Monday, August 22, 2022

Syntax & Personal Expression

Syntax is a way of telling during what period of time a piece was written. I remember someone in middle school pointing out how long a sentence was in something they were reading--it went all the way from one page to the other. If you write a sentence that long today, you'll be told it's a run-on sentence and you'd better shorten it. (You'll also be told to avoid passive voice, but if passive voice is so common in other languages, why do you need to always avoid it in English? Just because active versus passive is better in some cases doesn't have to mean you should always avoid it.)

I never particularly cared about being a stickler over grammar rules and such. This is why I would specify that my area of study is literature, not linguistics. Therefore it is tone and expression that matter most. For instance, if I'm writing something formal, I'll use "whom." But I usually don't use it in speaking because it just sets up a certain tone that isn't quite how I normally want to present myself. On the other hand, when people overcorrect and use "I" instead of "me," that bothers me. That isn't choosing to ignore the grammar rule in favor of common speech; that's trying to follow a rule and not doing so correctly and therefore not falling into either the camp of using proper grammar or of choosing to talk like a regular person instead. (This is not to say that I know all the rules, either. I know I definitely don't always follow all of them, even when intending to. And yes, that was an incorrect way to end a sentence.)

This tangent about grammar brings me back around to syntax because of what I notice about longer sentence structures. There are in fact a lot of long sentences (often run-ons) that go along with the regular way that people speak. Most of us don't speak in complete sentences and paragraphs when we talk in casual conversations. But even more formal settings, like lectures, don't always follow this format. A completely scripted speech will, but I'm referring to instances in which a speaker has prepared what he's going to say in general but not necessarily every sentence. Dashes and parentheses are common in this type of speaking. That is, long, possibly run-on sentences and sentences that otherwise drag on quite a bit. 

In written text, long sentences seem often to go along not just with older texts but also with more complex ones. You need more than just a subject and a verb in a sentence in order to express more complicated ideas. Pick up a modern, mainstream novel. How many semicolons or colons can you find? Probably not many. But look at a more intellectual text, and there will probably be plenty.

So if long sentences are often related to either common speech (which is reality) or to intellectual content, then why should we avoid them? If you can make a sentence that's half a page long and is punctuated correctly and expresses a complete thought, then what's wrong with that? If we're all trying to follow the same set of editing recommendations, personal expression goes out the window, as does the ability to think and then to convey an original thought. Sometimes expression is better when it isn't perfect. 

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