimming technique.

When it came to teaching theme writing, then, I wanted a method like that—a method that was going to work for all students, good, fair, and indifferent. What was needed was a set of simple instructions that any and every student could follow, that would lead—like “lie face down in the water”—to automatic success. Other writing textbooks contained plenty of good advice, but not a method of organizing the advice so that it would lead step by step to a successful theme. So I had to figure out the instructions myself. The foolproof method I developed is fully contained in this book.

Kerrigan, William J. and Metcalf, Allen. Writing to the Point. 4th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1987. Print. (1-2).

Present tense in English papers

Richard Nordquist defines the “literary present“:

The use of a verb in the present tense to refer to any aspect of a work of literature.

“Use the present tense when discussing a literary work, since the author of the work is communicating to the reader at the present time.


In ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find,’ the grandmother reaches out to touch her killer just before he pulls the trigger.”

‘the grandmother reaches out to touch her killer just before he pulls the trigger’


‘…the grandmother reached out to touch her killer just before he pulled the trigger’

How (and Why) Do I Write in Literary Present Tense? (pdf file)

“Connecting words”

Vincennes University has posted the shortest and simplest explanation of the current rules for using “connecting words” (or conjunctions) that I’ve seen. Extremely helpful.

The easiest category of connecting words to learn is the coordinating conjunctions or “FANBOYS“: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

Vincennes writes: “These words are found between independent clauses and require only a comma in front of them.”

An independent clause, as I’m sure you remember (!), is a complete sentence in and of itself. An independent clause has:

An independent clause does not have:

  • a “dependent marker word” at the beginning [“I ate breakfast” is a complete sentence. “When I ate breakfast” is not a complete sentence.]

The FANBOYS connect two or more independent clauses with a comma before the FANBOYS:

I woke up, and I ate breakfast.

I || woke up.
PREDICATE: woke up

I || ate breakfast.
PREDICATE: ate breakfast


I was tired, so I went to bed.
I || was tired, so I || went to bed.
I [SUBJECT] || was tired, [VERB] so I [SUBJECT] || went [VERB] to bed.

I was annoyed, but I didn’t say anything.
I || was annoyed, but I || didn’t say anything.
I [SUBJECT] || was annoyed, [VERB] but I [SUBJECT] || didn’t [VERB] say anything.


NOTE: I suspect that many or most college professors would prefer that you not begin a complete sentence with a FANBOYS. However, I use FANBOYS at the beginning of complete sentences, as do many other writers. Using for, and, nor, but, or, yet, (or) so to begin a sentence is usually (though not always!) a more informal way of writing, so you may want to avoid it in college papers.

To be continued…

I’m including a link to the Vincennes page at the bottom of this page under the categories “Punctuation” and “Commas.” You’ll always be able to find it there.

Richard Nordquist defines “clause
Identifying Independent and Dependent Clauses (OWL)
Clauses (Richard Nordquist at about.com)
The Main Clause (chompchomp)
Dependent Clauses: Adverbial, Adjectival, Nominal (Towson)
Clauses and Sentences (Internet Grammar of English)

Joseph Williams – 10 Principles for Writing Coherently

Ten Principles for Writing Coherently

  1. In your introduction, motivate readers with a problem they care about.
  2. Make your point clearly, usually at the end of that introduction.
  3. In that point, introduce the important concepts in what follows.
  4. Make everything that follows relevant to your point.
  5. Make it clear where each part/section begins and ends.
  6. Open each part/section with a short introductory segment.
  7. Put the point of each part/section at the end of that opening segment.
  8. Order parts in a way that makes clear and visible sense to your readers.
  9. Begin sentences constituting a passage with consistent topics/subjects.
  10. Create cohesive old-new links between sentences.

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace

J.T.’s admirable sentence!

A sentence with a MISPLACED MODIFIER:

To be cooked properly, the chef advised us to place the casserole in a pre-heated oven.

NOTE: Because of its place in the sentence above, the phrase “to be cooked properly” seems to modify the word “chef.”

The chef advised us to place the casserole in a pre-heated oven to be cooked properly.

DEFINITION of “misplaced modifier” from Richard Nordquist at about.com:

Words, phrases, or clauses that do not clearly relate to the word or phrase they are intended to modify.

A misplaced modifier can usually be corrected by moving it closer to the word or phrase it should be describing.

The Oxford comma

I always use the “Oxford comma!”

The “Oxford comma” is the final comma in a series:

In class today, we discussed “Hansel and Gretel,” combined sentences, worked on sentence paragraph focus and did an exercise on misplaced modifiers.


In class today, we discussed “Hansel and Gretel,” combined sentences, worked on sentence paragraph focus, and did an exercise on misplaced modifiers.

Without Oxford comma:
This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman and God.

Oxford comma:
This book is dedicated to my roommates, Nicole Kidman, and God.

Choppy sentences – University of Minnesota

Choppy sentences and what to do about them — terrific handout from University of Minnesota.

The short answer: combine short choppy sentences into longer smooth sentences via sentence combining.

And see: Avoiding primer style.

For those of you who don’t know what the phrase “primer style” refers to, here is a page from the reading primers used in the 1950s. These very simple books were created because children were supposed to memorize words instead of sounding them out.

Adjective, adjective phrase, adjective clause

SEE ALSO: Phrase versus clause

An adjective “modifies” (“adds information to”) a noun. Adjective phrases and adjective clauses also modify nouns.

black cat
Black” is the adjective.

adjective phrase
the cat in the hat
In the hat” is an adjective phrase.
(remember: A phrase does not have a subject-predicate structure.)

adjective clause (also called “relative clause“)
the cat who lives in the house
Who lives in the house” is an adjective clause.
(remember: A clause has a subject and a predicate. And: a clause can be independent or dependent. A sentence has at least one independent clause.)

structure of the adjective clause:
who || lives in the house
who [SUBJECT] || lives [VERB] in the house [PREDICATE]
“Who” is the SUBJECT.
“Lives” is the VERB.
“Lives in the house” is the COMPLETE PREDICATE.
NOTE: An adjective clause is a dependent clause. It cannot stand alone as a complete sentence.

Who” is a pronoun. It stands in for (or refers to) “cat.” Pronouns take the place of nouns or noun phrases.

Technically, you’re not supposed to use “who” to refer to animals. “Who” refers to people; “that” or “which” refers to animals.

I break this rule intentionally, but I want you to know that the rule exists.